Friday, October 21, 2016

Sukkot & Rising Sea Levels / Sukkot 2016-5777

The festival of Sukkot has become a reminder of our deep and abiding connection with the earth. Indeed, our lives dependent upon and inextricably interwoven with our fragile environment. Water is an integral part of Sukkot, in particular, because Sukkot not only celebrates the harvest at the end of the growing season, but  occurs at the time of year when the winter rains begin in the Land of Israel; the winter rains will determine whether the coming year will bring the curse of famine-induced drought or the blessing of abundance. When the Second Temple stood, each night of Sukkot featured the Simchat Bet haSho’avah (water-drawing ceremony), a Jewish Mardi Gras-like event celebrating the imminent return of rain after the long, dry months of summer during which no rain falls in the Land of Israel. With the stirring words of Isaiah 12:3 in mind, With joy shall you draw water out of the weeks of salvation, each morning during Sukkot priests went to the Shiloah Pool (pictured at the right as it appears today)
, filled a golden flask with water and, greeted by the blasts of a shofar, they would bring it back to the Temple through the Water Gate and pour the water over the altar together with wine. The evening relighting of the menorah in the Temple courtyard inaugurated a torchlit parade accompanied by Levites playing flutes, harps, trumpets, and cymbals. People danced and sang. The Talmud records that “one who had never witnessed the rejoicing at the place of the water-drawing had never seen true joy in their life.” (BT Sukkot 51b) 

When I think about water on Sukkot, I also have rain in mind: I hope it holds off until Sukkot is over so that we can enjoy more time — dry and comfortable — in our sukkah. (Warm weather helps, too.) Today, many areas on our planet have serious concerns related to rain, but another water-related problem is rising sea levels due to global climate change: Human activity has released heat-trapping gases into our atmosphere. As a direct result, our planet’s seas and oceans are warming and expanding (this is called thermal inversion) and glaciers and the polar ice caps are melting. Over the past century, the Global Mean Sea Level has risen four to eight inches and the rate of increase has accelerated dramatically over the past two decades—and continues to do so. Recent studies predict that sea levels will rise between 2.5 and 6.5 feet by the end of this century. The result would be calamitous, and not merely to picturesque tourist destinations like Venice and Amsterdam. it would be disastrous to people living on the margins — economically, socially, and geographically — throughout the world.

We are accustomed to war leading to refugees and displacement, but now global climate change is begetting its first refugees. The first Americans to suffer the sting are members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw and the United Houma Nation, two Native American tribes living on the Isle de Jean Charles in the Louisiana coastal wetlands. Since the 1950s, their 15,000 acres have shrunk 98% due to rising sea levels, a consequence of global warming and melting polar ice. Today, the people of the Isle de Jean Charles have barely a quarter-mile by half mile strip of land on which to live, not nearly enough land to support their lives fishing, hunting, trapping and farming. Resettlement of the residents of the Isle de Jean Charles will disrupt their lives, culture, and community, and be both logistically challenging and extremely expensive. 

The approximately 60 Biloxi-Chirimacha-Choctaw and United Houma Nation are not alone in facing the prospect of  watching their beloved home sink below rising sea levels. Around the world, it is estimated that between 50 and 200 million people could be displaced within the next 35 years. The complexity of moving people, keeping families and communities together, is staggering, and often involves populations that are the poorest among the poor. The Federal Government has already designated $48 million to resettle the people of the Isle de Jean Charles — a staggering cost.

Rising sea levels have implications for the quality and salinity of groundwater. This effects water available for drinking water and agriculture. Rising sea levels disturb the ecological balance and diminish biodiversity in estuaries, coastal rivers, and already low-lying areas including tidal wetlands (consider the species that will be effected) and flat river deltas (including but not limited to the Amazon, Ganges, Indus, Mississippi, Niger, Nile, and Yangtze rivers). As is already evident, rising sea levels will increase the damage brought about by storms, floods, hurricanes and tropical cyclones; the resulting warmer waters and increased humidity will engender more tropical cyclones. 

