There is this complicated feeling that happens internally when I pray in community these days. I feel myself gaining literacy slowly. I hear myself reading words aloud, and wondering why mine are so blunt and edgy while those around me seem to know how to swim through those little black letters like water.
They wrap their prayer shawls, their teffilin, and they shuckle and bow at the appropriate times. And I’m wondering what’s more important– to look like them or to feel like myself? To pretend to know what I’m doing or to be authentically where I am.
It’s strange to me that this question is still coming up. Its been some time now since I committed myself to being a Jew. And yet, I discover anew all the time the things that make me strange. Because when I say that I’ve committed myself to being a Jew, what I really mean is that I’ve committed myself to learning how to be a Jew– and the epistemological paradox of being and becoming simultaneously is both exactly where I want to be, and it feels deeply painful.
I wanted to share about this because I think it cuts to a deep truth that I’m exploring about the process of being an adult learner– possibly in any context, definitely in a Jewish context. When so much of participation is about performance, what are those who are at the stage of learning left to do and to feel?
I’ve developed a few habits for dealing with my paradox in the past 2 months of commitment to daily prayer, and sometimes they work. Those habits are: knowing what prayers I really want to know, and sacrificing my participation in order to move slowly through them. Not taking on ritual objects until I know how to use them. Adding more prayers slowly as I become competent with the core I set out to learn. Being kind to myself. And, allowing myself to chose to say things in english or skip things when I know that I would rather be able to do everything, “correctly” and fully.
It strikes me as odd that I am left feeling alienated so often as a learner. What is it about our communal spaces that make me feel so ill prepared, so ill at ease, in my public praying self? It’s objectively funny to me when I admit the things that make me uncomfortable: knowing that I’ll still be standing when everyone sits for the repetition of the Amida, saying the Amida during 1 or more Kaddish recitations and wondering if that’s “OK,” saying a word wrong, getting lost in my siddur, etc etc.
But who set the bar so high? I think when I really dig, I know that many of the people around me are also as much in process as I. They might be “becoming” in other aspects of their lives than in prayer, but what is so shameful about not knowing in this particular venue? There is a certain measure of shame that accompanies my fervent desire to know how to participate, an embarrassment at my own earnestness, coupled with an utter disinterest in curtailing my search because of that shame. But the added level of strangeness in this emotional goulash is that I also find in me a strong self-criticism that is ashamed for not already knowing. It’s as if I envy others capacity to be aloof in their knowing, and that what I’m actually resenting is that, if I ever want to have a more distant relationship with my Judaism, I’m going to have to start by getting really close first. Uncomfortably close.
Maybe that’s just it– I fear losing myself in the process of committing to something that is, profoundly, not just about me. (it’s not not about me, either, by the way). And yet, I’m doing it. One bow and one prayer at a time. There is no way around it– it is and will continue to be uncomfortable– but I’m not the first and I won’t be the last to take this journey. The process of being and becoming is human. So too I want to carve out the space in which learning and performing are both essential and ongoing parts of being a Jew.