Recently, in a Facebook group of Jewish writers, to which I belong, called Hevriabook, one of the members posted the following plaintive statement and question:
Confession: I don’t believe in the power of prayer. And it’s getting in the way of my love for Judaism. I don’t enjoy praying, I don’t believe that praying does anything. And as a result, I’m drifting. I don’t want to drift. Have any of you ever dealt with this?
And since reading her post, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because I understand how she feels. When it comes to the power of traditional prayer, I’ve experienced the feeling of drifting she describes.
Let me be clear. I believe there is value in communal prayer, that is, in the act of people gathering, at fixed times, to raise their voices together; in thanks, in celebration and in sorrow, as well as to request God’s intervention, whether in the mundane details of our daily lives or to deal with a crisis.
But what about the language and substance of the prayers themselves? Are the words—some of which are two thousand years old (!)—relevant in the contemporary world? For me, far too many of the prayers found in the traditional prayer book seem distant and out of touch with my own outlook. Sometimes, even, I find the words offensive.
One glaring example, is the daily prayer Baruch atah Hashem, Elokeinu melech ha’olam, she’lo asa’nee isha (Blessed are you God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a woman). The commentators go to great lengths to explain that this verbiage is no knock against women. It simply allows a man to thank God for giving men the ability to do more commandments than women (who are exempt from positive commandments governed by time; for example the commandment to pray). This reasoning appears in the Tosefta, a compilation of oral law from the 2nd century; which is exactly my point. And, it’s worth mentioning that when those words were written and inserted into the liturgy, there were no women on the committee.
This isn’t to say I reject the prayer book because it is ancient. And, in fact, I find some traditional prayers moving and relevant. But, in most cases, the words weren’t written by God. As such, they are subjective; like all writing and thinking, a product of time, place, circumstance and the idiosyncrasies of mortal man. It seems to me that finding meaning in prayer is far more important for the individual than adhering to a protocol that is an obstacle to one’s love for Judaism.
Therefore, in answer to my Hevriabook friend, I look to poetry for the meaning I find absent in the traditional prayer book. God has created all of the wonderful poets whose work I enjoy. Some of them are Jewish, many are not. But whomever they are, it is God who’s enabled them to write poems that make me smile, laugh out loud, inflame my desire, enrage me, ennoble me, confuse me, enlighten me. And by reading poetry every day, irrespective of how busy or tired I may be, I show God my gratitude for the incredible gift he has bestowed.
And by writing my own poetry, I offer additional thanks; each word informed by the knowledge that God has planted certain needs in me: the need to clarify and codify, reveal and release. When I’m confused, writing poetry allows me to strip down my thoughts, buff and polish them until they are so shiny I can see my reflection in them. Though I’m not nearly the poet I wish I could be, every now and then I write something that pleases me. And what a blessing it is to create something from nothing; to create as we were created.
That said, there are parts of the traditional prayer book that move and inspire me as much as any poem by my favorite poets. I remember a time when my wife and I were a young couple. We attended a small synagogue every Sabbath with a makeshift mechitza (the barrier separating the male and female worshipers in Orthodox synagogues) and I recall how our two-year-old daughter, Jessica, used to toddle back and forth through the cotton sheet separating the men and women, spending a few minutes with my wife, a few minutes with me; back and forth, back and forth, as if she owned the joint.
I remember what it felt like to pick her up, the sweet smells of baby shampoo and Honey Nut Cheerios wafting off of her. Her arms wrapped tight around my neck, I’d press my stubbled cheek against her soft face and sing, in Hebrew: Aitz hayyim hee, la’machazikim bah (The Torah is a tree of life for those who grasp onto it). I think these lovely, poetic words from Proverbs, incorporated into the Sabbath liturgy, may have been the first song Jessie knew by heart.
One time, as the Torah was being returned to the Ark, Jessie started singing the prayer loud enough for everyone in the room to notice. Well, nothing is cuter than a little kid doing something unexpected and everyone laughed, but it didn’t deter Jessie who just kept on singing.
I was filled with pride and love for the little creature in my arms, but I felt something else too. Though I had been mindlessly reciting this prayer throughout the years, I understood that day, for the first time, how deeply rooted is this Tree of Life. And as I held my daughter, I thought, I’ve finally discovered it, the meaning of life: hold on to Torah and hold on to the people you love.
How grateful I am for the lessons that poetry has taught me. How grateful I am to God for giving the world poetry.
With that, I offer this week’s parsha poem, entitled Write, Pray, Love.
Write, Pray, Love
In certain ways, writing is a form of prayer.
The sages teach that a Jew should recite 100 blessings every day.
Assuming 8 hours sleep, this requires a blessing every 9.6 minutes
on average. And though I only sleep 5 hours a night, giving me 1.8
minutes more, on average, over the well-rested Jew, this is too much
for me. But I do pray, in my own way, eschewing the traditional words
written by men who thought so little of women that they thanked God
for not making them one. Instead, I think of the poets I admire, Jews
and gentiles, men and women, believers and atheists, sinners all.
While those around me sway and chant “The 18 Blessings,” I close my
eyes and think of sad Anne Sexton, who killed herself, but left us this:
“There is joy in all; in the hair I brush each morning, in the Cannon towel,
newly washed…in the chapel of eggs I cook each morning…All this is God.”
And Mary Oliver, Unitarian and gay, who wrote: “There is life without love.
It is not worth a bent penny…”
And I think of Amichai, who just before he died gifted us with these blessed
words: “Open closed open. Before we are born, everything is open without us.
For as long as we live, everything is closed within us. And when we die,
everything is open again. Open closed open. That’s all we are.”
I open my eyes, close them and open them again, happy to be alive. I decide on
eggs for breakfast, a chapel of them. And I will share them with you, if you like.
Rubbing an imaginary bent penny between my thumb and forefinger, for luck,
I realize: how blessed I am, to be in love.