Religious Imagination at Robinson’s Arch

Shalom! this was a short talk on religious imagination (it also relates to human rights theology) that I gave today at the Conservative Yeshiva Orientation at the Kotel. Any thoughts?


  • we’re about to begin a section of the prayers called “psukei dezimra” or verses of praise. this section evokes the beauty and majesty of the world in order to evoke our love of God – the creator of the world.
  • I think that an important part of the way this works, and the way prayer works altogether, involves developing our religious imaginations. our imagination is deeply tied to our emotions. and its through the combination of imagination and emotion that our prayer can really come alive.
  • so then an important question is – how can we develop our religious imaginations, and ignite our emotions, so that prayer comes alive? one way is through focusing on the power of words. words bring images and feelings to our minds. and these can animate our prayers, sort of like the way that a generator creates the electricity that animates all our computers and smart phones.
  • let’s take an example. in psalm 145 which falls in the middle of psukei dezimra, the one we usually call ashrei, words are used to describe God’s qualities. Here are four of them:
    • Hod – splendor
    • Malchut – sovereignty
    • Hesed – loving-kindness
    • Karov – intimately close
  • in order to feel the power of these words, they need to evoke powerful images and feelings inside you.
  • for example, right now, when I think of  hod – splendor – I think of the very place that we’re in. these grand and ancient stone walls seem to evoke something of the majesty and the mystery of the Temple that stood up there thousands of  years ago.
  • when I think of malchut, sovereignty or kingship, i think of the vision of the prophets for whom this city was home. they envisioned that the power of the divine presence in this spot – the temple in jerusalem – would rise up and flow forth onto the world, bringing justice for all humanity, freeing the slaves and protecting the weak and directing all people towards their higher selves.
  • and when I think of hesed, loving-kindness, I think of what the world might be like if the vision of the prophet’s came true, if the members of our species treated each like brothers and sisters and not like enemies.
  • and when I think of karov, I think of  how for thousands of years Jews, and Christians and Muslims, have come to this place to seek God – God who is the source of  Hod-splendor, and Hesed-loving-kindness and Malchut- sovereignty…they came here to seek the intimacy with God expressed by the word karov, and which gave their lives purpose and meaning. and I think of how I seek that intimacy, too, with the people that I love, and with the God that I serve.
  • those are some of the thoughts and feelings that these four words evoke in me. and since those thoughts and feelings are powerful for me, when I focus on them like I should, then my prayer comes alive. at those moments, its like the words of the prayer carry me long, I don’t have to work in order to say them, the words themselves do all the work.
  • now, in preparation for psukei dezimrah and reciting the ashrei yoshvei psalm, I’d like to invite you to explore the ideas and images that these words evoke in your religious imagination. so what I’ll do is to say each word, and then pause, and I suggest that you just let your imagination do what it wants. then, when you say ashrei later on, you can draw on some of those ideas and feelings if you want.
  • Hod – spendor
  • Malchut- sovereignty
  • Hesed-loving-kindness
  • Karov – intimately close

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