Why I’m Skipping a Verse During My Morning Prayers

I pray every day. Most days the early morning cerebral fog is pretty dense and my anxiety about being late for work crowds out thoughts about the Divine. But even then, in the midst of constantly adjusting my tallit, prayer shawl, and fiddling with the straps of the tefillin to make sure they are not digging too deeply into my skin, I sometimes find myself actually reading the words on the page with a concentrated mind.

Recently I have been thinking about one sentence that in recent years has been reinserted into
Aleinu
at the end of the prayer serviceshe’haim mishtschavim l’hevel v’rik u’mitpalelim l’el lo yoshea, that they bow down to something worthless and empty and pray to a god that cannot save (SMLVULLY). I remember being introduced to this sentence in late adolescence and thinking it was the coolest thing going. I was on the winning team and felt like a member of a secret club, privy to a powerful incantation that not everyone knew. I experienced the power of once again saying a sentence that had been removed from the prayer book because of fears of arousing the animosity of Christian censors. Finally, it felt like a vindication of the validity of Orthodoxy as a whole. Heady stuff for a teenager.

Fast forward more than a few decades. These days, when I am paying attention I find myself having more and more difficulty with this sentence. If I can stay alert and avoid the sing-song rhythm of the daily prayer ritual, I do not recite this line. With the passage of time and my own perception of what is happening in our world, I am more uncomfortable with this expression of Jewish supremacy and denigration of other religions. I value the ethical meaning created by a life lived in the shadow of the Divine and acknowledge the truth and value of conduct structured by adherence to the halakha. But genuine pluralism and respect for others motivates me to recognize other religious perspectives. Thinking we are superior to others because we believe our God is superior to theirs will not enhance our holiness. I worry that this is a recipe for mutual hatred. So as everyone quickly takes off their tefillin and the coexistmen and women rush out the door, I quietly skip this sentence.

So why am I coming clean now? Perhaps it is the time of the year for confessions. But I will not venture into that area. Instead I think my engagement with SMLVULLY may offer an insight into prayer. Jewish prayer is criticized for being fixed and formulaic. Scholars like Catherine Madsen, contributing editor to the inter-religious/interdisciplinary journal
CrossCurrents
and author of the book
The Bones Reassemble
, have demonstrated how effective liturgical language has been constructed to foster associative thinking and to make the routine seem new. The implications are that text is capable of almost limitless change. But we have heard that before and this exhortation may fall on deaf ears if one is not fully aware of the many literary associations being invoked in the language of prayer. So instead of looking at prayer as the disco globe that is always changing and revealing new light patterns, I think we can reinvigorate prayer by recognizing that we change.

The same words can have profoundly different meaning and impact at different times because we are not the same person reading the prayer each and every day. I loved reading
Lord of the Flies
during my first year of high school but I am glad I was not asked to read American Pastoral before I was forty five. Similarly, my response to SMLVULLY has changed. I don’t know if it is for better or for worse but I am glad that for that moment, as I come to the conclusion of the prayer service and consciously mull over that sentence, my prayer is meaningful and makes me think about something important. As we get ready to dig in for the onslaught of high intensity synagogue time in the coming weeks, I see the prayers inviting me back to read them again because they know I am not the same person I was last year.

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