Tag Archives: Jewish prayer

A Gentile’s Book Review of “First Steps in Messianic Jewish Prayer”

It is appropriate for Gentile disciples of Yeshua to participate in Jewish prayer. After all, the Temple in Jerusalem is to be called “a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). Yeshua did not come to create a separate religion for Gentiles with different prayers.

-Aaron Eby
“Prayer in Jewish Space,” p.33
First Steps in Messianic Jewish Prayer

I’ve quoted from Aaron’s book twice before, the first time in Messianic Jewish Shabbat Observance and the Gentile and just yesterday in Discovering Myself by the Light of Torah. I suppose it’s appropriate for me to do a more proper book review, and I’m writing it from the expected perspective: that of a non-Jew.

You see, for the most part, Messianic Jewish Prayer is Jewish Prayer. Aaron’s book can be thought of as a “Jewish Prayer 101” class complete with a minimalist siddur at the end of the book. It’s unique in that it has a specific focus on Yeshua HaMoshiach, but a focus on Messiah is not considered unusual according to Aaron:

The traditional Jewish prayers are constantly focused on the Messiah. Although they do not identify Yeshua by name, they do identify the Messiah by character and title.

Some people might object that the traditional Jewish prayers do not say anything about Yeshua since they do not mention him by name. The same is true of the Hebrew scriptures, yet we know that they say a great deal about Yeshua.

-Eby
“Prayer in Jewish Space,” p.29

Aaron starts out in Part One by describing “Prayer in Messianic Judaism” as distinct from the other Judaisms and Christianity. Although describing Jewish Prayer, as I said above, the specific focus is always on Messiah. In essence then, this is an instruction manual about prayer in Messianic Judaism which first and foremost should speak to Jewish people. Granted, devout Jewish people raised in religious households are raised in Jewish prayer, but many of the Jews attracted to Messianic Judaism have not had a traditional Jewish education. Still, the emphasis on Judaism must be recognized. The portions of his book that specifically address Gentiles in Jewish Prayer and in Jewish Space are called out and those are the parts I spent most of my time in.

In fact, the section of Part One called “Prayer in Jewish Space” seems to be a primer on how Jewish Prayer is conducted “procedurally” as well as in terms of “kavanah” (intent). I quoted from this chapter previously when addressing “Gentiles and Jewish Prayer.”

For example, one line in the traditional after-meal blessing offers thanks to God “for the covenant that [he] sealed in our flesh.” It seems problematic for a Messianic Gentile to say this. But should someone who is not Jewish then say “for the covenant that you have written on our hearts?” To do so would imply that Messianic Jews have only a fleshly covenant, whereas the new covenant that is written on hearts belongs only to Messianic Gentiles, God forbid.

-ibid, p.36

First Steps in Messianic Jewish Prayer
First Steps in Messianic Jewish Prayer

For the uninitiated Gentile or for those who are sensitive in one way or another to the distinctions made between Jews and Gentiles in Messianic Jewish space, parts of this book may be a little confusing or disorienting and even seem kind of annoying. At best, it will take some work for Gentiles, even those familiar with Jewish Prayer on some level, to get used to the flow of prayer outlined in the book during a synagogue service or even a Shabbat dinner. At worst, some Gentiles will feel put out not to be considered “Israel” and thus directed to pray the prayers in not exactly the same manner as their Jewish counterparts.

However, this book is designed to not only teach Messianic Jewish Prayer, but to continue to establish the distinctive roles Jews and Gentiles play in Messianic Judaism, with the understanding (from my point of view, anyway) that those roles are not firmly anchored or agreed upon at present.

That said, I was surprised when Aaron didn’t make much in the way of Jewish/Gentile distinctions relative to the standard prayers, particularly the Shema. But let me back up a step:

Gentiles who devote themselves to Yeshua of Nazareth are not only disciples; they are his subjects, and he is their King. In that sense they relate to the nation of Israel and the Jewish people in the same way that a conquered and annexed people is subordinated to a conquering king. These Gentiles are no longer separated from the Messiah or “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise” (Ephesians 2:12). Instead, they share in the inheritance and the destiny of the whole nation. In keeping with this identity, the God-fearing Messianic Gentile should not hesitate to join the Jewish people in formal prayer.

-ibid
“Declaration of Intent for Messianic Gentiles,” p.47

As a non-Jew in Messianic Jewish territory, you could choose to take this one of two ways. The first is that you could rejoice in your (our) unique role in the Kingdom of Messiah as grafted in Gentiles who had no hope and no belonging until our faith in Messiah brought us alongside Israel in devotion to God and sharers in the blessings of the New Covenant promises. The second is that you could feel pushed away, slighted, or “sent to the back of the bus,” so to speak, as if, as a Gentile, you aren’t worthy of sitting in the front of the synagogue with the Jews. By definition, if the nations of the Gentiles are to be considered vassal, then they serve Israel as well as Israel’s King. The wording Aaron uses could be spun in either direction:

As Messianic Gentiles engage in these prayers, they must not lose sight of their own important and esteemed position as the crowning jewels of the nations. A Messianic Gentile who participates in the prayers and petitions of Israel should thus consciously acknowledge that since he is not legally Jewish, his connection to Israel comes only through King Messiah.

-ibid

That’s where the “declaration of intent” comes in. Aaron has a difficult job as the author of this book in balancing the invitation of Gentiles into Jewish prayer and, at the same time, containing and protecting Jewish identity in Jewish space including in (Messianic) Jewish prayer. It’s our faith in Messiah that binds us and it’s difficult, particularly in egalitarian America, to accept the status of a subordinate or vassal citizen in the Kingdom of Messiah, with Jewish Israel being “large and in charge” of the rest of the world (that means the rest of us).

If you can accept that role as many Messianic Gentiles have done, then the only difficulty you may encounter is adapting your prayer life to the structure and language this book presents (depending on your experience in Jewish prayer up to this point). If you can’t, then you’re going to have a difficult time stumbling over the presuppositions Aaron makes about Jewish and Gentile roles in the Messianic Jewish synagogue.

shabbaton
Aaron Eby

Although I’ve attended Shavuot services and had a Shabbat meal or two at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship, which offers Jewish services and includes Jewish prayer, I’ve not had the pleasure of attending any of First Fruits of Zion’s (FFOZ) Shabbaton events. This would have given me a more personal look at how to use The Sabbath Table prayer book (which, as you read this, I’ll be using tonight for the first time), and thus experience Jewish prayer in the manner Aaron describes.