Water, so integral to the festival of Sukkot, is a life-sustaining blessing, but it can also be a life-threatening danger. Nature is a balancing act. Just as rain in the proper season and proper amount leads to a successful and nourishing harvest, so too oceans and seas at their proper levels sustain life for the plants and animals (including us) that inhabit the planet. Living outside in a sukkah reminds us of our intimate connection with the world around us. This includes the affect we are having on rising sea levels.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Open to the World / Sukkot 5777-2016

In a fascinating irony of synagogue architecture, stained-glass windows often plug the very openings our Sages tell us we need when we pray. In the Babylonian Talmud, R. Yochanan teaches: One should only pray in a house with windows, as it says, The windows of his upper chamber were open toward Jerusalem (Daniel 6:11). (BT Berakhot 34b) In accord with R. Yochanan’s teaching, synagogues have windows so that those who pray within its walls do not sequester themselves from the world beyond. Rather, our meditations, petitions, and aspirations should be mediated by the windows, which connect us with the world beyond and God who is manifest everywhere. Stained-glass windows, however magnificent, constrain our visual focus to the room in which we sit; although the light that animates its art come from without, we run the risk that, without windows, our focus stops at the walls.

If the requirement to pray in a room with windows enlarges our perspective, how much more so living in a sukkah, whose flimsy walls and open roof are open to the world. Indeed, one is outside when one sits inside the sukkah. And if the protective walls of the synagogue are an illusion that the world is contained with the facade of the synagogue, the sukkah exposed that illusion. Rabbi Alan Lew z”l wrote:

[A sukkah] exposes the idea of a house as an illusion. The idea of a house is the it gives us security shelter, haven from the storm. But no house can really offer us this. No building of wood and stone can ever afford us protection from the disorder that is always lurking all around us. No shell we put between us and the world can ever really keep us security from it. And we know this… In a sukkah, a house that is open to the world, a house that freely acknowledges that it cannot be the basis of our security, we let go of this need. The illusion of protection falls away, and suddenly we are flush with our life, feeling our life, following our life, doing its dance, one step after another. (This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, pp. 266-7

All this talk about architectural forms is, of course, a metaphor and prescription for how we are to be in the world. Recently, I learned of a 98-year-old Mennonite minister who epitomizes R. Yochanan’s teaching with grace and compassion galore. Chester Wenger and his beloved wife, Sara Jane, raised eight children. When their son, Philip, came to them to tell him he was gay, Chester Wenger heard him with respect and regarded him with love, despite the teachings of his church. And when Philip, at age 35, was excommunicated by a church leader who neither sought to speak with Philip or even inform his parents, Wenger did not reject his church. When the state of Pennsylvania, in which he lives, legalized same-sex marriage in July 2014, Philip and his long time partner Steven immediately applied for a marriage license and subsequently asked Chester to officiate at their wedding and sign their marriage license. As a result of officiating at his son’s wedding, the Lancaster Conference of the Mennonite church “retired” Wenger’s clerical credentials. In other words, they withdrew his ordination. Yet Wenger still did not reject his church. Rather, he seeks to help them pry open some very old windows long painted shut.

In an open letter to the Mennonite Church, which has been read more than 278,000 times although the Mennonite Church has a total membership of ~100,000, Wenger expresses compassion for his community as well as unwavering support for his son and all those who have been marginalized. He writes:

The world we live in is no longer the idyllic Eden. It is a broken, complex, messy, violent and yet wonderful world. God’s mercy-filled grace infuses our broken world with a goodness that keeps surprising us with joy—and healing. God’s grace also calls us to faithfully love God and neighbor above all else.

