prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive

I gave (a modified version of) this to my “Theology of Jewish Prayer” class. The assignment was to “present a prayer theology that differs from your own, making an effort to highlight its strong points; then present a prayer theology congenial with your personal views, highlighting a difficulty or challenge it poses.”

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This semester I am taking an online class called “Spirituality and Social Justice,” which focuses on the philosophies and theologies of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The two theologies of prayer that I want to present today both come from Rabbi Heschel: One I find difficult, and the other, I find compelling.

In The Insecurity of Freedom Heschel writes about prayer as a discipline. Alluding to Buber, Heschel argues,

To worship G-d means to forget the self, an extremely difficult, though possible, act. What takes place in a moment of prayer may be described as a shift at the center of living – from self-consciousness to self-surrender. This implies, I believe, an important indication of the nature of man. Prayer begins as an “it-He” relationship. . . . In prayer, the “I” becomes an “it.” This is the discovery: what is an “I” to me, first of all and essentially, and “it” to G-d. If it is G-d’s mercy that lends eternity to a speck of being which is usually described as a self, then prayer begins as a moment of living as an “it” in the presence of G-d. The closer to the presence of Him, the more obvious becomes the absurdity of the “I.”

For Heschel, then, prayer requires extreme humility and self-abnegation. Our complete submission to the divine is what allows us to even draw close to G-d, let alone worship G-d. This involves a recognition of our own finiteness, undeservedness, and absurdity; we denigrate ourselves “to become worthy to be remembered by G-d,” as Heschel writes a few paragraphs later. He continues, “Thus the purpose of prayer is to be brought to G-d’s attention: to be listened to, to be understood by Him. In other words, the task of man is not to know G-d but to be known to G-d.”

As I read this text, I had an immediate and strong reaction to this theology (not to mention the gendered language for G-d and for people). Over Shabbat lunch some weeks ago, I explained my objections to several classmates of mine, and one of them was quite surprised. After years of resistance and subsequent spiritual work, he explained, he had found connection to the divine in this surrender, in the recognition of his unworthiness. This philosophy has much to recommend it to someone who has been able to believe in the possibility of control over his life. I think it is significant that my interlocutor was a straight, cisgendered, able-bodied white man.

abraham joshua heschel

abraham joshua heschel

To me, Heschel’s writing here cries out for a feminist analysis. I agree with the assumption that Heschel seems to be making: that seeking communion with the divine should not feel quotidian. Being in the presence of G-d should absolutely feel different than other moments of our lives might. What “different” is, however, depends on who you are.

Heschel survived horrors as a Jew in Europe in the 1930s, and he lost much of his immediate family in the Holocaust. I don’t want to leave that unacknowledged. And, he also benefited from much privilege accorded him here in the United States, through his skin color, his gender, his sexual orientation, his education, his able-bodiedness. For those similar to him, daily experience might be able to be described as affirming. Safe. Comfortable. It is understandable why, then, it might be desirable for prayer, for immersion in the divine, to be an uncomfortable and challenging experience. A denial of the self that is otherwise universally affirmed. A submission to a force with which one otherwise feels in harmony.

I pray, in part, because I feel empowered and affirmed and worthy and safe when I am in the presence of the divine. G-d has already remembered me, brought me to G-d’s attention, is desirous of listening to me and of understanding me. I don’t have to work to make that happen; G-d meets me where I am. So doing means, for me, that G-d acknowledges the brokenness of my experience. The G-d of my prayer is one whom I, in the words of Tamara Cohen, “hold . . . responsible for failing me as a Jewish woman by giving me a world and a people and a text that continue to betray women, often making it difficult for us to uphold our side of the covenant.”

Heschel actually acknowledges something similar to this in his work on prophetic consciousness. Elsewhere he says that the job of the prophet is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” And if the prophet is the messenger of G-d, it stands to reason that his actions might be a reflection of G-d’s role. I wonder whether Heschel himself held contradictory theologies of prayer. I think he might: It’s hard for me to understand how he could connect with a theology that objectifies human beings.

Indeed, I find deeply moving a seemingly quite different part of his theology: his thought about the obligations that we have to each other as prerequisites for prayer. A journalist once asked him why he had come to a demonstration against the war in Vietnam. “I am here because I cannot pray,” he replied. “What do you mean, you can’t pray so you come to an anti-war demonstration?” Said Heschel: “Whenever I open the prayerbook, I see before me images of children burning from napalm.”

