Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Davener's Mantra

As my clever and creative spouse noted recently, I've got some pretty hardcore davening skills. (Davening, for the uninitiated, is the word for participation in a Jewish liturgical service; in other words, "prayer".) I developed these skills the old fashioned way: through practice. Every school day of every year through 7th grade, I spent an hour or so each morning davening. Say what you will about my elementary school—and take my word for it, one day in these pages I will—you cannot say we didn't learn to daven.

Over the years, though, I've become less and less comfortable davening.  I'm like an artist who loves to draw but develops an allergy to paint, or in this case, the text. The liturgical text, directed at the Almighty, has some pretty basic themes: thank you God for this, God grant me that, hey God you are really terrific, and so forth. All this focus on God gets pretty uncomfortable for somebody who believes that there is no God, somebody who could never accept that, even if God existed, He would ever be motivated, mollified, or moved in any way by human prayer.

OK, then: if I have such a God problem, why not give up davening altogether?

Well, for one thing, like the artist to whom I alluded earlier, I simply like doing it.  I find it comforting and comfortable, in spite of the fact that when I daven, nobody is listening. In spite of the fact that the text praises an imaginary deity for "miracles" that never occurred. In spite of the fact that millions of my people have been slaughtered over the centuries because our imaginary God had a conflict with somebody else's imaginary God.

So now I face a dilemma: I can stop davening, because the words make no sense, or I can continue davening, and immerse myself in the calming and introspective experience that I know it to be. How can I find the experience so valuable when I am so uncomfortable with the text?

Part of my answer came from the late Rabbi Alan Lew, ז"ל. Rabbi Lew was a fascinating man who spent years practicing meditation as a Zen Buddhist, one of a group he referred to as "Bu-Jews", Jews seeking spirituality through Buddhism. Eventually, Rabbi Lew felt that Buddhism was denying him access to his own traditions, and he returned to Judaism, became a rabbi, and assumed the pulpit at Temple Beth Sholom in San Francisco.

But Rabbi Lew brought some of his own traditions with him, including meditation.  He opened a first-of-its-kind meditation center affiliated with his synagogue, and published books on combining meditation with davening. When I met him years ago at a retreat, he told the story of inviting some other Bu-Jews to join him in davening. As they finished, one remarked to him, "If it weren't for meditation, I would have no idea what davening is all about."

That comment resonated strongly for me. A certain amount of the service is devoted to communal prayer; however, the majority of davening is conducted quietly, even silently, to oneself. In other words, it is focused inward, providing the davener with the opportunity to find peace in the rhythm and familiarity of the words. This quiet recitation becomes a sort of mantra, focusing the davener on the sounds of his own breath, the interior of his own feelings. Over the years the mantra becomes familiar—I had fully memorized long passages by the time I was in middle school. Repeating the phrases, over and over, year after year, forms the basis for an intellectual meditation that is both cathartic, in that it helps me leave unnecessary things behind, and revelatory, in that it helps me find both new insights and new questions.

The davening framework is over a millennium old, with sections that are much older. In all that time, Jews have always doubted—but Jews have always davened anyway. Perhaps, like me, they have been able to find a way to continue davening by taking a step back from the plain meaning of the words. The rhythm, the familiarity, the choreography, and the sometimes bleak, sometimes hopeful motifs enable us to concentrate, not on praising a non-existent God who, if He did exist, would hardly need our admiration, but rather on more tangible, Earthly concerns: our communities, our families, and ourselves.


  1. This article was interesting, and many atheists I've encountered should read this. Too many people think religion is about indoctrination and faith when this isn't necessarily the case.

    One thing though: you said that you believe there is no God. I think you meant to say that you don't believe there is a god: this is an important difference in that it shifts the burden of proof.

  2. You're right, in terms of how best to frame an argument about the existence of God. That's not really what I'm doing here, but your point is still valid.