These are my own gleanings from a beautiful book by Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, The Geologist of the Soul: Talks on Rebbe-craft and Spiritual Leadership (2012, Albion / Andalus, Boulder). I hope they encourage you to buy the book. I have paraphrased in order to clarify my own understanding, but there are also direct quotations from the book. The notes in square brackets are my own thoughts and responses, rather than ideas gleaned from the book itself. Read more ›
In 1872, Francis Galton wrote a now famous essay entitled ‘Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer’1 and concluded that prayer has no effect on either God, or the health or life expectancy of the person prayed for. The essay is full of value propositions and assumptions presented as fact, so I find it hard to take it seriously. Also, Galton’s starting point is Christian conceptions of both prayer, and God’s relationship to creation and humanity. The etymology of ‘prayer’ (preces) leans heavily on the idea of petition and, by implication, the potential for magical thinking and questions of whether those who pray can turn the mind of God.
I realise that there are Jews throughout history who have pursued the same line. However, there is a counter-thread in Judaism also, that regards this as largely irrelevant. T’fillah might be considered more as a process of self-reflection and personal development, as well as a means for both awakening our higher ethical sensibilities, and nurturing and developing our relationship with God.
On a more personal note, it is one of the areas of Jewish (spiritual) life in which I am especially interested. Even if there is no paradigm shift (sadly) away from naive magical thinking about prayer as humans attempting (or managing) to influence God, perhaps we can hope for at least a ‘software upgrade’ on the language and practices of our prayer so that it can speak better to the contemporary mind and heart. I am not suggesting a clinical, scientifically rigorous language, nor double-blind tested prayer practices. Prayer is (or at least, should be) multi-sensory, includes emotional and emotive elements, admits paradox and poetry, questions, doubts and hopes, despair, anger, and thanks and wonder. I make no definitive claims about the purposes or results of prayer, but my life would be poorer without it, and I suspect communal life would be too.
This recording and a version of this article were published on Ritual Well (USA) as ‘Arise, my love‘.
I wrote this song in the same week that I wrote Libavtini achoti chalah. Both songs draw on verses and phrases from Song of Songs. The purpose for writing was very clear. Two friends of mine, Ella and Natasha, were getting married, and I wanted to offer them music for their wedding based on traditional Biblical text. The challenge was that there was, of course, no explicit Biblical narrative of a same-sex marriage.
Much could be (and has been) written about the Kaddish (to which I have put links below). Although one version is referred to as mourner’s kaddish, it is part of our daily prayers, and comes, in some form, in almost every service. It is, above all, a prayer in praise of life. At the very end of Yom Kippur, we sing a lively melody for it, but at most other times in the liturgical week and year, the music is much more intense and inward. My musical setting is intended to emphasise the vitality and excitement that I feel is inherent in the words. Read more ›
The Modeh ani prayer is often used as an alternative to the Elohai n’shamah prayer as the first words that are spoken on waking in the morning. ‘Thanks’ is the first thought, followed by awareness of our intimate relationship with God, and the life that we are given. We usually think of Modeh Ani as being just a morning prayer, but we can cultivate gratitude throughout our day, making our lives and other people’s lives richer. The Jerusalem Talmud seems to suggest this:
“Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani said three introductions as they occurred during the day changing with each creation. In the morning a man is obligated to say: I give thanks before You Hashem my G-d and G-d of my fathers who brought my soul from darkness to light. At Mincha (noon) a man is obligated to say: I give thanks before You Hashem my G-d and G-d of my fathers, just as you privileged me to see the sun in the east likewise privilege me to see it in the west. In the evening [one is] required to say: May it be your will, Hashem our G-d, and G-d of my fathers, just as I was in darkness and you brought me to light, so will you bring me out from darkness to light.” [Talmud Yerushalmi, Berachot 4:1, 29b]
V’taheir libeinu, l’ovd’cha b’emet. “Purify our hearts, that we may serve You in truth.”
I introduced this composition to my Jewish Renewal community, the London Ruach Chavurah, at High Holy Days 2015. As this text occurs in the Amidah throughout the services, it became a gentle, insistent reminder for us to keep returning to the intention of this season, to make atonement, to purify our hearts and minds, and renew our commitment to serve. One of our members, Stuart Linke, helped me devise the dance (thank you, Stuart!). The movements are slow and simple, and a beautiful reflection of the ideas in the text. Read more ›
Siddurim (prayerbooks) place the Ashrei in various different places in the sequences of morning and afternoon prayer. For me, emotionally, it feels good to open davenen (praying) with just its first verse:
Ashrei yoshvei veitecha; od y’hal’lucha.
“Happy are they who dwell in Your house; they praise You forever.” (Ps 84:5)
What makes this such a good verse to sit with in meditation? For one thing, the word here for ‘dwell’ is yashav, which also means ‘sit’. But the verse also reminds us just to be. In the Talmud, the Rabbis tell us:
“One who says the T’fillah [daily prayer] should wait [sit] an hour before his prayer and an hour after his prayer. Whence do we know [that he should wait] before his prayer? Because it says: ‘Happy are they that dwell in Thy house’. [Ps 84:5] Whence after his prayer? Because it says, ‘Surely the righteous shall give thanks unto Thy name, the upright shall dwell in Thy presence’. [Ps 140:14]” (Berakhot 32b)
Prayer is not something to be rushed. It must be savoured. We can give more to prayer, and receive more through it, if we slow it down. If we slow it down enough, we come to know the truth of Psalm 34:8 – “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” George Herbert (1593–1633), in his poem called ‘Prayer’, wrote that prayer is: “… God’s breath in man returning to his birth, The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage, … Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss, … the soul’s blood, The land of spices; something understood.” And our task – our opportunity – is to reach for understanding in all four kabbalistic worlds: the spiritual, the intellectual, the emotional, and the physical. Read more ›
In the book of the prophet Nehemiah, we learn that “all the Jews gathered as one in the street that is in front of the gate of water.” (Neh 8:1) We commemorate this moment at Rosh Hashanah (new year), when the whole community goes to a place of flowing water, and casts away pieces of bread there. This is to symbolise casting off our sins, and it is a time of joy. The text associated with the Tashlich ritual is:
Tashlich bimtzulot yam kol chatotam. “Hurl into the depths of the sea all our [lit. ‘their’] sins.” (Micah 7:19)
This is a time of celebration. It is also a ritual that contains much psychological wisdom, despite its apparent naivety. Nobody seriously thinks that they can walk away from the wrongs they have done. The teaching in the Talmud is clear that Yom Kippur is only about atonement for transgressions by human beings towards God. “For transgressions between one individual against another, the day of atonement procures no atonement.” Atonement is achieved only by making repair with the person who has been wronged. (Mishnah Yoma 87a) And atonement in relation to God comes through honest acknowledgement of sins, followed by prayer, returning to God, and making right all that we can.
The German poet, philosopher and playwright, Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805) once wrote: Wage du zu irren und zu träumen, hoher Sinn liegt oft im kindischen Spiel – “Dare to wander and to dream; higher matters are often played out in children’s games.” So what could be happening in this gentle, seemingly playful Tashlich ritual to give it meaning and substance? Read more ›