Wenger calls upon his church community to learn the lesson we Jews learn from living for a week each autumn in our sukkot: To be open to the world. To open our minds and our hearts. To transcend the assumptions and bigotries that inform our thinking. To attend to the pain and experience of “our sons and daughters who are bullied, homeless, sexually abused, and driven to suicide at far higher rates than our heterosexual children.” Most of all, Chester Wenger asks his fellow-Mennonites to fling open the doors and windows of their worlds and breath in the air of love, respect, and acceptance. He writes:

We know from Deuteronomy that eunuchs were a sexual minority, loathed and considered unacceptable for admission to the “assembly of the Lord” and yet in Isaiah 56 the Lord says: “Do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’…  I will give them a name better than sons and daughters….for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples … ”

Malcolm Gladwell, in his podcast Revisionist History, recently interviewed Chester Wenger. Gladwell framed Wenger’s outlook, words, and actions as “generosity orthodoxy,” an approach that cherishes tradition while remaining open to the world, and is marked most of all by grace and love. Brian D. McLaren, author of A Generous Orthodoxy, writing from a Christian perspective—but in a universal tone—tells us:

We must never underestimate our power to be wrong when talking about God, when thinking about God, when imagining God, whether in prose or in poetry. A generous orthodoxy, in contrast to the tense, narrow, or controlling orthodoxies of so much of Christian history, doesn't take itself too seriously. It is humble. It doesn't claim too much. It admits it walks with a limp.

As I consider the loving and challenging balance Wenger has achieved, I am, like everyone, still digesting the ongoing revelations concerning one of the presidential contenders, his boasts about sexually assaulting women, the accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior that woman have leveled against him, and the crass responses of those (including the candidate) who dismiss his remarks as mere “locker room talk” and discount the painful testimony of his victims. This is anything but “generous orthodoxy.” This is the old-fashioned orthodoxy of white male supremacy, privilege, and entitlement—a decidedly ungenerous attitude toward everyone and everything.

There is far too much ungenerous orthodox in the Jewish world today, as well. I needn’t cite examples; you know what I’m talking about. (But isn’t it interesting that women and homosexuals stand out prominently?) It’s not challenging to point a finger at others; it’s much more difficult to look within. Each of us has corners of ungenerous orthodoxy. Sukkot is a fine time to let cleansing rays of sunshine fill those corners, reveal them for what they are, and then take responsibility for them. We, the children of Israel, the offspring of Jacob, have walked with a limp since that famous wrestling match with the angel. But can we admit that we do? Do we have the humility to know the truth? 

May the open walls and roof of our sukkot open minds and hearts.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Thursday, September 15, 2016

We've Come a Long Way, Baby / Parshat Ki Teitzei 2016-5776

When I was young, girls were not permitted to wear pants to the public school attended—dresses, skirts, or jumpers were required. This impinged on what and how we played during recess. Personally, I loved hanging upside down from the monkey bars and flipping off them onto the ground, so I wore shorts under my skirt. My teacher told me it was impermissible to wear shorts under my skirt because shorts weren’t allowed. I pointed out that I was wearing a skirt, as required. She said yes, but when I flipped upside down on the monkey bars, one could see my shorts. I asked her if she would prefer to see my underwear, and told her to take it up with my mother. Wisely, she didn’t. More significantly, the sexist dress code of my childhood had repercussions for what girls and boys were exposed to and encouraged to do. For example: In second grade the Cub Scouts were planning a visit to a fire station where they would tour a hook-and-ladder truck and slide down the firefighters’ pole. I pleaded with our Brownie troop leader to plan the same field trip for us. She explained that this would not be possible because we wore skirts. I told her I would wear shorts under my skirt. No go. While the boys visited the fire station the following Tuesday, we girls sat in a classroom hand-sewing burlap aprons with apple-shaped pockets for our mothers. (You won’t be surprised to know that my mother never wore the one I brought home. I could hardly blame her. Would you wear a burlap apron?) What message did this deliver about what boys are capable of doing, and aspiring to do? Upshot: I quit Brownies.

In this week’s parashah, Ki Teitzei, we find a prohibition against wearing clothing that is not socially designated for one’s sex, perhaps the earliest iteration of the school dress codes of my childhood. The Torah has in mind cross-dressing.

