Sunday, September 27, 2009

Kissing through a veil: prayer in another language

Gimme, Thanks, Oops, Wow: 4 ways we pray? Zev Chafets in "The Right Way to Pray" (9-20-09 New York Times Magazine) interviews Rabbi Marc Gellmann. My wife duly commented on his reduction here: "Wow" I'd add that I'm intrigued by the ever-inventive Reform movement's expansion of how we pray, as well as its compression of what many'd relegate to antiquity as petitions derived from three-thousand-year old plaints to a jealous God.

For instance, it never occured to me any more than the bearded trio of patriarchs, or even their more-than-three matriarchs I hazard, to have a prayer relating a sex-change. Similarly, this transference of a prayer pitched at the gay community sanctifies sex with a partner you never caught even the first name of. This unsettles me but I find it poignant. Not sure how widespread the need for this scriptural interpretation may be for most congregations, but that may reflect my tame upbringing. Even in the other sinful city of California. Inevitably if practically, ironically advancing stereotypes even as it undermines them for outreach by cleverly transforming sordid longings into sacred yearnings, this exegesis comes from our rival Golden State locale where you'd expect. Chafets:
And a predominantly gay synagogue in San Francisco, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, has composed its own prayer to be said after anonymous sex. “In the dark, in a strange place, our father Jacob encountered a stranger with whom he grappled all night,” a reference to the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with an angel. “He never knew the stranger’s name, yet their encounter was a blessing which turned Jacob into Israel and made him realize, I have seen God face to face.” The prayer asks God — “who created passion and wove it throughout creation” — to bless casual sex and turn it into a blessing “that allows us to both touch and see the Divine.”
Chafets goes on immediately to the four types of prayer, but I repeat his words here in their wider context for appreciation before elaborating my own thoughts.
Rabbi Gellman doesn’t get involved in the midnight grappling of his congregation, anonymous or otherwise, and he prefers tried-and-true prayers to exotic new ones. “I think it’s important to use Hebrew, saying the traditional words, even if you don’t exactly know their meaning,” he said.

“Praying in English is like kissing through a veil,” one of the young assistants said.

“In the old days,” Gellman said, “cantors made the women cry. Now they just want to do performance pieces. And congregational singalongs aren’t the Jewish way of praying. Our prayers are meant to be chanted rhythmically.”

“Is that how you do it here?” I asked.

Gellman gave me a long look. He and I grew up in the same Reform tradition. Both of us know how well mumbling Hebrew prayers would go over with the Reform Jews of Melville, Long Island.

“I’m saying that techniques can make a difference,” Gellman said. “Like wrapping yourself in a prayer shawl if you want to shut out the world. But really, when you come right down to it, there are only four basic prayers. Gimme! Thanks! Oops! and Wow!”
Does the holy language matter? I reckon that when you skip your own mother tongue and daven in Hebrew or chant in Tibetan or sing in Latin, this may free up your deeper contemplative spirit. Ge'ez still clung to by Ethiopians and Old Church Slavonic by Orthodox: derided by many as empty as Sanskrit for today's Hindus, but in the ancient tongue, learning and lore rest if among, as they age, a dwindling few.

As a scholar of sorts, I understand both the appeal of the arcane and the exasperation of the modern listener who expects not to be lulled but stimulated. Yet, by detaching yourself from the language you use everyday, you find yourself entering the venerable groove, that like an old childhood jingle or nursery rhyme sticks with you half a century later, however irritatingly or comfortingly. This may equate the liturgical language with a reversion to the cradle, but it also may show the need for roots, for tradition, that so many revisers obliterate as they try to make their religion exactly like every other part of their mundane, predictable lives. We seek difference in our sacred worship, not only similarity to the profane. If there was no difference, why cross a threshold? Why bother attending?

We mortals crave mystery. We like make-up and costumes and Halloween. Why make the clergy as dully dressed as the laity? When you demolish the sensational, the gaudy, the captivating, you rip the veil off the Holy of Holies. You may please rationalists, but we lose the sense of wonder that religion brings. Having through "Belief-O-Matic at" (a site covered by Chafets) verified myself as M-O-R "spiritual straddler" between religious structure and my agnostic, quietist, and non-dogmatic tenets, I may be a poor candidate for plumbing the numinous. "What Religion Are You?" results: Neo-pagan & Mahayana Buddhist scored me 100%; Judaism came in about #18 out of 27 flavors, with my childhood faith dead last, tellingly. Still, I'm baptized forever, so I'm told. Pascal's wager?

Thomas Merton: "The real journey in life is interior." I've always yearned for transcendence. This quixotic quest brings me into existential reality rather than fairy tale. Romanticized pagan vs. ultimate nothingness. For most of my peers, this may be too harsh a price to pay. We need the veils around the tabernacle, the canopy that shrouds the Torah, the distance from the altar, the sacrifice, the sacrament.

