My friend Melissa in Sacramento has a knack for getting to the heart of things. She wrote after one of my recent posts:
Since I don’t believe in God, I don’t go to synagogue because I am alienated by a service full of prayers to a God in whom I don’t believe. And I don’t envision a Bat Mitzvah, because it surely would involve worship of same. I wait with great anticipation to see how you reconcile these seemingly conflicting beliefs (non-beliefs?) Carry on!
I’ve spent the past two blog posts more or less talking about what I don’t believe.
So let’s give a little time now to why I in fact love the Reform Jewish liturgy – why I enjoy going to services even if they are full of God God God – and why I’m studying to become a Bat Mitzvah.
Services are a rare place in our modern American world where people talk about the big stuff. Mortality. The meaning of life. Forgiveness. Becoming a more loving, generous person.
Most of the time we run around completely preoccupied with daily life. There’s the whole materialistic drumbeat of buy! buy! buy! But even those of us who don’t buy into all the buying still get caught up in the scramble to get dinner on the table, hold on to our jobs, volunteer at our kids’ school, fix the broken toilet, keep up with the latest convoluted turns of the health care debate.
We don’t talk about death. (Well, except for those famous death panels.) We don’t talk about how precious life is. We don’t stop to remember how utterly long-shot miraculous it is that our temperate, water-filled, oxygen-filled planet with its millions of forms of life even exists.
But in services we do that. And for me, all those “Gods” in the liturgy are a stand-in for life, or for our universe. For creation.
When I say Baruch atah Adonai Eloheynu – blessed are you, Adonai our God – I am expressing my awe that all of this exists.
I am reminding myself to feel awe that it exists.
I am reminding myself that I am just a minuscule piece of a very big picture.
Going to shul (synagogue) gives me an opportunity to do this on a regular basis — even if I haven’t had a particularly awe-inspiring day, even if I have just spent the last four hours fighting with traffic jams or a moronic boss or a sulky teenager.
And it lets me do this in public, out loud with a bunch of other people, which is more powerful than thinking it silently by myself.
One reading that I love within the Reform siddur (prayer book) cites a Chasidic leader from Poland around the year 1800, Rabbi Simcha Bunam, who said:
Keep two truths in your pocket and take them out according to the need of the moment. Let one be “For my sake the world was created.” And the other: “I am dust and ashes.”
Wow! I don’t think you need to believe in God to find that profound.
So yes, sometimes all the God-language in shul (synagogue) gets to me like it would get to Melissa. But most of the time I take it as a metaphor.
And there’s a lot in the Reform siddur – like the Rabbi Bunam saying – that speaks to me with a depth and “big picture” perspective that is missing from other parts of my daily life.
P.S. Want to read a Yom Kippur sermon by a modern rabbi on that saying by Rabbi Bunam? It’s here.