Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Philosophy of Prayer

Prayer is a mainstay of Judaism, and of religions in general. It is a periodic return to communion with God. However, if considered, the concept of prayer raises a number of theological questions. Since God is truly omniscient, why would He need our prayer to know what is best for us? And since he knows what is in our heart, why does expressing it verbally mean so much? Since he is unified and perfect, how can he 'need' our prayer, or anything else, for that matter? On the other hand, the Talmud (Sotah 12a) is not the first to mention the concept that, 'a righteous man decrees, and God fulfills it.' What are we to make of this bundle of theological contradictions?

There are two major schools of thought regarding the purpose of prayer that I would like to summarize. I will then bring a basic description of Rabbi Soloveichik's philosophy of prayer. Perhaps after this we can have a better understanding of why it is that we pray.

The first theory is theurgical. This view posits that God acts as father and judge, and allows Himself to be swayed by His children's appeals. This view is strongly advocated in Kabbalah, and Kabbalistic theory is employed to explain how a perfect God can be swayed in this way. This view, while uncomfortable for some, is probably the most common way that prayer is perceived by people. We hope that God attentively listens to our prayer, and cares about our small desires and needs. We trust that His infinity is not too large a chasm for Him to bridge, and 'if we open a door the size of a needle's eye, God will enlarge the opening' the rest of the way (Brachot 55a).

The second major theory of prayer is anthropocentric, focusing on the human who prays. God is not affected by prayer; the petitioner is. A person who stands in prayer, almost by definition, purifies himself with thoughts of repentance and hopes to become a more deserving creation. The praise of God leads to an upwelling of sentiment to be deserving of God's blessing. The petitional parts of prayer show a person how much he depends on God, and the thanksgiving in prayer reminds a person of the love and compassion God continually showers upon him. Through prayer, a petitioner is destined to better himself, and raise himself to greater heights. After prayer, he is in a new position as a subject of God, with new merits, and erased demerits. He is now deserving of a new judgment from God. And so, prayer affects God, as it were, indirectly, by changing the essence and thus the appropriate judgment of the person who prays1.

Rabbi Soloveichik takes a different approach. My teacher, Rabbi Carmy, calls it the volitional/dialogical theory of prayer. He posits that prayer is not Man's attempt to influence God, but it is a fundamental way that Mankind interacts with God. Prayer is a medium through which we encounter God. Prayer is not focused on God, but on Man. However, it is not only anthropocentric, because it is a dialogue between Man and God. By creating that emotional connection that prayer instantiates, Man brings himself into communion with God. By realizing that life in the absence of God is empty and cold, a person brings himself to prayer, in order to draw God back into his realm of existence, so to speak.

We are commanded to find God through prayer. As a mitzvah, prayer demands of us to take notice of the chilling emptiness possible in a rational, natural world. We are enjoined to feel the loneliness of a universe that does not pay us heed. This loneliness reaches a crisis, and we call out to God, seeking a warm, intimate relationship with him. Thus, the very act of prayer is a form of interaction, דביקות, with the Divine. Furthermore, the fact that prayer is codified as a commandment means that the warmth of emotional connection to God is something that every human can experience.

Each of the above three approaches has benefits. The theurgical maintains the intimate bond between Man and God which is part of the general understanding of spirituality. The anthropomorphic allows us to understand prayer as a means to change ourselves, and thus be worthy of Divine grace. It makes religious petition active as opposed to passive. And finally, Rabbi Soloveichik's dialogical theory centralizes the communion aspect of prayer, and presents it as a way to interface with Divinity. Perhaps a synthesis of these three views is necessary to have a full picture of the power and importance of prayer.


1 This difference of viewpoints calls to mind Rabbi Jonathan Saks' beautiful explanation of the controversy between Maimonides and Nachmanides. Rambam views prayer as a מצוה דאוריתא, based on Deut 11:13, while Ramban sees it as a rabbinic enactment. Rabbi Sacks cites the Talmud (Brachot 26b) where Rabi Yose views prayer as based upon the example of the patriarchs, while Rabi Yehoshua sees it as a replacement for the sacrificial rite. It seems natural to understand Rabi Yose as allowing for a biblically-ordained commandment to pray, while Rabi Yehoshua seems to organically subscribe to the rabbinic approach.

This dispute reminds us, says Rabbi Sacks, of the two modalities of our holy Torah: the prophetic, and the priestly. While the priestly laws are strict and formulaic (when the sons of Aharon stepped out of the proscribed method of sacrifice, they paid the ultimate price), the prophetic experience is one of intuition, spontaneous emotion, and intimate uniqueness. The priestly type of service of God is set - permanent and unchanging, while the prophetic eschews such formalism and embraces the unique and individual. Both modalities have a place in our traditions, as we can now see. When Rabi Eliezer states that one should not make his prayer קבע, the talmudic rabbis disagree over what he meant. Some understand him to be simply rejecting the tendency for prayer to become rote. On the other hand, some see him as rejecting formalized prayer completely, and saying that each day's new experience and reality should engender a different formulation of prayer within the soul. Thus, the אמוראים seem to each be taking a side in the question of prophetic vs priestly prayer.

It seems that this tanaitic, amoraic disagreement culminates in the argument between Rabmam and Ramban. According to Rambam, prayer is divinely commanded - it is based upon the prayers of the forefathers. On the other hand, the Ramban sees it as rabbinically enacted as a replacement for the sacrifices. Since it is so, it must apply to the formula.

This argument fits in nicely with the view expressed above: Rambam, the rationalist par excellence, holds that prayer is human-centered, for Man cannot change God. Thus, God commands Man to pray, to better himself. However, Ramban, the mystic between the two, holds that prayer may, mystically, affect God - and so, it is a rabbinically mandated replacement for the sacrifices - and therefore, was not commanded biblically, for the task was accomplished in biblical times by offerings.

Jewish tradition beautifully meshes these two in that each day we repeat our prayers twice, first individually, and then as a community in חזרת הש"צ. We have survived for 2,000 years as a community, Rabbi Sacks points out, because we have both the priestly and prophetic modalities: without the former, we have no tradition, but without the latter, no sponteneity. (See the footnote in here.)