Heschel was an outspoken opponent both of the Vietnam War and of the racism he saw manifest in the segregationist laws of the American South in the 1950s and 1960s. In his June 16, 1963, telegram to President Kennedy in advance of a meeting of religious leaders at the White House, Heschel said, “We forfeit the right to worship G-d as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes.” In Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, he wrote, “To speak about G-d and remain silent on Vietnam is blasphemous.” For Heschel then, we cannot be in any relationship with G-d when we are not in right relationship with our fellow human beings. This latter relationship also involves G-d: “The image of G-d is either in every man or in no man . . . “ he wrote in The Insecurity of Freedom. If we’re not able to see G-d in others, how can we see our way to G-d?

In the great Talmudic tradition, Heschel’s statements are extreme. Just as one might rightly be mystified (as I am) by R. Eleazar’s claim that “One who prays behind his rebbe, and one who greets his rebbe, and one who returns a greeting to his rebbe, and one who divides his rebbe’s yeshiva, and one who says something which he has not heard from his rebbe causes the shekhinah (divine presence) to depart from Israel” (Berakhot 27b), so too might Heschel’s claim be perplexing. We’re never completely right with our community: I only called Sen. Warren’s office once to urge her to vote in favor of a bill that could close Guantanamo – and the phone just rang and rang. I decided I had too much homework to attend the Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony last Sunday. I provoked a fight with my husband. I used ableist language. As I said earlier, my prayer is comforting: I need connection to G-d precisely when I am feeling most un-human.

But Heschel’s commitment to the primacy of interpersonal relationships speaks to me and calls me to action. It puts moral obligations ahead of religious obligations, ha’olam ha’zeh before ha’olam ha’bah, the communal antecedent to the personal. I also love the global nature of Heschel’s community: besides the war in Vietnam – in which he was concerned primarily about native, civilian casualties – he also did much work on the issue of Soviet Jewry. Foreign, domestic, Jew, Gentile – Heschel tried to see the image of G-d in all. Again, The Insecurity of Freedom: “All of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person; when one person is offended, we are all hurt. What begins as inequality of some inevitably ends as inequality of all.” This view also highlights the enormity of what is at stake: We human beings have always been in special relationship with G-d, as b’tzelem elohim. We cannot come before G-d with our prayers when we commit atrocities against the one image we have of the divine: human beings.

This theology also expands for me the definition of prayer. In so prioritizing our community, we see the world as G-d does, and we become partners with G-d in alleviating the agony of human beings. Upon the occasion of his marching with Dr. King in Selma, Ala., Heschel famously said that he “felt like his legs were praying.” Our work on behalf of others is sacred. G-d-like. And if activism is prayer, it can go the other way, too. Prayer is activism – as Heschel well noted when he said (in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity) that “prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive . . . Prayer is our greatest privilege. To pray is to stake our very existence, our right to live, on the truth and on the supreme importance of that which we pray for. Prayer, then, is radical commitment, a dangerous involvement in the life of G-d.” And, I think, in the lives of others, too.

a day of mourning

Today is Yom HaZikaron in Israel, the day of remembrance for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. In addition to the national memorial services that take place, the day opens (the preceding evening, since Jewish days begin at sunset) with a country-wide siren during which everyone and everything stops for a minute of silence.

It’s also Patriots’ Day here in Boston, a local holiday ostensibly commemorating the battles of Lexington and Concord — also known as the day the Boston Marathon is run. There’s also always a Red Sox home game.

As I drove to school this morning, I thought about how the Jewish calendar and the secular calendar are often at complete odds with one another. This morning’s tefila was soulful and somber. My Bible teacher, who raised her children in Israel, read a piece she had written when one of her son’s fellow soldiers was killed near the Golan Heights. The mother of the slain soldier had asked my teacher to take care of her own son (the one who had survived), that he might not be forever haunted by his friend’s death. It was heartbreaking.

As I drove to school this morning, I thought about how so many of my friends would be running the race, or watching the race, or watching the baseball game. One of my classmates, who has lived in Boston for several years now, said that it was too bad that those of us new to Boston wouldn’t get the chance today to enjoy Patriots’ Day the way it should be celebrated: by drinking lots of beer and watching the race. We talked about going down to Commonwealth Avenue, near the infamous Heartbreak Hill, during lunch. (Homework called instead.)

As I drove to school this morning, I thought about how I wished I were running the race today. It’s been my dream since college to one day qualify for the Boston Marathon. I wondered if I would be able to get fast enough to do so during my five years here.

