Devarim: Successful prayer does not require rationality

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Deuteronomy 1.1-3.22

Isaiah 1.1-27

Prayer belongs among humanity's most widespread practices. All around the world, people pray. Devotees of various religions and sects, wildly different from each other, all pray. I have even read about a famous atheist who, when stricken with a temporary paralysis, felt amused to find himself formulating prayers. Prayer seems a natural part of human behavior.

But when we try to think about prayer, we discover strange paradoxes.

Think, for example, about the element of praise. A human being praises God. Does that make sense? How can a finite being praise an infinite one?

Certainly our grasp of the praiseworthy aspects of an infinite being must add up to something hopelessly inadequate. Furthermore, a perfect being should not want anything, and therefore should not want our praise.

Think about the element of petition. We, finite beings, certainly experience needs and wants. But what sense does it make for us to articulate these needs? Even before we make our requests, God presumably has better awareness of our needs than we do. Even after we have made our requests, it makes little sense to expect God to change plans for the benefit of one unworthy petitioner.

These questions may seem new, but they have appeared, in one form or another, in the writings of thoughtful students of religion for an astonishingly long time. Over the course of the centuries, one party of thinkers typically formulates answers to these questions by looking at the effects of prayer, not on the deity, but on the worshipper.

In 11th century Spain, Rabbenu Bahaya ibn Pakuda, in his "Obligations of the Heart," praises an ancient pious worshipper who prayed: "Your knowledge includes everything that is good for me, and I have not told you my needs to make you aware of them, but so that I will realize my utter dependence on you and my reliance on you."

Similarly, in 19th century Germany, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch characterized the highest form of prayer as "judging oneself." Thus he analyzed the grammar of the most common Hebrew word for prayer as a reflexive form of the verb "to judge": Hitpallel, from which "tefillah" is derived, originally meant to deliver an opinion about oneself, to judge oneself — or an inner attempt at so doing, such as the reflexive of the Hebrew verb frequently denotes (Horeb, 472).

For the party known as rationalists, finite beings cannot properly praise the infinite being, cannot make sensible requests of the all-knowing being. So we finite beings must logically, when we say words that sounds like praise, petition and thanksgiving, really be engaged in a process for our own benefit.

In the Bible, however, God usually answers prayers. It requires explanation when the prayers go unanswered. The prophet Isaiah denounces morally flawed Jews with the shocking declaration that God has said, "Though you pray at length, I will not listen" (in this week's haftarah, Isaiah 1:17) because you treat the widow and the orphan without justice.

In the direct prayers imbedded in the biblical narrative, characters freely make requests of God, just as they would of humans, and God often accepts their requests, despite the logical paradoxes. Rabbi Seth Kadish, in a just-published book on the theory of Jewish prayer, argues that, just as finite beings cannot adequately praise God, so we cannot adequately understand God. If God resides beyond our understanding, then any sort of relation between a human being and God equally defies our understanding. We should not expect to understand and define our relationship with God.

Kadish writes, "If we accept the Torah's premise that such a relationship does exist…we should do the same for prayer. Prayer should be accepted on its own terms, and not reinterpreted according to rational categories" (Kavvana,126).

We do not have to understand how it makes sense to engage in prayer.