לֹא-יִהְיֶה כְלִי-גֶבֶר עַל-אִשָּׁה, וְלֹא-יִלְבַּשׁ גֶּבֶר שִׂמְלַת אִשָּׁה:  כִּי תוֹעֲבַת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ,       כָּל-עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה.

A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does this things is abhorrent to Adonai your God. (Deuteronomy 22:5)

Rashi’s (11th century, France) commentary on the verse has prevailed through time. Rashi explains that “a man’s item/utensil” means “that she should not appear like a man so she can go out among men, for this is only for the purposes of adultery.” Concerning “woman’s clothing” he writes: “So he can go and be among the women.” And concerning to’eivah, which is variously translated “abomination” or “abhorrence,” he tells us: “The Torah forbids only garments that might lead to a to’eiva (abomination).” Is Rashi saying that the purpose of the law is to restrict behavior that could lead to sexual impropriety? Or is he saying that if the purpose of dressing like the other sex is to engage in sexual impropriety, only then it is forbidden? Sefer ha-Chinukh (13th century, Spain) sides with the former interpretation: “The root of this commandment is to keep us from sexual sin… and there is no doubt that if men and women’s clothing were the same, [men and women] would mix and the earth would be filled with impropriety.” But the Shulchan Arukh permits cross-dressing on Purim, because its purpose is simchah (happiness, which is a mitzvah on the festival) and not fraud. Hence, it weighs in on the side of the latter interpretation of Rashi. Clearly, there is no universal ban on cross-dressing derived from Torah.

The effects of Deuteronomy 22:5 have been felt beyond the realm of clothing; this verse has been used to render halakhic rulings on whether and where men and women may shave the hair on their bodies or dye it. (Although you may be plotzing for the details, I don’t have room to delving into them here.) But does anyone truly believe that cross-dressing is a ploy to commit adultery?

Where once the concern was the style of clothing men and women wore as well as possibility of men appearing like women and vice versa (remember Yentl?), today concern is expressed about far more: sexual orientation and people whose gender identities don’t conform with what others believe they ought to be, with implications for marriage, the use of public accommodations, the dispensing of medical services, and much more.

Today the war in our changing understanding of the fundamentals of being human takes place in the arena of rest rooms and locker rooms. And sadly, it is a war, with far too many people firing shots and far too few listening and considering what those on the firing line are thinking, feeling, and experiencing in their lives. Rancorous debate about the use of rest rooms and locker rooms by transgender people who refuse to live secret lives of shame (thank goodness!) has vaulted to the the headlines again and again. We should be grateful for their courage to teach a stubborn society that the binary nature of our social accommodations is problematic, as are the labels “male” and “female,” slapped on at birth based on apparent anatomy, but not necessarily reflecting an individual’s identity and experience of themselves. And it is high time to recognize that the obdurate and inflexible insistence by far too many “religious” people that ancient Scriptural stories read in a limited literal manner do not accurately define humanity in the face of abundant scientific and human evidence to the contrary.

In the Jewish community, the response has been predictable. Many (but not all) in the Orthodox world doubled-down on their rejection of same-sex marriage. In the wake of President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, Agudath Israel of America declared, “We hereby state, clearly and without qualification, that the Torah forbids homosexual acts, and sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony. The Orthodox Jewish constituency represented by Agudath Israel of America, as well as countless other Jews who respect the Jewish religious tradition, remain staunch in their opposition to redefining marriage.”[1] Yet Torah does not portray marriage as “a union a man and a woman.” Abraham and two wives simultaneously; Jacob had four wives and children with each.

Although Torah imagines a gender-binary universe, Talmud is well aware of people who don’t fit neatly into binary gender categories. The Rabbis discuss אנדרוגינוס androginos (hermaphrodites), טומטום tumtum (indeterminate gender because genitalia are hidden”), אילונית eylonit (a masculine woman), and סריס saris (a feminine man). For the most part, the criteria for discerning which category a person fits into pertains to anatomy because that is what they understood—but they recognized there is more variety than simply “males” and “females.”

