Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber: Finding Meaning in Prayer is Explored
For most people, it is extremely challenging to find meaning in prayer. Rabbi Daniel Sperber, who recently spoke in at the Young
Israel of Scarsdale about this issue, said that this is because “we are trying to understand the infinite — the incomprehensible.”
Rabbi Sperber, professor emeritus of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University and past Israel Prize winner, explained that part of the problem comes from the contradictory nature of our prayer, which should be more personal in nature yet has become increasingly standardized. “Prayer should come from the heart or spirit. Ideally, it should be formulated by what we feel at the moment.”
Prayer Should Come from the Heart
The Rabbi said this was the case in early Judaism when there was no standard liturgy. He said this began to change during the time of the Second Temple when certain prayers became crystalized. “Even then there was a great deal of fluidity in the way the prayers were expressed,” he said.
Another major challenge for observant Jews in particular is the issue of whether a person can have kavanah (intent) in his or her prayers three times a day. “Does kavanah have to convey what you are saying, or can it go with other things you are thinking…Maybe that is true kavanah.”
An example he cited was thinking about someone who is ill while you are praying. According to Rabbi Sperber, the true kavanah may be your thoughts on how you can assist them, possibly help them with a financial burden, or simply to bring them a meal.
Rabbi Sperber said that the rabbis standardized the framework of prayer to relieve the pressure from the individual. “It became a framework for the community. It is easier for people to function in a group than to be a solitary individual praying alone.”
He said this is why prayers were split into two groups — individual and communal. “Feelings were defined for people who were praying. Today, you have to find your niche within this matrix.”
There Is No Unbridgeable Gap Between Us And The Divine
Due to the greater emphasis on communal prayer, Rabbi Sperber said with his usual wry humor that prayer has become de-meaning for many people. To overcome this feeling of meaninglessness, the Rabbi said it is helpful to remind yourself that in Judaism “we believe there is no unbridgeable gap between us and the divine…We are surrounded by divinity.” With this in mind, we have the opportunity to directly connect with the divine through our prayers. He said this is something to think about especially when we feel tired or distracted, and need motivation to find meaning in our prayers.
He concluded, “Prayers should be something we want to do for ourselves. They should be open to change. The challenge for all of us is that within rigidity we can find a world of depth and understanding…We should always try to use prayer as part of a self-examination of what we really believe. By doing this, we have the opportunity for a true expression of kavanah.”
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