New strategies for an ancient tradition

At the emotional high point of one of the central prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we say “teshuva, tefilla and tzedakah avert the evil decree.”

Ahead of the prayer marathons of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I wanted to write something about tefilla, prayer, the second of these three things. It is in many ways the least accessible of the three.

Teshuva – returning to our best selves – segues easily into a contemporary neo-therapeutic perspective. We may struggle to improve ourselves, but the desirability of doing so seems clear.

Tzedaka – doing justly – is similarly incontestable as a moral good.

But tefilla is hard, made the harder by the gap between the seeming presumption of the language of prayer – that there is an omniscient omnipotent G!d listening to our words and thoughts this very moment – and the solid instinct on the part of many of us that this is simply not the case.

Over the years, in the course of struggling with the davenning – not just Rosh Hashanah davenning, but davenning generally – I’ve tried different strategies to cope. It strikes me now that they’re all reasonable, partly because our interaction with prayer itself is changeable. Like a sophisticated Rorschach test, we see or feel different things at different times, even if the prayer itself is unchanging. So I share these different strategies with you to make of what you will.

The first, and the one I think I did the most between the ages of about seven and 15, is to seek to read the Hebrew as fast as you possibly can. I did this because it seemed to be what it was all about, and it was what my father was doing, and I assumed that it was therefore what I needed to do also. There is a certain satisfaction in reading an ancient prayer fluently, and a certain rhythm and cadence in the Hebrew which I think you can feel even if you don’t understand the words. There was a period, from the age of 15 and for quite a while afterwards, when I rejected this approach as stupid and empty – why say words if you either didn’t know what they meant, or did know and didn’t believe in them? – but now I’m not so sure.

I read a lovely article a few years ago that compared the brainwaves of people doing TM, transcendental meditation, with the brainwaves of Jewish people while davenning. They tested three sorts of davenners: one group who read the words slowly, in Hebrew, with comprehension; one who read the prayers in English; and one group that just davenned as fast as they could in Hebrew, mostly regardless of comprehension. It was this third group that turned out to have brainwaves almost identical to those of people doing TM – which is to say, significantly more relaxed and calm than we normally are whilst awake.

I was amused and delighted by this article. “My children have defeated me!” is G!d’s famous response in a Talmudic story in which heavenly intervention is rejected in favor of rabbinic due process. I read this article and thought, “My great-great-grandparents have defeated me!” Here I am, with an advanced degree in Jewish history, I spent all this time learning Hebrew and trying to understand the prayers, and it turns out that just rattling them off without worrying about theology or meaning is good for you after all.

So: if you can read Hebrew, and you’re in the mood – and maybe especially if you’re not in the mood – I commend just soaking into the words, reading them along at whatever is for you a comfortable pace, and thinking occasionally about the fact that you’re doing something that your grandparents’ grandparents – certainly your grandfather’s grandfather – did for most of their lives, in many cases three times a day. From an unknown ancient beginning until the shattering of the French Revolution and the challenge of modernity, regular rhythmic davenning anchored their lives, calmed their days and – it seems likely – did a variety of unmeasured good to their heart rate, brainwaves and resting pulse.

The second strategy is the opposite of the first: read the prayers in English, focusing not on dashing through them, but on reading them and thinking about them. This, of course, can be nearly fatal to one’s Jewish journey. We stumble over theology, theodicy, metaphors that have no real meaning in our lives, concepts we don’t agree with. It can be very tough.

Still, nearly fatal is not the same as fatal. I have become a fan of reading prayers – with kavannah, with sincerity and understanding – in English, and I think the practice is under-rated, especially in orthodox and conservadox crowds, where reading things in English seems somehow not really Jewish.

Part of the trick in reading a prayer in English is the trick of reading Shakespeare, except that we’re a lot more tolerant of Shakespeare than we are of English translations of prayer. When we read Shakespeare – more likely, when we hear Shakespeare – we forgive the archaisms and difficulties of the language not so much because of the poetry but because of the emotional accuracy. Our words may change, but our emotions and our crises, at root, do not.

I think that this is the key to responding to the plain meaning of prayer, and especially to the bits over which we stumble. The simplest way I can explain this is by reference to the standard beginning of a prayer, “Blessed are you G!d, our G!d, King of the universe:”

For a long time I would have said, a/ this seems to be directed to a G!d who is listening to my prayer, and I don’t believe in such a G!d; b/ what does it mean, our G!d – what about everyone else? And c/ “King of the universe” – ???

To me, now – though I still sometimes feel these things – I’m usually more generous in my understanding of them. In a famous essay, T S Eliot spoke of an “objective correlative” in relation to poetry, the way that poetry is an attempt to convey a particular feeling from author to reader, via the particular construction of words. Using Eliot’s concept, we need to think a little about what was or what might be the objective correlative of our prayers. What was the underlying original feeling for which the Hebrew is an approximation and a vehicle, and the English a translation of that approximation?

When you think of it in this way, the meaning of the prayer is a bridge back from our postmodern uncertainties to the different but parallel uncertainties of an ancient world. We need to know what is the same, and what has changed. I want to explain this by reference to the word we use for our Deity.

As a kid I grew up not writing the word “God” in English but rather writing “G-d”, which is how people do it in the orthodox world, the idea being not merely that the name of G-d is holy but also ineffable, not capable of being captured and contained like other words. Nowadays I instead write “G!d”, a twist suggested by Reb Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, and one that makes sense to me. The word “G!d” is, in a sense, our era’s translation of the word “G-d.” It is different because, like it or not, our scientific world has a different notion of G!d than that of our grandparents of centuries past. In a famous article in Tradition (an orthodox journal), a few years back, Professor Chaim Soloveitchik noted that despite the rise in learning and in some forms of observance in orthodox communities, he nevertheless observed the loss of a certain kind of awe in the davenning. When he was a kid, he wrote, he would sometimes see relatively unlearned people davenning the prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and sobbing as they did so, because they really felt themselves to be judged and because they were in fear for the coming year. Soloveitchik felt that the absence of such a sight today was the measure of how our attitude to prayer, and our belief in G!d – and in divine judgement and punishment – has shifted whether we like it or not.

