God’s Prayer: a Review of an amazing book by Michael Kagan
Hearing God’s Prayer—Inside and Outside of Religion
a review of God’s Prayer by Michael Kagan, by Ya’qub ibn Yusuf
God’s Prayer is a collection of messages which the author, Michael Kagan, experienced receiving from God. We might call it a book of contemporary prophecy. It begins with a call to all human beings to stop abusing one another as well as the planet which supports us. It proceeds with particular messages for the Jewish, Christian and Islamic communities: each one is seen as having a mission to fulfill which requires our going beyond our current pre-occupation with ourselves. The book goes on to address the significance of Jerusalem and the times in which we live, and the deeper implications of healing ourselves and the earth. It concludes with a message about the relationship between men and women, and the need for women to step into positions of leadership at this time. These are presented as God’s “prayers” addressed to us: that we put our house in order and restore the earth, before it is too late.
I expect that many readers of Tikkun will resonate with the messages in this book, although not everyone will be comfortable with the form in which they are delivered. Many of us relate to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel conveying the message of the Hebrew Prophets in our generation—that God cares passionately about us, and therefore cares about our making a just and compassionate world. Increasingly we see that ecological concerns go along with this more traditional social agenda: it is all about “tikkun olam,” restoring our relationship with the greater whole. But Rabbi Heschel quoted the Prophets of old—he did not claim to receive original messages directly from God. In this sense Michael Kagan’s book has more of an affinity with “New Age” books such as Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch. Yet in the “New Age” it is generally taken for granted that while spirituality is essential, religion is now passé. I find that the messages in God’s Prayer actually serve to bridge the biblical Prophets with the times in which we live. The good news is that this vision is inclusive—it addresses us all as human beings while acknowledging that the Jewish, Christian and Islamic communities each have important role to play. The bad news is that like in the earlier Prophetic literature, we come in for some very heavy criticism!
Michael Kagan is not the sort of fellow one would ordinarily think of as a modern-day Prophet. I have known him for many years here in Jerusalem as a teacher of “Holistic Judaism”—showing people how to bring more of their own souls into their religious lives. His wife, Ruth Gan Kagan, is the Jewish Renewal rabbi of my congregation, Nava Tehila. Professionally, Michael works in the field of science, developing ecologically appropriate innovations. Originally from England, he is an intelligent, easy-going guy with a warm smile…
But it seems that Michael has had the good and/or bad fortune to be picked up as an instrument of the Voice of God. I take at face value the explanation he gives in the Introduction to his book. An observant Jew, Michael was getting ready to daven at home one morning. His wife was out of town, his children were already at school, and he had just put on his talit and tefillin when he heard “the Voice” asking him if he was ready. “Ready for what?” He said he was ready to pray… but the Voice instructed him to write! Michael says that what came to mind was the story of Samuel the Prophet. But he did not respond by saying “Here I am,” nor by asking who it was addressing him? He proceeded to write… and in the next three days he filled eight children’s notebooks he had lying around the house.
Michael doesn’t dwell on the question of whether these messages came directly from God, or from an angel, or his own higher Self… or what difference, if any, there might be? But he states modestly and clearly that his book “is an inspired text, rather than a creative output of my own labor.” After he transcribed it onto the computer he began wondering what to call it. He describes how at that point “a sense of the Divine came over me—He/She was praying! He/She was praying that we hear this message, and change our ways in time. This is God’s Prayer.”
Some other titles that Michael considered are God’s Message, You Have Been Warned and God Really Loves Us. Each, in its way, conveys the spirit of the book. The thing which may disturb many of us about this book—and which may attract and intrigue us as well—is the question of divine authority. I mean, if we accept that this book comes from God, what does this imply? Whether we are religious or not, we are likely to have defenses against claims coming from outside our own belief system. But if we accept that the Scriptures in some sense express the Voice of God, wouldn’t we expect God to speak up today, to clarify and renew the messages that have already been given? Can we picture God doing so? I, for one, find it difficult to picture God not doing so! I have often wondered why God doesn’t do more of this in our own times?!
