On Doubt (Part 1)

By :  Samuel Barth Posted On Jan 22, 2014 / 5774 | Service of the Heart: Exploring Prayer | Prayer

There are many texts found in the siddur that are not easily planted in our mouths, minds, hearts, and souls. For example, how might a person say with integrity, “My God, the soul You have given me is pure” (Siddur Sim Shalom for Weekdays, 4), while intellectually struggling with the existence of soul, and beset by uncertainty about the presence of God in the world?

The siddur is certainly not an organized textbook of theology, but through the course of the week, and the calendar year, we are guided by the texts of our liturgy (prayers, psalms, excerpts from rabbinic literature) to encounter many core articles of Jewish belief. The existential problems of the siddur are, in reality, far more acute than most classes in theology. In the end, a textbook of theology presents ideas for rational or intellectual reflection with no immediate behavioral consequence. The siddur and religious services, on the other hand, make an immediate demand that we say words (whether aloud or silently) that are sometimes at odds with what we think and feel.

How is a person of integrity, then, to behave in response to our fixed liturgical texts? There are those who will not utter a word that is at variance with their own core beliefs, who sit passively through much of the liturgy. For others, the texts of the siddur are edited and adapted either by contemporary denominations or by individuals. Others turn to an approach sometimes called kiv’yachol (“so to speak” or “just imagine”), suspending the more rational, intellectual faculties to engage with the texts of the liturgy from a metaphorical, emotional, spiritual, or communal perspective.

I suspect that for many in the Jewish world, there is a drift among these approaches (and others) that varies week by week, or even day by day. In the coming weeks, we will look at some classical and contemporary sources that deal with doubt from a spiritual and liturgical perspective, and we will see that there are many voices that offer support and guidance. I offer again my own “Prayer in Time of Doubt” as it appeared previously in this column.

There are those who find that words are a distraction, and that silence, breath, and melody form the basis for the spiritual journey. There are many joyous and simple songs and melodies that engage us in exuberant celebration and praise. The Hasidic tradition also offers more contemplative melodies—the d’veykus niggunim that seek to arouse the soul to cleave to the Divine.

Listen to this increasingly well-known example attributed to Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, chanted by Rabbi David Zeller (z”l).

As always, I am interested in hearing comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at sabarth@jtsa.edu.