Thursday, June 21, 2012

Changing Prayers Reflect Eroding Religious Beliefs

At a recent Jewish funeral for a friend, I listened while the rabbi read some of the prayers.  They expressed ideas that seemed strange.  They also were very different from prayers I recalled from previous rituals.

They started out the same: the prayers praised God – which is what Jewish prayers all do – and credited Him with comforting the ill, providing help to the needy and so on.  I only had one thought: No, He doesn’t.

I doubt the victims of the Haitian earthquake feel that way or the poor people inundated by the Japanese tsunami or many of the those ruined by Hurricane Katrina.  In fact, I really doubt anyone caught up in such disasters really believes God takes care of them.  After all, He didn’t have to cause the problem in the first place.  If He’s only around to pick up the pieces afterwards, He isn’t doing a very good job at that considering the mental and physical problems that have beset survivors.

Damage from Japan's tsunami
That’s true on a small scale, such as after a car accident as well as after a major calamity.

I once spoke to a rabbi about the disconnect between the prayers and reality.  He agreed, but said that the prayers are traditional, so they are repeated.

Maybe then, but not now.  Apparently, from this particular service, the prayers can be changed.  Several traditional Jewish prayers contain the phrase: “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”  These prayers did that, but added, “God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachael,” the three wives of the biblical patriarchs.

As far as I could tell, in a bid to widen Judaism to include women, prayers have been revised at some point in recent years.  Since the words were in Hebrew, I don’t know if they struck a chord with the mourners.  This was a Reform Jewish congregation, the most liberal among the various Jewish denominations, and many of the worshipers probably can’t read Hebrew.  In addition, many were non-Jewish coming in respect to the deceased, who touched many lives in our community through her philanthropic efforts.

The other prayer that struck me was one that called on participants not to let knowledge lead them astray from belief in God.   That had to be very new.  

For centuries, Jews have emphasized education and learning.  That was necessary to read and understand the increasing distant sacred texts.   Knowledge also became a key to exiting the Christian-created ghettos that isolated and marginalized Jewish communities.  Moses Mendelssohn, for example, was able to break free in the 1700s because of his recognized intellect.  He became the first “court Jew,” a man who moved in the highest royal circles based totally on his intelligence, opening the door to other educated Jews.

Ivy League schools used to have quotas to limit Jewish enrollment because of young, highly educated Jewish applicants would have overflowed their classes.  

Jews today are expected to be educated.  The last figure I could find showed that 59 percent of Jews have college degrees compared to 27 percent of all Americans.  The percentage  is even higher for Reform Jews – 66 percent.

And people at this funeral were asked to pray for less education?

That has to be a direct reaction to growing scientific knowledge undermining the belief in the existence of God.  Science has shown that no supernatural power was necessary to create a universe, a planet or life.  Forgiveness of sin is a human concept: sin depends on the culture, and the idea that people sin is not universal.  That means God is out of business.  There’s nothing for Him to do.

In response, Reform Judaism is now counseling people to ignore scientific study to hold on to traditional views.  That’s not going to work.  Statistically, belief in God is declining.  In some countries, like Japan, belief in God has almost vanished.  At the same time, support for traditional faiths has eroded.  In Sweden, for example, Christianity has almost disappeared.  Even in this country, one of the most religious in the world, the percentage of Christians continues to decline.

Prayers won’t change that trend.

In many ways, this particular funeral was for far more than a single individual.  It also foreshadowed the slow but inevitable death of religious beliefs that are no longer tenable.  Knowledge will continue to expand, slowly but inexorably shoving religion aside on its march into the future.

At the cemetery, a lot more was buried than a single body.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

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