In the new film “Higher Ground,” there’s a scene where Vera Farmiga, the film’s director and star, fitfully tries to pray in her bathroom. She’s trying out a method — speaking in tongues — that she recently saw performed by her close friend. Like the friend, Farmiga’s character is an oddity in their Christian fundamentalist group: a free-spirited iconoclast with a highly inquisitive mind.
She is wary of the group’s dogmas, yet she has a spiritual side, as well as a complex mix of gratitude and guilt. Her newborn child was in a car crash years ago, but miraculously survived. Christianity gives her a path to channel her pungent emotions, and the fundamentalist group gives her a stable community. But once the initial trauma passes and her incredulous temperament returns, she finds God harder to reach. Nonetheless, she tries.
I imagine many Jews can relate to Farmiga’s film. And my guess is that many will be feeling the same way she does in that bathroom during the Jewish High Holy Days — believing in some kind of god, whatever that is, yet somehow hopeless in communicating with it. We will sit in synagogue trying pensively to pray. But soon, we’ll be staring at our watches.
There are many reasons for this, and if you ask your rabbi, he or she will likely tell you this: prayer, like anything else, requires work. In order to be any good at it, you need to practice.
But I’m not sure I buy that, and my guess is that the problem goes much deeper. One impediment I see to the Jewish prayer paradox — why we insist on trying, even though we so often fail — is that prayer is something most Jews today consider private. It is not merely that the vast majority of Jews today are non-observant — after all, most non-observant Jews also say they believe in God. It’s that communal prayer, which is something integral to traditional Jewish practice (think: the minyan), no longer seems appropriate.
I don’t mean to suggest that a real religious experience can’t happen in the company of people. But I do mean that, for many non-observant though still spiritual Jews, faith happens in decidedly private moments: when we are standing in front of a lake at dusk, or when we are in the mountains. When we are alone, quiet, at night. These are moments we do not plan for, but ones that happen by chance.
Nor am I convinced that rabbis need merely tweak Jewish liturgy, or modernize ritual practice, in order to fix the problem. Even the most liberal Jewish movements have been trying this for years — the Reform movement is essentially premised on it — and you’d be surprised how desperate they’ve become. I’ve read stories about rabbis turning shuls into yoga studios; the Kaddish recited while in the Shiva Twist. Or how a congregation in San Francisco has taken a line from the Bible and turned it into a benediction of praise for anonymous sex.
But where does that leave Jewish prayer, and the religious tradition generally? It would be unfair to say that rabbis have not been grappling with this issue seriously, and I do think innovative solutions have already been found. One of the most impressive efforts I’ve seen is how rabbis, from Chabad to Reconstructionist, have increased their focus on less-freighted religious holidays as the central portals for a meaningful engagement with the religion.
They’ve focused on the more quotidian, but I’d argue more crucial, spirituality found in Friday-night dinners, for instance. Or they’ve highlighted Shavuot, a once-overlooked religious holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah. Today, many rabbis have refashioned the holiday as way to transmit Jewish knowledge, in all its varieties, and, simultaneously, embrace the holiday’s essence.
Yet equal responsibility belongs to us Jews who are not rabbis, or at least the majority of us who consider ourselves secular. What is lost in so many secular Jews today is that ambivalence about God — what it is, how to get in touch with it — is not integral to Judaism. Yet engagement with Jewish history, like learning about the Holocaust or Jewish politics, vis-à-vis Israel, are not worthy substitutes either.
What’s needed really is a different understanding of religion. Jewish texts and Jewish rituals — which are the essence of the religion — do not need to be approached as something sacred in order to be engaged with meaningfully. You can be avowedly atheist, I’d argue, and still get something out of them.
The historian David Biale has written insightfully about this in his recent book “Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought” (Princeton University Press). The idea behind it is that the Jewish religious tradition can be plumbed, respected and even revered as an entirely secular body of knowledge. The question of God can be left out.
By approaching religion in this way, the Torah, the Talmud and some of the profoundly moving poetry found in the High Holy Days services, become less intimidating. They do not demand you come to them as true believers, but only as engaged wisdom-seekers.
Eric Herschthal covers arts and culture for the paper.