Why I (Refuse to) Pray

Second of 10 Questions for Rabbi Cardozo – An interview with Rabbi Cardozo by Rav Ari Ze’ev Schwartz

For the first question, click here.

Recently, I have been invited to respond to 10 personal questions asked by Rav Ari Ze’ev Schwartz of Yerushalayim. I have agreed to answer them honestly and to the best of my ability.

Here is the second question and my response.

I thank Rabbi Schwartz for posing these questions.

QUESTION 2

A recurring theme in your writings is that Jewish spirituality must not only be understood intellectually but experienced personally by each individual. I therefore want to ask you a personal question about your own spiritual experience. Could you describe what it is like for Rabbi Cardozo to pray each day? 

Nathan Lopes Cardozo: It is a major problem and demands enormous effort. There are days when praying goes easily, and other times it is nearly impossible. I am not always clear on why that is. First of all, it seems to me that it depends on what mood I’m in – exalted, or low in spirit. Why these moods take place (besides being due to normal daily stresses) is also a mystery to me. It obviously has a lot to do with the subconscious, which often brings to the fore feelings we are not even aware of. We carry the memory of many generations with us, and I suppose that has a lot to do with it.

Secondly, I am confronted with the question of whether there is any point in praying: God does not need my praises. In fact, it is somewhat of a chutzpah. Goethe once said: Wer einen lobt, stellt sich ihm gleich – he who praises another places himself on the level of the other.

Moreover, God is the greatest threat to conventional religion, since the greatness of God renders it absurd that He needs our worship. And when it comes to asking for help and sustenance, He already knows what I need. And He already knows that I’m going to pray for it. (One of the great paradoxes in the God idea).

So for me, praying is the admission that we need His help and that we are NOT God! I have to make myself aware that I need to praise Him because I am not His equal; not because He needs me for anything. This is indeed Maimonides’ point of view, which he discusses in great length in the first chapters of his monumental Guide for the Perplexed. If average religious Jews would fully understand what Maimonides actually says, they would be in total shock. After all, what he claims is that any worship of God is essentially impossible and hopeless, and that one can only approach Him in total silence, without any action. (By making these points, Maimonides actually lays the foundations for Spinoza’s pantheism.) Having said this, he tries hard to reconcile it with the world of action and Halacha. A major tour de force showing Maimonides’ genius. In our days, it was Abraham Joshua Heschel who tried to solve this problem by proposing that God is in need of man and even experiences pathos (1).

Thirdly, there are times – such as after a terrorist attack or earthquake, or when having just read about a monstrous episode during the Holocaust (I’m now again reading Elie Wiesel’s Night) – when I feel a strong urge to rebel and protest to God, to tell Him that I am absolutely not prepared to praise Him. That I would like to storm the heavens and accuse Him of complete negligence, of having a hand in these evil deeds, and, in fact, of making these deeds possible. (To deny His existence is, in my opinion, a cop-out. But that’s a story on its own.)

These are deeply emotional moments. Very hard to endure. I even have these childish feelings of wanting to deliberately violate one of the commandments to express my protest.

The only reason I don’t, is because I also stand in awe and am incredibly impressed by the magnitude of His creation. I see the enormity of good that is in the universe, and I know that my brain is too small to ever grasp Him and that these moments of rebellion are nothing more than the result of my arrogance. But Oh, so human! The same is true about the miraculous survival, against all odds, of the Jewish people, its astonishing influence on this world, and the transforming impact of the Torah on mankind. They are only explainable in terms of radical wonder.

All of this awakens in me a deep need to pray. I get carried away by all this beauty and wisdom, just as I get carried away by great music such as Mendelsohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1. And the latter is minor compared to what I feel about the former!

I constantly catch myself speaking to God, expressing my awe and thanks. But I must admit that I sometimes express my annoyance to Him as well. And I don’t regret that.

In other words: I go back and forth between my left and right brain, which represent opposite parts of being human (2).

I am not a “Shulchan Aruch Yid,” someone who carefully follows every detail of the celebrated codex of Halacha, written by the great Rabbi Josef Karo (1488-1575), because I consider that dangerous. Any religious codification carries risky elements. One cannot acquire religiosity from an established codex without losing the complexity of genuine religious life.

The Shulchan Aruch and Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah were meant for the general population, but not for people like me; not because I am better, but because I am different. And it will be good to realize that there are many more people like me who cannot find themselves within this structure, which may be too narrow for them. Looking into the Talmud, one is offered many more options – including minority opinions and suggestions – all part of this great Torah Sheba’al Peh, the Oral Torah, of which many insights already existed long before the days of Mishna and Talmud, and which was cut short when it was written down. The Oral Torah may have included many other options that we are not even aware of, but which probably gave people a much broader base to build their religious life on, and which allowed for much more spiritual autonomy. How to rediscover them is a long and complex story.

So, I also do not always pray Mincha and Maariv. Depends on what my religious condition is. In other words: I follow the original halacha, which states that one should not pray when one is not in the right spiritual position. As Rambam clearly states: Every prayer without kavana [devotion]is not a prayer, and when one prays without devotion one should pray again. And when one is confused and one’s heart is heavy, it is forbidden to pray until his mind is settled. Therefore, if somebody returns from a journey and he is tired or tense, it is forbidden to pray until his mind is settled. Said the Sages: He should wait three days until he has properly rested and his mind is settled, and only then should he pray (3).

