Today I’m trying to write about what it was like to start to get interested in Judaism. Somehow, I’m finding this to be more of a challenge than some of the other bits I’ve had to cover for this book. I think part of the reason may be that I’ve very clearly differentiated from some of my various other incarnations–I’m no longer a snarky little athiest undergrad immersed in the Religious Studies department, and I’m no longer a sparkley hip kid in San Francisco trying to figure out this whole “God” thing (well, I still haven’t figured out God, but I’ve figured out that I believe in God, anyway. It’s a start.) And with some aspects of getting into religious Judaism, I am capable of stepping back, of remembering who I was and how I felt at the time. But with other things, it’s much harder.
Take prayer, for example. The chapter I’m working on now is (as some later ones will as well) on at some length about prayer, what it is to pray. And this is something that I do so often now (several times a day, natch), and with such familiarity, that it’s hard to put myself back into the world of just figuring out how to do this, what it felt like to be so… skittish and embarassed… about my prayer life. It’s not that I shouldn’t be somewhat uncomfortable with prayer, now–a little discomfort is a good thing, keeps one from getting too lazy or complacent, keeps one remembering what a tremendous and insufficient thing prayer to the Divine really is. It’s that, for example, I’m trying to remember what was running through my head when I started to learn how to say these words. It’s like trying to remember what you thought of your oldest, dearest friends when you first met–it’s doable, there are first impressions that linger, but even those impressions are now layered and layered again with everything you’ve learned since about who this person really is.
Like, I remember being totally blown away by the word “kadosh” (holy) when I first started praying. It’s a word on which one could spend lifetimes and not fully unpack, but trying to separate out how I experienced it then, versus what resonates for me today is hard. To some degree it doesn’t matter, for what I want to say and how I want to say it. But to some degree it might. And it’s very funny to me that I don’t remember where I was with that word, then. I only remember that everytime I got to that blessing in the Amidah (the silent, standing prayer with many benedictions), my lips would start to tingle. Maybe that’s enough, really.
In any case (don’t know if I’ll wind up using this or not), here are some words from Malcolm X, z”l, on coming to prayer:
The hardest test I ever faced in my life was praying. You understand. My comprehending, my believing the teachingsâ€¦had only required my mindâ€™s saying to me, â€˜â€™Thatâ€™s right!â€™ or â€˜I never thought of that.â€™ But bending my knees to prayâ€”that actâ€”well, that took me a week.
You know what my life had been. Picking a lock to rob someoneâ€™s house was the only way my knees had ever been bent before. I had to force myself to bend my knees. And waves of shame and embarrassment would force me back up. For evil to bend its knees, admitting its guilt, to implore the forgiveness of God, is the hardest thing in the world.
I’m trying to remember what was running through my head when I started to learn how to say these words. It’s like trying to remember what you thought of your oldest, dearest friends when you first metâ€“it’s doable, there are first impressions that linger, but even those impressions are now layered and layered again with everything you’ve learned since about who this person really is.
That metaphor rings a lot of bells for me.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve been engaging in regular structured prayer for ever. Other times it feels like I’m just starting out and I’m never going to achieve the level of mastery I want. Still other times I laugh at the whole notion of “mastering” something so absurdly deep as communicating with God…