How Can Prayer Inspire Activism? Chapter 14 of My Book, “Who Stole My Religion?”
Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, and falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision. – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel180
Based on Rabbi Heschel’s challenging statement above, prayers should help transform people and inspire them to actively strive to create a more humane, compassionate, just, peaceful, and environmentally sustainable world. But unfortunately the opposite is often the case.
A study published in 2005 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that while Jews generally are more liberal than any other American religious group, there are significant differences between Jews who regularly attend religious services and those who do not. The study found that Jews who attend synagogue services at least once a week were twice as likely to support the war in Iraq and define themselves as politically conservative than were Jews who seldom or never go to synagogue.181
I have been a member of my Orthodox synagogue since 1968. My experiences there have been the most important in shaping my views about the failure of synagogue services to inspire people to become more actively involved in relating Jewish values to society’s ills. I appreciate the many prayer leaders for their great skill and dedication to keep the minyanim (prayer groups) moving along without a hitch. Day by day, week by week, the services are carried out very well. But as for the long-range goals of preserving our planet, feeding its people, and ending its wars, there is little awareness or efforts to connect the powerful messages in the prayers to current issues.
As I attend Shabbat services in my modern Orthodox synagogue, I often think about the tremendous collective wisdom, skills, and generosity among the hundreds of daveners (worshippers), and what an important impact their abilities and positive traits could achieve if addressed toward climate change – the most urgent, immediate problem facing the world today – as well as other critical societal threats. I believe that God would welcome that kind of involvement along with, and inspired by, our prayers. But the davening does not seem to impel worshippers to apply the challenging words of the prayers toward improving the precious world that God has given us.
Of course I am not recommending that Jews (or others) attend religious services less often. Rather, I would like to see them try to apply the lessons contained in the siddur (prayer book) about God’s compassion and other ideals into their practical and communal lives.
Some Shabbat Morning Prayers That Address the Environment and Animals
The Shabbat morning prayers remind us of Judaism’s tremendous concern for the environment and for animals, both of which have many implications for activism. If we would only heed the messages of the prayers we recite, they would be a spur to action that would help revitalize Judaism and ultimately help shift our world from its current dangerous path.
180 Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Quoted in “On Prayer,” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Susannah Heschel, ed. (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996), 257.
181 Ori Nir, “U.S. poll: Synagogue-goers more likely to be politically conservative.” Haaretz, February 7, 2005.
For example, in the Baruch Sheh’amar prayer the siddur says: “Blessed is the One (God) Who has compassion on the earth; blessed is the One Who has compassion on the creatures [animals and people].” What a far better world it would be if, consistent with the key Talmudic principle that we are to imitate God’s qualities, more Jews understood that these statements in the siddur obligate us to help feed the hungry, protect the environment, and work to end the current widespread mistreatment of people and animals.
In the Shabbat services, God is called Rachum (the Merciful One) and Av Ha-Rachamim (Father of Mercies). Since we are to imitate God, we too should be merciful. The Talmud states that Jews are to be rachmanim b’nai rachmanim (compassionate children of compassionate ancestors), and that one who is not compassionate cannot truly be of the seed of Abraham, our father (Bezah 32b). It also states that Heaven grants compassion to those who are compassionate to others, and withholds it from those who are not (Shabbat 151b).
In the important Ashrei (Psalm 145), recited twice during every morning service, the Psalmist states (verse 9) that “God is good to all, and God’s mercies are over all of God’s works [including both people and animals].” According to Rabbi Dovid Sears in his book The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism, this verse is “the touchstone of the rabbinic attitude toward animal welfare, appearing in a number of contexts in Torah literature.” Referring to the Talmudic teaching that we are to emulate God’s ways, he states, “Therefore, compassion for all creatures, including animals, is not only God’s business; it is a virtue that we too must emulate. Moreover, compassion must not be viewed as an isolated phenomenon, one of a number of religious duties in the Judaic conception of the Divine service. It is central to our entire approach to life.”
All of Creation is to Praise God
Ashrei is followed by a number of psalms extolling God that begin and end with halleluyah – literally “praise God!” The final psalm in that grouping ends with, “Let all souls praise God. Halleluyah!” The Hebrew word for “soul” used here is neshamah, a word that is etymologically related to the word for breath. Based on this, some translations render it as “Let everything that has breath praise God,” which would certainly include animals as well as people.
Perek Shira, “A Chapter of Song,” is a mystical hymn dating from the 5th to 7th centuries found in many traditional siddurs, although not generally part of services today. It portrays all living creatures singing their individual songs in praise of the Creator. The universe is filled with hymns as cows, camels, horses, mules, roosters, chickens, doves, eagles, butterflies, locusts, spiders, flies, sea creatures, fish, frogs, and many more creatures offer songs of praise to God. Several Shabbat morning prayers also reinforce this concept:
- The beautiful Nishmat prayer begins with, “The soul [or breath] of every living being shall bless Your Name, Lord, our God; the spirit of all flesh shall always glorify and exalt Your remembrance, our Ruler.”
- Shortly after the Barchu call to prayer, the Hakol Yoducha prayer indicates that “All will thank You and all will praise You…all will exalt you…” The Artscroll siddur commentator states, “Thus every facet of the universe will join in thanking and lauding God.”
- The Keil Adon prayer that is generally sung by the chazzan (prayer leader) and congregation together indicates that God “is blessed by the mouth of every soul.”
Ideally, all of nature should be singing praises of God in a celestial chorus. It is hard to see this happening today though, when so many animals are so cruelly treated on factory farms and other settings, and so much of nature is being rapidly destroyed in the name of progress. One cannot help but wonder how many animal voices are now missing from that chorus.
An appreciation of nature can make our prayers more meaningful. Unfortunately, most Jews today, including me, do not get out to see nature during hikes and other activities as much as we used to, now that we have become urbanized and spend so much time using technical gadgets for communication and recreation. Not only Jews, but our whole society in general, is suffering from what has recently been called “nature deficit disorder.” As Rabbi Heschel states, we should be looking on the world with a sense of awe, wonder, and radical amazement. He also points out that the greatest threat to religion is taking things for granted. The special brachot (blessings) to be recited when, for example, we see a rainbow or a fruit tree blossoming for the first time each year, as well as on more common occasions such as eating particular foods, are designed to slow us down and make us appreciate those experiences. They should remind us that, as a song in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song puts it, “A hundred million miracles are happening every day. And those who say they don’t agree are those who cannot hear or see.”
Important Environmental Messages
There is a very powerful environmental lesson in the book of Deuteronomy that is recited twice daily during services as the second paragraph of the Shema, one of Judaism’s most important prayers:
And it will come to pass that if you continually hearken to My commandments that I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve God with all your heart and with all your soul – then I will provide rain for your land in its proper time, the early rains and the later rains, that you may gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. I will provide grass in your fields for your cattle and you will eat and be satisfied. Beware lest your heart be seduced and you turn astray and serve other gods and bow to them. Then the wrath of God will blaze against you. God will restrain the heaven so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce. And you will swiftly be banished from the goodly land that God gives to you.
The message seems clear. If we put God’s teachings into practice and take care of the earth as we are commanded, then we will have blessings of prosperity and peace. However, if we turn to false modern gods, such as materialism, egoism, hedonism, and chauvinism, and put these traits before our wise mitzvot, then we will be cursed with many environmental and other societal problems. If Jews would take this message to heart – a message that is recited morning and evening by religious Jews as well as at bedtime by many – and apply it toward working for a better world, what a wonderful difference that could make!
Another important prayer, Aleinu, which is recited near the end of every synagogue service, tells us what our role should be: L’takein olam b’malchut Shaddai – “to perfect the world under the reign of the Almighty.” This is the basis of the Jewish mandate for tikkun olam, to heal, repair, and transform the world. If this challenging message were taken seriously and applied on a daily basis, what a far better world it would be. As indicated in Appendix C, there are Jewish groups already applying this message, but far more needs to be done.
A Personal Synagogue Experience That Affected My Life
I had a personal experience that illustrates how an inspiring moment at a synagogue service can make a difference. In the early 1970s, I was asked to be Third Vice President of my synagogue, with the responsibility of seeing that the youth programs ran smoothly. At the time, I was busy with family and professional responsibilities, and I felt alienated by the lack of social consciousness of many people in the synagogue. After some soul searching, I decided to not accept the position.
Then came Yom Kippur, during which we recite the al chet, a long list of communal sins. Suddenly I was faced with the al chet (for the sin) of casting off responsibility. I thought back to my reasons for refusing the youth program position. Was I casting off my responsibility? Yes, I was. So I decided to accept the position and make sure that Jewish values such as gemilut chesed (doing acts of kindness) were an essential part of the synagogue’s youth activities. Every year since then, I try to pay special attention to that specific al chet and to ask myself, “Are there any responsibilities I am casting off by taking the easy way out?”
Teachings That Can Enhance Prayer Experiences
The following are some anonymous statements about prayer and activism from a handout I received many years ago as part of a High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) package of inspirational material. To this day, I still find them helpful, and review them annually during these important holidays:
- Pray as if everything depends on God and act as if everything depends on you.
- Prayer does not change God, but it changes him (or her) who prays.
- Our prayers are answered not when we are given what we ask for, but when we are
challenged to be what we can be.
- True worship is not a petition to God; it is a sermon to ourselves.
- Prayer is answered when it enables us to act as God desires.
“Religious Behaviorism” or Active Involvement?
Unfortunately, as indicated before, worship services do not always inspire people to greater activism in working for a better world. Many people (often including me) settle for what Rabbi Heschel called “religious behaviorism.” We recite the prayers mechanically, without really considering how the holy words can inspire us to change our communities and ourselves and face up to local and global problems. For some Jews, attendance at prayer services is often a social event, based more on tradition and habit than on a desire for genuine communion with God or a desire to be inspired to greater awareness and activism.
It is my hope that more rabbis, educators, and other Jewish leaders will use sermons, classes, articles and other strategies to help daveners better absorb and apply the many powerful messages in the eternal Jewish prayers. Involvement in trying to improve the environment and conditions for the world’s people can also make the davening experience more meaningful. As Rabbi Heschel states, “Prayer and prejudice cannot dwell in the same heart. Worship without compassion is worse than self-deception; it is an abomination.”182 Prayers and social justice activities can ideally complement each other.
This is consistent with an approach that Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center, stresses: to apply the challenging teaching of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that one
———–182 Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1959), 87. 154
should carry on politics as if it were prayer and carry out prayer as if it were politics. After marching with the Reverend Martin Luther King in the second civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Rabbi Heschel said, “I felt as if my legs were praying.”
If more Jews took this approach and strove to put the messages in the prayers into practice, this could release a great potential to help revitalize Judaism. It could also move our imperiled planet toward a more just, humane, and environmentally sustainable path, toward a time when “no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of God’s holy mountain” (Isaiah 11:9).