~ Sunday, March 15, 2009 ~
[I wrote this piece for my synagogue's occasional publication and thought I'd post it here too. The topic was prayer; other than that we had free reign. I didn't include this in the piece because I figured everyone at the synagogue would know it, but some of you might find it useful to know that in Hebrew the verb "to pray" is "l'hitpallel", which translates more literally as something like "to self-judge", so the Jewish sense of prayer is less of the petition and more of the self-examination through reminding oneself of Jewish ideals and obligations.]
During the reception after I became a Bat Mitzvah, amid the more generic greetings and congratulations, I received several versions of the following compliment: "You're so sincere when you pray!" This came primarily from members of the congregation who were around my parents' age. I didn't know how to respond.
The first thing that almost flew out of my mouth was, "Aren't you?" Fortunately I'd learned enough by then about social interaction rules to swallow my words. Still, I was disillusioned. I always tried to concentrate on what I was saying when I prayed, but if I had inadvertently shown myself to be more sincere than other people who'd presumably been developing their praying skills far longer than I, did that mean I'd hit the ceiling early? That whatever prayer-sincerity I'd developed was as much as I could ever hope to have? Had I beat the game? Was all the challenge gone from Judaism, just when it was supposed to be beginning?
The next thing I wanted to say was, "That's what you think." I was a bit of a perfectionist about my part of the Bat Mitzvah ceremony, and had devoted a good deal of time learning to chant the prayers and the parsha fluently and clearly with no mistakes. I loved doing it, but there was a big difference between polished presentation and actually meaning what I said. I had studied the meanings of the prayers, sure, but they weren't mine; I wasn't exactly pouring out the deepest yearnings of my heart as I progressed through the Shabbat morning liturgy. I didn't want to deceive people into thinking I was more sincere than I really was, but how should I have prayed so as not to deceive them? Should I have stood awkwardly with my head down, mumbling the words into my chest?
The third thing I didn't say was, "What difference does it make to you whether I'm sincere or not?" In Hebrew School we'd been taught to read and chant and understand the prayers, and had been encouraged in (and praised for) nothing but mastery of the text. Ours was a small Reform congregation in the San Francisco Bay Area, about as liberal as they come. No one ever told me I had to mean what I said, so it was strange to receive praise for a quality that had never before been presented to me as worthy of pursuing. Besides, when I led the prayers that morning, I was doing it for the sake of guiding the rest of the congregation through the service. I had always thought they would bring to it as much or as little sincerity as they felt. I wasn't doing it to inspire them by my example to new heights of sincerity. That wasn't my job, was it? Or was that what I should have been learning to do all along? It had never occurred to me before that the service leader is not only a bouncing ball on a Karaoke screen, but also the one who, like it or not, sets the tone for everyone else. Gosh, had all those people, professionals and grandparents and founding members, been influenced in their prayer-experience by an unintentionally faux-sincere 13-year-old kid? What was wrong with the world?
I eventually realized that I had probably misinterpreted my elders' compliments, and that they had likely meant something more like, "It's unusual for someone of your age to care enough about the liturgy to bother enunciating." Still, the unsettling realization stayed with me. My praying was polished, but insincere. I was a Bad Jew.
Ten years later I moved to New York to attend Drisha's Beit Midrash program, intending to land myself in rabbinical school the following year. Good rabbinical school candidates pray regularly, I figured, so once there I did my best to learn to pray with the Jews of Manhattan's Upper West Side. I followed my classmates to Ramath Orah, B'nai Jeshurun, and Hadar. I was a disaster. Gates of Prayer, the only siddur I had ever used, was nowhere to be found. Everyone here either davvened from Sim Shalom, which had paragraphs and paragraphs of liturgy I'd never seen before (but which everyone else seemed to know), or they used the Art Scroll siddur, which left me utterly lost. And the worst part was all that silence! I didn't understand the point of so much silent prayer. I wanted to sing the tunes I knew with the people around me. Why throw out all those pretty melodies and replace them with hurried whispering? At least when we sang or chanted together, I could put my voice behind the prayer and feel sincere. If I was singing along, that was proof enough that I must mean what I'm saying; I didn't have to examine more closely whether the words were actually coming from me rather than merely sliding through me. When the melodies went away, only my thoughts were left, and usually those thoughts were comprised of things like, "How is it we never learned this one?" or "What page are we on?" or "Am I doing it quickly enough?" I hated how the silent prayers exposed me to myself, called me out for the fake that I was, a creampuff who mostly liked to pray for the sake of the pretty music. I got more comfortable with the new liturgy over the course of the year and learned how to pace myself, but I still didn't feel as if all the prayers were mine. Some, like Yotzer, Ma'ariv Aravim, and the Nisim b'Chol Yom, I could totally get behind, because I already generally felt grateful for many aspects of my life, and I was comfortable thinking of God as the power that keeps the laws of physics working the way they do. There were other prayers, however, that remained inaccessible to me. The Kaddishes, for example, left me cold, as did the Kedusha and several other parts of the Amida. I just didn't know what to do with all that talk about God's greatness when it wasn't illustrated with some specific experience that I had had or could at least imagine having. It seemed sterile and remote.
When we prayed aloud, I could justify my actions to myself by saying I was doing it for the sake of bonding with the community or reinforcing a sense of shared identity, both of which I considered worthwhile. When we prayed silently, though, it was just me and the words, and if I didn't have a good sense of what the words themselves meant (I had learned not to trust the English translations, which always seemed to opt for poetry and inoffensiveness at the cost of accuracy), or if I understood them and disagreed, then I was just lying to myself, and what was the point of that?
Around this time I was dating a Christian. When I learned about how he prayed, I could hardly believe it. Kneel down and talk directly to God? Make up your own words? And God talks back?? It's not as if I'd never heard of the practice, but I didn't expect to ever meet anyone who actually did it, who actually believed in it. It was incomprehensible to me. If God exists at all, then surely God is the power behind the workings of the universe! How conceited to think that God is going to pay attention directly to me every time I decide to pray! But then the fellow challenged me to ask God whether or not I should go to rabbinical school, and to listen for an answer, and I have too much pride to turn down a challenge like that. So one afternoon I went out to find a secluded area where I would attempt to speak directly with God.
I walked until I found a likely spot on drying grass among some trees, but it was too out in the open. I went to where the trees were clustered more thickly, but there I couldn't see enough of the sky. I moved to another spot where I could see more sky, but there the buildings were visible, and I didn't think I could do this with visual reminders of civilization. I walked around for a while longer, but finally gave up and stood in an imperfect spot and closed my eyes. Then I tried to speak.
It was terrifying. Where could I begin? Anything I thought to say seemed, in light of the nature of my Interlocutor, not good enough. The question I had set out to ask suddenly appeared insignificant, and what's more, the very idea that I should try to engage God in conversation was, I felt sure, so unacceptable to God that God would refuse to answer just on principle, if there even was a God at all. What was I thinking, trying to do this without the help of other Jews around me, the Torah in its ark in front of me, and the book of approved words in my hands? I waited a moment more, hoping something miraculous would happen to take the pressure off. Nothing did, of course. In the stillness, feeling simultaneously shocked at my own audacity and foolish for halfway believing, I haltingly articulated a question. It wasn't polished, but it was certainly sincere.
After saying all I could think of to say (not that God wouldn't already have known all my thoughts before they were voiced, if there even was a God) I held still and concentrated hard, waiting to see if any non-Miriam-like ideas were going to enter my head. There was nothing. There was only the overwhelming sense that the universe really had no interest whatsoever in whether I go to rabbinical school or not, and that it was really just up to me. If I wanted to do it (and I definitely wanted to do it), I should go ahead and do it. I was convinced it was the right thing for me to do, but that had nothing to do with God's wishes. As far as I could tell, God didn't care. I was a little disappointed, but that disappointment was sweetened by the rush of post-fear relief I felt. Better yet, God, if there is one, had the chance to stop me and didn't, so at least I wasn't acting against some sort of Eminent Cosmic Disapproval.
Since this experience, I've tried the direct-prayer method only a few times more, all of which when I was so anguished that even gripping fear seemed like an improvement. I've never received anything more answer-like than the same old silence. It's cathartic, certainly, to have done something terrifying, and I have enjoyed the post-prayer relief as I would enjoy a post-exercise glow, but I don't think it's a good way for me to make the important decisions in my life. I've joked to my boyfriend that this proves God doesn't talk to me. He says I must be doing it wrong. But every time I work up the nerve to try again, it's just as terrifying and as silence-producing as it was the first time, so I don't do it often. Still, the experience has given me a glimpse of how I can transform my regular prayers into something more powerful and sincere. That sense of confronting God-if-there-is-one was never part of my prayer before, but when I work up the nerve to invoke it, it instantly puts everything else into sharp relief. I'm so gripped by the idea of God listening that God barely needs to listen at all; I can imagine how God would react if God existed and were listening, and so I can do the work myself that God would have done. It's somewhat like having an extra-strength version of my own conscience looming over me, reminding me of what really matters and what doesn't, what I ought to do and who I want to be. It's very effective. And even though I haven't received any recent remarks about how sincerely I pray, if someone did remark on it now, I think I could smile and accept the compliment.
~ prattled by Miriam at 9:28 p.m. [+]
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