November 19, 2015

Jewish Prayer: An Introduction


My mother used to tell the following story: My father was a rabbi in Houston, Texas, where I was born. In those days, rabbis and cantors wore long black gowns and squared hats on the pulpit, and the synagogue had an organ and a choir. One evening, as the cantor recited Kiddush (the prayer over wine announcing the beginning of the Shabbat), I looked at the cantor and asked, “Mama, is that God?” The story became apocryphal in the family but, unlike other children, I did not give up pondering the question, “Who is God.” It stayed with me as we left Texas and moved to New York. It remained a part of me as I went through several schools, culminating in a Jewish day school where we had a double curriculum, the Judaic part of which was taught in Hebrew. There, I added a new dimension to my pondering: texts. The words of Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Torah, the Siddur (prayer book), and much more fit naturally in my memory, much as math or art or social skills fit naturally into the memory of others. God was, in some way, always at the center.

My concern with God followed me into the university, where I studied more texts with men who were legends even in their own lifetimes. It followed me into rabbinical school, where again I studied texts with men who were legends in their lifetimes. It followed me, yet again, into my years in the practical rabbinate, the work of which had, however, very little to do with God. And then, it followed me into doctoral work and a long career centered around the many, many ways the Jewish tradition uses to express itself on the subject of “Who is God.” For some, this meant an abstract, philosophical understanding of God as the power behind the universe. For others, it meant intense mystical experiences of various sorts. For others, this meant being in the living presence of God, listening and talking to God. At various points in my life, I tried all of these, settling on the last of them as the most spiritual, for me, though I respect the spirituality of others. This portal, and book, is the culmination of many decades of reflection, experience, learning, and thought in that mode.


When I began to write, I wrote in Harvard outline style: very orderly, with an argument and well appointed footnotes. I published several books in that style. Slowly, however, I learned to follow the more poetic style of the psalmist, the prophets, and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Always, however, there was a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Then, the internet came and the idea of “book” changed. People rarely needed (or used) books that had a beginning, a table of contents, a middle, a conclusion, and an index. A new kind of “book,” one which was written for the internet, developed. Because internet “reading” is more associative, more intuitive, the units of the internet “book” are shorter, the “footnotes” are embedded clicks to something else. Also, there is no argument as such, nor is there a “beginning” and an “end”; there are only links to the next unit(s) / idea(s). This is not bad; it is just very different, especially for those of us who are a little older. Challenged by this new mode of reading and writing, I decided to formulate my thoughts on God in internet format. This resulted in the portal that you are reading.

Writing this way was an exciting experience, unlike all of my previous work, and I am glad to have been able to present God in this new way. I am, however, old enough to want to see this work appear as a real book, to be published by Hamilton Press, entitled Keeping God at the Center: Contemplating and Using the Prayerbook. The reader, thus, has the opportunity of reading this material as a portal and as a book (and as an ebook). I am not able to add material to the latter but I hope to add material from time to time to the portal.

How does one write about God? The book and this portal are the answer to that question. There are four parts, each composed of chapters and units. Each unit is short, though some are longer than others. In the portal, each unit has links to other parts, and the Table of Contents allows easy navigation between parts. The book concludes with an Index that enables one to follow various themes.

Part One is entitled “Insights.” It is composed of reflections on texts from the classic Jewish liturgy for weekdays, Shabbat, and holidays.

Part Two is entitled, “Thoughts.” It is an extended reflection on the theology behind prayer. For systematic theologians, this should be the first part. For most of us, it is best to approach Jewish prayer more empirically; hence, I begin with actual insights and allow the reflection on the underlying theology to follow.

Part Three is entitled “Meditations.” Each of its units is a “how to” piece, an instruction on how to pray, on what to have in mind as you recite selected texts from the liturgy.

Part Four is entitled, “Mystical Meditations.” Here, too, each is a “how to” piece, an instruction on how to pray selected prayers with zoharic intentionality.

Thank You
This portal will appear in book form under the imprint of Hamilton Press. I want to thank Holly Buchanan and Bethany Davis for their genuine support and timely help in bringing that part of this project to fruition.

I also want to thank Candace West, Wei Zhu, and Taline Cox of the Social Science Research Council’s program on Religion and the Public Sphere. They took on this project with a faith that it was worth doing, and they diligently saw it through the stages of editing and web management to its present form. Their faith in this, as well as their editorial and aesthetic sense, have made this portal on Jewish prayer possible.

Finally, I am honored to dedicate the book, Keeping God at the Center, and this portal to Murray Perahia, the most distinguished pianist of our generation. I have had many conversations on the relationship between text and interpretation with Murray. He says, “The music is not on the page; it is in the interpretation.” That is true of liturgical texts too. Prayer is not saying what is written on the page; it is in the interpretation of the text. One must interpret to make music, or to pray. Music and prayer are in the interpretation and intention of the doer. Murray says too, “It is not enough to play the notes. You need to know the line of the music and all its voices. That requires study.” That, too, is true of prayer. One has to know the meanings, and there is always more than one meaning. One needs to hear the associations, the overtones, and the undertones. Understanding a piece of music and understanding a sacred text requires knowledge of the text, the commentaries, and the supercommentaries. One needs to study all of them to grasp the whole. Music and prayer are in the serious scholarship of the doer. Finally, it is not enough only to study and to practice. One must “perform”; one must “do” music and prayer. Music and prayer are in the action of the doer. All this I have learned from Murray Perahia.

