A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Bowing and Tebowing

Tonight I become the 3,065,449th blogger to address the Tim Tebow/prayer phenomenon. A Jewish perspective here, a Christian evangelical perspective here, a non-evangelical Conservative-cum-Democrat Christian perspective here, a mocking (or maybe just-good-fun?) website here.

What is it about the prayer pose of this Denver Broncos QB that is driving everyone so crazy? Why do we care?

I'm a praying person, so I shouldn't be bothered by these public prayers, should I? I should get it, I should sympathize in the spirit of ecumenism, etcetera, etcetera. But it just...bugs me. There's something so performative about his prayer. "Oh, don't mind me, while I quietly and humbly offer a prayer to the creator of the universe in a private moment in front of millions of television viewers and many thousands of cheering fans."

I think that, whether it reflects what is in Tebow's heart or not, a healthy suspicion of his authenticity is at work here. Yeah, yeah, maybe we shouldn't judge that, but, you know what? When you get down on one knee in front of millions of people who are watching you get down on one knee....you're inviting that.

Tim Tebow is no Jew, that's for sure. But a Talmudic discussion about prayer raises some of the issues at issue here. In discussion bowing in Jewish prayer, the Talmud offers a pretty tightly controlled prescription for when to do it. What's the big deal? Why not just bow when you want? Medieval commentators thought that it had to do with humility. A 13th century Spanish Rabbi wrote "Submissiveness...in an inappropriate place is arrogance because he imagines he is a righteous person." (Uri Ehrlich, The Non Verbal Language of Prayer, p 62).

In the Jewish tradition the gesture of bowing, a limited but important part of prayer's choreography, is , in part, a non-verbal expression of humility. As Rav Kook taught, true humility is not an act of groveling submission, but a step towards profound spiritual growth. A kind of ego-emptying that brings one toward a deeper reality beyond self.

An act of humility performed in front of millions of people - is that humility? I guess only Tim Tebow can know that. A bow, properly performed with the appropriate kavanah, or inward focus and understanding, expresses and even creates, an inner sense of the pray-ers reality in the face of the Divine. When the act is so publicly demonstrated by a person who has had millions cheering for him and watching him for hours, the result is a kind of humbled ostentatiousness.

Maybe if the act wasn't so resonant with the arrogant and empty piety of the political world in this moment of our nation's history, it wouldn't be so bothersome. But Tebow's lowering himself reminds us a bit too much of candidates genuflecting before the Christian electorate to win their sympathies. So, the spectacle of candidates with decidedly irreligious pasts tripping over one another in heart-wrenching expressions of pained piety in order to win votes - well, let's just say it doesn't inspire one to remember the highest virtues of human beings. For sure, these candidates may be real-live Christians on the inside and out.

But the performative nature of it not only raises questions about its religious meaning, it also makes life uncomfortable for religious minorities, who might wonder whether a candidate leading an evangelical prayer rally for 30,000 Christians might always protect their interests.

But wouldn't it be funny to see the Jewish Tebow, davvening on the 50 yard line, tzitzit flying? I'd forgive him.

Tebow praying: Louis Lopez/Cal Sport Media/ZUMAPRESS.com; Rick Perry praying from deathandtaxes.com

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