The Embodiment of God in Prayer

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

The Embodiment of God in Prayer

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow*

Why do the communities of Jewish renewal seek forms of prayer different from those our forebears used? For the same reason Rabbinic contact with God, through words, was so different from Biblical contact with God, through bodily acts of offering food from the earth. The reason is that God's Self has changed in relation to the world, and so the world must address God in new ways.

The God we address is much more suffused in the universe than before Modernity. Powers that our forebears once ascribed to a Being totally Beyond us — the power to destroy all life on earth, to create new species, to overthrow tyrants — are now suffused into our own hands.

If God is increasingly embodied in the world, increasingly immanent, how do we pray? If we are ourselves an aspect of God, how do we speak to what is not Other but an aspect of our selves?

We must "embody" our connection with the God who is embodied.

So the communities of Jewish renewal have begun to make important changes in prayer. The first changes came not from thoughts of word and mind, but from an act of body: If you davven in a circle, where is God?

Not somewhere else. Not in the Ark, across many rows of behatted heads and past an empty gulf of no man's land. Not in Jerusalem, thousands of miles away. Not high above, reigning in royal splendor.

As we davven in a circle, God begins to appear in the faces round the circle — and in the vibrations between — and in our own hearts and minds.

Jewish renewal communities have developed some powerful ways of recognizing this Presence:

Perhaps the most important is actually re-Naming God. For hundreds of years, Jews have subsututed "Adonai" — "Lord" — for any attempt to pronounce the sacred mame with the letters "YHWH." Lord, Judge, King, Commander — all the God Who is Beyond us. But what might we hear in these letters that speaks the God within us?

Try pronouncing those letters with no vowels between, not "Yahweh," not "Yahovah,"" just "Yyyyyhhhhwwwwhhhh," so that it becomes just a rough-breathing.

God as the Breath of Life, not King: the interwoven Breath that dances all of life: what we breathe in is what the trees breathe out, what the trees breathe in is what we breathe out. The Name that exists in all languages, all species.

So in prayer we substitute for "YHWH" not the traditional "Adonai," but "Yahh," another ancient name (as in Hallelu-Yah," Let us praise God") said like a breath, and we address God not as King (Melech ha-Olam), but as "Breath of Life, Ruach ha-Olam."

Some congregations pause at the moment of Barchu, when traditionally an amalgam of individual davenners becomes annealed into a community. We look around the circle of the davenners, pausing at each face to say in silence, "This is the face of God." "And this is the face of God." "And this." "And this."

We look deep into the closed and angry faces, the crinkling humorous ones, the calm and peaceful faces and the closed, withdrawn ones, into worried frowns and anxious glances, into tear-filled eyes and smiles of welcome. As we do this, we see the faces open, change, deepen — not dropping whatever had been there before, simply enfolding it in a deeper vision.

Do this often enough, and you begin to believe it: My face and your face are the face of God. Believe it long enough, and you begin to act it out: You nourish every neighbor, for each is a face of God.

The Psalms, those ancient hymns to God, change when God is in us. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has taught pairs of people read a psalm in dialogue within the minyan: One person reads the first verse of the psalm silently, absorbs it, and decides how to express something close to this thought in her or his own words.

Then s/he faces the "spark of God" in the other partner to say the new thought to the God Who lives in the partner's face. The second partner pays full attention to what the first one says, and then turns back to the printed page to absorb the second verse of the psalm and do the same work of midrashic transmutation — taking into account both what s/he has already heard, and what the text says. They continue to go back and forth, speaking to God in each other, until the psalm is completed.

Becoming God and facing God in this way brings the psalm alive. The movement of thought and feeling that is characteristic of most psalms becomes far more intelligible than what emerges from a more-or-less rote reading. In addition, by addressing a human partner as God and being addressed as God, many participants find themselves spiritually moved in new ways.

Similarly with the breath: The prayer that begins Elohai neshamah, "God of breath," then continues with a paragraph full of words with a strong "-ahh" ending. Every word, a strong breath out. Most congregations race right through their recitation of this paragraph, taking it all at one breath like any other. We learn to pause, breathe deep at almost every word, make the paragraph itself into a breathing exercise.

As that prayer ends and the air goes bubbling through our bodies, we do the morning blessings. As the prayerbook itself says, "All my bones will praise You." Yet most Jews let their bodies sit locked into place during prayers, let the holy breath become shallow and weak. Since in the morning blessings we praise the God who opens our eyes, stretches our muscles, strengthens our footsteps, this is an important moment to let every bone and muscle praise the Breath of Life.

Indeed, originally these prayers were chanted as people arose from bed, when the bodily actions themselves were connected with the words. Nowadays, since the morning prayers are often said in the congregation, some congregations encourage the people to stand, stretch, turn, walk, make a kind of dance of the acts of morning waking.

So the prayers become not only ways to praise the God who gets our bodies going in the morning, but also ways to get our bodies going in the morning. The praise and the act are suffused with each other: We embody God.

The davvening leader may ask each person in the circle to create a gesture on the spot that expresses each of the morning blessings, and then everyone imitates this gesture. These gestures may be repeated — first one, then two, then three, and so on until the congregation has, in effect, created a unique dance for that one morning.

Rabbi Shefa Gold has developed an entirely new form of prayer, deeply rooted in the traditional service, that uses chanting to focus the breath and to fuse breath, melody, and verbal meaning into a unity.

She has looked beneath the fleshed-out, opulently clothed order of prayer we have inherited; has stripped it down to its skeleton of purpose; has from the traditional text chosen a few phrases that crystallize the meaning in each of the crucial elements, and has turned these crystalline phrases into melodic chants. Thus she may take the section of the service that precedes the Sh'ma — several pages long — and instead of murmuring every word, as in a traditional service, lead the congregation into a powerful chant of half a dozen words that she has set to melody. That chant may go on for five or ten minutes, over and over, as the congregation deepens first its understanding of the prayer, and finally its presence within the prayer.

Through these chants, the breath enters deeply into the body, is carried by the blood to every nerve and muscle. The Breath of Life becomes a divine presence in every cell.

Some among us have learned how to use American Sign Language so as to "sign" prayers with arms and hands until they become a visual dance. We have experimented with body movements keyed to particular thoughts in particular prayers, movements that we might learn to use with variations week after week, just as we learn to chant prayers in changing tones and rhythms week by week.

One Jewish-renewal dancer, Yehudit Goldfarb of the Oakland-Berkeley region, developed dance-gestures to represent the shapes of the Hebrew letters. These "Otiot Chayyot" or "Living Letters" became ways to spell out Hebrew words in delicate and graceful dance that looks a good deal like Tai Chi.

One of the deepest and most evocative of these new ways of embodying prayer was developed by Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi. For years, Hassidim had taken the Simchat Torah festival, with its seven circle-dances with the Torah Scroll, as an important time to draw deeply on a Kabbalistic tradition about seven aspects of God. In that tradition, God emanated Divinity into the world not through one undifferentiated flash, but in seven distinct S'phirot, dimensions of Divinity that were symbolized by seven different parts of the body: the right and left arms, the heart, the right and left legs, the male genitals, and the female genitals.

These S'phirot are different in quality from each other: Chesed, overflowing unboundaried outpouring love, differs from Gevurah, rigorous boundary-making, and each differs from their synthesis, Tiferet or Rachamim — the intense and focused love borne by and in and of the womb, shining in overpowering beauty.

Among Hassidim, the seven Simchat Torah dances mentally recalled the different S'phirot. But they danced all seven dances in a single way, tinged with Gevurah : bodies locked, all seven dances identical.

Schachter-Shalomi taught Jewish-renewal communities to create distinctive dances for the different S'phirot — unrestrained and giddy for Chesed, focused and rigorous for Gevurah, and so on. Suddenly, the S'phirot became embodied, available to celebrants as aspects of their own selves. People learned to explore which of the S'phirot within themselves were weak and needed practice to heal of the neshama (breathing-soul).

And thus the embodiment of God's aspects and emanations in the human body opened a path toward experiencing the manifestation of God's aspects in a person's character structure and behavior. The great Anokhi , "I," did indeed appear in the "I" of a human being.

