Prayer in Community: Identity Politics for Messianic Jews

David Nichol

Introduction

If there is one statement that would garner broad, if not unanimous, agreement in the Messianic Jewish community, it is likely to be “prayer is important.” Beyond that basic statement, however, there is a considerable diversity of opinion about what prayer is, what it looks like, and its role in our spiritual and communal lives.

In this article, I present for discussion a small part of the significance of prayer. I argue for a higher valuation of traditional, Siddur-based, communal forms of prayer. In particular, I argue that the act of Jewish prayer, along with its associated texts, actions, kavvanot (intention, devotion and fervor in prayer), and venues, serves as an identification marker. In other words Jewish prayer helps to determine our place in a particular network of relationships. Taking our place among these relationships is vital to our calling and purpose.

On the Dissonance of Traditional Prayer

We all stand on many shoulders when we use language to speak, whether to, or about God. Sociologists and linguists have found that language provides a key filter through which we understand the world.1 Because of this, prayer from the Siddur may not resonate deeply with us for several reasons. It either does not reflect our own identities, express our values, or speak our language. If that is the case—and it often is these days—there is a temptation to assume the problem is the text, or the idea of praying from a fixed text. But what if the problem is us, or our alienation from our tradition?

In fact, the choice whether or not to anchor ourselves to our tradition—to take on the “yoke of the commandments”—is ours to make. This begs the question, how much control do we have over the lens through which we perceive the world? Can we change our relationship to the tradition? Like anything of value, a deep engagement with Jewish life takes work, as it goes against the grain for most of us (with some exceptions, most notably those of us living in Israel or in heavily Jewish communities). In the following, I describe what it might look like to choose traditional prayer, even against our natural proclivities, not for the sake of self-expression or devotion between an individual and the Creator, but as a political act, anchoring us to a particular polity, and binding us across time and space to a particular set of relationships.2

Prayer as Relational

Even individual prayer is profoundly communal. It allows me, as an individual, to reach out, grab hold of a vast network of relationships, and locate myself in their midst, no longer floating free in space, but tethered to something. Jewish prayer establishes multiple relationships, including (but not limited to):

  • Us (Israel) with God
  • Us (the world) with God
  • Us (Israel) with Israel
  • Myself as an individual with God
  • Myself as an individual with Israel
  • Myself as an individual with myself

Judaism does not have a single voice on the meaning and function of prayer. As a result, there are various ways to understand how these connections are made, three of which are worth noting

Choice and Peoplehood

First, by choosing to take time from our day to pray, we take the first, most elementary, step toward God by allowing space for that relationship with God. By choosing to pray from the Siddur instead of using Christian hymns, Sufi poems, or Hindu chants, we elect to identify ourselves as part of God’s covenant people—Israel.

Moses exemplifies this choice. As a Midianite shepherd, and the son-in-law of a Midianite priest, why would he consider the People of Israel to be his people? As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, he was raised as an Egyptian and had been a Midianite for decades since. Yet he chose to be an Israelite and undergo an impossible task for the sake of a people he barely knew. Thus, he was reconciled to himself3 and anchored to his people and the God of his ancestors.

Prayer as Longing, Expressed Communally

Second, many of the functions of prayer can be achieved without the traditional liturgy, even without words. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of prayer is simply the stance taken before the Almighty, a groan of pain, a bowed head. Our tradition has many stories that make this very point,4 and yet it hands us a thick book of words to recite over and over, day after day.

Prayer language matters. If the raw material of prayer is longing, or a visceral experience of one’s smallness in the face of the numinous, then words are what give it shape. As language allows thoughts and ideas to be shared, enabling community and culture to exist and evolve, so access to the words of prayer allow individuals to share a language of longing. Without a language of prayer, there is no community of faith. While communities of faith wherein public prayer is almost always extemporaneous still have a common language and shared idioms in their prayer, the extensive fixed prayers of Judaism provide a certain stability and communion across generations.

