Tag Archives: prayer

The Age-Old New-Age Approach to Judaism

by Kelley Kidd

This morning, I woke up feeling extremely grumpy. Too little sleep the night before combined with looming stress put me in a supremely bad mood from the moment I heard the first screech of my alarm. Somehow, in the midst of my fog of negativity, I realized I didn’t want to feel miserable all day, and there was only so much that coffee could do to help my endorphins—I was going to have to help out a little if I wanted to survive the day. So I grabbed my iPhone and Googled “Jewish morning prayers.” I found a website (ironically, a resource for Christians) that provided me with the Hebrew, transliteration and translation for Modeh Ani, the prayer of thanks said upon waking up, and the Birchot HaShachar, the traditional morning blessings. With some assistance from the wonders of modern technology, Jewish prayers enhanced my life in a real, immediate way—something that people often forget religion has the power to do.

Perhaps this is why many are drawn to Do-It-Yourself Judaism. DIY Judaism, also referred to by Jay Michaelson as “empowered” Judaism, entails “creating and adapting Jewish rituals to fit [our] own needs.” Rather than trying to force a constrained version of faith to be meaningful, this approach promotes the idea of being an active participant, “a co-creator” of one’s own faith, tradition and Jewish life. Judaism becomes interactive, rather than strictly instructive, and thus takes on more meaning and substance for each individual.

This idea has gained substantial ground recently, as demonstrated by the East Side Jews, who search for a sense of Jewish identity and community outside the traditional “walls” of synagogues or temples. They aim to provide a resource for Jews who have separated themselves from Jewish life and don’t feel at home in traditional Judaism through programming that feels “ spiritual instead of religious, cultural instead of traditional.” For instance, each year at the High Holidays, the East Side Jews gather for “Down by the River,” a “mod, urban, earnest version of tashlich” that has in the past included Buddhist style meditations, theatrical interpretations of Torah stories through “Storahtelling,” and “flash-mob” rabbis: people chosen to create and share stories, poetry and personalized versions of prayers with the assemblage. Though it is an unusual approach, it has the potential to appeal to people who never considered their Judaism more than a chore, and bring them to a space where they engage in a community of people with similar interests, helping people become engaged with Judaism.

Though this sounds “new-agey,” the method of the East Side Jews is far from new to Judaism. The Hasidic movement, founded in the 1700s by Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, was dedicated to “injecting vital energy into Jewish life,” and the Chabad movement places that responsibility upon individuals by putting Judaism and its teachings into each person’s hands, so that each can invest it with his or her own personal vitality.  One famous story relates that a student of Rabbi Schneur Zalman  came to his teacher complaining that, despite his austere focus, he could not muster the same passion for prayer that his friend seemed to have. He tried to block out anything but the rebbe’s teachings, and was unable to attain any sense of inspiration. This demonstrates that it is the man who brings his passion for life, his joie de vivre, his experiences and reality to prayer whose praise for God is truly inspired, while prayer that arises from obligation alone may lack the same enthusiasm.

My morning prayers today were admittedly unconventional, but they infused my day with meaning and gratitude. Similarly, the prayers and practices of the Do-It-Yourself Jews may veer from tradition—they may lack a rabbi by choice, or due to limited resources. Either way, today, anyone with a computer or smart phone can Google their way to Scripture, Torah, prayer, and information that holds the most meaning for them, allowing Judaism to adjust and thrive in a modern, technological world. This adjustability and personal appeal is what has always allowed Judaism to survive, and what can keep it alive and thriving in a world that is ever-changing.

Embracing Rosh Hodesh

By Scott Fox

I love Hanukkah: the presents, wintertime, dreidels, candle lighting. I love all of it. I was born on the fourth day of Hanukkah (28th of Kislev), which makes the holiday particularly special. I lament the beginning of the month of Tevet because it signals the coming end of that special time and the return to normal life. As a semi-celebratory day, Rosh Hodesh (the beginning of the new month) seemed just as perfunctory as Tevet. It is a time that is marked but not especially noteworthy.

Two years ago, however, Rosh Hodesh Tevet completely changed my relationship with that time of the year. On that two-day Rosh Hodesh, I lost a woman who shaped my practice of Judaism, and also discovered new women Jewish heroes who would inject Rosh Hodesh with a newfound importance for me.

In December 2009, I went on a winter break program to study modern Israeli literature and religion with students and professors from my college. The best part was being able to spend Hanukkah in Israel. One of the people we spoke to on the trip was Anat Hoffman, executive director of the advocacy group Israel Religious Action Center and the leader of a protest movement called Women of the Wall. She told us about how religious customs function as de facto law in Israel, reducing the rights of women and non-Orthodox Jews.

