Friday, January 16, 2009

An Approach to the Challenge of "My Jesus Year"

The New Birth Megachurch in Lithonia, Georgia. The Christian Book Association’s annual conference. Ultimate Christian Wrestling. A Christian rock concert.

A young man named Benyamin Cohen - my wife’s classmate growing up, actually - realized in his early 20’s that he wasn’t finding meaning in Judaism, and that many of his Bible Belt Christian neighbors seemed a lot more passionate about their religion. So he visited those venues I just mentioned, and others, on a tour of Christian life, to see what it was that so inspired them. He recorded his experiences in a book, My Jesus Year.

Cohen’s search for religious passion reflects a problem I think many of us face. Based on my own experience and my conversations with Jews here and elsewhere, I know that Benyamin Cohen is not the exception; he is the rule. Many, if not most, are frustrated; Judaism, and particularly prayer, doesn’t “do anything” for them.

There are two main types of prayer, and I believe prayer doesn’t move us because we are dissatisfied with the first type, and unable to achieve the second.

The first type of prayer, which is found early on in the Torah, is Needy Prayer, the request of a supplicant seeking assistance.
• Kayin does it, pleading with Gd after he is punished.
• Avraham uses prayer to beseech Gd for aid, seeking forgiveness for Sdom, and an heir for his legacy.
• Yitzchak and Rivkah are childless, and daven for help.
• Yaakov is afraid of his enemies, of Esav and Lavan and then Esav again, and he davens for protection.
• And we read in this morning’s parshah that the Jews in Mitzrayim, suffering in slavery, cry out to HaShem for relief from their pain.

This type of prayer makes a lot of sense; I need something, Gd can provide it, so let me ask. I don’t even need to believe anything in order to do it; what do I have to lose by trying?

But if this is the defining display of our connection to Gd, if my every prayer is a request for something or even a Thank You for something, then this prayer, and the relationship it represents, are fundamentally doomed.

A connection based solely on petitionary prayer cheapens our role as human beings, as speaking spirits, as the singular nexus of the sacred and the mundane. Truly: Would we sink so low as to exclusively dedicate our audiences with the Creator to a shopping list?

Indeed, when the Talmudic sage Rava witnessed another sage praying for an extended period of time, he mocked him, saying, “He is abandoning the eternal life [of Torah study] in order to pursue temporary life!”

More than that:
• Prayer which focusses on filling our needs is bound to be uninspiring for us. Who finds fulfillment in filling out a grant application, a scholarship form? Further, who won’t wonder, “Doesn’t Gd already know what I need? Why must I jump through these hoops?”
• And what happens at times when we don’t feel a need, or we don’t feel a need that we think Gd will fill? Then, without a purpose, why pray?
• And, of course, we notice those prayers which do not come back with a “Yes” stamp, and we wonder, “Is there a Gd listening to my prayers at all?”

And so this supplicatory prayer, though accompanied by snappy tunes, or recited slower or faster, with new phrases or old, with or without improved translations and commentary, ultimately loses any personal connection and becomes a rote artifact of obligation, neither spiritual nor satisfying.

Which brings us to the second model of prayer: Relationship Prayer.

This second type of prayer is found more rarely in the early going in the Torah, but it is present.
In the Torah’s most obvious example: When Avraham was convalescing from his bris milah, HaShem appeared to him. “וירא אליו ה', HaShem appeared to Avraham.” Why? For what purpose? What message did Gd convey to Avraham?

The Torah doesn’t say; instead, the Torah moves on to a visit by three messengers, and then the destruction of Sdom. But what happened during HaShem’s visit to Avraham?

The answer is… Nothing. Avraham’s association with the Divine is not restricted to a petitioner’s plea or even to the communication of prophecy; Avraham can also simply BE with Gd, can sit at the entrance of his tent and contemplate the Gd who created Avraham and Sarah and all around them.

This is prayer as relationship - and, as Avraham’s descendants evolve, it becomes their ideal form of prayer.

Certainly, it takes a while. In upcoming parshiyyos we will see the Jews, led by Moshe, call out to Gd in need - at the Sea, and when they need water and food. Moshe himself will pray to Gd multiple times for the very survival of the Jewish people, and he will seek forgiveness for their sins.

But we will also witness the emergence of this new paradigm, at Divine decree. Gd will declare, “ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם, Make a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell among them,” and with this He will revive that Divine visit to Avraham, and a type of prayer that is not Supplication, but Relationship.

The korbanot, the offerings the Jews would bring to Gd in that sanctuary, were not associated with requests and needs; there were no personal offerings in that Mishkan. Rather, the Jews brought the קרבן תמיד, a twice-daily offering which marked a national, on-going relationship with Gd.

This relationship, centered on a building known after all as the אוהל מועד, the Tent of Meeting, is described liturgically as “שמה שכינה שכינה לך, There the Shechinah, HaShem’s presence, resides, waiting for you.” Not waiting for you to come ask for things, but waiting for you to visit, to say Hello, to renew that conversation which began when HaShem visited Avraham after his bris milah so many years ago.

