The Conspiracy

Religion’s Language


I see religion (specifically Judaism) as being a specific embodiment of a set of central tenets, expressed in a subjective sense. Just like people list their most fundamental beliefs in their own language, so to is this personal religiosity is transmitted. In continuing with the theme of my last post, I will use a single example to highlight how this point recently became clear for me.

I approach every new experience in my life by looking at it in two ways. First, I have spent my entire life with Judaism being a core component, and have witnessed a fairly wide range of Jewish practices, from belonging to a Renewal synagogue to attending an orthodox yeshiva for high school. As such, I am fairly familiar with Jewish tradition (though each time I return to the texts I realize just how much more there is to study!), and I also have a host of memories tied to specific Jewish traditions, as one would expect growing up in a Jewish home. Second, I have spent the last few years almost exclusively studying Western analytic philosophy, which has profoundly shaped the way I think. I identify with what I have learned to a large extent, and have also become an avid reader of current events, politics, etc.

With that brief background, I would like to examine the modeh ani, the prayer traditionally said right when one wakes up, thanking Hashem that one is still alive after falling asleep the night before. I will use it as an example of the subjectivity of religious language. Growing up at the end of the 20th century, I never really had much of a connection with the modeh ani prayer, as it was never much of a surprise to me, once I even thought about it at all, that I woke up each day after going to sleep the night before. It is clear that the creator of the prayer had a different relationship to the fears of nightfall and sleep than I did, but for the most part the prayer’s original meaning was just too far removed for me.

It was, that is, until I found a modern version of the same prayer. I was talking to a friend, and I mentioned how extremely thankful I was for all the privilege that I am blessed with, and that the more often I remember that, the better. It hit me then that what I had just said was my own, 2010 version of modeh ani. The language of thanking a divine being for not losing my soul during the course of my sleep overnight is not meaningful for me, but the idea of constantly reminding myself that I am blessed to have the opportunity to explore my Jewish identity in Israel for a semester (as an example) is extremely meaningful for me.

Benjamin Barer is studying at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, one of Masa Israel’s 180 programs.
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  1. The Meaning Behind Words « WhatIBelieveIn - January 19, 2011

    [...] These two quotes actually speak to a similar point, namely ve’ahavta le’reacha kamocha (Vayikra/Lev.19:18) [See also the article by R’ Donniel Hartman which I will post shortly].  However, the contexts, and the words used in those contexts, can be very off-putting to those who do not share the specific cultural backgrounds necessary to grasp the meaning immediately.  These examples both strike me as clearly saying similar things, but I think that is largely because I identify strongly with both Judaism and with the political left.  For many, however, especially the second quote can seem jarring and irrelevant to a modern world (for another example of traditional Jewish language being re-interpreted to fit my own context, see this New Voices post). [...]

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