Sunday, February 28, 2010

Where is it written that an atheist doesn't have to pray?

In a fascinating review of a new Hebrew-English edition of the Jewish Prayerbook, the reviewer, Hillel Halkin, provides not only a short history of Jewish worship and the development of the liturgy, but also writes about the difficulty of praying — and a possible benefit of prayer even for those who don't believe. An excerpt:
.... The struggle to keep prayer—“the language of the soul in conversation with God,” to quote Sacks again — from becoming a routine activity is intrinsic to every religion that makes praying a regular duty. In The Ethics of the Fathers is the saying, attributed to the 1st-century sage Shimon ben Netanel, “Be punctilious in reciting the ‘Hear O Israel’ and the other prayers, and when you pray, make your prayers not rote but mercy cries to God”; yet a punctilious cry for mercy is not easily achieved. The 4th-century church abbot Agatho, when asked what the hardest part of the religious life was, replied that it was prayer, since the demons who hated God put more effort into thwarting it than into anything else.

Whoever has ever prayed regularly and not just at rare moments of personal crisis knows what these demons are: they range from difficulty in concentrating and the disturbance of distracting thoughts to religious doubts and the inability to identify with the words one is saying. The observant Jew is tempting prey for them. A devout Catholic attends a once-a-week mass that has a great deal of pageantry to hold his attention and in which his role is limited to brief responses to the longer utterances of the priest. In most Protestant services, congregational participation consists largely of hymn singing, an expansively enjoyable activity. Though Muslims pray five times a day, each prayer is brief, a few pithy formulas declaring God’s greatness accompanied by frequent changes of physical position. Only Jews must recite every morning, “The incense contained eleven kinds of spices: balsam, onycha, galbanum and frankincense … myrhh, cassia, spikenard and saffron …twelve manehs of costus, three of aromatic bark; nine of cinnamon,” ....

Nothing, however, can keep one focused on one’s prayers when one loses faith in the God to whom one has been praying. This happened to me midway through adolescence. Although since then I have attended many synagogue services, I have never really been able to pray. ....

There were times when I prayed mechanically then, too. There were times when I didn’t pray at all. But there were times when I felt like a priest in the Temple, binding my soul to the altar and offering the daily sacrifice at its appointed time and place. It was the intensity of that experience that makes me feel like an impostor when I take part in a synagogue service today. Like anyone skilled at playing a role, I alone know I am playing it. I go through the motions of prayer as proficiently as do the men around me. You don’t forget such things any more than you forget how to swim or ride a bicycle.

And yet I sometimes wonder how many of these men are having an experience more intense than my own. Not a large number, to judge by outward appearances. Most seem to be engaged in what they are doing without overly troubling themselves about it. They take pleasure in being together, as people take pleasure in any group activity—folk dancing, say, or a sing-along. I do not say they have no feeling of uplift. Clearly they do. But it is an uplift that could also be mine if I allowed it to be, which may be why I place no great value on it. ....

My father, who prayed with great kavanah yet was adamant about having no religious beliefs whatsoever, had a different answer. “It’s what a Jew does,” he would say. He once told me a story about a man standing in the street outside a shtibl, a little synagogue, looking for a tseynter, a tenth Jew to add to the nine waiting inside to say the afternoon prayer. Spotting a likely-looking candidate, he asks: “Excuse me, mister. Are you Jewish?” “Yes, I am,” says the Jew. “What can I do for you?” “You can join a minyanmincha,” the man says. “I’m afraid that’s impossible,” answers the Jew. “Why?” asks the man. “Because I’m an atheist,” says the Jew. The man gives the Jew a withering look. “And where,” he inquires, “is it written that an atheist doesn’t have to say mincha?”

In fact, it’s written nowhere. As far as Jewish law is concerned, an atheist has to pray like anyone else.

Maybe my snobbery, then, has less to recommend it than I think. I have always considered it a form of respect for the God I once believed in to refuse to dishonor either of us by mouthing empty words to Him. But the God of Judaism would rather have empty words than none. Mitokh she-lo lishma ba lishma, the rabbis said: the deed not initially performed for its own sake will come to be for its own sake if persisted at. .... [more]
This article, "Endless Devotion," is one of several available online from the first issue of a brand new magazine, the Jewish Review of Books. Another that I enjoyed is "Why There Is No Jewish Narnia".

Endless Devotion > Publications > Jewish Review of Books