In truth, Relationship Prayer is as difficult as needy Petitionary Prayer, but for a different reason. Petitionary prayer may be difficult because it is inherently uninspiring, but Relationship prayer is challenging because it demands something of us, a currency we concede most stingily: It demands Trust.
• The Avraham who can commune with Gd after his circumcision is the one who trusted Gd and followed Him from Mesopotamia to Elonei Mamrei.
• The Jew who can communicate with Gd at the Mishkan is the one who trusted Gd and followed Him out of Egypt, into the desert.
• And the Jew who will find Gd today is the one who trusts Gd, who permits himself to believe.

Trust is the reason we can have this relationship, the ingredient that allows our prayer to evolve.

The Christians I have met in Cohen’s chapters - the wrestlers, the musicians, the baseball players, the megachurches - share this common thread: Trust. The people Cohen describes, the people who are invested, the people who attend and sing and cheer and fund these Bible Belt institutions, are people who trust this deity of theirs. Before they love, they believe, and everything follows from there.

A Jew who spends a great deal of time second-guessing himself, who finds relativism in every sphere of life, is going to have a hard time suspending his questions and doubts long enough to believe. Even as he bows in Shmoneh Esreih, this Jew observes himself from the outside and asks, “To whom am I bowing?” Even as he begins a meal by washing his hands, he wonders, “What if there is no Creator, and all of this is just an obsessive charade?”

All of our relationships, including religious relationships, are founded on trust - and so the Jew who wishes to experience passion in prayer, who wishes to experience some religious epiphany in shul, must look past the question of tunes and translations and ask himself the first, most basic question: Do I trust? Do I allow myself to trust?

Every time Israel becomes involved in a war, certain stock photographs of soldiers circulate by email. There’s the picture of young men trudging in a line to the front. There’s the picture of children heading into bomb shelters. And there’s the picture of a soldier perched on a tank, praying as the sun rises. Or a unit gathered to hear krias hatorah. Or a rabbi helping a solder put on tefillin.

To be sure, some soldiers turn to Gd at that point as supplicants, because there are no atheists in a foxhole; for them, perhaps, prayer is a hopeful means of asking Gd, who may or may not exist, for help. But for the rest, prayer is a function of their basic, lifelong trust in Gd and the Torah, a trust that gives them a relationship that remains with them even in the toughest times.

This relationship is what Benyamin Cohen was seeking in My Jesus Year, and this is what Avraham Avinu had - and, if we can permit ourselves to trust, then it is a relationship we will enjoy as well.


1. I can't recommend the book My Jesus Year itself, because I am very uncomfortable with the author's derogatory description of his father throughout the book. It is lashon hara and character assassination.
The book is also written in Bloggish rather than formal English, complete with misplaced apostrophes and unique grammar. That's the author's choice, of course, but it rubs me wrong in a book produced with a major publisher.

2. There is a third, hybrid type of prayer, but I felt it was more a classroom topic than a derashah topic: Rav Chaim of Volozhin, the main student of the Vilna Gaon, in his Nefesh haChaim that even when we pray for our needs, we don’t pray because we want something for ourselves; rather, we turn to a Gd who cares about us, with Whom we have a relationship, and we say, “If You care about me, then my suffering must also cause You pain - and I wish for You to fill my needs so that Your pain will end.”
What a remarkable prayer - Gd, give me what I want so that You will be happy! This prayer bespeaks so much more than a petitioner before a king; it is the conversation of two lifelong friends, whose shared heart wishes only the best for each of them.

3. Rava's sarcasm is on Shabbat 10a.


  1. In addition, most people have this needy, give it to me now kind of solution based thought. They pray, don't see/get what they want ASAP and say "see? No one is listening."

  2. What about "Thank you" prayer? Unless you also consider it part of relationship prayer. However, I think it should be its own separate category. Only by thanking Hashem/admitting that he is the source of everything (i.e. the double meaning of modim) can we expect to deserve anything in return or build a further relationship with Him.

  3. Hi Ari,
    I touched on the issue by lumping it in with petitionary prayer at one point in the article, but the truth is that - as I see things - it depends on what motivates the gratitude.
    I certainly agree that gratitude is necessary for both aspects, the petition and the relationship. So if it comes from a desire for the former, I view it as part of petition. If it's the latter, then I view it as part of the relationship.

  4. Very interesting ideas, the more I think about them.

    Sometimes, what strikes me is not the content - the "what" - of the prayer, but rather, the "how," - the style or context in which the prayer is recited. As a young adult in Israel, where I was first exposed to Sepharadi / Eidut haMizrach forms of tefilla, I found it fascinating and inviting (at least for men) the way their communities sit around the beit knesset, facing one another, and everyone recites the prayers out loud, as opposed to the much dryer Ashkenazi tradition of standing side by side, mumbling to one's self. Not too inspiring, at least in the context of community prayer.

    It's no surprise that gospel choirs, call-and-response, and the like, are such a big draw in much of the Christian world. It's a lively, inspiring, and encouraging way of being with G-d, while strengthening feelings of community and togetherness.

  5. ALN-
    Agreed, entirely. The "how" is a very big deal.
    I love that arrangement in Sephardi shuls. I interned in a shul that had a Sephardi minyan (mostly Egyptian and Syrian), and I always enjoyed having a chance to be at their minyan.