Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The language of prayer

Whew- almost 2 months since my last post! Not like I haven't had stuff on my mind... but a lot of it is private, or really not my story to tell. I did have a germ of an idea while talking with some friends the other night, and I've been thinking about this ever since:

I rationally know G-d understands prayer in any language. Really, it's not like He could or would ever say, "What's that? I didn't catch what you said. My Urdu is a little rusty." He created all languages, so the concept is ludicrous, really. I know that we can pray in any language- it's important for us to understand what we're praying about, so praying in our native tongue is appropriate. I also know that for Jews, certain prayers said in Hebrew have a certain power to them, an ability to reach Hashem a little quicker if you will.

So why are certain words and prayers in English, in my mind, tied to Christianity? Why do I feel uncomfortable saying things like, "May G-d bless you," to someone in need? I don't want people to assume I'm a religious Christian, so I hesitate. At the hospital where I work, there are biblical quotes written on some of the windows I pass on a daily basis. I wouldn't read them at first, but then I saw that many of them are from Psalms (Tehillim), and that is very much a Jewish text. I have to remind myself that Psalm 23 was a Jewish prayer first! How did English Jewish writings become so closely associated with Christianity? Is it truly a cultural thing, or is it in my head?

I wonder if part of it is the way I was raised. I was raised in a Conservative synagogue (shul), where we prayed mostly in Hebrew. The funny thing is that while I read Hebrew, I don't speak or understand it. How can this be? Well, can you read Spanish? I'm sure you can, even if you don't speak it- you recognize certain letters make certain sounds, but no meaning is associated with them. It's the same way for me with Hebrew. I can read it pretty well but there's not a lot of meaning in the words. The meaning for me came in the congregation, in the tunes used for the prayers, in the soaring of voices, off-key and in harmony, that is to be found in a service. I don't get that from the English. The language is flowery, old-fashioned, and since I heard English prayer much more in Christian society, I have a hard time not feeling that services prayed more in English than in Hebrew are "churchy."

In my head, I pray in English all the time. Those prayers are generally not very lofty- the language is common. I pray for all sorts of things- kindnesses to strangers, healing for friends and family, parking spaces, lost earrings, good meals. That's fine for the everyday connection to G-d, like talking to my best friend, or my beloved husband. They know my innermost thoughts, I can show them the most honest part of me.

When I want the serious prayers, on occasions like Shabbos, or holidays, atoning at Yom Kippur, I need the Hebrew. That's like talking to my boss, or my Dad- I should have more respect, use more appropriate language than I can come up with in my own head. I don't feel like I've prayed formally unless I use Hebrew, and I don't feel like I've shown Hashem the appropriate respect in those situations unless I've prayed formally.

I was lamenting how inadequate my own prayer language seemed, when one of my teachers explained to me that both parts were necessary. She said if we just prayed formally, we wouldn't have that everyday relationship with Hashem, where we asked and thanked Him for everything. If we only prayed informally, we may not achieve the same level of "awe" as we do in a more structured environment. Both parts are needed to have the complete multifaceted relationship with G-d that is the ultimate goal. She is so wise.