It’s Shabbos morning and much to my surprise, I am leading the davening at the Chor Shul, the only functioning synagogue in Kaunas, Lithuania. I’d planned to slip quietly in and out, but as I enter the lobby an elderly gentleman greets me in Hebrew:
?יהודי––Are you Jewish?
?להתפלל באת––Did you come to pray?
?עברית מדבר––Do you speak Hebrew?
?ציבור שליח—Do you daven? Please lead us.
Next thing you know, I, an American Reform rabbi, am conducting the Orthodox Shacharit service for the last vestige of Jews in the city where my great great grandfather, Rabbi Judel Finkelstein taught Torah over a century ago.
He davened in much humbler quarters, in the impoverished Jewish neighborhood of Slabodka, just across the river that my daughter and I paddled into town. I like to believe that my forebears would have been proud of me, chanting my way through the liturgy, from the opening blessings to Adon Olam. I’m extraordinarily honored and deeply moved by this opportunity.
And yet I’m also struck by a profound dissonance between the words that I’m singing aloud from the siddur and the reality just outside—and even within—these synagogue walls.
Following the traditional liturgy:
I chant—Baruch atah Adonai, Ozer Yisrael b’gvurah—Praised are You, Holy One, who girds Israel with strength.
I praise—Ahavah rabbah ahavtanu Adonai Eloheynu—How deeply have you loved us, gracing us with abiding compassion
And I plead—Tzur Yisrael, kuma b’ezrat Yisrael—O Rock of Israel, rise in support of Israel, and deliver us as You promised
Yet even as I chant and praise and plead these reverent phrases, I tremble inwardly, knowing that seventy-five years ago, in this very place, pious Jews sang and praised and repeatedly pleaded—and Divine strength and compassion and deliverance did not come.
Back then, the city was home to nearly 37,000 Jews—over a quarter of the local population. There were forty thriving synagogues, and countless other communities of Jewish Bundists, socialists, communists, Zionists and free-thinkers. Today there’s just this one shul, short of a minyan this Shabbos morning: seven old men and me, gathered in a dingy side room because it would be too dispiriting for such a tiny remnant to daven in the ornate, spacious sanctuary.
So how do we understand this disconnect between devout words and destroyed worlds? Should we really pray as if nothing happened in the fall of 1941, when the Jews of Kovno and Slabodka—believers and atheists, young and old, men, women, and children were indiscriminately shot into ditches at the Ninth Fort, just outside of town, and buried in the yawning pits that they’d dug in advance of their own deaths?
How do I deal with this dissonance? Sometimes on our Lithuanian river journey I am tempted to overlook it, to daven in blissful ignorance. When I don my tallit and tefillin each morning at our riverside campsites, it is not so hard to imagine that the horrors of the past never happened. Where torrents of innocent Jewish blood once flowed, a peaceful new day dawns. The birds sing. The sun shines. The forest is lovely in the dappled light. Nature is clearly oblivious to the scourges of human history; I could readily follow suit. Why trouble my prayer with the burden of what took place here three-quarters of a century ago when it’s all grown over, buried beneath fragrant pine needles and wild flowers?
And yet I can’t compartmentalize this way. I won’t suspend my skepticism. I will not pray as if the siddur’s words and the world outside were one. I cannot, in good faith, naively sing the praises of a God who rewards the righteous, punishes the wicked and deliverers His beloved people Israel as promised. Instead, I wrestle with the words of the tradition—because I believe that is precisely what our tradition demands of us.
What does the Holy One ask when we turn to Her in prayer?
Talmud teaches: God desires the heart.
To pray from the heart is to speak the truth—to acknowledge the discord as well as the beauty, to question even as we praise.
To pray from the heart is to direct our heavenly intentions into earthly action, to translate our words into the work of healing, justice and peace-making.
To pray from the heart is to commit ourselves to a spiritual path that is both entirely honest and deeply consequential.
God desires the heart.
And the heart, my friends, is a very complicated thing.
Genuine prayer is relentlessly, and sometimes painfully true. If it equivocates or falsifies, it’s empty flattery. Seemingly pious words cut off from the reality of lived experience are at best hollow and at worst hypocritical. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “The divorce of liturgy and living, of prayer and practice, is more than a scandal; it is a disaster.” It is, therefore, no accident that Jewish law teaches: A person should only pray in a house with windows (BT Berachot 34b). Prayer desperately needs the world’s changing light—and its darkness, too. Walled off from the rest of experience, without windows, our praise and petitions inevitably ring false. This is unacceptable for a liturgical tradition that daily declares: Adonai Eloheychem Emet—The Holy One, Your God, is Truth.
Authentic prayer is also fierce, insurgent and insistent. If it’s complacent or, God forbid, boring, it becomes a trite, irrelevant mockery of itself. Again, Rabbi Heschel: “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive. . . The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.”
On paper, this seems straightforward enough. Who would argue with the notion that prayer should be truthful, relevant and consequential? Yet in practice, it’s tricky, because when we Jews worship in community, we don’t make up the words as we go; we daven from a liturgical script, written over the course of two millenia, that can sometimes feel a little archaic. Our challenge is to find contemporary value in these ancient words.
