I am NOT getting back into this, but now all of the Jewish readers are chiming in, clearly feeling guilty for not speaking up earlier. So here’s one email on the subject and that’s it:
You mentioned being disappointed at the paucity of responses about prayer from Jews. You must understand that most American Jews are virtually ignorant of the vast body of Jewish tradition so many of your Jewish readers may have felt that they did not know enough about the subject to make a contribution to the discussion. If your correspondent who cited (and quite possibly translated) the Kuzari can humbly describe himself as not much of a Torah scholar, how much the more [the Hebrew phrase would be “al achat kamah v’kamah” – lit. “on one how much and how much”], does that description apply to the great masses of Jews who have a grade school perspective of their own tradition. The formal Jewish education of most American Jews consists of auxiliary afternoon or Sunday Hebrew schools, ranging from about two to six hours a week of classroom time. This usually ends, unfortunately, at Bar Mitzvah age. Based on a maximum of six hours a week, this means that a typical adult Jew has spent a maximum of about 1500 classroom hours of Jewish education in their life. A typical child attending a typical secular public school has spent over 2200 hours in the class by the time they enter third grade. That’s why it’s my opinion that most adult Jews have a perspective on Judaism not unlike a small child.
The book cited by your correspondent, the Kuzari, was written by R. Yehuda HaLevi. In addition to his considerable skills as a scholar and polemicist, HaLevi was a poet of the first rank. His description of Jewish exile is stark, simple and achingly beautiful: “My heart is in the East and I am in the farthest part of the West”. HaLevi went on aliyah, pilgrimage to the Land of Israel, at a time when it was almost impossible. According to legend he reached Jerusalem and when he prostrated himself to kiss the ground he was trampled to death by an Arab horseman.
The passage from the Kuzari touched on a point that my rabbi, R. Avraham Jacobovitz, has stressed.
A person who prays but for himself is like him who retires alone into his house, refusing to assist his fellow-citizens in the repair of their walls.
Halevi is not just discussing the difference between individual and communal prayer. The phrase “but for himself” can mean two things. It can mean that the person praying is physically alone or it can mean that the focus of his prayer is for his own benefit. Traditional Judaism stresses the value of praying for others. It is said that if you are in a difficult situation you should pray for the benefit of others and that God will, as it were, emulate your compassion for others by filling your needs.