Thursday, November 17, 2011

We don't do Worship

A couple of weeks ago, on a Sunday morning, I turned on the car radio and scanned for a station when a sentence from Yeshayah (40:12) caught my ear – as JPS renders it, "Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?"

The speaker, a minister I assume, charged his audience: Gd is so great that He can hold the mountains in His hand! We can't even lift a heavy rock, and He can pick up all of the mountains and put them on a scale! How amazing He is! How mighty He is! We should all worship Him! How can we do anything but worship Him?!

I was left absolutely cold, and I wondered how anyone living in North America today could be left anything but cold by this call. Because Gd is big and strong, therefore we should worship Him?

First, the logic itself is poor. By this argument, should I also worship some person who is stronger than me? What about a person with a bigger gun than me? True, Judaism's classic approach is to be wowed by Divine might. We praise Gd for His might. But we don't use it as a reason for worship (I think, although I am not certain).

But beyond the logical argument, I see a cultural problem which might be endemic to North America but which poses a challenge to all Gd-centered religion: The whole idea of Worship is passe. Unmitigated devotion and respect and awe, dedicating myself to the service of another, is weird and out of place in our society. Even as our religious identity is informed by Psalms and framed by prayer, our cultural identity finds Psalms curious and prayer uncomfortable. Even were we to accept the minister's "Might makes right" philosophy, we could not easily go from "Right" to "Serve the One who is Right".

What happens when people read Psalm 150 in translation: "Praise Him with the shofar blast, Praise Him with the lyre and the harp, Praise Him with drum and dance, Praise Him with…"? I wonder how many people, particularly those unfamiliar with the synagogue and new to Jewish prayer, have trouble relating to those sentences.

To me, this discomfort is a product of our individualistic culture. Our cultural icons of the past 60-70 years have made much of their rebellious streaks; would James Dean worship? Elvis? How about Brando? Wayne? Bronson? De Niro? Pacino? Eastwood? Stallone? Clooney? Crowe? Jackman? 1940's Captain America would worship - but modern Batman? Never. [For some reason, I could imagine some of the parallel females being worshipful; the tough-guy character is not always seen in them. And, I'm not as familiar with them.]

Many of us find our way to Worship despite this problem, but I sense it is more an exercise of free will and choice than a sense of obligation, along the lines of gratitude and recognition of Goodness. I'm not entirely convinced this is ideal, though.

What do you think? Am I off-base? What is the driver for your worship?


  1. If you think it's bad in North America, try coming to atheist Europe!

    Seriously, this is possibly alluded to by Rav Soloveitchik in The Lonely Man of Faith, where he argues that Majestic Man can have a pragmatic and aesthetic religious experience, but can not understand the self-sacrificing faith of Covenantal Man (if I have understood him correctly, which I admit might not be the case). Worship is definitely self-sacrificing (admiting G-d's superiority) and therefore people feel uncomfortable with it.

    I have experience that indicates that it is possible for a person to begin teshuva out of obligation even these days, but I don't want to say more on a public post.

  2. The Cristian concept of "worship" is so different from ours. They must obey their priests. We are encouraged to study our religion to get to know and understand what G-d wants from us.

  3. Batya: While the Christian concept of worship is different than ours, much of it has crept into our ideas in the last few hundred years. You say about obeying their priests, what about listening to the Rabbis? Da'as Torah? Infallibility of the greats? As the Rebbe dances so do his Chassidim? Isn't this the same? The Rav was quoted, don't do what I do b/c I do it. Do it b/c you think that I am right (R. Rakeffet says the same thing).

    Mordechai: I think though, that this idea is the 'simple understanding' of why we worship G-d. That's probably more of what's called, Avodah MeYirah. We're afraid of the punishment, of doing something wrong. He's so great and might He could squash us in an instant. And I think that, truthfully, that is what most people do think, especially if they concentrate on things like the Sin of the Golden Calf, G-d is a jealous G-d, etc.

    Like you, that leaves me cold too. I can't believe that G-d wants it like that. It doesn't make sense. Free will would mean nothing. Why wouldn't G-d just come out and start 'flexing his strength'? He wants a relationship with us. To me, I see Avinu Malkeinu as paramount. He is my Father and King, and darn powerful to boot (My father can beat up your father :-) ). What is T'filla? It's not worship, it's L'HitPalel. The reflexive. Not to Him, but for us to reflect and help get closer to Him. To help form the relationship w/ Him.

  4. Gratitude is the basis for the Torah according to the chovot. The general motivation is fear of punishment. This does not have any more currency in modern times. But I can understand
    why someone would make fear of God to be the primary motivation. This seems to me to be a smart move.

