Issue VIII July 2004
Jewish prayer is called the Divine Service of the heart, for our hearts are the temples to which we bring the offering of our prayers. Prayer is a spiritual practice of closeness-making with God–an opening of the self allowing divine energy to fill us so heaven and earth are brought closer. In the Gospels, Jesus the rabbi regularly teaches Jewish prayer. In Mark 12:29 Jesus proclaims, “Shema Yisrael – Know with every fiber of your being that God is All there is.” What then did it mean for Jesus to say the Lord’s Prayer as a Jew? In this adaptation of a talk originally presented at Weaving Our Gifts: A Conference of Catechists 2002, Rabbi Prager begins her exploration with the historical context and language of the Lord’s Prayer.
by Rabbi Marcia Prager
Rabbi Marcia Prager is a vibrant Reconstructionist/Jewish Renewal teacher, storyteller, artist and therapist living and working in the Mt. Airy community of Philadelphia. A graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, she also holds the personal smicha (rabbinic ordination) of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the visionary rebbe of the Jewish Renewal movement, with whom she has continued to work closely. Her book, The Path of Blessing, is an exploration of the profound spiritual wisdom that lies in the Jewish practice of blessing.
HEBREW AS A SACRED LANGUAGE
In the Hebrew language, there are many layered nuances of meaning to each word. Sacred languages are like that. Hebrew is a non-western language, a very ancient language, and is understood to be a loshon kodesh, a “sacred tongue.” In the Hebrew language there are fewer words than in most modern western languages; fewer words, therefore each word often means more. Each word has many layers of meaning. To use a computer analogy, each Hebrew word is little like a “hyperlink.” When you click on it, it can open a whole new program. When such words are translated into English, one can only pull out a single nuance from the wealth of associations. It’s not that the one individual nuance is incorrect, it is merely that it is partial.
The Hebrew word shalom is a good example. It is one of the most widely known Hebrew words. When I ask a group what it means, invariably the responses are “hello,” “goodbye,” and “peace.” Now it doesn’t take people long to realize that shalom doesn’t actually mean “hello” or “goodbye.” The word serves those functions because “peace” is a good way to greet someone with a generous hope for that person’s arrival or departure. Even more fascinating is that shalom does not mean peace either, at least not with the same nuance of meaning presumed in English.
What is the root of the word “peace” in English? The Latin pax. Think about this. The Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, was a goal of the Roman Empire . But this was a peace achieved through conquest. Pax, Peace: the extinguishing of conflict, the absence of hostility. And, of course, the opposite of “peace” is often considered to be “war.”
In Hebrew, the word shalom bears little resemblance to this “peace.” So here I’d like to introduce something special about Hebrew. In order to understand a Hebrew word we must look at the letters of its “root.” The root is the three-letter core of consonants that is the word’s source. In SHaLoM they are SH….L….M, or the Hebrew letters Shin, Lamed and Mem. This grouping of letters in Hebrew hold these meanings: wholeness, completeness, fulfillment, and perfection.
The word shalom expresses the profound contentment we experience as inner peace. When I greet you with shalom I am not merely saying “hello” or “goodbye.” I am offering you my hope and desire that you should experience the bliss of wholeness, fulfillment, completeness, and perfection, and that you should know true inner peace.
Not surprisingly, in Hebrew, the opposite of shalom is not war! More natural are words that convey a sense of “lack-of-wholeness,” like fracturedness, incompleteness, or words like alienation or exile. So, when I pray for shalom in the Middle East, I mean vastly more than the cessation of hostilities!
Let’s look at the words that have come to be associated with a niggun, or wordless Jewish chant. They are from the second verse of Psalm 100: “Serve God in joy!” In Hebrew the word that is translated as “joy” is simcha, a word that means something much deeper than what we may perhaps think of as “joy.” Joy seems like a kind of happiness, but life is not always happy. The rabbis teach, saying, “Mitzvah g’dolah lih’yot b’simcha tamid.- It is an imperative spiritual practice to be always in the state of simcha.” If simcha means happiness, then this practice is impossible. So simcha must mean something more. Simcha means something closer to “being fully present, fully alive in the moment.” Simcha, you see, sometimes includes pain. But there is no end-run around pain. One can only go through. So the psalmist is urging us to serve God with our full alive-ness, to be fully alive, fully present, fully engaged.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF THE LORD’S PRAYER
A mere 586 years before year “1” of what would become a Christian calendar, the Babylonian armies swept through the Middle East, destroying Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), and the first Temple, the Holy Beis HaMikdash. On a forced march, all but the most rural and remote of the population was taken in terror to exile in Babylon. And of that march, who could have possibly imagined that in an unknown land a distant generation would someday sing this song , in a language and melody incomprehensible to those who lived that time of sorrow:
By the rivers of Babylon There we sat down
And there we wept
When we remembered Zion.
But the wicked carried us away in captivity Required of us a song.
How can we sing Adonay’s song
In a strange land?
By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. They carried us away, and then, goading us, taunting us, they said, “Sing us one of those Zion songs! We hear you’re famous for those tunes.” In our hour of pain, they wanted a song!
Yet the question raised by this lament was real. How could we sing our God’s song in a strange land? For throughout the ancient world, the understanding about god- ness was that gods were many and local. Each place, each land, was owned by its own god. Throughout the ancient world the assumption was that a god’s domain remains geographically fixed. Indeed, the more overarching assumption was that you obviously prayed as ardently as you could to the god of your place, who could not be accessed in some other place, because that god’s satellite dish was local to your land, and there only. And once you were out of range, you couldn’t dial in any more.
How would we sing our holy songs in exile? This was the question that tore at people’s hearts. The Temple was destroyed, ruined, and we were marching as captives into a distant and foreign land. We prayed and prayed about this question and then the vision came. It came to Y’heskel (Ezekiel), a young man, a Kohen, a priest of the Temple. In my mind’s eye, I imagine him in anguish, deep in prayer. Lost in the intensity of his question, he wandered a short distance from the captives who were allowed to rest by the banks of the river Kvar. There, at the banks of that river, perhaps he lay down in the cool grass, and looked up. Or perhaps he stood fast wondering what fate awaited us, torn from our sacred center and our God. Suddenly the clouds were moving with great speed. The clouds swept past, circling with great motion… and a vision appears to him.
This event is recorded in the words of this American Negro spiritual:
Ezekiel saw the wheels, way up in the middle of the air Ezekiel saw the wheels, way up in the middle of the air…”
He saw enthroned a figure of pure light, with a chariot. And it is, indeed, based on Y’hezkel’s vision of the chariot, that future generations of Jewish mystical seekers would develop prayer practices of chants and songs in order to travel in that chariot themselves.
What is the teaching that the Holy One wishes to convey? “I go with you! I’ve got wheels! Don’t worry! I’m not lost in the rubble. I am the Presence-that-is-Everywhere. Do not think that there is anywhere that you will go where I cannot travel with you. Remember that the one power, that is, the power that made the heavens and the earth, that one power is everywhere.”
There in Bavel, in Babylon, the exiles do an extraordinary thing. A process begins that has far reaching consequences. One outcome of what these exiles do will emerge as a practice of Jewish prayer…including a little prayer that will be one day said all over the world, in countless different languages: the Lord’s Prayer.
What did we do in Bavel, in Babylon? You might say that we invented what would one day be called in Christian communities the “house church.” Seeing that the Holy Temple is destroyed, but that God goes everywhere, we become settled in Babylon, settled in Bavel. How shall we serve God in this strange land? We start to gather in each other’s living rooms to have a conversation? For the Kohanim, the priests of the Temple, the job that they had known is gone. And yet we have brought with us an extraordinary gift. We brought with us wagon loads of scrolls, a legacy of extraordinary writings. We brought them with us from all the storehouses of Yerushalayim, every scroll that we had. So, seeing that we were there, what are we going to do? Let’s roll them out! Let’s start reading them. Let’s gather and read them together. The Kohanim, who are the most literate, say, “Let’s start editing and looking at the different variations in the language. Let us begin a project of sacred learning together.”
By the time we left Bavel, scrolls have been edited and sequenced, and many committed to memory. A custom arose of reading and chanting from the scrolls publicly, so that everyone could learn together. And, drawing from the sacred service of the Temple, where we longingly remembered the choir of 250 voices singing psalms every day (with a full orchestra!), we began to sing psalms, too.
And then we read, right there in the scroll, a radical instruction. Torah said, “Be kedosh–Be a holy people.” Through the Torah, we could hear God’s voice calling us, saying, “You shall be holy. You shall be a mamlechet Kohanim, a nation of Kohanim, a nation of sacred priests, A nation of holy God-workers.” We heard Torah call each one of us to be a priest serving in another kind of temple.
And so, we surrounded the reading and learning of the scrolls with songs, chants, and prayers, with the singing of psalms…and the beginning of something new emerged. The name given to this, the name born out of grief, the name of those gatherings for Torah learning, song and prayer would be “synagogues–gathering houses.” In these early proto-synagogues, a somewhat democratized spiritual practice emerged:
- Group learning
- Sacred study
- Chanting from the scroll
- Chanting from scripture
- Sequencing of the sections to be chanted
- In these synagogues, a lectionary and liturgy began to emerge.
The exile in Bavel was only seventy years. The time came, as rulers changed, and the endless wars that rose and fell in the Middle East brought the enemies of Babylon to power. And you know that when the enemy of your enemy rules, the enemy of your enemy can decide that you are friends. The new rulers of Bavel decided that we, the captive population, should be liberated, we could go home, we could rebuild Jerusalem, and also rebuild what would become the Second Temple.
You can read about this in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Imagine the elation! We can rebuild the Second Temple, re-install the Kohanim, and restore the entire service of the Temple! We did go home, and we did rebuild. Yet, the “something new” that had been invented during this time in Babylon was brought along too. People were attached to it. The practices of public Torah reading, of chanting psalm-poems, and of chant and prayer, were already entrenched. The practice of public Torah reading did not disappear, even if overshadowed by the extraordinary efforts made to rebuild and restore the Temple service. A parallel practice, external to the Temple, slowly grew.
Centuries passed. The custom of holding these gatherings to study Torah grew quietly, publicly, quietly, publicly, until teachers began to emerge from this practice: teachers of Torah, teachers of prayer, teachers of the oral tradition that grew alongside the reading of the scrolls. These were teachers who, generation after generation, expand that sense of what it might mean for Israel to be a Mamlechet Kohanim, a nation of sacred God-servants.
A word emerged, not known before: my teacher – “Rabbi.” We can perhaps call up an image from another later culture and later time that is familiar to us. I see an image of Socrates, sitting on the steps in Greece surrounded by students. That’s how teaching was in the ancient world. A teacher would emerge, and the disciples would come. Perhaps that is how early rabbis also taught, in public, surrounded by learners and disciples.
THE RABBIS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT PERIOD
Fast forward. By the year 30 or 40 before the year one of the Common Era, a young man named Hillel traveled all the way from the Jewish community that had remained in Babylonia. (Not everyone came home – it’s like that, you know. When you live long enough in a place, even when permission to go home is there, people stay; and many Jews of Babylon stayed to make a Jewish community in Babylon, for they had become settled and had thrived.) So around the year 30 or 40 before the Common Era, the brilliant young man Hillel walked all the way from Babylonia to Jerusalem to sit at the feet of two great teachers, whose reputations were so extraordinary that without email they were known as far as Babylonia. Their names were Shamaya and Avtalion, and they initiated a very important era.
Hilled walked all the way from Babylonia to Yerushalayim to learn with them. He would honor them for the rest of his life as his teachers. You see, something new had emerged again: a venue for public teaching, an academy, a yeshiva–a school in which master teachers of the Oral Torah would expound. Hillel learned from Shamaya and Avtalion, as did one of his equally learned rivals, another young man named Shamai.
Hillel and Shamai, each became “Rosh Yeshiva,” the head of an academy of learning. One was the liberal, that was Hilllel, and one was a conservative, and that was Shamai. There is never a time in all of the recorded annals of their teachings where the teaching of Hillel is not paired with the contradictory teaching of Shamai.
The Rabbis who would be trained by each of them, and those who would come after them and create their own yeshivas, would rule that the liberal decisions of Hillel are preferred in any case where there is a contradiction or conflict. But they would never discard the view of Shammai. We need both the view of a conservative, the somewhat more exacting view of Shammai, and the more liberal, expansive and more gentle view that was the interpretation of Hillel. Where they conflicted, the rabbis said, it is Hillel that we will follow. And yet, the minority of opinion of Shamai is not lost. It is also recorded. It is an important insight that that the minority viewpoint has validity that must not be lost. We never know when there might be a twist in history, when we will need the view of Shamai.
Hillel was an extraordinary teacher. A visionary. A populist. A kind heart. He was a generous, loving, remarkable teacher, of whose teachings we know only because a generation later they would be put in writing, not by him, but by his students. For throughout this time, the commitment to oral teaching, to not writing things down, was very strong. Why? Well, when you memorize a teaching it always lives in you. When you’re a “walking book,” you have the wisdom located within you always. (Also, on a very practical note, paper had not yet been invented, and though there was plenty of writing on parchment you had to kill, God forbid, about 150 sheep to make one scroll. Thus, you can imagine that written materials were not widely available.) So the art form of memorization grew.
We cultivated great capacities of learning by heart. The phrase “to learn by heart” means to know not just mechanically, but in your heart. The tradition was kept oral because the heart is a flexible muscle. When things are written down, the written word becomes the ultimate reference and not the heart. When the teaching is oral, it means that the transmission is relational, it is more alive. This is why the teacher-student relationship is so powerful in the transmission of these teachings.
Centuries later, a follower of the path of the Baal Shem Tov, the great Eastern European hasidic master, was asked: “What do you really learn from your Rebbe, your teacher?” He answered, “I go to my teacher to watch how he ties his shoes.”
This story comes to teach us that no matter how wonderful all the books are, the transmission that one receives from a living relationship is different. Hillel taught many extraordinary students who themselves became teachers. They traveled the land, attracting disciples. Some wandered. Some taught in the academies and were rooted in one town. Perhaps you recall that Paul traced his learning back to Hillel’s line of rabbi’s.
On a more personal note, in my tradition to read the Gospels is something that is more or less not done. It’s not done, you see, because to do it is so painful. It’s hard because for us, there is a wound that is restimulated in reading the Gospels. There is a layer of anti-Jewish polemic woven into these texts which has been used as the basis for terrible persecutions. So I didn’t make a big deal in the Jewish world when I began to read and teach about the Gospels. For me, reading the Gospels is reading a kind of “forbidden” literature.
In the decades before the destruction of the Holy Temple in Yerushalayim the land seethed in misery under the heels of the Roman oppression, one of the most rapaciously cruel and bitter occupations that had been known in the history of the world. Not because the Romans were better or worse than other people, but the Empire had created the most violent and depraved military machine that had ever swept through that part of the world. To live under the heel of this oppression, to live in that occupation, was to live in pain, fear and sorrow every day.
But also at this time, the spiritual life of the people was the most effervescent. The creativity was extraordinary, in part because there were many who believed that the Roman occupation meant the end of the world; that a messianic time was near. Surely, in the face of this rapacious evil, the redemptive possibility had to emerge. The end of human life on this planet was imminent.
The Rabbis taught that in the face of this empire of violence and death we needed to renew our faith in the unfolding of God’s redemptive plan, and affirm a path of non- violence and peace. At the same time there were militants and revolutionaries who were engaging in a day by day guerilla war against the Romans. They were the Zealots. Not unlike the way the early revolutionists of this country in the 1770’s shot at the British troops, sniping at the red coats while themselves hidden and camouflaged in the woods, the Zealots met the Roman soldiers wherever they could be met. For this resistance the collective punishment was harsh.
The Rabbis by and large did not support the Zealots, though some did. In the midst of an occupation like that, who is to know who is right, or what to do? No one knew, and no one knew how it would end.
To cement their control, the Romans murdered Kohanim ,Temple priests, who had stood in resistance to their rule, and replaced the Kohanim in the Temple with collaborators. So the spiritual practice of the Temple was compromised. On the one hand imagine that you are bringing the offering of your heart and placing it in the hands of someone who you know is a lackey of the Romans. It makes you sick. On the other hand, it is a good thing that some who serve in the Temple were there, for Kohanim remained who were working against the collaborators.
Now, recall that at the same time, synagogues were emerging as alternative gathering places. They are counter-cultural places in a way, because a spiritual practice was emerging there that will soon replace the Temple when the Romans destroy Jerusalem and burn it. But they don’t know that yet. As a group the rabbis and synagogue-goers were increasingly engaged in a prayer practice that was radically counter to the spiritual technology of the Temple. The practice in the synagogues had its roots in scripture, in Torah, and in t’fillah, prayer. People could rise in the synagogues and offer spontaneous prayers of praise, or recite Psalms… In a population good at memorizing, many people learned long mantra-like prayer texts, and many could recite whole sections of Torah, Prophets and Psalms.
So perhaps some synagogues drifted into what would emerge as a sort of fixed liturgy. In certain rabbinic circles, there was clearly an emerging liturgy which became very popular: a sequence of blessings. A prayer text that is a sequence of eighteen blessings developed. Chanting this sequence of 18 blessings, which is like a string of pearls, or like stepping stones, became a daily, or even several-times -a-day, practice. Each blessing offers a spiritual gift and challenge.
This Tfillah (Prayer) became a very popular practice. Some of its most ardent practitioners even spent an hour in silent meditation before this practice, and an hour of silent meditation after the practice. So some people were doing it for 3 hours, and some were doing it three times a day. Not everyone could do that, so the Rabbis craft an abbreviated version. They suggested that on the days when you have the three hours, and if you are able to do so, do the whole thing. On other days, abbreviate.
There was no mass media, no TV, or radio, so knowledge of this and other practices had to travel by word of mouth. Gradually many people were aware that there were new ways to pray, new ways to enter into relationship with God. And times were harsh. People were fearful and full of yearning for ways to know that God had not forgotten them.
The poor people, workers and the less literate, who know that these extraordinary practices are percolating through the population, don’t want be left out. Perhaps they went to the rabbis and said, “OK, you guys are doing this whole three hour thing, three time a day, but what about us? How shall we pray? Teach us how to pray!”
THE LORD’S PRAYER
One young rabbi taught like this:
“Try this, ” he said in Aramaic.
“Avun di-b’shamaya yit-kadash shimcha Teyteh malchutach….”
“Try this prayer,” he said.
“Avun di-b’shamaya yit-kadash shimcha...”
Or perhaps in Hebrew: “Avinu sheh ba-shamayim…”
Jesus spoke both languages. Most of us who lived under the Roman occupation used both, along with a smattering of Latin and Greek, though Hebrew was increasingly used for sacred purposes, and Aramaic for popular ones.
The relationship between Aramaic and Hebrew is a little like the relationship between Portuguese and Spanish. The speaker of one can more or less understand the speaker of the other, but the cadence and the music, if you can hear that, is different. By the time of Jesus’ ministry, Hebrew had already become a ‘lashon kodesh,’ a sacred language, a language for sacred study and prayer. Aramaic had become the lingua franca of the ancient world. It was the more secular language, as it were. Yet many prayers were being written in Aramaic because more and more people were not fluent any longer in Hebrew.
Most Jews spoke a polyglot blend that was not pure Aramaic. It was Aramaic peppered with lots of Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. One of the things I do when I’m reading the Gospels in English is to translate back in to this polyglot, because some sentences of the Gospels were probably spoken in this blend of Aramaic-Hebrew-Latin-Greek. Just reading the Greek obscures the Hebrew and Aramaic puns. (So the news is that there are loads of great puns in the Gospels!) If you don’t know that the text sometimes plays on the sounds of Latin and Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic words, the meaning is obscured.
What is also obscured in the translation is the layers of nuanced meaning of many Hebrew words. Hebrew is, in some respect, almost a little bit more like Chinese than it is like a western language. In Chinese each word is a glyph, a drawing, a landscape. It is composed of many different thoughts and images calligraphically expressed. When you look at a Chinese character, if you’re a Chinese speaker, you see all of the images and associations in the image. You don’t see one small western word. Hebrew is like that. Each word is a botanical garden of images and associations.
The translations are a bit like plucking a flower from a garden and taking away only that one. It’s not wrong. It’s from the garden. But the plucked flower is not the walk through the garden. Remember that in Jewish tradition, the smallest component of meaning in a word is the letters. The actual letters of a word have meaning. This is unusual for western speakers, because in English the letters themselves do not have any significance. An ‘A’ or a ‘B’ or a ‘C’ doesn’t mean anything. But in Hebrew, each letter is a word itself, each letter is a concept that has meaning and many layers of association. And so the meaning of words, particularly of sacred words, is informed even by the meaning of the letters.
In Torah and in prayers, words are chosen because of the resonance of all the layers of meaning. I wrote a whole chapter in my book Path of Blessing on just two letters, aleph and bet. These are the letters that spell the word Av – usually translated “Father .” Listen to the sounds: you hear the letter/sounds AhhhhB . (In Hebrew V and B are the same letter.) AhhhhhhB. Aleph Beyt. These sounds are the first two letters of the Aleph Beyt. The first two letters of the Alpha Beta.
What do these letters that spell Av mean? To really understand, let’s look for a minute at the Torah story of Creation. In Torah , how does God create? God speaks. God speaks creation into being. Two millennia ago the Rabbis already asked, “How shall we understand this, seeing that it is impossible for us to take this literally, as if God is in human form. God doesn’t have a mouth from which God is literally speaking. How shall we understand Torah describing God as speaking creation into being?”
Speaking is a metaphor, imaging God using the human body’s experience. What is “speaking”?
I’ll bet you don’t think anymore about what speaking is. Like most habitual things, we’re not aware of them much until they go away. Remember in third grade, when you wanted to answer a question, and you raised your hand wildly and called out, when the teacher asked a question, “OOOO! Ooooo! Ooooo! Ooooo!” Remember that? When you long to speak, what direction is the energy in your body going? From where to where? The energy is rising from right down here below the diaphram. “Ooooo! Ooooo! Ooooo! Ooooo!” Diaphram rises way up. Tummy muscles tight. “Ooooo! Ooooo! Ooooo!” Then, the teacher doesn’t call on you. Slump. The energy falls and you are deflated.
What is speaking? You want to say something, to offer your feelings or ideas. The wanting causes an energy to rise up within you. Your diaphragm rises, your stomach muscles tighten, and your breath waits in expectancy. Your body tenses lightly as it prepares to ex-press. Express what? Your SELF. To speak is to express yourself. God “speaks” and “ex-presses” or “presses out” God’s SELF. From the rabbis teachings we discern that God’s speaking creation into existence must be understood as a metaphor for a vastly larger creative process. Suffused with desire to pour love and goodness into a responsive universe, God “speaks” creation into existence by emanating surges of divine energy from within God’s innermost Being. One can perhaps say God “ex-presses” creation.
When we begin to understand the power of language, we realize why Jewish tradition claims that one way we participate with God in creation is by giving voice to our thoughts. Language is an out-pouring of intention and the desire to create.
We can treat the sequence of letters in the Aleph–Beyt, beginning with Aleph, as a Hebrew mythic tale in which each letter embodies a moment in the ongoing adventure of creation.
The letter Aleph begins the narrative. Jewish mystical tradition teaches that creation surfaced from deep within the Infinite Light of God. There in timeless unity, a primal impulse, a “desire to give” arose within the All. For the infinite to generate the finite, the One must generate the possibility of “other” from within itself. For other to exist, Oneness must self-limit. God must create boundaries out of God’s own substance so that difference becomes possible.
The letters tell the story. Aleph is the Infinite, the All, the First Principle, the Primary Reality beyond knowing; in Rumi’s words Aleph is “the ocean at whose edge all footsteps disappear.” It is from this infinite Aleph unity that all creation begins its journey. Deep within the One Infinite Light an urge for “other” emerges, a coalescing, containing energy expressed as the letter Beyt , which means “house.” God-energy flows into the unfolding universe and cools, condensing as garments or “housings” of matter and energy. The letter Beyt offers us the opportunity to experience all of creation–from the cosmic to the sub-atomic–as a house of God, a dwelling place of divinity.
Aleph Beyt. AV. One translation of the word Av is “father,” another might sometimes be “source.” Right now I like “The Infinite Beyond nesting infinitely within,” or “The Infinite-Sourcing-Desire-to-Create housed within the abundant garments of the world.” Not that Dads are bad at all, but “The Infinite Source within the garments of the world” definitely works better for me than “Our Father.”
Here our first exploration of the Lord’s Prayer ends, but the adventure into its language has just begun!