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Exploring Prayer: A Conversation with Alden Solovy
Alden Solovy is a poet and liturgist. A native of Chicago, Illinois, Alden made aliyah to Israel in 2012. His first book, Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing, was published in 2012 by Kavanot Press. He is currently working on a mythical journey, told with prayers and poetry, called Song of the Spiritual Traveler, as well as two new anthologies. This year Alden will also be the Liturgist-In-Residence for the National Havurah Committee’s 2015 Summer Institute. His prayers and additional biographical information are available at www.tobendlight.com
This conversation was conducted electronically and is offered as part of this forum’s mission to explore issues of fact, fiction and faith. We appreciate Alden’s willingness to participate.
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JudSciGuy: How did Alden Solovy, who holds an M.B.A. degree in economics and finance from the University of Chicago, get involved in writing prayers?
Alden: Composing prayers was a natural expression of my yearning to move closer to God. In response to various life tragedies I began a spiritual journey of prayer, meditation, daily journaling and writing gratitude lists. The writing evolved into a practice of composing prayers. The practice was a large part of my healing process from those tragedies, including the loss Ami z”l – my wife of 27 years – from catastrophic brain damage, which I discuss in detail in my first book, Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing.
JSG: So, Milton Friedman played no role in your prayer development?
A: Milton Friedman? No. I also have an M.A. in journalism and a B.A. in English composition. Of course, all of my education, formal and informal, has had an influence on how I see the world.
JSG: Alden, in your experience, why do people pray?
A: Before we can ask why people pray, we need to begin to unpack a different question: “What is prayer?” Let me attempt a definition.
Prayer is an intentioned communication with God. We can do an entire interview right here. What do we mean by intentioned? Communication? God? Using this definition, your question becomes: “Why do people attempt to communicate with God?” People pray as an answer to their yearnings. People pray because of their desire for a connection with holiness, the divine, with their inner voice. We pray when we’re overwhelmed with joy, fear, sorrow or loss. We pray to celebrate. We pray to create a connection with beauty, hope, joy or love. We pray to express our inner selves. Prayer is the expression of an intention to be in relationship with God.
Now let’s change the definition and see what happens. Prayer is the fulfillment of an obligation to God. Suddenly, the whole texture changes. Prayer is a formula of words and acts, prescribed by God’s emissaries, written by God’s appointed, which fulfills a sacred duty. Using this definition, the question becomes: “Why do people want to fulfill their obligations to God?” Prayer is an expression of a desire to do God’s will.
What do these two completely different answers have in common? Faith. Faith that our prayers matter. Faith that our prayers will be heard. Faith that prayer might make a difference in the world. Faith that prayer has the power to heal. Faith that prayer is a divinely-inspired act. In my experience, there are as many reasons to pray as there are people praying. Faith unifies them all.
These definitions focus on verbal prayer. Many people would say that their prayer life centers on actions rather than words: yoga, meditation, journaling. Others would say that they pray by being in nature: gardening, birding, astronomy or hiking, for example. Others would say their philanthropy or volunteer works are acts of prayer. We engage in these formal and not-so-formal acts of prayer in order to draw ourselves closer to God, to listen for God’s voice or to express our yearnings with our deeds.
JSG: Your answer raises the issue of the definition of God. How do you define the object of your communication, the entity with which or with whom you seek a relationship?
A: No words can adequately describe God. For me, ‘source’ is a powerful way to understand God, both in the sense of original source, the ‘creator,’ as well as the ongoing source, the ‘sustainer.’ Add to that the ideas – reflected in our classic liturgy – of infinite, one, without bodily form or substance, holy, whose existence is beyond time. Each addition, of course, adds a potential new set of conversations.
We commonly employ contrasting images of God in our attempt to describe God. For example: One metaphor is God somewhere beyond the gates of heaven. God is distant and remote. Yet, we also conceive of God as right here, right now, the ‘still small voice,’ so close, so near and present, that God’s voice is actually inside of each of us. Both describe ways we experience God.
Defining ‘God’ is often an attempt to apprehend an understanding with intellectual faculties. Seeking to define God is not nearly as powerful as seeking to experience God. The desire to experience God is an attempt to apprehend God with spiritual faculties. That’s a matter of trust in the validity and truth of spiritual experience, no matter how remote God may seem. It’s a matter of faith that the still small voice of God, present in each of us, can be heard.
JSG: Do you pray often?
