The Frustrating Language of Prayer

Many of my students find the language of Jewish prayer frustrating. I’m not talking about Hebrew; I’m referring to the language that seems addressed to the archetypal Old Man in the Sky. That language doesn’t match up with their own experience of the sky, of human beings, or of God.

Take for example the wording of the blessing for creation in the evening service:

Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the Universe,
who by His word brings on evenings,
by His wisdom opens the gates of heaven,
with understanding makes time change
and the seasons rotate, and by His will
orders the stars in their constellations in the sky.
– from The Koren Siddur, 2009

I chose this translation because it is a very literal translation of the Hebrew from a leading Orthodox scholar. Some translations in liberal siddurim have been softened a bit with inclusive language, but for my purposes here I want the full impact of the traditional language.

What is a modern, scientifically minded Jew to do with this? There are many options employed by such Jews in dealing with the language of the prayer.

TRADITION I – “This is the ancient prayer. It was good enough for my grandparents. I say these words because my ancestors said them, and I have been saying these prayers all my life. I find the images of God in these prayers suitable and comforting. These prayers are great poetry; please don’t take them away from me!”

TRADITION II – “This is the ancient prayer. I may find it archaic, but my people have been praying in these exact words for many centuries. I don’t take the images literally; I say the words because my ancestors said them. There is holiness and beauty in the continuity of saying them and teaching them to another generation. We can update a few things that are theologically problematic, perhaps, but in the main, I don’t want big changes.”

TIME FOR REVISION – “This may be the ancient prayer, but my Judaism is alive and living things grow and change. I want a siddur that reflects my own experience of God.” This person might want to seek out a congregation that uses the Reform siddur Mishkan Tefilah or the Reconstructionist siddur Kol Haneshamah. Neither is perfect, but both are striking attempts to use inclusive language and to offer interpretive versions of prayers that are more appropriate in an age of science.

Mishkan Tefilah offers several alternative readings for the Ma’ariv prayer above. I am partial to a reading in one of the footnotes:

To be “religious” might mean to have an intuitive feeling of the unity of the cosmos…. Oneness is grounded in scientific reality: we are made of the same stuff as all of creation. The deepest marvel is the unity in diversity. – Daniel Matt (Mishkan Tefilah, p 7)

BEYOND METAPHOR – Sometimes the problem isn’t gendered language, it’s all of the metaphor-laden language about a God who has “hands” and “opens gates” and is a person not all that different from any human being. One of the most famous and successful attempts to write a siddur that gets beyond personalized language is Marcia Falk’s The Book of Blessings, which is truly a new vision of Jewish prayer. I am not aware of any congregation that uses it regularly, but if you find traditional Jewish prayer language terminally off-putting, you may want to check it out.

STUDY AND REVISE – Sometimes no version of the prayer I can find works for me. Then I study the prayer, and I struggle with it. I try to understand the original intent of the prayer and my specific issue with it. Then I work on a new interpretation of the prayer. Asher Yatzar is one example of a prayer I’ve reworked. Obviously, this is a labor-intensive approach, and if you choose it, you will need access to a commentary on the prayer to study it. Talk to your rabbi and explain that a particular prayer is troubling you, and that you’d like to study it with them.

Jewish prayers are not easy. None of us are born knowing how to pray Jewishly, and whenever we begin learning, we are never “finished.” What seems fine at one stage of life may bug the daylights out of us at another stage. However, where there is a will, there is a way to pray.

Have you ever felt that you simply could not say a particular prayer? Which prayer, and why? How did you resolve the issue?

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

18 thoughts on “The Frustrating Language of Prayer”

  1. There are verses in the morning prayer that make me cringe: Open the eyes of the blind; Strengthen our steps. I’m particularly sensitive to those verses because I have a disability. Even though I know the prayer is not about making the ‘blind see’ or making a ‘wheelchair-user walk.’ the language is very ableistic, pointing to what we consider ‘weaknesses.’ I have to keep reminding myself about the real meaning of the prayer!

    1. Oh, Denise, I hear you! I once heard Rabbi Steven Chester teach that they actually were metaphor for the stages of waking up and getting out of bed, but that doesn’t change the ableist content of the metaphors. Have you ever considered writing your own private set of morning blessings? I know that I for one would be very interested in them.

