The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Praise Versus Prayer

Originally posted October 30th, 2009. As of the date of this repost (March 2nd, 2011), I have been at my current job for a little over a year, which I started two and a half months after this originally posted.

My rabbi often points out that during the Sabbath, Jews are engaged in praise, not prayer. On the Sabbath, we are not allowed to petition or make a request for ourselves, the most common definition of prayer. Instead we praise the Deity. We sing psalms of praise, and then we have ancient passages we recite, which are commonly called prayers but are actually self-admonishments, affirmations, reminders of past events the Jewish people have endured, visualizations of future peace, and expressions of gratitude to our Creator.

When I first became religious, I really struggled with why we praise the Deity. At first glance, it appears silly to praise an all-powerful Being we can’t see, and it’s the first thing that atheists latch onto when they point out the absurdity of religious devotion. Monty Python has a scene in “The Meaning of Life” where an Anglican vicar looks up to the sky and rattles off about how meaningless and insignificant he and his congregation are, and how mighty God is:

Chaplain: Let us praise God. O Lord…

Congregation: O Lord…

Chaplain: …Ooh, You are so big…

Congregation: …ooh, You are so big…

Chaplain: …So absolutely huge.

Congregation: …So absolutely huge.

Chaplain: Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell You.

Congregation: Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell You.

Chaplain: Forgive us, O Lord, for this, our dreadful toadying, and…

Congregation: And barefaced flattery.

Chaplain: But You are so strong and, well, just so super.

Congregation: Fantastic.

Chaplain: Amen.

Congregation: Amen.

The idea that the Great Architect of the Universe is susceptible to flattery, and demands such flattery from us is really missing the point. Seriously. The Pythons understand that, and they are having a good laugh at this theological mistake.

We praise a person when they have done something that has pleased us. I tell my dog “Good boy! when he does a trick on command. I tell my girlfriend that she looks pretty. I tell my student that I’m proud of them when they solve a difficult math problem. In each case, I am reinforcing a behavior I like, or tending to another’s self-esteem, or doing something to bring a bit more perfection to an imperfect being.

Why, then do we praise a Perfect Being? What possible need does the Deity have of our praise? How can our praise have any benefit to the Great Architect of the Universe? For a long time, this really bugged me, and I asked a lot of different religious people about why they praise God.

I learned that many of us struggle with this, and many of us feel foolish doing this until we understand why we’re doing it. But singing “Hallelujah” (literally, “Praise God”) feels really good, deep in the body. I’m a baritone in the Consistory choir, and without revealing the music of the degrees, “Hallelujah” gets sung in some of what we sing. It feels good reverberating in the chest to sing it. There’s a reason that church choirs are ecstatic about praise. Your brain floods with endorphins, your posture improves, you enter an altered, higher state of consciousness when you sing “Hallelujah”.

There’s a section of the Jewish liturgy called Pesukei D’zimra, before the Bar’khu that starts the formal service. In it, we sing a lot of psalms, including a mash-up called Ashrei (literally, “happy”), and then Psalms 146 through 150. The 150th Psalm is a Hallelujah psalm. My rabbi introduces by saying “Psalms 1 through 149 are about trying to praise God, and they all fail to get all of it across. By 150, we use music and dance, beyond words, to do what words cannot.” In our congregation, we stand up in the middle, and really sing, and the whole room soars with song, and it’s very moving. It usually frightens visitors attending some kid’s Bar Mitzvah. But it’s very heart-felt and inspiring to me, especially when I’m feeling low. I understood why we sing this psalm well before I understood why we praise God.

The concept of God is impossible to wrap one’s mind around, and yet God is in our thoughts. We live in a world with a Creator, a Father, a Lord. None of these terms are quite right. Not all who believe in God believe in the Biblical Creation. Not all who believe in God believe that God is male. Not all who believe in God believe that God rules like a monarch over the earth. What is God? We do not all agree on every aspect we ascribe to Deity. Omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, omnibenevolence are all ascribed to Deity, and yet may be mutually contradictory. What is God? Who is listening when we pray? Whom do we address? What is the nature of that who made the oceans, the air, the sky, the planets and stars? What is God?

I don’t know. I don’t understand the nature of God perfectly. A lot of the realm of the Divine is a gray area for me, an unmapped territory about which I don’t always succeed in gaining knowledge, even when I strive for it. The higher rungs on the Tree of Life are pretty much blank to me. I don’t really get what Christians are talking about when they talk about the Holy Ghost as distinct from God the Father (please don’t be offended by this. I do not question the legitimacy of the theological construct, but I don’t really understand it, even though it is very meaningful for many Christian friends I love and respect). Much of the Bible does not make sense to me. A lot of the details are not filled in, let alone the explanations.

The final line of Psalm 150 is כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה תְּהַלֵּל יָהּ. “Kol haNeshamah t’Hallel Yah”. I translate it as “Everything that breathes, by breathing praises God.” Those who study Jewish mysticism will notice that the phrase “Kol haNeshamah” has a deeper meaning. The neshamah is the portion of the soul imbued in us by God, that cannot be corrupted by sin. Because the neshamah is a Divine filament in the inner core of the soul, untainted by sin, the neshamah retains its Divinity. All neshamahs put together form the portion of humanity that retains its Divinity. This is the bridge from the human to the Divine. Because what remains of the human is elevating towards the Highest, it readies itself for that transition by acclimating itself to the region in which it will enter. “T’hallel Yah” is where we get “Hallelujah” from. Overwhelmed, it gushes in praise.

Praise is when the impossible attempt to describe, to understand, to fully know God is overwhelmed and sublimates into something ineffable. The last moment where there are still words are words of praise. We praise God to reach this state, and to rise above it. We praise God to give us the mindset to reunite with our Maker.

Even when we are in the dullest state of consciousness, we can take inventory of the gifts bestowed upon us by a loving God, and find gratitude within us for what we have. We can tap into that thankfulness, and allow a trickle to become a flood. Every breath is a celebration, a prayer. A heart pumps rich, nourishing blood through our veins and into our thirsty brain. We are sustained by food and drink, relieved by loving friends and family, sheltered by the ingenuity of architects and builders, clothed by dressmakers, all of whom are sustained by others, in a great web of generosity leading to the Prime Mover. We see rich colors with eyes we were born with, taste flavors with a tongue that has always been in each of our heads. We feel and smell and hear things with similar gifts. We are the recipients of gifts greater than we can comprehend, and we are given the further gift of mental exertion to gain small victories of comprehension to further appreciate these gifts. By praising God we can elevate ourselves to something higher.

Freemasonry requires belief in a Supreme Being. The immortality of the soul is one of the landmarks of Freemasonry. Masons believe that what happens in the lodge room is our crude attempt to mimic what is happening in the Celestial Lodge. Praise is the bridge between the two.

Today is my last day of work at my current contract job. At 5 PM today, I go back to being unemployed. My wine and oil are very rich, but I’m going to start worrying about corn soon. But my faith is very real, very present. I went to three masonic events this week, my last week of work. How good and pleasant it is for Brethren to dwell together in unity.

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