Women of the Wall organizes groups of women to pray on the women’s side of the Western Wall every Rosh Hodesh. There, many of the women read Torah and wear kippot, talitot and tefillin, even though the holiest site in Judaism forbids women from praying in any way that could resemble a man. Much of what Hoffman said surprised me—this was not the Israel that I grew up learning about that welcomed all Jews with open arms. To me, the Kotel seemed like a solemn place where all Jews could come together to worship at the spot that united Jews for more than 2,000 years in their longing to return.

With two days left in Israel, I got a call from home—my grandmother had unexpectedly died. It was 30th of Kislev but the news made it feel like time had stopped. Her condition had been deteriorating since the summer. Nevertheless, her death was a shock.

The next day, Hoffman suggested that we attend the next Women of the Wall gathering on the first of Tevet. Like many of the other students, I felt both apprehensive and a bit energized about encountering the situation. I had already been to the Kotel a few times on the trip to respectfully worship. Now, I was returning, in a way, to denounce those who worship there. It almost seemed wrong to disrespect such a holy place, especially since my family was beginning a burial and mourning process that was meant to convey deference to God’s master plan. But somehow it still felt like the right thing to do for her.

My grandma was perhaps the biggest religious force in my family. She insisted on keeping a kosher home and having her children and grandchildren attend Jewish day school because she believed the structure was necessary to keep future generations practicing Judaism.

She was also far from a Lubavitcher rebbe. She was a sophisticated, ardent liberal who lived in a secular world. She was continually abreast with the latest political developments or art exhibits. While embracing the structure of Jewish tradition, she could also be very combative toward anything she did not approve of. She always fought for what she believed. As a Conservative Jew, she believed that all Jews had the right to practice religion as they desired. At her funeral, the rabbi of the synagogue praised her for doing something rare today: raising a family committed to observance of Jewish tradition while avoiding any sort of fanaticism.

That Friday morning, the first of Tevet, a cold, relentless rain fell on Jerusalem. We were already soaked as our group walked up the hills into the Old City. The women in our group went into the women’s section and joined a larger group under a colorful array of umbrellas that hid a Torah underneath.

Although it was too wet for the women to read from the Torah that morning, Orthodox men on the other side were still outraged by their presence and began yelling “Asur” (“forbidden”), throwing things at them and calling them transvestites and other derogatory words. Shockingly, this seems tame compared to what recently happened to an eight-year old girl.

Ultra-Orthodox men are forbidden from hearing women sing, especially while praying, because it will be a distraction to their religious devotion. That day it was the opposite. The men were so disruptive that I was unable to focus on praying for my grandmother over on the men’s side. Police separated the enraged men from the women who did their best to drown out all of the haranguing directed at them. I still cannot believe what I witnessed in what seemed like such a hallowed place—my grandmother would have been outraged. Supporting Women of the Wall was my way of continuing my family’s tradition.

This year, Rosh Hodesh Tevet fell on my birthday, meaning that I would honor my grandmother by saying Kaddish as I began a new year of my life. It’s easy to celebrate a new year but celebrating a new month was more difficult for me to understand until I encountered Women of the Wall demonstrating the true spirit of Rosh Hodesh. Rosh Hodesh is meant to be a shake-up from the laws of the status quo in hopes of provoking a more righteous month to come.

Why Pray?

by Emily Goldberg

Judaism is ever-evolving, a religion that has for centuries faced the challenges of modernization. With young people steering these new paths, our religion has undergone some drastic changes in order to stay relevant in today’s world. Despite the radical changes, such as the consideration of egalitarianism, political involvement and music, there is one prevalent aspect of Judaism that will never be eradicated: prayer.

Prayer, derived from the Latin term “to beg,” is a fundamental value of most religions. Since the formation of rabbinic Judaism, Jews across the globe have congregated to recognize, praise and communicate with a higher theological being. Depending on the denomination and synagogue, some congregations of Jews sit separately by gender, vehemently studying Torah while dressed in traditional Jewish garments. Other communities will have a more liberal approach to spirituality, beating tambourines and dancing in circles while wearing a multitude of colors. While the styles and structures may differ, prayer unites congregations as they grow together. One cannot help but watch in awe as a room filled with faithful people, regardless of background or religion, springs into life.

