Book Review: God’s Prayer: The Sacred Task of Living

The focus of God’s Prayer: The Sacred Task of Living by Michael Kagan, is to inspire effective co-existence and collaborative care for the planet among members of three faiths: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. This slender volume packs a unique punch because of the author’s ability to weave, intelligently and respectfully, core metaphors, principles and teachings from the three Abrahamic faiths. At the same time, it reprimands and exhorts each equally to reframe perspectives and behavior toward the greatest good for all that lives. The material affords a novel stimulus for interfaith study and has a number of components that might be productively integrated into religious services within each faith. The raging tenor of the text renders it best utilized by selecting pieces for specific occasions.

More after the jump.
The author, Michael Kagan, is an interfaith peace activist, author of the Holistic Haggadah (Urim Publishing), entrepreneur and inventor. For example, he created strips for the food industry that highlight when a product’s expiration date is approaching. The introduction of this book explains how the text came to him in a stream of consciousness after meditative prayer. Kagan writes that he filled eight notebooks with rapidly penciled writing; we receive them in ninety-three pages of printed verse in the tone of the prophetic tradition.

Endorsed at the beginning of the volume by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of Jewish Renewal, Reverend Richard Cizik of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, and the Nazarene Sufi Sheikh Ghassan Manasra, Michael Kagan’s vision coalesces most clearly by drawing on a shared mystical metaphor — the Tree:

A triad of faith was formed,
the three strands intertwined.
From the trunk, three great branches spread
Roots deep in the heavens.
Sap flowing from above,
The light of my Prophets from below.
The Holy Tree restored,

A place for all to worship in its shade.

The text succinctly states the problem:

The branches of the Holy Tree are intertwined:
they fight each other for the light,
They compete for the juices of life,
They poison each other and crush each other…

The Courage to Vent Toxins and Voice Opportunity

God’s Prayer: The Sacred Task of Living engages in extensive and inspiring, equal-opportunity exhortation, using prophetic voice.  Here is a small sample regarding contemporary Muslims:

Followers of the Messenger,
I call upon you to heed this message.
Release the bound!
Free the enslaved
Make Jihad (Holy War) against unholy extremes
Temper yourselves, and put down the sword.
The infidels are no longer,
Only brothers and sisters remain.

The verse above shows how this tract takes ideas from triumphalist scriptural readings war and inter-group prejudice and turns them on their heads. When he addresses those who find their way to experiences of Divine awareness through Christianity, Michael Kagan, a pious Jew, also finds holy ways to enter into the sacred metaphors of Christian tradition:

How could you have erred?
The cross became the sword!
Didn’t you understand?
Didn’t you hear?
The sword should have become the cross!

Jews are addressed with equal honesty and somewhat more anguished frustration, in language both personal and harsh:

Now hear this:
you have become arrogant…

Power is corrupting you.
Out of the depths of darkness you have arisen,
But you are off.

You are no longer in your hearts,
You are no longer in your heads.
By the sword art thou ruling.
All that you have learned has passed like a cloud…

You are worshiping false gods…

The language of the verse evokes at the same time the exhortative prophetic tradition and the vernacular of the modern lament. A geshrei is not always an elegant combination.

Potentially Meaningful Applications

One can imagine a version of this book with parallel translations beyond the English and German versions that are now available. This might be a best means to advance use of this work – particularly if were available in French, Arabic and Hebrew. The text lets us skip over one of the most awkward steps of interfaith dialogue by setting out on the table a number of each group’s foibles and dreadful acts; we can then get on with the hard work of confronting assumptions, projections, fears and dogmas. Hebrew and Arabic parallel translations would also further the mystical possibilities of the text.

Further, by way of applications, many years ago I was asked by Rabbi Miriam Senturia, then a member of Philadelphia’s Dorshei Derekh congregation, for an idea of how to bring women’s ways into the weekly practice of chanting the haftorah — chapters from the Prophets at Sabbath morning services. My idea was to commission capable women to create new Haftarot reflecting contemporary, inclusive Jewish values, to be rotated into the sacred sequence. Many such Haftarot were created, whether designed for chanting and or reading in Hebrew or one’s native language. God’s Prayer: The Sacred Task of Living would fit naturally into such a genre.

Speaking of the Feminine

A rather sudden shift of focus comes in the text’s expression of high hopes for the balancing potential of the Divine Feminine. It proclaims this in a full chapter that declares:

“For the time has come for the moon to shine,
for the Queen to arrive, for the sisters to unite,
for the healing to begin.”

