What Makes a Poem a Prayer?

by Rabbi Ora

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Many prayers in our Shabbat services are taken from the Book of Psalms (in Hebrew, Tehillim) and are traditionally attributed to King David. Because we’ve received these poems as prayers, we automatically think of them as having a sacred resonance. But what alchemy transforms contemporary poetry into prayer?

Elliott batTzedek, a Philadelphia poet and liturgist, is the author of the alternate ‘Mourner’s Kaddish’ we read on Yom Kippur:

“So often am I lost,

yet through the pall, yet through the tarnish, show me the way back,
through my betrayals, my dismay, my heart’s leak, my mind’s sway,
eyes’ broken glow, groan of the soul—which convey all that isn’t real,
for every soul to These Hands careen. And let us say, amen.”

Read the rest of the poem here

Elliott reflects that “liturgy is a living project, as predictable and as unpredictable as the people that use it.” She also suggests that the physical, embodied act of reciting a poem (whether individually or communally) helps us to experience it as prayer. Quoting Edward Hirsch, Elliott writes:

 “‘When I recite a poem, I inhabit it, I bring the words off the page into my own mouth, my own body. I let its heartbeat pulse through me as embodied experience, as experience embedded in the sensuality of sounds. […] The secular can be made sacred through the body of the poem. I understand the relationship between the poet, the poem, and the reader not as a static entity but as a dynamic unfolding. An emerging sacramental event.’”

For more of Elliott’s transformative liturgy, take a look at her Tallit Blessings, the Arch/Welcome to Redemption, and Ahavah Rabbah/Gatherings.

Elliott batTzedek: “I’m a poet, critic, activist, teacher, gardener, a Jew of the Feminist, non-Zionist variety (there are more of us than you might think!), and a life-long collector of random interesting facts.”