Every year, I do my best to engage with the process of teshuvah (repentance) during the High Holidays. A few weeks ago, I made resolutions, asked for and received forgiveness, cast away my sins, felt spiritually renewed…and then the craziness of the year began, as it does each year: right now, my partner and I are settling into our new apartment and unpacking boxes. I am starting new jobs while getting acquainted with a new city. Despite my best intentions, I’ve lost sight of the higher self with whom I am trying to align. Like many of us, I am overwhelmed with the business of life at this time of year.
At the end of this week, we enter the month of Marcheshvan, most notable for its lack of holidays. And last week, at the end of Sukkot, Jewish communities around the world began to add the words to the Amidah that we will say until Passover: mashiv ha’ruach u’morid ha’gashem (“the One who causes the winds to blow and the rains to fall”).
Why do we say this as we enter Marcheshvan?
According to the 12th century commentator, Rashi (in his comment on Lev 25:21) the ancient Israelites would “sow…in Marcheshvan, and reap in Nisan.” Planting seeds at this time could be precarious: Marcheshvan’s ancient name, Bul, suggests it was capable of bringing both floods, and raindrops (from Mar-). The story of Noah’s flood that we read this week expresses our anxiety that the small and fragile seeds we plant, whether physical or spiritual, will be washed away by disaster. In our own lives, the intentions we sow need a special kind of nourishment.
A Hasidic teaching from the Alter Rebbe explains that water, the essential ingredient for life, is an expression of Divine love. Rain is life-giving, and the slow downpour of water sustains the world – whereas a flood of water overwhelms us and is destructive. After the holiday season and the intimate moments with God it hopefully brought, we ready ourselves for the long period until Hannukah by praying that God hold back the flood, showering us instead with the divine “rain” we need in order to continue to nourish the seeds of the highest intentions that we sowed during the High Holidays.
As we emerge from the aseret y’mei ha’t’shuvah (“the 10 days of repentance”), we pray for the capacity to integrate the insights we received during this time into the everyday. During the onslaught of the ordinary, it is all too easy to succumb to old habits. But as we enter Marcheshvan we are invited to consider how to more mindfully re-enter the day-to-day business of our own lives. This month gives us the space we need to bring the resolutions we made during the “high” of these holidays into our everyday functioning. And during this time, along with our ancestors, we ask for the blessing of steady rains to nourish the seeds we have planted.
Whether it is recommitting to a regular spiritual practice, to deepening our learning, or to nourishing our creativity, only we know what nourishment and love will help the seeds of our intentions break open and take root in the ground of our daily lives. Through careful tending, when the time arrives to stop praying for rain at the beginning of Passover, we will be able to reap the fruits of our labor and truly taste our freedom.
I recently had the privilege of serving on a Beit Din (Rabbinic Court) for an individual who was converting to Judaism. It was, as I have found all prior instances, a powerful and deeply moving experience. Listening to this individual explain his Jewish journey and the reasons he wanted to convert nearly moved me to tears. His story affirmed, for me, all the spiritual and social good Judaism can provide at its best. As his face beamed with pride as he emerged from the mikveh, I knew that he had made a decision that would bring him immense meaning and joy.
But there was one aspect of my conversation with the individual that troubled me. Part of the Beit Din process involves asking the conversion candidate a variety of questions, both about his past and his present. While he answered most questions capably and with passion, there was one question I asked him for which he lacked much of an answer: “who is God to you?” I was curious to learn more about his theology and wanted to know what metaphor of God he most resonated with. Not only was he unable to verbalize anything concrete, but he also seemed to suggest that this hadn’t been a point of emphasis in his conversion course. I am both not surprised and deeply disappointed.
