Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Prayer and Poetry

Rabbis often like to debate--passionately--things that most Jews tend not to notice. Recently, in my rabbinic listserve/online discussion group, we visited such a subject: the wording of the gevurot prayer. This blessing, the second in the part of the service known as the Amidah, praises God's power. In its traditional wording, God is m'chayeh meitim--one who revives the dead. This is generally taken as a reference to a classical belief that when the messiah arrives, God will, literally, resurrect our bodies and re-unite them with our souls. Not surprisingly, the Reform movement early on rejected this theology as irrational and in their version of the gevurot, substituted the phrase m'chayeh ha-kol--God gives life to everything.

Yet in the new Reform siddur, Mishkan Tefillah, there is a kind of return to the tradition, for it offers both the Reform and the traditional wording as alternatives--m'chayeh meitim and m'chayeh ha-kol. Each rabbi and congregation chooses which version they wish to follow.

In our on-line debate, some of those who prefer the Reform wording asked: how can any progressive Jew espouse bodily resurrection? Well, I responded by noting that I do not believe in bodily resurrection. When it comes to the whole question of an after-life of any kind, I am an agnostic. Nonetheless, I prefer the traditional version. Why? Because for me, it offers a powerful metaphor. In this sense, God resurrects the dead all the time: when trees are reborn in spring, when animals emerge from winter's hibernation, and, more importantly, when we find renewed life and hope after crisis and despair. Talmud itself recognizes the metaphorical use of the phrase, adding that one should praise God as m'chayeh meitim--the one who resurrects the dead--upon encountering a friend or family member that one has not seen in many months.

This debate points to a larger point for me, which is that all of our prayer is metaphor. Truth be told, if I took the siddur literally, this passage about bodily resurrection would be the least of my problems. What about God as King? Or as Shepherd? Or any of the other myriad imagery we use to describe the Divine. On a literal level, as prose, I think the siddur is about 98% nonsense. But as poetry, it is beautiful, life-changing, and visionary. And I believe that this is how the brilliant Rabbis who wrote it intended for us to read it.

The problem is that we live in a world where poetry is a fringe activity. We dabble in it in high school--where we mostly learn to dislike it, and to not understand it. This is tragic, for it leaves us with a literalist view of life that is deadly for religion (and, for that matter, literature and art) Until we learn to read poetically--metaphorically--prayer is going to be difficult at best and, at worst, nonsensical. We have our work cut out for us.

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