Although I’ve used a number of siddurs before, including Artscroll’s Sefard Siddur, this coming Shabbat will be a unique experience. I’m somewhat used to making the mental and linguistic adjustments Aaron’s book recommends for Gentiles since the language in traditional siddurs assumes the perspective of a Jewish man, but it’s refreshing to come across material that can be specifically adapted to me as a Messianic Gentile. I still expect to be challenged by the flow of Erev Shabbat prayers, especially since there won’t be anyone else present to emulate.

Aaron’s book devotes a lot of attention to the Shema and Amidah, which you’d expect, and as I mentioned before, I was surprised that these pages weren’t covered with caveats and alternate language for Gentiles, since this is the heart of Jewish prayer. Aaron continues to write for the reader, Jewish or Gentile, who knows little or nothing about Jewish prayer. Standard siddurs, although they contain many notes on a variety of topics, assume a certain amount of prior knowledge by the user. Aaron’s book opens the box, so to speak, and lets the reader look inside the prayers, what they mean, and how they were written.

But while there are few mentions of Jewish/Gentile distinction, they can be found:

Tefillin are a distinct marker of Jewish identity. It is not forbidden for a Messianic Gentile to wear them; however there are some communities in which it would be confusing or even offensive for a non-Jew to do so. It is important that Messianic Gentiles who wear tefillin are sensitive to the message that it communicates and that they conform to community standards; it may be advisable for Messianic Gentiles to avoid wearing them in public venues.

-ibid, p.65

And again…

Tzitziyot serve as a marker of Jewish identity. It is not forbidden for Messianic Gentiles to wear them; however, doing so may cause confusion and offense. It is advisable for Messianic Gentiles who choose to wear them to do so with utter discretion.

-ibid, p.69

Several years ago, for a variety of reasons, I put my tefillin and tallit in a box and shoved the box onto a shelf in the back of my closet. One of the reasons I did so was I became convinced that the part of Aaron’s statement about distinctiveness and Jewish identity is correct. This was filtered through the knowledge and experience of being married to a Jewish wife who had come to the conclusion that having a Gentile/Christian husband dressing up as a Jew was a pretty odd thing to do.

israel_prayingNo, she never mentioned it, but after being married for over thirty years, you pick up a few things about how your wife thinks. To honor her as much as for any other reason, I stopped doing pretty much anything that might appear “Jewish”.

I know Messianic Gentiles, including those within FFOZ and at Beth Immanuel, who wear tzitzit and kippot, and within their personal or community contexts, given Aaron’s words above, that would seem to make sense. In fact, since giving up the practice of wearing a kippah, tallit, and laying tefillin, even in private, I’ve been concerned about some potential “blowback,” even if it’s left unsaid, from some Messianic Gentiles and Jews concerning my non-use of Jewish “particulars”. Identity confusion goes both ways, and I can see how I might seem a little too “light” or “insubstantial” for actually not donning a tallit when I pray.

I wonder if someone like me would be considered offensive in a Messianic synagogue that more or less expected most Gentiles to wear a kippah and tallit, especially since Aaron presents the Shema as acceptable for Gentiles to recite, and especially because one of the customs during the Shema is to grasp the tzitzit together in the left hand?

I think the bottom line as Aaron suggested, is for the Messianic Gentile to adapt their practice based on the standards of their local worship community. Being “community-less” at the moment allows me to do more or less anything based on personal standards, but I’ve still got good reasons for not getting that box out of the closet and opening it up.

But that suggests another option. Many Hebrew Roots individuals and groups not only consider wearing a tallit to be an available option, but even an obligation and their right as grafted-in Gentiles. While I disagree with that opinion, since these people operate within their own communities and those communities have set standards permitting and even commanding Gentile men to wear tallitot, then technically, this part of Aaron’s book is adaptable to their needs.

I also started wondering (and I guess this is a community standard thing) if Gentiles could be considered as part of a minyan in Messianic Jewish synagogues. Aaron didn’t address that topic at all, and yet certain prayers, including Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals) require a minyan.

As I said, much of the book was taken up with a detailed description of the Shema and Amidah prayers, but then on page 103, starts an analysis of what most Christians call “The Lord’s Prayer.” Aaron refers to it as “Our Father”.

The Didache contains this prayer in a version that is quite similar to that of Matthew, and it instructs believers to recite it three times a day. From the earliest available records, Christians have used this prayer as part of liturgical worship. Like a majority of traditional Jewish prayers, the first-person pronouns of “Our Father” are plural (“us,” “our”). This suggests that the prayer was intended for corporate liturgical use.

-ibid, p.104

While some scholars have suggested that “Our Father” (the Lord’s Prayer) was meant to take the place of the traditional Jewish prayer service and even contains all of the basic elements of said-service, Aaron believes that it was meant to be included at the end of the Amidah for Messianic Jewish and Gentile believers, particularly because the Didache instructs Gentile disciples to recite it three times a day.

The Didache was a sort of “training manual” for how to teach a non-Jew to become a disciple of the Jewish Messiah. It’s thought to have been originally composed by the Apostles or those close to them. The earliest version may have been in the form of oral instructions that accompanied the well-known Acts 15 “Jerusalem Letter.” This all seems to say that the very earliest Gentile disciples of Messiah practiced Jewish prayer alongside their Jewish teachers and mentors, perhaps well beyond the First Century CE.

The final portion of the book is a sort of “mini-siddur” containing the text, in English and Hebrew, for:

  • I Hereby join
  • Declaration of Intent for Messianic Gentiles
  • Shema
  • Amidah
  • Our Father
  • Prayer for the Restoration of Zion

Aaron even put in a “Suggested Readings” list at the back of the book for those who want to go beyond the “Jewish Prayer 101” level.

Shabbat candlesI know many of us in the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements have struggled at one time or another about how to use a siddur, how to adapt it to our faith in Messiah, and how to adapt it for a mixed Jewish/Gentile worship service. Over a decade ago, I regularly worshiped in our local Reform/Conservative synagogue during the time when my children were in Hebrew school, and I had no guide for this sort of thing. I felt pretty awkward.

That sort of dynamic is built-in to a Messianic shul and I think Aaron’s book is at least part of the answer to integrating Jews and Gentiles in a Messianic Jewish prayer service, at least enough to get a lot of people and communities started along the right path.

As I said, it’s not for everyone. If you, as a Gentile, think of yourself as part of “Israel” or a “spiritual Jews” or even espouse a “two-house” theology, then several parts of what Aaron wrote won’t suit you at all. Interestingly enough though, I’d still recommend First Steps in Messianic Jewish Prayer to just about anyone interested in the topic, because the research and level of description that has gone into the book illuminates the origin, purpose, and meaning of the prayers.

