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Isaiah and Subersive Prayer: Thoughts for Yom Kippur

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Three great teachers point the way not only for Jews but for us all to experience prayer in times of public anguish.

In the Prophetic reading for the morning of Yom Kippur, Isaiah 57:14 to 58:14, the Prophet Isaiah speaks on behalf of God: "What is the fast I demand of you? Is it to droop your head like a bulrush? No! -- It is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, strike off the handcuffs from prisoners ... "

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that "prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive."

And a two-line short story by Franz Kafka goes, "One day a leopard stalked into the synagogue, roaring and lashing its tail. Three weeks later, it had become part of the liturgy."

When we pay attention not only to the content of Isaiah's outcry but to its life-situation, we realize that at every level, his "prayer" was subversive. Not only was he attacking the notion that obeying the letter of Torah -- "On the tenth day of Tishrei, afflict yourselves, press down your egos" -- was insufficient, but he was also interrupting the liturgy itself. And he says so.

He says that on the holy day itself, as the people heard his words, they shook their fists at him. They were probably angry not only because he was criticizing their exhausting fast, but precisely because he was interrupting the beautiful chants the Levites were singing.

Yet in many synagogues, as Yom Kippur rolls around again this year, this passage of Isaiah will be chanted in a Hebrew most of the congregation does not understand, or muttered in an English that makes clear that the words are unimportant. This breaking of liturgy has for many become mere liturgy. As boring as the rest. Kafka's leopard has been tamed.

What can we do to un-tame the leopard, to let God off the leash of the liturgy?

Over the years, I have tried again and again to invent ways to read the passage in such a fashion, with "interruptions" from the real world, that it can shake people as it is supposed to do.

One year, I arranged to disrupt the liturgy, working with a fellow-congregant who had been working with the poor of Philadelphia. We chose headlines from the local paper: "Old man freezes to death on downtown street," "Post Office announces twenty jobs; streets lined with 300 jobless people," "Welfare Department reports mothers having to choose between food and medicine for their children."

Then I read aloud a few verse from Isaiah, and my accomplice interrupted with one of those headlines. People were outraged. ""Shush," they whispered, and then shouted when he would not stop.

So he stopped, and I read again from Isaiah. He interrupted again, and just as Isaiah reported 3,000 years ago, they shook their fists at him.

It took a few more repetitions before they got it and began to listen to the real prophetic passage: the one from the newspapers. Then we could talk about what to do.

Another year, I read the passage, "Strike off the handcuffs put on by wicked power!" and then read from descriptions of the use of torture as an act of policy by the U.S. government in Abu Ghraib.

Why did I make that issue central for Isaiah's vision? Because for the first time in history, the U.S. government had said that it was legitimate to use torture methods that the whole world had outlawed and that U.S. law forbade, as well. And perhaps even more sickening, the present U.S. government -- yes, now! -- is still sending prisoners to other countries to be tortured by means that our own officials find too disgusting for their own dirty hands.

And the present U.S. government -- yes, now! -- has decided there is no point in "looking backward" to indict former high officials for the crime of making torture public policy. As if we were ever to say about a strongly suspected murderer, "There's no point in looking backward. Let's look to the future instead," and decline to try him.

And this year? Millions disemployed. Not "unemployed," as if they had accidentally stubbed a toe on the way to work. Disemployed, by the decisions of those in Big Banking and in public office.

And Yom Kippur is rolling around again. Let us let God's leopard loose on Yom Kippur. May we in Isaiah's name let "subversive" prayer leap from the letters in the prayerbook.

And when Yom Kippur is over, let us bring its teachings into the letters, words, and actions of our lives.

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