Uniting the Transcendent and Immanent: A Jewish Way of Saying “Amen” in an Uncomfortable and Challenging Prayer Space

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Posted on January 19th, 2013 | Filed under Challenges, Theology
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A couple of months ago, I was recording a video for my community when I heard a sudden knock on my office window.  Startled, I quickly finished the recording and went to the nearby door to see who had knocked. As I opened the door, I encountered an energetic and fast talking woman who apologized profusely for bothering me, but was excited about introducing me to a friend of hers who was visiting from Africa. She asked if she could introduce him to me -- he was a very spiritual man, a priest who wanted to see a synagogue. Not wanting to be a bad host, I told her that I'd be glad to meet with him and show him around the synagogue. As she went to get him I tried to figure out the chain of events -- where did I meet this woman? She surely remembers me. And then I remembered meeting her on my way to synagogue during the High Holy Days in September. She was with a friend of hers who wanted to say Kaddish, the memorial prayer, for a family member. I remembered that she was very excited to meet me and couldn't wait to introduce her to some of her rabbi friends.

I was still trying to figure out what exactly was happening when the priest came to the door. Tall and dark skinned he was wearing a long jacket which was memorable because at the bottom I could see some of his traditional African dress peaking out. I remember thinking..."I'm showing an African priest inside my synagogue...how cool is this!" So I showed him our beautiful sanctuary which was built in 1926 with high curved ceilings and tall and narrow stain glass windows. We then approached the ark so I could show him where the Torah scrolls were kept and he muttered "ah...the ark of the covenant."  It was a thrilling tour, one I will never forget. Then at the very end of it, the energetic woman came back in and said "I am so glad you were able to meet one another. I knew that you had to meet and pray together." As soon as she said the word "pray," a lightbulb went off. My confusion over who she was, her interest in the Temple, her desire for me to meet her rabbis, started to lift. I hastily moved our small group (which included another man who never said a word) into my office and prepared for a moment of prayer; of an uncomfortable, challenging, stepping-outside-the-box moment of prayer.

I knew it was going to be an uncomfortable moment of prayer because it became clear to me that the woman standing in front of me who was full of spirit and boundless energy was a Messianic Jew, someone who practiced and observed Judaism but believes in Jesus (or Yeshu) as the Messiah. This is not the space for me to go into the complex and challenging relationship between mainstream Judaism and Messianic Judaism. Yet it is enough to say that it is not a good relationship and I was certainly on guard as we entered into that moment of prayer.

But what a moment it was.

I have never heard a person pray like this priest -- full of heart and conviction and sincere desire to bless my congregation with health, prosperity, and strength. I truly felt a powerful presence in that moment, as if that space was becoming hallowed ground. Yet, every time he mentioned the name Jesus, I was shocked back into reality. This was just not my way to pray, and yet I was part of it. I desperately wanted to say "Amen" to his words, but I just as desperately did not want to as well.  Yet I needed to say something. I had to. But what?

"L'shem yihud koodsha b'rikh hu u'sh'khintei "

"For the purpose of unifying the Holy One Blessed Be He and His Presence"

These were the first words that came to mind when thinking about how to say Amen in this uncomfortable and challenging prayer moment because these words, for me, epitomize the complexity of faith: that we sense a unique ability to bring God's blessing into this world, yet we will never know how or if that blessing occurs.

This phrase -- "L'shem yihud koodsha b'rikh hu u'sh'khintei " -- is a Jewish mystical kavvanah (intention) before reciting prayers or performing mitzvot (commandments). I first encountered this intention during my year of study in Israel while I was davvening (the Yiddish word for praying) in my favorite little synagogue called Va'ani T'fillah ("And I am Prayer"). The kavvanah was used as part of a longer piece in the Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday nights. Kabbalat Shabbat, which contains a number of psalms and a beautiful, intensely mystical poem called Lekha Dodi, was added to the Jewish liturgy by Jewish mystics in the 16th Century to help a Jew lift his or her spiritual consciousness out of the burdens and troubles of the mundane (hol)  and raise it to the glory and the beauty of the holy (kadosh).  As such, the striking wedding images in Lekha Dodi, of "beloveds" and "brides" uniting together in bliss, articulate the desperate hope of the Jewish people to become holy through helping form the union between God who is transcendent above (the "Holy One Blessed Be He") and God who is immanent on earth ("Divine Presence"). Sidestepping the sexual overtones of this union (in Hebrew's highly gendered language, "The Holy One Blessed Be He" is male and the "Divine Presence" is female), what's most fascinating to me is that these two parts of God cannot become united without the help of human beings to unite them.  In other words God is not whole if we don't unite the transcendent and the immanent together.

