Why Pray? - A Yom Kippur Question (and Blessing) for All People
This talk was given in the fall of 2017 at Kol Nidre, the evening service that begins of Yom Kippur. Traditionally, Jews atone for our transgressions on Yom Kippur and pray to be included in the book of life- to have a good and healthy year. We greet each other by saying ‘G’mar chatimah tovah,’ loosely translated as, ‘May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.’ As we approach Yom Kippur this year (starting on the evening of September 18), I share these words with all the Spiritual Directors International community as an invitation for people of all spiritual paths to consider new possibilities for relating to prayer.
A non-religious, Christian-raised friend recently asked me, “Do you believe in G-d?”
“Uhhh… Errrr…,” I stammered.
“I mean,” she said, “do you believe in the god of the Hebrew bible?”
This wasn’t getting any better.
Deflecting the subject of my own spirituality, I summoned some words about striving to be open-minded about various worldviews. I told her that belief is a word that makes me uncomfortable, perhaps more so than the word god. That I’d rather use words like entertain, imagine or explore.
I grew up in two religion-affiliated contexts – a Quaker school and my family's Jewish community. Both emphasized humanistic and flexible views on the concept of god and on prayer. At our synagogue I learned that our sacred texts were full of rich metaphors to inspire our questioning in life; that it is perfectly acceptable to think of prayers as a way of talking to yourself; that G-d (if there is a god) is in everything, and can be defined in many ways. In Quaker school we learned to gather in silence, connect with our inner light, and listen for messages either from the divine, or from a personal source of wisdom. In both contexts, I was encouraged to connect with my own truth, and enjoy a sense of belonging regardless of my beliefs. Also, in both contexts, there was an underlying message that fixed beliefs can be dangerous—that you should question what is presented as fact, and actively interrogate your own convictions. This is not always an easy way to live, but it is one that I’m grateful for in a world that is constantly figuring itself out socially, politically and environmentally.
So, why pray? Why pray if I refuse to “believe” in G-d?
As a Somatic Movement Educator, I often say to clients that paying attention to our body’s internal landscape is a deeply worthwhile act, both individually and for the world around us. The body has a wisdom beyond our habits or conceptions of reality, I tell them, and when we slow down and get curious, we begin to move in ways that support our wellbeing. This process changes our relationship to everything, from the inside out – we begin to dream, plan, act, and engage with others in a way that is more in tune with each moment. I sometimes simply say, “What’s happening inside you is happening in the world, so it matters.” As I sense in and allow my own body’s process to unfold, I wonder how my inner movements interact with what is beyond my skin. In a way, this is my prayer of inquiry.
But why pray among Jews? Why Jewish prayer?
I never really thought of myself as someone who prays. Even with my liberal upbringing around what prayer can be, I still associated it with a practice of communicating with something outside of myself. But to me, Jewish prayer is an embodied action. Touching and holding the prayer book, sitting, standing, swaying, bumping up against shoulders, covering the eyes, rising up on toes, turning to face the East, singing, mumbling, discussing, reading silently, thinking, crying, chatting, joking with my neighbor… All of these are part of our planned and spontaneous choreography of prayer.
Jewish prayer is a ritual act, like lighting Shabbat candles or setting a Seder table, that allows for a variety of inner experiences. I think of collecting flowers from around the house for Rosh Hashanah dinner, just after we hear about the death of a family friend. I think of rolling our eyes at our dog, Chico, barking for challah every time we lit candles on a Friday night. Prayer holds, beyond the meaning of its text, the content of our lives and our world. The words of our prayers, while full of richness, challenge, and beauty, may be even more important to me as ritual objects. I wrap these words around my tongue and through the spaces between us, just as I wrap my tallit around my body. They serve as symbols, structure, and something to gather around, just as our many names for G-d are functional symbols for what is vast, complex and evolving.
If I had a belief about why to pray as Jews, it might be that it’s important to give regular space and time for collective awareness, and that the structure of our prayer service gives us that. Just as listening to the body allows for greater wellbeing individually, coming together and being with what’s happening in each of our lives can support our wellbeing as a congregation. My hope is that being true to our experiences within the structures we call Yom Kippur, and prayer, will give us what we need on deep personal and communal levels, and that our time together will be a blessing for those around us as well.
On this Yom Kippur, may we write ourselves into a good book – a book that changes as we change – a book that runs deeper than whatever we can define. G’mar Chatimah Tovah.
Lee Fogel, MA, RSME, is the director and founder of The Visioning Body, supporting people to live according to their body's wisdom and callings through Somatic Movement Education, Reiki and the Arts. She offers body-mind and art-based programming in businesses, schools, arts studios and wellness centers in Philadelphia, PA, and beyond. You can learn more about Lee's practice at www.VisioningBody.com .