Shabbat Shalom.

Discovering Myself by the Light of Torah

Question:

I came across your site and wow–I really want to become Jewish. My mother was a fairly devout Italian Catholic and my father an Anglican skeptic who never went to church. I was always so confused. But now your site has really turned me on to Judaism, a real coming home for me. What’s my next step?

Response:

Your next step is to become a better person. Develop greater faith in your soul, in your destiny, and in your Maker. Do more good, reach out to more people. Learn more wisdom, apply whatever you learn, and make life worth living.

But you don’t need to become Jewish to do any of that. Plenty of wonderful people doing beautiful things in the world are not Jewish, and G‑d is nonetheless pleased with them.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Should I Convert to Judaism?”
Chabad.org

My wife was reading this in an email newsletter from Chabad last Friday afternoon. As I came home from work, I passed by her and happened to glance at what she was viewing on her computer. I briefly saw the title and was intrigued (since she’s already Jewish and conversion is a non-issue for her). Later on, I looked up the article and read through it.

The full content of what Rabbi Freeman wrote is astonishingly applicable to the debates we see happening between the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots (particularly One Law/One Torah) movements. I recently became aware of an online dialog discussing whether the One Law/One Torah movement should or should not be considered a “Judaism”. Some of the more well-known pundits in that space were saying “no” based on the requirement to distance themselves from the large body of Talmudic authority and rulings (subsequent commentary indicates the opinions being expressed are more complicated, but that has little bearing on what I’m presenting here).

This is in contrast to how First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) Founder and President Boaz Michael recently defined Messianic Judaism in his “Director’s Letter” in the Fall 2014 edition of Messiah Journal, p.10:

To me, Messianic Judaism is not just a Jewish-flavored version of Christianity. If I was asked to define Messianic Judaism, I would say, “Messianic Judaism is the practice of Judaism coupled with the realization that Yeshua of Nazareth is the Messiah, the New Testament is true, and the kingdom is at hand.”

Rabbi Stuart Dauermann in a recent blog post, quoted the first five of The Hashivenu group’s seven core principles, which also defines Messianic Judaism:

  1. Messianic Judaism is a Judaism, and not a cosmetically altered “Jewish-style” version of what is extant in the wider Christian community.
  2. God’s particular relationship with Israel is expressed in the Torah, God’s unique covenant with the Jewish people.
  3. Yeshua is the fullness of Torah.
  4. The Jewish people are “us” not “them.”
  5. The richness of the Rabbinic tradition is a valuable part of our heritage as Jewish people.
Boaz Michael
Boaz Michael

Rather than emphasizing the sufficiency or the primacy of scripture to the exclusion of all other considerations or practices as does One Law/One Torah, Messianic Judaism can be thought of in the manner of the other branches of Judaism in accepting, in addition to the primacy of Torah, all of the history, traditions, customs, wisdom, and interpretations of the great Jewish sages as part of their legacy, heritage, and lived daily experience, and added to all that, “the realization that Yeshua of Nazareth is the Messiah, the New Testament is true, and the kingdom is at hand.”

In his reply to the non-Jewish writer who was inquiring about conversion to Judaism, Rabbi Freeman continued:

You see, there’s Judaism and there’s Jewishness, and the two are not one and the same. Judaism is wisdom for every person on the planet and beyond. We call it the Torah, meaning “the teaching,” and it’s a divine message to all human beings containing the principles that much of humanity has already accepted as absolute truths. The idea that human life is beyond value is a teaching originating from Torah, as is the related concept that all human beings are created equal. So too, the right of every individual to literacy and education was brought to the world through Torah. And world peace as a value and goal was preached exclusively by the Torah and its prophets thousands of years before it became popular in the rest of the world. And of course, the idea that there is a single, incorporeal Being who creates and sustains all of reality, and is concerned over all that occurs with each individual, thereby giving each person, creature, event and object meaning, purpose and destiny–this is a core teaching upon which everything else rests, and the central teaching of the Torah.

That’s Judaism. Then there is Jewishness. To be Jewish means to belong to an ancient tribe, either by birth or by adoption (a.k.a. conversion).

I invite you to click on link I provided above and read R. Freeman’s entire commentary (it’s not very long). He says some amazing things about the comparison and contrast of Judaism and Jewishness. It seems, on some level, anyone who is responding to God through the basic presentation of the Torah and the awareness presented by Judaism can access God through that template, that is, through the relationship Israel has with God as understood through the Torah, but that “Judaism” isn’t the same as “Jewishness”.

Tribes have rituals. So do Jews. Males of the tribe wear particular items of clothing, such as tzitzit and kippot. Women keep a certain mode of modest dress and married women cover their hair. Men also wrap leather boxes containing parchment scrolls on the heads and arms every morning, while robed in woolen sheets with more of those tzitzit tassels. In our services, we chant ancient Hebrew and read from an ancient scroll. We have holidays that commemorate our tribal memories and establish our identity as a whole. Certain foods are taboo and other food is supervised and declared fit-for-the-tribe. Nope, you can’t get much more ancient-tribal than any of that.

The point is, none of that ritual stuff was ever meant as a universal teaching, except perhaps in a more generalized way…

Now, what I’m saying is not very PC nowadays. We live in a world of hypermobility. Not just because we own our own cars and reserve our own tickets online to go anywhere, anytime–but because we imagine our very identities to be just as mobile as our powerbook. Pick me up and take me anywhere. Today I’m a capitalist entrepreneur, tomorrow an Inuit activist, and the next day a Californian bohemian. And we can mix and match–today, you can be Italian, Nigerian, Chinese and Bostonian all in the same meal. So who is this Freeman character to tell me which tribe I belong to and which not?

To be frank, because this Freeman character considers the hyper-identity scheme to be a scam, a mass delusion and a social illness. You can switch your clothes, your eating habits, your friends, your social demeanor, your perspective on life and maybe you can even switch to a Mac. But G-d decides who you are, and the best you can do is discover it.

It almost seems as if Rabbi Freeman were borrowing his arguments from those I’ve recently heard expressed in Messianic Judaism, but maybe it’s the other way around. If indeed we consider Messianic Judaism as another branch of Judaism alongside the other branches, it stands to reason that how they think of “Judaism” and “Jewishness” should be similar, in this instance, to the Chabad among the other Judaisms.

At the same time, there are also Jewish disciples of Yeshua; their Jewishness remains significant, and it is central to their unique identity. Unity in corporate prayer between Messianic Gentiles and Jews is a beautiful and powerful testimony of Yeshua’s greatness. Such unity can only exist in a setting in which members are aware of their respective roles within the people of God.

-Aaron Eby
“Declaration of Intent for Messianic Gentiles,” p.47
First Steps in Messianic Jewish Prayer

Stand aloneOne of the “issues” that comes up, and Boaz Michael discusses it in the aforementioned “Director’s Letter” from Messiah Journal, is that Messianic Judaism has some difficulty in identifying the role of the Messianic Gentile within Jewish community. This, as I’ve mentioned before, is also one of my personal challenges, although I am not involved in face-to-face Jewish (or any other kind of) community at present. Still, every time I do “Jewish stuff,” it is prudent of me to be mindful of that community and to at least try to imagine what my role as a Gentile should be.

Gentiles who devote themselves to Yeshua of Nazareth are not only disciples; they are his subjects, and he is their King…

These Gentiles are no longer separated from Messiah or “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenant of promise” (Ephesians 2:12). Instead, they share in the inheritance and the destiny of the whole nation. In keeping with this identity, the God-fearing Messianic Gentile should not hesitate to join the Jewish people in formal prayer.

As Messianic Gentiles engage in these prayers, they must not lose sight of their own important and esteemed position as the crowning jewels of the nations.

-ibid

I previously wrote a two-part review of Mark D. Nanos’ paper ‘Paul’s Non-Jews Do Not Become “Jews,” But Do They Become “Jewish”?: Reading Romans 2:25-29 Within Judaism, Alongside Josephus’ which discussed some of the distinctive differences between “Jews” and “Jewishly” as it might have been perceived by the apostle Paul (and Nanos’ paper is now freely available online at the Journal of the Jesus Movement in its Jewish Setting (JJMJS) website).

I received a number of pointed responses based on the controversial nature of the topic, but then, the idea of Gentiles operating in Jewish religious and communal space as equal co-participants tends to get controversial.

If I can take Rabbi Freeman’s commentary and adapt it to the Messianic Jewish and Gentile framework, then it seems, as the Rabbi suggests, that Gentiles are perfectly free to take the higher principles of the Torah as universal, but should reserve those rituals that are specifically “Jewishly” for the “tribal” Jewish people as the Rabbi defines them.

R. Freeman finished his response with the following paragraph.

I believe that what G-d wants from each person is that s/he examine the heritage of his ancestors, discover the truths hidden there and live in accordance with them, knowing that this is what his Creator wants from her/him. The truths are there because all of human society was originally founded upon the laws given to Adam and to Noah, along with those laws that all the children of Noah accepted upon themselves. These truths are found by examining one’s heritage through the light of Torah. The Jewish Tribe are the bearers of that light. But you don’t need to become Jewish to partake of it. Light shines for all who have eyes.

Granted, he isn’t writing with the Messianic Gentile in mind and our status in relation to Israel through our devotion to Messiah Yeshua isn’t the same as a Noahide, but I believe his basic point is essentially the right one. Jews, as tribal members (although Israel isn’t truly tribal in the modern era, they inherit was belongs to the tribes as their descendents), are the original possessors of the Torah including all of the tribal rituals assigned to them by God. The rest of us, once we are drawn to Israel by the light of Torah and the light of Messiah, discover the truth of the Torah by its light from within our own national and ancestral contexts. This is why a Gentile approaching Messianic Jewish prayer does so along a somewhat different trajectory than a Messianic Jew.

Torah platesThis is why my upcoming personal Shabbos Project is traveling a somewhat different path and why I’ve had difficulty in attempting to interpret the path as it applies to me. I’ve come to a sort of peace with it now that Shabbos is approaching and I no longer feel intimidated about having to “get everything right”. The point of the experience is to experience God, not to worry about my level of observance. I’m not going to look anything like an Orthodox Jew nor should I ever try. I want to honor God and enter His presence and with that uppermost in my mind and heart, the rest will take care of itself with a little judicious preparation.

In some ways, I’m facing the Shabbat for the first time and already I’m discovering more about myself and who I am through the Shabbat and the light of Torah, which is the portrait Rabbi Freeman has so aptly painted.

Messianic Jewish Shabbat Observance and the Gentile

It is appropriate for Gentile disciples of Yeshua to participate in Jewish prayer. After all, the Temple in Jerusalem is to be called “a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). Yeshua did not come to create a separate religion for Gentiles with different prayers.

-Aaron Eby
Chapter 2: Prayer in Jewish Space, p.33
First Steps in Messianic Jewish Prayer

I mentioned in my previous blog post My Personal Shabbos Project that I was planning an undertaking for two Sabbaths in November (the first is just a week away as you read this) to actually do my best to authentically observe Shabbos. The family will be away, so I’ll have the ability to construct my observance without offending anyone or intruding on “Jewish space” as a goy.

To that end, I mentioned a couple of resources I’d be studying: The Sabbath Table and Aaron Eby’s aforementioned First Steps in Messianic Jewish Prayer.

I’ve been looking through Eby’s book and in the second chapter, I came across a section called “Gentiles and Jewish Prayer”. The quote at the top of the page is taken from the first paragraph in that section. It sounds very supportive, encouraging, and inclusive. This is the second paragraph:

Nonetheless, there are issues and boundaries that must be considered when a Gentile chooses to participate in Jewish prayer services. In the same way, the “house of prayer for all peoples” had distinct areas through which men, women, Jews, Gentiles, and priests could enter and different ways in which they could participate.

-ibid

This was certainly true in the time of Herod’s Temple, and I can imagine, relative to Gentiles, it was also true in the time of Solomon:

Also a gentile who is not of Your people Israel, but will come from a distant land, for Your Name’s sake — for they will hear of Your great Name and Your strong hand and Your outstretched arm — and will come and pray toward this Temple — may You hear from Heaven, the foundation of Your abode, and act accordingly to all that the gentile calls out to You…

1 Kings 8:41-43 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

The key phrase for me is “and will come and pray toward this Temple…” I don’t have any command of the Hebrew, so I don’t know really what “toward this Temple” is supposed to indicate. Were the gentiles to stand outside the Temple and pray in its direction? King Solomon doesn’t seem to be saying that gentiles anywhere on earth could just face Jerusalem, because he speaks of gentiles traveling to Israel because of God’s great reputation.

Most Christian English language Bibles use the word “toward” although the International Standard Version says “facing,” and both the Jubilee Bible 2000 and the Douay-Rheims Bible say “in this house” and “in this place” respectively. Put together, I get the definite impression that gentiles weren’t expected to enter any part of the Temple’s grounds when Solomon was King. At least in Herod’s Temple, there was a court of the Gentiles.

About the ninth hour of the day he clearly saw in a vision an angel of God…

Cornelius said, “Four days ago to this hour, I was praying in my house during the ninth hour; and behold, a man stood before me in shining garments…

Acts 10:3, 30 (NASB)

Cornelius the centurion was the quintessential God-fearer. Luke says that he was a “devout” man, indicating some level of Torah observance.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
“Cornelius, the God-Fearer of Caesarea,” p.18
Messiah Magazine, Fall 2014 edition

cornelius
Peter and Cornelius

Clearly in the days of the apostles, the God-fearing Roman Cornelius had taken it upon himself to observe some of the mitzvot including the set times of prayer. Luke places the centurion praying at the ninth hour which corresponds to between two to three p.m., a time in both the ancient and modern worlds when devout Jews pray the Minchah or afternoon prayers. Exactly what and how Cornelius was praying we’ll never know, but his devotion to God and to the Jewish people got the attention of an angel and subsequently the apostle Peter.

So I agree that Gentiles were always meant to participate in the prayers, and both in the days of Solomon and Herod, we have indications that, as Eby says, there were distinctions regarding the placement of Gentiles in Jewish space, specifically the Temple.

I find this promising and more than a little daunting, which is why, even though ideally Shabbat observance is done in community, it is better for me to observe Shabbos alone, and particularly outside of Jewish space. Frankly, for me to have any sort of “thumbprint” placed upon my Sabbath practice, it’s just easier to do so in my own home.

Not that my home isn’t “Jewish space” since I live with a Jewish wife and daughter, but one of the requirements of my project is that I be alone so that, among other things, I don’t (metaphorically speaking) stomp all over their Jewish space with my big, fat feet. I have no desire to appear more “observant” than the Jewish people I live with, Heaven forbid. My role is supposed to be to encourage them to be more Torah observant.

It should be noted that until Peter and his party of Jewish companions entered Cornelius’s home, the centurion’s environment was composed exclusively of gentiles, so whatever Jewish observances he employed were not impinging on Jewish space. Of course God-fearing Gentiles regularly attended synagogue, but I can only imagine that they didn’t simply just “mix in” with the Jewish crowd but instead, had specific seating arrangements.

Eby in his book agrees with Lancaster and believes the “text implies that Cornelius prayed in what seemed to be a Jewish way” (p.33). Further, Eby says:

There is a delicate balance when it comes to the relationship of Gentiles to Jewish prayer. If the prayer of Messianic Gentiles is to be identical to Jewish prayer, it implies that these Gentiles have become Jews or that they fit into the same legal category as Jews. This is a type of replacement theology. On the other hand, if Messianic Gentile prayer is to be completely different from Jewish prayer, it denies the concept that it is through Israel that all nations connect with God.

-Eby, pp.33-4

Next, Eby speaks of “Blessings in Vain” and “Misappropriation of Identity,” both of which the Gentile (me) encounters in many of the blessings in a standard siddur, which, as Eby states, is “written from a first-person Jewish perspective.”

Fortunately, though I’m not terribly familiar with it yet, The Sabbath Table is written in such a way that it guides the Jewish and Gentile disciples along slightly different paths in the traditional liturgy, so the Gentile doesn’t have to “think fast on his/her feet,” so to speak, when reaching a part of the prayers where the reader is identified as Israel.

I remember encountering this issue in my “Hebrew Roots” days and I eventually learned to either avoid certain “problematic” areas of the siddur, or to broadly re-interpret them as meaning I supported Israel and her people rather than I was Israel.

Aaron Eby
Aaron Eby

Eby also suggests substituting “us” with “your people Israel” as a plea for Israel rather than as a request from Israel.

I know all this is going to rub some people the wrong way, but prior to the apostolic era, it was relatively rare for Gentiles to be in Jewish space and particularly to keep the Shabbat unless they were in the process of converting to Judaism or represented that equally rare phenomena (in those days) of being a Gentile married to a Jew.

Going back much further and into the time of Moses, any Gentile who wished to become attached to Israel and be considered a “resident alien” was actually obligated to a significant number of the mitzvot, including Shabbat observance, with the understanding that they would become permanent members of the community as Gentiles and that their descendents, starting at the third generation (grandchildren), would be absorbed into an Israelite tribe and clan (probably through intermarriage) and be considered Israelites; their ties to their Gentile ancestors obliterated.

But as Gentile disciples of Yeshua, we are not considered gerim as such (since Israel is no longer tribal), nor God-fearing Noahides, since all the nations of the earth are obligated to the basic laws of Noah, but we benefit from the blessings of the New Covenant, the promise of the resurrection, the giving of the Spirit (see Acts 10), and the life in the world to come.

Paul’s vision, his “gospel” included Gentiles in Jewish social and religious space and he staunchly defended his position, even in the face of James and the Apostolic Council (see Acts 15), and while his vision died with him, it has been reborn in modern Messianic Judaism.

Boaz Michael, President and Founder of First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ), defines Messianic Judaism in part by saying:

To me, Messianic Judaism is not just a Jewish-flavored version of Christianity. If I was asked to define Messianic Judaism, I would say, “Messianic Judaism is the practice of Judaism coupled with the realization that Yeshua of Nazareth is the Messiah, the New Testament is true, and the kingdom is at hand.”

-Boaz Michael
“Defining Messianic Judaism”
from the Director’s Letter, p.10
Messiah Journal, issue 117, Fall 2014

Boaz didn’t mention Gentiles in his definition of Messianic Judaism, but on pages 7 and 8, he states:

In many ways, the Messianic movement seems to be stuck in a rut, unable to resolve its most basic identity questions. Like one of those endless Messianic circle-dances, we are continually circling around the same sets of questions: Jewish identity, effective evangelism strategies, the role of tradition, the role of liturgy…and especially the role of Gentiles in the Messianic Jewish movement. (emph. mine)

I don’t know if the question of the role of the “Messianic Gentile” in Messianic Judaism is a problem in Messianic Judaism or just my own personal issue. I suppose I’m more sensitive to these matters than most because I’m intermarried, and particularly to a non-Messianic Jew. The divide between me being a Christian and her being Jewish is a well-defined line of demarcation.

