Joel Cohen

What Way to God?

In March, I wrote an essay entitled, Why Are We Still Reciting Ancient Prayers Instead of Our Own? which asked why we rely so heavily on liturgical prayers that many of us don’t understand or truly relate to.

In response, a friend — an intellect, to be sure — shared a compelling story about how his Holocaust-survivor father had placed great emotional value in having recited a single Psalm as a personal mantra during a death march from Vienna to Mathausen in 1945. His father believed the Psalm’s recital literally saved his life by “curing,” as it were, his debilitating leg cramp that so irritated his Nazi guards, and could’ve provoked a deadly response from them. How could anyone dismiss the “spirituality” of such a personal story, one which my friend can feel almost vicariously? Indeed, there is no greater spirituality for a person than the idiosyncratic — experience-based — belief that “God literally came to my rescue” at a crucial moment in life.

“Isn’t there [my friend proposed] something wonderful about prayer which forces you to put yourself back into history – to become the ‘dancing King [David]’ (Psalm 149), to be there with Adam on the Day of Creation (Psalm 93); to experience David’s relief as a fugitive saved from Abimelech (Psalm 34)?”  While I agree that it would be wonderful to “become” the dancing king, I wonder if a more personal interaction with God might be even more meaningful.

Armed with this insight from my friend, I re-examined those Psalms.  I looked to their words and deeper meanings.  I wish I could report “Aha, I get it now,” but I just didn’t have the capacity to return through history to be in tune with those moments so pivotal, so iconic, to our people’s spirituality. I, curiously, have myself published fictionalized accounts of biblical figures, including Moses on the day of his death, yet I cannot, through recitation of the psalms, place myself with my biblical ancestors. So fortunate is my friend who envisions himself in the Garden, celebrates millennia later with David in the streets of Baale-Judah, who actually sees himself arm-in-arm with David pretending insanity as a stratagem to escape captivity in an oppressor’s clutches.

Some of us sway as we pray. I am told by some that this lends to them a sense of being in a different place during the prayer, a trance of sorts that moves them into “the zone.” I admit there might be reason for envy: can they somehow know the true meaning of the Psalms? Can they actually imagine themselves leaving Egypt or standing at the base of Sinai? How could one not be transfixed by such an experience? We are told from childhood to experience the Passover as if we were leaving Egypt together with our forebears — but do we?

For many of us, the experience of prayer simply doesn’t bring us to that spiritual high ground. I suspect, however, that the creative genius of a Spielberg might bring us to such a place more efficaciously than an ancient or even contemporary writing. Cynical, yes; but not intended to be callous. Mightn’t Spielberg’s inventiveness — indeed, a modern day mechanism formulated by his unique capacity for ingenuity — make one more profoundly feel that he or she is actually there among the throngs of Hebrews at Sinai’s base, better than reading from the almost sterile typeface of the Bible or that of a prayer book?

It may sound heretical, but many Christians seem to have managed to forge a much more human — some might say intimate — communal and personal relationship with the divine. Christians are seemingly more easily able to relate to God through Jesus, a physical being who, for them, was at some moment in time transported to Heaven to become one with God. Prayer can theoretically seem so much more pragmatic if one can relate to the Deity by looking Him in His eye, even virtually in a painting or on a crucifix or as a statue. But we, as Jews, may not and cannot envision such a formulation of our Deity; we must relate to a purely Heavenly God who cannot be physically seen or touched.

I wonder, then, whether truly transformative prayer requires some physical or anthropomorphic manifestation — indeed, like the venue to which the Children of Israel “travelled” while they struggled so at the foot of Sinai when, without Moses, they seemed unable to perceive God any longer. We know, of course, what happened to them there when they strayed so desperately toward a purely physical medium in a wayward search for a likeness for God: Moses broke the tablets containing the ten commandments in anger, ground their golden statue into powder and forced the 11 tribes who created the golden calf to drink its ashes.

I’m not suggesting in any way that Jews should attempt to anthropomorphize God. Even though some of us find contact with God through prayer so difficult at times, I surely don’t mean to suggest that it is necessary to actually see God to engage with Him. Indeed, for virtually all of us, prayer to that Heavenly unseen figure is the best medium of connection, and there seems to be none better. But for some, like my friend, it may be easier to connect with the divine by envisioning a relationship with God in our past or imagining our relationship to our progenitors. For others, a prayer of a sort exists simply when one looks out at the seashore or upon a mountain range. Don’t many who aren’t fully able to feel His transcendence in the Psalms find it instead in the splendor of the world?

It seems to me that to truly relate to God, we each need to find our own way to connect — and make it part of our personal practice.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Petrillo, Klein & Boxer in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Petrillo, Klein & Boxer firm or its lawyers.