asking g-d

In my Talmud class we’re reading a section from Baba Metzia called the “gold chapter”; it deals first with honesty in business exchanges and then moves on to honesty in personal interactions, or ona’at devarim, “oppression with words.” As is typical of gemara, the rabbis discuss the nature of the issue at hand and use Biblical passages and stories to back up their arguments. In an extreme moment, one of the rabbis notes that if someone embarrasses a friend, it is as if that person has spilled blood. They are especially concerned with ona’at devarim because, they say, the gates of prayer are always open to tears; that is, G-d always hears the petitions of those who have been oppressed by words.

rabban gamliel's alleged grave in yavneh

rabban gamliel’s alleged grave in yavneh (photograph used under wikipedia creative commons license)

They tell the story of Rabbi Eliezer, the head of the yeshiva, who was excommunicated for his unpopular opinions. When Rabbi Akiva tells Eliezer of the decision, his anguish causes everything he looks upon to be burned up. It happens that at that time Rabban Gamliel, who took over the yeshiva, is on a ship, and the sea begins storm. Gamliel knows immediately that his safety is threatened because of Eliezer. It also turns out that Rabbi Eliezer’s wife is Gamliel’s sister, and she is worried for Gamliel’s life. In perhaps not the most effective method, she begins to watch Eliezer constantly to keep him from praying tachanun, a supplicatory prayer. (Elsewhere in the Talmud, tachanun is called “a time of divine goodwill,” during which supplication is more likely to be received.) On Rosh Hodesh (the first day of a Jewish month, determined by a new moon), tachanun is not recited. One day Eliezer’s wife gets confused, erroneously thinks it’s Rosh Hodesh, and abandons her vigilant watch over Eliezer. In her absence, he prays tachanun, and Rabban Gamliel dies.

It’s a bizarre story, but certainly one that gives some insight into how powerful the rabbis consider both words to others and words to G-d.

More than a month ago in my tefila group, we were looking at the amidah, often just referred to as “the prayer.” It consists of 18 (well, really 19, but I don’t need to get into that here) blessings, several of which are called bakashot, or prayers of asking. The person who led davennen that morning first asked us to think about why we struggle with petitionary prayer. Not if — but why. The assumption was that we all did, and indeed, we all did. Among those in my group, someone cited a lack of a conception of a personal g-d; another, the association with the common Christian practice of ad hoc prayer; a third, a doubt that G-d does (or even should) intervene in our lives. Added someone else, “G-d wouldn’t bother with me. My needs are too small. I am too small.” Our prayer leader said, and I can still hear her saying it, so powerful was it,

“Where did the idea of G-d as a scant resource come from?”

Yes: Any divine being I want to believe in would be able to handle everything, the small stuff as well as the big stuff. Why not ask?

At the Rabbis Without Borders retreat that I attended a few weeks ago, one of the facilitators asked us to share a time when “prayer worked for us,” as a way of opening a conversation about how to make prayer services work for our congregants. Many shared stories of times of distress, of getting on their knees and begging for intervention or answers from G-d.

I haven’t had that experience. So I thought about the efficacy of prayer a little differently. My beloved cousin, who I grew up with and who is like a sister to me, is expecting a child in the fall, a child she has been wanting for a very long time. When she called to tell me her good news, I immediately thought, I want to pray for a healthy pregnancy and a healthy child. And I then almost immediately thought, That’s ridiculous. Pregnancy is a scientific process of cell growth, not subject to divine intervention: If I pray and something goes wrong, would that mean my prayer was somehow deficient? If I pray and everything goes well, would that mean that I had reached G-d? What would that mean for other folks whose pregnancies or children had not fared well?

hannah victors

hannah giving her son samuel to the priest, by jan victors (photograph used under wikipedia creative commons license)

