This past spring, I took a course with a Reconstructionist rabbi (with Renewal leanings) who is part of our synagogue community. The course covered the Shacharit and Shabbat Torah service, and it had the unintended side-effect of convincing me that I needed to look more carefully and seriously at the notion of prayer and its role in my life as a Jew.
My childhood and young adulthood associations with prayer are thoroughly theist, patriarchal, and heterosexist. But I also cannot deny some powerful experiences I had praying in the Mormon mode, especially the day when I was 22 years old that I had decided to kill myself because I was gay, and telling God—whom I believed was a real, anthropomorphic being at the time—what I had planned while sitting at the bottom of Bryce Canyon in southern Utah. I no longer believe that my experience came from an outside divine force, but I definitely believe that having been reduced to nothingness, I was totally open emotionally and spiritually to see clearly (and being in the red rock desert always clarifies life for me). What I felt, like a light going off in my head, was that if I died then at age 22, I would miss a lifetime of love. I think I sat there for about an hour with my mouth hanging open. Then I got up, walked back to my car, and went back to my studies.
Between leaving Mormonism and choosing Judaism, my most serious and regular practice had been basic vipassana meditation in the (lesser wheel) buddhist tradition. I had been a casual buddhist for about 15 years, and meditation had been my practice of choice on many levels. I discovered buddhism when I was still at BYU during my senior year, through Thich Nhat Hanh, but didn’t start seriously meditating until I read a book by Jack Kornfield around my 28th birthday. My experience with meditation and reading buddhist psychology and philosophy opened me up in a completely different way. The constant practice of accepting what is and of being open to the here and now transformed in ways that I still cannot articulate (and to be clear, I still need this daily practice; I’m a bit of a cling-er, grasper, holder-on; I’m also an idealist who rages against the imperfection and injustice of the world). Buddhism also showed me a path to ethical living that I had been unable to find in Mormonism, because buddhism insists that you see the world as it is and other people as they are. So I have had important and powerful experiences of holiness before and outside of Judaism (and frankly I don’t see that changing).
As I posted about a couple months ago, I have been working through the rabbinic teaching that prayer has three phases, Praise, Thanks, and Asking, and thinking about what that could mean in a more meditative vein, and especially what it means for someone who isn’t sure he believes in a g-d at all. So I finally decided about three weeks ago to take a leap of faith, and begin doing a small modified שחרת before breakfast in the morning. I’m using a combination of the Siddur Sha’ar Zahav (from my somewhat frum Reform shul) and the Koren Siddur (British Orthodox). By modified, I mean that from the Orthodox siddur, I cut out a lot of text and I cut out all the clothing bits (tsitsit, tallit, and teffilin). Here’s the order of my Shacharit:
- Modeh ani
- Asher yatzar et ha-adam (I call this the “orifices” prayer…teehee)
- Elohai n’shamah (my fav)
- Morning brachot [I use the SZ siddur here for feminist, disabled-friendly, non-ethnocentric language:
נברך את עין החיים יוצרת השולם, etc.]
- Ha-Gomeil chasadim tovim [I am currently really taken by this line:
ותננו היום ובכל יום לחן ולחסד ולרחמים בעיניך]
I have some struggles with these prayers, mainly because the traditional language makes a couple of assumptions that I don’t believe, e.g., that god is a conscious, agentive being; and that god is a ruler or sovereign of some kind. So why pray this stuff? Why pray at all?
I’m not sure I know yet. But one of the things that drew me to modern, liberal Judaism is its willingness to look at tradition, ask hard questions, and rethink our relationship to tradition and most importantly development meanings for it that make sense in our context today. SZ’s siddur has some beautiful readings especially associated with the Orifices Prayer and the Daily Blessings. But also, being who I am and where I am in life, I also can just sit there and think about what something means. Then there’s the simple experiential aspect where the hebrew functions as a kind of mantra, a sonorous and embodied swaying practice of focus and attention. I’ve been trying to find traditional melodies to sing the prayers, but am not having a lot of luck; I have found a Yemini melody for the Modeh Ani and Elohai N’Shamah, and another for the Sh’ma that I love, but which are difficult to sing early in the morning. In any case, beginning the day with what amounts to a 15 minute long remembrance of the miracle of being alive and gratitude for your body is, for me personally, a very good thing.
