Sometimes words aren't enough to capture the meaning of prayer


Allow me to introduce you to Rosie (not her real name). Rosie is a funny and engaging young woman whose favourite food is macaroni cheese. Interacting with Rosie can prove challenging as she has learning difficulties and is limited in her verbal communication. I have been working as a clinical psychologist with Rosie for the past four months and we have had to find ways to communicate non-verbally to overcome this language barrier.

The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) developed a theory of language in which he described "the symbolic order". He posited that a child enters, interacts and must find their way in a world of words or symbols whose meanings are socially constructed through language. Indeed, even before we are born, we are designated a place in the speech and thoughts of our parents.

We find ourselves the subject of parental aspirations, located within a particular culture and at a specific point in history; positions that are all defined by language. Lacan stated that it is the fate of us all to be caught "head to toe, in the language hammock that receives us and at the same time imprisons us"; language provides us the valuable means to make meaning but at the same time restricts us to the limited quantity/quality of meanings it contains.

From a Jewish perspective, the Hebrew language has great power, depth and use. It was used by God as the vehicle for Creation - "And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light" (Genesis 1:3). God spoke words to create the world rather than thinking or waving the wand of infinity.

Jewish thinkers consider Hebrew to be a language of essence; comprised of words that do not merely describe the form and function of an entity but portray its fundamental being (unlike Lacan who would state that language is a collection of socially constructed symbols).

The shofar is required to be bent to mirror a person bowed in prayer

Students of Hebrew are often struck by how a single three-letter root can be deployed in diverse words with a variety of surface meanings. However, a deeper consideration renders each of these words as a facet of an underlying concept contained within the root.

Moreover, as Jews we use language as a defining marker of our religious experiences (not just when yenta-ing on the telephone). We sanctify Shabbat with the words of kiddush said over a cup or wine, we get married with the statement of harei at while putting a ring on the forefinger. Just come to synagogue and witness Jews in prayer, immersed in a world of words that tumble forth from our mouths and prayerbooks. The pinnacle of Jewish prayer is the Standing Prayer (Amidah), not a moment of silent reflection, but a time of whispered words between us and our Maker.

But can language be a "hammock" in our religious lives? Are there times when our utterings are insufficient, seeming to lack a meaningful mode of connection?

Perhaps, like Rosie, we need to engage non-verbally.

On Rosh Hashanah we re-connect with God and with what is truly important in our lives. No matter how we may have strayed over the year, the Days of Awe are a time for return. Each morning of the preceding month and a hundred times on Rosh Hashanah itself we blow the ram's horn, the shofar.

We call out to God non-verbally, with a "still small sound" (Kings 1 19:12). What does this represent? It is the sound of our inner being that refuses to be constrained by language as it attempts to be immersed within the embrace of our parent. It is the primal unbridled outcry of our selfhood when stripped back from the symbolic order or constructions of language. It is our call to come home.

The Talmud gives this legalistic definition by linking the shofar and prayer. It states that a shofar is required to be bent so that its form should mirror a person bowed in prayer (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 26b). On Rosh Hashanah we are given a method to overcome our linguistic constrictions: with the shofar, Judaism's wordless prayer.

Some people, such as Rosie, are perpetually excluded from the language structures that we take for granted. They exist within this world of words but cannot take part in it. Since the 1980s therapists have been using an approach called "intensive interaction" to work with people with profound learning difficulties.

Under this model, the therapist joins the person in their non-verbal world rather than trying to engage them in a verbal one. The therapist will mirror the other person's actions until they gradually and collaboratively build a repertoire for pre-speech communication built on the person's idiosyncratic non-verbal movements and soundings. It is a programme that has had remarkable success.

Perhaps there is a part of us which is much more like Rosie than we imagine, a part that simply does not have the words to express our most earnest desires. On Rosh Hashanah we unite in our non-verbal humanity as we intensively interact with God via the blast of the shofar.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive