Looser grip

I would never absorb all the rules and know the meaning and timing of every Jewish prayer. How could I? Rabbinical students spend years hammering out this stuff, and these are usually kids who grew up in observant households. I realized that if I wanted to explore Judaism, I had no choice but to loosen my grip. I would need to let the Hebrew flow without my understanding every single word—or even any of the words. Maybe I could hum along, or utter a syllable or two of a phonetic translation, or skim the English version if one was provided.

As I got further along in this portion of the journey, with more experience under my belt, I began to see that not understanding every word is the norm—especially for English-speaking Jews. Many have learned just enough Hebrew to say the necessary prayers; others have learned by ear and through repetition. The extent to which individual Jews are familiar with or follow “the rules” varies wildly. The labels of branches within Judaism indicate the degree to which that particular group chooses to adhere: the “ultra-orthodox” and “orthodox” stick as closely as possible to the law, while “conservative” and “reformed” have eliminated many traditional requirements.

Still, even the most observant among them can’t adhere perfectly. In fact, the sages and wise men have developed another set of guidelines for how to make things right when the inevitable mess-up occurs (such as how to “purify” a utensil intended for dairy that may have accidentally encountered meat).

When I began to grasp the meaning behind the rules and prayers, I had to laugh at my earlier notions. I thought the actions and words were like scientific formulas—conduct them perfectly and unlock the mystery of being Jewish. I wanted to say the exact words the observant utter every morning, afternoon, and evening. In Hebrew, these lines sound so complicated, so unattainable; I thought if I didn’t say them, Judaism would remain shrouded in mystery.

Eventually, I learned what the words meant and began to grasp the simple sentiments they convey. The prayer before eating bread? It translates as: “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth.” The prayer one says upon seeing a natural wonder such as a rainbow or water fall? It goes: “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe who has such as these in His world.” Specifically, the prayers may offer a brief thank you or a plea or an apology—but they never stray too far from a simple expression of gratitude. The intention of the rules and the words is to honor God by demonstrating an appreciation for life and all that sustains it. They encourage Jews to stop and take notice.

An observant Jew might tell you the point of all the ritual is to remind him or herself, again and again, of the wonder of creation. But even then, he or she will probably fail at times to muster feelings of thankfulness. Luckily, an observant Jew has many do-overs throughout the day. Because the goal is not so much the flawless performance of whatever act is required, but the joyful appreciation it is meant to cultivate.

So even if Phil and I botched the Hanukah candles, what mattered most is that we recognized the flames as a sign of hope.

24 thoughts on “Looser grip

  1. Thank you for sharing this sweet basic information about the intention to pay attention and be grateful. In my tradition, some say that if the only prayer we ever say is “Thank You”, we are one with the spirit.

  2. Hi C,

    Insightful post as usual. 😉

    However, you didn’t really mean this, did you?

    “I thought the actions and words were like scientific formulas—conduct them perfectly and unlock the mystery of being Jewish.”

    Science is the complete antithesis of supernatural beliefs, which includes the idea of powerful magical words and magic incantations that must be said properly in order for them to “work” (eg the old cliche, “Abracadabra!”)

    Even prayer contains a similar concept, where the majority of believers feel they HAVE to say certain magical words (eg “In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen”) or the right name (“Jehovah”) in order for their appeals to be heard by God.

    I can’t think of anything in science that comes every remotely close (and I’m all ears, if you’ve got any), so please don’t drag science into the mud-bath that religions are perfectly happy to wallow in!

    Speaking of which, have you gotten any exposure to Jewist mysticism (Kabbalah) as of yet? If the Torah and Talmudic writings don’t have enough magical and mystical thinking for you, there’s TONS more waiting in Medieval Kabbalist writings. 🙂


    • Hi Dave, I did not mean it literally–rather, with a bit of poetic license. However, initially I did feel that saying or doing these prayers or actions in the “right” way would suddenly illuminate for me what it means to be Jewish, as if it were akin to a scientific formula. I see now that was kind of silly because of course it’s the meaning behind the prayers and actions that matter. I do explore Kabbalah and I even venture to L.A.’s Kabbalah Centre (of Madonna fame). Will have posts about it!