Yet the similarity between G!d and G-d is the place where we can connect with the prayers despite the superficial problems of doing so. We have seen the photographs of planet earth taken from space, the blue and green, the clouds, the swirling living beauty of it. We can pull up images at the click of a mouse, print CAT scans of our brain, speak into a small tablet of plastic and metal and be heard by a loved one across the city or across the ocean. My grandma, who died in 2003 at the age of 95, was born when human-powered flight was just beginning, horses and trams filled the streets, television didn’t exist. “Blessed are you G!d, our G!d, King of the universe…” is a translation of “how amazing is this world, how incredible, how unbelievable, how incomprehensible, how hard to grasp, how beautiful, and also how scary, how risky and how terrifying”

If you read the prayers with comprehension, you have to do so also with imagination. You have to leap back to the seventeenth century in Safed, to the eleventh century in France and Spain, to the sixth century in Babylon – in Iraq -, to the turn of the millennium and the centuries before in the hills of Jerusalem, the forests of the Galil, the wadis of the Negev, the raw grandeur and blistering heat and beautiful unlikely pools of the Sinai. You have to think of the regular perils of daily life – illnesses, childbirth, failed crops, rain too much or too little – and the aching human desire to respond, to cry out, to express thanks for salvation, supplications for blessing in the coming year.

Our world is actually not so different. We don’t know what the coming year will bring. The dawn of September 11th 2001 saw the beginnings of what promised to be a beautiful day in New York. A five year old girl was mauled to death by a black bear in the Catskills. A woman that we sedered with in April 2002 was blown to pieces in a cafeteria at the Hebrew University four months later. Those who davenned in New York the Rosh Hashanah of 2001 will not soon forget the sobs that rent the synagogues as the chazan cried out the ancient words, “who shall live and who shall die, who at the predestined time and who before their time, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast.”

So: read the prayers with comprehension, but as you do so, translate them again – translate them into whatever it takes to get at what’s underneath them, whether it’s thankfulness, amazement, delight, desire, fear. When you scratch hard enough what you get to is a human emotion and a personal response that you have felt at some time, and that the prayers are there to remind you of.

And there’s one last thing I want to say about davenning: not about the words or the meaning but about the music.

The innovations of the last century – radio, gramophone, TV, stereo, CD, iPods – have steadily destroyed a culture of gathering in the home or in extended family gatherings and singing. We’re not used to the sound of our own voices, and many people will naturally say “I can’t sing, I can’t hold a tune.” We now expect perfection from our singers, and if we don’t ourselves meet that standard we’re embarrassed and we’d sooner not try. Linked to that, in the synagogues, is the potential unfamiliarity of the service. If we don’t know the tune we quickly tune out as active participants.

Yet we also feel the beauty of much of the music of the high holyday davenning. I personally am always sad when Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, because it means we don’t sing avinu malkeinu, the song which punctuates the five movements of the Yom Kippur symphony. As the day goes on, I sing it louder and louder, and at neilah, the concluding service, I’m belting it out, and I hear the people around me belting it out, and I know that we each of us, in different ways, have pushed through the difficulties of meaning and translation and have reached a shared emotional bedrock: please let me be a better person this year; please let things go better for my family, my friends, my community, Israel, the whole world; I really do mean to be better, please, power of the universe, help me do this, help this come true.

So soak into the music of the holidays, and sing even if you think you can’t, and sing loudly if you normally sing quietly. You will sing yourself into the prayers, and in doing so you may sing the people around you into the prayers also.

The very last thing is that tefilla, of course, is to be understood not by itself but in relation with tzedakah and teshuvah. We can seek to better ourselves (through teshuva, and that includes getting on a bike and getting in shape and eating more healthily as well) or the world (through tzedaka, and that too is an infinite number of possibilities), but if we want to do both, and Jewish tradition clearly signifies that we can and should, then somehow prayer, tefilla, is the connecting thread. One of the ideas behind Hazon’s Jewish environmental bike rides is that they create an opportunity to do all three together. It’s not our grandparents’ Judaism, but increasingly it is ours.

To me it’s clear that, as a community, we need to try to re-sacralize daily life, to see holiness beyond the boundaries of traditional synagogue prayer, to understand that connection with each other, with Jewish tradition, and with the wider world around us, is capable of happening – needs to happen – in new ways.

At the same time, I think we need a different sort of leap of faith when we do walk into a synagogue. Many of my own pathways to prayer have come from outside the synagogue and the prayer book: everything from yoga and TM (which I learned, of course, from a rabbinical student I had first met on a Greek island) to hiking, watching the sun come up in the desert and learning from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk.

I go into the prayer service of Rosh Hashanah not expecting necessarily to enjoy it, but knowing that it somehow connects me to my better self and to a better community, and knowing also that the moments of transcendence I’ve experienced in my life are ones which would have been understood by the rabbis of old who created these prayers. We need to trust that we can bring our whole selves with us, our experiences, our education, our therapy, our complicated lives, and yet trust that this tradition, so old, so strong, so supple, has wisdom and gifts for us, if we can only be open to the prayers and gentle with ourselves and each other.

Shana tova: may it be a sweet and healthy and peaceful year for you, for all whom you hold dear, and for the living world that sustains us.

Nigel Savage
Elul 5765 / September 2005