And I change parts of the Shacharit prayers, depending on how I feel about them, although I try to keep to the overall structure. Truth is that in earlier days, there were no fixed prayers. They were completely spontaneous, and it was even forbidden to compose a fixed prayer book (4). While not easy, I wonder whether it would not be wise to introduce spontaneous prayer again for those who are in sincere need of it. And there are many!

But what should be clear is that I am very disturbed that I frequently don’t manage to pray Mincha and Maariv as the Sages wanted us to do. Indeed, I sometimes make up my own prayers instead, when I feel that that works better for me. What I’m absolutely not prepared to do is just go through the motions when I feel that I will surely not succeed. There is something insincere about it.

This is unlike other commandments such as tefillin, because it is the deed of tefillin that is the crucial part, not the intention. Prayer, however, is completely different. It has no meaning if there is no intention. What I do succeed in doing is saying the Shema with great concentration. However, this is not a prayer but rather the most central declaration of Judaism.

While I believe that there is much beauty and profundity in the words of the prayer book, the constant repetition of these words is counterproductive for me. But that’s true for me; others may need a three-times-a-day structure, which I greatly appreciate…but cannot join.

Nobody should take an example from me if they feel differently, and they should definitely not misuse these observations in order to make it easier for themselves and subsequently be negligent in their devotion or prayer! To accuse me of insincerity, as some have done, is entirely missing the point. One should remember the wise observations of our Sages: Kol ha-posel be-mumo posel: He who accuses someone of having a defect usually does so because he himself has that defect (5).

I do not go to synagogue on weekdays, because I need to pray in solitude in order to be able to concentrate on making it “work.” On Shabbat, I go to all synagogue prayers (I am never late!) – not because of the prayers (sometimes I pray first at home), but because I want to be part of Am Yisrael and I like to hear the Parashat Hashavua, the weekly portion of the Torah.

But there is also another reason why I no longer go to synagogue on weekdays. I used to go every morning to a serious minyan and tried to put my neshama into my prayers. When a terrorist attack would take place (sometimes close to where I live in Yerushalayim) a few hours earlier or the night before, I was completely shocked when there was not the slightest change in the prayer service. I was sure that the shaliach tzibur, the person who led the prayers, would break down in the middle, or that somebody else would start sobbing or would at least have a few tears in his eyes. I myself had great difficulty saying any of the words and couldn’t concentrate. But none of this happened. Of course, it’s impossible to know what people are feeling inside, and they may not want to show their emotions. I was giving the synagogue members the benefit of the doubt. But when people walked out at the end of the service without uttering a word of what had just recently happened and started discussing their daily business and trivialities, as if nothing had happened, it became too much. This happened several times. (We’ve had our share of terror attacks. I lost several friends. My daughter and her children were once attacked by a mob of Arab terrorists surrounding their car and barely made it out alive.)

I suddenly realized that the prayer service had nothing to do with real life, or God. It stood as an island on its own. As if God had nothing to do with the tragedy that had just happened. Nobody asked Why; Nobody suggested that perhaps we should do something special in our service: add a prayer, say a few words, or meditate. It was not even discussed. I was waiting for somebody to walk out in protest, unable to endure the prayers. This would have been the ultimate form of real religiosity! I nearly did walk out, but constrained myself out of doubt as to whether I had the religious credentials to do so. I want to emphasize that all these were fine, honest people. And I don’t doubt their integrity.

Sure, all of this may be the result of some kind of denial, to avoid confronting the huge question of why God permits such tragedies to happen. But after all is said and done, isn’t the synagogue the place where we encounter the living God and should at least respond to this? Has the synagogue turned into a place of atheism? Where are our prayers and their living meaning if not here? I believe that they, as well as I, have become deafened by all these prayers and have lost the connection because we pray too much.

Something similar happened when, after several tsunamis and other natural catastrophes took place, I suggested that our synagogue add one short prayer to ask God to have mercy and prevent such tragedies from happening. I had written a very short prayer and suggested that it be said on Shabbat after the prayer for our soldiers, or that someone else should write such a prayer. My purpose was not so much to plead with God, but to let our fellow Jews and our children know that we are not indifferent to what happens in the non-Jewish world, and that there’s no greater tragedy than apathy. In other words, a most important educational device. This suggestion fell on deaf ears. I got some highly questionable explanations as to why there was no point in saying this prayer, and I never heard anything more about it. Rest assured that the people who declined are my very best friends and good people.

Since my 70th birthday, I also “lay” the tefillin of Rabenu Tam (6). It helps me feel closer to God. I am sure that some people will say that this is purely psychological, and perhaps that’s true. But it helps me to concentrate, and that is what counts!

Since I live in physical and existential loneliness (I am a great genius at being alone! See my short autobiography: Lonely but Not Alone), I need to experience people and want to feel them around me. I love people and am by nature very sociable. It gives me a deep feeling of being human, while living in isolation.

Every Friday, I immerse myself in a mikveh. This helps me to feel some kedusha (holiness), which makes praying easier, or rather, more profound. It turns me into a fighter and hopefully makes me a tiny bit more noble.

Sure, there are many other aspects to prayer, which I did not discuss, including the need for community prayer. Hopefully we will discuss them another time.

Reprinted with author’s permission from The Times of Israek



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