The Jewish community has just emerged from our annual crash course in theology. It is impossible to read the High Holy Days Mahzor and not think about God. The primary metaphor of Rosh Hashanah is of God as sovereign sitting in judgment over our deeds from the past year, while the primary metaphor of Yom Kippur is of us asking God to exercise mercy and restraint in judging us. Perhaps the fundamental challenge I face in leading High Holy Days services is both offering the metaphor of God in judgment, for those with whom it resonates, and critiquing that metaphor, for those with whom it is deeply alienating. (Full disclosure: as a process theologian, I reject both metaphors and prefer a partnership model.) I spend a good deal of my English speaking roles during the service explaining the liturgy and offering alternative ways to understand the liturgy that speak to different views of God.
But regardless of which approach of God one embraces, I think it is fundamental that one embrace (even temporarily) a view. To ignore theology, on the High Holy Days, dilutes (though does not eliminate) the efficacy of our experience. If God is irrelevant, then the only reasons to come to services on the High Holy Days are: 1) cultural/social (“because that’s what Jews do on the High Holy Days”) or 2) purely personal (i.e. a self-improvement contemplative practice). oth of these goals are worthwhile in and of themselves, but the process is incomplete without God. That’s why I am saddened when I read posts that take God out of the High Holy Days, and why I cannot be a Rabbi In Favor Of Atheism. Grappling with God (along with Torah and Israel) is an essential component of what makes us Jews; we cannot abdicate this struggle. To be clear, there is no single approach to understanding God that I am advocating; only that one commit oneself to having a view about who or what God is to them and letting that view inform the way he or she engages with the world around us.
So I challenged the conversion candidate to keep thinking about God. I gave him a few different metaphors for God to consider and urged him to keep thinking about it, to keep struggling with trying to articulate who or what God is for him. I advised him that this journey never really ends, and that he might find himself holding radically different views as his life circumstances change. And I encouraged him that the struggle is worth it and will add richness and depth to his new Jewish identity.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
The majesty and transcendence of the High Holidays are behind us. Rosh Hashanah with its coronation of God and Yom Kippur with the liturgical immersion into the Holy of Holies of the Holy Temple has passed. The machzorim, the special prayer books, have been put back into the storage rooms. The shofar has been put back on to the shelf and the grocery stores will stop ordering extra quantities of apples and honey until next year. That seat you spent so many hours in at synagogue (or the seat that you purchased but barely saw during these past two weeks) will also resume its normal life of being unoccupied. The cushion will resettle, the indentations will be erased and dust will begin to collect. Yet, it doesn’t have to be that way.
What would happen if you didn’t let your seat at synagogue go unused this new year? What would happen if you came back and visited that seat when no ticket was needed to sit in it. The machzorim are put away but in their stead you will find the siddur, the year round prayer book. Do you believe your experience during the next round of High Holidays would be different if you were more than an annual visitor?
People sometimes compare the High Holidays to the Superbowl. No matter if you are a fan all year or even know the rules of the game there is something captivating about tuning into the game on the big day and knowing you are joining hundreds of millions of other people who are doing the same thing. The comparison has a point but it also falls short.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not built like the Superbowl. They are not built with an easy ability to tap into with no prior experience or knowledge. There are no multi-million dollar commercials in the midst of the service or professional athletes facing off against each other. Instead there is the sublime poetry and prose of the prayers. There are the melodies, some very old and some very new, that are meant to enter our heart and soul and move us in a religious experience. There is the introspection and reflection that finds its peak during the High Holidays. This is not the sort of thing that can be readily experienced at its fullest with no prior background. The ticket you purchased gains you entry into the building and a seat to sit on but if that is the only time you sit in that seat all year you very will might find yourself unable to access the moment you have paid for and craving to find some of its relevancy in your life.
So this year let us find time to fill that seat throughout the year. It’s alright to dip your toes in gently and build as time progresses. Build familiarity with the rhythm of Jewish ritual and prayer. Stretch those muscles of introspection and reflection. By doing so you may find that the next Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be an entirely different experience. Your seat will recognize you, the cushion will not be dusty, the prayer book will be an old friend and the melodies will penetrate your heart and lift you in soulful meaning.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is finished for the year but your seat will not be lonely for the next eleven months. Shanah Tovah, a good, sweet year of meaning making and spiritual growth to all.
