[Managing Editors note: Recently State of Formation collaborated with staff and writers at the Interfaith Youth Core around this question: What do you expect from contemporary leaders of your religious and philosophical traditions? College students blogged for IFYC with their own ideas and thoughts and were responded to by State of Formation writers. The second such exchange is between IFYC writer Nayab Mahmood and State of Formation Contributing Scholar Adina Allen.]
Nayab, it was wonderful to read this thoughtful and self-reflective piece. The questions you raise are real and important and the struggles you wrote about—of how to live a religious life and be a part of the modern world—are crucial. I think you articulated the major challenge that we all, as religious or ethical people, face: how do we learn to stand in the gray area? How do we develop our ability to hold ambiguity and nuance? How do we learn to acknowledge many realities at once? Exploring these questions is the task for all those of us who eschew fundamentalism of any kind. Rather than derive easy answers or rigid rules, we seek to increase our capacity to sit with complexity and to be comfortable in the place of not knowing.
In my own course of study for the rabbinate I have found great support for this emphasis on learning to live in the gray area. In the Mishnah (the first major redaction of Jewish oral law from 220 CE) we find the statement: one who makes his prayers fixed, his are not prayers of supplication. On a basic level, this speaks to me of the way that fixity or rigidity in how we live creates distance between ourselves and Gd. In many ways true relationship with Gd means responding to the moment, improvising as we go, and exploring how best to live our life in an honest and reflective way.
The Talmud (rabbinic commentary from around 500 CE) examines this earlier rabbinic statement about prayer and asks what it means. One explanation given is that our prayer lacks supplication when it is not with the reddening of the sun. While on a basic level the rabbis may be referring to the need for one to be earnest in his or her prayer (ie. doing it as soon as day breaks, or as soon as night falls) in order for it to be supplicatory, I think there may be another level to their words.
Perhaps here the rabbis are also emphasizing the importance of being awake to the daily moments of transition, of remaining grounded in ourselves through the discomfort of not knowing what will come next and the fear of no longer being rooted to where we once were. Like the gradual shift as the sun reddens and night gives way to day and day to night, praying during these transitory times of day may be being offered as a daily practice for us to remain present, conscious, and grounded through life’s changes. On this, the famous rabbinic commentator Rashi writes that this time of the reddening of the sun is the most auspicious time for prayer.
What is so special about praying at the border between dark and light? Evidence of the power of the edge between two things is present every moment in our environment. The “edge effect” is found at the boundary between two ecological systems where we find the highest levels of synergism, biological activity and diversity.
May our faith gently call on us to remain awake through the challenge of standing in the gray areas of our life. May we be lifted up by the incredible energy, synergy, and beauty of the in between places, no matter how challenging life gets. And may we embrace our time between boundaries, staring out over the edge of endless possibilities.