Do You Know How to Pray?

December 11, 2006

We stood on the side of the road in silence, looking across the valley at the Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa Mosque from Mount Scopus. Only the gathering evening wind and the steady idle of the Mercedes taxi’s engine accompanied us while we looked out into the encroaching darkness.  It was almost 6 PM, and my Israeli driver, who has shepherded me through ten trips to Israel since 2002, had brought me to this historic site before my dinner meeting to enjoy a few quiet moments and admire the lights of Jerusalem.

We had just left the Kotel, where I observed the 32nd anniversary of my father’s passing by reciting the Jewish mourner’s prayer, the Mourner’s Kaddish, at the Western Wall.

As we contemplated the Old City, we heard a new sound.  A melodic and melancholy chant now blended with the swirling wind and rose through the valley from the Al-Aqsa Mosque to reach us on Mount Scopus.  It was the muezzin’s evening call to prayer , multiplying through a succession of loudspeakers from the minarets of the numerous mosques that dotted the darkening landscape in front of us.

“Do you know how to pray?” my driver asked, piercing the silence.

With my own recent prayers still in my head, I quickly replied, “Yes, of course I do.”

His query surprised me, since my own experience is that spirituality and prayer come from within and need no formal instruction.  But my first reaction misinterpreted what he was really saying.

“I don’t know how to pray”, he asserted. “I am a Jew, and I live in Israel, and that’s it. . . . I think that the Jews who live outside of Israel know much more about prayer than many Jews here in Israel.  To be a Jew outside of Israel, you have to want to be a Jew and want to learn how to pray.”

I felt saddened as I considered his heartfelt statement, but I didn’t know how to respond.  I closed my eyes and asked myself how differently he, an Israeli Jew, would feel about his own Jewish identity if the State of Israel actually embraced religious pluralism.

And for a moment, as I strained to hear the now fading melody of the muezzin, I imagined what that Israel would be like.

Photographs (click on image to enlarge)


The Western Wall in the foreground with the golden dome of Al-Aqsa Mosque above it, in a picture I took in June 2006.

The view of Al-Aqsa Mosque from Mount Scopus, December 11, 2006, at approximately 6 PM .


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