Check out the first in a series of videos I’m doing about getting into Jewish prayer!
In this one, we explore the first blessing of the Amidah, the central part of the prayer service. It focuses on our connection with our ancestors, how we benefit from their acts of loving kindness, and how our own acts of loving kindness translate into redemption for our descendants!
Well, once again it has been quite a while since I posted anything here. A lot has happened in the last two years, to be sure – graduated, became a rabbi, got married… I’m a step-parent now. For real. But there will be time enough to hash all that out. For now, this is what I have to say: For those of you out there who actually read this thing, I apologize for letting it languish for so long. Due to one thing and another, for a long time I wasn’t certain that I actually had anything to say. Now, I’ve decided that I do. So stay tuned, I guess. In the meantime, here’s what I’ve been praying this year for Sukkot:
Beloved God, often are you praised as the one who settled our wandering ancestors in the land of your promise, but how often do we praise you for commanding Abraham and Sarai to abandon house and home for a life of wandering? Often are you praised as the maker of peace; how often do we praise you as the one who unsettles the mind and brings disquiet to the heart? Contentment, security, comfort – we crave these things above all else, and so we beg you for them when we don’t have them and praise you for them when we do. And yet, what is it that you ask of us? To “go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)
In our generation many of us have only a tenuous connection to the soil, and so it may seem paradoxical to us that this the season of harvest rejoicing was also for our ancestors the time of deepest anxiety. Giving thanks for the sustaining bounty of the earth, they also prayed like hell for the life giving rains that might or might not come this year. This then was the essence of your promise – to take us out of slavery in a land of security watered by the never-ceasing Nile and to grant us freedom in a land whose rocky heights are forever dependent on the rains of heaven. So goes the psalm:
Place not your trust in human benefactors
In human beings without power to save
Their spirit leaves, they go back to the ground
On that day their plans are lost
Happy is the one with the God of Jacob for a help
Whose hope is in the Lord our God
Dear one, you know what we are like. In unsettled times it is hard for us not to dig in, to retrench, to close the gates and bar the doors and wait for the storm to pass regardless of who might knock without, looking for shelter. This, we know, is the way of humanity, but it is not your way, and so you command us at this time of year to leave the security of our homes, to camp out in temporary shelters like the refugees we are and were and ever will be, to welcome in every guest.
And so, in this the season of our insecurity, we pray to you not for comfort, but for clarity; not for complacency, but for compassion; not, above all else, for security, but for the disquiet of the heart that drives us out into the world to do your work.
Oh You my Love,
You whom our fear of love
And brutal callousness reduce
To a “God of the gaps,”
We need you now
Need perhaps those very gaps
So much more than ever
You whom we praise
For separating dark from light
The ground from water
The holy from the workaday
Can You not cleave us from ourselves
A little bit
A gap, a space
Enough to see
Just where our insides
Are taking us?
A gap, oh please,
My Love, between
Our origins and our actions
Between the angry churning
Of our bellies and
The workings of our minds
A gap between the words we say
And the ears of those we speak against
A gap between our better selves
And the evil urge
Between every bomb, every blade,
Every bullet, brick and rocket
And its intended target
Between our suffering
And the death of compassion
And if we somehow find our way
Through this madness that we’ve made
Of this, Your good Earth
Then we’ll see you on the other side
Of the gap
Here’s a little something I never noticed about the Torah service until I was studying it with my colleague Shelley Goldman the other day. At the beginning of the Torah service, when the Torah scroll is being removed from the Ark, we read a biblical passage from Bamidbar (Numbers), Chapter 10, which depicts the Israelites pulling up stakes and setting out on another leg of their journey through the wilderness:
ויהי בנסע הארן ויאמר משה
(Translation: And so it was that when the Ark set out on its journey Moses would say…)
At the end of the Torah service, when the Torah is being put back into the ark, we read a passage from the same perek (chapter):
(Translation: And when it [i.e. the Ark] came to rest, he [i.e. Moses] would say…)
In other words, the reading of the Torah is bracketed by descriptions of the Ark setting out from one camp site and setting up camp at the next. So in a very real way, when we are reading the Torah, we are supposed to feel as if we are following alongside the Israelites as they travel through the midbar (wilderness), walking along with them and experiencing their journey as our own. One of the interpretations of the biblical commandment of counting the Omer (the “week of weeks” between Passover and Shavuot) is that we are tracing the path of the Israelites from redemption (Passover) to the revelation at Sinai (Shavuot). If in every generation we are to consider ourselves as if we, personally, experienced redemption from Egypt and as if we, personally, were present at the foot of Sinai when God gave Israel the Torah, then the weekly cycle of Torah readings can be seen as the concrete way in which we relive these transformative events over and over again, finding new meaning with each cyclical revolution.
Welcome to part 1 of my current pet project for the remainder of the summer, which is to go through each of 19 blessings of the Shmoneh Esrei and explore what kind of interesting things they have to tell us about the God they are directed toward. One of the neat aspects of the civilizational approach (see my previous posts on Reconstructionism) is that it throws into sharp relief one of the fundamental aspects of Judaism: that rather than upholding a single, coherent theology Judaism embraces an eclectic array of theological perspectives (often differing in emphasis, occasionally mutually exclusive), drawn from across the vast expanse of Jewish history. While from a certain point of view this can make it difficult to identify what, if anything, Judaism has to teach us about God, from another perspective it gives us an incredibly flexible toolkit for encountering a reality which by definition exceeds the capacity of the human mind to comprehend. Any truly Jewish attempt to understand the divine must begin with the humble admission of our inability to fully grasp the infinite.