A: As soon as I wake up I say an off-the-cuff prayer, sometimes a few, as well as the traditional ‘modeh ani.’ I also pray formally, with a prayer book, once each day. I put on tefillin and say the Sh’ma. Several times each day I pause, sometimes just to thank God for a beautiful moment, sometimes to say the classic Jewish ‘asher yatzar’ prayer, sometimes to pray for healing for specific people I know who are ill. I continue to regularly journal, write a gratitude list and meditate.
JSG: Do you pray using the prayers that you have written?
A: I use handful of favorites in my personal prayers each day. I also use my prayers focused on Jewish holy days and seasons, such as daily prayers during the counting of the Omer and the Passover prayers found in my second book Hagaddah Companion: Meditations and Readings. When I have a scholar-in-residency, several of my Shabbat prayers are typically incorporated into the Friday night service.
JSG: What do you find lacking in traditional prayer language?
A: Some of the language and themes found in our traditional Siddur are challenging: prayers with triumphal themes, prayers that exclude women, prayers that portray God as angry or jealous, prayers about reinstating the sacrificial cult, for example. The body of our historic liturgy also lacks responses to many core problems of our day. That is changing as more and more individuals – rabbis, educators, poets – create and share new prayers and new rituals.
It’s instructive to ask if the struggle is with the Hebrew, the translation or the interpretation. The translations in the Koren and the Artscroll siddurs are much different. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s z”l daily Siddur maintains the traditional Hebrew but has a radically different translation. Mishkan T’filah, the new Reform Siddur, varies in both Hebrew and English from its predecessor, The Gates of Prayer.
We are blessed, in this day and age, to have a wide variety of choices. In liberal Jewish movements, we eliminate or replace language that is troublesome. Even in some modern Orthodox circles, the meaning and intention of some of that old language is taking on new interpretations.
Engaging with the traditional prayers – perhaps in study, perhaps in worship – has its rewards. Our yearnings as human beings and the ethos of the Jewish people are captured in the prayer book. It hasn’t stayed static over the centuries. It’s shifted, changed, grown. As a book – more precisely, as a set of books that has evolved over time and across locations – the Siddur captures the heart and history of Jewish people. It’s remarkably bold, innovative, provocative, sensitive and illuminating. Its evolution, which continues in all strands of Judaism, is fascinating.
JSG: You made aliyah three years ago. Was your move intended to support or enhance your prayer writing, and, if so, how?
A: My aliyah has, indeed, supported my writing, but that was not my intention. My intention was simply to build a new life. The gifts I’ve received have gone beyond what I could have imagined before coming here.
JSG: Your blog is titled “To Bend Light.” What message do you want to convey with that title?
A: The name of the blog came out of an email conversation with a friend. I was trying to make a distinction between prayer, blessing and the mystic’s attempt to commune with God. We had no common language, so I created a set of analogies to hint at the distinction I was trying to make. I wrote: “Light is a universal metaphor for Divine energy, a universal symbol for holiness, truth, radiance, love. To pray is to summon Divine light. To bless is to attempt to bend that light toward holy purpose, including consolation, healing, joy and peace. Communion is the attempt to enter that light.” With the blog title, I’m attempting to communicate that my site is a place of spiritual intent.
JSG: When you speak of summoning “Divine light,” are you speaking metaphorically or do you believe in some transcendent or imminent cosmic energy?
A: It’s a metaphor for a belief that gifts continue to flow from God into the world. It’s a metaphor for a belief that creation was more than a one-time act. God continues to create the universe – some might say God actively maintains the created world – which is classic Jewish theology reaffirmed in our prayers. It’s a metaphor for a belief that our prayers matter, that they make a difference.
JSG: Is the light of which you speak a natural phenomenon, or more a panentheistic force like Arthur Green discusses or perhaps more similar to Mordecai Kaplan’s trans-natural power? Or is it akin to an emergent consciousness recently discussed by David Nelson in The Emergence of God?
A: Light, as I’m using it here, is a metaphor for the sustained and ongoing flow of God’s creative energy into the world. It’s a metaphor for the belief that God continues to engage with the created universe. Here is one more definition of prayer, this one from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ introduction to the Koren siddur: “G-d’s blessings flow continuously, but unless we make ourselves into a vessel for them, they will flow elsewhere. Prayer is the act of turning ourselves into a vehicle for the Divine.”
JSG: You also speak about blessing as a process of bending light. How does this bending occur? Is the energy being bent, like starlight is bent by gravity, or is the person expressing the blessing somehow transformed?
