These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

What is a prayer? [pt. 3 in a series]

Posted on January 28, 2013 by Avi Benson-Goldberg

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(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Pardes students daven mincha at Mitzpe Rimon.

Pardes students daven mincha at Mitzpe Rimon.
(*click* for larger photo)

It’s been quite a long time since we last checked in. As you might recall, in parts one and two, we looked at what Meir and Rahel had to say about praying. The arrangement of the shiur was fascinating, because we heard first from a very capable prayer, and then from a self-admittedly prayer with out confidence. And then we rounded out with a James, who seemed to be both completely capable and confident, yet who was uncomfortable with the structures prayer has accumulated for itself.

jjmT’fillah is a spiritual practice. Open heartedness and vulnerability. Can I open my heart, can I be vulnerable, can I allow myself to feel things that are hidden, unexposed? And to do that in the presence of the divine. What is the divine, that changes. Sometimes it’s a traditional personal relationship and sometimes it’s more pantheistic relationship asking to be seen and to be heard.

For James, theology is a larger discussion– a way of speaking about our spiritual and religious experience. He’s not worried about making claims about truth or not. Whatever theological language the allows him to be open and vulnerable, that can help start to make sense of and reflect and cultivate more deeply that relationship he’s having with God–that’s the language that James thinks is important.

It’s a little intimidating listening to this, and even more so looking over my notes and reassembling them into something I hope will be useful to others: the responsibility James is laying on me, as someone who prays, is enormous. There’s a sense to what he’s saying that we need to grope around for a structure (or even dismantle the current one) that encourages us to have a personal relationship with the Divine, a la Avraham Avinu, while at the some time fitting in with the community.

When t’fillah didn’t mean anything, and I didn’t know what it was meant to do, I loved it. Something about being in the presence of others doing this. But when people talk, it’s like, Excuse me is the hazzan disturbing you?

And there are too many words in prayer–the structure does the opposite of creating a space for open hearted dialogue, and a lot of the ways that might perhaps help achieve these goals of ours are socially unacceptable in minyanim (and have been since the days of the Samuel): crying, groaning, walking around, or dancing. This is hard. As is trying to say all the words. Especially in shacharit.

In order for me to do it genuinely, it would take hours and hours. If I’m either for sure doing parts badly, or skipping parts, I am definitely choosing not to do parts badly. I limit everything before kriat shema–I cannot find a way to genuinely and seriously relate to all of those words.

You have to take responsibility for yourself and your prayer life: stop and say ‘this is a practice I am doing.’ Ask, how should I do this. In Jewish education, we don’t do a good job talking about how to do this, how to think it through concretely and ask for advice from those for whom prayer does work.

abgI was away in America for the end of last semester, finishing a conversion process that was a long time in the ending. And it was hard for me to think about writing this blog post–before I went and finished up the conversion, I couldn’t get myself into the head space of James. And then I was in America, and I was so busy doing rituals I couldn’t think about them too critically.

I remember one of the rabbis on my beit din [religious court, responsible for conversions and divorces, among other judgements] asked me “what changes after we put you in the water?” I didn’t really know what to say–that immediately after my feet touched the ground again and my head cleared the surface, I would glow with z’chus [righteousness]? That everything would suddenly come perfectly easily to me?

I said, I hope I continue to be better at the things that are hard for me. But I don’t know for sure. And we went in, and I curled up into a ball under the water, and when my feet hit the ground, it’s silly to say, but I felt the weight of Judaism sort of fall on me in full. Like ropes tying me to the ground, anchoring me.

I think about this shiur clali a lot these days. I pray a lot these days. I couldn’t tell you if I am a Meir, or a Rahel, or a James. Probably I am just an Avi–and I hope you are a you, dear reader. Come find me in the Pardes Beit Midrash, and tell me how you do or don’t do prayer.