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.
…[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)
A simple street scene glimpsed on the early morning commute. A woman in her forties dressed in a sari, a gentleman in jeans and a collared shirt pressed up by her side. A rolling suitcase stood on the sidewalk nearby. A few feet away two young women in western dress milled about one of them fiddling with a camera, reading to capture the scene.
Stopped at a red light, I watched for a moment. Driving off I knew that while it was just one of thousands of mundane moments that I had already experienced that morning, there was no denying that something important had happened.
The concept of gratitude is fundamental to Jewish life and practice. The miracle of opening the eyes deserves a prayer of thanksgiving, as does our ability to put our feet on the floor and going to the bathroom. Following the structures of our liturgy, much of life becomes worthy of gratitude. Gratitude is powerful stuff.
When I was in 9th grade, my mother went back to school, I moved from a tiny Jewish school to large public school, and my family prepared to move to a different city. I was miserable. Each night, my mother would make me make a list of the things that had gone well that day- my sandwich was not soggy, I finished my math homework with ease, walking home before the rain started. My mother is not a religious woman but she was studying psychology. Positive psychology knows the power of gratitude. As Martin Seligman writes in Flourish, “gratitude will raise your well being and lower your depression.”
I know this power. Three years ago, I arrived with my family in San Francisco after two challenging years in the Midwest. The sea air, extraordinary vistas and mild climate could not change the difficulties of the past, but the appreciation of the miracles around me made it possible for me to heal some of the scars. I can tell the difference between the mornings when I wake my children with urgent cries to hurry and those I when I wake them with the prayer of thanksgiving followed by a personalized appreciation of my child. On the former, there is tension, on the latter there is harmony –and either way we manage to get out in time.
There is much in our lives that we often fail to appreciate – and for the most part my gratitude practice helps me noticing those things. But the lady in the sari was different. With the exception of the sari, which was a bold contrast of gold and maroon, there was nothing remarkable about what I saw that morning. Yet throughout the day my mind returned to that moment, to the wonder I had felt in witnessing that moment. Having seen those people standing there, doing nothing that demanded my attention, somehow opened me. The rest of my day was similarly unremarkable and yet throughout I felt profound awareness and sense of awe.
Both my spiritual study partner and my husband, having heard my story, sought a meaning in what I had seen. But I could uncover none intrinsic to what I had seen. For all I know this was a sad moment in the life of these people a moment of departure. Likewise it could have been a positive moment. But the meaning it had to them was not apparent to me. For me I simply felt blessed to have be able to witness what I did, where I did, for no reason in particular.
Skeptics often wonder why God needs so much praise. In my experience, it is not about God’s need but rather our own. Most of the prayers of thanksgiving are directed at things that we simply take for granted. Likewise for most of the things on the lists I used to make with my mother. But it is daily noticing that which often is left unenjoyed that I credit for enabling me to be grateful for that scene. There was nothing that I ought to have been grateful at that moment nor was it remarkable in any way. Yet I was profoundly glad for having noticed and taken it in –just because it was. Witnessing and valuing the scene created a sense of openness in me, equanimity that allowed me to be present in an extraordinary way for the rest of the day. And for that too, I am grateful
There is no conformity for liberal Jewish women in the synagogue when it comes to wearing a head covering. Look around you the next time you go to a bar/bat mitzvah. How many women and post bat mitzvah girls are wearing a kippah? Is the female rabbi wearing any kind of headgear? Does it vary from denomination to denomination? Is there a growing cultural tradition that is evolving in the 21st century? Are Jewish women being shaped by what we wear or don’t wear on the bimah?
Enter Diaspora Girl, a website that sells sassy headcoverings for the girl who wants to “rock” on a Shabbat morning at the local temple. The site asks women to decide between “those flimsy little white things at the door of the shul that look like Thanksgiving turkey decorations” and their affordable and spiritual hip designer hats. If you are a modern Jewish girl who likes the idea of ritual headgear, but you are “cognizant of the fact that traditional kippot look about as cool on women as sandals with black socks look on men” then these hand-made gems are calling you to take action with a credit card.
What is a Diaspora Girl? According to the owner, Rina Barz Nehdar, a diaspora girl is someone who refuses to conform to the mainstream. They have their own thing going on and the power and the chutzpah to stand out from the crowd.
“The women most attracted to my product are women who are trying to find their niche in the Jewish world without giving up their individuality,” writes Nehdar.
Diaspora’s funky and feminine kippot are crocheted from cotton and/or cashmere and are adorned with beads, sequins and ribbons. Each style has a fun name, “Dreamcatcher,” “Japanese Blossom,” Goldilocks and “Belladonna.” Women like choices in their style of headgear. A skullcap by every other name looks and feels ritually different.
Are they cooler to wear than hats or kippot for women? Do they really prevent “hat hair”? Inquiring heads want to know!
