What Are We Saying?

What are we doing when we pray?

By this I don’t mean what transformation in the world are we hoping to incur through the recitation of certain formulas of words, or even who or what are we addressing when we pray. Rather, I am asking about the physical and mental process happening when we pray the words of the siddur (prayer book). Sitting with two amazingly talented and thoughtful local female rabbis/community leaders around the Shabbat lunch table yesterday, this is the question we discussed.

Perhaps the answer to this question seems straightforward: at minimum we are reading and reciting words, and at best we are focusing our energy and attention on what we are saying. I would propose, however, that for many of us there is another step that is occurring, a step that lies between the words on the page and the words we say.

For many of us in the liberal Jewish world (and perhaps in the Orthodox world as well) the words on the page often lack meaning for us and at times even seem to fly directly in the face of our values. As an example, take the words of the Aleinu prayer, “…Who has not made us like the nations of the lands nor placed us like the families of the earth; Who has not made our portion like theirs, nor our destiny like all the multitudes” (I will omit here the even more potentially problematic phrase that has already been taken out of most liberal Aleinu prayers).

As I am praying, each time I come to these words I have a struggle within myself. I have to ask myself what these words mean and what they mean to me. If I am choosing to say these words a translation occurs in my head so that the words are not about what seems to be the obvious meaning—the chosenness and superiority of the Jewish people—and instead are an acknowledgement that all peoples on the planet have a unique relationship with Gd.

For me, this raises important questions about the power and significance of words. The words of prayer are so important that I don’t want to change them, yet they are often so problematic for me that in order to continue to say them I have to transform their meaning in my head.

Last summer I spent a month living and studying for my yoga teacher certification at Kripalu, a yoga school and retreat center in Western Massachusetts. As part of the daily ritual, we came together as a community every morning and began our learning by reciting a Hindu chant containing the names of Hindu gods. As a religious Jew and as a rabbinical student I did not feel comfortable reciting this chant and told this to my teachers. Their response was that I should ask myself why this was so problematic for me.

Though I felt their question back to me to be unsupportive and challenging, I have since thought a great deal about the meaning and power of words. What would it mean for me to say the names of another religion’s gods in a devotional context? On one hand, of course, words are just vibrations of sound and only have meaning if we imbue them with such. If this were so, then would it not be disrespectful for me to take the names of another tradition’s gods and say them in a way that did not have meaning? Would doing so in some way diminish the cosmic force and power of those words? And, there is the question of translation. If in my head I translated these Hindu god names into “aspects or facets of the One” would that make it O.K.? What if this translation is exactly what most people reciting the chant were also meaning?

In order to get a sense of the stories, thoughts and associations going on in people’s heads during tefillah, a few months ago fellow classmate and I organized an experimental tefillah. The weekday Amidah—the core prayer of the Jewish service—is made up of nineteen benedictions said outloud that both praise and request things from Gd. Some of these blessings seem straightforward, like asking for a healthy harvest this year, and others seem more jarring, like praying for a restoration of the Temple and the sacrificial services. For this service we asked nineteen of our classmates to write an interpretation of one of the blessings of the Amidah. In order to make this move of translation that goes on privately in so many of our heads explicit, instead of praying the traditional words of this blessing, we had one student after another in order stand and recite his or her interpretation in its place.

It was a profound experience to hear verbalized all the thoughts and associations that usually take place within everyone’s own head privately. I wanted to share with you here an example of the results of this process by showing three different interpretations of the first blessing of the Amidah next to a traditional translation of this blessing:

Traditional translation (from Chabad.org)

Blessed are You, L-rd our Gd and Gd of our fathers, Gd of Abraham, Gd of Isaac and Gd of Jacob, the great, mighty and awesome Gd, exalted Gd, who bestows bountiful kindness, who creates all things, who remembers the piety of the Patriarchs, and who, in love, brings a redeemer to their children’s children, for the sake of His Name.

Magen Avot
By Ari Lev Fornari

Remember whose shoulders you stand on. Remember who came before you. Remember who died so that you may live. Remember your foremothers Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Remember your foremothers Alice, Ruth, and Nina. Remember your queer ancestors, Kate and Leslie, Claude, Sylvia and Gloria.

I read the words on the page and speak the names not yet on the page.

Witch hunts, potions, brews and tinctures.
Pink stars, gold lame, and glitter.
Stonewall, fists raised, fierce love.

Oh Yes! My ancestral shield is made of glitter and feathered boas.
My ancestral shield is made of steel-toed leather boots, studded belts, and chest binders.
This shield is made of marzipan and baklava, baked ziti and the smell of a pipe’s tobacco.
This is the shield of strength, of courage, of love, of continuity.
Perhaps Jewish continuity lives in this siddur.
I just need to lift the words off the page, and pray by the light of the white fire.

Blessed are you, in your struggle to be here.

By Adina Allen

We may have left Mitzrayim and worked our way out of the narrow straits
But we are still reaching towards the promised land.
Yet to uncover, discover, manifest
A world wide open, expansive and overflowing with love
Avraham Yitzhak Yaakov
Sara Rivkah Rachel Leah
Carried us as far as Egypt
And then our ancestral line stopped
Blessed are you, YHVH our Gd who
Challenges us to move beyond the parent-child relationship with You

And into one of full co-creative partnership with You to create the world to come

By Suzie Schwartz

I grew up in the myth of my family. There’s this picture in our living room – My new born sister, me in a hot pink jump suit, my mother smiling huge and still wearing her nurse’s uniform, my grandmother with huge blond perm and enormous pride and my great-grandmother, Bubbe – past 100 years old, survivor of the triangle shirtwaist factory fire, yiddish speaking immigrant, matriarch. I grew up knowing I came from enormous strength, mammoth love, and deep yiddishkeit. I grew up believing that this strength was only bred through the female line. 

Blessed are you, God our God, my God, who helped my foremothers be who they were.

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3 thoughts on “What Are We Saying?

  1. Adina – I very much enjoyed reading the prayers and your post. Good for you that you didn’t take the yoga instructor’s question as rhetorical. We all need to ask ourselves such questions. If I might be similarly bold and not take your question rhetorically as to whether or not it is disrespectful, from a yogic Hindu perspective, for you, as a faithful Jewish woman, to speak one name and mentally “translate” it to another.

    There is an ancient Indian tradition of istadevatva, that insists that the divine cannot be captured by any one name or form and, thus, one should worship the divine using the name/form that speaks to them. Istadeva is often translated “one’s chosen god” – but this isn’t quite right – it isn’t one-sided… god is involved in the choice, too – and this may come (and usually does come) through one’s ancestry. So, I think that from the perspective of Hindu bhakti (devotion), not only are you *not* being disrespectful when you “mentally translate” – but you are actually being quite true to your faith in istadeva… as are your classmates in their ‘translations’.

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