Podcast: Russ Roberts on the Disappointment and the Promise of Prayer

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“Prayer is the language of the soul in conversation with God. It is the most intimate gesture of the religious life, and the most transformative.” Those lines are from an essay called “Understanding Jewish Prayer” by Jonathan Sacks, the late chief rabbi of the United Kingdom. “As the sea smooths the stone,” he writes, “as the repeated hammer-blows of the sculptor shape the marble, so prayer—cyclical, tracking the rhythms of time itself—gradually wears away the jagged edges of our character, turning it into a work of devotional art.” To pray, he says, is to be “brushed by the wings of eternity.”

Descriptions such as these are inspiring, and, based on them, one might expect prayer to be a powerful emotional experience. Sometimes it can be. But often it isn’t. The structures of prayer in the traditional Jewish liturgy sometimes impede the very sentiments that prayer promises to kindle. That tension is the subject of this podcast conversation between Mosaic Editor Jonathan Silver and the president of Shalem College, Russ Roberts. Roberts recently published a short essay titled “The Agnostic’s Guide to Jewish Prayer” in which he confesses that “The words by themselves don’t work for me.” Still, he’s prayed three times a day for more than 30 years. Why? “I prayed to have prayed.”

Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.

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