As the prayers say:

His words live and persist,
faithful and desirable
for ever and all time.
So they were for our ancestors,
so they are for us,
and so they will be for our children
and for all our generations
of the seed of Israel, Your servants.
5

The Hebrew word most commonly translated as “prayer,” tefilah (תפילה from the root פלל), can be translated as something like “self-judging.” In this sense, individual prayer is an act of honest introspection. Abraham Joshua Heschel understands prayer in part as an exercise in transcending the ego, as expressing “the aspiration to move from ego-centeredness to God-centeredness.”6 In this light, prayer and davening (recitation of prescribed liturgical prayers) are separate but related. Davening provides an opportunity for prayer, which might otherwise only happen at fleeting moments. In this way, davening enables the praying individual to transcend preoccupation with the self and thus encounter God. Daily repeated prayer conditions a person to internalize, “it is not my consciousness, but God’s consciousness, that is the very center and core of the universe.”7 Even the individual act of prayer has greater value when it is done in community. As Reuven Hammer writes, “The prayers of the Siddur sensitize us to the world of Jewish values and Jewish concepts, and thus create a moral and spiritual milieu that enriches us and causes us to measure ourselves against a standard outside of ourselves.”8 Humans are not floating, unattached, rational beings. We are social creatures whose identities depend on our relationships. Further, we, like Moses, can choose which relationships to strengthen. Choosing a relationship with Israel thus clarifies and enriches my relationship with myself. When I encounter God, or even express a deep longing for such a connection, I use a shared language, namely Hebrew. I approach God as a Jew. And that is Jewish prayer.

What Does Prayer Do?

Beyond the meaning of prayer for our identity, we must recognize that prayer changes things, that it impacts reality. For many this is the primary point of prayer. Why pray if God is not there to answer? Though many are skeptical of this perspective on prayer as simplistic or at odds with the nature of God, it is also part of our tradition. If we depend on divine mercy for sustenance and survival, we’d better ask for it!

This dependence may cut both ways . The Psalmist writes that God is “enthroned on the Praise of Israel.”9 This can be read to say that God has, unexpectedly, a dependence on the praise of Israel. To that end much of the prayer service (e.g. Pesukei D’zimra, and the Shema itself) can be categorized as witness (עדות). Acting as witnesses to God’s character and power is an essential mission for the people of Israel and a core component of Jewish prayer. Heschel wrote:

Great is the power of prayer. For to worship is to expand the presence of God in the world. God is transcendent, but our worship makes him immanent. This is implied in the idea that God is in need of man: His being immanent depends upon us. When we say ברוך, Blessed be He, we extend his glory, we bestow His spirit upon this world.10

Driving the point further, a midrash says,

If “you are My witnesses,” then I am God; but if you are not My witnesses, then, so to speak, I am not God.11

So how do God’s people act as a witness? The answer given by the prayer service is simple: by speaking the truth. If God is indeed One and has done great wonders, if God has created the world and heals the sick, and is faithful to those who sleep in the dust, who will say so if not us? In this understanding of prayer, we actually sustain the throne of God itself. According to Simon the Just, the world stands on three things: “on the Torah, on divine worship, and on acts of loving-kindness.”12 Since the destruction of the Temple and the end of the sacrificial system, “divine worship” has been identified primarily with prayer.13 Thus, in the service we both ask God to have compassion and sustain the world (“remember us, Lord our God, for good; recollect us for blessing”14), and also establish God’s kingship through our praise (נמליכך, rendered “proclaim your kingship,” could be translated “kingify you” or “enthrone you”15). The prayer service does not simply describe the relationships between king and subjects, or between sustainer and sustained, but enacts them. As the Temple service sustained the relationship with God on behalf of Israel, and by proxy, the world, so the prayer service does so in its absence.

This reciprocal relationship between God and Israel, with Israel playing an intercessory role for the created order, takes on additional significance in the works of the Jewish mystics. The tradition of Lurianic kabbalah sees prayer (indeed, the performance of any mitzvah) as a means of reconciling the entire world to God. Prayer is “a vehicle for ‘repairing’ divine life and enabling divine abundance to flow back into the lower realm.”16 Israel performing mitzvot heals ruptures in Creation, and even within God’s self. This adds a philosophical system to concepts that already existed in the tradition, such as the unification of God’s name: “On that day the Lord shall be One and His Name One.”17

This kabbalistic view of mitzvot reinforces the idea that Israel, by acknowledging, witnessing, and praising God, mediates the restoration of relationships between God and Israel, Creator and created. Even further, it facilitates the flow of blessing into the whole world. Participation in this work places us firmly in a priestly or intercessory role through mediating, maintaining, and healing the relationship between God and the world. And if, as noted earlier, the work of priests (the sacrificial system) now takes the form of prayer (specifically the Amidah or Shemonei Esrei), then it follows that participation in the prayer service can be understood as our primary obligation in this priestly role.

