The other day I was meeting with a friend and local Pentecostal minister (let’s call him “Diego”) when someone we mutually knew (let’s call him “Sam”) dropped by to say hello. After a few short pleasantries it was clear that our friend was struggling. He was looking for some spiritual guidance and when Diego asked if we could pray with him, Sam enthusiastically agreed.
God must work in funny ways because the conversation I was having with Diego when Sam dropped by was about Diego’s worship in his church. In particular he shared with me that there are times during his worship service when they speak in tongues, a practice I had never witnessed. Now, after Sam had asked for us to pray with him, I thought perhaps here’s my opportunity to witness some prayer being offered in tongues. Instead, Diego asked me to offer a prayer for Sam and as I was preparing to find the right words to offer both of them turned to me and said “and we would love it if you can do it in Hebrew.”
I paused, suddenly taken aback. I had become accustomed in the religious cultural setting of Perth Amboy to be a part of, and take an active role in, offering extemporaneous prayers. However, I always offer them in English instead of Hebrew. Outside of simply wanting the people listening to understand what I am saying, I have two reasons why I pray in English as opposed to Hebrew.
The first is very practical — my Hebrew isn’t good enough. Despite many years of studying Hebrew, countless experiences praying in Hebrew and even living in Israel for over two years, I never got to the point where I could speak Hebrew fluently so that I would not need to translate any of my thoughts from English to Hebrew.
This leads to the second reason why I pray extemporaneously in English as opposed to Hebrew — English, as opposed to Hebrew or Yiddish, is my mamaloshen (Yiddish for “mother tongue”). English is the language I use when I think, speak, yell, whisper or simply wonder about life, and because of that it is particularly appropriate for me when I feel the need to “pour out my soul” in prayer. Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1811) shared a similar sentiment in his great little book השתפכות הנפש (Hishtapkhut Hanefesh, translated as “Pouring Out of the Soul”) which seems to be addressing German Jews:
אמר כי עקר התפלה הוא דבקות לה’ יתברך. והיה טוב יותר להתפלל בלשון אשכנז שמדברים בו. כי כשמתפללים בלשון שמדברים בו, אזי הלב סמוך ודבוק מאד בדבורי התפלה (שיחותיו הקדושות, הכתובות בסוף הספר לקוטה-מוהר”ן, יג
He said that the essence of prayer is cleaving to God May He Be Blessed. And it is better to pray in ashkenaz (i.e. German), [the language] you speak in. Because when you pray in the language you speak, your heart connects and cleaves more to the words of prayer (Chapter 2 (Holy Teachings, Written in the end of the Collections of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav), 13).
I sincerely identify with Rabbi Nahman’s statement as I feel that some of my most powerful moments of prayer, especially when done extemporaneously, are crafted in my “ashkenaz,” my mamaloshen of English.
That doesn’t mean though that English is my natural language for Jewish prayer. Whether in shul (“synagogue”) or in the home, the language I speak most confidently in prayer is Hebrew because the mamaloshen of Jewish prayer is Hebrew. To engage in a Jewish prayer experience that lacks a substantial amount of Hebrew seems to be lacking in authenticity. Yet, despite the fact that training and experience has helped me understand many of the prayers, there are still a vast number of prayers I say on a regular basis which I don’t fully understand when I’m saying them. Kal vahomer (“all the more so”) is this the case for Jews who have received less religious education than I have, which invariably leads to a contradiction that has plagued the diasporic Jewish community for ages — Jewish prayer needs to include Hebrew but no matter how hard we try, we find it difficult to connect to Jewish prayer because we don’t understand the Hebrew!
Is there a way to answer this contradiction in a way that affirms the necessity of Hebrew for Jewish prayer, the recognition that Jewish education will only go so far to explain Hebrew prayers, and the need to pray which, as Rabbi Nahman points out, comes forth most naturally in our mother tongue? To answer this question, let me share with you how I answered Diego and Sam’s request to pray in Hebrew.
After taking a moment to think about what prayer I would offer in Hebrew, I chose a prayer for healing, known as m’shebeirakh laholim, since it offers prayers for strength and sustenance in times of struggle. As is my wont, I tried to translate the Hebrew as I prayed it so that Diego and Sam could know what I was saying and so I could include some Rabbi Nahman-inspired prayer from my mamaloshen. But when I tried to return to the Hebrew after my translation I got confused. The Hebrew words were not on the lips of my soul but in the recesses of my memory that memorized them from years of repetition, and I couldn’t find them in that moment. I racked my brain trying to find the right words, and then all of a sudden, as if by inspiration some other words from a prayer for forgiveness in the Amidah (“The Standing Prayer”) came to my lips. I didn’t know where those words came from, I didn’t understand what I was saying as I said it, but it just came out as if my personal soul that yearns to pray and my Jewish soul that speaks in Hebrew were fused together in that moment.
As I concluded my prayer both Diego and Sam said they found it to be particularly moving. Personally I was upset that I messed up the original prayer, combining two together. But afterwards, reflecting on this experience I came to a realization that helps me answer the contradiction asked above: Praying in Hebrew is like speaking in tongues.
As I learned from my conversation with Diego, speaking in tongues occurs when the Holy Spirit enters your soul and speaks in a language that is unintelligible to human ears yet resonates with God as God’s mamaloshen. While there is an element of speaking in tongues which calls for a translation into the local “ashkenaz” (not so dissimilar from the ancient idea of publicly translating the Torah reading as it’s being read during the Jewish ritual), the experience of hearing “God’s language” powerfully connects the hearer to his or her Creator. That’s what Diego and Sam were reflecting after my prayer, that though they did not understand the words being said they felt as if it flowed from God directly into their souls. Perhaps that’s what those of us in the Jewish community need to think about when considering the importance of prayer – that Hebrew is not just a language that connects us to Judaism but it has a spiritual link to God. After all, in the Torah, God speaks in Hebrew. Thus perhaps we don’t need to know what every word means to feel the power of Hebrew in our souls.
At the same time there are moments when we want to express the prayer that is deep in our souls, the prayer that according to Rabbi Nahman helps us cleave to God. Yes, we need to find more opportunities, as Rabbi Nahman implores us, to pray in our mother tongue. But my experience of confusing the Hebrew prayers in my memory banks taught me that in those moments when I want to fuse Judaism with my need to pray, there are plenty of prayers solidified in my memory after constant repetition that allow me to pull whatever words God’s spirit wants me to recite, even if they don’t make sense to my mortal mind in that moment.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.