  5. Yirah can have two aspects:
    Yiras HaOnesh (punishment)
    Yiras HaRommemus (greatness/awe)

    Sadly, most only think about the Onesh side.

    To answer the question at the end of the post, I also would have to say a combination of gratitude (as in I am thankful to have an opportunity to perform mitzvos) and a feeling that my worship helps with bringing shelaymus (completeness) to the world-but not in an egotistical way).

  6. " I sense it is more a product of free will than obligation"

    I disagree. I don't think that I would doven three times a day if it weren't an obligation (gadol hametzuveh ve'oseh me she-eino metzuvah veoseh. On the other hand I feel that tefillah is inner directed (leHITpalel-reflexive) an attempt to relate to that part of the Divine which is our neshama. Hopefully this will result in the possibility of relating to the Divine presence in the world and to the KBH both as master and father.

  7. Daniel-
    Interesting - but I think that gratitude is also self-sacrificing in that sense, isn't it?

    I hear the distinction you are making, but why does that affect the way we view 'worship'? We are still encouraged to serve and submit to Gd.

    Anonymous 4:13 AM-
    1. The fear you describe is yiras ha'onesh; I think I'm describing more along the lines of yiras haromimus, worship born of awe of Gd's greatness, irrespective of any possible punishment for defiance.
    2. While I have learned sources which take l'hitpalel as reflexive due to the hit beginning, I must admit that I don't find them very convincing. Ditto for R' SR Hirsch about 'judging one's self' as a meaning of l'hitpallel.

    See my first comment to Anonymous above.

    Thanks; Baruch shekivanti in invoking those terms above.

    You still choose to fulfill the obligation...

  8. While I have learned sources which take l'hitpalel as reflexive due to the hit beginning, I must admit that I don't find them very convincing. Ditto for R' SR Hirsch about 'judging one's self' as a meaning of l'hitpallel.

    I used to refer to R' Hirsch's view, but after being challenged a couple of times (along the lines that you challenge it here) I looked the word up in the Brown-Driver-Briggs academic biblical Hebrew dictionary, which suggests it means simply "to intercede... on behalf of" or more generally just "pray".

    I thought about this for a while and eventually came to the conclusion that the literal meaning of the word doesn't really make any difference conceptually. I still think that looking at tefillah as an introspective process is a valid and meaningful approach, regardless of the literal meaning of the word. Does it really matter whether it is the literal meaning of the word or simply the idea of a talmid chachum like R' Hirsch?

  9. Daniel: Rav Hirsch's definition based on the shoresh makes a nice d'var Torah, I also looked it up a while back and am 100% on the same page as you.

    Davening helps to clearly define what Hashem gives us (as evident based on the brachos in the siddur). Rav Hirsch's spin has always seemed to me to be more of an anchor helping me define what I truly need vs want through davening.

    Mordechai: The aspects of yirah that I wrote about were introduced to me in R Yitzchak Blazer's "Shaarei Ohr" which is in the beginning of most editions of Ohr Yisrael (letters written by R Yisrael Salanter and compiled by R Y Blazer).

  10. Simply put critians do not understand the difference between Worship, and Praise, or servitude for that mater its all one big blob of emotional goop... So in effect of not being emotional runny nosed brats, we Jews Worship in a more correct way by our thoughtful actions, we praise with our speech and thoughts,which bring light to the world, we give up to service to HaShem through covenant.So to say we do not Worship is incorrect we do.

  11. Daniel-
    I don't think it matters, but I avoid invoking the hitpa'el element because I think it undermines the general acceptance of the concept.

    Anonymous 8:05 PM-
    Could you please elaborate more on what Worship means? You explained that it is practiced through thoughtful actions, but what is Worship itself?

  12. Actually, I very much believe that it is reflexive. I can't tell you how many times, especially at Shacharis, my mind tends to "go over" what has happened. As if, my mind is open to G-d for review.

    Of course, there is the story that R. Rakeffet has said over (sometimes in R. Gorelik's class, and other times in R. Katz' class), that one time after Shacharis Shmoneh Esreh, the rabbi went over to one of the talmidim and said Shalom Aleichem. The Talmid asnwered him Aleichem Shalom, but why I've been here the whole time. The Rabbi answered him, physically you might, but mentally you've been circumnavigating the world!

    I know and understand the feeling, and as I said, I think that the reason why is b/c it is reflexive, and it is as if we're putting ourselves before G-d for review...

    The Original Anonymous (4:13)

  13. It's a poor sign of the times when "awesome" means some new video game or other gadget. Without awe (or without love), our approach to HaShem is deficient.

  14. Actually whenever I use the word "awesome" I think of the greatness of HKBH.

    Of course, maybe I should start writing "moradik" instead of "awesome".