‘Wings of mighty eagles’

‘Wings of mighty eagles’

Two radical (and radically different) poets on love and prayer

Rabbi Aryeh Meir

Rabbi Aryeh Meir of Teaneck is on the faculty of the Academy for Jewish Religion and is the chairperson of the Teaneck Environmental Commission.

Among the many influences on my spiritual/religious journey, I count these teachers, among many other: Abraham Joshua Heschel, Arthur Green, Avraham Yitzhak haKohen Kook, Martin Buber, and Yehuda Amichai. I learned from them that to be a Jew is to see the world as filled with sparks of holiness, and that through our actions and our everyday encounters with others and with nature, we can bring a degree of holiness and healing to a world in need of healing.

One teacher and guide in my spiritual quest is the poet, painter, and liturgist Marcia Falk. I recall being deeply moved when I first saw her “Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath and the New Moon Festival.” In her introduction to that book, she wrote: “In Jewish religious practice one blesses not just on the holiday but every day…the everyday is an ongoing source of blessing in our lives.” Much like another teacher of mine, Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh, Falk is guided by the fundamental sense that the present moment, as the only moment, can be a wonderful moment.

Many years ago I was introduced to the writings of Rav Kook, one of the great spiritual teachers of the modern age. His wisdom has guided me through difficult times, always showing the path to reaching higher and achieving my potential. He taught me about teshuvah, return, renewal of oneself, the renewal of life. He taught me about prayer — that our kavannah, our intention in prayer, is to remove evil and darkness from the world, and to strengthen the good and the light. He taught that there is an ongoing, silent prayer within every person and that this prayer becomes active when we begin to pray.

Rav Kook taught about love: love of every person, of Israel, love of humanity, and love of God.

The heart must be filled with love for all.

The love of all creation comes first, then the love for humankind, then follows the love for the Jewish people, in which all other loves are included, since it is the destiny of the Jews to serve toward the perfection of all things. The highest of all loves is the love of God, which is love in its fullest maturing.

The love for humankind must be alive in heart and soul, a love for all people and for all nations.

The highest level of love for humankind is the love due the individual person; embracing every individual, regardless of differences in views on religion, race or climate.

It is only a person rich in love for humankind and for each individual person who can reach the love for his own nation in its noblest dimension.

(“Abraham Isaac Kook — The Lights of Penitence, The Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems” translation and introduction by Ben Zion Bokser)

On the other hand, we have Marcia Falk’s “Book of Blessings,” in which she has taken a radical approach to prayer. By removing God from a blessing, she has created a paradigm shift in our understanding of prayer. Blessing without God? Why change the traditional form of blessing: barukh atah y-h-v-h? Her fundamental premise is that Jewish prayer need not — indeed should not — follow the “I-Thou” formula as the only legitimate mode for Jewish prayer. For Falk, and for many of us, myself included, God is not out there or in heaven. Falk quotes the 16th-century mystic Moses Cordovero’s non-dualistic theology: “Do not say, ‘This is a stone and not God…’ Rather, all existence is God, and the stone is a thing pervaded by divinity.” She describes her experience of the divine as “an awareness of the … unifying wholeness within creation — a wholeness that subsumes and contains and embraces me….” She quotes Ira Eisenstein, disciple of Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, who wrote about prayer as “passionate reflection,” reflecting basic Jewish values, such as “appreciating the marvels and the mysteries of the universe, dedication to the ideas of human perfectibility, individual and social concern for the downtrodden and the stranger, as well as a sense of gratitude for whatever well-being one enjoys. Passionate reflection should revive one’s resolution to strive for ethical heights, to resist evil, to engender love and respect for fellow persons and to rekindle love and loyalty to the Jewish people, to Torah in its broadest and deepest sense.”

Here, from her “Book of Blessings,” is Falk’s interpretation of the Shma Yisrael:

Hear, O Israel — The divine abounds everywhere and dwells in everything: the many are One

Loving life and its mysterious source with all
our heart and all our spirit, all our senses and
strength, we take upon ourselves and into ourselves these promises:

to care for the earth and those who live upon it,

to pursue justice and peace, to love kindness
and compassion.

We will teach this to our children throughout the passage of the day — as we dwell in our homes and as we go out on our journeys, from the time we rise until we fall asleep.

And may our actions be faithful to our words

that our children’s children may live to know:

“Truth and kindness have embraced, peace and justice have kissed and are one.”

Readers may wonder — and some may be shocked — to see these two teachers mentioned together in one piece. Rav Kook (1865-1935) was one of the spiritual giants of the modern period. A deeply religious thinker, first chief rabbi of eretz Yisrael, a prolific writer and activist, Rav Kook invested great energy in bringing the spirit of the Jewish tradition to the Jewish settlement in eretz Yisrael. In the words of Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, the translator and interpreter of Kook’s writings, Rav Kook “was in constant rebellion against all that restricts and narrows the human spirit … [to him] the love of God carried with it a love for all God’s creatures, an openness to all ideas, and a passion to perfect life through reconciliation, harmony, and peace….”

