Can I Pray?

“Nikadesh es shimcha baolam”. I found myself singing out these words and I was surprised at myself, because since I had stopped attending shul a year ago I hadn’t been able to bring myself to daven. At first I had tried, after losing my faith in god I had attended shul just as before but the words wouldn’t come out, they tasted like sandpaper in my mouth.
Growing up in the Hareidi community we were led to believe that our prayers have immediate, practical consequences. If we prayed well, with feeling and with the right concentration on the right thoughts, good things will come our way, if we slacked off during our prayers we’d have poor results at work, at home and everywhere in between. During a class on prayer we were told that a certain millionaire (who is not a very bright person, the rabbi added, and who was a real shlemazel) used to say a certain psalm that acknowledges God’s direct role in providing for us after every meal and that was the likely cause of his wealth.
In Orthodox Jewish day school we did not receive a classical Jewish education; there was no Prophets or Writings in our curriculum, only Bible, Mishnah and Talmud. We were never taught to appreciate Hebrew, Hebrew was simply taught by way of the Bible. We never learned Hebrew grammar, we never learned to write Hebrew, we never studied the text of the prayer books, and never had it translated for us into English or Yiddish. We simply prayed. And if we didn’t, we were punished. And as we got older and the punishments administered by people diminished, the horror of God’s swift punishment was made more real, more immediate.
If we didn’t say the asher yatzer prayer after doing duty in the restroom, God would close up our essential cavities.

If we didn’t ask God, with sincere devotion, to preserve, or preferably to increase, our incomes, our incomes would disappear. You never prayed because the prayers were beautiful to you.
Thus when I became an atheist I just couldn’t utter those words of prayer anymore. To say “Hodu laDonai ki tov ki l’olam chasdo, let us praise Adonai for he is good, his beneficence is everlasting” had become a gag-inducing exercise. I found myself choking on benign phrases such as “All know You and all praise You, and all shall say ‘there is none as holy as Adonai’”. I would go to shul because my children wanted to go, but I wouldn’t utter a word; I would read a book, talk to friends or play outside with my kids. Feeling like a grouch, I eventually stopped attending shul altogether.
Finding myself as a guest in an orthodox summer camp, I felt obligated to attend services, which is where I found myself singing along with the congregation. And surprised.

I’ve spent the past year reading books I would never have been allowed to read as a Hareidi; Judaism as a Civilization showed me that, there is deep engagement with Judaism outside of Orthodoxy and that even Jews who have rejected God have reason to open a prayer book and recite words similar to those recited by Jews for thousands of years.

My anxiety around prayer had slowly lifted without my noticing it, until that day when I found myself singing aloud, as in former times, with the congregation. “Nikadesh es shimcha baolam, let us exalt Your name in the world”. Having exalted myself above a God who

would stop up my cavities for not thanking him nicely, I could allow myself to say praise for the wondrous journey our people had been led on through the ages in their quest of Him.

Next time I go to shul I may even say more of the prayers, perhaps even all of it, surprising myself yet further


One response to “Can I Pray?

  1. Nice post. I know what you mean by gaging on things like “god is the one and only” but being that I’m very bad at Hebrew and don’t directly understand prayers without thinking about it or using an artscroll I have no problem praying which is a good thing because although I don’t go to shul much I still have to pray mincha everyday as I work for a Jewish employer.

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