Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Prayer and Performance (Anxiety)

An interesting, even passionate response from Norman to my last post on Rabbi Hirsch.

"I part company with Hirsch regarding his theatricalizing of Jewish ritual and prayer," saith the poet. "I no longer know if I'm a secular or religious Jew, but I don't attend synagogue much at all. Still, I love the rituals too much to think of them as theater or the prayers as mere quotation. Jews died rather than give up those practices. I could never go to shul thinking that what I was doing was anything like a play, regardless of any outward similarities to performance."

I find this fascinating, mostly because it is entirely alien to me. I almost always think of prayer as performance, whether I'm at shul or at church with my wife: to me, performance is about self-transformation, as I turn myself into the person who is singing, with believable passion, "Rock of Israel, rise up and help Israel!" or "Sweet soul daddy, bend me, shape me, any way you want me," or however Y'did Nefesh is properly translated. I do the same thing singing along to the radio, or saying a poem out loud in class. The joy of prayer to me is partly communal--there's a deep, abiding pleasure in davening together--but partly, or even mostly, the inward and individual magic that happens when I make believe that I'm addressing Someone. Isn't "You" the most intimate, most sacred of divine names, the one that makes things happen most often? Isn't apostrophe always serious juju?

Maybe you need to think of performance via Austen, rather than Broadway. Prayer is performative language: it makes something happen, at least to the pray-er, when you "pour out your heart like water," as it says in Lamentations.

As for the thought that Jews have died rather than give up these practices--I'm embarassed to say that I've almost never thought about that. Again, a deeply foreign reaction; not wrong, just radically Other, in a way that Norman's instincts and insights rarely feel to me. Curious...

Anyone else out there thinking about prayer and performance these days?


Mark Scroggins said...

"Maybe you need to think of performance via Austen, rather than Broadway." Er... Parapraxis in motion? Found a copy of Sense & Sensibilia between Persuasion & Emma in the local used bookshop the other day, but never expected to hear similar from Reb Selinger!

E. M. Selinger said...

Ah, the circle closes. When I was a sophomore, I wrote a fat, overconfident essay on Emma that spoke of "Jane Austin" throughout!