Yom Kippur conjures solemnity and foreboding for many Jews. Ritual fasting, abstinence, penitence, and rehearsing for death evolved as core Yom Kippur tradition to rivet and purify the soul. Hidden from most moderns, however, is another level of Yom Kippur that is bright and light rather than dark and heavy—a day of highest joy and even dancing.
Joy and dancing on Yom Kippur may seem like too-easy spirituality, untraditional or even heresy. But consider: liturgy for Kol Nidre evening begins with the Psalmist’s words of light and joy: “Light is sown for the righteous, and joy for the light of heart” (Ps. 97:11). In ancient days, “there was in Israel no day of greater joy” than Yom Kippur, when singles donned white and danced (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8). If today this practice seems odd, to Talmud’s rabbis it was obvious! Coinciding with the day Moses received a second Tablets of the Covenant after the Golden Calf episode, Yom Kippur is our day of second chances, forgiveness and re-commitment (Ta’anit 30b)—truly a day of joy.
While the white clothes some wear on Yom Kippur rehearse our death by simulating the traditional Jewish white burial shroud, some moderns re-interpret wearing white to represent the light and joy of angelic purity. After all, light and joy are themes of Yom Kippur’s morning Haftarah. In the prophet Isaiah’s words, purification and holy living will cause our “light to break forth like dawn” (Is. 58:8), our light “will rise in the darkness” (Ps. 58:10), and we “will find our joy in God” (Is. 58:14).
Light and joy—but what of dancing? Talmud describes Israel’s ancient Yom Kippur choreography as m’kholot (circle dances). Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov (1783-1841), the Seer of Lublin‘s disciple, observed that circle dances are most fitting on Yom Kippur because m’kholot share a root word with m’khal, to pardon. The pardon to which Yom Kippur aspires is to return full circle—body, heart, mind and soul—to a condition before impurity.
Easier said than done… and maybe it’s why the Day of Atonement is called Yom Kippur rather than Yom M’khal. During the rest of the year, two words describe daily penance and purification—s’lakh (forgive) and m’khal (pardon). Only on Yom Kippur does liturgy expand to include the third and most complete level of purification—khaper (atone). My teacher, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi who died earlier this year, used to teach that these three levels of purification are like putting a computer file in the trash (forgiving), emptying the trash (pardoning), and wiping the hard drive (atoning). Yom Kippur is for wiping the hard drive: Yom Kippur is for returning full circle to purity.
Putting together these three words in the liturgy of Yom Kippur—s’lakh (forgive), m’khal (pardon) and khaper (atone)—their acronym spells samekh, the Hebrew letter that itself is a circle, the shape of Yom Kippur’s ancient circle dance. What’s more, in gematria (Jewish numerology), the value of samekh is 60, a number that in Jewish philosophy and law represents completeness. On Yom Kippur, we not only wipe our spiritual hard drives clean but also reconnect ends to beginnings, completing the spiritual circuit and becoming complete anew.
That’s why Yom Kippur—even in solemnity—also is for light, joy and circle dancing. It’s why my synagogue will observe Yom Kippur in traditional ways, and also with dancing. On this Yom Kippur, may we all join the ancient circle dance of light, joy and atonement for a truly good and sweet new year. Shanah tovah.
Dedicated to my teacher and circle dancer extraordinaire, R. Elliot Ginsburg.
A while back I suggested a unique way of doing the chesbon nefesh (soul’s accounting) we are expected to do this time of year. The tools I suggested are useful year round, but they are timely during this season of Teshuva (repentance).
As I understand them, the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) rests on two central themes: Gratitude and Forgiveness. Whatever your observance, from marathon synagogue attendance to just fasting, or even nothing at all, give yourself the opportunity to consider your personal connection to these two themes.
