Originally published in the Jewish Chronicle – New Year Section, 2nd September 1983.
What exactly is it that we are trying to do when we pray? To say, as is often done, that prayer is a dialogue with God might seem helpful at first glance. Yet a dialogue, as normally understood, implies a conversation between two human beings, meeting one another more or less as equals, with the same or similar needs, seeking to impart some information or to offer comfort, sympathy and encouragement.
None of this appears to be relevant to man’s discourse with God in prayer. God, all the thinkers who have reflected on the matter conclude, can have no needs. He is beyond all human comprehension. We can speak to Him, but He does not speak to us, not, at least, m the way we usually understand speaking.
The difficulty remains even if we substitute monologue for dialogue. Even if we refer to man speaking while God listens, listening is just as much laden with unacceptable human associates as speaking. When the talmudic rabbis wish to make a particularly bold statement about God, they use the term keveyachol (“as it were”), suggesting that whatever is said is permissible only as poetic language. This implication is there whenever human beings speak to or about God.
It is preferable, therefore, to say that, when we speak to God in prayer, it is as if we were engaged in dialogue. The only language we have is human language with its human associations. We must perforce use this language even; when speaking to God where it is really inappropriate.
To do this is not to indulge in double-talk, to say one thing when, we mean another. All the reservations in God-talk are built in; they belong to the nature of this specific language. It would be deceit or flattery or evidence of insanity to hail a commoner as king, but there is no subterfuge when God is addressed as “Our Father, our King” since the words obviously do not refer to a physical father and to a ruler actually sitting on a throne high up in the sky.
God is like a father in that He loves His creatures, and like a king in that we owe allegiance to Him; though even here the reservation process must still be at work since abstract terms such as love and allegiance are as inapplicable to Him as the more concrete terms.
The great sixteenth-century Jewish mystic, Moses Cordovero, observes that even in thought about God the human mind must, as he puts it, run to and fro; having, inevitably, a picture of Him as His existence is affirmed, but then immediately recoiling in awesome awareness that whatever is depicted falls infinitely short of the reality.
Such an attitude is not to be confused with the modernistic as-if philosophy. The distinction is clear. It is not that we offer our prayers to a non-existent God as if He existed because to pray has certain desirable effects. The as-if of the religious man is applied only to the language he uses in his prayers.
The God to whom his prayers are directed is the living God who is really present. The worshipper knows that God is, but, lacking the ability to speak to Him in His wondrous otherness and incomprehensibility, he is obliged to resort to an as-if vocabulary. He is playing no game, but availing himself of the only possible method of approaching the Reality beyond space and time who created these and the beings who inhabit them.
Our liturgy contains religious poems, but the truth is that even the prose passages are poetic and were intended as such by the gifted spirits who composed them as they reached out in yearning for the divine. There is as little dishonesty in speaking of God as a loving father as there is in the Psalmist singing of the hills skipping for joy like lambs, or, for that matter, in the poet comparing his beloved to a rose.
All the doubts and uncertainties, all the inadequacies and haltingness, are in the nature of the language used to approach the Reality, not in the Reality the language seeks so inadequately and yet so necessarily to express. It is poles removed from the prayer of the agnostic: “Dear God, if there is a God, have mercy on my soul, if I have a soul.”
It might still be objected, do not the form of the prayers suggest that it is all taken literally, that God is being spoken to as really possessing the all-too-human characteristics? In petitionary prayer, is it not implied that God can change His mind through our supplications, and in the hymns of praise is He not confronted as the Being who needs to be praised?
In reply to this kind of question, the Jewish masters of prayer do tend to place the emphasis on the subjective effects of prayer, though they never deny the objective reality. When man asks God to attend to his needs, he is reminding himself that ultimately everything depends on God, and when he offers the praises of God, it is because so to do elevates his soul to its Source in wonder.
There can be confusion here, too, but essentially there is a vast difference between concentration on the subjective element, where the objective reality is not denied, and the treatment of prayer as a superior form of auto- suggestion. The former is a matter of emphasis. The latter involves a complete transformation.
How divine providence operates is one of the most stubborn problems the believer has to face, but he has no doubts that God is in control of the universe He has created. And while God does not need our praises in the way an insecure human being requires reassurance, the believer affirms that there really is a spark of the divine in the human soul, then, when men pray, like is reaching out to like, unless it is too daring so to phrase it. The Zohar understands the Jewish habit of swaying during prayer on the analogy of the flame of a little candle weaving and dancing towards a mighty fire.
(A good example of how not to understand prayer, of the basically irreligious attitude of reducing it all to human material needs, is the article “Swaying the body” in the “Jewish Encyclopedia.” Here Dr Simon Brainin is quoted, evidently with approval: Brainin thinks that swaying in prayer and when studying the Torah is intended to provide the body with exercise. How banal can one get!
Is prayer, then, for God or for man? It is certainly not for man in any crude, reductionist sense in which its value is as a means to other ends, the aim of prayer being, for example, to promote peace in the home (“The family which prays together stays together”).
