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Prayer Column: Dr. Shaul Magid

I pray every morning. Alone. In my career as a scholar of Judaica, I have always avoided writing about prayer. It seemed too private, too personal, like asking a poet to explain their poem, or an artist to explain their painting. Devotional acts always felt like an artistic or aesthetic endeavor best left unexplained. In the case of the poem or painting, the listener or viewer can make their judgment. In the case of prayer, the one praying is the speaker, the listener, and the interpreter.

In the Jewish tradition there is an emphasis on public prayer as a communal performative act. Certain parts of the liturgy are even prohibited from reciting without a prayer quorum. But I learned how to pray from an enigmatic Hasidic teacher who preferred to pray alone. When I go to synagogue, it is usually an act of communal fidelity. But if I want to pray, I’d rather be alone.

For me, prayer is facilitated through the traditional Jewish liturgy collected in what is called a siddur, or Jewish prayer book, consisting of psalms and liturgical formulations from antiquity. I sometimes amend them privately to express more gender inclusive language and I struggle with aspects that express what I hold to be offensive language about “the nations” as the “enemy.” But more generally I allow the liturgy to take me by the hand.

Although prayer is generally directed to God, that is not what drives me to pray. What is most striking to me about prayer is that through it I enter a world of liturgy that I find beautiful, frightening, compelling, believable and wholly unbelievable, sensible and fantastical, all at the same time. What keeps me praying is not a belief that anyone hears my prayer, but that it offers me the opportunity to enter a liturgical world bursting with emotion and poetic beauty. If I close my eyes and recite the words, often by memory, I find myself transported to some other world, the Psalmist’s words flowing through me, praising the creator, describing the magnificence of how nature itself praises its creator, the fear of obstacles and enemies, and a sense of self as a shadow passing through this worldly existence.

The liturgy, and the physical siddur itself that I have used for decades, have become friends, partners, even lovers. To abandon them, to put prayer aside, would be to abandon part of myself. Wrapped in a prayer shawl (tallit) and phylacteries (tefillin), literally wearing scripture on my body, prayer enables me to feel that the world I live in isn’t all there is. The liturgy never reveals to me what exactly is beyond my being-in-the-world, but it gives me a sense of how the world would look infused with a belief in the divinity of everything – the way the Psalmists saw it – a view that I cannot carry with me. At best it leaves a trace, or a trace of a trace. But that itself changes everything, if only in moments of repose.

I suppose the liturgy should be the catalyst between the one who uses it and God; the liturgy serving to point to something beyond it. But for me prayer is a meeting with the liturgy itself, the ability to enter its world, to see the world through its words, to speak them and bring them into my life as they bring me into theirs. It becomes an entre into a new day. Every day. Thus far, that has been sufficient.

Dr. Shaul Magid

Shaul Magid is professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard, Kogod Senior Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute, and rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue. In 2023-2024 he is the Visiting Professor of Modern Judaism at Harvard University.

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