Monday, November 4, 2013

What's In a Name?

(This post is paraphrased from a sermon I recently gave at Congregation Beth Sholom)

As Juliet famously asks and then answers:

"What's in a name?  That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

Lately, I've been doing some thinking about how we name things.  It started with the government shutdown. As some may have noticed, Fox News decided that the "shutdown" wasn't really, as many (but not all) government workers continued to function in a somewhat normal capacity.  Instead, they consistently (and annoyingly) referred to the shutdown as the "Government Slimdown."  Though I can't quite place why, this seems to me to be comparable to the Weather Channel's decision to name winter storms like they do Hurricanes and tropical systems.  Does anyone remember Winter Storm Athena?

Then, I read Rabbi Avi Weiss's article in the latest issue of Conversations, a quarterly publication published by Rabbi Marc Angel's Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.  In the essay, he discusses themes relating to womens' experience in Judaism and the synagogue.  In Orthodox and even non-Orthodox synagogues, communal prayer services are frequently referred to as minyan, the Hebrew word meaning quorom; in this case, ten adult Jewish men is the minimum quorum for an official prayer service according to traditional Jewish law.  Rabbi Weiss argues that this trend bespeaks a bias against women's prayer and inclusion:

"The term used for public tefillah also makes a difference.  Although the word minyan is commonly used to refer to a prayer service, my preference is to use tefillah.  Minyan, in Orthodoxy, includes men but does not count women.  Tefillah transcends gender.  Women are not part of the quorum of ten, but tefillah describes an experience in which both [men and women] are critical participants."

Then, my father-in-law Dr. Neil Baine informed me of an article that examined how sleep essentially helps to detoxify the brain and remove waste products.  To many children (we've all engaged in and witnessed the tantrums) and adults alike, sleep has some serious negative connotations.  Going to sleep means missing out on important events destined to occur as soon as the eyes are shut.  A perfect opportunity to rename and re-frame sleep, I thought.  Since then, I've been floating names like "Brain Detox" and "Rejuvenation Time", in an effort to redefine sleep as preparation for what's yet to come instead of a retreat from the exhaustion caused by that which has already been; though useful, both names are a little too cumbersome to take the title from the mono-syllabic and highly entrenched "sleep".

Turning my attention to prayer, I agree with Rabbi Weiss that minyan is probably not the most thoughtful term to use.  Not only does it subtly exclude women, it doesn't really capture anything about the essence of the prayer experience itself; this, for me, is the bigger strike against the term.  "Prayer" works well, though sometimes, using a new term helps to shock in a way that can cause reflection and break habitualized rote.

In his Book the B'er Hagolah, the famed sage the Maharal explains as follows:

"When you think about the etymology of the word tefillah (prayer), [you see] that it is from פלל . . . and this is well known.  As Rashi explains (Breishit 48:11), the meaning of the word is מחשבה (thought) . . . the language of tefillin (phylacteries) are also from thought . . . this is so because a prayer requires intention and thought that God, may He be blessed, desires and wants it to be so, and this is what we call prayer, that a person's thoughts and desires desire and request the good."  

According to the Maharal's fascinating understanding of prayer, it is a time for us to think about what it is we want, and see if it measures up to that which is truly good from God's broad perspective.  Since reading this Maharal, I've been trying to use prayer as a time to prioritize, soul search, and measure up that day's to-do list against the concept of divinely ordained goodness.  Not a small task.  From this perspective, prayer might aptly be called "Thinking Time" or "Reflection."  For myself, I'm going to run with "Thinking Time" and see how it affects my experience of prayer.

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