Subversive Prayer . . . Necessary Trouble

By :  Samuel Barth Posted On Jun 5, 2013 / 5773 | Service of the Heart: Exploring Prayer | Prayer
“Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehood. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, and the vision.”[1]

These are the words with which Abraham Joshua Heschel (z”l) challenges us to see prayer as a force within the world rather than a mere spiritual exercise removed from it. A complementary and no less disturbing challenge was given to the recent graduates of The Jewish Theological Seminary by Congressman John R. Lewis (US Representative of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District) in his stirring Commencement speech in which, recalling the Civil Rights struggle of which he was a part, he urged them to “find a way to get in trouble . . . good trouble, necessary trouble.” (The speech can be heard here, with this quote at 39 minutes.)

These two powerful messages invite us to look at the ways in which prayer and liturgy are indeed a powerful force in the world. We know that the texts and rituals of the seder speak of freedom and liberation. When Rabbi Arthur Waskow wrote the first “Freedom Seder,” shared by 800 participants in the basement of an African American church in Washington DC on April 4, 1969, the ancient text became subversive—and exactly the kind of “trouble” that Congressman Lewis encourages our graduates to seek out.

In the dawning of the period of glasnost, on the eve of a summit meeting between US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, there was a gathering of more than 250,000 people on the National Mall in Washington DC in support of the captive Jews of the USSR. The famed entertainer Pearl Bailey sang, speeches were made, and the shofar was sounded. The wordless—but far from powerless—teaching of the shofar was that precisely because of the transcendent ritual power of hearing the tekiah (long, deep call) on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the presence of the shofar among our People on the Mall supported the quest for freedom and justice.

The Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) is the most treasured possession of any synagogue community, of any family fortunate enough to own their own scroll. A Sefer Torah is treated with the greatest awe and reverence, even during the revelry of dancing on Simhat Torah. Amichai Lau-Lavie, a JTS rabbinical student (and founder of Storahtelling) fully unrolled a Torah at Occupy Wall Street, reading and celebrating with the Jewish participants.

Are there questions and challenges that might be raised about the propriety and message? Almost certainly there are . . . but would Rabbi Heschel be pleased? Would Congressman Lewis feel that his charge was heard? I would like to think so.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, a graduate of JTS and executive director of T’ruah, writes of the connection she finds between her visionary work for justice in the world and the inner world of the traditional liturgy:

Lest we start to believe that we can fix the world ourselves, the liturgy reminds us that we cannot. And lest that realization makes us throw up our hands and go back to inward-focused spirituality, the prayers step up to comfort us by offering a relationship with God. In the words and rhythms of the liturgy, we find both the inspiration to act, and the support to continue our work.[2]

As always, I am interested to hear comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at

[1]Abraham Joshua Heschel, “On Prayer” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, ed. Susannah Heschel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 263.

[2]Rabbi Jill Jacobs, “The Power of Prayer and Action.” Website of Jewish Lights: