The Technology of Judaism

You know how some people benefit in times of trouble, like surgeons and morticians? Nothing will ever redeem 9/11, but it has been good for religion. In times of peace and prosperity, it is practically impossible to convince satisfied people that they are missing something in their busy and full lives. Comforting the afflicted is much easier than afflicting the comfortable.
The attack on the twin towers last fall changed everything. For many the event was a great shofar that awakened us to a world without guarantees. We identified with the innocent people who went to work on an ordinary Tuesday morning without the slightest sense of concern. What seemed permanent and strong crumbled, and all that talk about the fragility of life that rabbis talk about at this time of year suddenly became relevant.
The High Holidays are the time that we are traditionally asked to look at our lives and judge ourselves. Now, as we watch fearfully so many things beyond our control, we begin to ask the deep questions, “How do I ease the anxiety I feel when I think of my children and grandchildren in this world?” “What can I do to restore my sense of wonder and joy?” “Can I still hope?” “What ultimately matters in my life?” And, “How can I change direction so that I can live in this world with a higher purpose than being number one?” “Do we have to have terrible loss to appreciate and be grateful for what we have?”
Questions like this need ancient wisdom traditions for response. The questions are not new because cataclysm is not new, and traditions have useful practices for times such as ours. For a generation of largely fallen away Jews, Judaism now has urgent relevance because it can answer the questions and offer freedom from despair and anger.
I do not pretend that I have the answer that will lift the weight of the moment, but I can tell you that there is a way to live in these times with peace of mind and hope. For thirty five years I have practiced Judaism, and I have spent a good part of that time wishing that the benefit was clearer. Be careful what you ask for. On September 11, 2001, I received resounding answer. It gave me words for the fear and sadness, it reminded me of God, and it reminded me so tenderly of what ultimately matters.
The technology of Judaism, the mechanism that makes it work, is wonderful. It is with us constantly in everything we do–how we eat, do business, even make love. God is in the details. What I’m speaking of is Jewish practice, the things that we do that make us distinctively Jewish. All paths lead to the same place, but the mode of transportation is key to understanding the principles of the path.
We believe that the world stands on three things, torah, tefilah, and gemilut hasadim. Our practice is one of study, rituals, and deeds of lovingkindness, and they are 24/7. They can occur anywhere, not just in the synagogue. The Shema tells us to speak of the One whom we love when we lie down, rise up, sit in our house, or when we are in the supermarket. We are told to greet everyone with a cheerful countenance and offer hospitality to all who enter our homes. Do you know how much better life gets when you meet everyone with a welcoming and buoyant demeanor? Our tradition tells us what to do when we see a beggar in the street, the fair way to do business, and how to treat our children and parents. Believing in God is not as important as behaving in God.
The practice requires a lot of praying, because a prayer is like a little bell, a reminder of the things we overlook, like eyesight, hearing, strength. We chant 100 blessings a day to keep us conscious and grateful for the wonder of living, When we bless the meal that we are about to eat, we weave sanctity into the ordinary, and then we remember nothing is ordinary about a piece of bread. In time saying all these prayers leads to gratitude, which is a sure-fire path to happiness.
We also have prayers seeing lightning, hearing thunder, eating seasonal fruit for the first time, and upon seeing a rainbow in the sky. When we see an exceptionally beautiful person, tree, or field, we thank God. When we meet a great Torah scholar, we have a blessing, and we have another for a great secular scholar. 600,000 Jews together require a special prayer. We even have a prayer for unusually bad news, Baruch Dayan HaEmet.
Prayer is a sacrifice, a willingness to do something completely impractical and without tangible benefit. But A.J. Heschel tells us that the very act redeems us. He says, “Prayer may not save us, but it makes us worth saving.” The commitment to the practice of prayer changes us, because we have changed our priorities. We are taking time to become conscious each morning of the blessing of being able to think, see, stand, and be strong. Even if we have our doubts about God, prayer reminds us of daily miracles.
Prayer is supposed to become familiar. I like closing my eyes and davening the words and melody. Some days I love the psalms, some days I could care less. But I do it. That’s what a practice means. Woody Allen says that 80% of success is showing up. That’s what praying is, showing up.