Yet it’s not an easy thing to take upon oneself speaking as a Prophet. I understand from Michael that he put off trying to have this book published for seven years. When it finally came out in English (it was first published in a German translation) the publisher, Gaon Press, described it on the back-cover as a book of “prayer/poetry, modern day psalms.” It was a natural mistake. Gaon also published a book Michael Kagan edited, comprised of traditional Jewish prayers and meditations translated by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and some of his original poems. Indeed, when I studied with him some forty years ago, it was Reb Zalman who first made me aware that there is room in the Jewish tradition for a priestly approach of blessing everyone, alongside the more demanding prophetic approach. But this particular book is clearly prophetic. So I complained to Michael, and he finally got Gaon Press to agree to release a new edition in which this book is described as “contemporary prophecy.”
Maybe we need to distinguish between hearing the Word of God and making exclusive claims. I would suggest we remember that in the Jewish tradition we speak of the Hebrew “Prophets” in the plural. The message of Jesus is rooted in the messages of Prophets who came before, and in the Quran the Prophet Muhammad openly acknowledges that this new message “in the Arabic language” is a “confirmation” of the messages of the Prophets who had come before. I would propose that the question with any spiritual book, is does it allow us to hear the expression of the Spirit in a way which will actually make a difference in our lives? It is a familiar question to me: I am the proprietor of Jerusalem’s spiritual bookstore, Olam Qatan. So I deal with matching up people with the spiritual literature appropriate to them in my day-to-day life.
What exactly does this book say? The first chapter of the book is addressed to the “Children of Adamah.” The Hebrew term for human beings is banai adam, which means “children of Adam.” By saying instead children of adamah, “earth,” the point is made that we all belong to the earth. This chapter expresses God’s grief for humanity as we continue to abuse one another, along with our physical environment… which may ultimately lead to our own destruction. Yet we are told that if humanity destroys itself, the other species will continue:
Children of Adamah, know this:
If you disappear off the face of the planet
no one will grieve for you.
The birds will sing free,
the forests will grow back,
the seas will be renewed…
But I will cry.
You are my partners.
I love you.
If you fail, I fail.
But the world will go on.
We are then urged to “Turn” and “Choose Life”—familiar Jewish concepts which are certainly applicable to all of humanity. In a sense, the “worst case scenario” that is described here is less bad than what I might imagine. The understanding is that we are not about to destroy all life on earth in a thermonuclear war… or even all of animal life. But there is a real danger that with our technology and our pollution, along with our exploitation of one another (the implicit link between the two is taken for granted), we may destroy the human race. God declares that “I will not fight back. But I will grieve for you, as I grieve for you now.”
Who is the God who is speaking to us here? We might say that is the God of human beings, that aspect of God which is concerned with our growth and development. But why should the Creator of the universe be especially concerned about human survival? Many other species on earth have become extinct… even in the course of our own lifetime. My own understanding is that the Creator of the universe wants to encounter the creation and be reflected in the mirror that is the human being. As humans we have the capacity of reflecting the mineral and vegetable and animal realms, the human and angelic realms of experience… all the way back to the Divine. I am familiar with this idea from Sufi literature, and have found it hinted at in Jewish teachings as well. We certainly have a lot to learn in order to be able to fulfill our destiny! The need for humankind to fulfill a shamanic/mystical role as the custodians of God’s Creation is not made explicit in the messages Michael received, and this is one thing that I found it missing in this book. On the other hand, I find it at least hinted at in the following lines:
I have invested so much in you.
I have parented you more than any other creature.
You are so frail, and you have so much potential.
My Spirit is strong in you.
We have challenged each other and sparred with each other.
But you have forgotten your contract, you have forgotten your role.
You are my partner, but I am your God.
