Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Problem of Prayer

With the high holiday season in full swing and Jews across the world in repentance mode, it is worth pausing to think about why we pray. Philosophically, prayer poses a big problem. God is just and knows everything. If that is the case, why does He need us to tell Him what we want through prayer? Doesn't He already know it? And if we deserve it then He will give it to us anyway, regardless of whether we pray, because He is just. And if we don't deserve it, then He won't give it to us.

Think of a righteous person who is struggling to earn a living. Surely God knows that this man needs money and deserves it. So why the need to pray? It would seem that prayer implies either a deficiency in God's omniscience or justice. (In case anyone thinks that this question is somehow sacrilegious, R. Chaim Friedlander, the former mashgi'ach in the Ponovizher Yeshiva, asks the same question in his Sifsei Chaim, mo'adim p. 74ff.)

Click here to read moreThe Rambam explains in Moreh Nevukhim (3:36, 51) that prayer is not about telling God what we want. Rather, it is about contemplating our relationship with God and, thereby, growing in our understanding of God. When we pray, we verbalize and internalize truths about this world and particularly about the human condition in the world. We explore our dependence on God and his sustenance of the universe. This raises us to higher levels of knowledge of God. Within Maimonidean philosophy, reaching a higher level of knowledge of God involves a corresponding greater prophetic and providential connection. This is what prayer, at its best, achieves. (See, however, Marvin Fox's attempt to merge this philosophic view with the popular view of prayer in Interpreting Maimonides, pp. 297-322.)

Others see prayer in a slightly different way. R. Yosef Albo (Sefer Ha-Ikkarim 4:16-18) explains that prayer is a way of improving ourselves and making ourselves worthy of reward. Before we pray we might be worthy of reward X but after we pray, when we have come closer to God, we are now worthy of X+1 reward.

I think it is readily understandable why this would be the case. The vast majority of our day is spent in a materialistic, cause-and-effect world. We constantly see how our effort (or lack thereof) yields corresponding benefits (or the opposite). We need prayer to bring us back to the spiritual reality that God controls the world. It is this regularity of prayer that lifts us out of the mundane world and raises us to a higher level of belief in God, turning us into more believing and spiritual people.

According to R. Albo, it is this transformative power of prayer that explains why prayer sometimes yields results. Through prayer, we become more worthy of receiving what we need or want.

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik has a different approach to this subject in his posthumously published book, Worship of the Heart. As described by R. Josh Amaru in his review of the book in The Torah U-Madda Journal (no. 13 - link - PDF), p. 162:

Meaningful prayer must be just that. It must reflect my own concerns and needs and my own sense of dependence on God. It is not a means of influencing God, but the expression of my desire to do so; I beseech God to address my concerns, to help me with my problems, to relieve my pain and distress.
I don't pretend to understand what that means. Bottom line: When I pray to God to heal a sick friend, am I asking Him to do that or not and do I expect/hope for Him to do it or not?

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