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A Prayer for the Trying

Zev Chafets attempts to discover the way to pray

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The New York Times Magazine may have selected the perfect correspondent to investigate the “right way to pray” for a Rosh Hashana-weekend feature article now available on the paper’s website. Writer Zev Chafets, who starts by visiting the mega-church Brooklyn Tabernacle, is so alienated from prayer that he can’t even bring himself to read a prayer card submitted by a couple “struggling through financial problems” aloud, and is so averse to meditative silence that he sleeps with the TV on.

After a pleasant visit to a “spiritual director” (like a life coach for the soul), Chafets went to Marc Gellman, a Reform rabbi “of liberal theological leanings.” Although Gellman loses some credibility in our book for saying “[o]ur people don’t get emotional in public,” he makes an astute statement on the relative paucity of actual prayer at the average suburban synagogue: “People come to temple to identify with other Jews, or socialize. The writer Harry Golden once asked his father, who was an atheist, why he went to services every Saturday. The old man told him, ‘My friend Garfinkle goes to talk to God, and I go to talk to Garfinkle.’ There’s a lot of that.” While Gellman shies away from innovation like gay congregation Sha’ar Zahav’s prayer sanctifying a one-night stand, he does take a light-hearted stance in encouraging people to worship: “When you come right down to it, there are only four basic prayers. Gimme! Thanks! Oops! and Wow!”

Chafets also chats with a Chabad rabbi who runs an online advice column and “speaks in a prayer vocabulary short on traditional Yiddish and long on New Age maxims of self-improvement, the nature worship of the New England Transcendentalists and Asian meditation.” But in the end, attending an Easter service, it’s The Children who move Chafets with their prayer—“They didn’t pray to de-center their egos or find transcendence or to set off on a lifelong therapeutic spiritual journey”—and lead him to settle on the purest of Gellman’s four prayers, the one perhaps most appealing to a liberal, agnostic soul: “Straight-up Gimme! on behalf of people who really need the help.”

The Right Way to Pray? [NYTM]

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A Prayer for the Trying

Zev Chafets attempts to discover the way to pray

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