#blogElul 4: Understand
August 19, 2015
Sometimes our high holiday liturgy may be difficult to understand. There are a lot of words. There are extra prayers and poems and hymns. There are allusions to theology -- or more accurately, to theologies, plural, because our understanding of God has shifted and changed over the millennia, and some of our liturgy is very old indeed. As time goes by, I find that I am less interested in helping people understand the liturgy, and more interested in helping them experience it.
Yes, there's merit in understanding our prayers -- whether one is davening them in Hebrew (which for Diaspora Jews is not our first language) or in the vernacular (because even in the vernacular sometimes they're opaque.) But if I have the choice between teaching someone about a prayer, and helping them enter into that prayer, I'll choose the second one. There is a different kind of understanding which can arise not via intellectual inquiry but via experience and heart.
In antiquity the heart was understood to be the center of thought and knowledge. (Today we think of the heart as the seat of emotions, and the brain as the seat of intellect, but that's a relatively new development.) So when our liturgy asks God to open our hearts, the original intention was what we might today call a request for help in opening our minds to enlightenment. But I like the idea that mind and heart are connected. We can seek to understand not only with mind but also with heart.
When you anticipate the Days of Awe coming up in less than a month, where does your mind take you? Are there things -- customs, prayers, texts -- which trip you up, which are difficult to relate to or to understand? What might happen if you let go of the desire for intellectual mastery and instead allowed yourself to relax into experiencing those customs, or prayers, or texts without judgement, without the need to agree or disagree -- what new modes of understanding might arise?
I'm participating again this year in #blogElul, an internet-wide carnival of themed posts aimed at waking the heart and soul before the Days of Awe. (Organized by Ima Bima.) Read #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; last year's posts are now available in print and e-book form as See Me: Elul poems.