      • Hi C,

        Hmmm, I guess it’s actually a complement to the predictability and reliability of the scientific method, if you put it that way. But either way, as long as your poetic license is valid for the 2013-2014 writing season, then you should be OK, and the Writing Warden can’t say ‘boo’…. 😉

        PS looking forward to the Kabbalah stuff (although shame on you as a nosy Gentile for violating the longstanding prohibitions against looking into the ‘inner secrets’ of Judaism). 🙂


  3. HI Corinna: Enjoyed this, as @ usual. Interesting comment on things be like scientific formulas. Unfortunately, Dave is right that many Christians see prayer as a formula, scientific or otherwise. This is totally opposite to what Jesus sought to teach his followers. Before teaching his disciples “the Lord’s prayer” / “the Our Father,” he was very specific about how NOT to pay, and it was at that point that he was also teaching about God’s children asking their heavenly Father in the same way an earthly child asks his earthly father, who knows how to give good things. Much of our prayer to God might be different if we knew everything he knew about what we ask for and how that would affect our lives….Do-overs are good…. 🙂

  4. I liked the ‘joyful appreciation’ bit – that makes sense to me. No matter where/who you think it comes from!

  5. Loving this section on Judiasm. As an evangelical Christian, I’m sorry to say that I don’t know much about our brother (cousin?) religion. I love that a None can teach me… 🙂

  6. Corinna, Likewise. I enjoyed the post and message of appreciation and gratitude for the simple blessings that surround us daily. To be present and pay attention to the wonder of life. Good stuff. Reminds me of a quote I read recently from “The Awakening Heart” by Harold Klemp, “Life will be more rewarding when we learn the secret of gratitude.” thanks

  7. A looser grip is always a good idea. Well, maybe not if you’re falling off a mountain, but almost all the time, it’s better taking life with a loose grip. I’ve noticed that fundamentalists of all religions or of no religion who cling too tightly to the rules, the performance standards, the “compelling evidence” aka hard cold facts, the ~whatever~ these people are the least tolerant, seem to be the least happy, and I think are the least effective at spreading their particular gospel.

    There’s something in your post, Corinna, about going for the spirit of the thing, or the overall theme, letting it flow over you, rather than focusing on any tiny rule or fragment. I really like this. It’s kind of the way I see the Bible these days. Instead of poring over the meaning of each little word, I’ve taken to standing back to look at the whole picture. What is revealed of God’s true nature in the overall book, that’s more what I’m interested in. Corinna’s recognized the theme of gratitude or appreciation in the Jewish prayers, and the hope in the menorah candles. This seems more like what God would want.

    • I guess I’d have to agree with Shelley on the idea of maintaining a ‘looser grip’ (sometimes that even applies to my relationship with reality!)
      I have found that I’ve compiled my own story of life – which includes some religion, relationships, travel and all manner of experiences. I’d say I prefer IT to the story in the Bible. This is, in no way, meant to be disdainful – rather, more of a personal reflection. I see that many of the same themes (gratitude and appreciation, for instance) that Corinna has identified can be applied to all people, not just believers. Some things just make good sense.
      P.S. To all – Patti will probably be back tomorrow! I know she’s anxious to get ‘caught up’!

      • Shelley, you took the words right out of my mouth. This is pretty much what I have been thinking since I read Corinna’s post. It seems the tighter you try to hold on to something, the more you get into the “holding on” and the less you remember what it is you really care about. You lose the attention from what is really important. Letting go and “going for the spirit’ of things, be it religion or relationships or happiness or whatever you cling to so tightly ….the letting go is what brings it back to you. It is counter intuitive….but that is how it works, it seems. Now, if I can just remember this as I live my life!

  8. Maybe some religions’ practices change circularly. They start out simple and gain more “baggage” through the years. They become more institutionalized, add rituals and rules, and become hierarchical. Eventually, people get tired of all the additions and try to get back to the essence, as Shelley calls it. Christianity is going through something similar with the emergent church and other non-denominational movements. Maybe Judaism’s “loosened grip” is a similar effort…

    • Hi Tim, That does seem to be a common theme: more structure and guidelines building and then a wave of voices rising that call for a return to something they feel is more essential and basic. Certainly, in Christianity, it has happened over and over again.

    • I admire that the “loosened grip” seems to seep under elements of Jewish life beyond the religious attitudes; although I realize that it may be that easy hold that spreads through an entire culture. Steve Allen once wrote, I believe, in a book titled, “How To Be Funny,” the advice, “First, try hard to be born Jewish.” The Catskills must be littered with discarded irony, yet it seems no matter how hard life hits some Jews they still come back with, “On the other hand…”

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