Biblical Hebrew is all made out of verbs…it all starts in the doing and goes back to the doing. Why isn’t there a blessing for giving tzedaka to the poor? By the time you say the blessing, the man will die of hunger… spirituality cannot just be in what you think and what you feel – it has to be invested in what you do. — Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan
I thought of this quote while reading how my Congressman, Jim Himes, declared that a moment of silent prayer no longer suffices as a proper response from a Congress that has done nothing to rid America of the scourge of gun violence. He further explained his logic in the Washington Post:
All I know is that the regular moments of silence on the House floor do not honor the victims of violence. They are an affront. In the chamber where change is made, they are a tepid, self-satisfying emblem of impotence and willful negligence. It is action that will stop next week’s mass shooting. I will not be silent.
No one doubts that we need to be focused on fighting terrorism, and ISIS in particular. America is a great country that can focus on more than one thing at a time. And in this case, terrorism and hate are intertwined. But look at the online Mass Shooting Tracker and you will see where the heart of our problem resides. As of this writing (Thursday morning), there have been six mass shootings in this country SINCE ORLANDO.
And so, with moments of silent prayer insufficient, we need to supplement it with Jewish prayer. In the quote at the top, Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan, founder of Nava Tehila in Jerusalem, expresses perfectly why, for Jews, prayer not only implies action, it demands it. The one cannot exist without the other.
We Jews are very noodgy pray-ers, always moving, or “shuckling” (Yiddish for shaking), as we call it. Yes, we are the original Shakers (no wonder so many Jews live in Shaker Heights). Jews are always striving, swaying, wandering, wondering, but most of all, do-ing — and that motion-filled prayer posture simply reinforces the Jewish outlook toward life. You will never see Jews who are engaged in authentic Jewish prayer cupping their hands in that classic frozen prayerful pose of monastic lore. While many Jews engage in Yoga or Buddhist meditation, and silence is a key to mystical contemplation, the hallmark of Hasidic worship is ecstatic singing and dancing, not stilled silence.
There is room for silence in Jewish prayer, but not for immobility. Just as Abraham Joshua Heschel called the Sabbath the rests between the notes, prayer, like music itself features those rests — but only in order to highlight the notes.
Heschel also famously described prayer in terms of action:
“For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
The fact that Jews are always transforming words into deeds also explains the penchant for annoying rabbis like me to always be advocating for this cause or that. Truth be told, political activism is a direct extension of our prayers. If we are “praying with our feet,” our hands, minds, hearts and consciences are moving as well. We are totally engaged and directed, able to focus all our energy in a chaotic, ADHD sort of way, in a prolonged effort at World Repair. Jewish prayer aches for change and is willing to take us to incredible lengths to achieve it, hours and hours and hours of petition, exclamation and chant, three times a day and lots of time in between. Jewish prayer is a filibuster of the soul.
The mobility of Jewish prayer invites comparison to other faiths. I find inspiration in, of all things, a sublime Hindu symbol, the Shiva Nataraja. Shiva is the King of Dance, often depicted in a state of absolute motion, with arms and legs contorted in all directions, yet with an unfathomable serenity on his face. With one leg he maintains complete balance while another flails, and his out-stretched arms appear to be lifting up the world effortlessly. He is the center of all activity, the culmination of endeavor. In the words of religion scholar R.C. Zaehner, “He dances in the sheer joy of overflowing power – he dances creation into existence.”
OK, so the Dancing Shiva is a graven image. Minor technicality. Dancing wasn’t patented by the Hindus; not even Zorba has a monopoly on it. We Jews, although historically long on verbosity and short on choreography, have had our great Lords of the Dance as well, including Miriam, David and a host of Hasidic masters, not to mention Tevye the Dairyman’s various incarnations.
Yes, silent prayer by itself is not enough. What Rep. Himes complained about on the House floor is something Judaism would never countenance. Ours is the Church of Perpetual Motion. When Jews pray, Jews dance, celebrate, ruminate and self-motivate; and we actuate.
Rabbi Danielle Upbin wrote this week:
When youth is cut down in its prime, Prayer is not enough. When pulsing rhythms turn to blood and tears, Prayer is not enough. When terror and hate are disguised as justice, Prayer is not enough.
It is not enough, but, when it is typically Jewish noodgy prayer, it is a very good place to start.