Prayer Block

Lawrence Bush

From Tikkun, September/October 1995 Vol. 10, No. 5
Reprinted with Permission

If Noah had been able to pray before the flood-rains fell, the world might not have been destroyed. The Zohar implies this when it portrays Noah emerging from the ark, breaking into tears at the sight of the drowned, decimated landscape, and at last crying out piteously to the heavens — at which point God responds:

Foolish shepherd…

I lingered with you and spoke to you at length so that you would ask for mercy for the world!

But as soon as you heard that you would be safe in the ark, the evils of the world did not touch your heart.

You built the ark and saved yourself.

Now that the world has been destroyed you open your mouth…

(Translation by Daniel Matt.)

In the Torah itself, however, this mute survivor speaks not a word throughout his lengthy appearance (Genesis 6:8–9:29) until, waking up from a drunken stupor (9:25) he curses his son Ham, who “saw his father’s nakedness.” There is not an utterance, a direct quotation from Noah, throughout the entire biblical cycle of warning, preparation, and mass destruction. We see him as silently obedient, as drunk, as naked, and as cursing — and then the text makes short shrift of him with two brief lines of obituary. Yet Noah, says the Torah, was “a righteous man … blameless in his age …” Could it be his “blamelessness” was simply a function of a kind of spiritual autism that isolated him from others of his “wicked generation” — and from God, his family, even himself? The Noah of the Torah seems a man without community and without prayer — a man, like me, with the heart of an atheist.

Why do I recoil form prayer? I love to study Jewish texts and discuss the merits of Jewish thought and spirituality. I devour books on Jewish history and politics. I have overcome in myself the ambivalence, common among my breed of Jewish “red diaper babies,” about Jewish identify, peoplehood, Zionism, etc. Moreover, I generally like to sing, to light candles, to offer toasts, to celebrate. But when it comes time to enter into a circle of people to pray, I freeze up. My critical, analytic mind comes to the fore. I stand apart, aloof, and with a sneering heart.

At the root of this prayer block, I have come to recognize, is a complex egotism. On its most superficial level operates the common reluctance to confess to ignorance — to abandon my status as a knowledgeable Jewish writer and editor, I minor “someone” among Jews, by displaying my liturgical ignorance in public. That I am, indeed, ignorant of the liturgy is the unfortunate outcome of my secular Jewish education: The left-wing folkshule I attended transmitted Jewish history, Yiddishkeit, and the insurgent elements of Jewish folk culture, but deliberately ignored all element of Jewish civilization that smacked of religion. We did not learn even the history and order of Jewish prayer services, let alone how we might participate in them: instead, stories by Sholem Aleichem and I.L. Peretz were offered up as our spiritual texts. Hebrew, the language of prayer, was personified as a kind of conservative bourgeois with Zionist pretension, putting on airs as he walked through the Yiddish-speaking shtetl — and meanwhile overseeing the suppression of Yiddish in the nascent Jewish state. (I have been vaguely biased against the sound of liturgical Hebrew ever since my shule days. The language and melodies always seem too clean-limbed, noble, and sexless for my taste.)

Such ignorance-with-attitude does not readily lead to synagogue membership and spiritual exaltation. Still, I have in this life taught myself how to use a computer, despite being a bit of a technophobe: how to design a magazine, despite always believing that I “can’t draw”; how to be a patient father, despite my ample reservoir of anger. Certainly I could learn how to pray, in order to participate in this central activity of Jewish life.

Each time I am so resolved, however, I bump into a deeper level of egotism. Very simply, I was raised in an atheist tradition that portrayed religion as “the opiate of the people,” a crutch for the weak, a false comfort, an illusion. We, the atheist minority, were the strong, the wise, the realistic, the objective. Our truth was the whole truth ( or, at least, we were not blinded by religious illusion): religious faith we saw as the outcome of ignorance, psychologically flawed perception, or conscious wickedness.

This undying sense of superiority was reinforced by those of my friends in the late 1950s and early ’60s who did go to synagogue-based Hebrew schools and prayer service and invariably complained of their experiences as a tedious, obligatory bother. Being overtly religious was extremely uncool among us: the “yarmulke-boy,” as we called Orthodox boys who wore kippot in public, seemed invariably to be klutzes, nerds, dissociated from their bodies, even homely. The were “sheep-to-slaughter” types, unmanly boys whose appearance bespoke a link between being religious and being a victim. These were ones whom I pictured lining up in front of death pits and being gunned down while they recited the Sh’ma. By contrast, I had been taught about the link between left-wing Jewish politics and armed resistance to Nazism. It was only secular Jewish communities, for example, that during my boyhood were observing April 19 as a day of commemoration of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the most illustrious revolt among several that were led by Jewish socialist-Zionist, Bundists, and Communists.

