As I’ve explained at length on this blog, one of the contradictions of my life is having a relatively rationalist orientation to the world, and yet having this powerful draw to religion and, especially, religious practice. My judaism course this spring is focusing on the siddur, the shabbat morning service in particular, which is really appealing to me in my search for practice.
Yet the notion of prayer sticks in my craw and troubles me. Who or what exactly am I supposedly talking to? For a humanist Jew like me, I see prayer as an expression of human yearning, hope, suffering, and longing; and inasmuch as the human mind tends to overextend social consciousness, projecting intentionality into the universe to make a “conversation” seems to be, well, deeply human. Moreover, there’s some pretty good psychology research about what prayer does for states of mind and for affect and for overall sense of well-being. For me, prayer has become a problem of balancing my humanism (and agnosticism) with the beauty and humanness of religious desire expressed in ritual language.
When I was still a theist (and a Mormon), I had a vibrant prayer life, with prayer playing the central role in my spiritual life (the second largest piece was temple worship, a highly ritualized form of prayer). But I had given prayer up in about 1996 when I finally came to grips with the fact that I just didn’t believe. [I've explained my position on the existence of god and possible uses for the idea of god on this blog before, so I won't rehash them now (see here, here, here, and here).] My break with a theistic, personal, agentive god was not a clean one. And I mourned the loss of god for several years after I made that realization—it was, for me, a stunning blow to my world view and habits of mind. To this day I find myself automatically talking to something exterior, in moments of pain, panic, awe, or joy.
But that was many years ago. Shortly after that I took up reading buddhist philosophy and started trying meditation practice (primarily vipassana); I undertook a buddhist path alone, without a teacher, because every attempt to join any kind of religious community induced panic attacks. (I’m not being hyperbolic—it’s only been since I started exploring Judaism that I have been able to sit and enjoy a religious service without feeling what I call Mormon-PTSD for lack of a better term.) Later I started doing yoga from time to time after I moved to San Francisco. During this 10 year period of reading and exploring eastern religion, I came to understand religious practice in new ways and to understand my craving for it.
Which brings me back to the siddur and to Jewish prayer or to prayer more generally. In his introduction to the Koren Siddur, Rabbi Sacks notes that the talmudic rabbis divided prayer into three phases or parts: 1) praise, 2) supplication, 3) gratitude. His description uses god-language in a way that I am completely comfortable with other people using, but which I find unusable in my own spiritual path. So he speaks not just of “praise”, but specifically of praising G-d for what he has done; not just of asking, but of asking G-d to give and answer and help and sustain; not just of gratitude, but of acknowledging G-d as creator and giver.
In both the Jewish and the Christian traditions, there is about a 200 year old tradition of reading “god” as metaphor (i.e., Haskalah in Judaism and liberalization of Christianity after German high criticism). So I feel that I have some ground to walk on in thinking of god as metaphor for something else. I have also always loved religious liturgy (both Christian and Jewish) as one of the arts, so I see the aesthetic and human appeal. But what of the practice of talking and asking that metaphor? or praising that metaphor?
The answer seems to lie in somehow combining my understanding of the inward purpose of practice from Buddhism (centering, calming, opening, accepting, and bringing awareness to life) with the beauty of the Jewish prayer tradition (music, dance, poetry, ancient tradition). Here’s my thinking, beginning with Rabbi Sacks’s talmudic outline, but expanding it to a liberal, contemporary, Judaism. I think of prayer as practice, as a grounding, centering, and opening practice of the heart. In keeping with the sage’s three-phase prayer, a humanist-Jewish practice might look something like this:
1) Expressions of Awe: the idea of the unity of G-d, the ultimate Oneness of Being, the place of my infinitesimal consciousness in the massiveness of Existence, and awareness and openness to all being. When I think about this for long, it’s hard not to think of Emerson’s essay Nature and the all-seeing eyeball and the oneness of the individual with everything that exists; or with Thomas Paine’s deist argument that Nature itself is the Word of God. The first part is to take a moment to open and contemplate Existence Itself and the Self’s relationship to it.
2) Awareness of Suffering, Lack, Need, Want, Imbalance: I like the notion of bringing what is wrong or lacking in life to consciousness and holding it with care and compassion (maybe with chesed?). The emotional or mental act of holding out the broken pieces of the world, or my life, and bringing a degree of acceptance and resolution to repair, in a conscious intentional way seems to me a great way to make prayer a fitting daily or weekly practice for anyone who wants to repair the world or his own heart.
And finally 3) Acknowledging the Unpayable Debt: Much of the joys of life are in the daily, ordinary things that fill our lives—the smell of rotting leaves in the fall, the sunrise over the bay before most people are even awake, holding hands with a beloved friend or lover. Sometimes when I stand back and account for what is in my life, the only word that comes to mind is blessed (ברוך). For me, it seems that very often, the things in my life that make me most thankful are from no doing of my own; they are simply the things that are or have happened to me, without my will or effort involved. In this way, they are miraculous (but not supernaturally so, in my mind). And so it’s the conscious gratitude of blessedness, even if there is no ultimate Blesser.
I have not tried it yet, but perhaps this will evolve for me into a regular sitting practice, maybe 10 minutes on each phase? Meanwhile, I can enjoy the liturgy in community with other Jews, some of whom are firmly theist, others of whom are firmly agnostic, many of whom are humanists like me; I can feel the connection of the Jewish past and tradition of prayer and understand its beauty and humanness in its longing; and use it as a practice to ground and center my own intentions and desires.