Monthly Archives: July 2012

One Small PRAYvor

Prayer is a very personal and private thing. In fact, to be honest to a fault, let me say that public prayer, with other people raising voices and turning the pages in unison, has become very difficult for me the past few years.  I prefer the more quite, contemplative pace I can do in my own backyard alone.  Appreciate the professional hazard this truth creates for a rabbi who believes both in the power of prayer and in the power of community.  However you pray, or if you pray at all, and the above admission not withstanding, by the end of this blog, I’ll be asking you for a PRAYvor.

What’s a PRAYvor? It’s a word I made up for when someone asks me to pray for them.  I want to ask you to pray, for me – sure, but more so for some very special people in my life.  Scattered across the globe, from the West Coast, where I live, across the continent, and all the way to Israel are some very special people in my life, all facing surgery within the next seven weeks.

נַחֲמ֥וּ נַחֲמ֖וּ עַמִּ֑י יֹאמַ֖ר אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם.

Be comforted, indeed be comforted, says your God. -Isaiah 40

These are the opening words of this week’s haftorah (the week’s reading from the Prophets).  This is first of seven weeks which count from the the fast day of the 9th of Av. (commemorating the destruction of the Temple (to read more about that, click here) to the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah.  It is during this time period that we start to prepare ourselves for the spiritual work of the High Holidays ( for more on how we prepare, see Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu’s blogpost from yesterday).  One way to prepare is prayer, including prayers for health.

I believe that prayer works in healing the mind and the body.

  • On a rational level, I pray like Maimonides, for the wisdom of the doctors and nurses who heal (click here for a download of the English Translation of his Prayer for the Physician).
  • On a meditative level, prayer works to calm the mind and the body, so that we can go on to do the healing we need to move toward.
  • On the metaphysical level, I believe that prayer can do wonders for the person who prays for another (as empathy grows, spiritual awareness deepens), and, prayer can help in the healing process itself (click here for the now classic double-blind National Institute of Health Study of 1998, or here for a much more recent blogpost on the Huffington Post by Candy Gunther Brown, author of Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, Harvard University Press ).

Some people are natural prayers, or have learned how to move themselves to that deeper place through practice.  If that’s you, you know what I’m asking you for, but I know many people who find prayer very difficult.  It’s okay, I get it; I’ve been there myself.

I said “pray for me”, and I wouldn’t mind that at all.  There is no getting around it, while I have every reason to believe that the special people in my life that are getting ready for surgery will emerge ultimately healthier than before, I’m still anxious.  Here’s what I pray when I’m focused on anxiety:

הָ֭רֹפֵא לִשְׁב֣וּרֵי לֵ֑ב וּ֝מְחַבֵּ֗שׁ לְעַצְּבֹותָֽם׃

“God heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.” -Psalm 147:3.

Much more importantly than for myself, I’d like to ask you for a PRAYvor for the special people in my family and beyond, and for the people that you love and care for who could use our prayers of healing.   Over the next several weeks, until Rosh Hashanah (this year it begins on the evening of Sunday, September 16), take a moment each day to pray for those in need of healing, whomever, and wherever they are.

Prayer doesn’t come naturally to everyone.

Need words to start off with? You could do worse than the meditative opening words of the verse quoted at the top of this post:

Nachmu, Nachamu – be comforted, indeed be comforted.”

Need a melody? There are many. I love the melody from my buddy at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, CA, Cantor Mike Stein.  He wrote an evocative modern/classic “Refaenu, Heal Us” (click here to listen), or the late, great, Debbie Friedman classic, Mi Shebeirach (click here to listen and watch  her on youtube).

However you do it, please do it.  If you’ve never been much of a pray-er before, I know it can seem awkward, but despite that, I’m still asking you for this one small PRAYvor.

Posted on July 31, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

This is real and you are completely unprepared!

This is real and you are completely unprepared!

What? Just the thought strikes panic in my heart. I like to be prepared for everything. What do you mean I am unprepared? What is real? Ahhhh!

This is probably the best title of a book ever. Written by Rabbi Alan Lew, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared takes the reader through a journey of personal transformation which begins with the holiday of Tisha B’Av commemorating the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem and concludes with the joyous holiday of Simchat Torah where we celebrate finishing the year Torah reading cycle. He argues that Tisha B’Av which we just observed yesterday, Sunday, July 29th, marks the start of the Jewish high holiday season. The high point of which is Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rabbi Lew asserts that in order for someone to be properly prepared to do teshuva, repentance, and start over with a new slate in the New Year, we need to start a period of self reflection now. Today!

