42, belief, Douglas Adams, God, Hebrew, Judaism, minyan, Mordecai Kaplan, Neil Gillman, prayer
Friday, July 2, 2010
What’s the answer to THE question about life, the universe and everything? 42, of course. What’s the exact question? Ahh, that’s another story entirely.
If this makes no sense to you, you are clearly not a Douglas Adams fan and should get yourself to a library asap for a copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy… especially since Adams’ thoughts on God and religion are hilarious.
Enough of that. It’s time to get down to the business of answering your questions. My thanks to all who e-mailed, texted and commented.
Two questions came up repeatedly: Do I really not believe in God, and do the people in the minyan (who pray in Hebrew at light speed) know what they’re saying?
1. Re: that God fellow. Nope, don’t believe in him. Sorry to disappoint you. I kept this a secret for many years, believing that the Jewish world would consider me a pariah if they ever found out. And then, one glorious day, I began to read Mordecai Kaplan.
I felt as though someone had pulled a chair out from under me. I couldn’t believe that someone understood me, agreed with me, and had said so in print. (I also wondered why the hell it had taken me so long to discover this.)
I went zooming into Rabbi Neil Gillman’s office, my professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, bursting with the news of my epiphany. He calmly went on flipping through the papers on his desk and told me that at least one student per semester tells him the same thing. Kind of took the wind out of my sails, but on the other hand, at least I knew that Kaplan and I weren’t alone.
The problem with Kaplan is that he wasn’t a very good writer. And I haven’t figured out how to put it in words either. Thankfully, Rabbi Harold Kushner did it for me. He wrote: “To believe that God is real means believing that the qualities we associate with God are real, that they truly exist in the world.”
That I can agree with. When Kaplan writes “God is whatever gives meaning to this world,” that God is a God I can believe in.
2. Do the speed davveners know what they’re saying? Apparently, many of them do. At least, they say they do. My uncle Geo told me I should open a prayer book at random and make them translate a passage, and the Shema is off limits.
I didn’t do that, but I did ask around. A couple of the older guys grew up as yeshiva students and learned prayerbook and biblical Hebrew as kids (but both said that they don’t do well in Israel where everyone is speaking modern Hebrew). Others told me that they studied the prayers on their own, and might not be able to translate for me but could give me a general idea of what each prayer is about. No one copped to pure ignorance.
Here’s my question back to the questioners — does it matter? Is the exact meaning of the words important? The people praying have a pretty good idea of what the prayers mean, and what their function is. They know they’re not saying “goo-goo ga-ga” and they’re not swearing (unlike some people with tattoos in Chinese, who only think they know what it says).
If the pray-ers achieve some kind of prayerful state, whether that means they’re meditating, or communing with a higher power or just clearing their mind, is it OK to not understand the exact meaning of the words? Does it matter if a person meditates on the sound of “om” or the sound of “shema?” What about monks who chant the same Latin phrase over and over? What about singing “la la la” instead of real words?
I am certain that there are lots of rational arguments for understanding the words you’re saying when you pray. But I also think that there may be good arguments for not worrying about being able to translate Hebrew prayer into English — and sometimes, not wanting to.
This reminds me of the story my cousin Debbie told me about losing her cat and how the Zohar helped her find it. But I’ll save it for another time.
For now, it’s after 6pm on a Friday evening, and that means it’s time for me to turn off my computer until tomorrow evening, and enjoy the Sabbath.