Fourth installment in an ongoing series.
“Just like a prayer/you know I’ll take you there”—Madonna, who studies Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism
I don’t pray. I’ve never prayed. I have no plans to start praying now.
As a matter of fact, when my Mormon preschool teacher in Salt Lake City once tried to get the class to pray before snacks, I went straight home and told on her. My mother subsequently marched right back to that public preschool and explained why that wouldn’t fly. I never saw that teacher again and – to my best recollection – nobody ever tried to make me pray again.
Quite a feat for a Jewish kid growing up in late-’70s Utah.
So here I am present day, at Rabbi Eli Yoggev’s Judaism for Beginners class at Beth Tfiloh, and the night’s topic just happens to be “Prayer and Spirituality.” Originally, this was on the syllabus for the Christmas Eve class, which I fully intended to cut, but it turned out enough of my classmates had conflicts on that night to warrant rescheduling the class. And I no longer had an out.
Let me be clear, Rabbi Yoggev did not make me or anyone pray. He wouldn’t. He strikes me as a pretty laissez-faire sort of fella. But the topic itself made me squirm. Not only do I not pray, I consider myself to be devoid of all spirituality. I’m not even sure what spirituality is. What I do know is I consider myself to be pretty grounded, feet firmly planted on terra firma. My belief system is essentially non-existent. Or as John Lennon once said, “I just believe in me. …And that’s reality.”
So back to class. To his credit, Rabbi Yoggev always flies through the heavy topics in what he calls “cramming all of Judaism into 11 classes.” The class on prayer was presented as a “very fast” road map of the traditional prayer book, “The Koren Siddur.”
“This is like when someone takes you to a new neighborhood, but doesn’t let you out of the car,” Rabbi Yoggev said.
I can pretty much sit through an hour on any topic. I like to know things, but not too in-depth, just enough to be a really good conversationalist, as I’ve stated here before.
Rabbi Yoggev’s presentation started with a couple interactive slides from menti.com, which allows class participants to enter answers anonymously because as Rabbi Yoggev says, “Sometimes prayer is a hard thing to talk about.”
Unfortunately, not everyone in class had a smartphone at the ready or couldn’t get into the Wi-Fi, so my answers were popping up on the screen before others, and Rabbi Yoggev made no secret that they were mine! So much for anonymity. I revealed my true colors almost immediately with the first slide:
“I find prayer helpful … .” The choices were “most of the time,” “some of the time” and “hardly ever.” What do you think my immediate response was? There goes all that extra credit I earned when Rabbi Yoggev came on my weekly Facebook Live show!
Next, we ran down some reasons why people pray – including for forgiveness, to express gratitude, seeking guidance and to connect with something. Using another clip from what seems to be his favorite movie, “Bruce Almighty,” Rabbi Yoggev illustrated that people often pray because they want to have their prayers answered, but since everyone’s asking for something different, it would be catastrophic if all those prayers were answered. As Bruce (played by Jim Carrey in the movie) says while he’s using Yahweh (not Yahoo) – “You’ve Got Prayers” — to answer everyone’s requests, “What a bunch of whiners.”
Rabbi Yoggev noted that during his time in hospice, he saw a lot of prayers go unanswered. So – and here’s my big a-ha moment of the night – another reason people pray is to be heard. They’re not necessarily looking for an answer, just for someone to listen to them. This is kind of like how I stagger around my house mumbling to myself. Maybe I’m the accidental pray-er.
“God’s always there to listen, to be accessible,” Rabbi Yoggev says.
Rabbi Yoggev went on to describe the two different types of prayers, which were supposed to be sort of eye-opening and newsworthy, but didn’t come as much of a surprise to me. Maybe ignorance is bliss. The two types are: personal and formal. Personal prayers are the ones you can just say throughout the day (they feel sort of like prayer-lite to me). Formal prayers, based on daily offerings, are the ones that use a book and are carried out in synagogue.
Apparently, it’s not commonly known that personal prayers are employed in Judaism. Rabbi Yoggev said he talks about personal prayer at interfaith conferences because it’s a good way to bridge a connection between Jews and Christians. When bringing up the idea of personal prayer, he said, “The Christians were like ‘Whoa!’ and even some of the Jews were like ‘Whoa!’” One of my non-Jewish classmates added that he found it “eye-opening that it doesn’t all have to be scripted.” He didn’t realize that there was an informal prayer approach in Judaism.
Maybe I’m missing something, but if I was a praying ‘Manda, I’m pretty sure this is exactly the approach I would take. I’m much more likely to just try to have a private conversation with God in a special space than I am to pick up the official prayer book and go to synagogue.
Rabbi Yoggev must have spotted the confusion on my face because he totally called me out in front of all my classmates (again) with a “No? You’re not feeling it?” But the face I was making was actually a reaction to this: Rabbi Nachman of Breslov suggests praying for everything.
That struck me as oddly petty, frivolous and somewhat greedy. Hence the facial expression, Rabbi. In this week’s handout (yay, handouts!), Rabbi Nachman is quoted as saying, “Is it beneath your dignity to pray for even something minor? You must pray for everything, even the most minor things.” I’m willing to let this go, but it doesn’t sit quite right with me. It feels like how Justin Tucker prays before every field goal attempt. What makes him so sure God wants him to score? Maybe the Almighty’s rooting for the other team.
Before class ended, we did go through the “nicely organized” Orthodox prayer book at rapid-fire speed. Rabbi Yoggev rushed right over all the demeaning references and parts that talk about being happy we’re not heathens, slaves or, yes, women. He said that discussion is “for another class.” So we went through the Psalms and Kaddish, which “serves as a page break between different parts of prayer.”
I appreciated the overview – it made the idea of opening the book a lot less scary and foreign to me.
Rabbi Yoggev says the typical prayer structure is to start by praising, then asking for your needs, then thanking God for everything. One takeaway Rabbi Yoggev really wanted to stress was that “there are many ways to talk to God. … Under your covers, in synagogue. Pretend you’re on your cell phone.”
He wrapped up the night’s lecture with: “Prayer is a good thing.”
After class, Rabbi Yoggev tried to help me out with the concept of praying for everything. He said it’s a tough one for a lot of people, even some Orthodox folks, but the idea is that it makes prayer more accessible. It shows that anyone can pray and you’re not breaking any rules.
OK, I can totally accept that. One classmate said he prays for everything in his head. Another classmate wanted to know if you still get points for personal prayer vs. formal prayer. Rabbi Yoggev says it’s not an either/or proposition. “They complement each other.”
Rabbi 1, Amanda 0.
Note to self: Watch “Bruce Almighty” already
Next up: Jan. 14 — Introduction to Jewish Law and Custom
Basics — Nov. 19: What You Need to Know About Judaism, Nov. 26: Foundations of Jewish Belief, Dec. 3: Jewish History 101
Jewish Life and Spirituality — Dec. 10: Daily Jewish Living, Dec. 17: Life Cycle Events, Dec. 24: Prayer, Jan. 7: Jewish Spirituality
Practical Judaism — Jan. 14: Introduction to Jewish Law and Custom, Jan. 21: Shabbat, Jan. 28: Festivals
Judaism for Today — Feb. 4: Hot Button Issues, Feb. 11: “Ask the Rabbi” Session
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watch Rabbi Yoggev’s appearance on Facebook Live on Dec. 21: