Revitalizing Prayer

Rabbi Nancy Flam is co-founder of the National Center for Jewish Healing and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, for which she served as founding executive director and now serves as co-director of programs. In 2012 she initiated the “Prayer Project” in hopes of changing the dominant paradigm in Jewish North America from “attending services” to “engaging in prayer practice.”

‡You have said, “We risk losing a core of Jewish religious life if we do not discover better ways to pray.” Why is discovering better ways to pray so important?

I believe that prayer is a fundamental, defining human need. When our hearts are full or empty, when we feel deep longing, gratitude, humility, awe, love, or devotion, many of us—even those who don’t relate to liturgical prayer in a formal service—instinctively turn toward prayer, just as a flower turns toward the sun.

One woman told me how she took a certain route each week when driving to an appointment in order to pass a beautiful field bathed in late afternoon sunlight—the sight always uplifted her. “I noticed the beauty and was grateful for it,” she told me. “Then I was grateful for eyes that could see, a heart that could understand, the happenstance of this incarnation....I’ve come to realize that my noticing is a prayer.”


‡Why do you think so many Jews have difficulty relating to formal prayer?

First of all, prayer requires us to engage in an activity over which we are not entirely in control and which we do not entirely comprehend. We need to be open to the possibility that prayer might effect change even though we might not understand how it works. This is challenging for us as children of the Enlightenment and its values of scientific reasoning.

Also, we Jews tend to think about prayer much too narrowly. Most of us reflexively define “prayer” solely in terms of what happens in the synagogue, siddur in hand. We tend not to recognize non-traditional manifestations, such as this woman’s prayer of spontaneous gratitude or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s observation that when he was marching for civil rights, he was “praying with his feet.” Consequently, we fail to imagine the potential of prayer in a broader sense to transform our minds and hearts—and our lives.

And we typically don’t approach prayer with the same clarity and consistent dedication of intent, concentration, and commitment that most meaningful spiritual practice requires. Most critically, we fail to articulate for ourselves what we’re truly aiming to effect through our prayers.

In contrast, our rabbinic ancestors prayed with the aim and hope of positive transformation—both in themselves and in the world. They directed their prayers towards desired results they believed were possible to achieve in reality. In the first century C.E., for example, Honi the Circle Maker (Honi HaM’agel) prayed to influence God to shower the earth with just the right amount of rain during a drought; Mishnah Ta’anit 3:8 says he did so successfully. In the same time period, Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa prayed for healing; Berakhot 34b says he was renowned for his contribution in times of serious illness, based in part on his special, constant intimacy with the Creator. To our ancestors it mattered if rain came, and since some people’s prayers were reputed to be effective in achieving what was needed, their prayers made for compelling practice.


‡Are you saying we should consider adapting our ancestors’ prayer practices today?

No, I am not suggesting we should expect our prayer to move mountains in a literal way, but, just as our ancestors did, we can articulate what kind of transformation we seek through worship and direct our practice accordingly. For example, if I seek to cultivate an open heart, I need to consider and create the conditions and actions that are likely to incline me in that direction. One condition might be praying in a safe environment that allows me to experience and express authentic emotion. The action of praying in such an environment might lead to my cultivating an open heart in the short term, within the context of my time of practice. Ultimately, though, I would practice opening my heart in prayer in order to condition me to respond more compassionately and generously to those I encounter in the midst of life. In this way, the short-term goal for a prayer practice becomes directed at the long-term goal I’ve set for myself as to how to live. All together, this becomes my spiritual practice.

I think many North American Jews understand how spiritual practice works in other arenas of their lives, but not so much when it comes to prayer. Mindfulness meditators, for instance, practice seeing clearly and cultivating wisdom on the cushion so as to express such qualities in the midst of a life. So do many yoga practitioners, who hope to cultivate strength and flexibility, the capacity to be with discomfort, patience, faith, and various other virtues (middot) beyond the mat, in the context of their relationships, work, and habits of mind.


‡Why do you believe the timing is ripe for reimagining prayer as spiritual practice?

Our society has entered into what Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow calls the Age of Practice (After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s). He explains that, in the U.S., religious life has evolved from a “dwelling spirituality” of the 1950s, when the physical church or synagogue building was the focus of family religious life; to a “seeking spirituality” of the turbulent 1960s, when the individual’s quest for personal meaning and moments of transcendence stood at the center; to our age—an age of meditation practice communities, yoga practice communities—and, from our Jewish point of view, sometimes Torah-study and Shabbat communities. It is an age that requires us to know what we’re practicing toward, and how to get there. In the prayer arena, such communities will combine the best of previous home- and journey-based spiritualities in providing intentional, committed, disciplined, self-reflective, and communal settings to nurture each person’s relationship with the Divine—or with that person’s deepest values. Each community of practice collectively supports every member’s individual inner work and how that manifests in the world. We need community; we can’t do it alone.

In short, if we understood what we aimed for in prayer, adopted strategies or technologies of prayer in concert with our aims, and had prayer communities to support our individual practice, I believe many of us would find prayer compelling and relevant to our lives.


‡What do you mean by “strategies” or “technologies” of prayer?

Our ancestors utilized various prayer strategies, such as concentration, intention, contemplation, body movement, and emotional arousal, to try to achieve the results they desired. Many rabbinic teachings about prayer center around kavannah, defined as intention, concentration, or focus. For example, Mishnah Berakhot 5:1 teaches:

One should not stand up to say tefillah [prayer] save in a reverent frame of mind. The pious men of old used to wait an hour before praying in order that they might concentrate their thoughts upon their father in heaven. Even if a king greets him [while praying] he should not answer him: Even if a snake is wound round his heel he should not break off.

The Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, taught his followers a strategy of handling distracting thoughts during prayer that is somewhat akin to using the energy of one’s opponent in judo: He advised investigating the root of the distracting thought in order to discern how it had derived its life-force. So, for instance, if a lustful thought arises, a person might discern that it is rooted in the realm of love (chesed), then trace the thought back up to the realm of chesed, connect with its vital energy, and redirect it back towards God in pure, loving worship (Toldot Ya’akov Yosef, Va-Yakhel).

The rabbis also stressed that emotional arousal is essential to achieving liftoff in prayer. The Talmud says: “God wants the heart” (Sanhedrin 106b). Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf of Zitomer, an early Hasidic rebbe, explains: “Do not think that the words of the prayer as you say them go up to God. It is not the words themselves that ascend; it is rather the burning desire of your heart that rises like smoke toward heaven. If your prayer consists only of words and does not contain your heart’s desire—how can it rise up to God?” (Or HaMeir 3:166)

To prime the emotional pump of prayer, some rabbis recommended that a person use movement or sing a nigun (wordless melody) at the start of prayer. Tzava’at HaRivash, a collection of teachings attributed to the Ba’al Shem Tov, says that “Prayer is union with the Divine Presence. Just as two people will move their bodies back and forth as they begin the act of love, so must a person accompany the beginning of prayer with the rhythmic swaying of the body” (Tzava’at HaRivash 7b). Some Hasidim employed such prayer practices as jumping up and down, clapping, and doing somersaults.

Whether these particular strategies are useful to us today depends on the aim of our prayer practice. If my aim is to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:11), then to begin by filling myself with ecstatic gesture might not be the right strategy. In other instances, though, experimenting with such strategies might actually achieve the desired effect.


You and other prayer and thought-leaders from across the denominational spectrum have formed a kind of prayer laboratory. What prayer approaches are you trying out?

One is called hitbodedut, the setting aside of a regular period of time to talk aloud to God spontaneously, in your own words, in order to cultivate a felt sense of closeness with the Divine. The Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772–1810) emphasized this practice of speaking to God as if you were talking to a close friend who is open to your saying and asking anything and will remain caringly present. One of our participants explained it as “a practice of stripping oneself bare before God…of moving toward greater honesty with oneself—knowing this is how we step more fully into God’s light.”

This practice is not easy. It requires, as another participant put it, “trusting that we will be able to tolerate what comes out of our kishkes (guts) and mouths, that it will all somehow be for the good. And trusting that, in some way, God is listening….”

Overall, participants have found hitbodedut liberating. One spoke of feeling “freed from self-consciousness and self-judgment.” Another said, “telling the truth helps me to see myself more clearly. There are things about me I may not know consciously. When I talk spontaneously, and continuously, about anything that arises in my heart and mind, I reveal some of this to myself and gain insight into my own heart.”


We understand that Rabbi Mike Comins and others are now teaching “Prayer as a Practice” to congregational communities. How can prayer be taught in community?

Mike has created the “Making Prayer Real” course, which has engaged 12 Union for Reform Judaism congregations and about 200 students to date. He begins by asking students, “Who is responsible for your inner life? The rabbi, the cantor, the prayer book editor, the synagogue architect?” He asks congregants to take responsibility for their prayer lives, and then suggests various means to do so. The approach is functional rather than theological, and learning prayer is likened to taking up yoga or a musical instrument—as a practice.

