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I know a lot of high schoolers.  Partly because I’m mom to two teens, and partly because I used to teach a bunch of Jewish kids.  Unlike many of their teachers and far too many retailers, I happen to love teens, and I’m always infuriated when adults treat them disrespectfully.  (It’s the “one bad apple” syndrome, I guess.)  I especially love it when I get a glimpse into their minds.

Which is why I’ve been enjoying a FB exchange with a teenaged friend about God and prayer.  Here’s part of what she said:

I feel like if I don’t believe in God then why am I praying, and why do I belong in a congregation of Jewish people if I don’t believe in the main thing that defines our religion. I have struggled with this question for so long… I think that I do believe in God but I don’t think that the person that I believe in, is the person that Judaism wants me to.

There is no question that I don’t LOVE being Jewish, I’m just soo confused about the whole idea of it and how I belong. For example, [so many kids in a Jewish summer program I attended] knew exactly who they were, in regards to Judaism. They knew … exactly what they believed in, but I cant figure that out, and I really want to…. By the way, if I’m being the slightest bit annoying just tell me 🙂  Love, Sarah

Let’s start with the fact that God-talk isn’t likely to annoy me.  Quite the opposite.

Second, I have more respect for a kid who asks questions than for 16-year-olds who think they have all the answers.  Hell, I’m 53 and I certainly don’t have all the answers… sometimes, I don’t think I have any at all.

OK.  Prayer.  Sarah’s wondering if you don’t believe in God, why you should pray?  Assuming there’s no God, it’s safe to assume that no one’s listening, right?  Wrong.

Someone who is truly significant is listening to your prayers.  You are, and I think that prayer is more about the pray-er than the deity being prayed to.  It’s a chance to open your heart and look inside, and maybe even challenge yourself a little.  Or a lot.  It’s a way to look at yourself differently than when you’re lying in bed at 2 am and worrying about stuff… or stressing out during the day… or wondering if you’re going to get in trouble for not doing something you promised to do.

I think that’s because we use different language when we pray.  Not just the Hebrew/English thing, or the fact that prayers on the printed page are utterly different from prayers in your heart.  I think that when we’re worrying about things, or puzzling through a problem, or even making a promise to someone, we use a different part of our brains than when we’re praying.  In prayer, we speak to ourselves differently, and more respectfully than when we’re beating ourselves up about something or another.

Even if you believe that God does exist as a separate entity, does he need our prayers of thanks?  Probably not. God has got to be above needing flattery!  And a God who sits around evaluating prayers of petition is uncomfortably close to the image of God in “Bruce Almighty,” when Jim Carrey goes crazy trying to answer the zillions of prayers from around the world every day.

None of which addresses Sarah’s questions about the problem of formal prayer, or belonging to a community that as a group may have a different set of beliefs than a particular individual.  But I’m saving those for another day.

Shabbat shalom!  If you find yourself praying this weekend, take a moment to be amazed that we humans are self-aware, filled with strange and beautiful questions, and we sometimes go out of our way to transcend our individuality and strive become something better.  And while we’re at it, it wouldn’t hurt to send a few dollars to help the folks in Pakistan.