I’m rather hesitant to blog about religious practice and prayer life, since a pingback we got last night indicates that someone, somewhere in the blogosphere, has mistaken me for a Rabbi (I’m not), and I do try to avoid misleading people. I can understand how that happens, of course–there is a lamentably common assumption floating around both in and outside of the Reform end of the Jewish spectrum that anyone (and especially any woman) displaying more than a basic level of familiarity with, interest in, and/or observance of Jewish customs must either be a Rabbi or training to become one.
Trust me, nobody who’s ever watched me lose my place in the siddur halfway through the Amidah would ever mistake me for anything but a solidly desk-bound academic theologian. In my corner of the world, theology is primarily an intellectual exercise. I teach my students how to analyse text within, and with attention to, the context of one or more interpretative traditions; I don’t teach them how to be religious people (or not). I teach (and write) about Judaism, not how-to-be-Jewish. At the same time, I chose the rather unusual and less-than-easy road of Jewish academic theology because I had a personal need to work with a tradition that I actually feel connected to–like most of the other non-ordained Jewish theologians I know (there are a few of us around), I spent the early years of my academic training reading and writing about the Church Fathers and the Body of Christ. It’s a language that I can still deploy with a high level of fluency, but it’s not my native language, and the more I progressed, to the point that I was being expected to produce substantial original work, the more difficult it became to write using someone else’s words, and the more important it became for me to engage with my own tradition, my own native tongue.
Of course, any of my colleagues will tell you that a tradition is more than just text; it is also the interpretative community, and engaging with tradition also means stepping away from the desk every now and then. So, as we’re settling back into a comfortingly and disturbingly familiar existence in Glasgow (where I will be on a 12-month research contract), I’m trying to do what I try to do around the same time every year, and make those changes. In the past, I’ve avoided putting anything in writing, much less in public, for fear of having to publicly admit failure; this time, I’m hoping that putting it in writing might keep me honest.
In short: my prayer life needs a bit of work. I’m not a regular synagogue attendee, and nor, in all honesty, am I likely to become one as long as I have to choose between a 45 minute daily commute to work, or else a 45 minute journey to and from shul; I usually resolve to go once a month, but then find myself just too busy and tired by the end of the week. Last year was the first time in ages I actually made it to Yom Kippur services–for once, it was in my job description to take students to them, where for the past many years I’ve had un-reschedulable meetings and/or colloquia on the day. This year, I’ve written to the not-so-local synagogue to ask for the schedule, and I’m determined to mark myself as unavailable for work during services.
I usually resolve to pray at home, and spend a day or two trying to rush through the entire shacharit service, in Hebrew, while half-asleep, and then decide it’s just not practical. Which, yeah, it’s not. That’s kind of like resolving to take up jogging and starting with the Boston Marathon. The one bracha I say consistently is netilat yadayim, and that’s because I spent a long summer in a very frum community where everyone made a huge production over handwashing multiple times a day, and the habit was set by the time I left. (I also do candles, wine, and bread when we have a formal Friday night dinner, but anyone wanna guess how often that happens?) So, this year’s resolution: start small. One bracha at a time, consistently, for a week or two, until it becomes a habit. Short forms, English forms, whatever works to make it stick (which is to say: I spend some time thinking about the form of a prayer, I pick one I think will work, and then I stick with it). Post-it notes on the mirror, on the door, on my computer screen (surely, someone’s made an iPad app that reminds you to pray, right?) And if I find I’m forgetting them, dial it back until the previous habit is reinforced.
I’ll start simple, with one that I had mostly integrated into daily practice several years ago, before I got really busy and careless: la’asok b’divrei Torah, the bracha for Torah study. Every morning.
Keep me honest, people.