13 November 2009


Since I was in rabbinic school, I have been spending a fair amount of my spiritual life praying alone. It's always a dilemma--enormously satisfying while at the same time in direct contradiction of the rabbinic mandate--"don't remove yourself from the community."

The Rabbis of early Judaism created a system of worship whose fundamental basis was the minyan--the group of a ten person minimum that would constitute their definition of community. Without a minyan, a community could not exist. Without community, one could not access God and offer up prayer as a sacrifice on the altar of God's existence. But if one was at home intellectually in liberal Judaism but not necessarily at home spiritually in liberal Judaism--what was one to do?

In rabbinic school I developed the habit of praying alone at home, early in the morning before school, and then, joining the community at school. That's where my "minyan" was, yet my deeper and more formative spiritual heights were climbed in the singular pursuit of God's reality when alone--in my living room, in a corner of the Park, on a beach. Surrounded by God when alone; lonely when surrounded by others. What a spiritual paradox.

In this week's Torah portion, Isaac, soon after being nearly sacrificed by his father, is next seen meditating alone in a field when he meets his future wife, Rebecca. He's handsome, pained and poetic. She is beautiful, strong and savvy. She sees him alone, "meditating in the field." The Hebrew suggests "conversing" with God and the Rabbis of the commentary are quick to point out that he was praying the Afternoon Mincha service.

Maybe. At the very least, he was alone because he found peace there from the traumas of his existence. He found a singular narrative of aloneness that spoke to his being and though drawn, inexorably, to a woman who would be charged with keeping him in the Covenant, he found his God not in the communal but in the singular relation with the Source of Life.

Isaac is that for us--the singular, the insistent, the alone. In dialogue with the communal, the insistent, the group. It's the classic dilemma of the Jewish condition--finding the self in the group and negotiating the irrepressible ways in which the group defines the individual self.

Put it another way: If you are a Jew--why?

Is it God's call to you as an individual, alone in a field?

Or is that call of the covenant, the call of history, pulling you back from your aloneness, into covenantal relation with narrative, with people, with language, with land?

Somewhere you stand.



Randi said...

Another resonating post.

But if one was at home intellectually in liberal Judaism but not necessarily at home spiritually in liberal Judaism--what was one to do?

One goes to Kehillat Hadar, apparently, if one lives in NYC. Or so the intellectually liberal Jewish bloggers say.

It's harder for those of us not in ir hakodesh though. My strategy: sublimate my own spiritual needs communally, and take much spiritual succor from the beauty of the place where I live, much like a fellow resident of my city expresses here:

That, and read blogs like this one.

Bryan said...

Thought you might enjoy seeing this: http://parkslopesketch.blogspot.com/2009/11/congregation-beth-elohim.html

but there was no place to email.

Marco said...

Andy, your post resonates with this nominal ex-Catholic; essentially my parents put me in parochial elementary school to spare me from the abysmal public educational system (and rough schoolyards) of a crumbling 60s/70s South Bronx. I did go to public high school (Bronx Science), and somewhere between Carl Sagan and a steady diet of some pretty heady science fiction, I became an unrepentant agnostic (a dose of quiet adolescent rebellion played its part here too, of course). But I never lost my love of churches: the emptier the better. The cool, dark interior, the flashes of stained glass, the flickering candles, incense... the intimacy of these vast spaces preserved my innate spiritual space until college, where art and Jung took over. Now that I am converting to Judaism, this once solitary science nerd finds its emphasis on the communal to be deeply gratifying: I love learning with a group (my Derekh Torah classmates) and sanctifying the family meal (Shabbat dinner) but I must admit to missing the ability to just drop in on an empty sanctuary to commune alone with God between services. It's apparently just not done. The upside, though, is my new impulse to create personal space for me and God at home. And as per Heschel, I'm finding that space in moments of time rather than physical space. While I'm not of an Orhtodox inclination, I find that adopting certain berakhah such as Netilat Yadayim, ritually washing my hands upon awakening, is a way of dipping into a parallel time stream to "charge" my day in a simple way. For a few minutes it's just me, dawn light, the roughness/smoothness of a handmade clay pitcher. The trickle of cool water. Thoughts of the Sinai desert. The words of the blessing. And somewhere within those sensations, is God, or his possibility.

Andy Bachman said...

Thanks for writing all--Marco, you raise some really important points about the tension between the communal and the individual expressions, as well as the role that ritual plays in each situation, opening up for us or accessing a relationship with the Divine. Though the Rabbis mandated the minyan, they also acknowledged that God was present in less populated encounters as well. It seems we are left with a paradox, best enjoyed when we can!

Permitadvisor said...

Hi, I changed my settings so now you can e-mail the posts from parkslopesketch.blogspot.com