Moving from New York City to Raleigh, North Carolina upon ordination was my first serious foray out of a somewhat insular northeastern cocoon and into “real” America. I was not exactly sheltered until then. I grew up in an ethnically diverse Queens neighborhood, and the inner city public high school I attended was a testing ground for class and racial coexistence. Still, I thought I knew what difference was until I discovered how different difference could be in the same country, less than five hundred miles south of where I grew up. Raleigh and the East Carolinas that I remember from the early nineteen nineties were a study in contrasts. The city is part of an urban powerhouse of cosmopolitanism that attracts people and businesses from all over the world. Yet it also boasts some of the world’s most rigidly conservative churches, and it sits in the midst of the American tobacco farming industry, a very traditionalist, hierarchical culture.
I had yichus, status, because I am a rabbi, which allowed me entrée into parts of non Jewish North Carolina society I might otherwise not have encountered. Southern Baptists dominated the religious Christian scene when I lived in North Carolina. Though they were a fairly diverse group theologically, the Baptists I knew were quite united in their ignorance of and fascination with Jews. Their exposure to Jews was refracted mostly through the distorted lenses of literalist readings of the Torah and stereotypes gleaned from Christian Scripture. However, unlike many secular Christians – and Jews – who found my presence uncomfortable, these religious Christians were genuinely intrigued by Judaism. They wanted to know more at the same time that they could not wrap their heads around why I would consciously resist having my soul saved through Christian faith.
One year, a small liberal arts college in Tobacco Country, most of whose students had never been more than five miles away from home, invited me to teach a series of classes about Judaism to the college community. My host, the head of the religion and philosophy department, was a PhD in philosophy who had long since left his Baptist roots, yet who knew the world of fundamentalist Christianity well. On the first day I was scheduled to teach, he took me out for lunch, and as the time for our first class drew closer, I said to him, “I want to say grace over my meal before we go.” I rapidly mouthed the words of Birkat Ha-Mazon, the Jewish blessing of thanks over a meal, while he abruptly stood up from the table, and from the corner of my eye I could see that he appeared confused. I quickly finished the prayer and got up to leave with him. “What did you just do?” he asked me. “Well, I said Grace over my meal, just like I mentioned to you,” I responded. I thought I had used my best colloquial “heartland of America” English to explain myself religiously, but the look on my colleague’s face told me he had not understood me. Suddenly, he began to laugh in that hard, knowing way that told me I was about to learn something about language as the handmaiden of culture. Wiping tears from his eyes, he explained, “Dan, when southerners – Baptists or otherwise – say ‘let’s say grace over that,’ what they mean is ‘let’s get this over with and get the hell out of here.’” We then both laughed over that one.
Thinking about the sly double meaning of “saying grace over something” always leaves me wrestling with an ancient, unsettling truth about Jewish spiritual life: the dialectic between keva, fixed, rote prayer and kavannah, prayer with renewed meaning and intention. As the early rabbinic authorities were fashioning an increasingly fixed, unified system of worship and ritual for the Jewish people, they repeatedly warned of the dangers of that fixed form becoming what Rabbi Abraham Heschel called sacred physics. I become so used to saying the “right words” repeatedly, that reciting them, howbeit mechanistically, becomes the goal, rather than reciting them for their deeper, personal meaning. Both keva and kavvanah matter vitally for religious life and continuity, thus the inherent tension between them remains unresolved.
My recall of Jewish liturgy is what the Talmud refers to as girseta d’yankuta. Loosely translated, it means something so etched in my brain from early childhood, I must have been imbibed it with my mother’s milk. Thus, when I invariably get busy and distracted, my recitation of Birkat Ha-Mazon and pretty much every other prayer is far too quick to be deeply meaningful, my Hebrew fluency notwithstanding. I don’t like “saying grace” over Grace after a meal. I know I cheat myself when I do, which is another way of cheating God. I have squandered another opportunity to be genuinely thankful for and humbled by how lucky I am to be who I am, have what I have and live where I live. Such squandering cannot be helpful in making me a better person.
I will keep trying to slow down, to avoid violating the philosopher, Maimonides’ warning that I not treat prayer as “a sack one lugs around then tosses as one walks away.” Meanwhile, I will stay in practice by reciting the words with daily imperfection, hoping for the grace of deeper wisdom their poetry offers.