As I sat in Hebrew class this afternoon, my husband texted me that bombs had exploded near the marathon finish line. As of this writing, two people are dead and dozens are wounded. (Everyone I knew running or watching the race is fine.) We began a frantic checking in via Facebook, Twitter, text message, and phone call.

And just like that, the days synched.

a prayer for the children of abraham

Since the uprising began in March 2011, there have been an estimated 40,000 deaths in Syria.

But journalists are not flocking there. The conflict is not the main subject of every media outlet’s programs. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are not brimming with posts advocating for each side.

These Syrians, it seems — like the Rwandans and the Sudanese and many, many others before them — had the misfortune (on top of many other misfortunes) of being killed by their countrymen.

I have long maintained that I would rather do  . . . anything, really, . . . than talk about Israel and the Palestinian territories. I have many friends who are devoting their lives to the conflict, and I know that I couldn’t spend a day in their shoes. But last week I felt sick and overwhelmed, and reading the news from the region became an obsession. So here I am, again wading into the fray, again writing about a difficult issue.

I started this post the way that I did to underline the irrationality that underlies this conflict from left to right, from top to bottom. I understand that number of deaths alone isn’t an indication of merit for attention, and the contrast here tells me what is at stake are things other than the fact that people are dying, which is right about where the issue loses me. As it turns out, for many people, only certain deaths matter.

My Facebook friends basically fall into four groups: progressives, libertarians (hey there, DPR folks!), Jews, and family. (Of course among those there is a fair amount of intersectionality.) And I follow an even broader range of people on Twitter. I am guessing that everyone who posted about the conflict is convinced of the rationality of his or her position, but I’ve seen expressed everything from “Israelis are Nazis” to “Palestinians are animals.” My views are not fully developed, and I still found fault in what almost everyone posted. Which tells me there is necessarily a great deal of nuance to be embraced.

We only barely addressed the conflict at school. Even before the latest escalation in violence, we didn’t talk about Israel. There is even an agreement that topics about Israel/Palestine are not to be posted to community email lists, at least in part because of the many different opinions held by members of the community. (Since I’m new, I’m not completely familiar with the history there.) This is crazy. I’m not saying that the practice is not an appropriate response to a past situation. But it’s objectively odd that there exists a group of rabbis-in-training who don’t talk about Israel with each other (and I say this even as I am loathe to do so). However, in light of the current situation, there are now voices advocating that we do in fact start having these tough conversations.

On Monday, Hebrew College was a co-sponsor of CJP’s Rally to Support Israel, and the day before a letter was sent to President Daniel Lehmann questioning that sponsorship, signed by current and former Hebrew College rabbinical students. This prompted both a public response from President Lehmann, as part of his already scheduled “Community Update” address, and an email response from Dean Sharon Anisfeld (and no change in the school’s status as a sponsor). In a development that probably surprised exactly no one, it only took four responses to the dean’s email to get to, Your position means that you don’t care about me/my family. I was writing this post as that began to unfold. (Since then, more level heads have tried to prevail, with success for now.)

The one place at school that we did touch on the attacks was Hebrew class: My teacher started a discussion about the name of the IDF’s operation, “Pillar of Cloud,” a reference to the manifestation of G-d in the Torah that guided the Israelites out of Egypt. I suppose the effort was admirable, since there was silence everywhere else. But I can’t think of a topic that requires more careful or more precise language, and in Hebrew I can barely summarize an article about Israel’s indigenous plants. (Yes, this is an actual example.) Plus, my teacher is an Israeli whose entire family still lives in Israel. She laughed as she told us the story of her sister stubbornly driving on through rocket sirens, but she’s not where I would chose to start this difficult conversation.

I, too, have family (on my husband’s side), plus friends and classmates, in Israel; I don’t know anyone — or even know if I know anyone who knows anyone — in Gaza, such is the divide that exists in that tiny corner of the world. But I’ve seen too many claims of righteousness based on the fact of “having skin in the game.” In this conflict, in its current form, there is not — and there never will be — a winning side. I can only see death and despair — and more distance.

There were glimmers of reason among the overwhelming voices of intransigence. Two great primers came to my attention: how to support Israel without being racist and how to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic. Wiser friends — and wiser friends of friends — than I wrote insightful words, and I am grateful to them. But the war of words paled in comparison to the actual war, and even I, as steadfast a believer in the power of language as there ever was, wondered what we were doing. As if an article could comfort. As if an email could soothe. As if a status update could transform. As if 140 characters could heal. As if a blog post (ahem) could assuage. We feel helpless, and so we fight who we can and how we can.

