Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Paradox Within Jewish Blessings, A Paradox Within Myself

I'm sure that I'm not the first person to have this existential angst, you know, the one where you feel that prayer isn't working.  As of late, prayer has become nothing more than a rote exercise in practicing my Hebrew while simultaneously questioning the efficacy of prayer.  I stare at the Hebrew letters in hopes that a spark of divinity will jump out of the pages and cause some miraculous, inner transformation, but all I get are blotches of ink that incidentally make up certain religious thoughts written in Hebrew. 

If prayer cannot even perform a simple task such as permeate my essence, it begs an incredibly important question: is there something essentially wrong with Jewish prayer as a practice, or am I doing something wrong?  Trust me when I say that it's easier to lean towards the former possibility, and I have.  Has the modern form of Jewish prayer become a robotic, insipid act?  Is there something in Jewish prayer that is inherently wrong, or has modernity snipped my spiritual antennas?  I'd be lying if I said that this sort of questioning wasn't adversely affecting my other areas of Jewish life, because it is.  It's inevitable if you're questioning the practice itself.  And I have my fair share to say about the Jewish approach to prayer.  My foremost comment (and the only one that I will express at this time) is that there is a fixed text.  Saying the same prayers three times a day, three-hundred and sixty-five times a year can easily turn into a boring, meaningless act.

I brought this to the attention of my rabbi a couple of days ago because I could sense the grave potential for a slippery slope towards secularism coming from a mile away if I didn't get these issues resolved, or at the very least, addressed. 

So I told him: "Rabbi, I'm sort of going through a crisis. Prayer doesn't speak to me anymore.  As a matter of fact, I don't know if it ever spoke to me in the first place.  There's no kavvanah in my praying because all I am doing is uttering words on a page, and it's all meaningless.  I'm questioning why I'm doing any of this in the first place. What do I do?"

So he sat down with me, grabbed a prayerbook, opened up to a page, and there was the blessing that one says over bread.  He started out with the obvious, which is just about every single Jewish blessing starts off with the following:

ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם
"Blessed are You Lord, our G-d, King of the Universe......."

"I knew that already!  Tell me something I don't know," I exclaimed to my rabbi.

 "Well," said my rabbi, "I bet you didn't know that this preamble is one big paradox." 

"Really?!" I said.  "Do tell."

His explanation was this.  G-d cannot be defined, because in His infinite Oneness, if He could be defined, He would be limited.  Even in our attempts to describe Him (and yes, even calling G-d Him is a limitation) using language is limiting because language itself is finite.  But within that finitude, we attempt to get closer to understanding Him, to connecting with His transcendence.  Where does the paradox come in?  In the way this preamble, as one could call it, goes about how we Jews have perceived G-d over time. 

On the one hand, G-d is אלוהינו, our G-d.  The intimacy of that name gives us the feeling that G-d is there to console us, to guide us, to protect us.  He cares about us and is accessible 24/7.  However, we don't just have the personability of G-d.  We have yet another, more philosophical description of G-d, which is מלך העולם, or King of the Universe.  G-d created the universe and continues to sustains the laws of nature that He put into place.  G-d, due to His infinitude, is completely other.  We cannot connect with G-d, but only come to a sense of awe of that which He has created and that which He sustains. Thus, the paradox is a deity that plays an intimate, personal role in our lives while simultaneously being impersonal and beyond any finite creature.

As always, I enjoy the insight of my rabbi, but this just brings up another question: which one is it?!  Is G-d a micro-manager or an inaccessible, transcendent, perfect Oneness?  Like any other Jewish answer, it happens to be both.  Obviously, G-d cannot be personal and impersonal at the same time.  However, the beauty of Jewish tradition is that advocates both.  I can find many mainstream rabbis advocating for the personal G-d, and at the same time, I can find arch-rationalists such as Maimonides advocating for the latter.

On an individual level, I very much enjoy the rationalist side of Judaism.  Grasping the concept that an infinite Oneness exists, He created the universe, and He sustains us through His laws continuously is more than enough to have awe.  But there's that other side......that non-rationalist side that yearns to develop intimacy with that transcendence, even if I know my finitude limits me from doing so.  Here lies my own personal paradox.  I have a non-rationalist side, and because I have the need to view things in a rationalist frame of mind, I try to stifle the non-rational part of me.  But in spite of attempts to consistently keep rational, the reality is that there is a non-rational, emotive side to me, and it very much wants to self-express. What makes it more complicated is that prayer, at least how a good majority of prayer in Judaism has evolved over time, involves the active participation of the non-rational.

How this will ultimately play out, well, your guess is as good as mine.  But one thing's for sure: the journey towards the answer will be anything but dull.         

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