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  • What is God? Praying to One

    Posted on September 2nd, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments

    More than at any other time of year, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, demand that we grapple with our understanding of God. This week, Rabbi Larry Bach of Temple Mount Sinai, in El Paso TX, writes about his struggles with the liturgy and the evolution of his understanding of the Divine.

    Rabbi Larry Bach

    As we move into Yamim Hanora’im, some of us will find ourselves face-to-face with a familiar dilemma: the challenge of praying “face-to-face” with a God who is so intensely personalized in our liturgy. “God as Person,” it seems to me, is even more present in the machzor than the siddur. This is certainly true for North American Reform Judaism today, where experiencing the polyvocality of Mishkan T’filah year-round sets us up for a jarring experience upon returning to Gates of Repentance, so thoroughly (almost uniformly) couched in the language of dialogue.

    My own struggles with saying “You” while in prayer are an outcome of my explorations in the world of Jewish mindfulness. Through meditation, prayer, study, and observation, I’ve come to experience God not as other, but as All. Ein od – there is nothing else. How then, to speak to a separate being, a “You” when experience tells me that it’s all One?

    One option, which has worked for me up to a point, is to mentally “translate into monist.” While speaking to God as Other, I attempt to offer a running, internal commentary, hearing kavvanot in my head that allow me to reflect on the theme of that  particular prayer through the lens of my own theology. Often, these kavvonot present themselves in the Bronx-inflected lilt of my teacher, Sheila Peltz-Weinberg, a master at praying aloud in this way. As I speak the words, “Cause us, O Eternal God, to lie down in peace, and raise us up, O Sovereign, to life renewed…” my mind might be offering this prayer: “May this evening be one of attunement to YHWH, the Breath of All Life, and may that attunement manifest in me as a sense of peacefulness. Resting peacefully, may I be restored in body and spirit, so that I can stand up tomorrow with energy and strength to meet the day.” This practice works well for me on many levels, not the least of which is “keeping my head in the game” and not drifting toward a mindless rehearsal of words, disguised as religious leadership.

    And yet, what is so satisfying intellectually can sometimes leave me cold, emotionally. And since I believe that prayer is as much about the heart as the head, I’m going to try something very different each year. I’m going to offer up each “You” with all my heart and soul, and see what arises. My kavvanot as I take on this practice will come from two teachers, Alexander Susskind of Grodno (d. 1793) and Kalonymous Kalman Shapira (1889-1943).

    Susskind, a Lithuanian Kabbalist, wrote Yesod Veshoresh Ha’avodah, which explores various aspects of prayer and mindfulness. The selection below is anthologized in Yissachar Dov Rubin’s T’lalei Orot:

    When you say baruch atah imagine that the Creator is actually standing there, in your presence. That’s what’s implied in the second-person singular form, atah. This intention is an important part of praying, praising, and offering thanks. Don’t just “go through the motions!” Have it in mind when you say “Blessed are You…” that there really is a “You” confronting you. After all, “The fullness of the whole earth is God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:3).

    The second text comes to us by way of the Warsaw Ghetto, and is from Sefer Aish Kodesh, the Shoah-era commentary of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piaseczno (1889-1943). On the opening verse of Ki Tezei, Shapira offers a beautiful and creative Hasidic rereading.

    “When you go to war against your enemies…” When you are in a bad place, in “wartime”…

    “..put ‘YHWH, your God’ in your hands…” Pray “You” from the depths of your heart. Take refuge in the fact that “YHWH is your God,” and that divinity is present to you, personally…

    “…and return, come back.” We pray, “Bring us back, O YHWH, to You,” and God says, “Return to me.” How is that accomplished? When we make God present in our prayers, we and God are returned to each other.

    Together, these teachings have helped me to recontextualize my struggle against saying “You” when I pray. I find in them – particularly in the Piaseczner – an invitation to be more imaginative at prayer. These mystics understood ein od just as I do (l’havdil….they understood it far more deeply!), and yet they invest their “You” with power and meaning. With their teachings in my repertoire, I find myself less concerned with reinterpreting my way toward some “theological correctness” when I encounter the metaphor of God as Other. Instead, see it for what it is: a metaphor.

    In saying “Blessed are You” to some Other, I no longer feel as though I’m denying reality as I understand it in light of my meditation cushion; rather I am affirming it in a new and profound way.


    2 responses to “What is God? Praying to One”

    1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ruth Abusch-Magder, Ruth Abusch-Magder. Ruth Abusch-Magder said: Struggling with the concept of prayer and God heading into RH? Your not alone. [...]

    2. Thank you Larry for this posting and for the two sources you share. I find myself sharing much in common with your theology and your challenges, and I also love the texts that you presented in response. In fact, I am addressing some of these questions head-on this year in my Rosh Hashanah ‘not-a-sermon’. Our prayer service will be interspersed with excerpts from Dani Shapiro’s spiritual memoir, ‘Devotion’, which I am using as a kind of commentary on parts of the prayer service to ‘translate’ them into something that others who struggle with ‘You’ can access.
      One example, where she expresses a sense of faith after two years of intense exploration and meditation, when an atheist friend asks her about her belief in God – ‘So what exactly do you believe, then?’ She sipped her tea and waited for a better answer. I wanted to tell her that ‘exactly’ and ‘believe’ don’t belong in the same sentence. “I believe that there is something connecting us,” I said. “Something that was here before we got here and will still be here after we’re gone. I’ve begun to believe that all of our consciousnesses are bound up in that greater consciousness.” I looked at my friend for any sign of ridicule, but saw none. She was nodding. “An animating presence,” she said. That was as good a word as any: ‘presence’. As in the opposite of absence. By training my thoughts and daily actions in the direction of an open-minded inquiry, what had emerged was a powerful sense of presence. It couldn’t be touched, or apprehended, but nonetheless, when I released the hold of my mind and all its swirling stories, this was what I felt. Something – rather than nothing.

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