Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My Religious Philosophy-Part Three: “Prayer” and “Spirituality”

Rabbi Sonsino

Of the three major types of prayer (i.e., praise, gratitude and petition), it is the prayers of petition that create problems for some people. The reasons vary: we expect an immediate answer that fails to materialize; the text of the prayer is inadequate either because of its archaic nature, patriarchal language or non-inclusive character; sometimes we even equate nobility of expression with profundity of thought. In reality the crux of the problem is theological. Heschel once said, “The issue of prayer is not prayer; the issue of prayer is God” (Man’s Quest for God. New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1954, 58). Consequently, if you believe, you can then pray. For a long time I, too, subscribed to this notion. However, recently, I realized that people could struggle with prayer and theology at the same time. As theological views become clearer, prayers too become more authentic. Prayer is a natural need of every human being. The question is what we expect from it? Here below are my conclusions:

a) To help create a positive prayerful mood, one needs an inspiring text and sublime music within an appropriate physical setting.
b) Prayers should be read not as legal briefs but as poetry pointing to something higher.
c) One should refrain to pray for the impossible, for God works through the laws of nature, and God is not likely to change the course of events no matter how fervent the prayer or pious the individual.
d) It is more important to express one’s goals and aspirations through prayers than to expect an answer for them. If we are able to formulate our thoughts clearly and turn them into a program of action, the deed itself becomes our answer.
e) Prayers do not change the world outside, but give the worshipers a better insight into themselves. As the Gates of Prayer had it, “Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.”
f) Even if, at the moment, it is not possible to enter into a prayerful mood, one can and should identify with the community as part of the worship experience. By praying together we can strengthen one another.


I do not see any difference between religion and spirituality. The second is an expression of the first. For me, spirituality is “the awareness of being in the presence of God,” no matter how God is defined in Judaism. Even though “spirituality” implies a dichotomy between body and mind, which is more Greek than biblical, it is often narcissistic in scope and anti-intellectual in practice. The quest for spirituality is here to stay because it is based on the realization that we are not at the center of the universe, that science cannot answer all our questions, that we need to relate to something or someone bigger than us, and, above all, because it is grounded in our search for purpose and meaning in life.

Each individual needs to find his/her own appropriate spiritual path. In my book Six Jewish Spiritual Paths, I have identified six paths through which one can express his/her own spirituality:

a) Acts of Transcendence;
b) Prayer;
c) Meditation;
d) Ritual;
e) Deeds of Loving kindness; and
f) talmud torah - Study.

These are only examples. It is possible to add other paths. However, it is important to include a social component to any of these paths in order to avoid the accusation that they are “me-oriented.”

Spirituality cannot be imposed. It has to be discovered. I found mine through torah lishmah, the “study for its own sake.”

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