You have seven weeks until Rosh Hashanah. Seven weeks to reflect on the past year. Think about those things you did well, and those not so well. Identify those people you need to ask forgiveness of and begin the process of asking. This is real. The time starts now. Do not wait until Rosh Hashanah to start this spiritual process.

May your time of reflection uncover new realizations. May you be strengthened by your process. And may you be written in the Book of Life.

Posted on July 30, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Traveling the World to Ensure the Jewish Future

I’m going to be busy this coming week. I’m heading to Israel, England, Iran, Canada, China and Jamaica. There will be music, exotic foods, late night parties and lots and lots of learning. My passport is ready, because on Sunday, I head off to Camp Be’chol Lashon.

Mapping Our Travels at Camp Be'chol Lashon

Jewish camps are a cornerstone of Jewish life. And in many ways they all build on a similar set of ingredients. In our day to day lives we exist in multiple communities in multiple settings. At camp, we exist in one community and come together with a focus on Jewish identity. So while we swim, hike and sing, we are able to look around and know what we share.

Much of that holds true at Camp Be’chol Lashon, but instead of setting aside our multiple identities, we embrace and celebrate them, making them the focus of our Jewish conversation and connection. Camp Be’chol Lashon takes the diversity of the Jewish people as our starting point. Each day the camp “travels” to a different country using our camp passports to record our impressions as we experience Jewish life around the globe through art, music, dance and crafts. These explorations not only teach us about the traditions of Indian or Ugandan Jews,  for example, but also provide the platform from which we launch conversations about complex contemporary issues such as living as a minority in a majority culture or the place of tradition in keeping a community strong.

working on global crafts

Working on global crafts projects at Camp Be'chol Lashon

The campers at Be’chol Lashon come from around the world and from right in our neighborhood. Their racial backgrounds and personal histories are as varied as those of the Jewish communities that we “visit” each day. In many settings Jews of Color have to choose which part of their identities they will put forward and which they will leave at the proverbial door. At Camp Be’chol Lashon, they have the opportunity to be their full selves in a community that celebrates racial and ethnic heritage and the reality of modern Jewish life.

Jewish camps are treasured places but all too often they are seen as places that inoculate Jews against the complexities of the broader world. At Camp Be’chol Lashon we embrace the complexity, for not only does it represent the reality that most of our young people encounter, it represents the world that they will grow into. By grounding their vision of their Jewish selves in the complexity, we hope to prepare them to lead us into the Jewish future.

Posted on July 26, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Imagine

Rosh Chodesh Av 5772 – the first day of the new month of Av on July 20, 2012, and here I was, once again at the monthly worship of N’shot HaKotel, the Women of the Wall in Jerusalem. The group meets every Rosh Hodesh (new month) to pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, uplifting a beautiful chorus of women in this holy place. But more than that, their voices — out loud — are a form of social justice protest.

N’shot HaKotel have been meeting for a women’s prayer minyan every Rosh Hodesh for 24 years, to assert that this holy place belongs to all of the Jewish people, especially to women, who are otherwise forced to pray alone quietly in the women’s section.

In my previous experiences with N’shot HaKotel I have been struck by the intense police presence around the group. We’ve been told that we must wear our tallitot (prayer shawls) as “scarves” –not like a tallit, and we have enduring constant “shushing” from the police who try to keep the women quiet. There is a ubiquitous female police officer who videotapes every woman and every move of the group. Fortunately the surrounding police have almost entirely stopped the violence against the group that characterized the early years (from Haredi men and women.)N’shot HaKotel has also been a testing ground for legal actions to challenge the authority of the ruling rabbinical body over the public space of the Kotel, with increasing success in the rulings of the Israeli court.

Yet, on this particular Rosh Hodesh the mood was different. When our cab entered the gates of the Old City we encountered battalion after battalion of soldiers and police officers swarming near the Old City Police station and heading toward the Temple Mount on which the Muslim holy sites are found. Our cab driver told us why – it was not only our Rosh Hodesh, it was also the first day of the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims. There was concern about possible violence on the Temple Mount, at the Al Aksa Mosque or Dome of the Rock. Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, brings crowds of Muslim men to the holy sites, and this was an especially charged Friday. Thankfully, it was a quiet day and nothing happened. But the experience was noteworthy. Continue reading

Posted on July 24, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Hanging in the Air

Numbers 30.