My claim to this heritage of resistance heightened my disdain for religious Jews. I should add in my own defense, however, that I was an empathic kid and not at all quick to tease or dominate those who were vulnerable in the neighborhood pecking order. I remember, for example, watching my older brother and a crony encircling a patsy friend of theirs who had the misfortune to be seen on the street while wearing a kippah. It was Yom Kippur, he explained (pronouncing the holiday’s name hebraically, as “Yom Kee-poor,” instead of in our Yiddish-American style, as “Yom Kipper,” whereupon they began skipping in a circle around him — Jews, all three of them, in a nearly all-Jewish neighborhood — flipping their hands to connote “sissy” and chanting, “Yom Kee-poor, Yom Kee-poor …” And while I stood at the curb like a good German, the boy in the kippah dissolved into tears.

I doubt whether as an adult he would be so vulnerable to ridicule about his Judaism. In the America of the 1990s, Jewish observance has become downright hip (while Marxism, long a partner to bohemian hipness, seems headed into a profound exile). Like other oppressed minorities of the ’50s and ’60s, Jews have transformed their shame into an in-your-face pride.

Even in the realm of social action that was so valued by my family has, for the past two decades, been fruitfully cultivated by religiously based activists, who seem to have the vocabulary, discipline, and moral foundation to address most creatively the issues of our day. With an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, perspective on social change predominant among activist (“heal” rather than “smash,” “shift the paradigm” rather than “overthrow the system”), even prayer, which I once viewed as purely an escape from political action, can now be embraced as a consciousness-raising, community-building, transformative tool. In short, my inherited disdain for the religious life no longer receives reinforcement from the general culture, not even from the progressive elite subset of that culture with which I most strongly identify.

Still, I do not, cannot, pray.

And what am I missing, in my silence? “Brethren, give me a God, for I am full of prayer!” wrote the Polish Hebrew writer, David Frishman (1865–1922). I suppose that I, too, am full of prayer: of the need to focus and discipline my mind, to get in touch with my heart, do declare aloud certain aspired-to feelings of humility, awe, and devotion, and to gain that feeling of exaltation and purposefulness that such declarations can evoke. And my brethren have given me a God to whom I could address myself in prayer without repressing all rationality, for certainly the naturalistic Reconstructionist “God idea” God as the “Power that makes for salvation,” manifesting in our feelings of unity and in our yearning for redemption is as close to a humanistic affirmation as I’m going to get from any theology. Such a God, writes Arthur Green, the former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, “demands no ‘leap of faith’ as does the miracle-working deity of conventional Western theism” but requires, rather, “a `leap of consciousness,’ an openness to considering that the universe could be more whole, more beautiful…”

Adding an attractively resolute, liberatory element to this modern concept of God is Michael Lerner’s book Jewish Renewal, which heralds a God who “has made it so that transcendence and transformation of the world are both possible and necessary,” obliging “those who are spiritually alive … not to pursue their own paths, but to become involved in the struggle.”

Lerner’s theology sends shivers up my spine — my body’s way of warning that there’s a Truth lurking near, to be embraced at risk, perhaps, to my ego, but to be ignored at risk to my soul. He even anticipates my atheistic resistance and spine-stiffening: The suggestions, Lerner compassionately writes, “that the physical world is infused with transformative possibilities and operates according to spiritual and not just material concerns” undermines “our security from seeing the world as predictable and potentially under our control.” The resultant fear, set off when “(t)he false solidity we had constructed as part of our strategy for dealing with alienated reality suddenly is in danger of melting beneath our feet,” is the very essence, he observes, of yir’at hashem, the fear of God.

Well, perhaps so: Perhaps the god-reality is there, and my prayer block amounts to a fear of surrender, an unwillingness to say, “yes” to a Truth that, if embraced, would make enormous, life-changing demands upon me. Like Noah, I can merely “walk with” God (Noah, the Midrash taught, was spiritually feeble, and therefore had to walk with God, rather than, like Abraham, walking before God and declaring God’s reality). Like Noah, I can hear God, and can even obey what I hear, but I cannot muster a reply. Or, to stand another biblical conceit on its head, I can live with God, but I won’t marry Her, or tell Her I love Her.