Gratitude: Most of us are thankful for family and friends, but what else? Consider making a list (or take turns, one at a time, with a friend) of the multitude of things and experiences you are grateful for. It tends to be the things past, say number 5 or number 10 that surprise us; a smile will appear on your face as your list gets longer and longer.
TASK: Make a Gratitude list:
A) List 100 things you are grateful for?
B) Share your list with someone.
As it turns out, sharing the sentiment of gratitude has a positive effect on both the speaker and the listener.
Forgiveness: The power of forgiveness is radical. Yes, forgiveness helps to heal relationships, but the ability to forgive, even when it is undeserved, has documented health benefits. One Harvard study back in 2004 looked at women who’s husbands had cheated on them. Those who (somehow) forgave, even though forgiveness was underserved, had better muscle tone, lower blood pressure, stronger hearts, and were healthier along other markers as well.
When we hold on to anger, we feel like we’re hurting the person that has harmed us. However valid the anger, and friends, there is much in the world to be angry about, we do quite a bit of damage to ourselves with the poison of anger.
TASK: Forgive and be Forgiven.
A) Approach someone with whom you were short-tempered, or someone who wanted more time and attention from you than you shared. Apologize and let him or her know that you’ll make a stronger effort next time.
B) When you consider “forgiveness” are you secretly hoping that someone who has hurt you will apologize to you? He or she may never do that. Try mightily to let go of the anger, even if your anger is completely justified. The truth is that the persons who have wronged us may never come around to making proper amends. For your own benefit, try to let go of the anger you have taken on because of someone else’s poor actions. To forgive might be the single most difficult thing, and simultaneously the most powerful thing, you can do for yourself.
To understand the newest book by Rabbi Avi Weiss one needs to tell a story that appears in the book, Holistic Prayer:
A rabbi was once informed that a crazed woman was in the beit midrash (the study hall, which is sometimes used as a small prayer room). “She is standing in front of the Ark, the Ark is open, and she is babbling and gesturing wildly,” he was told. “She seems to be mentally imbalanced. Perhaps you can go in and help her. The rabbi went in. As he sat quietly in the back, he could see that the woman was deeply immersed in tefilla. The rabbi overheard some of her words as she swayed and cried out: “Dear God, I know I was here just last week, but I am back because I need your help. My daughter is still not well. Please, please, in my hour of need, do not forsake me, do not leave me!” Understanding the privacy of her tefilla, the rabbi left the woman alone. Upon his return, he was asked, “So what did you do with the babbling crazy lady?” The rabbi responded, “This morning I got up, put on my prayer shawl, donned my tefillin and davened. But this woman wasn’t davening, she was talking to God. That’s a whole different world.” (Holistic Prayer, pg. 169)
The goal of Rabbi Weiss’ book is to take the reader on a journey. It is a journey that when finished will lead the reader to transition from a davening (praying) out of repetition to a conversation with God. The book is most appreciated by those who have a familiarity with the mechanics of daily Jewish prayer and have a comfort with the key terminology. It is to this audience that Rabbi Weiss challenges the reader to rethink what they think they know about prayer and to open up our hearts and minds to a reinvigorated and renewed understanding. For example, in discussing a key feature of traditional Jewish prayer, the set times allocated for it, Rabbi Weiss explains:
“The idea that love is predicated on action is crucial to understanding tefilla and, more broadly, all of Jewish ritual. If tefilla is an expression of love, why should we be mandated to pray? Why not pray only when we feel like praying? In truth, however, we may not feel like praying for long periods of time. But if we’re obliged to pray, we make a decision to pray. By placing ourselves in the prayerful mode, feelings of prayer may surface… That is the basic idea of ritual. Ritual is an expression of our love for God. Its goal is by and large to do an action from which feelings may come. (pg. 77)”
In this journey of Holistic Prayer Rabbi Weiss weaves together a myriad of sources and references. His book is filled with ideas sourced from the Talmud, Halakha (Jewish law), Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and other traditional places. Yet, it also brings in ideas from thinkers not accustumed to finding themselves referenced in a work of the philosophy of prayer by an Orthodox rabbi. Examples of these out of the box thinkers include: John Powell, the Jesuit priest and author of The Secret of Staying in Love; the humanist philosopher Erich Fromm and the American playwright, Thornton Wilder. In the bringing together the wisdom from classical Jewish tradition and the larger world, Rabbi Weiss exemplifies the very best of the Modern Orthodox approach, in the model set forth by his teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik zt”l.
I had the unique privilege of being a student in the rabbinical school he founded, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, while he was conducting his research that would become this book. In our year-long class on prayer Rabbi Weiss would convey his ideas and philosophy with us that would later fill the pages of Holistic Prayer. In reading this book I can not help but bring that experience to bear in my understanding this work. I not only read the words but I can hear them and visualize his excitement, passion and genuineness in conveying them.
In the preface Rabbi Weiss shares that his wrote this book because “for a long time, I have lovingly struggled with prayer.” When I read those words I had a hard time relating to them because as a student of his, someone who has been blessed to know him for almost 10 years, I have never experienced the man who has “lovingly struggled with prayer,” rather, I know a man who has a face that lights up when he is in the midst of prayer and who sways with an extraordinary amount of devotion and commitment. I think that is because this book is as personal for him as it is intellectually rigorous and spiritually rich. It records his own journey through his adult life with prayer. As someone who has at times also struggled with prayer I can very much share in that experience and it only makes this work more important for me and others who experience ups and downs in their own personal prayer life.
I believe this book is a must read for anyone who has committed to taking part in the life of traditional Jewish prayer, or who has ever experienced it, with all of its rigors and demands. It will inject your prayer life with a breath of fresh air and reframe the whole endeavor to provide new possibilities for enrichment and connection to God.
In closing the book Rabbi Weiss offers the following prayer:
“May the tefilla of Rabbi Judah HaLevi — of God and the human being searching for each other — be forever ingrained in our hearts.
I have sought your nearness, With all my heart I have called You, And going out to meet You, I found You coming toward me. (pg. 260)”
May we take up the call of Rabbi Weiss and catalyze our prayer to be a moment of going out to meet the Divine and in so doing discover God coming out to meet us.
The yahrzeit for slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, passed with scant notice here a few days ago on the 12th of Heshvan. November 4 will mark the date on the secular calendar, now eighteen years later. Perhaps by then we will have returned Rabin’s memory to its proper place in our discourse and our prayers.
In the days after the assassination, the Whitman poem “O Captain, My Captain!”, set to music in Hebrew, became the theme for those who mourned Rabin’s death at the hands of an extremist Jew. The poem had originally been written to mourn the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The shock of that moment, just when Israel seemed to be on the brink of peace with the Palestinians, signaled another painful block in the road.
In 1999 the Prime Minister Ehud Barak remembered Rabin at a memorial in Oslo: I still mourn the death of Yitzhak, my commander and mentor. And I tell you, Yitzhak, that you are fallen dead, but your spirit and will are stronger than ever. So today, I pledge to you, Yitzhak, to all our neighbors, and to the whole world—to travel the course you charted and to finish the journey you’ve led towards security and peace. Only then, when we reach this destination, will we proclaim, in the words of Walt Whitman, “O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done; The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won; O Captain! My Captain! Rise up and hear the bells; Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills.” And here today I bring to all of you the prayer that we will see in the not too distant future the fulfillment of the vision of Psalms about Jerusalem: “May peace be within your walls, tranquility within your palaces.” This is our hope. This is our responsibility.
Peace would be costly, including withdrawal from most of the territory occupied in the 1967 Six Day War, a painful retrenchment. It would mean facing the issue of Jerusalem, with swaths of Arab East Jerusalem being open to negotiation.
Rabin brought much of Israel together under the banner of peace. The first Intifada had led many Israelis to understand that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza carried unsustainable costs. Compromises were necessary. But in the ensuing years, and the second Intifada, many Israelis grew to despair that the Palestinians could be trusted to make peace.
So many attempts, so many failures. Another round of talks have brought out the optimists, the pragmatists, the pessimists and the naysayers yet again. I reside in the realm of pragmatic optimisim. It must be the case that peace is possible.
Now, 18 years after Rabin’s murder, where are we? Are we any closer to peace? Does the legacy of Rabin’s courage and leadership linger and inspire as he did before his violent end?
On the night of Rabin’s assassination, he was carrying the words to the song “Shir Lashalom | A Song for Peace” in his jacket pocket – it was the theme of the huge peace rally in Tel Aviv that night. After the shooting, the bloody paper illustrated the wound to the prayer, and peace itself.
In memory of our Captain, Yitzhak Rabin, may his memory be for a blessing, I pray for a renewal of faith in the possibility for peace. Let us sing Shir Lashalom as our prayer once again. Rabin taught us to reach beyond our despair, our hurts and angers, and even our realistic doubts, and to create the reality that gives full expression to the dream of our people: to live in peace as a free people in our land.
Shir Lashalom | A Song for Peace
Let the sun rise, the morning shine,
The finest of prayers can bring us back no more.
And he whose flame has been extinguished,
Who’s buried in the ground,
No bitter wails will wake him, will him restore.
No one can bring us back from the dark of the grave.
Here, neither the joy of victory
Nor paeans from the brave can help.
Just sing therefore a song to peace
Don’t whisper prayers.
Far better, sing a song to peace,
And sing it way out loud.
Let the sun in through the flowers.
Don’t look back, let the fallen rest.
Raise your eyes in hope, not through the barrel of a gun.
Sing a song to love and not to victories.
Don’t say “a day will come” – go bring that day yourself,
For it is not a dream.
In all the squares, ring out a song for peace.
I recently met a woman who I really liked. We have a lot in common, being professionally accomplished Jewish women of roughly the same age, with grown kids in their twenties, and an intense interest in progressive politics and making our contributions to repairing the world. She’s raised a Jewish family infused with traditions and conversations about Jewish values. She has a strong Jewish educational background, and speaks Hebrew, as does her husband.
And we are both marginally affiliated Jews. I hold memberships in two communities in Israel; one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv, but not one near my home in New Jersey. She belongs to a Conservative synagogue in her neighborhood that she doesn’t attend, but continues to support out of a sense of history and loyalty. We talked about where we would attend High Holiday services and she said, “anywhere but in the sanctuary of my shul,” (shuttering, as if that would be an ordeal.) I told her that my husband and I would be attending an experimental holiday “prayer event” with “Lab/Shul,” in New York City. We were looking forward to a spiritually rich, musical and interactive experience. She told me about a California rabbi who she finds very inspiring, whose services are live-streamed on the internet. After Rosh Hashanah we shared our thrill for having had wonderful holiday experiences.
That week I met another very interesting women, also close to my age, professionally accomplished, with young adult kids. She, like me, is studying at a graduate school of Jewish studies, to see where it leads. We talked about our holidays, and she told me that she was still seeking, having left the Reconstructionist synagogue in her New Jersey neighborhood (where she had once been very involved), not because she didn’t like it, but because the expense of dues didn’t make sense to her family after the kids left the nest. Like us, she and her husband planned to spend the holidays in New York City (away from home in New Jersey), to access “hip” alternatives. We talked about where to find the best Israeli food in Manhattan, because she, like me, spends a lot of time visiting Israel.
Then I met another woman in my age cohort at a business meeting in Manhattan, another professionally accomplished woman from the NY Metropolitan area, and her story was much the same. She was anxious to tell me that she had been very involved at her neighborhood synagogue for a long time, serving on the board and actively contributing. But she left there after a political shake up between the board and the clergy, which she found very distasteful. So she and her family found a really “cool” rabbi who was doing High Holiday services in a rented storefront. She talked about how it was informal, engaging, and deeply spiritual. She is also seeking a meaningful Jewish path, feeling alienated from her Reform community, which she feels is too much about politics and not about spirituality. She went on to tell me about the non-profit organization that she and some friends founded in Israel and the amazing work that it is doing.
