In the closing pages of his book, A Passion for Truth, Abraham Joshua Heschel tells the post-war story about an observant friend who worked for the Jewish Agency in Poland, helping Holocaust survivors with plans for emigration. On the train ride from Warsaw back to Paris, Heschel's friend shared his train compartment with a "poorly clad Jew" who couldn't find a seat anywhere else on train. Evening prayers came and the compartment guest didn't join the friend in prayer. Morning prayers arrived and as the friend put on his tallit and tefilin, the guest sat still. Later that second night, the two spoke and the guest said, "I'm never going to pray any more because of what happened to us in Auschwitz...How could I pray? That is why I did not pray all day."
Heschel continues: "The following morning--it was a long trip from Warsaw to Paris--my friend noticed that the fellow suddenly opened his bundle, took out his Talit and Tefillin and started to pray. He asked him afterward, 'What made you change your mind?' The fellow said, 'It suddenly dawned upon me to think how lonely God must be; look with Whom He is left. I felt sorry for Him.'"
I think there are fundamentally three reasons why most Reform Jews don't pray.
1. They don't want to because they don't believe in God or their agnosticism is such that their understanding of history is very similar to the compartment guest, who either sees or experiences evil and concludes that God is not worthy of prayer. Their lack of prayer is a protest against an idea of God that hears and deserves to hear prayer.
2. They don't need to because "in *Reformed Judaism* (it's just nuts when people get the name of the movement wrong) you get to "do whatever you want." The Reform movement in general suffers mightily from this perceived and actual "low bar" standard of performance. The lack of regular, daily, prayerful communities is one of the many manifestations of this phenomenon. Do-Whatever-You-Want-ism. Albany comes to mind--but not because Isaac Mayer Wise once served there.
3. They don't know how, a direct result of position number two above. Ignorance in education breeds inaction in life and when the standard of expectation is not set for daily practice and observance. When the demand is not made, there is a very large Rock left to push up a very steep Hill.
Ironically, in rabbinical school at HUC, there was a daily minyan. But there was also a paradox inherent to the experience of daily prayer: it was set up as a performance workshop which was managed and critiqued in such a stifling ways as to deprive it of any real meaning. Service leaders were judged by a panel of experts who rated decorum, tone of voice, and organization--leaving students often terrified (kind of funny in its own right) of failure. Every day those who had the discipline to show up would be treated to a morning service *as if* it were Friday night. There was accompaniment, cantorial solos, rabbinic teaching guides to help focus the prayer, and two service leaders standing at a lectern facing an "audience" of worshippers. I went nearly every day for four years and didn't enjoy it one bit but felt that it was my obligation to be there.
Imagine that: not enjoying your obligations. Like taking medicine. Or going to "work."
"Serve the Eternal with gladness; come before God with exultation." (Psalm 100)
Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that "Divine service with rejoicing can give us true happiness, the feeling of steady and constant spiritual and moral growth, the continuous growth of all that is truly human in us, a blissful joy of life that is not subject to change in any manner by the outward circumstances which life may bring."
Finding space for daily offerings of gratitude and thanksgiving is essential for ensuring a state of constant growth. Hirsch brings the Sages to make this final point, "When one day in the future that is to come, all things on earth will be in such an ideal state that there will be no more cause for prayers and offerings; even then, prayers of gratitude and thanksgiving will never cease."
Articulating a vision and executing a plan of action for the discipline of daily practice among Reform Jews--now there's a *performance* that deserves a critique.
To not attempt to meet this demand severs the synagogue membership of the largest movement in American Judaism from the normative narrative of Jewish practice that could well be one of the greatest losses of modern Jewish life today. Is the Reform movement growing because of what we offer? Or are we growing because of what we *do not* demand?
Since we're a tradition of questions, it seems like a good one to ask.