10 June 2014

On Prayer

I have been thinking a great deal about prayer. Heschel says that prayer is an expression of awe and wonder: an acknowledgement that the world is so much grander than I could ever conceive. I tend to agree with Heschel. When I pray I situate myself in the grander scheme of things; I address the ideas that extend beyond me and to which I look. That is, when things go well, I move outside my mundane existence, transcend my physical limits and achieve a loss of bodily tension and separation. Once, on a summer’s day I stepped out of doors and felt that the there was no space separating my body from the air. I was the air. When prayer works well that is how I experience it. As the cliché goes, I am one with the universe.
I think of prayer as community. Prayer is what brings people together for some common purpose that seems not at all instrumental but communal. Heschel remarks that ‘we never pray as individuals, set apart from the rest of the world. The liturgy is an order which we can enter only as a apart of the Community of Israel . . . every act of adoration is done in union with all of history, and with all beings above and below . . .” Only in community can I pray, and I pray to belong to community.
I represented the University at the inauguration of Rabbi Aaron Panken as the 12th President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Hebrew Union is the largest organization of Reform Judaism in the United States, and the servicesthe classical one I attended on Shabbatstruck me as both sincere and cold. I felt similarly during the entire inauguration service. I was in community but not in prayer.
This is not the place to explore the history of Reform Judaism; it grew out of the assimilative desire of German Jews to belong integrally to German society without having to first convert to Christianity. And at least in part Reform Judaism assumed some of the trappings of Christian church service: the choirs, the musical instruments, the architectural style of churches and sometimes even of mosques. The sanctuary of the Plum Street Temple where the Inauguration took place is an inspiringly magnificent and beautiful edifice, constructed in the 19th century by the Reform Jews of Cincinnati under the leadership of Isaac Meyer Wise looked and felt to me like a Roman Catholic cathedral. Where the great cathedrals were constructed out of stone, Plum Street Temple sanctuary was created in fine wood, its walls intricately but respectfully patterned in paint.
But wait, I wanted this post to be about prayer and not place . . .  
The space above my head in the sanctuary was high enough to allow my prayers to rise, but the space for my prayers seemed to have little place in the sanctuary. The serviceon both Shabbat (in a different space not even designed as a sanctuary/chapel) and the Inaugurationwas more about performance than about prayer; I felt in both places treated more like an audience of prayer than a participant in praying. Oh, the voices—almost all soprano and alto were exquisite, but they supplanted and did not enable mine. Their sounds kept me grounded and did not let me transcend because the voices were, perhaps, not human enough. They were perfect. It was to their sound I was meant to attend, and not to the universe beyond of which they spoke. It was of their voices that I was in awe and not the heavens and earth of which they sang. Well, perhaps that was my failing . . . but it was a cold beauty I experienced. And despite all the talk of God, I did experience the possibility of a transcendent presence. It is, I think, my flawed human voice that expresses the awe and wonder that makes prayer honest, even as it is all the volumes in the library that makes me humble. Though there might have been joy in those who sang the words of the prayers, it was joy of their voices I thought I was meant to experience. My thoughts remained below.         
Though there was a great deal of community in these spaces in which there was prayer, but I felt more an audience rather than a congregant, and I felt alone.


Anonymous Barbara said...

Your post speaks to my heart and exactly the reason why I stopped going to St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, my childhood church, to CedarBrook services in Menomonie. I felt to be too much in an audience and not so much a participant as I wanted to be.

When the band plays the songs at CedarBrook, anyone who cares to, can sing along to the words which are displayed on a big screen. No one's voice is perfect (for what is perfection?) but the asynchronous blending of them makes a joyful noise indeed.

To me, the goal of a religious service should bring the participants together on an even playing field in which one feels connected to the others and the universe on a most basic human level.

It is my opinion that if humanity could achieve this "state of being" more often, we could certainly come closer to attaining world peace and such concepts as compassion, empathy, gratitude, generosity and "just enough" for all.

22 June, 2014 19:11  

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