We are living in challenging times for synagogues in America. Most of my rabbinic colleagues are worried about declining membership, declining volunteer commitment, declining fundraising income. Some worry that the model of the American synagogue, created in the 20th century in a different reality, may be itself endangered. Others complain about losing members to “pop-up” congregations, storefront arrangements for holidays and Shabbat that offer cheap Jewish engagement, or Chabad. Pay as you go, or perhaps no commitment at all, rather than membership dues with a commitment.
I was there until recently too, scrambling to innovate in big and small ways in a small congregation. Now, from the outside looking in, I am driven to imagine in different ways. Synagogues need to ask challenging questions of themselves, reimagining their strategies for serving a more complex set of needs and demands. People will vote with their feet and their wallets for the kind of Jewish spiritual experiences they want – and are willing to pay for. My commitment for this year is to support and encourage new models, while seeking ways to add my own creative ideas and efforts. Perhaps, rather than fearing this change, we can all embrace the new world of possibilities that come with it.
The three women I profile here are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are noteworthy. A rabbi or a program or a community that can catch their attention and nourish their needs will earn their support. It is up to us to seize this time of change to build a better future for the Jewish people.
(Photo from Lab/Shul, Yom Kippur 2013, 5774)
Occasionally, a book about Jewish prayer will tell you that Judaism discourages spontaneous prayer. That magic of Jewish prayer, the book will say, lies in mastering the discipline of repeating a fixed liturgy. Only through repetition can we gradually open ourselves to the spiritual mentoring of our ancestral authors.
This, gentle readers, is complete nonsense.
Judaism encourages spontaneous prayer and liturgical prayer.
The dual focus is amply described in the Talmud and in Hasidic literature. Our siddur, the anthology of 3,000 years of spiritual poetry that serves as our liturgical text, was never meant to abolish spontaneous prayer.
For a Shabbat prayer leader, it’s not easy to deliver spontaneous prayer week after week. Rabbinic schools do not offer a core course in the skill. Here’s my confession, though: offering spontaneous prayer is my favorite part of the entire service.
Over the last three years, as I have gained confidence, I have spoken aloud, mostly in English, some 150 different prayers for peace and 150 different prayers for healing.
These prayers are not prepared in advance. They emerge from the raw materials of congregational life and the content of that week’s service or Torah reading. They are not preserved afterwards. As I return to ordinary consciousness, the details fade.
If I could, I would collect the healing prayers into a book called “Fifty-Four Meditations: Healing Prayers for Each Torah Portion.” But I can’t. The prayers do not form themselves when I sit in the presence of a text – only when I stand in the presence of people.
Maybe there’s a bit of mystery to this practice.
More likely, it depends on a unique intersection of skills.
Some of the skills are taught in rabbinic school: Formulating ideas into words, quickly. Reading Biblical Hebrew with understanding. Giving multiple translations of Hebrew word roots, so that the words become metaphors and stimulate new interpretations.
And some of the skills are not taught in rabbinic school: Quieting one’s own mind to receive feelings from those around you. Opening to the presence of God within a group. Learning to put spiritual perception into words. Most of this I learned studying Spiritual Direction in a Christian seminary. (A handful of Jewish spiritual direction programs, such as ALEPH Hashpa’ah, and Lev Shomea, also teach it).
Why are these skills not often taught? Perhaps it’s connected to Rebecca Sirbu’s observation that Jewish communities often do not talk about God. We lack vocabulary for discussing the experience.
More precisely, our God-vocabulary is very strong in some areas and weak in others.
Kabbalistic teachers speak of four worlds of reality and consciousness: assiyah, the world of action; yetzirah, the world of emotion; beriyah, the world of intellect; and atzilut, the world of spirit.
