My current night-time read is To Pray as a Jew by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin. I have written of him before, and have learned a lot from another one of his books, the simply named, To Be a Jew. This current book truly breaks down the Siddur from an Orthodox point of view, and I find it fascinating and educational to read the perspective of someone so committed to halacha. Observing Judaism from a more Reform frame of reference, I might not be engaging in the approximately 100 mitzvot that are called for each day, but the essence of Judaism always seems to ring true, no matter how one exactly decides to observe.
I was compelled to share with you while reading Donin’s section on the Elohai Neshamah, or the blessing that one recites upon awakening. This blessing begins with the translated phrase, “O my God, the soul that Thou placed within me is pure;” The sages, when reflecting upon the Elohai Neshamah attached themselves to this line, and therein found a fundamental theological difference between Judaism and Christianity.
I do want to make it exceedingly clear that if you are a person of the Christian faith, it is absolutely safe to read on, and I do not think you will be left seething. Sometimes I wish to point out the differences that make our religions (all religions) so unique, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with comparing and contrasting.
Judaism begins with the idea that we are born with a pure soul. In fact, some rabbis and sages believe(d) that when we sleep, we are actually one-sixtieth dead, and that every morning God breathes life back into our souls. That thought, along with my cup of coffee, will certainly help to make mornings more refreshing! Christianity, of course, has the idea of original sin. I am not an expert, but this (correct me if I am wrong) is the idea that the original sin was committed in the Garden of Eden, and eventually Jesus died for all of the sins of mankind. So, when people ask what the differences are between Judaism and Christianity, it is not just “the whole Jesus thing,” Although he still has a role in this. Jews seem to believe the soul is born pure, while Christianity posits that we are all born of sin.
My values certainly align with the notion that we are born pure. I remember a previous post where I quoted Anne Frank, of blessed memory, and her belief in the fact that people are innately good, no matter what evils their souls may have been layered with while acting upon others. When studying classical voice and singing, I had a gregarious teacher who told me something I won’t ever forget. He entreated me to listen to a baby cry. “When a baby cries” he said, “there is no pretense, no put-ons, They vocalize with reckless abandon. Find your baby voice.” We went on to have an intense discussion regarding how, over time, we add layers of expectation, stress, anxiety, and other worldly loads onto our bodies, and of course, our voices. One of the challenges of singing is not to sing, but to remove the “bad habits.” The poor posture that started when someone made fun of your voice in high school, or the deeper-than-normal tone that one took on when someone made a snide remark about masculinity. We must peel away the layers of earthly troubles to find our baby voices.
Is our soul not the same as our voice? I believe that our souls are born pure, and the world happens to them. Every trauma and stressor, every frantic phone call, missed deadline, sick child, late homework, death of a loved one etc. All of this takes a toll on the soul. The involvement in mitzvot, observance of Shabbat, and practice of Judaism in general is something that I use to attempt to wash away some of the layers that the world piles on top of a pure essence.
Next time you are able, listen to that baby cry. It is actually remarkably free and clear. Cannot our souls be the same way? I do believe that pure souls live inside of all of us, and I hope you all can find your baby voice in one way or another as we journey through life together, no matter our religions or particular beliefs, and how we choose to express them.