- Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer Is Difficult and What to Do About It by Mike Comins
Many books about t’fillah (Jewish prayer) try to inspire the reader to a life of prayer through explanations about the history of the siddur, the structure of the liturgy, and brief explanations of individual t’fillot. Rabbi Mike Comins’s [End Page 94] book, Making Prayer Real, begins with the premise that a meaningful life of t’fillah can only be achieved when we identify why it is so personally difficult for so many people, and when we each then take complete responsibility for our own prayer lives. Comins is a Reform rabbi and Jewish wilderness spirituality teacher who lived in Israel for many years and who has learned in traditional yeshivot as well. His book is a primer for a largely non-Orthodox readership that is unfamiliar with Hebrew and liturgy, put off by the unfamiliarity of synagogue services, and unwilling to accept the idea of a personal, commanding God who literally listens and responds to obligatory prayer. The first two chapters examine, from Comins’s perspective, contemporary Jews’ stumbling blocks in traditional prayer: the liturgy is too wordy and long; we pray with our minds, neglecting to engage our bodies or emotions; we rely too much on the keva, the words of the siddur, instead of cultivating the kavvanah, the intention of our personal prayer voices; we are unsure of the efficacy of t’fillah; too many synagogues treat t’fillah as a social and communal experience more than as a ladder to reach God.
Comins then undertakes to show the individual worshipper how to become a “prayer-person,” someone who is constantly developing a sense of the divine presence within him or herself and within the world. His approach is uniquely multivocal: he draws upon the insights of more than fifty Jewish spiritual leaders, mostly rabbis, of all denominations. Rather than simply edit a series of fifty-plus consecutive essays—a technique that is used fairly extensively in books published by Jewish Lights—Comins introduces a topic, then inserts brief comments from these teachers which he intersperses with his own ideas and teachings. What results is a somewhat cacophonous but lively conversation among these teachers and practitioners of t’fillah. This allows the editor to move to the background and give space to a variety of opinions and experiences around Jewish spiritual practice and formal prayer, in the energetic manner of a page of Talmud. Comins also includes a number of essays on topics in contemporary t’fillah and spirituality for those (like me) who process full-length comments by individual writers more easily than we process snippets of writing.
Equally enriching in Making Prayer Real is the actual variety of topics, concerns, and spiritual goals that are addressed by him and his fellow teachers. The five parts of the book describe in detail personal experiences and counsel for developing a life of t’fillah. These focus on the spiritual dynamics of prayer; how to begin to pray; growing and healing through prayer in the realms of loss, grief, and t’shuvah (repentance); and how the individual can begin to enter the world of traditional Jewish prayer meaningfully. (This last point is a major goal of this book and of Jewish religious education in general.) The book ends with an extensive section of spiritual practices and exercises that show the reader, step-by-step, how to personalize what he or she has been learning in the first four parts. This “how-to” section does not purport [End Page 95] to show the reader how to acquire ritual skills or chant prayers, but rather the means by which to make one’s prayer life with God a daily reality.
I was particularly moved or intrigued by the chapters that deal with the efficacy of prayer, developing an “attitude of gratitude,” using prayer to grow in t’shuvah, and the value of addressing God personally...