Monday, July 7, 2014

Being Able to Thank G-d for Our Struggles (And Not for The Reasons You Think)

It is not uncommon for Jews to view prayer as a way to communicate with G-d. To quote R. Jonathan Sacks from the Koren Siddur (p. xxxii), "In prayer, we speak to G-d. Through Torah G-d speaks to us. Praying, we speak. Studying, we listen." While I agree with the importance of verbalizing one's prayers, my apprehensions go beyond "If G-d is omnipresent and omniscient, doesn't it defeat the purpose of prayer?" While that question is important, there is the issue of G-d's Infinite Oneness. Since G-d is infinite, by definition, G-d is not finite. That might seem like a tautology, but it's worth uttering. Why? There is necessarily a gap between the infinite (i.e., G-d) and the finite (e.g., humans) because G-d exists neither in time nor space. That is what infinity, i.e. G-d, conceptually is. This means that the conversation actually turns into a monologue. Fortunately, this does not have to change the Jewish definition of prayer. When we talk about "prayer" in English, we are unsurprisingly taking it from the Christian definition. The word "prayer" actually comes from the Latin word precare (to beg). It would explain why Christians, and Catholics in particular, get on their knees to pray. In Judaism, it's different because we stand before G-d when we pray. The Hebrew word that is commonly mistranslated as "prayer" is תפלה. The word תפלה comes from the Hebrew reflexive verb התפלל, which means "to judge oneself." Using etymology, Jewish prayer is a moment of self-evaluation, self-reflection, and a medium to assess our relationship with G-d, what it means, and how we can improve upon that rapport.

It was during such a davening session that I had one of these epiphany-like moments. When one wakes up in the morning, there are a series of blessings that are recited. There are three that are in dispute between the Conservative and Orthodox movements. Although I'm not going to get into all three, one of them has to do with thanking G-d for one's Jewishness. Orthodox practice is to recite the blessing [in the negative] of "not making me a Gentile" (שלו עשני גוי), whereas the Conservative movement prefers the blessing of "making me a Jew" (שעשני ישראל). I don't want to get into the debate of which is "more halachic" or "are there other ways of reforming the blessing without 'destroying the halacha'" because it detracts from the insight I was able to glean from the modification in the blessing.

Before continuing with the insight, however, I do want to say that I prefer the more positive affirmation because I prefer emphasizing who I am versus who I am not. I find that affirming who I am without demeaning others in the process is preferable to essentially saying "Thank G-d I'm not one of them." [Side note: Given the historical context of relations between Jews and non-Jews when these blessings were created nearly two millennia ago (e.g., Jews were surrounded by pagans; the Jews were exiled by non-Jews in 70 C.E., which is an event that shaped Judaism as we know it today), it made more sense to frame the blessing as such. However, given that relations with non-Jews are better, it seems more sensical to opt for the blessing in the positive.]

What did I find about שעשני ישראל to be so intriguing? Although the word "Jew" being used in this blessing is Israel (ישראל), the word ישראל literally means "[he who] struggles with G-d." When I thought of being part of the people Israel in that way, I translated the meaning of the blessing in my mind to conceptualize it as "Thank you G-d who made me to be someone who struggles with G-d." Why in the world would I be thankful for struggle? Isn't struggle supposed to be difficult and arduous? Yes, which is why I found this realization to be so fascinating.

In Christianity, a Christian finds solace in accepting Jesus as their savior. In Buddhism, one strives to reach nirvana by detaching oneself from the suffering of worldly attachments. In Judaism, G-d has given us the opportunity to not only find spirituality in the everyday and the mundane, but to do so while struggling. While תפלה certainly has its emotive qualities, it's about processing what we know about what is going on in the world and how Judaism perceives G-d.

I don't subscribe to גם זו לטובה ("this too is for the best") or that G-d is testing me with life's challenges (Infinite G-d, remember?). I do, however, take life's challenges as an opportunity to learn and better myself. Although it is difficult, I am doing my utmost to take a negative and gain whatever positive lessons I can. I know there is a lot of evil in the world that is difficult to explain, but it is better than a world without pain or suffering. This might seem counterintuitive, but hear me out.

Imagine a world without pain or suffering. It sounds idyllic, but it would get boring really quickly. I think of struggles as a necessary evil because it helps give our lives meaning, as well as gives us a reason to connect to others because if we had all of our physical or spiritual needs provided for, why do we need others in our lives? Struggle is a great developer of character, and I find that I am a lot stronger and wiser as a result of what I have had to endure in life. In all honesty, which feels more meaningful: gaining something because you worked through it or because it was handed to you? As a result, I have also realized that life is not about ephemeral enjoyment of the physical, but also has a deeper spiritual understanding that comes with having an element of struggle in our lives.

In summation, religiosity and spirituality don't have to translate into complacency, passivity, or blind acceptance to G-d. It means that we keep the metaphorical conversation going with G-d. It means we continue to ask the big questions and go about our religious practice while grappling with the pains, travails, and difficulties that life has to throw at us. It paradoxically means that we live a much more meaningful life, and for that, I am thankful.

1 comment:

  1. Excellently said! If we constantly had our needs met, I agree that it would be boring. Even unending bliss would get boring after a while; it'd still be unending. A struggle sculpts our nature, takes away the excess and shows us what we are really made of. One of the reasons I respect Judaism is that even Biblical figures question G-d and pose him questions: passivity and blind acceptance has never been part of Jewish tradition. It's just a more learned tradition, after all: everyone is expected to know their texts, to have an informed opinion, and to cite their sources. That's a world of difference from the medieval Christian peasant told to blindly accept Jesus.

    But I disagree about the phrase "not make me a Gentile". I think saying thanks for being Jewish is better. However.... prayer/precare/begging comes from the notion of Christian guilt as caused by Original Sin. Think of the structure of a Catholic service where they say, "I am not worthy to receive you..."

    Jews operate on a different structure, more like, "We survived! Yay! Thank you G-d!" and there is something defiant in this, in the mere act of survival. There might also be more to "not making me a Gentile", that is, as you say, rooted in Jewish history. The Jews lose their homeland, wander for thousands of years, their Temple, the center of their religion, is lost and burnt also. They are a people feared and distrusted, also for thousands of years. And there has never been any lack of exits from Judaism, whether through conversion to another faith or intermarriage with Gentiles, both routes chosen by my ancestors. What I'm trying to say is, at some point every Jew chooses Judaism. That particular prayer might also be obliquely thanking Jewish ancestors for staying the course, and staying Jewish. Just a thought.