Rabbi Aryeh Ben David On God, Prayer And The Good Life

He wrote The Godfile: 10 Approaches to Personalizing Prayer (a book I read twice in a week instead of praying at shul).

We did this interview via email:

LF: What do you mean by this: "Everything that is true (vertically) is also true like this (horizontally)?"

Rabbi: What I meant was that our relationship with Gd (vertical) tends to reflect our relationships with people (horizontal). I don’t have empirical proof for this, it’s something that I have noticed about people, about myself, and simply makes sense to me. Our relationship with Gd is, after all, a relationship. One reason that I kept repeating it in the book was to drive home the awareness that if one relates completely differently to Gd, if one becomes someone else for this relationship, then it seems to me there is something false there, something not coherent with the rest of the person’s life. The goal is not to pray – the goal is to become a ‘prayerful personality,’ to live my prayer, to live my spiritual relationship with Gd. Rav Adin Steinsalz once asked his students in yeshiva “how do you know if you’re becoming more spiritual? What is the test?” He answered – “simply ask your wife if you’re becoming a nicer husband.” I love that answer. The real test is how I live my spirituality.

LF: What percentage of your davening time do you feel any connection to G-d?

Rabbi: On my bad days – brief moments. On my good days – most of davenning. Shabbat davenning is more difficult because it is much longer. I always include time for personal prayer in the davenning, hopefully something that I have never said before, so during that time there is a very close connection. There are a lot of words in the siddur, sometimes several words jump out to me and I just stay with them for as long as I want, then skip to catch up to the community davenning.

LF: What does it mean to have a relationship with G-d? Could you give me something concrete here?

Rabbi: I don’t know if this is concrete – but what comes to me is simply experiencing a connection to something beyond the physical. Something beyond this time and this place, this reality, a meta-physical reality. I think that certain experiences in my life – incredible coincidences, moments that I felt that this could not be happening by chance, opened me up to being aware of Gd’s presence more often. Living in Israel also has helped me.

LF: How important is it to have a relationship with G-d? Why? So long as one observes the commandments, who cares if one has a relationship with G-d? Better to keep the mitzvot and forget about G-d right than remember G-d and forget the mitzvot?

Rabbi: Personally – I didn’t have a relationship with Gd for many of my years living that I was keeping the mitzvoth and don’t think that I was a bad person. Not at all. But in Judaism it is simply difficult to get away from Gd. Gd is all over the Torah, the holidays, the rituals, etc. Once during college I led a seder and made the demand that any place there is an allusion to Gd we skip. We had a 12 minute seder. I would say that one of the unique things about Judaism is that it brings me to have a relationship with Gd, and then to bring this relationship into my life, with other people, and ideally we would create a people that is living in the Image of Gd. The amazing thing about Moses was not that he climbed the mountain, but that he came back down – and brought the experience to the people, who then should bring it to the world. Not by proselytizing, but by example.

LF: Can you give a portrait of the type of person who yearns for a relationship with G-d? Does it mean they are a bit cracked?

Rabbi: I would not say cracked (though there may be crackpots amongst us), but torn. The opponents of Rav Kook referred to him as a “torn soul.” He replied – “of course I am torn, how can anyone not be torn?!” Torn insofar as they are yearning for something more, torn between the physical and metaphysical realities.

LF: What do you think of the aphorism that most people relate to G-d as they relate to their father?

Rabbi: I think that there is a lot to this. But at a certain point in our lives we can choose to change. People leave home both literally and spiritually.

LF: What should one do if one has obscene thoughts during prayer?

Rabbi: Don’t sweat it; don’t waste time feeling guilty about it. It’s hard to stay focused and our minds are always wandering. Perhaps use it as an opportunity to reflect on what is going on, why it happened. Try to bring one’s attention back to prayer.

LF: What does it do to your life to publish a book on prayer?

Rabbi: The process of writing the book helped me because I spent a lot of time thinking, reflecting on the subject, which helped me to personalize the ideas. I am a work in progress. I was continually growing in my relationship with Gd while writing the book, so I needed to continually ‘update’ it. If I were to write the book today it would be different.

LF: A lot of people I know (including me!) feel 100x more spiritual watching Lord of the Rings or listening to their favorite pop song than praying in shul. What do you think of this?

Rabbi: I love the Lord of the Rings and have felt more spiritual doing many things other than shul. Shul serves many purposes, most of them social and communal. In Hebrew it is referred to as a House of Gathering, rather than a House of Prayer. It should certainly never become a substitute for having a spiritual relationship for all of those other moments in our lives. When it works, which may not be that often, it can offer a unique opportunity to connect to Gd. But I would certainly recommend many other things to develop the relationship – including time in nature, meditation, and open, quality conversations.

LF: One problem I have with prayer is if I keep saying these words about fearing G-d and loving G-d and loving Torah etc, I might actually get these qualities and then I’d have to change my life.

Rabbi: I don’t know you well enough to know if this is serious, tongue-in-cheek, both, or what. But guessing that there is some truth to it – I’ll say that for me this has been and often still is a huge issue. Living a spiritual life includes the perspective that while I have free will and should make thoughtful mature decision, I am not completely in charge. I have been put in this world for some reason and purpose that I am invited to discover. I am called to bring something unique into the world, to help heal it. This is the inner voice that Rav Kook talks about. I have both heard it and, on occasion, put it on ‘call waiting’, because of personal fears and insecurities.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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