2. And Moses spoke to the chiefs of the tribes concerning the people of Israel, saying, This is the thing which the Lord has commanded.

3. If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.

Jewish tradition has consistently emphasized the importance of language and the creative/destructive potential it contains. After all, it is God’s speech which created the world! (Genesis 1)We all know from our personal experiences when the right word made a significant impact and the wrong word spoken or written hurt us badly. It should therefore not surprise us that the Torah commands when you take a vow you must fulfill it. Language and speech are very serious matters and are not to be dismissed easily.

It is therefore all the more striking that the rabbis create a category where vows can be easily dismissed, even to the point of describing the releasing of vows as “hanging in the air” with no scriptural basis to justify or support this conclusion. A somewhat dissenting voice agrees that vows can be released, but is done with some scriptural support. In an almost hyper literal reading of the verse “he shall not break his word,” he shall not break it but others may break it for him and release him from his vow!

Why allow this departure from the plain meaning of the Torah?  Why enable people to break their word?

On the one hand, this might be a great act of compassion.  We often make claims for ourselves in the heat of the moment that are nigh impossible to fulfill. As important as language and speech are, we can easily go overboard and so the rabbis give us an out.

I think there is a deeper message here as well.  “He shall not break his word,” he shall not break it but others may break it for him and release him from his vow” The “others” are critical players here in helping a person release their vows.  I do not live in isolation. An impetuous act affects many more than myself. Whatever I think I impose upon myself is not really the case. It touches others as well, family, friends or the community at large. Perhaps this hyper literal reading of the Torah is exposing the moral flaw of taking a vow upon myself because “myself” is really an artificial construct. I only exist with others, in some form of community. Any vow I take is never only about me.

Posted on July 19, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Women’s Voices: The Path to Religious Freedom

Singer Neshama Carlebach is the daughter of singer-songwriter Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

Is it kosher to listen to Neshama Carlebach in concert? Go to an opera where women are singing solos? Enjoy the latest production of “Fiddler on the Roof“?

Based on traditional rabbinic law, the prohibition known as kol isha (literally, “a woman’s voice”) is based on a verse from the Song of Songs 2:14: “For your voice is sweet (arev) – and your appearance pleasant (naveh).” It has had the Orthodox world in yet another gender-driven debate.

Turning that verse inside out in order to protect the men from the allure of a female voice and the transgression of the laws of ervah (“nakedness”), a man was prohibited from praying or studying Torah in the presence of a singing woman.

The essence behind hearing a woman’s voice is not solely its intrinsic sensuality, as many halachic authorities have indicated, but the functional concern that it might distract a man from his concentration on prayer or study.

Although liberal Jewish communities around the world do not adhere to the strict interpretations of kol isha, in Israel it has become an issue of religious rights for men and women on both sides of the debate.

Last September nine religious soldiers, in obedience to the Kol Isha prohibition, walked out of a mandatory Israel Defense Forces (IDF) training course because it included women’s singing.

An IDF committee was formed to study the issue and make a recommendation about how to handle this military insubordination in light of this religious law. The decision? The army required all soldiers to remain at these mandatory training sessions regardless of the kol isha prohibition.

The religious authorities who have jurisdiction over the Kotel have framed their opposition to women publicly praying at the Western Wall around the kol isha prohibition. Since 1967, women’s collective voices at the Kotel have been silenced. In December 1988, Women of the Wall was founded to secure women’s rights to hold and read the Torah in public in the women’s section of the Western Wall. Each month on rosh hodesh, the group meets and prays at Robinson’s Arch, the place designated by the authorities in 2003 for women’s public prayer.

The Psalmist encouarges us to “lift our voices” (Pslam 147) and to “open our mouths” (Psalm 144) to declare God’s glory. Our voices are our instruments towards religious freedoms. Let us find the path together as we sing God’s praises, male and female in one united voice.

Posted on July 18, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Taking the Bat out of Batman

The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary.”-Franz Kafka, Parables and Paradoxes.

In the up coming, and probably final installment of director Christopher Nolan’s Batman run, The Dark Knight Rises, Batman returns to save Gotham once again (starring Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader – to be released July 20th, to see the trailer click here).  In the story, it’s been eight years since New York, I mean Gotham City, last saw Batman.  Eight years prior he branded himself a criminal in place of Harvey Dent (Two-Face), because, he felt, the city’s need to see Harvey as a hero was greater than the truth.  Now he can’t help but come back again, this time to fight a new super villain, Bane.

