I Pray to God…

Allen: Aron, at this point we’ve both had the chance to stake out and criticize each other’s stances on God (see here and here). My question for this post is the following: How does your theology translate to tefillah? At the outset, let’s concede that this conversation is bound to be a theoretical one. We’re communicating through a blog, not a minyan. In the end, intellectualizing about prayer is no substitute for just doing it. Prayer’s silence, or the mumbling, or the harmonizing, or the swaying (take your pick), can be beautiful on its own terms — not as an academic exercise, but as a lived experience shared between all of us. Done right, a community at prayer needs no further justification. Still, our rational side calls for a more thorough explanation.

So: What goes through your head if and when you pray? Which prayers, if any, speak to you? If, as some modern thinkers suggest, prayer is nothing more than a sort of mindfulness exercise, why not scrap it and start again with something more accessible and effective?

Aron: The tricky thing about the Jewish liturgy is that it’s addressed to a God who is both the source of morality, love, and purpose and the source of existence. I don’t — or perhaps can’t — believe in that sort of God, so I end up with a split personality with regard to prayer.

Sometimes I pray with that wellspring of existence in mind: I marvel at the fact that we exist, and my prayers are cut with an undercurrent of awe and horror at the possibility of non-existence.

Other times, I think of prayer as a communal expression of our highest aspirations. When we chant, “Blessed are you who releases the bound,” we are articulating a shared dream, announcing an obligation, declaring our solidarity, and revealing our joint frustration and fear that such a world might never come. As Rabbi Harold Kushner writes in When Bad Things Happen to Good People, “Prayer, when it is offered in the right way, redeems people from isolation… It lets them know that they are part of a greater reality, when more depth, more hope, more courage, and more of a future than any individual could have by himself.”

Both of these things — our awe-inspiring existence and our utopian aspirations — are hard to approach without religion. Each is also, I think, necessary. We need a way to wonder aloud at the universe; we need a time to sing together about the world we want to build. The issue, though, is that if we don’t believe these two things are derived from the same source, are we praying to two distinct “God”s? Or are we still, despite our philosophical protestations, beholden to a traditional image of God but afraid to admit to it?

Allen:  You’re spot on in identifying two very different types of prayer. The rabbis made the same distinction between bakashah, petition, and hodayah, thanksgiving. (See the middle blessings of the weekday Amidah and Psukei D-Zimra for examples of the former and the latter, respectively.) Thanksgiving praises the world as it is; petition imagines the world that might be. The important question for me is whether either can be justified in modern terms. I’ll take them one at a time.

Bakashah. At first glance, the very idea of asking for miraculous intervention seems barbaric. We can salvage this type of prayer by reconsidering what the “miraculous” looks like today  There’s a story of Hillel hearing a scream from a house in his neighborhood and refusing to pray that the house wasn’t his (BT Brachot 60b). From this the rabbis formulated the general principle that one ought not to pray over an outcome that’s already taken place. Now, from the perspective of deterministic physics, most events on a macro level may have well have taken place already. The fundamental forces of nature — gravity, electromagnetic force, and so on — govern most aspects of our lives. Most, but not all. Science has disenchanted everything but our free consciousness. The only prayers that aren’t in vain are those directed toward the human capacity for reflection. As the psychologist and concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl writes: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (Hence the Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah,  derives from the root p-l-l, to judge, to decide; and the verb takes the reflexive form l-hitpallel, loosely translated as “self-evaluation” or “self-judgment.”) So prayer’s miraculous because it allows us to break the strict chain of cause and effect that controls the rest of nature. We choose the role we want to play in the story we’re a part of. We refine ourselves into instruments of purpose, chomer be-yad ha-yotzer. As none other than Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks puts it: “Prayer is the act of turning ourselves into a vehicle for the divine.”

Hodayah. In my view, giving thanks just isn’t tenable in the way the prayer book envisions. Saying “thank you” requires a person to be addressed, a person intentionally responsible for the act we’re thanking, That is, we thank God for purposefully bringing the universe and to being. And I can’t believe in such a God. You’ve already pointed the way toward an alternative. Milan Kundera tells a strange tale in his irreverent novel The Farewell Party. Dr. Skreta, a sexual libertine, sows his oats heedlessly, producing thousands of unacknowledged bastards during his lifetime. We’re like those children. The universe has borne us without regard for our fate. We owe it no gratitude, any more than Dr. Skreta’s children owed him. Our position is precarious at best. We spend our lives learning how to suffer — by sword, by plague, by loss. And yet (and here’s the point Rubenstein leaves out) we owe ourselves joy, for whatever the means by which we entered this world, we still find in it love, and pleasure, and meaning.  At its best, prayer can remind us of this. Sure, there’s a paradox here; but it’s the paradox we live out our lives in. Rabbi Diamond said to me when I was sixteen: “It takes time to learn how to pray. Life has to beat you up a bit first.” I’m still a novice, Rabbi, but I’m getting there.

Closing thoughts, petitions, entreaties?

Aron: I like your revised interpretation of bakashah. It’s notable, though, that you didn’t really flesh out a vision of hodayah, and that you leave out a major category — praise (shevach). I’d like to propose a combined vision of those last two categories.

The “lived experience” of prayer that you wrote about at the beginning of this post — the painful beauty of singing — is often an expression of things for which we don’t quite have words. In God in Search of Man, Heschel actually argues that we should seek out those moments. He writes, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” Consider the words of nishmat, sung on Shabbat and holidays:

“Were our mouth as full of song as the sea, and our tongue as full of joyous song as its multitude of waves, and our lips as full of praise as the breadth of the heavens, and our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, and our hands as outspread as the eagles of the sky and our feet as swift as hinds — we still could not thank You sufficiently, HaShem our God.”

Even if we don’t believe in the God to whom the prayer is directed, it gives us the opportunity to revel in the fact that we exist and voice a primal sense of wonder. We don’t thank or praise. We marvel.

Perhaps this sense of wonder is misplaced. In fact, awe at our existence might just be a reflection of our lack of understanding about how the universe operates, the same way that primitive humans’ awe at thunder reflected their lack of understanding about the sky. Writing on the nature of the universe in 1974, theoretical physicist Brandon Carter stated, “The existence of any organism describable as an observer will only be possible for certain restricted combinations of the parameters,” which is a fancy way of saying that we shouldn’t be surprised that we exist, and that the nature of our universe is attributable to selection bias. Despite these musings, and despite the suspicion that we should “know better” than to be awed, we find ourselves awed nonetheless. How, then, can we express it?

Prayer, and religion in general, must include ethics and moral aspirations, but it can’t be limited to them. In a materialist, impersonal, busy, deadened world, religion is one of the few refuges left to use where we can not only aspire, but revel. In Psalm 92, we say, “How good are your works!” Now and again, we’re struck by the fact the Milky Way, the Virgo Supercluster, and our vast, dead universe will live on even after humanity has departed. We’re struck by the fact that our children’s children’s children’s children will, hopefully, outlast any memory of us. Our universe has been, we are, and the future will be, and that on its own is worth joy.

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