May there indeed be peace in our days.

*The title of this post is taken from an original poem at Velveteen Rabbi.

and hell followed with him

It’s time to play catch-up with my book reviews, even though I haven’t read as much as usual and these are not the most popular posts. But I like reflecting on and writing about what I’ve read. This summer I finished three books dealing with death and its pursuant hell: of war, of the criminal justice system, and of the otherworldly variety. It was not as gloomy a turn as it sounds. Plus, all three were fiction, which is unusual for me.

It started at the beginning of the summer with The Shining, my first Stephen King novel. A few days after moving to Boston, I joined the Brookline Public Library, a branch of which is just up the street from our apartment, and on a whim decided to pay homage to New England’s adopted son. I did this with not a little trepidation, since I generally can’t stomach anything in the horror genre. And it probably didn’t help that I read most of the book while at a remote Mexican resort during Tropical Storm Debbie, making leaving even the room, let alone the grounds, almost impossible. And, yes, the image to the left is indeed the cover art of the book I checked out: It probably should have been harder to scare me with visuals like those, but King is a master. The story has become such a part of popular culture — particularly because of Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, starring Jack Nicholson — that even I was familiar with the plot, though I was surprised that some of the most iconic features of the story are from the film rather than the book. I won’t call it great literature, but King certainly knows how to write a page turner and a scary, suspenseful story: I couldn’t put it down, even would it would have been advisable to do so as I grew stir-crazy, trapped in a hotel of my own. Tortured writer Jack Torrance, his conflicted wife Wendy, and their clairvoyant son Danny all provide their perspectives on the events that occur when Jack accepts the winter caretaker position at the haunted Overlook Hotel in Colorado, leading to their months’ long isolation with only the company of the ghosts of residents past. It’s hard not to want them all to make it out alive, which the survivors do only with the help of cook Dick Hallorann, an early occurrence of the unfortunate “Magical Negro” stock character. Overall I am glad I read it, if for nothing else than the fact that I now get the references to it (even if most of them are from the movie). I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that my previous knowledge of the book had come from a Friends episode in which Joey and Rachel trade favorite books. “‘What’s so great about The Shining?'” Joey asks incredulously. “The question should be, ‘What is not great about The Shining?’ — and the answer is, ‘Nothing!'”

I next tackled Téa Obreht’s highly acclaimed The Tiger’s Wife, which was the only decent choice in the Cancún airport after I had disposed of The Shining. It was another page turner: I finished it on the return journey to Boston (which admittedly was made longer than it should have been by delayed flights). Despite its glowing reviews, I didn’t love it. And I should have! Obrecht has been compared to some of my favorite authors, including García Márquez, Hemingway, Bulgakov, and Dinesen. And the novel was quite a good story: A young doctor in a war-torn Balkan country, searching for answers in the mysterious death of her beloved grandfather, turns to the magical stories he told in her childhood. His fanciful folklore is told against the backdrop of a country, based on Obrecht’s homeland of the former Yugoslavia, enveloped by a heartbreaking succession of wars. Maybe it was the crankiness of travel that intruded on my reading experience. Conceivably the narrator’s attempts to justify a character’s beating of his wife — she actually says, “Luka was a batterer, and here’s why.” — lost me. Or perhaps I found distracting the photo of the author, who looks all of 12. I realize these are not all good reasons; then again, I’ve disagreed with award bestowers before (see The Inheritance of Loss).

Finally, I just finished Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, recommended as a summer beach read by one of my favorite blogs, CrimeDime. I’ve loved Atwood’s fiction in the past, and this one did not disappoint. Like the two above, it was also a quick read. Based on the true story of a 16-year-old Irish servant convicted of murdering her employer and his housekeeper and lover in antebellum Canada, the book jumps between the young woman’s story and that of the physician she tells it to during her incarceration. Atwood also makes use of contemporary historical accounts as interstitials. The real Grace Marks was one of the world’s most notorious criminals at her trial in 1843. She and a fellow servant were convicted of murdering their employer; after receiving death sentences, the trial for the murder of the housekeeper was deemed unnecessary. Her accomplice was hanged while her sentence was commuted, mostly due to her age, and public opinion — as well as that of those closest to her — remained divided about whether she was femme fatale or naif. Readers will likely remain as confounded, as Marks claimed not to remember the murders and later gave at least three different versions of what happened at the time of the deaths. Atwood writes to give Marks the chance that she wouldn’t have gotten in her time to tell her story — but draws no conclusion. Trigger warning: Atwood brings to light the issues of gender and class (but only race incidentally) that permeate the 19th century, most of which seem to be sexual advances of powerful men towards vulnerable women. In Atwood’s imagining, Marks holds herself a victim, and thus, she relates, her stints in an asylum and a penitentiary constitute a special hell for her.