Some of you have said, “I can find God on my own. I don’t need a practice.” Perhaps. For some of us having a practice that directs our bodies, minds, and hearts, is necessary. The familiarity of the words, the repetition, is a comfort. They belong to me and I to them. In the stillness of the word, I find my essence, the giant part of me that is connected to all things. The day goes differently with practice. It directs my perception and behavior. Practice can be many things. When it comes to prayer, some people daven three times a day plus prayers at all meals. I spend a half-hour in the morning praying, and if I have time, I start with ten minutes of sitting quietly. Saying the Shema upon awakening and going to sleep is a good practice, too.
I also depend upon our weekly Shabbos minyan, because my prayers have greater velocity and my ideas are richer when I am with a group. Ahad Ha’am, one of pioneers of Israel and an essayist, wrote, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” Shabbos is my favorite practice. I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t seize a day that is an island of peace. We take off our watches, we might wear new clothes on that day and say a special blessing for the occasion, eat a leisurely, delicious meal, sing, study Torah, and talk to people we haven’t had the time to connect with all week. It’s called a day of delight. I don’t know anyone who has begun this practice, enjoyed it, and then stopped. Don’t we need a day where we look beyond the moment, where we can live life as what we hope the world will be some day.
Last night we explored reasons for the survival of a people without a country for 2000 years. What has held us together are practices that have traveled through time and space. When I say prayers, I connect myself to my great-grandparents who said the same prayers. Continuity gives me a locus, a sense of belonging. Ritual links me to a people.
A key piece of Jewish technology is that we cannot be hermits in our practice. You really can’t be a Jew by yourself. Sometimes we require ten to be present and we are always encouraged to study with others rather than alone. That Judaism must be practiced in community is key to its understanding of the nature of human beings. The hardest thing is to get along and yet we need each other more than we realize and more than we might like.
HaMakom began a couple of years ago, and when Sukkot came last year, everyone experienced the community anew. We saw the fragility of the sukkah and remembered the towers falling. We discovered that by gathering to celebrate the blessing of harvest, it felt good to be together. And we experienced the ancient ritual like a rock in a frightening world. 65 of us showed up and became a sukkah for one another. 9/11 clarified the purpose of our chavurah. We became a community to learn two things: how to practice lovingkindness and how to be a Jew. Regular meetings for study, prayer, and acts of lovingkindness are the practice.
My greatest pleasure is in seeing intelligent, sensitive people discover Torah not as an academic exercise but as something important in their lives, something they have grown to love. We drink “from the river of your delight.” A yeshiva is a school and the word derived from the root lashevet, which means to sit. Nothing else matters for the hour and half we sit and study. We have greatly different point of views. At first we were afraid of our differences, but over time we’ve learned that you don’t have to like other to love each other. We study with affection and respect; we do not need agreement.
This technology of study for its own sake teaches that the ability to think is holy and that learning and teaching is sacred. Life whizzes by us, faster than ever before, and more than ever, we need to sit down and take a little time regularly to reflect upon and study the important questions, not just the most urgent in any given moment. When we study with others not just to pass a test, but because we need one another for greater understanding, we come to love them in a special way. We are grateful to one another for our practice, because we are making the effort to become wise and kind.
A reporter asked me what, if anything had changed for me personally and my community since 9/11. At first praying was impossible. How could I praise God? But because I had to, I began to see the blessings that still were there. Family became essential for me. I was also grateful for my practice. I was as disturbed and frightened as everyone else, but I had a wisdom to lean on. It wasn’t learned in a book alone; it was lived in ritual and prayer. I discovered amazing depth and comfort in our words, understood them as never before.
Two examples. I never liked the 94th psalm that speaks of the God of strict justice, but on September 12, the words, “God of Vengeance, God of Vengeance, appear! Give the arrogant their deserts… How long, God, should the wicked exult?” strangely comforted me. Later, on Rosh Hashanah I read, “Great is your gift of peace, Source of Peace.” For the first time I understood what peace means: none shall make you afraid. I fell in love with this tradition again, because it holds and strengthens me in its eternal vision of a world suffused with peace. Its practice helps me to imitate God.
When I read “The Holy One observed, ‘How long shall the world exist in darkness?’ And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ I am comforted. Light always follows darkness.