Mishkan T’filah: No Poison Here

So here we are, praying from a new siddur. And there are those who would say that a new prayer book – or any prayer book – in 2007, might not be such a good idea. After all, prayer books encourage people to be stupid, and immoral, and violent. They, and the religions they represent, are the source of all the evil in the world. They, and the buildings that hold them, and the people who stand up front and read from them, would be better off put to different purposes. Just ask Christopher Hitchens.

Hitchens is the author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, one of the more notable in the crop of books challenging religion and belief. These books – others are the God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins and Victor Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis – set up a straw-man view of religion and then knock it down, with varying degrees of violence and relish. I’ve not read them all, but from what I’ve read in reviews, it seems that Hitchens is the most strident. A review essay by Jay Michaelson in the current edition of Hadassah’s magazine puts it well:

Hitchens contrasts the lamest beliefs of mass religion with the best of elite Western culture. Jerry Falwell on the one side, Leo Tolstoy on the other. This is like comparing Rodin’s work with your 3-year-old’s refrigerator drawings and concluding that sculpture is better than painting.

My colleague Stephen Pearce at Congregation Emanu El in San Francisco delivered a wonderful d’var torah in response to this rash of books, and you can hear it online. This morning, we’re going to consider the question through the lens of some of the stories in our weekly Torah portion, b’reishit.

Now, for starters, let’s be very clear about one thing: these stories are not meant to be taken literally. Religious people are called to read the Bible seriously, not literally, and to fail that call is to fall into the trap set by Hitchens and his ilk. So please, no questions about where Cain’s wife came from, or how people back then lived so long. These are not the questions the biblical author has in mind, and the text provides no answers to them. Reading the Bible that way is like reading a book on the wave-particle theory of light in an effort to understand why Monet’s paintings of the Rouen Cathedral are beautiful.

We’re going to focus on the post-Eden story. Adam and Eve have overdosed on the fruit of the tree of knowledge (if you came to Torah study, you know just what I mean by that), and so they are sent into the world to work for a living. The easy plenty of the Garden is no more. Now, the earth will yield thorns and thistles. Their former home in Eden is placed off-limits, guarded by a flaming blade and a flashing sword. They have two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel, and his punishment is that his toil over the land will be that much more difficult. “When you toil, the earth will yield nothing, and you will be a wanderer.”

And so Cain wanders. He has children, and they have children. We meet some of them by name in the verses we’re reading this morning, and the introductions seem to be responses to the curse of an unyielding earth. Working the land requires tools, and so we meet Tuval-Cain, the progenitor of iron and copper works. The land’s stinginess requires that we find other means of sustenance and so we add dairy and meat to our diet, thanks to Jabal, the progenitor of communal herding. In such a harsh world, there is safety in numbers, and so we meet Enoch, the father of city-dwelling. Scarcity leads to conflict, which sometimes leads to violence, and so we meet Lamech, the second homicide. Maybe Hobbes was right. Maybe life outside the Garden is “cruel, brutish and short.” Such is the lot for those of us living in the “civilized world,” locked out of Eden.

But civilization isn’t all bad. We meet here not only Lamech, Tuval-Cain and Jabal, but also Jubal, the ancestor of those who play musical instruments. The conditions that force us to gather together against an unforgiving soil also bring us into each other’s company to create art, and music, and beauty. In this world of scarcity and strife, there is music, there is hope. And, as we come to learn at the very end of the passage, there is the beginning of a relationship with the Eternal One, the source of all, through prayer. “It was then that people began to invoke the Eternal One by name.”

I take it be significant that the Torah locates the genesis of true prayer after the introduction of scarcity and strife. To those who would say that “religion poisons everything,” our parashah responds, “No, religion is a response to everything.” To pray is to locate oneself in the universe, to admit that one cannot do everything, and to refuse Hobbes’s assessment of life.

Our story has prayer coming into the world in the days of Enosh, an ancient name which has come to mean, simply, “human being.” Thus prayer calls us to be more than children of Cain, using technology to get all that we can from an earth that has become our enemy. Through faith and prayer, lumps of clay become b’nei enosh. More than our capacity to create ever more clever ways to extract sustenance from the soil, it is our capacity to “invoke the Eternal One by name” that makes us human.

Furthermore, enoshiut, “humanism,” is perfectly compatible with a prayerful stance, and simpletons like Christopher Hitchens are poorer for their utter failure to appreciate the many ways in which prayer, faith, and even organized religion are good for us and our world. Hitchens is right, of course, that many bad things have been done in the name of religion. It’s easy to stack the deck against religion by holding out as examples the atrocities committed in its name. But it is no more difficult to condemn scientific achievement for atomic weapons, or human pride for the killing fields of Cambodia. If a head-to-head contest between Rodin and a refrigerator drawing fails to prove that sculpture is better than painting, then surely a head-to-head contest between Monet’s paintings at Rouen and that same kid’s clay ashtray doesn’t prove the opposite. All it proves is that there’s good art and bad art. So too in our world, there’s good achievement, and bad achievement. And, there’s good religion, and bad religion.

Which brings us back to our point of departure. Mishkan T’filah, our new prayer book, is good religion. It is humane, through and through, reflecting our understanding of the value of all people. It welcomes those with a sure faith in God, those struggling to believe, and — if they read it with nuance – those who are more humanist than theist as well. It connects us to our tradition, but refuses to allow us to be slaves to it. Its primary concern, page after page, is the cultivation of a just and ethical life. Read it and you’ll find that there is no poison in this prayer book, only ways of pleasantness and paths of peace.

Our world of scarcity and strife is not the last word on human existence. Behind the flaming blade and the flashing sword that guard the way to the Tree of Life is a Garden where all is plenty. Religious texts are a record of our history of striving after that world, and contemporary religious life is our effort to bring that world into being in our own day. May this Shabbat be a little taste of that world, and may the day that is all Shabbat, all abundance, all harmony, dawn soon.


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