In the responsa literature we find questions raised by people whose gender and identity do not conform to Torah’s claim concerning the nature of humanity. What is most striking is that alternative ways of being human are acknowledged and affirmed; it is halakhic questions about marriage and divorce that are debated—and it is not always the case that the latter (marriage) impugns the former (identity). Let me explain further.

In a volume of responsa entitled Besamim Rosh, usually attributed to R. Asher b. Yehiel (Rabbeinu Asher, early 14th century, Spain), sexual identity for the purposes of halakhah is taken to be a function of genitalia, not secondary characteristics. The question posed is whether a man whose genitalia have been removed must divorce his wife in order to effect dissolution of their marriage, or whether the sexual transformation effects dissolution of the marriage automatically because a new body has appeared and is comparable to a woman’s.” No definitive conclusion is reached in the responsum concerning whether divorce is required, but the responsum holds that the transgendered person is no longer competent to contract marriage as a man. At first blush, this seems like a problematic decision, but in addition to recalling that this was written in the 14th century, let me point tout that Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (d. 2006), referring to Besamim Rosh writes that if a person has changed in such a way so as to be unable to contract a marriage as a male, this automatically terminates any existing marriage.[2] He thereby acknowledges that the surgery affects a halakhic change in sexual identity. We might well argue (as I certainly would) that the halakhic change in sexual identity does not terminate the existing marriage, but if the couple chooses to end the marriage, that is their right. But even Rabbi Waldenberg acknowledges that a man can become a woman.

The reciprocal case is found in a responsum of R. Yosef Pelaggi (Yosef et Ehav 3:5), wherein he acknowledges that sexual reassignment surgery changes one’s sexual status. Written in the 19th century, it concerns a woman who underwent surgery to acquire the sexual characteristics of a male. Pelaggi concludes that divorce is not necessary to dissolve the marriage because the woman has become a man. Here is a portion of the responsum:

         Question: A question came if a get [divorce decree] is necessary if this should happen, namely, Reuven married a woman in the manner that Jewish women get married, and he had intercourse with her as men and women do, and after a number of years something occurred to her and she changed from a woman to a man in all ways. What is the law concerning this woman who was a woman and a married woman, and then became a man? Does Reuven have to divorce her with a get in accordance with Jewish Law since she was his wife, a married woman, or perhaps he doesn’t have to give her a get since she isn’t a married woman but a man.
         Answer: …In regard to our question it seems that a get is not necessary for he is a man now and not a woman. The get procedure is that the man gives a get to his wife and writes in the getyou my wife,” and we have no woman before us but rather a man…and he also writes in the getyou are permitted to any man” and she is not a woman who is permitted to any man...therefore in my humble opinion it seems that Reuven does not have to give a get to his wife who became a complete man.

These responsa establish a strong halakhic precedent for acknowledging that not all human beings fit into a narrow binary universe and that a sex change actually affects a change in one’s sex.

Joy Ladin, a transgender woman who teaches English at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University, writes movingly of her own experience as a transgender person:

            Because my family wasn't religious, I didn't grow up with institutionalized voices insisting that the Torah has no room for people like me. In fact, when I started reading the Torah on my own – I was 9 or 10 – I saw God AS someone like me, someone struggling to join a human community despite lacking a body that human beings could see, love, understand. The Torah portrays the Israelites as unable to perceive, conceive or even believe in the presence of God even after decades of visible daily miracles, like manna.
                  To me, God's rage at not being perceived and frustrated longing for love seemed to reflect my own feelings as a closeted transkid. So even though the Torah said that God abhorred me for crossdressing, I clung to it, because the Torah was the only text, the only voice that spoke to my transgender fears and longings. To me, the Torah was not just a Tree of Life – it was the Tree of my Life, rooting my struggles in the three-thousand-year-old struggles of the Jewish people, leading me along its ramifying branches toward the God who, inexplicably, had created me.
            Jewish tradition holds that every Jewish soul is represented by a letter in the Torah. So when I say the Torah speaks to me as a transgender Jew, I'm expressing a radically but profoundly traditional view – because tradition insists that I too am part of the Torah, that its stories are my stories, that its paths are mine. And why shouldn't they be? Being transgender is just a particular mode of being human, and despite all the space devoted to God, the Torah is essentially about being human.[3]