I have a hard time with petitionary prayer for all the reasons above — and because I have a hard time asking for help, admitting that I need something, acknowledging that I want what is out of my control. And there’s certainly a perceived resistance to the prayer of asking in Judaism: On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, we don’t petition G-d. The implication is then that asking is somehow not holy. But the rabbis also saw the value in petitionary prayer: On Rosh Hashanah, another holy day, we read the story of Hannah. Bitter and distraught at her childlessness, she goes up to the temple and prays — her lips moving but with no sounds — and weeps, and promises any child she will have to the service of G-d. Hannah is the first to call G-d “the Lord of Hosts” (יהוה צבאות), and the rabbis say that Hannah’s silent prayer should be a model for for our own. (It should be noted that Hannah’s request proves highly effective, as a short time later she has Samuel.)

One of the wisest things I ever read about prayer was in the book The Unlikely Disciple. Nonbeliever Kevin Roose enrolls at Liberty University, the erstwhile institution of Dr. Jerry Fallwell, and goes about doing all that is required of him, including prayer. He notes that in spite of his lack of belief, his daily prayer becomes meaningful. It changes him. As I noted in my post about the book, “[H]e begins by articulating his hopes for his family and friends, and he comes to find that — non-belief in G-d notwithstanding — he actually enjoys the opportunity for reflection.” A friend from Hebrew College writes something similar in this thoughtful piece about praying as an atheist.

So I decided to pray for my cousin’s child. And to me, that means prayer has “worked.”

korbanot

קרבנת collage; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

We take a journey through time, flying up out of the 21st century CE room at Hebrew College, into the air, back down to the 5th century BCE Temple in Jerusalem.

We say birkot hashachar together as we ascend the steps of the Temple. Fifteen steps is fourteen fixed prayers and one individual prayer. And then we split up.

The Temple is crowded, and it’s hard to take it all in. I meet with the high priest in his inner chamber, but I have nothing to give. He gifts me anyway.

We don’t say blessings. We do blessings. We offer sacrifice. We are offered in return.

We convene again, and we descend the steps. We run. We fly. We are back at Hebrew College, its own Temple.

We say baruch sheamar.

I wrote most of this right after a guided meditation for korbanot, the prayer that my tefila group is looking at this week. Unlike the guided mediation for elohai neshama, the prompts for this exercise were not the actual words of the prayer (which is part of why I haven’t reproduced them here, as I have for previous tefila group posts) but the idea of the prayer.

Korbanot are a selection of biblical and Talmudic passages that explain how the service in the Temple operated. It can be generally said that in the post-Temple era, prayer replaced sacrifice. Thus, “[a]lthough these passages can be found in most traditional prayer books, reading them has become less common. Because of their focus on animal sacrifice in the Temple many liberal prayer books do not print them at all” (Ben Kell). Indeed, the siddur that I use does not include them.

As part of what I would describe as a liberal Judaism, I am uncomfortable with references to the Temple that indicate a longing for its return – which I would suggest that these do. Thus, I appreciated the fact that we did not focus on the prayers themselves; it is unlikely that I will incorporate them into my practice. My ambivalence about the prayers is reflected in my collage (above), into which I incorporated photographs of temples that don’t cause me so much consternation: the Pantheon in Rome and the altar of Vespasian in Pompeii.

Yet I find compelling the metaphor of prayer as concrete action. I generally pray without expectation of its literal efficacy in anywise other than on me. Could I also begin to think about my prayer as an offering to G-d?

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This post is part of a series about my year-long tefila (“prayer”) group. Read other posts about the group here. View my artwork inspired by the group here.

the dovekeepers

Trigger warning: The book and this post, albeit briefly, explore the subject of sexual violence, which may be upsetting to survivors.

On New Year’s Eve I finished Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers, my first by her. I picked it up because it’s the next book of a Jewish Reads book club I just started getting emails from (not sure yet if I will go to a discussion).

The book is the about the settlement at Masada, where Jewish rebels in 70 C.E. resisted the Roman army for months before killing themselves in a mass suicide when their destruction was inevitable. The story is told in four parts, each by a woman who took a different path to arrive at the mountain in the Judean desert.

