These past two weeks, many of us have been through a veritable overload of prayer. Lots of it seems irrelevant, some of it even strike some people as unnecessarily exclusive and some of it is incomprehensible.
In particular the Piyutim (medieval religious poetry replete with complex associations and references that only a polymath can hope to grasp) pad out the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in a sort of agony of suffering that must constitute some sort of penance, or else was medieval man’s way of avoiding spending any more time in his stinking hovel of a home than was absolutely necessary. They are not made any more attractive by gargling chazanim, talent contest ‘also-rans’ trying to bowdlerize the classics, or the current fad of adapting banal Carlebach spiritual kitsch to the most ridiculously inappropriate words, like happy-clappy to Torquemada. I guess each era has its own way of glorifying the Almighty. Boring poe! ms may have been fine once upon a time, but I confess they do absolutely nothing for me nowadays.
As for the repeated lists of sins, Yes, I know I have committed at least half of them, particularly the ones about inappropriate language and naughty thoughts. I have told inappropriate jokes and criticized Jews of all denominations, disrespected religious authority, have said some very disrespectful things about rabbis and dayanim. But how many bloomin’ times do I have to repeat my sins? And all to the same hackneyed alphabet acrostic, sins beginning with A to those beginning with Z? And yes I have been bad, but the Death Penalty? Flogging? Excision? And exactly how many sacrifices do I owe this year? Besides for me, prayer is not about asking or even apologizing. Its about expressing what I feel.
It’s no wonder that as soon as Yom Kippur is over the Torah insists that we really, really enjoy ourselves over Succot. It’s just sad that for most Jews the experience of the previous two weeks had convinced them they’ve had enough of Judaism for another year and so they don’t even stay to discover an altogether different kind of experience.
And yet I find prayer uplifting, therapeutic and feel so much better afterwards.
There is an essential, core, of obligatory prayers, the Amidah, the Shema, and the blessings on either side of the Shema. The Amidah (sometimes known as the 18 benedictions) is the one prayer that is common to all services, and although its middle varies its beginning and end always remain essentially the same. Apart from the Biblical texts of the Shema, these prayers date back two thousand years, before the medieval Spanish show-offs got into flowery poetry or the Crusader-decimated Northern Europeans poured out their agonies into verse.
I believe the compilers of these prayers wanted to create a menu that would be easily memorized, simple in language, but allowing for complexity of thought and depth of emotion. They intentionally sought a structure that could be meaningful to people of all levels of intelligence, learning and background. And, of course, all this was in the context of the specifically Jewish experience. As a result, you can find the simplest of requests (‘Please may I have’) as well as the most sophisticated of ideas, the eternity of matter and the continuity of spirit. Parts are specifically confessional, such as the Shema, and other parts are concerned with nature and the world. The Amidah, for example, opens with a poetic formulation of essential Jewish theology. There are references to history, to our past, and hopes for our future. There is nostalgia for the past and appreciation of the present.
Then, around the core, were added Psalms, those ancient poems of joy and pain and angst and victory. Sublime thoughts intermixed with basic desires for revenge. Just think of, ‘By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept,’ and then go on to read about smashing the offspring of the enemy for what they did to us. King David was avowedly human, however inspired. Although it is unlikely that he was the one who wrote about weeping by the waters of Babylon.
So I come to those parts that many have difficulty with, smashing our enemies, the election of Israel, our special relationship with God, our past and its own particular ways of worship and devotion. I believe one has to either see them in their historical context or reinterpret their significance. I am not in favour of censoring or fiddling around with a text that has survived two thousand years of vicissitudes. It is too important a document for fashion to play around with. But of course different people at different times will respond and interpret it differently.
I also believe one can be selective in what one concentrates on. My father once told me a story that a traveling mystic arrived at a Polish village one day surrounded by his acolytes and devotees and the local rabbi was asked by his students what question to put to the mystic to discover if he was genuine or not. The rabbi said, ‘Ask him if he knows the secret of how to concentrate throughout the prayers. If he tells you he has he secret then you’ll know he is a fake.’
We cannot concentrate on everything. We must be selective. ‘Better a little with concentration than a lot without,’ says the Talmud. So focus on what appeals and as for other issues, see them as important historical documents, reflections of how people felt once (and might again).
As for ‘routine’, the beauty of a fixed liturgy is that familiarity enables you to feel comfortable enough to vary your pace. It never changes and so greets you like an old friend you know you can take advantage of. Its language is indeed poetic. Its sounds matter as much as its words. It is an experience rather than an exercise in logic. It is poetry not philosophy.
In truth, however familiar we are with the words, we react differently to them every time we say them because our own moods vary. Sometimes we will be celebratory, others we will be sad. Sometimes we will be thinking of ourselves and our own immediate needs. At other times our thoughts will be of others, of society, of life, and the universe.
The menu of prayer is the hook upon which we hang our own thoughts and emotions. We are invited to treat God as a sort benevolent analyst in space to Whom we can say and think thoughts we would otherwise suppress. Prayer is amazingly pre-Freudian in its therapeutic value. The words are there to help us find a way, but they are only the means, not the end. As the great medieval authority Maimonides said, the formal, written prayers were only introduced when people lost the art of expressing themselves in prayer in their own private and individual way. There is nothing to stop us introducing our own if feel we want to and can.
So relax and enjoy, and if something jars, move on. You are bound to light on something that speaks back to you sooner or later, and if you have reached a dead end, take a break, go for a walk, meditate. It will still be there, waiting like an old familiar friend, when you get back. And besides now as we move onto Succot, the mood changes, and the rich variety of religious experience offers us a totally different set of emotions and activities.
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