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Experiencing the Divine through Prayer II

So. I’m still on about Larry Hoffman. Or, rather, I’m on about some ideas of mine that are inspired by a talk he gave. Well, stolen from, mostly. But presumably stolen from with errors, so that makes them mine!

At the end of the the last note I was positing that liturgical choice are informed by a desire to experience the Divine through prayer. And on the one hand, that seems obvious, right? And on the other hand, it’s impossibly vague. What do we mean by Divine? What do we mean by prayer? What do we mean by experience? And on the other hand, the vagueness it’s totally unhelpful: how would we even begin to go about make choices about the liturgy to make those experiences (vaddevah dey are) happen?

So. One thing that Rabbi Hoffman talked about was the different choices we had made in different times and places. He talked a little about the people who would fast for days and pray for hours, and the way the Orthodox texts are endlessly repetitive, and the way the Reform synagogues were built like cathedrals. And he talked about the stories we tell ourselves about the world.

There was a time when the metaphor we understood for the world was a fight between light and darkness—the Divine rode across the sky in a fiery chariot every day. It was a metaphor, Rabbi Hoffman hastened to point out—it’s a metaphor. The Divine is light and warmth, protecting us against cold and dark. And in our prayer services, we set fire to things. We looked at the fire, and felt it, and we ate the cooked food, and presumably at least some of the time some of the people experienced the Divine in the fire.

There was a time when the metaphor we understood for the world was a divide between the soul and the body—the eternal angelic part of us, intrinsically good, seeking to escape from the mortal animal, intrinsically evil. And in our prayer services, we fasted and chanted and meditated, and presumably at least some of the time some of the people experienced the Divine by (feeling as if they were) escaping their bodies.

There was a time when the metaphor we understood for the world was a Great Chain of Nature—the Divine stands at the top of infinitely divided ranks and terraces, and everything has an exact place somewhere on that ladder. The natural order of things is to look up to all the rungs above and down on those rungs below. And in our prayer services, we entered gigantic sanctuaries designed to give us a sense of our own smallness and the immenseness of the Divine; we looked up at a distant clergyman in a elaborate robe, halfway up to Heaven. And presumably at least some of the time at least some of the people experienced the Divine in reverence and awe.

The idea, here, of course, is that a culture’s driving metaphors of course are how we experience the Divine. How else could we experience the Divine other than through metaphor? That doesn’t mean it isn’t real, or that it isn’t really an experience of the Divine.

Nor does it mean that we can’t experience the Divine in the other ways. It’s not like those metaphors ever really drop out of our symbolic vocabulary. We can experience the Divine in fire (as we light candles, or gather around a bonfire) or in awe (either in Nature or in artificial grandeur) or in ecstasy (as we sing and dance, or fast, or whatever) despite the fact that we don’t, really, here in the West in the early Twenty-First, think of the world like that.

So. Before we move on the next note, I’d like to know what you think of this stuff. Despite the utterly unhistorical way I’ve presented it, does it make sense to you? Does it make sense in terms of your own religious experience, or your own knowledge of religious history? Have you experienced the Divine through prayer? Or, just as importantly I suppose, have you sought the Divine through a prayer service and not found the experience? Have you sat (or stood or knelt) in a prayer service and thought—this is not the right metaphor!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


This analysis of ways of experiencing the Divine generally makes sense, conceptually, although I might quibble over whether one would experience the Divine through metaphor or rather whether one would interpret or describe one's experience of the Divine through metaphor, with the experience of the Divine being perhaps beyond words or concepts.

The main stream of Catholic and Protestant Christian theology would, I think, accept the importance of metaphor, but the role of the sacraments in Christian liturgy, which posit the real presence of the Divine, not the metaphorical experience of the Divine, would qualify the exclusivity of metaphor as the way of experiencing the Divine as you have presented it here.

My own religious practice is non-liturgical (or perhaps one might say minimally liturgical, since a group gathering together to sit in a circle in prayer at a set time probably has a liturgical aspect), because I am myself unmoved by ritually metaphorical approaches to communion with the Divine. In my experience, Christian liturgy is more about signaling to people that they have communed with the Divine and reassuring them that they are part of the Body of Christ than it is about guiding them to a profound, self-aware experience of the Divine. That, in Christian devotional practice, has generally been arrived at via sustained contemplative practice, in solitude as often as in community, and independent of the structures of liturgy. I am mainly ignorant about how the liturgical and mystical/contemplative prayer practices are related to one another within the religious practices of Judaism.

Re: your quibble—One of the things that makes this concept powerful to me is that it is somewhat flexible. If, say, I have a moment in which I experience the Divine in, oh, a massive storm, that experience is potentially consistent with a variety of interpretations. You could say that the Divine chose to speak with me through the might and power of the storm. You could say that the Divine spoke with me, and that I interpret it through the storm as metaphor for power. You could say that the Divine is ever-present and ever-speaking, and that only when I was concentrating on the storm was I able to perceive it, because I have the storm as a metaphor for power already in my head. You could say that because I already have the storm-as-power metaphor in my head, and because I think of the Divine as omnipotent, I made that connection on my own. The experience doesn't require the Divine to actually exist (vaddevah dat means) and certainly doesn't require either the experiencer or the Divine to define the Divine in order to comprehend the experience. And in our congregation, at least, we have a pretty wide range of opinions and uncertainties to accommodate.

Thanks for the view from your own religious practice, too—I know little about it, and it's always interesting to learn. I think (I think) that at this point, in this country, Jews (except for the black hats, maybe) are not so much culturally different from anybody else that we can't learn and adapt.


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