Which brings me back to observing Shabbat individually and the “problem” of me being a Gentile and the Shabbat prayers being Jewish.

For example, one line in the traditional after-meal blessing offers thanks to God “for the covenant that [he] sealed in our flesh.” It seems problematic for a Messianic Gentile to say this. But should someone who is not Jewish then say “for the covenant that you have written on our hearts?” To do so would imply that Messianic Jews have only a fleshly covenant, whereas the new covenant that is written on hearts belongs only to Messianic Gentiles, God forbid.

-Eby, p.36

As my long-suffering wife would say, “Oy!”

Eby goes on to say that prayers in a Messianic Jewish synagogue should not be homogenized across the Jewish and Gentile population, and I agree, but that also would introduce a certain amount of “clashing” with one group saying one thing and another saying something completely different at the same time.

I can see the attraction of church only because it is homogenized. Everyone is the same, though I feel sorry for the “Christian Hebrews” in attendance since it is my firm belief that they aren’t “cookie cutter identical” to the Gentile Christian congregation in which they are embedded (I also can see the attraction of a homogenized [Jewish] synagogue environment for Messianic Jews and for the same reasons).

I don’t know how Paul did it. I wish he’d left more detailed instructions.

beth immanuel
Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship

I remember feeling this sense of dissonance the second time I attended the Shavuot conference at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship. Although it advertises itself as “Messianic Judaism for the Nations,” within its walls, I experienced a severe case of identity confusion, probably because at that time, I had returned to regular church attendance and didn’t know if I was “fish or fowl”. How could I totally commit to church and still “feel” like a “Messianic Gentile?”

The dissonance damaged my Shavout experience and a few relationships along with it, much to my regret, and ultimately resulted in me bouncing back out of church since in the end, I didn’t have a single thing in common with the people there, at least in terms of theology and doctrine.

But “shoehorning” my way back into Messianic Judaism hasn’t proven particularly easy, either. When I’m just me, studying alone, praying alone (though I haven’t touched my siddur for months now), it’s just me and God and problems of identity and relationship aren’t a problem. God knows who I am and who I am created to be. I don’t know what He’ll think of all my preparations for Shabbat. Maybe He thinks they’re all foolish. I don’t know. If I’m doing this just for me, then I’m doing it in vain. Shabbat only means something if my intent is to honor God.

But dodging through this minefield of a Gentile and Jewish prayer and a Gentile and Jewish Shabbat observance makes me glad I’m doing all this in the privacy of my own home. If I slip or, Heaven forbid, get a little bit to “liberal” with the prayers, the only person who’ll be offended is God, and I’m hoping He’s more forgiving of me than I am of myself.

The Shabbat is supposed to be a delight. So why do I have a feeling of impending dread?

Actually, here’s part of the answer:

Don’t confuse God’s commandments with the traditions of men. Does God actually want such “extra effort” to do things He has never commanded?

Why was Jesus challenged so many times about what He did on the Sabbath? Was it because He was breaking God’s law? Or was it because His actions contravened the traditions men had ADDED to God’s commandments about the Sabbath?

What did Jesus actually mean by “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”.

I just find something ludicrous in the fact that a refrigerator light can cause such concern and is that kind of thing REALLY what the Sabbath is about? Would applying duct tape to the switch (or disconnecting the light some other way) be pleasing to God or would leaving the light to shine displease Him ?

This is a recent comment on another blog post and it highlights one side of the argument. The other side is me trying to be sensitive to Jewish requirements as a non-Jew choosing to observe one or two Sabbaths using the only template I have available: a Jewish template. In trying to navigate the competing priorities of human beings, I’m letting them suck the joy out of what should be a joyous occasion. Really guys, I’m going to be alone so how I choose to observe Shabbos should be between me and God.

If I were in someone else’s house or in someone’s synagogue, I’d follow the requirements of my host, but in any real sense, my “host” will be God. Like I said, I’m following Jewish tradition to some degree because it’s the template I have available to me, and frankly, Jews have been observing the Shabbat for untold centuries before there were any Christians. You’d think we goyim would recognize by now that the Jewish people are the experts on Shabbat.

I probably won’t be perfect in my observance or meet everyone’s expectations, Jewish or Christian, but why should this be any different than anything else I’ve done or written about?

shabbos-candles-banner

Morning Rebirth

Envision that the Creator, whose glory fills the earth, He and His presence are continually with you. This is the most subtle of all experiences.

Rejoice constantly. Ponder and believe with complete faith that the Divine Presence is with you and protecting you; that you are bound up with the Creator and the Creator is bound up with you, with your every limb and every faculty; that your focus is fixed on the Creator and the Creator’s focus is fixed upon you.

Tzavaat Harivash 137
as quoted from Chabad.org

He then reached into his pocket and took out his wallet. Under the isinglass window was a card on which were written some words. He shoved the wallet across the table and said, “There, son, read that. That is my formula, and don’t give me the song and dance that it won’t work either. I know better from experience.”

The obstacle man picked up the wallet and with a strange look on his face read the words to himself.

“Read them out loud,” urged the owner of the wallet.

This is what he read in a slow, dubious voice, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” (Philippians 4:13)

-Norman Vincent Peale
“Chapter 8: I Don’t Believe in Defeat”
The Power of Positive Thinking

In continuing to review Rabbi Freeman’s series A Multimedia Guide to Jewish Prayer, I found surprising (to me) similarities between the advice of the Chasidim and that of a Christian Pastor. Despite the rather unpalatable presentation of Peale’s book, if you scrape away the “Christianese” and the rather improbable circumstances he describes, there is a kernel of truth lying underneath. I suppose his style and language appeal to his primary audience (which somehow doesn’t include “Christian” me) but while not being Jewish, I find the same set of instructions easier to read from Jewish sources.

In religious Judaism, sleep is considered “one-sixtieth of death,” which is why a Jew will pray for the protection of the angels when reciting the Bedtime Shema before retiring, and then gratefully thank God for returning his life to him by reciting the Modeh Ani immediately upon awakening. Rabbi Freemen teaches to this point.

If sleep is one-sixtieth of death, then waking up is a miniature rebirth. As your eyes blink open to greet the morning sun, you are a newborn child, a seed of a person ready to sprout forth from under the soil, spread forth branches and grow.

I suppose you’ve heard the saying that goes, “today is the first day of the rest of your life,” which tends to shut the door on whatever goof ups and agony occurred in whatever past you had before today, and opens up a whole new world of fresh possibilities starting right now. However, in real life, it’s difficult to let the past stay in the past or, putting it another way, it’s hard to let “whatever happens in Vegas, stay in Vegas,” especially if we have people in our lives who have been hurt by what we did “in Vegas.”

