“I doubt the existence of G-d, so why pray?”
“Can you prove that G-d is listening?”
“Prayer” Tried it – it didn’t work.”
Sound familiar? For those who have difficulty believing in G-d, the attempt at prayer seems juvenile. As for those of us whose belief in G-d is secure – how many of us have ever really had a transcendental experience with a siddur (Jewish prayer book) in our hands? Faith or no faith, the idea of prayer is extremely problematic for the majority of the Jewish world.
During my teen years, Friday nights meant Georgia high school football games. Before every opening kickoff, the same dreaded words were announced over the loudspeaker: “Let us pray.”
Let us pray? Let me get out of here! I enjoyed standing defiantly as the overwhelming majority of the crowd would follow the instructions of the pastor for a moment’s worship to an “Almighty” whose very name frightened me. A personal admission: to this day, the word “prayer” makes me nervous.
How can it be that an inheritor (a spiritual leader no less) of Judaism, the religion that brought to humankind the awareness of a single, unique G-d, has such issues with prayer? The answer is both simple and complicated. I grew up in an America and an Atlanta society that was clearly non-Jewish. Prayer was for believers in Jesus and prayer was a Christian activity.
To complicate matters, I am the product of an intellectually Westernized generation. Autonomy and independent thinking are the highest of values; while our Jewish minority status and ethnic culture is exotic, G-d-based religious ritual seems silly.
And yet, as I traveled through my twenties employing an intellectual-oriented approach to life, I felt an inadequacy of being. I found that meaning and a sense of purpose were sorely lacking in my life, a life that society defined as successful. Material successes gave me flashes, even extended periods, of contentedness, but the fiber of my being knew itself impoverished. The fortune of my inability to ignore this newfound consciousness of indigence turned my travels into a Jewish journey.
Where to turn, what to try, how to begin? My Jewish spirit was ready, but my confidence and my knowledge of tangible steps toward Jewish growth were deficient. A visit to synagogue just served to reinforce my feelings of inadequacy. A “successful” synagogue experience was one in which I found that I was near the correct place in the prayer book as page numbers were announced.
I resolved to make decisions that would allow and encourage me to persevere beyond the discomfort of ignorance. Along the way, I faced obstacles and challenges that eventually led to discoveries – discoveries that opened my eyes and my soul to gems of Jewish tradition.
One of these gems was my discovery of davening. I discovered that Jews daven, and that to daven is much different than to pray. This revelation opened my heart and mind to a Jewish world that had previously felt foreign to me — a world that I now find embracing and empowering. In fact, this singular discovery allowed me to enter into the world of Jewish ritual, of commandment, of community, and of relationship with G-d.
What follows is the substance, the essence of my discovery:
“Daven” is the Yiddish word for the activity of Jewish prayer. Two explanations for the origin of the word explain its meaning and the keys to my discovery. Daven may be a derivative of the Latin-rooted word Divine. To “divine” is to call on or to experience G-d. The word daven may also originate from the French word devoir, which means duty or obligation.