A: This is part of the same metaphor, describing a belief that we can direct our prayers to holy purpose. Light represents the flow of God’s continued blessings into the world. ‘Bending light’ is a way to describe what happens when we bless one another.
JSG: Does this Devine light have any independent will or does it exist to be summoned and bent?
A: In Man’s Quest for G-d, Heschel put it this way: “Great is the power of prayer. To worship is to expand the presence of G-d in the world. G-d is transcendent, but our worship makes Him immanent.” What Heschel says matches my own indescribable spiritual experience of the world. I have been in the presence of holiness; I have been in the presence of the divine. If I catch a glimpse, that is a gift.
JSG: Some argue that fundamentally prayer involves one of three attitudes: gratitude, wonder and petition. Do you agree?
A: Gratitude and wonder are attitudes. The associated actions are thanks and praise. Petition is an action. The associated attitude is hope, or perhaps desperation.
What you’re describing is a typology for categorizing prayers. There are many. Anne Lamott coined this: Help, Thanks, Wow. Her typology is consistent with the structure of the Jewish Amidah prayers, which are divided into shevach (praises), bakashot (requests) and hoda’ot (thanks). Here’s one Christian construct: Adoration, Confession, Supplication and Thanksgiving. This is one Catholic construct: Adoration, Expiation, Love, Petition and Thanksgiving. When I teach, I use this typology: Wow, Gimmie, Thanks and Oops. When we think about the Sh’ma, we need to add another category: ‘Creed.’
The core attitudes behind all types of prayer are love and faith.
JSG: Let’s look at some of your offerings. Many of your prayers are addressed to “Ancient One.” Are you speaking to the skygod of our ancestors?
A: When I use ‘Ancient One’ in a prayer I want to evoke the feeling of God as a deep well of understanding, the One whose wisdom spans beyond my ability to comprehend, the One who existed before the creation of time.
JSG: Then to whom or what are you speaking and what do you want to achieve by the use of that term?
A: Every name, title or description of God is an attempt to understand some facet of the incomprehensible. In my writing I use all sorts of names, titles and descriptions including: God, Adonai, Source, Rock, Creator, Maker, Shield, Consolation, Guide, Foundation, Holy One, Guardian, Ein Sof and Shechinah, for example. I never – never ever – use the terms like Lord, King or Ruler, for example.
JSG: Why don’t you just use the term “God”?
A: My prayer workshops typically include a discussion of our names for God. There are people who are uncomfortable addressing God with titles like Sovereign or Ancient One. Yet, put those titles in the context of a Yom Kippur prayer and the comfort level increases. More people are willing to use these titles in the context of atonement. There are those people who are uncomfortable with feminine or mystical names for God, like Shechinah. Yet, if you put those names in context of a healing prayer the comfort level increases. We seem to intuitively move to titles like Source, Well and Shechinah when praying from our vulnerability. For each individual prayer, I employ the names, titles and descriptions for God that seem most appropriate to the content and the mood of that prayer.
A: The Ancient One is also the Source is also the Shechinah is also the Shield, Consolation, Creator and Ein Sof and every other name, title or description of God. I’m not sure any of them appeal to people who are not religious.
Your attention to ‘Ancient One’ got me curious about my own work. I went back and checked my use of names for God in my work. Great exercise. Of my 550 prayers, 55 include ‘Ancient One’ as a description of God, but it’s almost always accompanied by one or more other names for God within the same prayer. Five of my prayers use ‘Ancient One’ as the only name or description God.
JSG: Do you believe that the Ancient One hears your prayers, and, if so, in what fashion?
A: God hears our prayers. This is a classic Jewish belief. Several of our prayers end, “Blessed are You Adonai, who hears prayer.”
JSG: What kind of response, if any, do you expect from Ancient One?
A: I don’t expect a response. I believe – I have faith – that prayers are heard, that prayers make a difference. I don’t need to experience a response, direct or indirect. Faith does not require an answer.
JSG: Well, if you do not expect Ancient One to respond, why not drop the reference to an addressee and just assert the value asserted in the prayer. For instance, why not just say something like “We fervently hope for peace and look forward to a time when all of humanity can live together with mutual respect” ?
A: We can recite poems for peace or sing songs about love and equality. I’ve done both. Songs are not prayers unless they somehow engage God, either in the language of the song or the intention of the one singing. Some of my own prayers do not mention God. No name. No title. No description. When I use them, I hold the intention of prayer. I hold the intention of communication with God. Others might read those prayers without that intention. Is it the same act? No.