The first and most critical means toward this end is to recognize that traditional Jewish prayer is far more poetry than prose. If I took the words of the siddur at face value, I’d reject 99% of it out of hand. On a literal level, nearly everything in the liturgy is problematic. But our prayer book is not intended to be read this way; it speaks almost entirely in metaphor. In our flimsy attempts to personalize the power that undergirds in the universe, we reluctantly describe God as Avinu Malkeinu, as paradoxically both intimately loving, like a good parent, and awe-inspiring as a powerful ruler. Because we want to believe that the world is founded on justice, we haltingly approach God as a judge. And so our services for this sacred season often portray God in concrete human terms—but the Holy One, who has neither body nor image and may be more verb than noun, is not a King or a Rock or a Father or a Judge or anything else that our tradition poetically calls Her.
What is God? We don’t know. That’s precisely why prayer employs metaphor, which is always open to new interpretations and multiple understandings. By reminding us of our limitations, poetic language helps keep us from falling into idolatry. As Catholic theologian Richard Rohr notes:
All language about God is necessarily symbolic and figurative. . . in service of the unsayable. When it comes to comprehending God and the great mysteries of love and death, knowing has to be balanced by unknowing. Words can only point a finger toward the moon; they are not the moon or even its light. They are that by which we begin to see the moon and its light.
Approaching our traditional liturgy as poetry makes it possible for progressive Jews to pray with integrity, to daven with words that are not literally but experientially true. Yet that is not enough. God desires the heart. Even when we read metaphorically, it is not sufficient to merely recite what’s printed on the prayer book’s venerable pages. Our challenge is, as Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman teaches, to go beyond the text—to embrace and wrestle with the Holy, to sway and shuckle, to praise and rage and question and sing out loud until we embody the words and, with all of our heart and soul and might, translate them into radical action in the wider world.
The story is told of a Hasidic master walking along a cobbled shtetl street when a cry pierces the chilly night. It’s the wailing of a baby, and it’s coming from the home of one of the rebbe’s students.
The master rushes into the house and sees his disciple facing the wall, enraptured in his evening prayers. Across the room, the baby cries and cries—until the rabbi walks over, cradles her in his arms, and gently rocks her to sleep.
When the student finally emerges from his davening, he’s mortified to find his rebbe standing by his side, holding his newborn daughter. “Master!” he exclaims, “What are you doing here?”
The rebbe replies: “I was passing by when I heard her wailing. So I entered and found her alone.”
“Rebbe,” says the young man, “I was so engrossed in my prayers, I did not even hear her.”
To which the master replies: “My dear student, if praying makes one deaf to the cries of a child, there is something flawed in the prayer.”
Halfway through the Shabbos morning service that I am leading at the Kovno Chor Shul, I experience a kind of epiphany. With the force of revelation, I recognize that the vexing disparity between the siddur’s devout phrases and the hell that unfolded just outside these walls is not the problem; it’s an urgent invitation. The dissonance is both the medium and the message. If my praying deafens me to that disharmony, like the student to his baby’s cries, the prayer is fatally flawed. I realize that my God is found right there, at the center of the incongruity—calling us, frail mortals, to step into the breach. To serve this God is not to simply praise what is, but to prayerfully envision what should be—and to labor, in partnership with the Holy One, to make the ancient words ring true. We affirm the wisdom and compassion of our tradition with full intention, lamrot ha-kol, despite the horrors of our history.
And so I pray to the God who lives in the gaps:
I sing Mi chamocha ba’elim Adonai—Who is like you, Eternal One. . . Israel’s Liberator?
And as I chant these words that our ancestors sang as they marched to freedom at the Sea of Reeds, I recall and reaffirm my obligation to labor on behalf of all whose liberation is not yet fully realized.
I praise Modim anachnu lach—We thank you, Compassionate One, for our lives which are in your hand.
And as I offer my gratitude, I silently add the words of our Reform siddur:
“Teach us to give thanks for what we have by sharing it with those who are in need.”
I proclaim Adonai Yimloch l’olam va’ed—You shall reign forever, Holy Sovereign.
And with this proclamation, I take responsibility for my abundant shortcomings.
I commit myself to the sacred work of tikkun olam, of striving for wholeness and healing in our badly broken world.
And I acknowledge Yotzer or u-vorei choshech—Creator of all, who fashions light and forms the dark—and with these words, I pray, O Holy One, for the courage to seek You in both, for while I readily find you in the light, the darkness is difficult.
Dear God, it’s dark out there.
Which is why we need authentic, challenging, heartfelt prayer to illuminate the nightfall.
In an age of pervasive and pernicious lies emanating from our nation’s highest corridors of power, we need prayerful words and deeds to cut through the duplicity and demand the truth.
And in a season of who by fire and who by water, as our world drowns and scorches in floods and infernos of our own making, we need prayer’s subversive power to rouse us out of our complacency.
It’s dark out there.
In Houston and South Florida.
In Washington, DC.
And all across America.
But this morning, on the threshold of a new year, our gathering in prayerful community calls us to hope. So in that spirit, I conclude with Rabbi Heschel, yet again, from his essay, “On Prayer”, penned in 1970 but more prophetically relevant today than ever:
The spiritual blackout is increasing daily. Opportunism prevails, callousness expands, the sense of the holy is melting away. We no longer know how to resist the vulgar, how to say no in the name of a higher yes. Our roots are in a state of decay. We have lost the sense of the holy.
This is an age of spiritual blackout, a blackout of God. We have entered not only the dark night of the soul, but also the dark night of society. We must seek out ways of preserving the strong and deep truth of a living God theology in the midst of the blackout. For the darkness is neither final nor complete. . . Our power is in coming upon single sparks and occasional rays, upon moments full of God’s grace and radiance.
We are called to bring together the sparks to preserve single moments of radiance and keep them alive in our lives, to defy absurdity and despair, and to wait for God to say again: Let there be light.
And there will be light.