What were your enjoyable, light summer reads?

golda

golda In her excellent biography Golda, Elinor Burkett gives her readers an entirely new definition of the word “tenacity.” Her subject, Golda Meir, the first female head of the state of Israel, achieved all that she did through sheer force of will. And she did so with little support from her family — father, mother, sister, husband, or children — and, for most of her career, in extremely poor health. Adored in America, she was reviled in Israel for her role in the Yom Kippur War, but it’s ultimately hard not to have sympathy for this woman from another time, doing the best she could in a modern world that had disappointed her.

Born Golda Mabovich in Kiev at the very end of the 19th century (she became Meyerson upon her marriage and Meir under pressure from David Ben-Gurion to Hebraicize her name), she was shaped by her first memories of pogroms in the Russian empire. As a young girl, she and her mother and two sisters followed her father to Milwaukee, where he had moved to find work. After 15 years in the United States, Golda made aliyah to then-British Mandate for Palestine, where she lived until her death in 1978.

Golda was heavily influenced by her older sister Sheyna, who introduced her to Labor Zionism, which informed Golda’s drive to establish and work for the state of Israel — and led her to try to join a kibbutz upon her arrival in Tel Aviv. But she and her husband’s first application was rejected, as was their second. Golda eventually managed to wrangle a place on the communal farm, but she and Morris were never fully accepted as kibbutz members, in part because of the perception of them, as a married couple, as hopelessly bourgeois Americans. Yet Golda persisted, thus establishing a pattern she would follow her entire life. Motivated by idealism, Golda tries to do something; Golda is rebuffed; and then Golda “bashes heads together” to get her way. Working her way up through pre-state quasi-governmental organizations and later the Israeli state apparatus, Golda would do it again and again.

Interestingly, Golda’s commitment to Israel was purely a matter of ensuring self-determination for Jews, so that they wouldn’t ever again have to rely on other countries for their survival. Her experiences of the pogroms of her youth and the Holocaust of her middle age solidified her militancy on this topic. It’s somewhat hard to imagine, given the influence that the ultra-religious now have on Israel, but its founders were largely completely secular. On erev Yom Kippur in 1973, as the war brewed, Burkett relates how Golda sat down to dinner with her family — on a holiday when even the least observant religious Jews generally fast.

As might be imagined, this ambition — as it could only somewhat accurately be described — didn’t leave much time for even a semblance of a personal life. Indeed, Golda was never as much wed to Morris as she was to her work. Although she did manage to make time as a younger woman for a few lovers (a fairly typical practice among the early, free-love Socialist Zionists, for whom divorce was equally rare), she and Morris gave up acting like married couple less than 10 years after emigrating. Morris died in 1951, and Golda never remarried — or it seems, ever had another intimate relationship. Golda’s children judged her especially harshly for her lifestyle, and while they were certainly justified in feeling so — and Golda admitted as much — Burkett doesn’t address their father’s abandonment, arguably as complete. Morris struggled with employment his entire life; he certainly had the time to step in for Golda. But in 1938, he moved to Persia, leaving their two children to her.

goldaSoftening her edges a bit was her famous wit. The stories are legion of her one-liners and quips, and the press hung on every one. On her 80th birthday, in the midst of peace process negotiations, she declared, “I wouldn’t want the West Bank even if it were given to me as a birthday present.” When Henry Kissinger, mediator after the Yom Kippur war, whined about her public coldness towards him (“When I reach Cairo, Sadat hugs and kisses me. But when I come here, everyone attacks me.”), Golda rejoined, “If I were an Egyptian, I would kiss you, too.”

But she couldn’t joke away her health problems, though she tried valiantly to ignore them until she was ordered into recuperation. She suffered from obesity; heart and circulatory problems; a twisted leg, and later phlebitis and blood clots; migraines; gallbladder attacks; kidney stones; a broken shoulder; and lymphoma. These weren’t helped by her three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. And as with everything else she deemed inconvenient, Golda barreled through her illnesses, often cutting short treatment to attend to a matter of state.

In the book, Burkett manages the near-impossible: building suspense in the story of the founding of Israel, an incredibly painful narrative. I actually found myself wondering whether the new state would be able to overcome its challenges. But I shouldn’t have, because Golda was always there, willing it into being behind the scenes.

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