There is also the holiness of beauty. If electronic reproductions of music could wear out, I would have used up many such recordings of the works of Murray Perahia. For decades, his Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and much more have been in my ears and heart as I have sat down to write, to edit, and to ponder. I could not have come this far without Murray Perahia. It is an honor to dedicate this work to him.

February 26, 2013

Investigating the Cognitive and Cultural Foundations of Prayer

Co-Principal Investigators include Henry Wellman and Margaret Evans.

We examine the development of prayer concepts, specifically concepts of petitionary prayer that makes requests of divine beings. Petitionary prayer is practiced by children and adults worldwide (BBC News, 2007; Pew Research Center, 2008; Pew Research Center, 2010). It is particularly interesting conceptually because it entails that we suspend many of our intuitions about the natural world. In our daily social interactions we lack telepathic skills and communicate by speaking aloud; further, we appreciate that people and objects are subject to inviolable laws of physics and biology. Yet, to fully grasp the significance of petitionary prayer requires that we conceptualize and believe: (1) in a being (God) who is not physically present yet can still perceive our words and, even more extraordinary, is aware of our unspoken thoughts; (2) that our prayers can yield physical outcomes without our physical intervention; and (3) that otherwise improbable or impossible phenomena (e.g., parting a sea, recovering from a terminal illness) are indeed possible with divine intervention.

Intellectual merit: Our research will examine how people come to represent these counterintuitive prayer concepts, a topic that can also shed light more generally on how counterintuitive spiritual ideas are cognitively represented and culturally transmitted. Limited prior research suggests that an understanding of prayer emerges and develops substantially during early and middle childhood (e.g., Bamford & Lagattuta, 2010; Woolley & Phelps, 2001), highlighting a particularly important period for research. But young children evidence cognitive limitations that may hinder their appreciating the three components of prayer described above, these include a difficulty conceptualizing extraordinary minds (Giménez-Dasí et al., 2005; Lane et al., 2010; Makris & Pnevmatikos, 2007); a disbelief that the improbable is possible (Shtulman & Carey, 2007); and disbelief in mental telepathy and psychokinesis (Bering & Parker, 2006; Woolley et al., 1999). Given such cognitive constraints, when and how do children fully grasp and believe in the goals and significance of prayer?

Research: To answer this question, Study 1 will examine when and how children and adults appreciate that an extraordinary being (the Judeo-Christian God) can perceive prayers, whereas ordinary humans cannot. Study 2 will examine reasoning about the efficacy of prayer relative to other psychological activities, like thinking and wishing. Critically, conceptual development is partly a function of culturally-provided information (Shweder et al., 2006). So, we will conduct studies with participants from different religious contexts. Moreover, we will collect data on participants’ religious background, including their exposure to and engagement in prayer. We will also assess other cognitive capacities that may support a developing understanding of prayer, including children’s ability to reason about improbable phenomena (Shtulman & Carey, 2007).

Broader impacts: Results from these studies will shed light on the cognitive and cultural foundations of prayer concepts that are held by millions of individuals worldwide, and in doing so will contribute to the cognitive science of religion. In particular, our studies will (a) contribute to understanding the cognitive and psychological dimensions of prayer, and will (b) serve as a cross-cultural comparative analysis of prayer. Moreover, our findings will inform parents and others about when children are most receptive to learning about different components of prayer.

February 26, 2013

The Role of Prayer in the Development of Religious Cognitions

Co-Principal Investigator is Nicholas Shaman.

Children’s religious concepts undergo significant transitions during the preschool years. Their understanding of ritual actions, God, and supernatural causality undergo qualitative shifts. Despite the dynamic nature of development during these years, little research has examined the cultural factors that contribute to preschool-aged children’s understanding of religious activities, like prayer. The proposed research is significant for advancing knowledge of how children’s understanding of and experience with prayer can shape their religious experiences and understanding. The guiding hypothesis of the project is children’s learning about and conceptions of prayer influence and is influenced by children’s understanding of religious entities and supernatural causality. The specific aim is to examine if differences in exposure to, understanding of, and participation in prayer are related to individual differences in the development of religious concepts during the preschool years.

The proposed research method will be a cross-sectional study conducted with children in the preschool years, which mark a transition period in the development of children’s religious cognition. Parent-child dyads, representing Catholic, Evangelical Christian, and Reform Jewish religious traditions, will participate in a one-time visit to the Childhood Cognition Laboratory at UC Riverside. Children will be between the ages of 3.5 and 5. The visit will be divided into two segments: parent survey/child interview and parent-child interaction. Children’s and parents’ concepts of God, supernatural causality, and prayer will be assessed through separate interviews with trained researchers. The measures will assess how children and parents attribute anthropomorphic attributes to God, how children and parents judge the possible occurrence of impossible events, and how children and parents view the purpose of the actions of prayer. Analyses will involve correlating these measures with one another as well as with aspects of the parent-child interactions. A long-term goal of this program of research is to increase awareness of different prayer practices as well as further understanding about the influence of different prayer practices on development.