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust. –Psalm 103:8-14 (ESV)

Even if our trust in God’s boundless forgiveness and mercy is completely solid, the human beings in our life are most likely not going to be as compassionate and forgiving.

And then there’s how or if you forgive yourself.

It’s only a brand new day if you decide it is. For that matter, I only face a brand new, fresh, clean day before me if I can let go of the past and put my sins as far from me as “as the east is from the west.” It may be difficult or even impossible to expect everyone to forgive you for everything you’ve done to hurt them, but it can be equally difficult (or impossible) to receive forgiveness from yourself.

I have a vague memory of playing a game in childhood where you could call “do-overs.” Outside of science fiction, there is no way to go back and change the past in order to recreate yourself and your history. But is there a way in the realm of God?

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” –John 3:3-8 (ESV)

This is where we get the concept of being a “born again Christian,” but in my case, I’m talking about being “reborn” not just once and for all, but each and every morning. As difficult as life is and as many mistakes as we make, just being “reborn” once won’t cut it. I’m convinced our greatest failures don’t occur before we become believers, but after we dedicate our lives to Christ. That’s when we should “know better” and when there is so much more at stake when we make a mistake or commit evil in the world.

Because when a Christian sins, what hope is there for recovery unless we can somehow have that sin washed away as if it had never happened?

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. –John 3:17-18 (ESV)

It would be nice to wake up one morning and not be…or even feel condemned by God and by other people…and by myself.

Rabbi Freeman quotes extensively from Tzavaat Haribash 137 in order to help his audience understand that when you wake up, being aware of God as your first conscious thought can mean “becoming aware of your existence within an existence larger than your own.”

Tell yourself, “He is the Master of all that occurs in the world. He can do anything I desire. And therefore, it makes no sense for me to put my confidence in anything else but Him, may He be blessed.”

Rejoice constantly. Ponder and believe with complete faith that the Divine Presence is with you and protecting you; that you are bound up with the Creator and the Creator is bound up with you, with your every limb and every faculty; that your focus is fixed on the Creator and the Creator’s focus is fixed upon you.

And the Creator could do whatever He wants. If He so desired, He could annihilate all the worlds in a single moment and recreate them all in a single moment. Within Him are rooted all goodness and all stern judgments in the world. For the current of His energy runs through each thing.

And you say, “As for me, I do not rely upon nor do I fear anyone or anything other than Him, may He be blessed.”

Jesus says that a man must be born again of water and spirit. Chasidic teachings instruct us to consider ourselves as reborn “within an existence larger than your own.” Waking up in the morning is not only the start of a brand new “existence,” but a reminder that we are already a “brand new person in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17). To create that awareness, the first words that come to you once you are awake enough to develop a coherent thought are the most important.

“I gratefully thank you, living and existing King, for returning my soul to me with compassion. Abundant is your faithfulness.” -Modeh Ani

Sitting at the bottom of the abyss as I attempt to arise from sleep, the first rung of the ladder of God is sitting in front of me. If I choose to believe so, at that moment, there is no past but only the potential for a future inside of a new day and inside the grandeur of the existence of God.

The Modeh Ani is said before washing your hands, while still lying half-awake in your bed. Unlike other tefillot, you don’t have to ensure that your hands, your body or the place where you are sleeping is clean before saying it. The simple reason is because it does not contain any name of G-d or any verses of Torah. Yet there is a deeper reason: because it comes from a place that no impurity can contaminate, from the spark of G-d within, a place where you and your G-d are one, where not even the worst contamination in the world could come between you.

We call that level of the soul yechidah. Just as a person may have different names that he is called according to the role that he takes (father, husband, son, teacher, student), so the soul has different names according to the relationship it takes with the body.

According to Rabbi Freeman, the Yechidah or “Essence” is the first rung on the ladder of prayer. You can find a more detailed explanation of the five levels of the soul, as Chasidic Judaism sees them, by referring back to today’s lesson in prayer (you may have to scroll down a bit, and I encourage you to read the entire article).

To sum up:

Right now, first thing in the morning, I’m going to latch on to that essence. That way, it will be with me when I climb up the first rung of my ladder. And the second, and the third, and even at the fourth, highest level—everything I attain will be because I started with that essential point.

There’s a point of newness and fresh experience when we first wake up; before anything has happened and before we have even gotten out of bed. We can’t say what will happen today, even if we have made plans, because the day hasn’t happened yet. Such is life for a newborn. He can’t say what will happen later in life because it hasn’t happened yet. When you are born or born again, there is no past, there is only a future. If God really does cast our sins away from Him and from us, as far away as the east is from the west, then it’s as if they do not exist for Him. If we continue to insist that they exist from us, then we have denied ourselves the opportunity to benefit from our state of “newness” and it’s as if we were not reborn at all.

And yet, like Nicodemus, accepting even such a simple truth is enormously difficult, and especially so as we get older, because there is so much more to remember and to regret. I gratefully thank you, living and existing King, for restoring my soul to me. May you help me truly accept that this is a “new” soul, untainted by yesterday and before yesterday, and that it is possible for me to spring forth from sleep as a new sprout from a seed and a new soul from the ashes of the old.

Abundant is your faithfulness.

Praying and the Pain of Thorns

Most of us expect prayer to inspire and comfort us. The grandeur of the synagogue, its architectural beauty and music, the peacefulness of the setting – all of these convey the sense that Jewish prayer is about feeling peace. We expect that participating in a service will touch us uniquely and deeply. So when we do not feel that peace, we feel let down.

But if Jewish life is about struggle, we should be suspicious of the assumption that prayer is entirely about peace or comfort. If prayer were designed only to provide comfort, would it contribute to our struggle? Probably not. If prayer were designed only to move and to touch us, if comfort and joy were its only goals, Jewish prayer would actually undermine the difficult effort involved in Jewish spirituality.

-Rabbi Daniel Gordis
“Prayer – Jewish Spirituality and the Struggle to Become” (pp 164-5)
God Was Not In The Fire

This is probably very mysterious to most Christians. Why shouldn’t prayer be about “comfort and joy” instead of struggle? Who wants to struggle with God and with themselves when they are hurt or sick or scared? We want peace when we’re in trouble and praying to God, and we want peace now!

And sometimes, God delivers.

And a lot of times, He doesn’t, at least in the immediate sense of providing instantaneous, overwhelming peace.