When I began leading Shabbat services during rabbinical school, I dressed up for prayer. A weaver from Asheville, North Carolina supplied me with a dozen kippot of various shapes and colors and yarns. No black yarmulkes for me. I am a fashion-conscious female rabbi looking to distinguish myself and my wardrobe from the masculine model. My tallit matches my kippah and sometimes the color of my dress. As a rabbi pioneer on the bimah, I continue to cause a red carpet stir at the Oneg.
Today, when I walk into a reform synagogue, a kippah on a woman is an anomaly. In Conservative synagogues those white doilies are still quite popular. More women wear a tallit and a kippah during a Reconstructionist service. I continue to individuate my synagogue look. By definition, I am a diaspora girl.
My eldest daughter Na’ama wore a kippah and a tallit at her Conservative bat mitzvah in 1985. She has not worn her handmade prayer accouterments for 27 years. Perhaps these funky hip kippot will convince her to be another diaspora girl. It is never too late to begin a trend even in my own family where the heads of three girls lie in the balance. Let’s all go funky! My treat!
Every Thursday afternoon at my yeshiva college in Queens my Gemara rebbe (teacher of Talmud) would offer a short thought on the weekly Torah portion. These were usually filled with personal anecdotes from his life or dilemmas he helped students address in previous decades. There was one particular Thursday afternoon message that has remained with me from all those years ago and remains particularly relevant for our society.
It was the Thursday afternoon before winter vacation (or bein hazmanim as we called it in yeshiva) and many of us were anxious about the upcoming time away. Life in yeshiva is very structured and very busy. Every moment in the walls of the beit hamidrash, the study hall is spent delving into the complexities and intricacies of God’s revealed Law. How could we depart from that and enter the serenity and quiet of vacation? So it was on that Thursday afternoon that the rebbe got up and took a breath, making eye contact with each one of us, and said “vacation is kadosh,” vacation is holy.
To invest time in our own well-being and our mental, physical and spiritual health is to also be engaged in a sacred task. The Torah itself in Deuteronomy 4:15 enjoins us to guard ourselves exceedingly. We are commanded to not neglect our own health even when engaged in the most important work.
Americans on average work around 50% more than their European counterparts. We put in longer daily hours, take less vacation and retire later than much of the rest of the Western world. It is also true that so much of what we do is vital for the economy, for our local communities, for our families and for ourselves and yet for it, and for us, to be sustainable we have to learn how to take some time to rejuvenate and recharge. When discussing the Shabbat the Torah charges us to work thereby investing our work with sanctity – “six days you shall work,” but the Torah also commands rests and invests that with sanctity as well.
As I write this I am heeding my rebbe’s advice and my family and I are on vacation. I look forward returning to my work renewed and reinvigorated and my tefillah, my prayer is that more of us heed the call of the Torah to invest in ourselves and come to see the holiness of vacation.
At Congregation B’nai Israel, Bridgeport, CT, I’m blessed with a class of almost 30 eighth graders and we meet weekly on Monday evenings.
Last week, we began a conversation with them that emerged from a desire to highlight the upcoming Reform movement biennial conference. I haven’t attended a Biennial for several years, but they are always exciting opportunities for me to hear how visions are being articulated and what kinds of new ideas are being incubated. Some of that comes from the official program but, as is so often the case with these large conferences, its the one-to-one conversations that we get to have with old friends, and new people that we chance upon that provide some of the great food-for-thought. And praying on Shabbat with approximately 5,000 people (the estimated turnout this year) is a unique experience.
This year, Teen Engagement is one of the key areas of focus, with a special track of the conference dedicated to this work. The old models of top-down movement-led design of a program to be launched and rolled out across the country is gone. Instead, a vision of a much more fluid and dynamic project that involves teens in conversations to co-create new opportunities is the direction we are heading.
I wanted my teens in my eighth-grade class to know about this, and gain a sense of being part of something bigger. We began with an initial trigger video, playing this:
While the context for this video is Israel, and the miracle of returning to the land, we extended the conversation to ask our teens how they respond to an idea of carrying a heritage and being part of ‘the hope’ for what might still be to come. The core of our conversation turned to the challenges they identified to their being engaged in Jewish life and activity and, finally, to some of the creative ideas they might have to respond to those challenges.
I don’t think I can truly do justice to what emerged during the conversation, but it was indeed very hopeful and helpful. We only had limited time, and I’m sure the conversations will continue, but the two areas they focused on was the communal worship experience, and ways of engaging in Jewish culture and ideas that tapped into some of the cultural forms and technologies that they are utilizing in the rest of their lives.
On the worship front, they sought more diverse expressions and experiences, and a musical style that had the energy of the music that some of them knew from Jewish summer camp. While this music has been a major influence on the evolving music of prayer in the Reform movement from the mid-1970s, there is no question that the newest sounds still emerge from camp, and a multi-generational service is not going to be the same experience as an age-specific experience. But the generation-specific sounds are not the only reason why young adult independent minyanim and 20s-30s services in large city-based congregations are proving to be increasingly popular.