This theme of the human “contract” or covenant with God is emphasized in each of the three religions (although the Quran insists that Allah has no “partners”). The task of each of the communities in fulfilling a specific role is pursued in the coming chapters. A larger view containing them all is expressed in a later chapter, “The Body Whole”: it is said that “as a body has organs” so each of these communities “are as organs, vital to the body’s vitality.” Within each of these organs, “each person is as a cell.” And yet, while everyone is different, “each person has identical spirit.”
Let’s go back to the second chapter, which is dedicated to “Children of Israel” and which is the longest chapter in the book. I suppose the space devoted to it makes sense, given the complexity of Jewish history and religion, its being the ground from which the other two Abrahamic religions spring… and also given the fact that Michael, the channel for these messages, is himself a practicing Jew:
O My children, My first born,
you awoke to Me first…
I have been with you through the fires, and the beatings,
through the narrow places…
You have survived… you have practiced well,
you have made it through.
But it is not over yet.
Not only the Jewish People, but the Land of Israel is emphasized in this chapter: “Your land is central. Your land is the bridge. Your land is the key.” The return to the Land puts the People of Israel on the stage:
O My faithful children,
Know that My commandments have brought you here,
but now even they can’t help.
You have grown and matured, you must not regress.
It is your common past and your destiny that must bring you together now….
You hold a key, you must use it wisely….
It is in your hands now.
Be strong, be united, be wise, be mindful.
The point is made that continuing to focus on the commandments, the mitzvot, is no longer sufficient. What is it then that God expects of the People of Israel?
Be courageous and strong of heart.
The hardest is yet to come…
The hardest is to remember why you are here.
I have appointed you to be the middle.
For a people of the middle way, you shall be.
A priesthood. A holy center—
a center of prayer, a center of blessing, a center of peace.
This point surprised me. I know that in the Quran, God says to the community of the Prophet Muhammad “I made you a middle people.” The Fatiha, the central prayer of Islam, asks for guidance in going on “the straight way” as distinct from those who incur God’s wrath and those who go astray. This is sometimes interpreted by Muslims as steering a middle course between the emphasis on too many rules and customs in Judaism (which most Jews don’t keep!), and the tendency in Christianity to make an idol of Jesus (or, I might add, to make idols of particular theological formulations and beliefs). Some of us may be more familiar with the Buddha’s idea of following the “middle way,” steering a middle course between being overly ascetic and being self-indulgent. At any rate, I was surprised to find this being related as the mission of Israel… although it does say in the Quran “compete with one another in the Way of God!”
Yet on further reflection, it makes sense to me that Israel has a role to fulfill at the crossroads between East and West. This has been reflected, in recent years, in the blossoming East-West music scene that’s been developing here in Israel (and significantly also in Turkey, which like Israel is located on the West Coast of Asia). As custodians of the land, it seems to me that the Jewish people are doing a better job than Muslims and Christians did in the past—in making sure that the Holy Land is a place where people of all faiths can make pilgrimage, pray in their own way and meet one another in peace.
There is a beautiful description in this chapter of how the People of Israel have renewed their love affair with the Land, after being forced to leave her long ago. This is then followed by a great deal of criticism of the abuse the Land. The following passage touches upon over-development, the effects of war, and the difficult plight of the Arabs within Israel:
Her breasts have been leveled, her skin has been pit-holed with shells.
Those that kept her company while you were away have been cursed.
At the same time, the Children of Israel are warned against over-idealizing the Land:
The Land is here so that you can come back and fulfill the mission.
You are not back to save the Land.
Who told you that?
You think the Land needs you…
the pollution, the trash, the wickedness?
It is not only the Land, but the Sabbath that is emphasized:
O My battered and humiliated children,
You are so aggressive!
But now is the time for humility and love.
You live for Shabbat…
O holy people, the time has come to be the Shabbat.
As for the study of Torah:
You search for My words, but you have forgotten the Speaker.
You search for the clues, but they are right under your nose.
Are you blind? Has the study of My Torah turned you short-sighted?
Does it not say, “Come to Me with all your hearts?”
I do not feel your love.