Herein men are termed “Brothers of Blood,” while women are deemed “Daughters of Light.” Clearly, the text provokes much discussion. While the balancing value of fully empowered women and welcoming of the Divine Feminine in the text are most appreciated, the expectation of these being distinctly healing forces seems more grounded in early feminist idealism than current reality. Let’s be honest, traditions and energies derived from Shechinah, Mary and Rachel, among other maternal figures, fuel the interpretive fires of all camps. The aggressions among and between women in communities are very real. Some women are like niche fish, which dart out to block anyone approaching their turf; others like to help women climb up beside them, to create a menorah of talent and inclusive possibilities. It is a thin line between being hopeful that restoring women to equal roles in society can make a huge positive difference and a Pollyanna vision.

The meta-vision in God’s Prayer: The Sacred Task of Living, does not account for the different stages of civilizational development in sovereign states and cultural pockets worldwide. Every generation bears the capacity for fundamentalist flares that create regions, minds and hearts where modernity doesn’t enter. Terrorist passions are then concentrated, exported, and cycles of persecution travel throughout all time. The text provokes questions: Are these dynamics endemic to the human condition? How much power do we have? Can a text like this, if well disseminated, help us to buy enough time for the “evolution of the possible human,” to borrow a phrase from Jean Houston?

New Age or Real Experience: What Is a Channeled Text?

The experience of “automatic writing,” is well-documented in Jewish tradition and many others. This is where we feel the text has been dictated to us from beyond our current dimension of being. That inner voice is known as a maggid or “teller.” An extended discussion of this form of maggid, inner “storyteller,” is described by several Kabbalists and can be found in comments by Hayyim Vital and Luzzatto’s disciple Yekutiel Gordon regarding Yosef Karo. Similar experiences are reported in Hassidic and Jewish Renewal communities today. Even I have had this happen in my own writing. Things happen that we cannot explain.

In truth, God has gotten quite a bit more awesome in the 21st Century where multiverses and trillions of light years are within sight. God’s Prayer: The Sacred Task of Living reads less like a God’s-eye perspective, than a resonance of Michael Kagan’s soul. It echoes our own lament, or crie de coeur, at yet another apocalyptic downturn in the global capacity for mitzvah-centered, rather than self-interest based, living.

The mitzvah primarily fulfilled by God’s Prayer is that of yirah l’tatah, action emerging from the awe and fearsomeness of impending consequences. Kagan also directs us to the inspirational mitzvah of yirah l’malah, the possibilities that derive from appreciating God through the lens of transcendent awe:

This is a time for a new song,
A new breath.
Look around and see.
Is it not clear?
A new gate has opened.
It beckons you in.

What’s Missing?

Most humans realize that we can’t really know the Mind of the Big Picture (so to speak); that form of humility is really not evident in this work. The seemingly prophetic stance of the language may leave some readers yearning for the leavening effect of the mystic’s intoxication with God’s love which appears only on the last few pages. Further, this is not a text that comes from a transcendent respect for the destructive and constructive inherent forces of creation. It is not an expression of “tzuri v’lo avlata bo-You are my rock and in It [God] nothing is out of alignment.” It does not ride the roller-coaster of human nature that the Psalmists do so well – appreciation of God as “seter li – my hiding place,” and, as the Adon Olam conveys both intimately with “b’yado afkid rukhi-Into Its hand I entrust my soul” and cosmically: “v’acharei kikhlot hakol, l’vado yimlokh norah, v’hu haya, v’hu hoveh, v’hu yikhyeh v’tifarah-after the end of it all-on Its own It will govern awesomely, It was, It is, It will be glorious.” Missing is the Kabbalists’ Godsense of “maayan raz-the Wellspring of Mystery.” God’s Prayer is primarily a holy rant, railing against the misappropriation of religious values and an attempt to set a healthier course.

God’s Prayer is also not a prayer. We know that sustainable change requires the language of support and not exhortative accusation – in either direction. Humanity doesn’t get a chance to answer back in the text “Dear God, this amygdala that provides protective aggression is excessive – can’t we evolve more quickly towards coexistence?!”

In Conclusion

Like the Prophets in their attachment to earth, land and embodied experience, in God’s Prayer: The Sacred Task of Living, Michael Kagan gives full voice to the fears the majority of our souls are screaming, while painting the highest hopes of many into a unified, multi-faith expression. Lu y’hi, may it be so, bimheyrah v’yameynu, quickly and in our time.


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