Kol ha-kavod to Yeshiva University for awarding Joy Ladin tenure when she was a man, and for promoting her to full professor following her transition. I hope that the Orthodox movements arise to more enlightened direction halakhah is moving. It is time to forge ahead with compassion, not hide behind fear and insecurity. As for the liberal Jewish world, most everyone’s on board. You might be interested in the following:
    The Reform Movement’s resolution the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming people, affirming its commitment to full equality and inclusion of all gender identities and expressions, and complete protection for all people, regardless of gender identity.
    The Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly's resolution affirming rights of transgender and gender non-conforming people encourages all branches of the Conservative Movement to strive to be welcoming and inclusive, and supports the civil rights of transgender and gender non-conforming people.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[2] Tzitz Eliezer X, no. 25, chap. 26, sec. 6.
[3] Joy Ladin, Reading Between the Angels: How Torah Speaks to Transgender Jews,” accessible at Ladin has published five books of poetry and one memoir: Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders (2012).

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Problem of Prayer / Parshat Shoftim 2016-5776

A friend called this morning and described a shabbat morning service he recently attended with his family. It was three hours long; it covered many pages of dense liturgy, included long scriptural readings (in Hebrew, of course), and was punctuated by numerous speakers who droned on about matters that were meaningful only to their family members but not to the rest of the community. Although he was primed to appreciate the service as an opportunity for prayer and learning, he found himself mostly waiting for an opportunity to get up and stretch his legs. Does my friend’s experience sound familiar to you? Have you, as the expression goes, “been there and done that”?

For many of us, prayer and study in a service are a challenge on several levels. Prayer requires both an intellectual background to understand the structure of the service and the meaning of the prayers, and then enormous concentration, focus, and effort to actually engage with the service in a productive way. By nature, we are easily distracted. If we find it difficult to focus and truly pray, or truly learn from the Torah and Haftarah readings, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Some comfort and help comes to us from the 18th century hasidic master, Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf of Zhytomir, a disciple of Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezeritch through his novel interpretation of a passage in this week’s parashah, Shoftim, that is not about prayer at all—it’s about war. And further insight comes from the great 20th century mind and soul of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Both Ze’ev Wolf and Heschel understood just how difficult real prayer is.

Let’s begin with parshat Shoftim. Toward the end of the parashah, we find a discussion of war that opens with these words:

 כִּי-תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל-אֹיְבֶךָ, וְרָאִיתָ סוּס וָרֶכֶב עַם רַב מִמְּךָ--לֹא תִירָא, מֵהֶם:  כִּי-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ עִמָּךְ, הַמַּעַלְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. וְהָיָה, כְּקָרָבְכֶם אֶל-הַמִּלְחָמָה; וְנִגַּשׁ הַכֹּהֵן, וְדִבֶּר אֶל-הָעָם. וְאָמַר אֲלֵהֶם שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, אַתֶּם קְרֵבִים הַיּוֹם לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל-אֹיְבֵיכֶם; אַל-יֵרַךְ לְבַבְכֶם, אַל-תִּירְאוּ וְאַל-תַּחְפְּזוּ וְאַל-תַּעַרְצוּ—מִפְּנֵיהֶם.