Israel and the Ecclesia, Israel and Yeshua

We have seen how prayer can be thought of as essentially relational—that is, as describing, effecting, and maintaining relationships. At this point, I turn to one relationship that has so far gone unmentioned, that between Israel and the Ecclesia, or Body of Messiah.

Mark S. Kinzer and others have convincingly argued for a coherent ecclesiology that puts Israel at the center of a broader “people of God.”18 Kinzer concisely describes the relationship:

For Ephesians, this ecclesia is not an entirely new entity, separate from genealogical-Israel, but a new form of “the commonwealth of Israel,” now expanded and transposed into a heightened eschatological key.19

Kinzer later expands on the vision of the author of Ephesians, emphasizing the continued centrality of “genealogical-Israel” and the importance of both Jews and non-Jews maintaining their distinct identity even in their unity under Messiah:

In the Messiah genealogical-Israel maintains its particular priestly status, and gentiles who are united to the Messiah must also be united with Israel. Yet, these gentiles do not become proselytes, but instead are incorporated as gentiles into an expanded and transformed commonwealth of Israel. In Christ the “two”—the Jewish people in its divinely constituted genealogical particularity, and those from the gentile-nations—are joined together. . . . Reconciled to God “in one body”—the crucified body of Israel’s Messiah—the “two”bear witness together that God’s shalom has the power to conquer entrenched human enmity.20

To some it may be axiomatic that a Messianic Jewish ecclesiology should emphasize its relationship to the non-Jewish Ecclesia. But why exactly should a community of Messianic Jews give thought to its relationship with the broader Ecclesia? This is a particularly charged question in the American Messianic Jewish community of today, which is surrounded by supportive churches but struggles to maintain relationships with the established Jewish community. Indeed, the ease and overabundance of communion with gentile Christians makes it difficult to think theologically about the nature of our relationship with them. The threat of assimilation and (let’s be honest here) our tenuous connections to our own people lies on one side of us, with the defensiveness of American Jewish establishments and the numbers and enthusiasm of Zionist Evangelicals and other Christians on the other. On the other hand, the testimony and teaching of the apostolic writings seem to point to such an ecclesiology. Naturally, the gate is narrow and the way is hard.

What to Do

If we choose to take on our calling and perform our obligations, the broad strokes of such a lifestyle would seem clear enough. A core feature of our communal lives should be prayer, with two main characteristics: (1) fidelity to, and ongoing dialogue with, Jewish history and community; (2) proclamation of a hope for the consummation of history mediated by a bipartite Israel that includes both a distinct Jewish people and a multinational community. That bipartite Israel, in the joining of distinctness and variety, self and other, is being built together into a vessel for God’s presence in the world:

In Him the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple for the Lord. In Him, you also are being built together into God’s dwelling place in the Ruach.21

My interpretation of these “broad strokes” is a bit more specific. First, Messianic Jews, as the link between the parts, should be committed to Jewish life, and specifically to the mitzvot of saying the Shema and Amidah daily, to fulfill our duty as witnesses and worshipers. Second, we should articulate the shape of our hope, that is, we should enrich our liturgical life with Messianic elements through additional prayers and kavvanot, as well as Messiah-centric interpretations of traditional prayers.

At one particular messianic congregation we have this bracha that provides a setting for the Aleinu:

Master of the universe, who ordained that it is too small a thing for Israel to be your servant but said: “I will also make you a light for the nations that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the Earth.”

As it is written, “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the Earth, for I am God, and there is no other.” All the ends of the Earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him.

Through the Good News the nations are heirs together, members together of one body, and sharers together of the promise in Messiah Yeshua. For God has bound all people together in disobedience that he may have mercy on them all.

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who has mercy on all nations through Messiah Yeshua. Amen.22

It can be read aloud communally or treated as a kavvanah to be read silently.23 Other communities have their own ways of liturgically acknowledging the relationship between Israel and the Ecclesia. Over time I would like to see some of these approaches gaining broader use, and to see continued creativity from communities that are committed to both fidelity to Jewish tradition and a deeper understanding of our particular role as Messianic Jews.24

The Aleinu provides a particularly appropriate location for expressing our identity in relationship with the rest of the world. It spans particularism and universalism, starting with a description of Israel’s unique role, then expanding its scope to God’s reign over the whole world:25

It is our duty to praise the Master of all,
and ascribe greatness to the Author of creation,
who has not made us like the nations of the lands
nor placed us like the families of the earth. . . .