Nor is Ahad Ha-am’s “More than the Jews kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept the Jews” a religious attitude. The significance of the Sabbath is not that it ensures Jewish survival, though it is undoubtedly true that prayer and the Sabbath do have these and other beneficial side-effects. But the ultimate aim is to carry out a mitzva, to do the will of God.
Religion is an end in itself, not merely a means to an end. In this sense, prayer is for God. And yet prayer is also for man, or, better, in being for God it is for man, since there is nothing higher for man to aspire than to reach out to God in worship
As Nachmanides remarks, in his discussion of the purpose of the mitzvot, we are not commanded to praise God for bringing us out of Egyptian bondage because He needs our praise, or to thank Him for His goodness to us because He needs expressions of gratitude. It is we who need to praise and thank Him, to be aware of His presence, to have our lives elevated by coming closer to Him.
In one of the many interpretations of Jacob’s dream, the ladder, with its feet on the ground and its head reaching Heavenwards, is a symbol of prayer. Like truth, prayer springs from the earth. It is concerned with human needs in the here and now.
Man is moved to pray by his finitude, his sense of creatureliness and dependence, his hopes and fears, his joys and sorrows, his anxiety and isolation. The very language he uses in prayer is of the earth. It is the language of physical parenthood even when the Object to which the words are directed is the Father in Heaven.
But in the process, his earthly concerns are brought into relationship with his Maker, a relationship which, so Judaism teaches, he can enjoy for all eternity. In spite of the tendency to play it down among some contemporary Jewish thinkers, Judaism does believe that the fruit of worship in this life is to bask in the radiance of the Shechina in the Hereafter, to enjoy God for ever.
Seen in this light, prayer is not a substitute for worldly activities, but a way of endowing those with a transforming significance by adding the vertical to the horizontal dimension to human life.
The true men of prayer are not world-losers whose endeavours are of little use to the hard- headed, practical men of affairs. They are relevant—a term often grossly overworked—because the result of this awareness of the existence of a beyond redeems human life from purposelessness, futility and despair.
A fate, thoroughly deserved, of anyone rash enough to write on the significance of prayer is for him to appear ridiculously pretentious. To advocate the ideal of prayer leshem shamayyim (“for the sake of Heaven”) is to invite the accusation of priggishness.
Even such spiritual giants as the rabbis of the Talmud knew that prayer and the study of the Torah “for the sake of Heaven” are beyond the grasp of ordinary mortals, so that they advised persistence in these pursuits without too much pre-occupation with motive. These rabbis believed, as they said, that out of mechanical or unworthily motivated observance there will eventually result observance with the right motivation.
Be that as it may, for most of us it seems to take a very long time for the right motive to emerge. It is all very well pointing to the ideal; in actual practice, our motives for praying vary, but they are rarely “for the sake of Heaven.” Our ladder of prayer remains with its feet placed all too firmly on earth, the top shrouded in an apparently impenetrable mist.
Leaving aside prayer as a parade of virtue—with a glazing of the eyes, but with a corner open to notice if others appreciate how pious we are—there are the prayers for unwholesome aims such as the downfall of others or for our greed to be pampered. And there are the simply dotty prayers—for instance, to adapt a talmudic illustration, when a student has sat for an. honours degree and is about to open the envelope containing his results, he prays that he be awarded a first.
Many of us, to be honest, pray without thinking at all why we do it. Jews pray and we are, after all, Jews. When we attend synagogue services, the bonus of a good conversation with the nearest seat-holder is more inviting than a dialogue with God.
We may go to the synagogue because we enjoy the beauty of the service and delight in the traditional melodies, perhaps in nostalgia for our youth. And why not? We are not religious philosophers or mystics and generally let the question of aim and motive take care of itself.
David Hume once asked a man who was studying philosophy how he was getting on with his studies. “Not so badly,” the man replied, “but cheerfulness keeps breaking in.”
For us, and despite the acknowledgement of how remote we are from any profound understanding of the meaning of prayer, the philosophy of prayer does somehow keep breaking in to disturb our complacency and facile cheerfulness.
Whatever our superficial reasons for offering our prayers, we are never in total unawareness of the high hills that surround our Jerusalem. There they are, at least in the background, recalling us periodically to attempt the ascent. Perhaps Rabbi Kook was right when he protested that man is by nature a mystic. Max Kadushin’s description of rabbinic Judaism as “normal mysticism” may, after all, be near the mark.
Legend has it that the Chasidic master, Elimelech of Lizensk, would place his watch on the reading desk, when he led his congregation in prayer, to remind him not to get lost in the world of eternity and return to life on earth, to the world of time.
As for us, men and women of less hardy spiritual fibre, we are more likely to lose ourselves in the world of time. For all that, eternity constantly calls, its voice never heard with such power than during the period of solemn reflection on life’s true meaning and our destiny as beings whose glory it is to have been created in God’s image.