Contemporary Judaism is rich in discourse about God in the world of action. We speak of ethical mitzvot, ritual mitzvot, and tikkun olam, repair of the world. We easily understand ourselves to be fulfilling a divine ethical imperative through our deeds. We also navigate well in the world of intellect. Many of us can explain with skill why we are theists, atheists, or agnostics.
But we do less well in the areas of emotion or spirit. It’s easier, for example, for us to argue that God doesn’t exist than to explore a feeling of being abandoned by Divine love or protection. And many of us theists have no vocabulary at all for the experience of dwelling in God’s Presence.
Most of us can pray spontaneously, but few of us know how to talk about it, teach about it, or do it authentically while serving as a prayer leader. We may enjoy stories about the great Hasidic masters who do it well, but rarely think about the skill set that would make it accessible to us.
Is spontaneous, heartfelt, accessible prayer something you would like to explore? How can you start the discussion in your circles?
Image: onmounthoreb.com. Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.
For more on prayer and spontaneity, click here.
Even as a teenager, at best I was probably pretty geeky, and what’s more, not appreciably bothered by it. I liked the Beatles, had hair down to my tush, wore nothing but jeans and t-shirts other than when I was hanging around at the Renaissance festival, and spent most of my free time reading. Even my mother, decidedly not a fashionista, would wonder aloud about which era I had been born into—apparently the one before hers.
When my son was a toddler, I read to him all the time. I often read classics—but a lot of the gender and race descriptions in some of those could be a bit squicky, so I would change them on the fly. This proved to be more difficult than one might think: toddlers—at least mine—have excellent memories, and like to be read the same stories over and over, which meant I also had to remember exactly *how* I read the story the last time. Because it had to be exactly the same.
These days, being unhip in the Jewish professional world is a terrible disadvantage. Grants go to the young and groovy -which I never was, even as a teenager—programs have to be innovative, and tefilah prayer services have to leave one panting with joy and overflowing with meaning.
I admit, I like a good indie minyan myself. And I have nothing against meaning, or innovation. But I do begin to wonder whether we really need those things—at least as much as we seem to think we do. Or even if we are sure about what they are and where they come from.
Our community has gone from one where elders are revered to one where they are ignored; where meaning seems to be derived from “finding something new to do,” and where innovation replaces commitment. It’s not that I don’t like new tunes, and I always find something new when I study a text (which I admit I prefer to davenning), but it seems to me that we have become hampered by our search for something to stimulate us. We want happiness, but what we seem to reach for instead is distraction.
I wonder what would happen if, instead of looking for new things, the Jewish community started cherishing some of our old things – starting with our elderly. I’d love to see a liberal shul teach their community to rise before their rav (or rabbah) and their aged (just FYI, I don’t work in a synagogue, so this isn’t some personal grandiosity).
What if, instead of “programs,” the shul simply instituted regular study at different intervals (for people who had different schedule-juggling needs) – no more movie-night slichot, but instead an evening of study followed by simple tefilah, maybe with explanations for those who are beginners? What if we asked our communities to make a commitment to some kind of regular out-of-shul meet-ups with other congregants, and to commit to attending weekday services a certain number of times a year? It would probably be different for different communities, but what I’m aiming at is less innovation, less programming, and stripping things down not to basics, but to core.
I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the warmest, most active shuls I’ve been involved
with are ones that aren’t so interested in inviting the hippest groovy innovator—they’re the ones that keep on rolling in their homely little buildings with active lay people who simply do human things week after week – phone calls and davenning, and bikkur cholim,and dinner together on Shabbat. Ones where there is a commitment to consistency.
It isn’t only toddlers who need repetition to learn and to feel comfortable, and it isn’t only geeky teens who are uninterested in doing something new, just because. I wonder how much of the “search for innovation” is counterproductive, and I wonder if we spent less time on flashy gewgaws, would we actually attract more people—people looking for an alternative to, or at least a supplement to, the highly innovative, always stimulating, constant change of the secular world.