To deepen their experience of prayer, students are asked to describe satisfying moments of prayer, analyze what is happening in those moments of transcendence, and then focus on the skills needed to make those moments happen more often. Students try on many different prayer modalities in a workshop atmosphere—practices such as song and chant, writing their own prayers and psalms, listening deeply to their hearts before praying, and listening for God after praying. Liturgy is approached as sacred drama and experienced through drama games. For example, students are asked to deliver the Gettysburg Address as if they’re bored, then as if it’s a comedy, and finally, as if they mean it; the lessons are then applied to praying the liturgy. This and other exercises help students interpret the prayers for themselves. Essentially, Mike teaches that every person needs to figure out which prayer practices work for him or herself.

And when God-talk arises, which it always does, the discussion is grounded, because it is based on personal experience rather than abstract ideas or speculation.

Mike also finds that presenting thoughtful and varied perspectives on prayer helps congregants engage in the conversation. He shows videos of prayer leaders such as Rabbis Laura Geller, David Wolpe, and Richard Levy talking about their own prayer lives, both the frustrations and the insights. These reflections open up congregant conversations about prayer both because they role-model how to discuss the inner life in a genuine, intelligent way and because of the disparate points of view presented—everyone finds something s/he agrees with, or wants to argue with!


The Prayer Project’s November 2013 conference on changing the paradigm from “attending services” to “engaging in prayer practice” included a discussion on how prayer can work in moving worshipers from words to action. How is this possible?

Prayer can sensitize us to how we want to respond to the world. Words and tunes can soften our hearts and direct our minds to become less self-concerned and more other-concerned. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “We do not step out of the world when we pray; we merely see the world in a different setting. The self is not the hub, but the spoke of the revolving wheel. In prayer we shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender” (Man’s Quest for God).

To help us become more attuned to the needs of others in our prayers and in our lives, Jewish educator Beth Huppin offers a technique inspired by a teaching of Rabbi Meshullam Feivish of Zabriza (1740–1795), which is based upon earlier teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria. Begin by saying, “I now take on myself to fulfill the positive commandment of ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Then imagine the faces of others and wait to see which faces will appear. It could be faces of people who are no longer alive, faces of people you haven’t seen for years, or faces you see every day but for whom you have not taken the time to be fully present. A related technique is to pray while focusing on the faces of people with whom you’ve recently interacted. Ask yourself, “What were these faces asking for or offering that I might have missed?” This practice can be a powerful tool for opening our hearts to others, moving us from prayer to engagement.


‡In other words, prayer practice might help us become better human beings.

Yes. Another example: Rabbi James Jacobson teaches that petitionary prayer can also be a means of emotional education. Asking for help, he says, is sometimes perceived as a sign of weakness in a culture which celebrates individualism and independence. While most of us desire to be in control of our lives and environment in order to feel secure, the reality of human life is that we are never fully in control and independent; we depend on countless acts of support from -others. When we practice petitionary prayer, when we ask for things, we allow ourselves to feel our desires and needs fully, as well as our inability to determine whether or not they will be met. In so doing, we learn how to free ourselves from the tension and neurosis of -control and the harmful acts towards ourselves and others that can result from this delusion.


How would you advise each of us to make prayer more meaningful in our lives?

I suggest beginning by exploring these four fundamental questions:

  1. What are/might be my goals in engaging in prayer practice?
  2. What kind of transformation are/might I be aiming toward?
  3. How might I need to direct and engage my mind, body, and heart as I pray to be more likely to meet my goals?
  4. What kind of community and teachers can best support and guide me in my practice?

In time, once you have entered your practice, reflect on two more questions:

  1. Am I moving toward the goals of my practice? What are my markers for evaluation?
  2. What might I experiment with doing differently to better reach toward my goals?


How can all of us be part of this work of reimagining prayer?

I hope that many Jews will give serious thought to the questions above, and to considering what prayer modalities and prayer goals speak most deeply to them. The best way to do this is probably in small, safe groups of trusted fellow-travelers. But we need a larger public conversation about these issues as well. Please share your reflections on the Institute for Jewish Spirituality webpage. Once all of us are clearer about what we want and need to support our prayer practices, I believe there will be a strong, reliable mandate for enrichment and change.

The first step is for each of us to be open and to think about prayer through a new lens. Reflect on what you hope your prayer might lead to in yourself and in the world. Be willing to take ownership of your own prayer life, considering the possibility that this new paradigm might yield riches you wouldn’t have imagined. Be honest, and dare to experiment.