Jews form daily minyanim, or quorums of at least ten adults, in order to chant an organized service in unison. There are set times to pray as a group, along with separate opportunities for personalized individual prayer. There are customized body movements while participating in prayer and proper times to either sit or stand. In the siddur, or prayer book, there are endless prayers that thank God for the blessings we receive in life. Varying from weddings to the sighting of rainbows, there is a plethora of written prayers we recite when celebrating the joys in life. These liturgical prayer books have enabled Jews to stay committed to their worship gatherings; with the same words in every book, congregations can sing together.

Prayer is easy during the blissful moments in our faith. Picking up a siddur and openly praising God becomes second nature when we are blessed.

Prayer is harder in times of suffering and struggle. When we experience shock, hardship and grief, the thought of praising and thanking God seems almost impossible. During those galvanizing moments in our faith, we doubt the value of our prayers and impose our rabbis with the difficult question: Why do we pray? If the feeling of loss is inevitable at some point in life, how can our thoughts and mediations feel impactful?

While such questions have no particular answer, it is important to formulate our own views of theology when we pray. Personally, I consider God as more of a parent figure in our lives, with prayer being an opportunity to merely “vent” about the situations we encounter each day. With no guaranteed blessings or successes in return, prayer enables me to lay out all of my issues and decisions and share them with someone who will hear them. During the most climactic moments in my personal prayer, I do not discern the distinct boundaries between an Almighty theological being and me; I just see a parent, one who tries  as hard as any other.

Organized prayer services also connect me to the people surrounding me. Perhaps that is why Jewish minyanim require at least ten congregants in order to begin praying; faithful people are meant to share faith together. We do not realize how vital a quorum of ten people is when we, ourselves, do not feel empty. Faithful people are meant to share faith together. For some, your prayer can mean the world; it could be an initial step toward a physical or spiritual healing process. For others, your faith can inspire them to change the world themselves. In unity, prayer enables the Jewish community at large to be strengthened.

Losing (and Finding) My Religion

by Maddie Ulanow

It’s always interesting when, on a particular Friday night, we get a new high turnout of students for the weekly Shabbat services – and only about half of them are Jewish.

It would be higher, but some of the regular Jewish attendees are skipping out for the Buddhist meditation.

A 2009 Pew Research poll revealed that 44 percent of American adults no longer identify with their childhood religion; of those who still do, nine percent changed or questioned their faith at some point. Fifteen percent of the Protestants surveyed now identify with a different Protestant faith, and nine percent of the Catholics surveyed are either unaffiliated or Protestant. Nine percent of the Christians surveyed converted to a different religion altogether, one of the options of which includes Judaism.

What is it that makes a change in religion so attractive? And what is it that brings people to, and conversely turns them away, from Judaism? What is it that lures a curious outsider to simply observe a Friday night service, and what is it that leads to a more in-depth inner exploration on the subject?

People pull away from the religions of their birth for a variety of personal reasons, whether it be disagreement with the doctrine, difficulty in observing customs, perceiving ridicule because of it, or simple lack of identification. How, then, do they find a new religion, should they find one at all?

The Buddhist meditation, at least on college campuses full of religion majors, curious freshmen and a diverse student body is often extremely popular among those not originally of Buddhist faith. It offers something new and exotic, and has a reputation for bringing about a peace of mind. Similarly, the Hindu holy book readings may draw a number of interested students. Catholics attend Jewish services and tap into something of their own religion’s past; Jews attend Muslim services and delight in drawing parallels; students, and to a larger extent all of us of all faiths, can explore all religions and find it enriches our own. In relation to Judaism–a  religion once exiled and ostracized–our services and rituals are now a subject of curiosity to the interested outsider, and the number of non-Jews attending Jewish services are increasing.

Why, you might ask, would anyone give up a Friday night or Saturday morning if they didn’t have to, and if they had no clue what was going on? I know I wouldn’t. One factor might be the increasing rate of intermarriage; 54 percent of American Jews today marry non-Jews, and 33 percent of currently wed couples are intermarried.  With these kinds of numbers, congregations, not just on diverse college campuses but across America, must make shifts to accommodate unfamiliar but eager new participants.

Some use prayer books with both English translations and transliterations, so those with a good ear for tune but no knowledge of Hebrew can still sing along, and understand what they’re praying for. Rabbis might stop between prayers for explanations which benefit not just non-Jews, but the Jews in attendance as well. An interesting tidbit from a recent service I attended was that the “lai-la-lai” and “bum-ba-dum” verses of multiple prayers and songs emerged from the peasants of Eastern Europe, Jews who didn’t necessarily know all the words or meanings but wanted to raise their voices in prayer nonetheless. It opens up a path to spirituality and participation to those the eager people who seek it, even curious outsiders exploring the religion for the first time.

