Friday, 4 June 2010

Why I Hate Organized Prayer

In Yeshivish “davening” in addition to its primary meaning also means to recite something automatically, or with little intention. This is because almost nobody can repeat the same thing three times a day every day for their whole life and still gain some meaning from it. I have to assume that the majority of the frum world just chants the words every day with little or no kavanna and then walk away feeling like they have accomplished something.

Even if davening is important (and that’s debatable) surely the only point is if you’re paying attention to what you’re saying. So why do thousand of religious Jews feel that it is their religious duty to mutter words that they often do not understand , and do not pay attention to three times a day. Is that what prayer is supposed to be, automatic mumbling?

Ah, so why don’t people just daven with kavanna? Then they will be accomplishing something! The answer is because it’s virtually impossible. The effort required to concentrate about words that you are so familiar with and that you say so often, is huge! You have to be reeeeeeally motivated to say a long Shemoneh Esrei with all the concentration you’re supposed to have. Most people even very religious people just don’t have that’s sort of motivation. However the law is the law and no one dares question it so most people just chant the words out of rote, however pointless that might be.

Also what bothers me is the accumulation of unnecessary prayers over hundreds of years. We have in our siddur tons of pages of endless added prayers! Why is it all necessary? Most people can barely pay attention for five minutes and now they’re expected to pay attention for an hour. What a complete waste of time!

Also the content of the prayers is basically meaningless to most people. Even if you’re a firm believer, do you really, truly care about the coming of Mashiach? Does it really bother you that you have no Beit Hamikdash? Do you really care that God is holy?! People care about themselves, their families and their friends. That’s what they really want to pray for. But most of davening is dedicated to things that people do not truly care about and so most people cannot stir up enough emotion to make it meaningful.

When I was in Yeshiva the Rabbis used to drag me to davening every morning. I would slap on the tefillin and promptly slouch into my seat in semi-consciousness. I would struggle not to put my head down on the table because as soon as your head went down a Rabbi would walk over and prod you until you woke up. What bothered me more than my desire to go back to bed was the pointlessness of me sitting there doing nothing.

One day I decided enough was enough. I skipped shacharis and when the Rabbis asked me why I said “there is no point!”

“What!”they said baffled, unable to comprehend how someone could say something like that about the holy tefilla.

“I don’t pay attention, I have no kavanna, I’m half asleep! What am I accomplishing!? Is that really what God wants someone half asleep chanting words?”

“But you are still yotze your chiyuv even if you don’t have kavanna.” They said still puzzled.

“Yeah but forget my obligation, the point of davening is to commune with God or something right? So if I am not doing that then what is the point?”

“But you have to daven whether you have kavanna or not!” they exclaimed

At that point I gave up. We were obviously not speaking the same language. These Rabbis just thought in terms of thing you have to do and things you don’t have to do. Their legalistic Gemara drenched minds were not able to grasp the concept of ultimate purpose. The halacha says it you do it! You don’t try to figure out whether you’re accomplishing anything or not. It really had never occurred to them that davening without paying attention was not just discouraged but also pointless. Did they really think that because the halacha books said that you had fulfilled your obligation without paying attention that there was a point to mindlessly muttering the words? Did they think that the words were magical incantations that made God happy? I don’t know but needless to say my appeal to logic failed to exempt me from davening.

Hey I don’t mind praying once in a while. But for God’s sake what were the Rabbis of old thinking when they instituted lengthy prayers three times a day! Did they really think that it would be meaningful? It sure is not and I hate organized prayers! It seems that halacha has taken away much of the beauty of prayer and has managed turned it into another law bereft of meaning or "spirituality".

Note: Some people I know are very devout about davening and I think actually manage to have real kavanna the whole time. I suspect, however that they are an exception to what most people do.


MKR said...

My experience does not put me in any position to comment on the substance of your post, but I've got a title for the design at the top: "Tefilla Sunrise."

Baruch Spinoza said...

I used to think the exact same thing when I used to be a religious believer and had to daven. I had another issue that used to bother me. Why would God, an all powerful being, demand pathetic little humans to worship him. It makes no sense. I can understand why a dictator demands worship because a dictator is only human himself. A dictator is weak-minded and needs the worship. But why would a powerful beind need such a simple service for?

G*3 said...

> Did they think that the words were magical incantations that made God happy?


Remember that, and it all makes sense.

Shilton HaSechel said...