With that in mind, let’s begin with the Avot v’Imahot. What’s really interesting about this blessing, and what makes it particularly appropriate that it should come first, is how it is at the same time so old and so new. Of all the alterations made to the Amidah in liberal siddurim, the most universally accepted is the addition of the names of the matriarchs–Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah–to the traditional patriarchal list of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This fairly simple addition is indicative of one of the most significant shifts in the Jewish community to occur in modern times: the slow, painful and hard-fought struggle of women to claim recognition as full members of the Jewish people, on an equal footing with men and with an equal stake in the ongoing evolution of our religious civilization. This struggle has made itself felt in all aspects of Jewish life, from the question of who can serve as leaders in communal organizations to differing resources and expectations in the religious education of children. As Judith Plaskow points out in Standing Again At Sinai, one of the areas which it has been necessary for women to reclaim for themselve has been that of history, which in the Jewish world as in most other societies has been up to recently almost exclusively a male-dominated discourse reflecting male concerns, in which women enter only peripherally as the objects of male desire, anxiety and control.
The Avot v’Imahot exemplifies this assertion by Jewish women of the right not to be erased from the historical narrative of their people by inscribing the matriarchs alongside the patriarchs in this traditional affirmation of the relationship between God and Israel. I’m some respects, the Avot may represent one of the earliest strata of Jewish theology, reflecting as it does a basically tribal world view in which God may indeed be the transcendent creator of worlds, adon olamim, but the significance of this idea is nevertheless eclipsed by the more local concern of the individual relationship between a particular god and that god’s particular people.
Rather than beginning with the more standard formula which emphasizes both God’s status as our god (eloheinu) and as “king of the world” (melech ha’olam), the Avot begins more simply by blessing God as “our god, and the god of our fathers (and mothers).” This perspective, also in evidence in different places throughout the Tanakh, is less concerned with the idea with God’s universal sovereignty than it is with the notion of God as elohei Yisrael, the God of Israel, whom we can rely upon for blessing and support on account of the covenant struck between that god and our ancestors. The omission in this context of the names of the matriarchs has always been significant because it reflected the patriarchal understanding of that covenant that saw it as a relationship between God and the privileged society of Jewish males, with women playing only a peripheral role if that.
It is this understanding of covenant which made it possible throughout much of Jewish history to regard the all-important realms of religious ritual and Torah study as the sole prerogative and responsibility of men, with the self-reinforcing result that men have historically had sole access to the language and symbolic vocabulary for describing God. By establishing a place for the matriarchs alongside the patriarchs in this ritual affirmation of covenental continuity, Jewish women have asserted their right to have a voice in the ongoing evolution of our collective understanding of that covenant.
The basic theological truth contained in this blessing therefore is that all our understanding of God ultimately arises out of our own experience, that before we can say anything else about God we must first understand hir as our God. Even this intensely personal experience, however, does not arise in a vaccum. We come into ourselves through the medium of a family and a community into which we are born, and we are shaped by the historical experiences of our people just as surely as we are influenced by our own experiences. Thus, before looking at the role God has played in our own lives we must first acknowledge the role God has played in the lives of those who have come before us, and in the life of the community of which we are a part, understood in the broadest possible sense.
So I’ve got this thing about language and the truth–I like them to correspond. One of the most frustrating experiences of my life was when I was in second grade and they made us take this standardized test. One of the questions had three pictures–a dog, a boy and a potato–and asked you which one had eyes but couldn’t see. Of course, you probably know the answer they wanted me to give, but I had not yet been initiated into the more bizarre and illogical quirks of the English language, so I spent several long and frustrating minutes wrestling with the problem before declaring, under protest, that the dog must be blind. I’m pretty sure that when I eventually found out that potatoes have “eyes” it just made me more angry, not less.
Which is all to say that I get very emotionally invested in words and how they’re used. That’s why I think that one of the best ways to understand what we believe about God is to pay close attention to what we say about hir. Of all the Jewish texts, I think the siddur is really the most fascinating to study because of the way it assembles bits and pieces of the tradition from all over the place into a collection of things we say about God collectively, on a regular basis, over and over and over again.
I want to focus on the Shmoneh Esrei (so named because it had eighteen blessings before they added a nineteenth) because it exemplifies some basic themes you find throughout the siddur. First, what it has to say about God is very functional. The Amidah isn’t concerned with speculating about what kind of a thing God is, so much as focusing on the things God does. This is either very pragmatic, or deeply insightful, or both if you like. Reading what the Shmoneh Esrei has to say about God makes me think of the theology of the Rambam (Moses Maimonides), who claimed that we can’t really say or know anything about God because our concepts are all formulated to handle the finite things we encounter in this world and aren’t built to handle the infinite and transcendent. The only things we can really know about God are A.) What God is not and B.) What God does.
I thought it would be interesting then to go through the Shmoneh Esrei blessing by blessing and think about what each one is saying about God and our relationship to hir. This isn’t necessarily to say that you have to believe everything (or anything) the Amidah has to say about God in order to find meaning in reciting it each day. But if you, like me, happen to think of God as a transcendent and incomprehensible reality that nevertheless has an effect on our lives that can only be described in the language of relationship and concern, then this exercize might be an interesting model for thinking about what that means for you.