  2. ” The deepest marvel is the unity in diversity. – Daniel Matt (Mishkan Tefilah, p 7)”
    Makes me think of the Vulcan IDIC sign….
    One thing I greatly enjoy is exploring different versions/translations of the same prayers….I have quite a few Siddurim and it’s interesting to compare, and slso read the commentaries.
    I do find myself coming full circle, sometimes – read one, go through several variations, and then come back to the first one.
    Some translations ‘speak to me’ much more than others….and sometimes in ways I can’t define, which go beyond the actual translation: just so feeling, a connection. Hard to describe.
    And I like the idea of “found prayers”….there are many pierces of prose, poems, songs, which touch me as deeply as the traditional ones do. Much of Leonard Cohens work does this for me.
    And his “Who By Fire” – and the Yom Kippur liturgy on which it is based – has a terrible irony for me; it’s coming up to the fourth anniversary/yahrzeit of my mothers death in the fire.
    More I could say, and want to, but that last bit put the mental brakes on for the moment. It does that. It seems to grow more difficult as time passes, with the added grief at the loss of my husband just over a year ago. That, too, hurts more, not less.
    Forgive me for making this rather off topic….all my mental roads seem to end at that destination, at the moment, no matter which starting point Im coming from.

    1. Not off topic at all, Alex, it’s right ON topic. Some prayers are just too painful for us, because of our own personal histories.

      May you find comfort among the mourners of our people, know always that you are not alone.

  3. Although I have continued to pray in the traditional Orthodox fashion I was taught, I find it interesting to note the different ways other congregations pray when I attend services elsewhere, including the Sephardic services held in the shul near my home. At your suggestion, I did check out Dr. Falk’s BOOK OF BLESSINGS, and have requested ordering copies for myself and gifts. Thank you for this insight Rabbi!

  4. As I go through the year of saying Kaddish for my mom, I am regularly spending time in multiple different congregations from different movements, using various siddurim, some of which have the same Hebrew but different translations and some of which have altered the Hebrew, so I see variations on many things on a regular basis. For example, nisim b’chol yom is in a completely different order in a Reform context, and in Reform and Conservative siddurim the Hebrew has been changed from that in the Orthodox in the “identity” blessings (e.g. “shelo asani goy vs. she-asani Yisrael”). Even Orthodox congregations differ from one another; at Beth Israel in Berkeley, where I am on Sunday mornings, many of those who lead davening (including the rabbi) will simply leave out “shelo asani ishah.” Now that I don’t have to use every shred of awareness to be sure I keep track of where we are, I have time to reflect on such things as whether I really want to say the blessing in the Amidah that roots for the destruction of the wicked.

    My biggest wrestling match by far this year, though, was Unetaneh tokef. Completely wrecked me on Rosh Hashanah morning.

    1. Congregations are as individual as people, and their choices about liturgy tell us a lot.

      Unetaneh tokef is a rough prayer for a lot of us. I am so sorry that it gave you pain this year.

  5. A few years ago, a rabbi said the most wonderful thing any person could have ever said to me about prayer– “It’s okay to turn off your scientific brain and pray with your heart.”
    And somehow, now, that’s what I do. I know there’s no old man in the sky, but I pray like there is because, frankly, I need the image of a loving parent in whom I can put my faith. I know Gd doesn’t have arms, but some days are so horrible that I need Gd to “hold me in love.” I guess what I’m saying is that I traded my need to be logically consistent for a deeper relationship with Gd, and that allows me “look past” the issues that I once had with the language of Jewish prayers.
    I don’t expect this solution could work for everyone; I’m just sharing my experience… jen

  6. I just returned from a week-long spiritual writing seminar for clergy, seminarians, and people who write in religious settings that was offered at Kenyon College, where one of the elective sessions was about writing liturgy. The assignment was to come prepared with a prayer or piece of liturgy that makes us cringe. Through the writing process, we sought to re-write the piece into one that didn’t make us cringe, or work through our discomfort to a place were we could have a relationship with the original liturgy. What an engaging, eye-opening experience it was!

      1. Your attempt at rewriting the Asher Yatzar resonates with me, a BRCA mutation carrier. How grateful I am that scientific knowledge and a simple blood test could let me know ahead of time in just what ways my body was destined to fail in its efforts to keep me healthy — and that I could take steps to ensure that genetics wouldn’t determine my destiny. Thanks for the insight from your writing!

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