We would hope that other religions offer these subtle, welcoming opportunities to Jews as well – and they do. In a diverse society such as ours where more people than ever are questioning and exploring, especially in the area of new faiths and ideas, pursuit of different religions is a natural outcome. Learning about another religion can help enrich our own, and in turn, teaching someone about Judaism is mutually beneficial. This holiday season, perhaps an attempt to learn something new, and also teach something new, would grant an important new insight for an exciting new year.

From the Archives: My House Shall Be a House Of Prayer For All

By Lynne Schreiber
From Moment Magazine, December 2005

One day last summer, as my friend Katie and I sat beneath an umbrella at a sidewalk café sipping coffee, I mentioned that I needed a quote for a talk I was to give on spirituality in America at my Orthodox shul. Katie, whom I’d met at a poetry seminar in college before I became observant, lit up. “Rabbi Levy said something once about God being in the silence,” she said. “You should ask him for the source.”

It took me a moment to remember why Katie, a member of an Episcopalian parish in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was quoting a rabbi. Her church, St. Clare of Assisi, shares a sanctuary with a Reform synagogue, Temple Beth Emeth. Once a year, Beth Emeth’s rabbi, Robert Levy, delivers a sermon to St. Clare’s parishioners, and Katie, who is as drawn to the spiritual as I am, absorbs nearly every word.

I called Levy, and he knew exactly what Katie was talking about: a reference in Kings to Eliyahu experiencing God’s presence on the mountain as “a still small voice.” I wove the quote into my speech, which I gave before a pin-drop crowd, delighted that my non-Jewish friend had helped me to better understand my heritage—simply because she attended a congregation whose building, like our friendship, transcended religion.

Continue reading

Play Hard, Pray Harder

By Gabriel Weinstein

Just two years after leaving the University of Florida facing charges of larceny and theft Auburn University quarterback Cameron Newton was full of gratitude winning the Heisman Trophy. Though Newton thanked his parents, coaches and teammates, he opened his speech thanking someone who has never helped him ice sore muscles or analyze a blitz–God.  He proclaimed: “First giving all the honor and glory to God, who is the head of my life. Without him we would not even be here right now. Thank you for that.”

The number of athletes publicly proclaiming their faith has ballooned over the past 50 years through the establishment of sports ministry organizations such as Athletes in Action and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. These ministry organizations have made religious expression more socially acceptable in the locker room and on the playing field. According to former San Francisco 49ers and San Francisco Giants team chaplain Pat Richie, sports ministry organizations encourage athletes to publicly proclaim their Christianity. Since sports ministries became a major force in collegiate and professional sports they’ve had mixed success in creating religious sentiment both tolerant and respectful of Christian and non-Christian individuals.

One notable example is Bill McCartney, who transformed the University of Colorado football team from a perennial cellar dweller to a vaunted national power between 1982 and 1994. Though McCartney guided the Buffaloes to a share of the 1990 national championship, his tenure was marred by scandals surrounding his evangelical Christian beliefs. Player complaints about McCartney coordinating religious activities forced administrators in 1985 to create a university policy outlawing coaches from organizing team prayers or Bible study sessions.  In 1990, McCartney filled the 50,000-seat football stadium with members of his all male Promise Keepers ministry. Critics accused Promise Keepers of promoting a misogynistic agenda. In 1992, McCartney labeled homosexuality an “abomination against almighty God” from a university podium (he’s since apologized for his comments).  When McCartney surfaced as a candidate for the position of Colorado’s head football coach a few weeks ago, professors sent protest letters to the university’s chancellor.

The Washington Nationals were thrust into the center of the faith and sports debate in 2005 when a Washington Post article described how team chaplain Jon Moeller, who gathered the teams for prayer and distributed religious pamphlet, told one player that all Jews go to hell.  Local rabbis seethed at Moeller’s statement and put pressure on team officials to discipline Moeller.

While the Nationals’ attempt to promote religious expression proved a blunder, the Colorado Rockies managed to create a religious environment comfortable for Christians and non-Christians alike during the 2007 season. The previous season the Rockies had gained a reputation as an organization with a strong Christian culture after USA Today published an article describing the religious zeal of players and club executives. About 10 players on the Rockies’ 25-man active roster that season regularly attended Sunday chapel. The evangelical presence on the 2007 Rockies did not stifle or alienate other players. Jason Hirsh, a Jewish pitcher who was with the Rockies that season, said in a New York Times article that the Rockies’ religious players didn’t “impress it upon anybody”.