Still, I wonder why I’m doing this. As I’ve said many times on this blog, I came to Judaism for the practice, because I know that I need in my life regular focus and attention and structure to keep my mind contained, at least minimally, and to remind myself of my actual core values. What has shocked me in this process is a couple of things that I’ve learned by accident, just by doing the practice.
First, on a personal level (if you’ll permit), I have spent a long time, a very very long time, ignoring and hating my body; I didn’t quite understand the depth of that hatred until the past few weeks. 41 years at war with my own body. The daily ritual of confronting myself with gratitude for that body has been jarring and awakening. Where that will lead, I don’t yet know.
Second, there is an interesting layer of meanings with the “melech” language of traditional prayer. On one hand, it really goes back to pre-Babylonian captivity semitic Battle of the Gods (i.e., where various peoples and tribes were vying for control of the pantheon). This is the Hebrews claiming that their god is King of them all! Then there’s the later monotheistic layer, where the Jewish diaspora, along with Christians and Muslims, conceived of the One God as ruler of the universe, as supreme sovereign; and where theology developed around submission and helplessness. I think I’ve been inspired somewhat by Rabbi Green’s insistence that, despite some of our modern democratic discomfort with the Melech language, we need to keep it. Rabbi Green argues (if you’ll excuse an oversimplification) that it keeps the balance of Justice and Mercy in the works if we maintain and embrace the Melech language.
But I have come to think of the King/Ruler image as something a bit more important, in a buddhist sense. There is in the Orthodox siddur a long prayer leading up to the Sh’ma wherein the davenner works through the power and limitlessness and ultimateness of god in a way that, I have come to realize, works to eliminate or break open the Ego. That has resonated with my buddhist studies and practice, where one of the goals is disidentification, not so that you disappear, but so that you can see. The practice of recognizing our own human powerlessness can force important breaks in the Ego, to see one’s self and one’s place in society, the world, the universe with stark clarity. Of course, I am thinking here of Melech language as practice and meaning rather than as literal representation of an actual being. It’s the effect of the practice that matters. [There is much then to be said about the conncetion of this ego-break that I find to be vital here (and in Buddhism) and the notion of tikkun olam, but I haven't thought about that much yet.]
Which leads me to third: I hadn’t ever realized it, but all those years I’ve been meditating, there was something missing for me. In vipassana (and much more so in Zen technique), the egolessness and openness saved my life at a crucial juncture in my development, and it has sustained me for over a decade. But there’s a way in which it leaves me feeling empty (which some would say is the point), or more importantly, disconnected. I’ve been reading a book called Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Voices on Why Prayer Is Difficult and What to Do about It, by Rabbi Mike Comins. Rabbi Comins interviewed 50 different rabbis and organized his book around their observations about what prayer means and how to do it. The book has been very comforting to me on one level, in that many of the rabbis interviewed are humanists in the same way that I am.
But more importantly, what I have realized from these rabbis teachings is that whereas viapassana is completely monistic in its form and goal, that I still need some dualism. For anyone who has known me at all over the past 20 years, that will be an astounding revelation. But there is something about the act of “calling out” that creates a connection that is, for me, missing in Buddhist practice. I will probably continue vipassana meditation for the rest of my life; so what I’m saying here isn’t a condemnation. Rather, it’s that I had always wondered why I didn’t just dive in and become a full-fledged buddhist; something was always holding me back.
What I am starting to see is that I need both monism, and the practice of dualism for a fully formed spiritual life. “Calling out” in prayer—to praise, thank, and ask—is not about the reality, the thingliness of god; it’s about acknowledge the human need for relationship and connection. The day-to-day, real-life experience of being human is that the Ego is simply not the Other, and can never be. The desire to merge and blend with the Other that often drives sexual intercourse and that brief twinge of disappointment after you orgasm comes from the realization that I am not nor can I ever be the other. I am fundamentally separate, which drives the pleasure and the necessity of connection. For me personally, my buddhist experience was that the practice broke down my ego and helped me to see and accept, thereby freeing me to have compassion. But what it didn’t give me was a meaningful experience of connection to myself, to others, and to the world and cosmos. I think that, for me, prayer has the potential to provide that connection.