So, I guess we need our heroes  – or do we?

[For the real comic book nuts, eight years might be nothing compared to Batman coming out of retirement at age 55, dealing with aging and mortality as he fights for justice in Frank Miller’s 1986 instant classic, The Dark Knight Returns.  Click the above book cover to read more about it.]

There is something biblical about the least likely hero (see Time magazine’s piece the Anti-hero where TV’s hit Breaking Bad is set center stage).  My favorite Biblical outcast turned hero: Jephthah.

Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute.  Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,” they said, “because you are the son of another woman.”  So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a gang of scoundrels gathered around him and followed him.

Some time later, when the Ammonites were fighting against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob.  “Come,” they said, “be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.” (Judges 11:1-6).

In just six short verses the Bible establishes Jephthah as an outcast and then quickly pivots him to be a hero  (Brilliant writing!  Better, divine!).  Whether it’s David fighting Goliath, Batman saving us from the sadism of the Joker, or even Rocky fighting a Russian killing machine in a boxing ring, there is something biblical to the sense that at the brink of catastrophe a Chosen One will rescue us at the last possible second.  The Hanukkah Song, Mi Yimalel (Who Can Retell) makes the point explicit:

Hebrew:                                                                         English:

Mi yimalel gevurot Yisrael,                                 Who can retell the things that befell us,

Otan mi yimne?                                                          Who can count them?

Hen be’chol dor yakum ha’gibor                               In every age, a hero or sage

Goel ha’am.                                                                   Came to our aid.

In the case of the song, the reference is to the Maccabees who fought back the Greek

When you find yourself in danger, When you're threatened by a stranger, When it looks like you will take a lickin', (cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck) There is someone waiting who Will hurry up and rescue you, Just call...for Super Chicken! (cluck, awk!)

Assyrians, and rededicated the Holy Temple that had been made impure by the enemy (Hanukkah means “dedicate”).  Perhaps it’s America’s deep grounding in Biblical tradition that we so often fall for the super hero. Or maybe it’s something in the nature of man.  It could be that we just want someone to look up to.  When things look their worst, don’t worry – someone will step up and save the day. Personally, I fear that we have that expectation with regard to climate change, that some super scientist will invent some technology (cloud seeding, or metal trees that oxygenate the air), and hence our misguided lack of urgency.  I worry about our craving and reliance on radical, heroic fixes.   The Talmud teaches the dictum: “Ein somchim al ha’ness,” don’t rely on miracles.  And while the theme of the the hero is so central to the history of the religious mindset, it exists as a paradox.  There is a perversion, an abdication of responsibility, that comes with falling for the hero – Don’t worry, be complacent, someone, somehow will fix things.

When Queen Esther fears speaking to the king to save the Jewish people, her uncle, Mordechai chastises her:

“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape… And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”(Esther 4:13-14).

And hence the paradox of the hero:

Salvation will come at the hand of a hero – but the hero is you.

While I too fall for the hero and plan to see the new Batman this week, I know deep down that it’s just entertainment.  Real life, especially a religious life, one where I feel ultimately accountable to God’s expectation to love, to uplift, to care, requires a message of personal responsibility antithetical to the super heroic.  It asks us to find the heroic within ourselves, to step up to challenges instead of being frozen by them, or waiting for someone greater to save us.  The need to step up to human responsibility, and not wait for a greater power to fix things, to redeem mankind, may even be central to ultimate salvation, and the ultimate redemption of the world.   Rabban Yoachanan ben Zakkai (90 C.E.) said it like this: If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you, ‘Come quickly, the messiah is here!’, first finish planting the tree and then go to greet the messiah’ – Avot D’Rabbi Natan 31b.  Rabbi Heschel taught that God was in search of man. “God is still waiting for a righteous generation, who will live by justice and compassion,” he said.

In other words: It’s up to us to save us, or, at the very least, it’s up to us to live lives noble enough to be worthy of saving.

Posted on July 17, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Sex, Violence, and, Shades of Grey

The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy is everywhere. I saw a woman reading it the subway last week and another at the pool. This book, which started as an e-book and gained a following because women could read it in secret, has come out of the closet. Women are reading it out in the open everywhere. Magazine articles and blog posts are calling it the “Summer of Grey.”