One of Rav Kook’s briefest and most powerful teachings is in his masterwork of mystical Jewish thought, “Lights of Holiness.” He wrote: “The source of holiness is the love of truth in thought; the love of honesty/integrity in life; the love of beauty in emotion; and the love of the good in deeds.”

Rav Kook taught that you can find the “light of the Presence in the entire cosmos” and find the “light of divinity in the wonders of creation.”

A student of the Kabbalah but not a kabbalist, Kook taught that the presence of the divine is at the heart of every created thing, and deep within the heart and soul of every person.

In her “Book of Blessings,” Falk “evokes the sacred as totally immanent in creation, offering an alternative to the whole notion of God as male or female person,” as theological Judith Plaskow put it. In explaining why she dared to present such a radical rewrite of the Shma, Falk explained the raison d’etre of the book as a whole:

“We ought to try to say what we mean when we pray,” she said. “We ought to be able to articulate what a monotheistic belief means to us … the honoring of diversity within the unity of creation … the presence of divinity in the world is experienced as indwelling — that is, felt immanently — in all of creation…. The world we know, through awareness, to love more deeply — is a multifaceted manifestation of a unified creation with a unified source: the many are One.”

How would Rav Kook respond to Marcia Falk’s Shma? We can’t know for sure, but I would venture to say that because Rav Kook was open to all people and all ideas, he would be open to at least exploring Falk’s oeuvre. As an example of his openness, in 1913, as rabbi of Jaffa, he organized visit by a group of rabbis of the Old Yishuv — old-school Orthodox — to the new agricultural settlements in the Sharon Plain and the Valley of Jezreel. They were built by settlers from the first and second aliyot, who came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and were engaged in building the land through hard physical labor. The vast majority were thoroughly secular, having rejected, both individually and communally, any Jewish religious observance. Rav Kook’s goal was to bring together representatives of the Old Yishuv, the traditionalist rabbis of the centuries-old Jewish community of Palestine, with the halutzim, the pioneers of the new settlements. The rabbis confronted people who in general had little to no interest in what they represented. In the settlement of Merhavia, the rabbis were given a cool reception. One pioneer stood up and said, “We’re not interested in your words. You won’t influence us.” Rav Kook’s response was, “We have not come to influence. We have come to be influenced.”

He believed that the young pioneers who were building the Land with their labor were engaged in the great mitzvah of settling the Land, of putting down roots for generations to come. His love for the Land of Israel and for the people of Israel was so great that he could acknowledge the great contribution that these secular young people were making, and he believed that by their labor and their sacrifice, they were serving God.

For me, Rav Kook and Marcia Falk, each in his or her language and style, are making the same basic point — that the world and all it contains are filled with sparks of holiness, with a divine presence. Here, a poem by Rav Kook:

All existence whispers to me a secret:
I have life to offer, take it, take it —
If every gentle sound, every living beauty,
Stir you not to a holy song … then leave me, leave,
I am forbidden to you.
And from the delight of song and life’s beauty
A holy light will abound.
And all existence will whisper,
My beloved, I am permitted to you.

And here, several selections from a new Haggadah by Marcia Falk, “Night of Beginnings

For Kadesh:
On this Festival of Freedom, we cross from wilderness to promise, from exile to home, from enslavement to fully lived lives.
We hallow this day and bless the ever-flowing wellspring,
Which sustains us on the way,
nourishing the fruit of the vine.

For Matzah:
At this Festival of Matzot, let us bless the source of life
that brings for the bread from the earth —
unleavened bread — bread of affliction, first taste of our freedom.

For Nirtzah (fulfillment of the seder)
Fulfillment yields gratefulness.
We end with a coda to the seder ritual.
For the bountiful earth,
for the plenty of the field h
For the seed to vine to bud,
for flower to fruit, for grape to wine —
for the opening of our lives,
from enslavement to freedom,
to fruition — we give thanks.

For many contemporary Jews, using gendered language for the divine or using I-Thou language requires a suspension of disbelief. For me, the difficulty is in speaking to the divine as if we are in dialogue, as if God is hearing me. By objectifying the divine as person, whether a lord, a king, a judge, or even the Shekhinah, we force ourselves to say what we may not believe.

Arguing for honesty in prayer, Falk writes that there is “an entrenched conservatism on the part of the Jewish community at large in regard to liturgical change.” She argues for a prayer book that is more in line with the theological and moral beliefs of many in the Jewish community. She further contends that many people reject synagogue affiliation because they find that communal prayer, with its gendered God language, does not speak to their beliefs.

My experience is that the idea of God as person goes against my most deeply held beliefs. For me, it goes back to a fundamental idea of Judaism: that human beings are tselem elohim, the image of God, that we are God’s partners in creation, and that all of creation contains sparks of divinity, lights of holiness. The task of our existence is to raise up those sparks and reflect those lights in our lives.

The final words are Rav Kook’s from the “Lights of Holiness”:
… observe the light of the divine presence that pervades all existence
Contemplate the wonders of creation, the divine dimension of their being …
… find the source of your own life, and of the life beyond you, around you…
The love that is astir in you — raise it to its basic potency and its noblest beauty,
Ascend toward the heights,
because you are of mighty prowess,
you have wings to soar with, wings of mighty eagles.