This is an incredible power for human beings to have -- to be the vehicle for God's unification through our prayers and our actions. It is a result of our human sense that we have a unique relationship with God in which we are active partners in making all of creation more perfect. Yet, this power is also incredibly problematic. Perhaps we can sense God's immanence -- that we feel God's "divine presence" in every action or moment of our lives. Yet, can we really say that we know God's transcendence -- that we know God is some all-powerful and all-pervasive force that is bigger than any of us? After all, if we are limited creatures and if the transcendent God is limitless, how can we actually know that transcendent God? Perhaps we can sense God, but we can we truly ever know God? Yet while holding that skepticism of our cosmic abilities, the intention of "L'shem yihud koodsha b'rikh hu u'sh'khintei  -- for the sake of uniting the Holy One Blessed Be He and His Divine Presence"  -- makes the leap to say that we can unite the two together.

This is why I believe I reached for this intention in trying to find a replacement for "Amen" in that uncomfortable prayer space in my office.  The optimism of the mystical intention combined with the skepticism of our cosmic abilities teaches me that as human beings we have an amazing, yet incomplete ability to bring God's blessing into the world. When we pray in the name of Allah or Jesus or Hashem, or whomever or whatever our God may be, we are trying to accomplish the same job. Yet, our different words and different emphases reveal the reality that we will never know if our way truly works. We believe our way works, but our healthy skepticism implores us to be open to other ways that might work as well. When I engaged with the African priest in prayer in my office, I felt his way work; I could sense God in that moment. As such, I needed to affirm the truth that I was experiencing God coming together in that moment. Yet, I also needed to affirm that this moment did not belong to me, that though I felt its power I did not know its power. And because I did not know that the priest's prayer unified God, I needed the theological space to believe mine could. So I said "L'shem yihud koodsha b'rikh hu u'sh'khintei " -- All of us are trying to bring God into this world, but we'll never know how or if it truly happens.   

 

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8 Responses to “Uniting the Transcendent and Immanent: A Jewish Way of Saying “Amen” in an Uncomfortable and Challenging Prayer Space”

  1. The phrase I am a prayer is in Psalm 109:4. I was glad to see it here. This is a very significant Psalm (preceding 110 and its two acrostics following) for Judaism. In it the elect expressed in the first person singular (i.e. at unity) is persecuted and prays the most severe polemic on his persecutors. From my pending book on the psalms (in Hebrew and English)

    But I, I am a prayer (verse 4). How can יהוה be silent when the mouth of deceit and crime is so open? The cursing in this psalm seems worse than Psalm 137. But the promise of oil alleviates the blast of curses. The vetting of this barrage of curses works itself to grace (28a). The psalm ends with mouth – praise, as it began,
    and יהוה has not said a word.

    Psalm 110, an oracle, then outlines the wounding (מחץ) of the head – as if the head is wounded on behalf of all.

    Psalms 111-112 (as is the role of all acrostics) celebrates the prior psalm. Compare psalm 36 (oracle) and 37 (acrostic).

    I am moved by your post because the Shema implies that we must find that unity. We know how difficult this ie even within our own traditions.

    • Hi Bob, thank you for your interesting response. I learned a lot about the meaning of these psalms and in particular about the individual cry of anger and frustration from the narrator in 109 (I agree that it sounds more vexing than 137).

      Yes, I think the unity that is alluded to in this psalm (in having good deeds be rewarded) and throughout biblical and Jewish literature is one in which we strive to achieve. Yet the irony of faith is that while we strive for unity, we know from the outset that it is impossible to achieve. It’s a maddening state of mind, yet how else can it be when attempting to connect with a transcendent God who is ultimately beyond our grasp? The very act of striving for that unity seems utterly insane when we consider the futility of our attempt to achieve it.

      At the same time, the other great irony is that when we strive to achieve unity while knowing we will never be able to get there, we come closer to God and to each other in a way that makes the journey worthwhile.

  2. Gordon Mehler says:

    Ari:

    I enjoyed your thoughtful piece and hope you are flourishing as a newly-minted rabbi in New Jersey!

    Gordon Mehler

  3. Michael Ramberg says:

    Fascinating on many levels and powerfully honest, Ari. Thank you.

  4. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again very soon!

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Ari Saks is a recently ordained rabbi from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a product of the various arms of the Conservative Movement. He is an avid believer and supporter of the benefits of "interfaithing" (faiths working and dialoguing together) and is particularly interested in how members of different faiths (even within one's own family) come together to do spiritually meaningful work. He currently serves as the Rabbi of Temple Beth Mordecai in Perth Amboy, NJ.


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