I like that the book is helping some women get in touch with their sexuality. Judaism has always seen sex with in a committed relationship as a positive act. The Talmud dictates how often a man is to please his wife by having relations with her: for men of independent means, every day; for laborers, twice a week; for donkey-drivers, once a week; for camel-drivers, once in 30 days; and for sailors, once in six months. Having sex on Friday night during the Sabbath is even referred to as a “double mitzvah.” If this book is helping some couples come together then that is a good thing.

However, I find the threat of violence which hangs over the entire story to be chilling and dangerous. The book hooks readers by keeping them wondering if Ana the female character will submit to Christian’s “Red Room of Pain” and allow him to dominate her. This commingling of sex and violence is abhorrent to me as a woman and a Jew.

According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes every year. The National Crime Victimization Survey, which includes crimes that were not reported to the police, 232,960 women in the U.S. were raped or sexually assaulted in 2006. That’s more than 600 women every day. Young women, low-income women, and some minorities are disproportionately victims of domestic violence and rape. Women ages 20-24 are at greatest risk of nonfatal domestic violence, and women age 24 and under suffer from the highest rates of rape. The Justice Department estimates that one in five women will experience rape or attempted rape during their college years, and that less than five percent of these rapes will be reported.( Statistics can be found here.  )

I fear that this book sends the message that violent acts as part of sexual play is okay. I know that in the story Ana has to consent to everything. However from the start, she and Christian are not on an even playing field. He holds the power. He has more money, knowledge, and experience than her. She is in the under-24-years-old demographic. I fear that many women will be hurt physically and emotionally by putting themselves in the hands of men who don’t know when to stop, who will push the pain element too far, who will not hear the safeword.

There is no grey area here. Sex and violence do not go together. One is an act of love; the other is an act of hate. Millions of women suffer each year at the hands of abusive men. This is not sexy or alluring.

I wish I could quote a text from Jewish tradition which clearly says “Thou shalt not hit your lover.” But nothing is that clear. Jewish law however has built in many statues to safeguard vulnerable women from others’ abuses. Widows must be taken care of, and male family members are admonished not to have sex with female relatives. In addition, the stories of the rape of Dina and Tamar make it clear that raping a woman is a punishable act. Unlike the Christian tradition, Judaism does not see sex itself as shameful. But many structures are put in place so that sex is a pleasurable act between consenting adults, not a violent one.

If you enjoyed reading Shades of Grey, please take a moment to think about what you enjoyed about the book. And reflect on some of the messages it sends, particularly to young women who may not have the wherewithal to stand up to a dominating man. As women, we need to talk about the interplay between sex and violence so that we can protect ourselves. If this book helps to open up that conversation then I am glad that it has come out of the closet.

Posted on July 16, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Friday the Rabbi Made Challah

A couple of years ago, I attended a young adult challah-baking event here in Austin.  Some of the young women who were there that evening turned to me, a female rabbi, and wanted to know my challah-baking secrets. challah

“The truth is” I confessed, “I never bake challah.”

“REALLY?” They said with great surprise.

It occurred to me that we would never presume that male rabbis were baking challah, but somehow as a female rabbi, people had the expectation that I at least had some experience with this craft.  But when would I find time for such things? Thursday and Friday are consumed with meetings and preparation for Shabbat at the synagogue. Where could I find time – and energy — for challah baking?

I often joke with my husband, who is also a rabbi, that the old adage – “the shoemaker’s children have no shoes”– rings true in our household.  We have two children, and although both of them claim to love to bake challah (they’ve had such experiences with their grandmothers and at school) they have never baked challah with their mom.  One thoughtful stay-at-home mom in my congregation recently offered to have my kids over for a challah baking party with her family, since clearly I didn’t have the time to create such opportunities for my own children.

This past Friday, somehow this all changed.  Don’t get me wrong – my day was plenty busy.  In fact, I was in meetings from 9:00AM – 5:30PM, straight.  Yet, this past Friday I had the incredible urge to bake challah.  Maybe it was all of this recent talk in the media about work-life balance that put me over the edge. Or maybe it was just the reality that, although Austin is known for many amazing and wonderful things, excellent store-bought Kosher challah is not one of them.  Whatever it was, I arrived home at 5:40PM and said “We’re making challah!”