B. Spinoza,
Interestingly enough I was never bothered by that because an MO rabbi had once told me that tefilla is for you not for God. My real theological problem was by what mechanism did saying the words heal the sick and feed the needy? I could understand how saying a prayer could make you have more luck (because any mitzvah gave you more zechut) but for the life of me I couldn't figure out how me being righteous by praying helped others people.

E-Man said...

I think the point of prayer is that you are supposed to contemplate what you are saying. SO when you ask G-D to heal the sick and feed the needy, what you are really doing is realizing that you should help the sick and feed the needy. Why? Because you are supposed to walk in the path of Hashem. Just like he feeds the needy and heals the sick you should try your best to do that as well.

You can get a lot out of davening if you think of it in those terms. Davening is a time to contemplate how to better yourself and think about what G-D would want you to do. In this way you get closer to G-D.

Also, G-D doesn't demand that we worship him, he demands that we follow His laws. Think about the difference.

E-Man said...

Just a quick comment on the post, why are you discounting prayer because you and the majority of people have a hard time concentrating? Let's say you pray every day and only one day a year do you have kavana where you actually focus on the prayer and have some "real" connection to G-D. Isn't that worth it?

Shilton HaSechel said...

interesting ideas but that still does not explain why when someone is sick tons of women attend frantic tehillim groups to "save" the choleh.

It is obvious that mainstream Orthodoxy believes in prayer literally.

Also as I said in the post contemplating is all well and good but not 3 times a day every day using the same language over and over and over ......

As to your second comment IMHO its not worth all the mindless hours of praying out of rote for THAT one time when yo actually get something out of it. (think of all the time wasted!) Let there be one prayer a week or a month. Maybe people would take it more seriously if it was not so constant. (Though I did have other objections in the post)

Anonymous said...

Your post reminded me of the early morning davening I was forced to attend in high school. Such a blur, I think I would have been less depressed in those years, if I could have gotten an extra hour of sleep instead.

Baruch Spinoza said...

When I was slowing losing my religious beliefs there was a proverb among freethinkers that I kept in mind. I think this is one of those anonymous sayings. Perhaps, it will give you some meaning too: "Two hands working together achieve more than a thousand clapsed in prayer".

The big problem with prayer is that it diverts actual meaningful solutions to false solutions. When someone is dying from a dangerous disease the appropriate thing to do is to find a doctor who can help treat this illness. Sitting around and chanting some words does not improve the condition of the dying person, it only worsens it because nothing is happening.

If you are interested what I wrote about prayer you can read this:

Undercover Kofer said...

What I always find so remarkable: people saying such deep things at great speed. Try to read this as fast as possible (which is the average davvening speed worldwide) and not laugh:

"We give thanks to you that you are the Lord our God and the God of our fathers forever and ever. Through every generation you have been the rock of our lives, the shield of our salvation. We will give you thanks and declare your praise for our lives that are committed into your hands, for our souls that are entrusted to you, for your miracles that are daily with us, and for your wonders and your benefits that are with us at all times, evening, morning and noon. O beneficent one, your mercies never fail; O merciful one, your lovingkindnesses never cease. We have always put our hope in you. For all these acts may your name be blessed and exalted continually, O our King, forever and ever. Let every living thing give thanks to you and praise your name in truth, O God, our salvation and our help. (Selah.) Blessed are you, O Lord, whose Name is the Beneficent One, and to whom it is fitting to give thanks."

Point made.

jewish philosopher said...

I think of davening as a sort of spiritual workout. It's pumping up your love of God.

Ichabod Chrain said...

I'd also wondered about all the redundancy in the prayers and why we have to spend 2 1/2 or 3 hours in shul on Shabbos when the Catholics get everything done in an hour and the Protestants in maybe 2 hours. I wondered why our prayers were so much less efficient than theirs
Then I read somewhere that the history is kind of spotty but the theory was that in the middle ages the Jews in different areas had different prayers, so to get everyone on board in one siddur the rabbis decided on the big tent approach.
Don't remember where I read this. If anyone knows more about it, please feel free to correct or supplement what I've said.

Anonymous said...

I think one of the main reasons for communal prayer is to help build community. You see the people of your community come together for a unified purpose. Also most people shmooze and get contacts for business. Instead of looking at organized religion as primarily to worship God, look at it as a way to build community using God as the unifying symbol, then it will make a lot more sense

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