Professional football players have faced similar problems in their relationship with Christianity and football.  Former NFL player Anthony Prior resents Christianity’s presence in professional football. According to Prior, Christianity is used as a vehicle to breed a culture of submission among players, particularly African-American players. Prior said that during training camp players in danger of getting cut carried around Bibles to impress management. Once players secured roster spots, they stopped carrying Bibles. Former tight end Esera Tuaolo said that during his season with the Jacksonville Jaguars there was a major rift between members of the Champions for Christ ministry and the rest of the team.

While Prior is skeptical about Christianity’s presence in professional sports, chaplains state their purpose is to help religious players achieve spiritual nirvana, not conduct outreach with non-Christian players. Ritchie said that the ultimate reason chaplains work with professional teams is because “Most teams want to have their players’ needs met.”

Though Christianity’s presence on the athletic field has been met with mixed reactions, it seems primed to remain a major factor in high profile athletics. The massive presence of ministerial organizations on campuses combined with the presence of several high profile Christian athletes will continue to make Christianity popular among elite athletes. But the greatest challenge for these divinely inspired athletes will be creating a tolerant environment for players of all religious practices and levels of faith.

 

Bridging the Gender Gap in Prayer – Sort Of

By Lily Hoffman Simon

The patriarchal tradition of Orthodox Judaism is being challenged all over the world. The recent controversy surrounding the ordainment of Sara Hurwitz as the first female Orthodox rabba (see Moment’s cover story) indicates the extent of this gender revolution. One recent development in the struggle is the birth of what are known as partnership minyans, which bring together males and females for synagogue services. Yet despite its progressive nature, its gender-equitable approach reinforces the presence of gender equality in orthodox circles.

A minyan in Jewish tradition refers to the number of Jewish adults necessary to conduct Jewish ritual, such as prayer or service. Traditionally, this quorum is set at 10 Jewish males of Bar-Mitzvah age. While Reform congregations and many Conservative ones tend to include women in this count, Orthodox Judaism has continued to restrict women from being included. As a result, women have been considered secondary in religious services, and are also restricted from performing other ritual tasks, such as reading from the Torah, or leading prayer. In Orthodox synagogues, and still in numerous Conservative communities, women and men sit in segregation from each other, separated by a mechitza. Often the women are seated on a balcony on second floor of a synagogue. The bima, or stage, of the service is usually placed on the male side of the mechitza, or downstairs, and as a result, women lack a clear view of, or ability to participate in, the service.

The inaccessibility facing women in a traditional Orthodox service has prompted a response by Orthodox feminists, especially through the work of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.  A solution proposed is what is called a ‘partnership minyan.’  This minyan necessitates 10 men and 10 women to be present in order to meet quorum, a development that acknowledges the importance of women while conforming with the halachic rule necessitating 10 men. Although services implementing this minyan are still gender segregated by a mechitza, the bima is usually centered before it, enabling clear sight of the service for both men and women. Women are allowed to read from the Torah, receive aliyot, and lead some parts of the prayer service.

By promoting gender equity in services, this development is a breakthrough for gender relations and representation in Orthodox Judaism.  Congregations using this model are springing up all over the US, and even in the old city of Jerusalem (like the Shira Hadasha congregation–see Moment’s interview with its founder, Tova Hartman). Much of the motivation behind these communities comes from the idea that hiding or silencing the voices representing community demographics is equivalent to lying before G-d, which is an abomination–especially during prayer. By extending the accessibility of service participation to women, partnership minyans are acknowledging traditional guidelines, yet adapting them to fit modern feminist and egalitarian principles, which are slowly infiltrating established practice of Judaism.

Although partnership minyans support gender equity both in representation and participation, they are still based on an assumed distinction between men and women. The continued use of a mechitza during services perpetuates the idea that the interaction between men and women during services is impure, leading to distracting sexual thoughts. This conception not only reinforces heterosexuality as the norm, but also tends to objectify the members of the opposite gender as merely sexual images; a concept usually applied more to women.  By reinforcing these ideas, men and women remain distinct from each other, and not necessarily equal. There is also no place for transgendered individuals (who identify as a different gender than their biological sex or do not identify with either side of the gender dichotomy) in this scheme (see Joy Ladin’s account about her transgendered experience at the Western Wall).

The remaining challenges beg the question of whether some streams of Orthodox Judaism are truly moving toward creating gender equality or simply reinforce traditional conceptions of gender. Partnership minyans represent one attempt to fundamentally shift the foundations of Orthodox patriarchy, by adapting Halacha to encourage gender equity. As our society’s conceptions of gender continues to change, patriarchal Orthodox institutions will face new and different challenges on its gender journey.