If horses prayed, the atheists say, they would worship a God of infinite swiftness, whose fetlocks sweep the foundations of the world, whose snorts resound through heaven. And if American Jews prayed—I mean the 60 percent of us who do not belong to synagogues, the 72 percent who skip the most rudimentary observance of Sabbath—I suppose they’d worship the only begotten Child, who got into better than Harvard.

Lior Liebling with his friend Shawn in 'Praying with Lior'
Lior Liebling with his friend Shawn in Praying with Lior

The child my faithless coreligionists presumably would not worship is Lior Liebling, the subject of Ilana Trachtman’s documentary Praying with Lior. (It opens today in New York City and on March 14 in Los Angeles.) To the self-image of American Jews, as found in the thick center of the bell curve, Lior would seem to present a double threat: first because he has Down syndrome, and second because he is energetically pious. A wobbly and bespectacled kid with the face of “a Chinese frog” (so says his older brother), Lior likes nothing better than to chant the traditional Hebrew liturgy, at full voice though in no settled key, while pounding out the rhythm on any handy flat surface. Secularists might see him as a figure from a horror movie: a boy in present-day Philadelphia, grotesquely inhabited by the ghost of a shtetl Jew. Professional scoffers at religion—a group whose books have lately been doing a brisk trade—might take him as cruel proof that only idiots believe in God.

But during the months when Trachtman’s documentary was gaining popularity on the Jewish festival circuit, it became clear that Lior arouses sympathy in viewers, not discomfort—and often something more than sympathy. Surprising numbers of moviegoers have been speaking of “the little rebbe” as if he were in communication with a real spiritual force. If this candid, guileless boy davens so hard, the reasoning goes, then maybe there is a God to daven to.

This response deserves investigation—and not just because Lior’s simple faith moves even people who otherwise cherish neither faith nor simplicity. The leap toward theology ought to be questioned, I think, because the movie itself doesn’t encourage you to make it.

Lior and his brother Yoni
Lior and his brother Yoni

Within the film, the most devout comment heard from anyone other than Lior comes from his brother Yoni: “I don’t know if there’s a God, but if there is, Lior is closer to him than anyone I know.” As Pascalian wagers go, that one’s pretty well hedged. Lior’s father, Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, reasonably observes that social conditioning, rather than divine inspiration, would be sufficient explanation for the boy’s love of prayer; and Trachtman underscores this point by dwelling on Lior’s association of Jewish ritual with his mother, who was lost to cancer when he was very young. Through a video clip shown at the start of the film, and at key moments later, you see Lior as a toddler, snug in the arms of the late Rabbi Devora Bartnoff, as he sings with her the Friday night hymn “Shalom Aleichem.”

Outside the frame of the film, the rationalist tone continues. On the movie’s Web site, you will discover not a declaration of faith but the statement of a humanitarian mission. Trachtman’s chief purpose in making Praying with Lior, she writes, was to encourage communities of faith to be more welcoming toward people with disabilities.

This is admirable, and sensibly based on the premise that Lior is a whole and worthy person, though different from the norm. Go to the promotional materials, though, and you begin to see suggestions of another, more dubious premise: that Lior is not just different, but better. “A mind we call ‘disabled.’ A soul that sings to God,” reads the tagline on the poster. “A spiritual genius,” says the press release, quoting a comment made once in the film, but using it three times for marketing purposes.

The salespeople know their business. My evidence for saying so—here comes the full disclosure—is that I too have prayed with Lior.

Lior Liebling
Lior Liebling

As it happens, his family has ties to people in my community, and his synagogue in Philadelphia is much like ours in Manhattan (except that we don’t bang on drums). Thanks to these circumstances, I know what it’s like when Lior steps to the front, to end the service with a vigorous “Adon Olam.” I’ve seen, and felt, the congregation respond with smiles and tenderness but also, perhaps, with a little shame. Never mind that we’re among the 28 percent of Hebrew-happy ritualists who do light Sabbath candles. Agnosticism runs rampant in our Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogues, where “community” often seems to be the one true object of worship; and here is Lior, the faithful one, showing us up.

Would his effect be so different among the strictly observant? Here my stock of confessional material runs out. I’m sure the modern Orthodox on average are more likely than my kind of Jew to believe in the God they pray to, and that for black hats the rate runs higher still, but maybe if I earned the confidence of enough people in these groups I’d hear doubts from them, too. All I know is that some sociologists contend that the Orthodoxy flourishing in America today is both a tradition and an invention—the reconstruction, you might say, of a European past that is largely imaginary. If so, then whatever fervor you now find among the Orthodox might be as manufactured, as willed, as their stringency of observance. They force belief, while Conservatives and Reconstructionists defer it indefinitely, and the Reform offer hymns primarily to their own values.

If these people were Christians, we’d be discussing three modes of hypocrisy. Fortunately, though, no such sin need be alleged against Jews. We’re allowed to study our texts, and follow their instructions, without much caring whether they’re based on fact. We might even get away with being atheists, on the grounds that we haven’t put any god before Him. And yet, living within a Christian culture that pervades our sentiments, our language, our very categories of thought, those of us who still pray may understandably grow uneasy about lacking the most basic feature of religion, as this society commonly defines it. As Jews, we have no indwelling spirit. Human emotions? You bet, in surplus. An inner experience of the divine? No.

Yet we long for immanence, as Christianity has taught us to do, and so Christianity, I suspect, is the influence behind much of the current movement toward Jewish spirituality. An unacknowledged influence, of course: Nobody is going to celebrate the Eucharist in front of the Ark, or wrap herself in a prayer shawl and converse in her heart with Jesus. But convinced that we’re meant to feel something, we do what we can, short of idolatry. Some of us Judaize yoga or Buddhist meditation. Others chant traditional Hasidic tunes (newly composed for the occasion) or delve into the mysteries of the Kabbalah, which only the truly learned and Madonna understand. And many of us, as Americans, exercise our right to try them all.

Yes, I’ve now descended to mockery—but only of myself. Despite my background as a Litvak (or, to use the full and correct formula, an arrogant, self-righteous, pedantic Litvak), I too have shut my eyes and hoped to feel myself lift, just a little. Then, when I’ve found I’m still on Earth, muttering yet another page of blessings and supplications addressed toward Who Knows What, I have tried chanting, or deep breathing, or guided imagery—or Lior.

Experience persuades me that Trachtman has brought him before American Jews at the least likely moment and the most opportune: when large numbers of ostensibly smart and successful people don’t believe in much of anything, yet yearn so much for some kind of spiritual experience that they’re willing to believe through someone. If this means that Lior is being used, then there’s no harm done, so far as I can see. Trachtman’s documentary shows how this boy—now a young man—has gained from the loving Jewish community around him, just as that community has gained from him. To the degree that movie audiences constitute a community, that circle of mutual support may now expand.

But the Litvak in me can’t be satisfied with warm feelings unless every reason for them is ticked off. The list for Praying with Lior includes compassion for people who are outside the norm, and respectful curiosity about them. Other items would be sympathy for a family’s sufferings, hope for a growing boy’s future, wonder and joy at what people can achieve.

But underlying the appeal of a very Jewish film is also this idea, usefully formulated for the opinion columns of the Washington Post by Timothy Shriver: “I imagine that Jesus might have been very similar in his childhood.”