When you take the field against your enemies, and see horses and chariots—forces larger than yours—have no fear of them, for Adonai your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, is with you. It shall be when you draw near to battle, that the priest shall come forward and address the troops. He shall say to them, “Hear, O Israel! You are about to join battle with your enemies. Do not let your courage falter. Do not be fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. (Deuteronomy 20:1–3)

Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf points out that the word וְהָיָה (“It shall be”) is usually a term expressing joy, but what joy could there be in war? He thereupon offers us a novel interpretation of the passage that encapsulates a keen psychological insight. With Rosh Chodesh Elul now behind us, and Rosh Hashanah only a few weeks away, our thoughts turn to two of the most difficult tasks before us: prayer and study. There will be plenty of both throughout the High Holy Days, but for many people they are difficult, confounding, confusing, impenetrable. Ze’ev Wolf understands that for many people they are so challenging that they are the enemy with whom we feel we are doing battle:

It appears that the hidden meaning here refers to study and prayer, which are the essential battles we face through life. Happy is the one who fills his quiver with them (Psalm 127:5), shooting arrows at [the wicked angel] Samael. Have sharply pointed “arrows” in your hand, arouse yourself with letters filled with love and fear. Then let your heart trust that you will come to victory and not defeat.

Most people, we see, come to the inner heart-work of prayer bearing neither words nor speech; their voice is not heard (Psalm 19:4). Only their bodies sway, like trees in the forest. The battle is heavily turned against these people; they have fear in their hearts before the enemy who dwells within. That foe, the evil urge, takes away their weapons of war, the letters, reforming them into words that support the foe, confounding their minds with vain, worldly thoughts. Indeed they have no arrows to shoot into the darkness, to triumph in chasing this hidden one from their heart. This is indeed defeat. When they turn to study and prayer, they come away empty-handed.

Does this sound familiar to you? Does this reflect your sense of things and your experience? Do you go to synagogue and find that the words of prayer and Torah don’t move you, don’t speak to you, don’t penetrate into your soul? There is an internal battle, Ze’ev Wolf affirms, raging inside us for our attention. Even when we struggle to focus on prayer and study and get something out of the service, the idiom of traditional prayer may be foreign to us and we are sometimes easily distracted from the task at hand. 

Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf goes on to say that most people are consumed by the quotidian of life: earning a living, raising a family. “They spend most of their years in pursuit of food and clothing. Service, the real reason they were created, is forgotten from their hearts.” This is why Torah employs the term וְהָיָה (“It shall be”)—when we take the field against our enemies “in the war of study and prayer,” vanquishing thoughts that distract us from seeing realizing our true purpose in life, we are headed toward a joyous victory. He suggests that the very effort is, itself, success, and that any success, however small, is a major victory—one that should bring us joy.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in the 20th century, couched the problem of prayer somewhat differently. He noted that contemporary psychology (of the time) tended to understand prayer in terms of what it accomplishes for the one who prays. Whether or not this is an appropriate metric, using a beautiful analogy from music, Heschel asserts:

The drive toward practical consequences is not the force that inspires a person at the moment of his chanting praise to God. Even in supplication, the thought of aid or protection does not constitute the inner act of prayer. The hope of results may be the motive that leads the mind into prayer, but not the content which fills the worshipper’s consciousness in the essential moment of prayer. The artist may give a concert for the sake of promised remuneration, but in the moment when he is passionately seeking with his fingertips the vast swarm of swift and secret sounds, the consideration of subsequent reward is far from his mind. His whole being is immersed in the music. The slightest shift of attention, the emergence of any ulterior motive, would break his intense concentration, and his single-minded devotion would collapse, his control of the instrument would fail… Prayer, too, is primarily kavanah [intention, direction of the heart], the yielding of the entire being to one goal, the gather of the soul into focus. (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, ed. Susannah Heschel. 1996: Farrar, Staus and Giroux, p. 348.)

For Heschel, a prayer service is a venue for achieving a spiritual experience—however you understand that. The prayers, themselves, are a springboard into your own consciousness. You need not understand them (or intend them) literally. The experience of prayer is key. For some, that might be inner exploration. For some, it might be meditative. For some, the beauty of the prayers and music might be transcendent. For some, being amidst community might be transporting. For some, the texts of prayer and scripture might be revelatory. 

Combining the views and insights of Ze’ev Wolf and Heschel, here’s my take: Don’t worry about achieving total focus and concentration through the service. Find meaning where you can, allow the tunes to transport you, enjoy the ruach, schmooze with people you are happy to see, and don’t forget to have a nosh before you go.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman