Poems from the E.D.

Cooking and prayer

I posted a while back comparing Torah study to cooking. It's a decent metaphor...but a better one, I think, likens cooking to prayer. See, a set  liturgy is like a beloved old cookbook, handed down through the generations. In its best incarnations, the recipes are tried and true. Though some recipes are geared toward novice cooks, and others might be a real stretch unless you cook every day and are practiced in the kitchen, the basic techniques involved are familiar to anyone who's handled a bulb of garlic or a knife.

Many of us feel attachments to particular ways of praying -- particular recipes, if you will -- and those attachments often go beyond reason or explanation. Ask a group of Jews from different communities what the "right" melody is for "Adon Olam," or for "Lecha Dodi," and the debate will be as impassioned as any between afficionadoes of a given dish who each believe the way they learned to cook and enjoy it is the best way it can be made. (Should matzah balls be light and fluffy, or solid and substantial? What goes into a perfect pan of stuffing? Are latkes meant to be eaten with applesauce, or with sour cream?)

With prayer, as with food, I find that sometimes I am happy to experiment and be challenged, and at other times I want to relax into something familiar and comfortable. Sometimes it's a question of balance. I may be willing to try a strange prayer practice, say Abulafian-style meditation or sighing a deep krechtz to God together, but if my whole Shabbat morning goes in that direction I might find myself yearning for something simple that doesn't require me to branch out. Bread to balance the heavy spice, as 'twere. Then again, in prayer as in cooking, I tend to enjoy strong flavors; I have to remind myself that subtlety doesn't mean a dish is uninspired.

Tinkering with the liturgy can create amazing changes, or disastrous ones. A renewed and revived liturgy can open hearts and awaken dormant connection with community and with God -- or it can turn people off in a major way. It's like tinkering with recipes. A proficient cook knows what recipes she loves, what old favorites she never changes, and also where she likes to add curry powder even though it's not called-for. The best cooks I know are innovative, not bound to what's printed on the page -- but they also have a firm grounding in the classics. Giving an old recipe a new twist is most meaningful if you know what the old recipe tasted like in the first place.

Each of us, in her prayer life, is a chef responsible for creating food that both fills the belly nutritiously and makes the tastebuds soar. Uninspired cuisine is a missed opportunity for joy, but a diet of nothing but twinkies is a missed opportunity for health. (Just so, prayer.) The best cooks know how to balance old recipes with new ideas, because they've committed themselves to the discipline and practice of cooking often -- and because they didn't give up even when they made egregious errors, when their souffl├ęs fell or their gnocchi dissolved in the pot. (Here, too, the metaphor stands.)

If someone loves a given ingredient or flavor, someone else is bound to feel equally strongly in the other direction. For each one of us who's ingested too many masculine names for God, and bristles now at "Lord" and "King," another person wrinkles her nose at the merest hint of feminine or gender-neutral God-language, and finds the addition of the imahot (mothers) alongside the avot (fathers) verging on the offensive. And so on. Beyond likes and dislikes, people have allergies; some ingredients can be actively toxic. Each of us has a responsibility to know which are which. To be open, perhaps, to trying something new, or trying something again -- and to know which ingredients one's system just can't metabolize.

Those of us who are called to shape the prayer lives of others -- rabbis, cantors, shlichei tzibbur / lay leaders -- need to make informed choices about what ingredients go into the dishes we so lovingly prepare. The standard dishes are essential parts of our repertoire, but they may not be sufficient; then again, a diet solely consisting of innovative new gels and foams isn't likely to work for most people. We need to be as willing to make chicken soup or peanut butter sandwiches as we are to essay ethnic dishes that require special-ordering ingredients through the mail.

We who spend time on the bimah need to be open sometimes to creating quick meals, instead of insisting on ten-course banquets. And we also need to be able to encourage people to slow down and make themselves present to the experience of eating, instead of wolfing down a fast-food sandwich and dashing on to the next thing. Those of us in Jewish Renewal, in particular, need to be able to gently introduce people to new dishes without disparaging the cuisine which may feel most like home.

We need to know what dishes (what prayers or ways of praying) we ourselves love best, because we will prepare those with the most gusto. Gusto is important in this work. (I wouldn't trust a chef who doesn't like to eat; I wouldn't seek out a prayer leader who doesn't herself pray regularly.) But we also need to know what dishes those around us love best, and to be willing to prepare those sometimes, even if privately we might be wishing for something with a little more kick, or a little less.

We are always at once consumers and creators, when it comes to cooking and when it comes to prayer. And maybe learning fully what we ourselves enjoy, when someone else is at the stove, can help us understand how to prepare a feast in which others can partake... and learning just how much time, energy, effort, and kavvanah goes into preparing a meal can help us appreciate the meals others make, even if their choices don't precisely match our own.

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