Do you think I need your love? I need you to love!
Do you think I need your sacrifices? I need you!
I need you to give to the world. I need you to be there for others.
Do you think I take pleasure in your nepotism?
Don’t you understand? It’s not about you!
The whole world is My children…
Do you think that I plan another House? Who told you?
…Take a measuring stick and measure the size of your hearts.
How big are they? How wide?
Are the gates open or are they tightly shut?
The healing waters will flow from your hearts,
they will turn the dead into life,
they will water the lands and heal the sick.
You must pour forth in prayer, in song, and in deeds,
in My name.
God concludes the message to Israel by saying:
You have grown and matured. You have faced the worst, and survived.
Now you must forever throw away the toys of your childhood,
the tools of survival, and be there for Me.
Otherwise, what was it all for?
Anyone who has tried to cross a busy intersection in Israel can attest to the level of aggression that has become part of daily life! It seems that God is saying that the concern with Torah and Mitzvot which sustained the Jewish People… is no longer meant to be an end in itself. Certainly it is not time to dream of restoring animal sacrifices to the Temple Mount! The time has come to live in love and make God a reality in our lives—whatever that may mean in terms of our religious behavior.
Ever since I moved to Israel from North America in 1990, I have been struck by the enormity of the gap in this country between secular and religious Jews. Many religious Jews are fixated on religion, while many secular ones are allergic to it! Yet since then various study centers and congregations have appeared here in Israel where non-religious and open-minded-religious Jews can pray together and seek for new meaning in Jewish tradition. Looking beyond Judaism, it may be that Israeli interest in Islamic Sufism and in the historical Jesus has something to contribute to the wider world.
The implications of the many of the remarks addressed to the “Children of Israel” are not immediately obvious, and they invite further reflection. But then the search for meaning is a common Jewish obsession… and this may be a good way of engaging Jewish minds and hearts! When the focus switches to the “Faithful of Jesus” the message is more direct. Jesus is compared to Isaac, who willingly sacrificed himself:
But this time I did not withdraw the blade.
You died so that others might live in My Name.
You are precious to Me, My Son of sons.
You taught the Torah of Love,
you healed the sick and spread compassion.
You freed the bound and lit up the darkness.
You watered the dry law with tears of the heart…
You died according to your own message,
the message that I breathed into you.
We see here that Christian doctrine is upheld in two ways: there is an acknowledgement of the redemptive power of the death of Jesus, and Jesus is affectionately called God’s “Son of sons.” Yet in the passage which follows, the exclusive identification of Jesus as the “Son of God” is clearly denied. God proceeds by saying:
I am the Lord of heaven and earth.
I am the breath.
I am the flesh and I am the soul.
I am the Father and I am the Mother.
I am the Son and I am the Daughter.
In this mention of “the Daughter,” we have a foreshadowing of the feminist message that emerges later in the book. As for the role of the Faithful of Jesus, God points out that the message Jesus brought —of love—too often gets lost in the popular Christian obsession with saving one’s soul, and saving the souls of one’s neighbors:
What have you done, you foolish people?
You succeeded, but you have failed…
Oy! The earth cries out in pain.
The blood of innocents, so many,
reaches to the very Gates of Heaven….
You are My Children, My servants.
I sent you My Beloved One
but you still refuse to change your ways.
You kneel, but you are haughty.
You pray but for yourselves…
I am the Lord your God…
It is I who read your thoughts and feel your hearts!
Save My Creation, not your souls!
The shortest chapter in the book is the next one, which is devoted to “People of the Prophet.” It begins with an affirmation of the message of Islam:
O People of the Prophet!
I gave you My Names.
I taught you the Holy Ways…
You turned from the ways of your fathers,
You turned to Me and worshipped only Me.
I blessed you and gave you strength.
Your enemies were scattered and My name was spread.
The problem is that other communities of God are conceived of as enemies, and there is also a serious problem in the handling of wealth and power within the world of Islam:
The branches of the Holy Tree are intertwined:
They fight each other for the light,
they compete for the juices of life,
they poison each other and crush each other.