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. –Philippians 4:11-13 (ESV)

Does any of this mean that Paul never contended with God as Jacob contended with the angel (Genesis 32:22-32)? Here’s the answer.

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. –2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (ESV)

Imagine the conversation (repeat three times):

Paul: Ouch, God! This hurts! Can you please take it away now?

God: No.

Paul: Why not? It’s not like I deserve this. Look at all the good I’ve done in the name of the Moshiach. Half the time, I can’t concentrate because of the pain. Think about how much better I could serve you if I didn’t have this distraction.

God: I’m thinking about how big an ego you’ve got and how much more you’d serve it if you didn’t have to put up with the messenger of Satan I’ve allowed to be jammed into your side.

Paul: That’s not fair.

God: Job said that same thing to me and you know how I answered him.

Paul: I guess I’m stuck for an answer, but it still hurts.

God: It’s not about living without the struggle, it’s about learning to live with it. If you can do that, your message to the disciples among the Goyim will be all the more powerful. You must remember my servant Jacob, as the Goyim will remember my servant Paul.

I have some friends in the Puget Sound area named Joe and Heidi. They’re about my age. They enjoy hiking and photography and they love God. They both have cancer and spend almost all of the time that they’re not climbing over mountains and valleys, in lengthy sessions of treatment and testing. The tumors never seem to abate and the news I hear is often more bad than good. Their faith is virtually without parallel, but at times, so is their suffering and sorrow. They ask for prayer frequently and I pray for them constantly. But what do I pray? What am I supposed to pray? Jesus, tell me how I’m supposed to pray!

The answer probably seems obvious to you. “Pray for their healing,” you say. “Pray that God will give them both a complete and perfect cure,” you say. “Pray that they experience total comfort and joy and peace.”

Is there something wrong with my prayers? I pray for all that, but it doesn’t happen. God is supposed to give us what we need and even what we want if we pray in the name of Jesus Christ, right? Why isn’t it working?

If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. John 14:14 (NASB)

In that day you will not question Me about anything. Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you. –John 16:23 (NASB)

It’s not working out the way he promised. Instead of being given what I ask for in the name of Christ, I feel like I’ve wrestled with an angel all night long. It’s not easy, it’s exhausting. I’m worn out and no closer to experiencing “comfort and joy,” let alone “contentment,” than I was when I started praying. As far as I can tell, Joe and Heidi are no closer to be cured of cancer now than when I started praying, and it’s not only me. A lot of believers are praying for them all the time. God, where are You when we need You?

That is why Jewish prayer tries to evoke not only peace and comfort, but wrestling and angst as well. Despite our desire to feel beauty and the comfort that often accompanies it, it may be precisely when we feel somewhat disconcerted and not entirely at ease that Jewish prayer may be accomplishing its most central goal. Indeed, that ideal for prayer is communicated by the very word that Jews use for the act of praying.

The Hebrew term for the verb “to pray” is “le-hitpalel,” which means “to judge oneself,” or even “to struggle with oneself.”

-Gordis (pg 165)

Now that is what I experience when I pray!

Rabbi Gordis goes on to explain that prayer is not sending out “Santa’s wish list” up to God so that His miracles can be delivered to us in flashy wrapping paper and tied in a pretty ribbons. Jewish Prayer is not a “Catechism” of devotional statements about what we believe, but a struggle with God and with ourselves, with faith and trust hanging in the balance, along with human lives.

Adon Olam or “Master of the Universe” is a classic Jewish prayer that encapsulates faith, trust, and struggle. The beginning of this 11th century poem speaks of a Jew’s absolute trust in the God of his Fathers, but as Gordis teaches:

…suddenly, after line six, the tone changes. Beginning with the seventh line, the focus shifts. The poet moves away from broad theological claims about God’s grandeur, focusing instead on the speaker’s intimate feelings about God. No longer is God endless and majestic; now, the poet speaks of “my God…a Rock in my travail at the time of distress.” Gone are the claims that “even after all things have come to an end, God alone, awesome, will remain King”; in their stead we hear “to His hand I entrust my spirit, when I sleep and when I wake.” Just as the Mishnah we examined above abruptly switched its emphasis from keva to kavvanah from one line to the next, this text suddenly focuses not on what we believe about God, but on how we feel about God.

-Gordis (pg 173)

The struggle in our spiritual journey of discovery of both God and who we are in God, is contained, not only in Adon Olam, but in the contents of the siddur; in all Jewish prayer. Contrary to what most Christians believe, Jewish prayer contains both spontaneous and liturgical elements that create the structure in which a Jew prays, as well as allowing a Jew’s prayers to fly up free, returning to God as a spark returns to the flame. It also provides the arena in which we wrestle with God and our own spiritual struggle as we progress along the rough and rocky path that leads from earth into heaven.

How can there be misery and suffering in a world created by a perfect and loving God? That unanswered question has resulted in many falling away from the faith and many more never coming near a God they see as horrible and destructive. And yet, the current condition of our world is not God’s fault but man’s. God allowed us to play in our world as a child living in a tinderbox might play with matches. God could have protected us the way any responsible parent would have kept matches out of the reach of a four-year old, but we were meant to be the caretakers of this world, and as such, we were given autonomy over it (Genesis 1:28). We are responsible for our own messes and if the concept of Tikkun Olam has any meaning, we are responsible for preparing the world for the arrival of the Moshiach, who will help us repair the world we damaged so completely, including the world of our lives.

Yes, God answers prayer and sometimes people are miraculously healed, both for His glory and because of His kindness, but prayer isn’t like putting a coin in a vending machine, pressing a few buttons, and expecting a delicious soft drink to come popping out to quench our thirst. Each prayer is a fresh encounter with God where He challenges us to become a little more holy than we were before, often by facing those things about ourselves and our world that are most ugly and repellent. We meet both the best and the worst in ourselves, and in the midst of that battle, we encounter our desperation and our fears. We also encounter the miracle of meeting God on neutral ground, neither heaven or earth, and occasionally find the miracles of joy and comfort. We also encounter the thorn.

Prayer isn’t just a gift where we get what we want. It’s also a place where we share our joys and sorrows with God, and where we begin to realize that even if the conditions of our lives never really change, we come to know that God is always with us, no matter where we go, or what is happening to us.

If God entered the Egyptian exile with Jacob (Genesis 46:4) and even entered the death camps with six million Jews, He also goes into chemotherapy with those who have cancer, lives with the tumors, and climbs along the mountain trails, sharing our struggles, our tears, and even our joy.