All the world’s inhabitants will realize and know
that to You every knee must bow and every tongue swear loyalty.
Before You, Lord our God, they will kneel and bow down
and give honor to Your glorious name.
They will accept the yoke of Your kingdom,
and You will reign over them soon and forever.
For the kingdom is Yours, and to all eternity You will reign in glory,
as it is written in Your Torah: “The Lord will reign forever and ever.”
And it is said: “Then the Lord shall be King over all the earth;
on that day the Lord shall be One and His name One.”26

This magnificent prayer describes the relationships between Israel and God, between God and the entire world. It implies that the consummation of God’s reign, and even the unification of God’s very self, depend on the continued witness of Israel.

Politics of Prayer

Two themes thus far have been relationships and choice. We should choose some relationships at the expense of others, even against what is natural or comfortable to us—indeed not, in some sense, to “follow our hearts,” but to see beyond ourselves.27 The words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, writing about a different aspect of prayer, are potent:

Our soul tends to confine itself to its own ideas, interests, and emotions. . . . It is precisely the function of prayer to overcome that predicament, to see the world in a different setting. . . . It is precisely the function of prayer to shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender.28

In prescribing a hierarchy of relationships, prayer, properly understood, should be a political act. What is politics if not a set of prioritized relationships that determines our actions and values?29 The Aleinu looks forward to a “kingdom” that is God’s, and according to the New Testament, this kingdom is already near.30 What does this mean for my identity as an American, as a Patriots fan, as an environmentalist? It seems those allegiances are relegated to secondary status, or at least contextualized by our primary identities as members of Messiah’s body. “Your kingdom come” claims priority over obligations to alma mater, rotary club, political affiliation, and even country.

What else is politics? For Messianic Jews, the prayer service should be our witness, our language of longing, and our pledge of allegiance to the still-sprouting mustard seed in which all creatures will one day find their place.

Let us, like Moses, choose to identify with Israel through prayer.

Dave Nichol lives in Boston, Massachusetts. He is a software engineer, dad to three amazing kids, avid reader and enthusiastic consumer of ice cream. He attends Congregation Ruach Israel on Boston.

Selective Bibliography

Cavanaugh, William T. Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism. New York: T&T Clark Ltd, 2002.

Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary. Edited by David L. Lieber. New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2004.

Fine, Lawrence. “Kabbalistic Texts.” In Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts. Edited by Barry Holtz. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984, 305–59.

Hammer, Reuven. Entering Jewish Prayer: A Guide to Personal Devotion and the Worship Service. New York: Schocken Books, 1994.

Harink, Douglas. Paul Among the Post-Liberals: Pauline Theology Beyond Christendom and Modernity. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003.

Held, Shai. Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence [digital]. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013.

____. What are We Doing? Part I on Abraham Joshua Heschel. YouTube video, from a lecture recorded at Drisha Institute March 24, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3RIvMp_KWyg.

Henrich, Joseph, Steven J. Heine & Ara Norenzayan. The Weirdest People in the World (March 9, 2009). Accessed July 23, 2017. http://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~henrich/pdfs/Weird_People_BBS_final02.pdf.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Spirit of Jewish Prayer. In Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly of America, 151-177. Atlantic City, NJ, 1953. http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/resources-ideas/cj/classics/9-7-11-b2school/heschel-1953.pdf.

Jacobs, Jill. “The History of ‘Tikkun Olam’ ” Zeek (June 2007). Accessed July 23, 2017. http://www.zeek.net/706tohu/. http://www.zeek.net/706tohu/.

Kinzer, Mark. Israel’s Messiah and the People of God: A Vision for Messianic Jewish Covenant Fidelity. Edited by Jennifer Rosner. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books., 2011.

____. (2005). Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2005.

____. Searching Her Own Mystery: Nostra Aetate, the Jewish People, and the Identity of the Church [kindle]. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015.

Mintz, Alan. “Prayer and the Prayerbook.” In Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts. Edited by Barry Holtz. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984, 403-429.

Dillard, Annie. “Living like Weasels.” In Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to Present. Edited by Lex Williford and Michael Martone, 148-51. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007.

Sacks, Jonathan, trans. The Koren Siddur. New Milford, CT: Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd, 2009.

