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Duty and Dependence

Becoming Religious at Harvard

By Spencer W. Glassman, Crimson Opinion Writer
Spencer W. Glassman ’23-’24, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. His column, “Becoming Religious at Harvard,” runs on alternating Wednesdays.

Every day I wake up at 6:50 and enjoy a short stroll along the river in the foggy and gray early morning. There is always a boy waiting for the school bus and a gaggle of scooters skirting across the bridge. As I turn onto Plympton Street, I prepare for the daily morning prayer service known as Shacharis.

In my first year at Harvard, I was fortunate to live in Canaday and have 9 a.m. class every day. Being a 30-second walk from class, I would get out of bed at about 8:55 and jump right into Latin.

When I returned from winter break my sophomore year, I began going to Shacharis at Hillel. The obvious benefit of having set times for prayer is that it gives structure to one’s day and allows one to meditate and process one’s thoughts to be best prepared for the rest of the day. Yet, the most profound reward is the constant enforcement that we live as members of communities, not primarily as individuals.

I could set up my own morning routine — yoga, reading, meditation — and have the same time to decompress and establish a rhythm for my days. So why obligate myself to this group prayer session when I could pick whatever I’d like in the morning and get the same result? A better way of putting it, why does Jewish law require that we pray in a group rather than alone?

It might seem that if we prayed on our own we would be able to better exercise our own style — approach God in the way that is most meaningful for each of us. It would prove more convenient, too: Everyone might have a better time or place to pray, adjusted to their own individual schedules, than those necessitated by centralizing services at the synagogue before dispersing to classes, dorms, or work.

But then again, that — the rewards and inconveniences of joint prayer — is exactly the point. We must pray in a group so that we understand our constant dependence upon and responsibility towards others. When my alarm goes off, I can’t hit my snooze button 10 times as I did Freshman year. From the moment I wake up, I am needed by others. My absence means that nine other people can’t read the Torah, or someone in mourning can’t say the prayer for their deceased loved ones. My entire day is imbued from the beginning with a sense of import, with the knowledge that what I do affects others, providing a constant reminder of my existence not as an atomic entity but as a part of a far greater structure.

The emphasis on community doesn’t end when I walk into the synagogue and ensure that enough people are there. Our interdependence is written into the texts of the most important prayers we say each day. The central part of this prayer service are the nineteen blessings which comprise the Shemoneh Esrei. These blessings do not ask for personal wealth or forgiveness but are general invocations. We ask God to make sure that the fields produce enough crops that there isn’t starvation, and we repent for our sins as a people not as individuals.

At college we are given the opportunity to find ourselves. The idea, just like a science experiment, is to take us away from our families and those upon whom we depend, and before we develop families that will depend on us, and see who we really are. But this attitude implies a deeply individualistic understanding of human beings, that in some way we exist without others.

But, if we want to have communities where there is deep mutual support and trust, then we can never treat ourselves as independent entities. We are all different and have something unique to offer, but our ultimate mission is to take that thing and bring it to others. The only way we can really integrate the idea of interdependence into our minds is through making unbreakable commitments to others.

This is not to say we should neglect ourselves. Our personal goals and improvement are necessary for us to be able to take care of others. There is still room in the Jewish prayer service to ask God for whatever we personally need. Nevertheless, the prevailing mantra in our minds must be that we are inextricably linked to all of our fellows, and that we must organize our days around realizing how much they give to us, and how much we are indebted to them.

Spencer W. Glassman ’23-’24, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. His column, “Becoming Religious at Harvard,” runs on alternating Wednesdays.

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