The rationalist in me nevertheless seeks to render my noncommitment into a credo — or, at least, into a set of pointed, atheistic questions. Why, indeed, he asks, should I consider Michael Lerner’s notion of a God-Who-Makes-transformation-Possible-and-Necessary any less of a personal projection, a personal claim to exceptionalism, than the atheism of my youth? The power of his liberation theology to set the butterflies in my stomach to flapping does not earn it the ran of revelation: the same fearful perception that there is more to reality than the cozy little consciousness to which I customarily cling has been stoked in my life by various and sometimes contradictory reality principles such as dialectical materialism, feminism, Freudian theories of the mind, Buddhist ideas of illusion and transcendence, and drug-induced intimations of ecstasy. Of course, my rationality continues, human transformation is possible — that’s been amply attested to within my lifetime by the civil-rights movement, the South Africa liberation struggle, the deposing of Ferdinand Marcos, etc.

That such transformation is imperative to our survival has also been made amply clear by the environmental and anti-nuclear movements. That this possibility and imperative is writ larger than in our genes and our culture, however, that it is the part of a covenantal bond with the universe itself — that’s a leap of faith no less broad, and no less absurdly anthropocentric, than those demanded by fundamentalist Judaism, Christianity, or even astrology, for God’s sake!

Why, then, should I affirm even a humanistic theology as real, when its metaphors are likely to be hijacked by authoritarians seeking divine sanction for their repressive activities? Why legalize the “opiate of the people” to satisfy their meaning-needs? Is the foundational Jewish principle of tselem Elohim, that human beings are created in God’s image, truly more compelling and politically effective than Marx’s atheistic notion of “species-being”? does the rock-bottom liberal faith in human goodness need to be exalted into a religious sensibility to be sustained? Has activist-atheism truly been rendered irrelevant by the reinvention of God as a naturalistic, humanistic force?

My rationalist doth protest too much, for, if truth be told, I have prayed in Jewish fashion more than once. I often say a bracha before meals — though not without embarrassment — to bring a sense of well-being to my table and calm to my children. Likewise does my family light shabbos candles and crown our home-grown ceremony (dedicating each light and recalling meaningful moments from our week) by reciting a version of the traditional blessings over candles, wine, and bread. To the extent that such ceremonies have become incorporated into the comfort zones of my life, the atheist in my abides them. They are therapeutic rituals: they link me and my children to a rich sense of being Jewish: they massage and relax our family dynamics.

They also reveal a powerful little secret about Jewish prayer: that there are rally no theological prerequisites for its contents to fulfill its classic purposes, which are tidily defined by Michael Lerner as “articulat(ing) joy, thanksgiving, radical amazement, and a recommitment to healing and repairing the world.” Fortunately for someone as prayer-blocked as I, there are other means of reaching these goals. I can perceive that the universe is radically amazing simply by opening my eyes (“God Lord!” is my usual exclamation as I step onto my front lawn), while the small shifts in consciousness that I rely upon for breaking up emotional logjams and getting joyful feelings to flow can be obtained with a nice glass of wine, a reflective conversation, a good piece of jazz Thankfulness I can express directly to my wife, my children, my relatives and close friends, and to my earth, through words and eye contact and deeds — from which my commitment to healing and repairing flows and is sustained.

Nevertheless, I have learned to respect, even if I cannot easily access, the power of prayer for cultivating a sense of the “Thou” the recognition of each human being’s full humanity and of the constant offer of “dialogue” that living brings. With that in mind, I can sometimes even address myself to the God-Who-Is-a-Metaphor-for-Our-Deepest-Humanistic-Yearnings, the God-Through-Whom-We-Reach-Out-To-One-Another-By-Reaching-Up. Theology be damned, I then say: what counts in this enterprise is not determining the source of my redemptive consciousness, what counts in cultivating its power, through mitzvot, study, affirmation and, yes, prayer, to make for goodness in this world.

Another path to prayer-comfort for atheists has been paved by Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, the founder of Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, in a recent, brief article in the magazine I edit, Reconstructionism Today. Eisenstein distinguishes between davvening and prayer, the former being the recitation of the Jewish prayers of yesteryear, “with the clear purpose of establishing our links with the past.” Rewriting the traditional Jewish prayers to reflect modern values is rendered unnecessary and irrelevant by this definition: davvening, as Eisenstein practices it, is an exercise in historical preservation, not an effort to express contemporary values or aspirations.

