Exploring and Deepening Jewish Prayer
We are dedicated to helping American Jews explore and deepen their prayer lives.
Known in the Talmud as “avodah shebalev” (service of the heart), prayer is at the heart of the Jewish tradition. Along with study and good deeds, prayer has long been recognized as one of the major pillars of Jewish life.
And yet, contemporary Jews have so many questions about prayer: Is anyone listening? Can prayer “work” for someone with a naturalistic theology? How can we engage with a liturgy that uses such particular and sometimes problematic words to describe and address God? How can we overcome our self-consciousness in prayer? Does prayer matter? Does it change anything? Are there other Jews who share our perspectives and yearnings?
Our aim is to investigate such questions in a truly safe and deeply honest environment of fellow seekers, guided by scholar-practitioners for whom the importance of prayer is a live, personal and compelling concern.
Individual and Communal Prayer
“There is a permanent union between individual worship and communal worship, each of which depends for its existence upon the other…. Prayer will not come about by default. It requires education, training, reflection, contemplation. It is not enough to join others; it is necessary to build a sanctuary within, brick by brick, instants of meditation, moments of devotion.”
– Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man’s Quest for God
Our investigation leads us to explore the challenges and rewards of both communal, liturgical engagement as well as in individual prayer expression. Too many Jews think that the only modality of Jewish prayer requires being in a synagogue and holding a prayer book. But there are many modalities of Jewish prayer. We approach both communal and individual prayer as practices meant to cultivate and refine our hearts. We unpack and study the meaning of Jewish liturgy and how we might engage with it just as we explore various forms of individual Jewish prayer practice, most of which are non-liturgical in nature.
Speech, Silence, and Song
“Words are the shell, meditation the kernel. Words are the body of the prayer, and meditation its spirit.” – Bahya ibn Pakuda, Hovot Helavavot
Just as we explore the rich relationship between communal and individual prayer, we also explore the rich relationship between silence and speech in prayer. The rabbis, ever devoted to the power of words to stir our hearts and awaken our souls, were also aware of the power of concentrated silence as a form of contemplative worship.
At the Institute, where meditation is taught as a core practice, we are in an unusually strong position to help participants explore the relationship between worded prayer and prayerful contemplation. In addition, we work with the power of melody as a means for prayer.
Study and Practice
Our programs are built on a combination of study and practice. While we study primary Jewish texts that explore the life of prayer from many different perspectives, as well as secondary literature about the phenomenon of prayer, we also structure opportunities for participants to engage in their own prayer practice and to reflect upon their experience. We are interested in the ways in which participants, through mindful observation and radical honesty, can know the truth of their own experience in prayer: their longings, insights and frustrations and their deep sensibilities of gratitude, awe and dependence.
We lead participants in a process of guided exploration in practice so that they can discover for themselves what “works” and what does not “work” for them as pray-ers. That exploration takes place within a community of seekers, at the Institute, as well as within the historic Jewish community as reflected in rabbinic teachings throughout the ages.
All of our programs, in one way or another, offer an opportunity to explore prayer as a spiritual practice. In addition, our programs for Jewish professionals help participants dream about ways in which the Jewish community might offer a wider, richer and more satisfying array of prayer modalities for the 21st century seeker.