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Aleinu as Hongi

Sometime in the 1980s, I began experiencing spontaneous mudras. This Sanskrit word means a sacred gesture. I would be walking along somewhere and my body would need to bend, drop to one knee, raise my arms above my head with palms together, face to the sun. This was rather awkward. It happened in public only once, and I sort of bent a little and completed the move in my head.

The first time such an internal command moved me so was in a Friday night service in the Reform congregation I’d belonged to all my life. Reform Judaism came about in the mid-1800s in Germany, when Jews in that country, long used to what seemed to be equal footing with their non-Jewish neighbors, longed to cast off certain aspects of prayer which marked their worship as different from Lutheran practice. And so, among other traditional forms of Jewish prayer, the Reform movement abandoned swaying back and forth and side to side while praying.

Growing up in a Reform congregation with parents who had no love or understanding of their Orthodox roots, I had not experienced the movements I later heard called davvening, which really simply means praying, so closely were the prayers and the movements as one recited the prayers intertwined. I knew that when it came to the aleinu, we read aloud the prayerbook's words, "we bend our knees and bow our heads..." but I figured that like so much else , these words were metaphorical. One Yom Kippur, I was shocked and intrigued to see the rabbi actually lie down on the floor, face down, with his arms out wide, during this prayer. It seemed so intimate that I dared not ask and so never learned that what he did for the first time was in fact a traditional practice.

So one evening during services, we came to that prayer, and all of a sudden my body bent low at the waist and at the knees. I let this happen because it felt strongly like a sacred command. I realized then that the words were not metaphorical. It was clear to me that I was responding to an ancient prayer because my soul remembered that this is what I was supposed to do: that we face the ark and we say these words. It did not occur to me that the words describe the body's natural response to an overwhelming mandate.

I was relieved that no one asked me about it later in the oneg. the social hour following services

Fast forward to last week: as I was putting together the prayers for the February 12 siddur, I got to the aleinu and boom. As I started to copy the traditional words, I wondered: why do we ever feel that we need to bow, to bend, to sink onto the Earth? One reason of course, is shame. When we want to disappear. And I could have gone there, but it’s not what I was feeling. At that point in our service we would have just emerged from the beautiful healing prayer we love to use, an immersion in healing energy. We would, if we gave ourselves up to the rhythm of the flow, be feeling grateful and aware of the profoundly transformative nature inherent in laying ourselves open to divine intervention.

Furthermore, I had in my mind the memory of what we do on Yom Kippur, as my rabbi so long ago did: we place our foreheads on the Earth, or as close to it as we can get in a sanctuary. I have had two “aha!” experiences when touching another living being with my forehead. The first was during a nine week course in Peruvian spirituality, in which we lay face down on the Earth and poured our longing, our grief, our shame, our prayers for wholeness, our gratitude, into Pachamama. When I did it, I felt received and revived.

The second time was when I experimented with a friend in what I only knew to call an “Eskimo kiss”: touching noses. I didn’t know then that several cultures engage in this practice, known as “hongi” in Polynesia, where it conveys sacred respect. I was thrilled to discover this video , in which the Maori elder says, as her first sentence, "We believe in the oneness of everything that exists" -- the aleinu in a nutshell.

What I experienced when I touched noses with my friend had nothing to do with the feeling of one nose against the other. Even before our noses touched, my forehead began to throb deeply. I felt a sunrise expansion there that widened and engulfed my awareness. Even thinking about it now my third eye chakra throbs. Sharing the open gate into the infinite, that chakra’s dynamic, with another being, can, if we let it flow through us, bring us into ecstasy.

And so it came, and this is the version of the aleinu that I offered to my congregation:

"Calmed and hopeful, we here and now stand before the ark of all possibility, the infinite realm of possibility.

Gobsmacked at such power, at such responsibility, we fall to our trembling knees, and even so, we can barely remain upright, we are so overwhelemed by the power we feel coursing through our bodies.

We bend forward until our foreheads kiss our Mother, Shekhina Gaia, Pachamama, and we enter Gan Eden."

Once again I bow in gratitude to this congregation and especially to the nourishing wisdom of our rabbi, the luminous Irwin Keller, for such an opportunity to open and open and open to what our tradition, our imaginations and the Infinite can lead us to and through.

© Leiah Bowden 2021

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