Putting the Mass into the vernacular, or for Reform Jews the service into English, deracinated it. In the name of relevance, it also stripped the awe from the encounter of people with their Creator. A Nonconformist Welsh chapel, a Mennonite altar, or a Quaker meeting hall possess their own austere power, but why make the panoply of a baroque Catholic basilica into a Calvinist model? My mom wept when she entered, circa 1970, our parish church remodelled and finally unveiled. Post-Vatican II reforms had culminated. Too young for a memory of the Latin Mass, I could still remember as a child the dismantling over Sundays as we clunkily abandoned the Latin remnants translated into interim English. Now, the makeover was complete, in the liturgy and the sanctuary. The candles gone, the tabernacle on the side, the rail vanished, the crucifix replaced. Pews were behind the pulled-out altar so a choir could sit there. A giant wooden framework towered behind it all. No artwork except felt-lettered banners graced the flourescent-lit walls in stark yellow. "It looks just like a Protestant church," she lamented. "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water" entered the spiral-bound songbook that replaced each family's dogeared missals, full of their colored ribbons among holy cards for those departed.

Earlier, Gellman provides Chafets-- who labels himself an agnostic-- with what's from my experience a more familiar setting for Jewish recitation.
When I described to Gellman the exhilarating atmosphere at the Brooklyn Tabernacle, he sighed with professional envy. “There is no prayer harder than suburban Jewish prayer,” he said. “Our people don’t get emotional in public. The only time I can recall really serious praying was after 9/11. I did 30 funerals around that time. We got 2,000 people at a memorial service. That was transcendent davening.

“Evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, they go to church to pray,” Gellman went on to say. “Why else would they be there? But Jews are different. People come to temple to identify with other Jews, or socialize. The writer Harry Golden once asked his father, who was an atheist, why he went to services every Saturday. The old man told him, ‘My friend Garfinkle goes to talk to God, and I go to talk to Garfinkle.’ There’s a lot of that.”

“At least they come,” I said.

“Sure. But when you have a large percentage at a religious service who aren’t actually praying, it dilutes the quality of the entire experience.”

“Like subprime mortgages on a bank’s balance sheet,” I said. “Toxic Jews.”

Gellman laughed. Two young associate rabbis who were sitting in on the meeting laughed less. Unlike Gellman, they do not have tenure at the congregation. One teaches prayer through yoga. Among her techniques is to encourage mourners to say the Kaddish prayer while standing on their heads, to acknowledge the upsetting nature of death.
I reviewed last week Malachi O'Doherty's "Empty Pulpits: Ireland's Retreat from Religion"; he discusses Rabbi Julia Neuberger's distinction between Christians and Jews. Belonging, for Jews, matters more than bothering about belief in God. That faith comes and goes, but the community endures by ritual and observance. My wife and I, after a Rosh Hoshanah service in which the rabbi-- actually a rabbinical student fifteen years younger than us-- dared to mention socialism and psychology as inspired by Jewish activism, and furthermore brought up God, a subject discussed in most synagogues less often than Christians might expect.

Layne and I pondered similarities between Rabbi Gellman and the presiding rabbinical student. (The leader of the service hails from a prominent leftist family with a well-known lesbian aunt/ local politician who with her brother was a Berkeley Free Speech Movement leader. They in turn came from a clan who were the first kosher butchers in L.A. The president of our temple told us that the rabbi-in-training-- at a post-denominational school-- had to sign a contract promising no overt politicking during her sermons, but her views on the state budget cuts and Obama's health care plan clearly could be discerned. Those who had grown up under Kadar's "socialism with a sort of human face" experiment in post-'56 Hungary from our congregation silently may have differed with her earnest paeans to progressive pieties.)

We also noted that the prayerbook (siddur) for the High Holy Days featured lots of demands that God raise up His Chosen People against yet another round of foes. Obviously, a recurring and necessary petition for most Jews most centuries, I reasoned. She asked if Catholics filled their liturgies with such appeals. I tried to recall, but doubted that they were as full of triumphalist gloats or panicky pleas. The majority has the advantage of not worrying about the little people, the minority, the Other. For the Jews, a constant nagging: what will They think of us? How can we survive? How will we outwith Them? And, what will not only the neighbors say, but our children? What message must be inculcated in the next generation, lest they give in?

With our own sons, I have no idea if and how they will attend any service in their adulthood. Lacking Yiddishkeit, I confess detachment from much of what even my wife finds connects deep in her NPR-filtered kishkes. Yet, twenty-one years ago, what brought us together was our interest not only in music and books but the spirit. Out of this, two restive sons. Given their eclectic background and exposure to a decidedly secular-tinged mindset, I have a feeling they may carry little outward devotion into the doors they may or may not darken. Still, we talk about issues, we question verities, and we encourage them to think for themselves. Where the divine power fits in may be for that power to fit into their lives. If their paths are as unpredictable as those of their parents, they may be in for a few surprises. I've journeyed far from the days of "Blowin' in the Wind" in my parish songbook at the age of nine, after all, myself.

(Illustration for the NYT article by Andrew Rae. Try to enlarge it to see-- cats? mice? prairie dogs? --as they seek too "The Right Way to Pray," God only knows.)


Bo said...

Marvellous as ever. i thoroughly enjoyed that. How on earth do you write so much, and so well?????!

Fionnchú said...

I lack Sindarin, Welsh, Old and Middle Irish, Latin, and Greek, but I do get inspired even in my native tongue, and thanks to blogs like your two, I keep inspired. Thanks for the kind words, Bo: l'shanah tovah tikatevu 5770.

Bo said...

gam lekha!

Layne said...

See. I'm not the only one to consider the quality and quantity of your writing freakish. And I even heard you dragging the trash cans down the drive in the middle of the night. What a blessing it is to have you to empty my garbage and finish my thoughts.