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.”

do you believe in miracles?

Mai chanukah? So the rabbis of the Talmud begin their discussion of this holiday: “What is Chanukah?” The fact that they start with a question should be a big red flag that this will be an extended discussion, as scholars of the Talmud are apt to give lots of answers even when no question is posed.

It’s a good question, and the rabbis were fairly prescient on this point, as far as 21st century American society goes. Chanukah is the only holiday that the non-Jewish world is consistently knowledgeable of the timing of, even if it’s only because Chanukah is considered as the “Jewish Christmas.” To be fair, though, lots of Jews think of it that way, too. A little more on that below.

eighth night of chanukah; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Chanukah technically commemorates the rededication of the second Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BCE after the Maccabean victory over the Seleucids in Syria, who had outlawed Jewish religious observance. (The name of the holiday is derived from the Hebrew verb for “rededicate.”) After the battle, the Maccabees were able to light the menorah in the Temple for eight nights even though they found in the temple only enough consecrated oil for one night. Others have written better than I about the various interpretations of this rather strange holiday, but what I’ve been thinking about this year is the “miracle” of the oil.

In the second prayer after candle lighting each night, we say, “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.” I hadn’t thought about what that prayer really meant until this year, when the Maccabeats, the Yeshiva University a cappella sensation, released its annual Chanukah video. A cover of Matisyahu, the catchy song asks in its chorus, “Do you believe in miracles?”

Well, no. I don’t. At least not literally. I’m more of subscriber to Heschel’s dictum: “Pray as if everything depends on God, but act as if everything depends on you.”

What, then, do I make of the story of the small cruse of oil that lasted beyond what it should have? I don’t have the answer I want . . . yet. I hope that when I’m in rabbinical school I’ll be able to access textual and historical criticism of the sources for the holiday. At the very least, I can say now that the holiday’s proximity to the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, perhaps accounts for the emphasis on light.

zechariah 4:6; print from my grandmother

For now, I really like what Michael Strassfeld says in The Jewish Holidays:

[T]he meaning of Hanukkah is that the miracle of that first day was the deep faith that it took to light the menorah, knowing their was not enough oil for eight days [the time that it would have taken to consecrate more oil]. The same faith led the Maccabees to revolt against impossible odds . . . They believed they would prevail “not by strength, nor by power, but through My spirit — says the Lord.” This faith allowed them to light the menorah, and it is this faith that made it burn for eight days.

The “miracle” becomes the commitment of the Maccabean army to principle — and its willingness to fight with only the slimmest hope of success. I can relate to that layer of meaning.

Despite my annoyance at the disproportionate importance given to Chanukah by the non-Jewish world, I do tend to associate Chanukah and Christmas together in my mind. There’s the obvious: Chanukah begins on the 25th of Kislev, as Christmas begins on the 25th of December. And Christmas commemorates its own miracle, the virgin birth of the son of G-d. (I imagine there are Christians who believe that, too, might not be literal.) More personally, my grandfather died at the end of 2004. His birthday was on Christmas (he would have been 93 this year), and he died on the first day of Chanukah (which that year was December 7, Pearl Harbor Day). I now look forward to the holidays at the end of the year to remember him on both his yahrzeit and his birthday. As the rabbis finally answer, Zot chanukah (this is Chanukah).