My teens also pointed to the way that they are engaged in creating the prayer experience when they are at camp, weaving contemporary themes and readings into the core prayers. This is very much in tune with what we are seeing among our engaged younger generations – a desire for more of a ‘do-it-yourself’ kind of Jewish community, where a Rabbi may offer guidance and support, but is not expected or even wanted to be crafting and leading the whole experience. This kind of inclusive engagement in creating communal prayer experiences is working for teens and young adults beyond the Jewish community too. Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran minister in Boulder, CO, leads an emergent Christian community that uses this approach to shape the worship experience. She says that it is important that the worshipers are producing and not consuming. ”Sometimes things are a little ‘clunky’ but its completely worth it because the people are really owning it,” she says.
Beyond the world of synagogue and Jewish worship, my teens had expressed the ‘otherness’ that they sometimes feel in their public school context, where they could name countless examples of ignorance of Judaism or ways in which their sense of Jewish identity was so different to outsider perceptions. But their pride in their identity was strong, and they sought more opportunities to be with teens who ‘get it’. Not necessarily through more face-to-face opportunities – these kids already have heavily scheduled lives – but they brainstormed things like a Jewish Facebook for under-18 Jewish teens who wanted to talk about ‘Jew-stuff’ or a Jewish kind of Second Life where they could experiment with different kinds of virtual Jewish experiences and explore more of Judaism for themselves (these kids haven’t discovered ‘Second Life’ yet, otherwise they might know that there is already quite an extensive area of Israel, synagogues and more already there!).
They also loved getting ‘Jewish answers’ to the everyday things … how about a ‘Jewish Siri’?
So much of what I heard in this brief conversation and brainstorm reinforced what we with Rabbis Without Borders have been discussing for some time now as we seek to better understand the contemporary cultural contexts in which we passionately share paths to Jewish life. There are start-up organizations, online communities, and worship communities already responding to the next generation, but ‘mainstream’ Jewish institutions and congregations have a ways to go. I’m encouraged by a Biennial conference that is opening to new conversations and forms of engagement. As we respond and co-create an evolutionary Judaism together, within and beyond Jewish movements, we need only ask the questions and we’ll find that our youth have plenty to say.
What is in the power of a name? Why is naming someone in prayer so sacred and moving? I will never forget my experience when I was working as a hospital chaplain at memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. One morning, early in my career as a chaplain, I asked a Jewish patient whom I was visiting if she would like me to say the Jewish prayer for healing for her called the Mishuberach, literally meaning, “May the one who blesses.” She said yes, and I chanted the ancient words, inserting her name at the appropriate place in the blessing asking for a complete recovery of body and soul. When, I concluded the prayer, I looked up to see tears streaming down her face. I sat with her as she composed herself. She then said, “Thank you. I have never heard anyone pray for me before. It was so powerful to hear you say my name in prayer.”
How many of us ever hear our names lifted up in prayer? How many of us ever feel the power of a prayer or blessing intended for us alone?
As soon as I stood up to leave the patient’s bedside, her roommate on the other side of the curtain called out, “Rabbi, could you come say that blessing for healing for me too? It was so beautiful.” I walked around the curtain and introduced myself to the woman in the bed. She told me that her name was Mary, and I then asked her if she was Jewish. She said, “No, and I did not understand the Hebrew part of the prayer you just recited. But it touched my heart and I would like you to recite it for me.” In that moment, I realized that a blessing has no borders. It did not matter that I was a rabbi and she was not Jewish, what mattered was that my tradition had a prayer for healing that could help her. I recited the prayer for her using her name in Hebrew and English. When I was done, we both had tears in our eyes. The emotions I experienced are hard to describe without sounding corny. There was a deep connection between us that transcended religion, age, the well and the sick.
Some people question reciting a prayer for healing saying that in many cases God does not bring healing to the one who is ill. But in my mind there is a difference between healing and curing. God may not be able to cure an individual’s illness, but I do believe that God can bring healing even to those who are very sick and facing death. Healing certainly happened in that hospital room in Sloan Kettering that day. Both of the women were released from their suffering if only for a minute. One felt a profound joy in hearing her name recited in a blessing. The other felt a strong connection to me as another human who cared about her and who brought Gods presence to her in her hospital room.
If you want to bring healing to someone who is suffering physical or mental anguish, I offer these words from the traditional liturgy:
May the one who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless (insert name here). May God grant mercy upon him/her, strengthen him/her , and bring healing. May God send him/her a complete healing of body and soul together with all who suffer illness. And let us say Amen.
The great singer and songwriter, Debbie Freidman wrote a song based on this prayer which often sung in place of the traditional words above. You can hear her song here: