Nathan Kamesar, Tribe 12’s friend and local rabbinical student, offers Jewish wisdom and timely teachings on our blog.
If I had to identify one theme that embodies the spirit of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, it would be: Kingship. “Hamelech yoshev al kiseh ram v’nisah!” “The King, presiding on a lofty exalted throne!” the cantor chants to begin the morning service. “Zochrenu lechayim melech haftez bachayim,” “Remember us for life, our King, who wishes us to live!” we chant repeatedly during the many Amidah services throughout the day. “Avinu malkeinu chaneinu va’aneinu,” “Our parent, our King, be gracious to us and respond to us,” we sing, mournfully, as the ark is opened.
As beautiful as this language can be, and as lovely and nostalgia-inducing as the melodies are — if you’re like me, the metaphor or idea of God as King is quite difficult to access.
Grappling with “Kings”
I never grew up with kings. I have no reverence for the office of king. I have no awe for the imagery that goes along with kings. (One of my rabbinic mentors, Rabbi Joel Levy, who is British, grew up saying “God save the Queen” and can slip far more easily into the idiom of God as Monarch than I can.)
And yet that is what our ancestors knew. For them the King was all things: creator, judge, sovereign. The same being who had the ability to enact laws had the ability to proclaim that you were free from being sentenced as a result of those laws. The same sovereign who established the society’s moral code could proclaim that you were deserving of mercy even if you had transgressed that code. Imagining God as King — with a celestial retinue, filled with angels as courtiers and divine trumpets blaring, just like we might imagine King Henry VIII’s court, or that of Queen Cersei in Game of Thrones (but nicer) — was probably quite a natural step for them.
For most of us it’s different. Frankly, I have to work pretty hard to open up my soul to a spiritual moment with a set of language and symbols whose cultural reference point is from days gone by, many centuries over.
Two Choices for Challenging Liturgy
That said, I think it’s possible… As contemporary Jews, we essentially have two choices when it comes to challenging liturgy.
(1) We can rewrite it. I am not altogether opposed to this project. Reconstructionists (I am in my final year of study at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College) have made some fairly radical changes to liturgy (eliding references to Jews as the Chosen People, for instance). Other movements have also made subtle changes over the years. We sometimes think about our prayer words as having been essentially etched in stone, but someone had to put pen to paper (quill to parchment? Papyrus?) at some point. Reinvention is a fundamentally Jewish enterprise. There’s no reason this process can’t or shouldn’t continue in an effort to effectuate language that penetrates more authentically to our hearts, given the world we know today.
(2) We can find new meaning in the existing language. This path is compelling for different reasons. One is what my teacher Rabbi Jacob Staub refers to as “accrued holiness”: even if, in the absence of context, it is difficult for us to find meaning in the metaphor Kingship, there is something almost magical about uttering the same words that our ancestors — chosen or inherited — did for centuries, in conditions defying understanding: surreptitiously whispering them behind closed curtains in 15th-Century Spain during the Inquisition; excitedly proclaiming them on the shores of a new home after crossing the ocean to 19th-Century America; and quietly chanting them in some of the bleakest moments of human history during the Holocaust. There is a sense that they have taken on a gravity of their own, even if the underlying content might be different than we would choose today.
Using the existing language is advantageous for a pragmatic reason as well — it is already agreed upon. You can go to most any synagogue or Jewish community around the world and expect to hear the same words on Rosh Hashanah. Having a common liturgy, even if isn’t perfectly structured to articulate our inner yearnings, helps foster unity by allowing us to come together together through shared language.
But we’re back to where we started. If we’re using the traditional liturgy, how do we make meaning of the notion of kinsgship, or other difficult idioms? After all religion, I believe, is supposed to make you feel something. If it’s leaving you feeling empty, either the setting isn’t doing it’s job, or we have to do more work within ourselves.
There are a lot of options here. One is to note that it is OK to let your mind go where it goes. As Rabbi Staub notes:
I often find my mind wandering to surprising, insightful places during services, having nothing to do with the liturgy. I endorse this practice.
Embrace the Idea of Surrender
With respect to Kingship, one idea I rely upon is that of surrender. There are experiences in life well beyond our control. A loved one can get sick or die; a friend can go through something difficult and take it out on us without our understanding why; of lesser gravity, we can send off a job application or an email, hoping for the best but knowing that at a certain point it is out of our hands — faith is in some sense a means of coming to terms with the limits of our ability to determine our fates. There is a reason that the serenity prayer — “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” — struck a chord with so many, including, it should be noted, through its adoption by Alcoholics Anonymous. We can lose control over our addictions and compulsions. According to twelve-step programs, it’s that recognition of a lack of control that is an essential step on the road to recovery.
We can all learn something from this.
We sometimes look to Rosh Hashanah as a potentially transformational experience. What is a yearning for transformation if not a recognition of the limits of our control over our current situations? To me, if we find ourselves using prayer books that inevitably contains references to kingship, one way to relate to this is to say, “I don’t know what’s out there, but I know I don’t control it all. I know I will ultimately have to be subservient to the whims of the universe. I make my peace with that.”