My husband’s first response – “Have you seen Rabbah Sara Hurwitz’s article in the Jewish Journal?  She just made challah for the first time as well.” I had not seen the article, and didn’t have time to read it until after Shabbat. (I had to make my challah, after all.) But something must be in the air. Challah-less female rabbis from across the movements are suddenly baking challah.

I had very little time before candle lighting at 8:17PM. After finding a fairly simple recipe on the internet, buying and mixing the ingredients and then kneading the dough with the kids, we realized that we really only had about five minutes of rise-time. Miraculously, what we created was far from matzah – I would never have known from the finished product that we hadn’t had time to let our dough rise.

So how was it?  It was pretty good.  Not the best challah I’ve ever tasted, but a good first try. And the kids had a blast, taking great pride in their creations. I think we may have begun a weekly challah baking ritual.

And maybe the next time this female rabbi shows up at a challah-baking event, she will have a thing or two to share.

Posted on July 15, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

What Playing Games Can Teach Us About Prayer

While I certainly use my iPhone to check my e-mail and make calls, far and away, what really drains my battery are apps like Cut the Rope, Dark Nebula, and Words with Friends. Like almost everyone else on the planet, I simply love playing games.

But why? What is it about games that draw people in?

According to psychologist Alison Gopnik, it’s because the best games place us right into a sweetspot in the interaction between two poles — structure and creativity.

Sometimes, structure stifles creativity. That’s why Tic-Tac-Toe gets so boring so quickly, because there’s no space for imagination.

But for the most dynamic games, the rules can actually enhance our ability to be creative.

One of my favorite examples comes in a podcast from WNYC’s Radiolab, where co-hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich interview chess expert Fred Friedel. Friedel wrote a computer program listing every chess move that has ever been played in any tournament. It’s called “Fritz.”

Now, whenever you play a game of chess, your first move has probably been done millions of times. After all, just about everyone starts with one of their pawns moving forward. But as the game progresses, the number of previous times a board position has occurred gets fewer and fewer and fewer. It goes from the millions to the thousands to the hundreds to the tens to the single digits.

Eventually, there comes a moment in the game that has never happened in tournament history. As Friedel describes it, the board is “in a position that has never occurred in the universe.” And when the game gets to that moment, as Abumrad and Krulwich tell us, it feels like “you get a peek at something infinite.”

What’s fascinating is that “a peek at something infinite” is not only something that happens in games. A “peek at something infinite” is truly the goal of prayer. And we get that glimpse when we find improvisation, imagination and creativity within the limits of a clearly defined set of rules. As Krulwich says, “[A game] has a small field of play, but then you step into it, and…whoosh!”

We want that “whoosh!”, but in order to get there, we need guidelines. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argues, when it comes to prayer, spontaneity is the goal, but continuity is the way. And so Jewish prayer at its best has much in common with the best games — they both live in that space where structure helps us engender wonder and imagination.

In Judaism, prayer involves those two components — keva, the fixed words and set times we should pray, and kavannah, the intentionality and inspiration prayer is supposed to create. Often, keva is disparaged or ignored, because it feels boring, or repetitive, or that it’s simply rote recitation.

But when prayer is at its best, keva actually helps us get to kavannah. Rabbi Shawn Zevit says it well:

What is the structure that allows you to express your longing, your thanks, your wow, your reflection? I find that prayer, the structure of it and our own particular Jewish nuances of it, is an optimal part of the living diet for well-being In the Jewish modalities of prayer, those very longings, those very human dimensions are addressed… (in Comins, Making Prayer Real, 146-7)

We want to be inspired. We want to find strength. We want to feel connected to something larger than ourselves. But those moments rarely happen by accident.

By giving us a framework, rules and structures can help us get there. They remind us to practice. They tell us what to look for. And they allow us to regularly experience the ordinary, so that we can be ready to experience the extraordinary.

Indeed, that’s the deep connection between both games and religion. In a review of Robert Bellah’s book Religion in Human Evolution, Charles Mathewes reminds us that

…[p]lay involves a dialectic of freedom and constraint, or better, freedom within constraint. This is obviously so in games, but equally so in any form of play. The boundaries of play, the delimiting and the defining of the conditions of play, themselves can stand in a kind of dream-like state of critical assessment…

In short, play nourishes us, makes us fully human, equips us for reflective agency and enables us to understand that behind (or above) the routines of the everyday there can be a carnival of an altogether different sort.

In other words, “playing” and “praying” have much more in common than we may think.

(Cross-posted with Sinai and Synapses)

Posted on July 12, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Privacy Policy