Praying by contrast, is for Eisenstein an activity of “passionate reflection” that consciously avoids “dialogue with some Other.” Through such “passionate reflection” (the phrase is Walter Kaufman’s), Eisenstein aims to “revive one’s resolution to strive for ethical heights, to resist evil, to engender love and respect for fellow persons — and, finally, to rekindle love of and loyalty to the Jewish people, to Torah in its broadest and deepest sense.”

Eisenstein does not make clear in his article, however, whether his “passionate reflection” is simply a form of inner mediation on Jewish themes, or whether he indulges in praying out loud. For me, the distinction is crucial, for I have learned that I have a very primitive response to spoken prayer: its utterance immediately kicks me into a sense of address to a Being, a Presence to which I yearn to be attached, but in whose separate reality beyond the Self I cannot believe. The sophisticated modern understanding of God as a verb, as the Whole Shebang, or as the Force of Meaning and unite and Transformation in the natural universe, is very exalting when I experience it on the printed page — study being my main Jewish spiritual activity — but as soon as I give voice to prayer, it is the ancient Daddy God who replies, “Yes?”

To which I can only say, “Never mind.”

Ultimately, therefore, I fear that I will need more than psychological safety and a humanistic theology to overcome my prayer block and all its inertial force: I will need a crisis (God forbid!), an assault on my reality that effectively ends my illusion of autonomy and control. I fancy that it is the Voice of Punishment that spoke to the spiritually feeble Noah, rather than the Voice of Blessing that spoke to the spiritually ripe Abraham, that has the best chance of being heard by me: I will need a beating over the head ( vay iz meer!) That makes me fear the consequences of not embracing God’s reality more that I fear the consequences of embracing it.

“Now, if you obey the lord your God, to observe faithfully all His commandments which I enjoin upon you this day … All these blessing shall come upon you and take effect,” declares Deuteronomy 28. “… But if you do not obey the Lord your God to observe faithfully all His commandments and laws … all these curses shall come upon you and take effect…” One might argue that the growing worldwide environmental consciousness has provoked in me a new tolerance for the prescriptive voice of the Torah and a new willingness to listen to it interpretively. Environmental imperatives do, after all, have a “do-this-or-else” urgency to them, while the recognition of deep ecological interdependence carries implications of “covenant” that often seem as binding as any divine commandments.

Worldwide interdependence and the threat of worldwide calamity, however, are very new concepts for the human race — concepts that we keep at bay for fear of confronting them and for fear of appearing grandiose. For most of us, the dawning of God-awareness is more bound up with psychic ecology, the inner landscape. An experience of “synchronicity,” of mysteriously meaningful coincidence, will make us wonder about the connections between our psyches and external reality: a bout of disease will spark a painful process of self-evaluation and search for wholeness: a temptation will awaken our sense of desire and, simultaneously, our fear of consequence: a mystical intimation, somehow infantile yet somehow beyond the beyond, will open our hearts to possibly. Late a night, lying in our prayerless repose, we begin to wonder:

Did Dad grow his own fatal cancer by hunkering down in his anger (and his atheism) rather than ventilating his soul through some version of teshuvah?

Did I cause my own infertility by desiring women outside my marriage, or by otherwise failing to fully “encounter” my wife?

If I keep the extra twenty bucks the bank mistakenly assigned my account, will its loss be felt somewhere in the fabric of creation?

How come all those corrupt power-brokers and soul-snatchers in Washington, in Hollywood, in New York, seem to be having such a good time — or, at least, seem to have a lot more material abundance than I?

Perhaps these were the kinds of questions that Noah asked himself as he watched the “corrupt” and “lawless” humans of his day. The Midrash speculates that their chief sin was “wantonness,” bred of the extraordinary prosperity that resulted from the ideal conditions of antediluvian life: the single plantings of crops that would yield food for forty years, the children who were born after a few days’ pregnancy and could walk and talk immediately after birth. In such a vibrant, productive world, Noah must have wondered: What are the consequences of sin? Is there a divine reality principle impinging upon human behavior — or might I just as well join in the fun?

Which was harder for him to resist: the wild, anarchic, individualistic living that was going on all around him, or those intuitions, vague yet at times irresistible, that God does exist, that there are consequences, blessings and curses, wrought by our behavior?

Noah couldn’t make up his mind. Legend holds that he was up to his knees in water before he at last resolved to enter the ark. How many days more of steady rain, I wonder, before he would open up his lips and cry, “My God!”

Lawrence Bush edits Reconstructionism Today. This essay is from a work-in-progress titled, Waiting for God: A Jewish Heart, a Skeptic’s Mind