Yael begins the story. Her father is one of the Sicarii, assassins who kill Jews complying with Romans bent on the destruction of the Temple. It’s in this environment of civil war and anti-Semitism that Yael’s brother, also an assassin, and eventually Yael and her father, are forced to flee Jerusalem. On the way across the desert, Yael and one of her traveling companions become lovers, but he and his family don’t survive the journey. She arrives pregnant at Masada and begins to work in the dovecotes with three other women.

One of them, Revka, picks up the thread of the story. A baker’s wife in Shiloh, she leaves with her daughter, scholar son-in-law, and their two sons after her husband is killed by the Romans. En route to Masada, on Yom Kippur, they are set upon by Roman army deserters, who brutally gang rape her daughter. Her son-in-law returns from prayers to find his wife and her attackers dead. They arrive at Masada, her grandsons rendered mute by the trauma and her son-in-law, a brutal warrior with a death wish.

Aziza speaks next. Raised as a boy in the land of Moab, across the Dead Sea, she becomes a skilled warrior. She arrives at Masada, along with her half-brother and beloved half-sister, after being sent for by her mother’s lover.

Her mother, Shirah, the last of the dovekeepers, finishes the story proper. Born in Alexandria, she is raised by her mother to practice magic. But when her mother falls out of favor with the Jewish community, Shirah is sent to her mother’s family in Jerusalem. Unmarried, she is banished after she gives birth to Aziza but is rescued by a Moabite, who takes her to his homeland. She arrives at Masada from Moab, with Aziza and two other children, to reunite with her Jerusalem lover.

The historian Josephus, the main source of the siege of Masada, reports that the only survivors were two women and five children. The Dovekeepers is Alice Hoffman’s imaging of how a settlement of nine hundred got winnowed to seven. But it doesn’t just seek to humanize those who in modern times would be considered akin to the Branch Davidians or the Peoples Temple. It is a story of women in the society of ancient Israel that is constructed by and for men. As Hoffman notes in the acknowledgements, “[T]he stories of women have gone unwritten . . . It is my hope that . . . I can give voice to those who have remained silent for so long.”

Hoffman immediately sets up the dichotomy between the world of men and the world of women when Yael seeks out the kephashim for a protection charm for her brother as he begins to kill as part of the Sicarii. She notes,

In the Temple there was the magic of the priests, holy men who were anointed by prayer, chosen to give sacrifices and attempt miracles and perform exorcisms, driving out the evil that can often possess men. In the streets there was the magic of the minim, who were looked down upon by the priests, called charlatans and imposters by some, yet who were still respected by many. Houses of keshaphim, however, were considered to engage in the foulest sort of magic, women’s work, evil, vengeful, practiced by those who were denounced as witches.

But in the book, kephashim magic runs the world. Indeed, the conventional wisdom, explained by Yael at the outset, is tuned on its head as the reader is left with the clear feeling that women’s magic, over and over again, sets right the world that is continually destroyed by men. It is not the women who want a civil war, or to fight the Romans (they are used to doing that they need to do in secret), or, least of all, to make a stand at Masada. And that is probably why only women (and children, their wards) survive. Though the men of Masada are fierce warriors, it is the women of Masada who have the real strength.

I am sorry to say that I don’t know how accurate the portrayal of ancient Israel is, although it has been reported that Hoffman researched the book for five years. She explains how moved she was by a visit to Masada — and how her story is built around the remains that were found in the archeological excavation of the site. To the extent that it’s true to life, it did help me understand, at least a little, the motivations of the Jewish rebels. When I visited Masada, in contrast to Hoffman, I was struck by the fact that we might be lionizing crazy people.

In the world of ancient Israel, men set the rules — and time and time again, women break them. And that world is better because of it. In Hoffman’s beautiful and haunting narrative, each of the women gets to tell her story and how she became who she is against the backdrop of impending disaster.

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