Why?… Did you think that My Holy Messenger would approve?
You sat smug on your puffed up cushions,
You enjoyed the power taken from the poor…
You have grown arrogant in your oneness,
You have become proud in your obedience.
For me, something is missing in this chapter. Just as I missed hearing about the human role of custodianship for the earth in the first chapter, I miss hearing something here about the maturity of the message of the Prophet, how it reflects the collective wisdom of the earlier Prophets and is supposed to be based on the recognition of the earlier Prophets including Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Thus the Muslims should not only be tolerant, they should be leaders in recognizing the good in other communities as holding light to what they themselves received. The chapter concludes by calling on Muslims to be a good example and pointing to the essential meaning of Islam, the peace that comes from humble submission and devotion to God:
Open your hearts and see,
open your eyes and understand—
the world needs you, but not for your rage,
not for your self-righteousness, not for your hatred,
not for your violence, not for your conquests.
The world needs you for your sincerity,
for your strength of conviction,
for the wisdom of your sages,
for the love of your poetry,
for the clarity of your vision,
for the humility of your being,
for the words of My Prophet.
Do not let the name of the Prophet become a curse.
Do not let the Holy Quran become a derision…
That is not My will.
Remember Islam as Salaam, Peace.
The discussion of the three religions, as well as the Children of Adamah, covers about half the book. The next chapter, “Jerusalem,” puts together what has been laid out so far:
Jerusalem is the trunk, you three are bound together.
Jerusalem is the core you three share…
You are fighting the same fight, defending the same cause.
You are all on the same side! That is the truth…
They are amassing their forces and Jerusalem is the center.
The children of My Son against the children of My Prophet,
with the Children of Israel in the middle…
Children, enough! This is not My wish. This is not My way.
The notion that the conflict is one of East versus West, of the world of Islam versus Christendom, and that the People of Israel have somehow been drawn to the center… brings us back to the notion of Israel as a “middle people.” As we can see, various themes appear and reappear in this book shifting contexts. The chapter about “A New Time” deals with the meaning of the New Age in which we are living. It speaks of “a new stage, a new covenant… A new beginning, a new continuation from an old message.” Emphasis is placed here on the return of the “Holy Queen” meaning the Shekhina, the feminine Presence of God. The chapter on “The Body Whole” then develops the theme of health and integration—as individuals, reflected in the whole planet. The final chapter on “The Daughters of Life” returns to some of the strong language that we heard in the earlier chapters of the book:
O Sons of Adam, stand aside.
Your damage is deep,
your arrogance is pervasive,
your vision is blurred.
But the ultimate vision is not of replacing the patriarchy with a new dominance of the feminine, but rather an integration of masculine and feminine:
Make room so that two may become One,
so that balance may be restored,
so that makes and female may rule together.
As king and queen below,
So King and Queen above.
Again the message is repeated, “Choose Life!” …and the very last words in the book are “Love back.”
Whether people find that they are moved by what is expressed in “God’s Prayer” or not, I find it a clear expression of the message of our Creator which is consistent with the spirit of previous Scriptures and appropriate to the times in which we live. Of course it is tempting to speculate that in such a book is only “preaching to the converted,” that the people who will read it are those who are already inclined to agree. Indeed, it’s not likely that religious fanatics—and, on the other hand, people who are allergic to the word “God”—will be able to hear what’s being said here! But my feeling is that it is a mistake to be too clever about these things. There is guidance here for those who are willing to listen and consider. This is not just about getting people to agree—spiritual teaching is about clarifying one’s intellectual understanding and then going deeper, to the heart or subconscious mind., This divine message which confirms and sheds light on many messages that have been given before. Its purpose is to help us sift the grain from the chaff and, as it says in the subtitle, get on with “The Sacred Task of Living.” My thanks go to Michael and to the Holy Spirit for making it possible for these particular messages or “prayers” to come through.