JSG: Or, “Our ancestors appealed to Ribono shel Olam, the Master of the Universe, but we know that it is we who must strive to do godly work on earth.”
A: Doing God’s work on earth is beautiful. Repairing the world is done in partnership with God. We often pray for the willingness, courage and stamina to do that work. “God give me strength” is one of the most universal prayers.
JSG: In the introduction to a recent piece, titled Let God, you say that you want to let God into your life and move in the direction of holiness. What do you mean by that?
A: Holiness cannot be described or defined. Holiness must be experienced. Holiness is sighted. It can be sighted in the mundane, in the dirt, in acts of charity, in acts of kindness, in wrinkled hands and battered lives. It’s there, waiting to be seen, heard, touched. My hope and prayer is that I’m open and available to experience holiness in the world.
JSG: Do you think that holiness is achievable without reference to God?
A: Holiness itself is an emanation of God. Sometimes it’s a reflection of the godliness in us; sometimes it’s a reflection of Godself. Yes, holiness can be encountered without calling on God. Holiness cannot exist without God.
JSG: Similarly, in Praise for Healing, you speak of the energy of life flowing again into limbs, chest and heart. And you express thanks to “Source and Shelter” and “Healer and Guide” for having blessed you with days of joy and leading you back to “a life of wholeness and peace.” In what way do you envision the “Source” and “Healer” acting?
A: Your question comes down to this: How does prayer work? Let me tell you a story. My wife Ami z”l died of catastrophic brain damage as the result of a fall. At some point in the hospital, as we were waiting in her ICU room for her ultimate brain death to occur, one of my daughters said out loud that it bothered her to see all the blood in Ami’s flowing blond hair. Someone in hallway nearby must have overheard. A few minutes later, a nurse came into the room and washed Ami’s hair. A stranger came in to wash the hair of what was, essentially a dead woman, to ease our suffering. Were my daughter’s words a prayer? Was the nurse an answer? Was it just a coincidence? In that moment, each of us felt the presence of holiness. Something sacred transpired. We cannot describe it or duplicate it or even know on an empirical level if it happened. And it happened. Part of the power in prayer – the juice, the energy, the mojo – is in the mystery. Rabbi Sacks said that “prayer changes the world because it changes us.” I’ve had that experience, as well, but trying to understand how it works is an attempt to explain faith with reason. Reb Zalman put it this way: “We are asking the mind to understand that there are some things the mind cannot do. We cannot think our way to G-d. We cannot reach G-d by a safe step-by-step process.”
JSG: Could you have expressed the same gratitude, no doubt less poetically, but attributed the successful healing process to attending physicians, medical technology and pharmaceutical advances?
A: I’ve written prayers of gratitude for physicians, nurses and care givers, for example, prayers “For Medical Science” and “For Organ Donation.” These prayers praise the skills and the advancements achieved by medical professionals, thanking God for those gifts, asking that clinical skill be expanded and that advancements in medical science continue.
JSG: Over the last few years, how, if at all, has your understanding of the object of your words changed?
A: The object of my writing has not changed. My understanding and appreciation of the impact on myself and others has deepened. A few times each week I’ll hear from someone struggling with a difficult moment, or someone else who’s just experienced some joy or wonder, saying that a particular prayer I wrote provided the very words needed when they could not find their own.
I write prayers to fill voids in our liturgy. I write to give voice to our desires, hopes and yearnings. I write to strengthen my connection to God, to make myself a vessel for God’s blessings. I write to give others words they might not have. I write to inspire others to speak or write their own prayers, in their own words, with their own voices. I write as an act of personal healing. I write as an act of prayer.
JSG: How, if at all, has your writing style changed?
A: I use a variety of stylistic devices – call them poetic voices – to create mood in a prayer: the voice classic liturgist, the admonishing prophet, the seeking male, the spiritual traveler, the voice of prayer itself. Over time, these writing styles have emerged, deepened and changed. I’ve become more willing to blend those voices and to experiment with language.
When I moved to Israel I began a deeper study of Torah and classic liturgy, which has influenced the focus of some of my prayers, including incorporating Hebrew and references to text in some of my work. I continue to write prayers in response to natural disasters and man-made calamities.
I’ve also become more attune to writing both Jewish prayers – prayers that relate to Jewish theology, liturgy or holy days – and to writing prayers that can be used by people of all faiths, at times providing alternative language in the prayer.
JSG: Thanks, Alden. Good luck on your journey.
A: Thanks for your interest.