Sunday, May 05, 2013

The worst prayer in Judaism

Eloqai Netsor was put into the Jewish liturgical canon to fulfill our need for noncanonical nontextual spontaneous personal prayer from the heart.

(I'll let that stand as a paragraph by itself so you can let it sink in and go "Wha?" [I mean so you, not the paragraph, can go "Wha?"!]!)

The prayer begins, "My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile. May my soul be silent before those who curse me, and may my soul [nefesh] be like dust [ʿafar] before all."

The Hebrew for "keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile," except for the possessives, comes directly from Psalm 34:14: "Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking guile." The difference is important. In Judaism, we have free will--we are responsible for our own ethical behavior. We may ask God for strength, but we do not ask God to prevent us from doing wrong things; we need to prevent ourselves from doing them. "My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile" is a complete distortion of Jewish ethics.

"May my soul be silent before those who curse me, and may my soul [nefesh] be like dust [ʿafar] before all." This may sound like a prayer to be a forgiving person, but it isn't. Dust can't forgive. Even if it could forgive, it has no reason to, since it can't be offended. Dust isn't human. We are. Forgiveness is an activity, and this is a prayer for passivity.

The language of Eloqai Netsor reminds us of Genesis 2:7: God formed man from dust [ʿafar] and breathed life into him, and man became a living soul [nefesh]. In the verse, God forms us from ʿafar and we become a living nefesh; in the prayer, we ask that our nefesh be like ʿafar. For those who take the verse seriously--and note that I didn't say "literally"--this prayer should seem both ungrateful and dehumanizing.

Just to clear up any ambiguity, I'll point out that I dislike Eloqai Netsor.

I no longer say Eloqai Netsor; if you know anybody whose first name is "Rabbi," please don't tell them about it. Note that I'm not saying others shouldn't say it. If I were compiling a siddur, it would include Eloqai Netsor in its proper places, since it would be an Orthodox siddur. But there would also be a note saying that some have the practice of replacing it with Hareini Moḥel. The note would be true, since I make that replacement.

Hareini Moḥel is an "I forgive" statement that precedes the bedtime Shema (also known as the hypnagogic "Hark!"!)! It appears in many siddurim at the beginning of the bedtime Shema song and dance. The various Korens and ArtScrolls include it, but Birnbaum does not. Some versions are longer than others, some are more annoying than others. I use a brief rendition, which includes nonannoying material found in all the versions:

I forgive all who have angered or annoyed me, and all who have sinned against me, whether against my body, my possessions, my honor, or anything that is mine; whether under compulsion or willingly; whether mistakenly or maliciously; whether by passing thought, by planning, by word, or by deed. Let no human being be punished on my account.
Hareini Moḥel divides those whom you're forgiving into two categories--those who have angered or annoyed you, and those who have sinned against you. Note that people in the first category didn't necessarily do anything to you--it's about your reaction to them, not about what they've done to you. This shows a realistic understanding of anger. Maybe they annoy you just by existing; maybe they just grate on your nerves. You're forgiving them not necessarily because of anything they've done, but because you need to let go and mensh out. Can someone belong to both categories of people you're forgiving? Of course. (Silly and annoying question; I forgive you for asking, for existing, and for frowning [don't deny it! I saw it!] at my spelling of mensh.)

In Eloqai Netsor one whines: someone cursed me!, I'm going to suffer in silence, and I want my soul to be like dust (maybe it's unfair to call it whining--writing this post is putting me on an anti-Eloqai-Netsor roll). In Hareini Moḥel, we act like adults. We acknowledge that some of our anger may not be rational, we forgive everyone, and we take responsibility.