____. Who am I? (Shemot 5777). Covenant & Conversation, January 16, 2017. Accessed July 23, 2017. http://www.rabbisacks.org/i-shemot-5777/.

Wheatcroft, G. Richard (2007). “A Subversive Prayer.” Progressive Christianity.org, June 8, 2007. Accessed July 23, 2017. https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/a-subversive-prayer/.

Wyschogrod, Michael. Abraham’s Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004.


1 See Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine & Ara Norenzayan, The Weirdest People in the World (March 9, 2009), accessed July 23, 2017, http://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~henrich/pdfs/Weird_People_BBS_final02.pdf, for some interesting examples of how differences in language and culture impacts non-linguistic cognition.

2 Later I quote Abraham Joshua Heschel’s, The Spirit of Jewish Prayer, in Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly of America, Atlantic City, NJ, 1953, 151-177, http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/resources-ideas/cj/classics/9-7-11-b2school/heschel-1953.pdf. In that paper, he makes almost the exact opposite argument I make here. My only defense is that context is key, and I believe that if he were part of today’s Messianic Jewish community, he would write a different paper (perhaps a better version of this one).

3 On Exodus 3:11, see Jonathan Sacks, Who am I? (Shemot 5777), Covenant & Conversation, January 16, 2017, accessed July 23, 2017 at http://www.rabbisacks.org/i-shemot-5777/.

4 See also Rom 8:26-27.

5 The Koren Siddur, Jonathan Sacks, trans. (New Milford, CT: Koren Publishers, 2009) (hereafter referred to as Koren Siddur). All quotations from the Siddur are from the Koren Siddur.

6 Shai Held, Prayer: What are We Doing? Part I on Abraham Joshua Heschel, YouTube video from a lecture recorded at Drisha Institute March 24, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3RIvMp_KWyg and Shai Held, Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence [digital] (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013).

7 Held, ibid.

8 Reuven Hammer, Entering Jewish Prayer: A Guide to Personal Devotion and the Worship Service (New York: Schocken Books, 1994), 292.

9 Psalm 22:4.

10 Heschel, The Spirit of Jewish Prayer, 163. (Emphasis is the author’s).

11 Sifrei Deut. 346, quoted in, Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, David L. Lieber, ed. (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2004), 607.

12 Pirke Avot 1.2.

13 Alan Mintz, “Prayer and the Prayerbook” in Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts, Barry Holtz, ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 405.

14 Ya’aleh veyavo, Koren Siddur, 126.

15 Baruch she’amar, ibid., 65.

16 Lawrence Fine, “Kabbalistic Texts,” in Back to the Sources, 329.

17 Koren Siddur, 182 (end of Aleinu, incorporating Zechariah14:9).

18 Mark S. Kinzer, Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazen Press, 2005), 151-179; Michael Wyschogrod, Abraham’s Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations (Grand Rapids, MI: Erdmanns), 212.

19 Mark S. Kinzer, Searching her Own Mystery: Nostra Aetate, the Jewish People, and the Identity of the Church, kindle edition (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), loc 1743.

20 Ibid., loc 1806.

21 Ephesians 2:21-22 (TLV).

22 Siddur Ruach Israel. I would like to acknowledge Jonathan Lyon, who originally composed the initial version of this prayer.

23 We place it immediately before the Aleinu in our siddur, though there may be other placements that are more appropriate. We have not been reciting it communally most recently.

24 While I personally have a level of comfort with some modifications or additions to the prayer service, I understand that some communities are more constrained with regard to textual changes. I believe that there are likely still ways to express a Messianic Jewish identity in such communities, but more discussion on exactly how is warranted.

25 I owe this insight to Menachem Kellner, from a class on Jewish Thought at the University of Haifa, Spring 1999.

26 Koren Siddur, 180-181.

27 See Numbers 15:39.

28 Heschel, The Spirit of Jewish Prayer, 158.

29 See William T. Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in our Age of Consumerism (New York: T& T Clark, 2002) for a vision from a Catholic perspective of the Eucharist as such an act, that may inform how we treat prayer. Also see Douglas Harink, Paul Among the Post-Liberals: Pauline Theology Beyond Christendom and Modernity (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003), 105-149.

30 See Matthew 3:2, 4:17& 13:31. See also G. Richard Wheatcroft, “A Subversive Prayer,” Progressive Christianity.org (June 8, 2007) (on the disciple’s prayer), accessed July 23, 2017 at https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/a-subversive-prayer/.