When we pray we speak to God; when we read and learn Torah we are opening ourselves to hear God. In a community that hears the speaker and the listener, God and the world, as deeply intertwined, what does it mean to embody Torah — the listening — just as we embody prayer — the speaking?

I have already described the use of "drushodrama" with the stories of Dina and the Binding of Abraham: People take on particular parts in a Bible story and act out the untold parts of the tale. For decades, Jewish renewal havurot and teachers used this approach; then Peter Pitzele, a professional psychodramatist, brought it to a new level of expertise and power. Taught by him, congregational rabbis have begun to incorporate it in their work as a new, more engaging kind of "sermon."

Other forms of embodiment of Torah have also emerged. The aliyot in which people are called up to the Torah as various passages are read have been given new life by Phyllis Berman, among others. Whoever is leading the Torah service will choose a few parts of the weekly portion that address a continuing Godwrestle likely to be urgent among some congregants. For example, the Torah passage where the Israelites stand between Pharaoh's chariots and the Red Sea may evoke a frightening moment of choice between uncertain futures.

The leader will invite all congregants who feel the Torah passage is speaking to this issue in their lives to join in that aliyah. After the Torah passage has been read and translated, the leader asks God's blessing in a specifically directed way to meet the special needs of those who came up for each aliyah . This practice has made the archetypal nature of the Torah apparent to many who had never before understood how it might speak to their own lives.

All these methods are midrash in a new key, turning poetic metaphors into bodily acts. Not that such physical midrash was utterly unheard-of among Jews. For example, Jeremiah wore a yoke upon his shoulders to make physically explicit his warning that the people faced the yoke of slavery to Babylon. What is new is the use of such approaches not only by a few Prophets or Kabbalistic adepts, but by much larger circles of the Jewish people.

Some object that the new prayers, practices, and symbols of God's immanence are "not Jewish," either because they are just too new and break with accepted Jewish practice, or because they echo other traditions too much — especially that they seem too pantheist or panentheist, too Buddhist, or even too incarnational and therefore too Christian.

But these images are not so new as many assume. In Kabbalah and Hassidism especially, Jews have explored such ideas and used such metaphors before. In ways that are unexpected but reasonable, they fuse Mordechai Kaplan's "transnaturalist" Reconstructionism with images from the days of Hassidic upheaval in the 18th century, and both with one undoubtedly new element — feminist spirituality.

If the Jewish people and Judaism are going through a transformation as profound as the one that shaped and was shaped by the Talmud, it would be neither surprising nor outrageous for Jews to seek new "names" and ways of connecting with God. As for those who dismiss such ways of thinking as historicism that itself denigrates the Eternal, some Jewish-renewal people answer that it is God that has veiled Itself from our access in the old ways, God Who is working in the world to bring about these changes, and therefore God Who is calling us to create new forms of contact.

It is not surprising that the new forms might remind some people of other traditions, because God is after all One and Universal. Although there are and will continue to be many differences in the ways Jews approach that One God from the ways Christians, Buddhists, and Native Americans do, there are also likely to be some similarities as different communities try to approach the One Truth.

There is one more concern — perhaps the most important: that a God "embodied" in the universe is less likely to demand of us a constant transcendence of the present state of things. If whatever is, is Divine, then who will need to change it?

But the notion of tikkun olam in Kabbalah is not so static. Even those who said God, Israel, and Torah were One did not think we could forget about doing the mitzvot that would repair the shattered vessel. They simply said that God, Torah, and Israel were all shattered, all needed healing.

From this standpoint, there are "lower" and "fuller" versions of immanence. Although it is true that whatever exists is Divinity, it may be Divinity in its reduced and shattered state. It remains our task through conscious action to lift this Divinity from merely being All (ha'kol) to its fuller level of conscious Harmony (shalom).

In this way, God's Body — of which we are all part — becomes most fully God's Body only when we seek to know and act as part of it.

*Rabbi Waskow is the author of Godwrestling — Round 2 (Jewish Lights), among many other works of Jewish renewal. He directs The Shalom Center Website and has been a Shabbaton leader and teacher throughout America, Europe, and Israel. This article appeared in Tikkun magazine (March-April 2001).


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