Why Do I Pray?

“Why do I pray?”

By this I mean, why do I find liturgical prayer meaningful? Why not just meditate, focus on my breath, and empty my mind?. If liturgical prayer seems founded on the notion that there is me and there is God, that somehow God is waiting for me to let him know what I need and that once I’ve expressed that need, She will hear and grant my requests, then how can I take that seriously, knowing what I do about the nature of the universe, about the seemingly limitless cruelty possible, about all the suffering that seems to go unheeded? Further, if all is One, then there really is no “out there” and to whom are my prayers actually addressed and in what direction do they go?

Once I thought to write about this in the form of a theological essay. But I am neither a theologian nor a systematic, academic thinker. As my friend and teacher, Rabbi Marcia Prager has said and which is true for me as well, I don’t really “believe” in God; I experience God. And so my reflections on prayer arise from experiences, some cosmic and life changing; most the little insights and bits of meaning that come to me in prayer.

Jewish liturgical prayer appears to be based on two fundamental principles. The first is that there is a “me” who is addressing a transcendent God who literally is sitting somewhere above the firmament which supports the sky and looking down at all of creation.* The second is that, while the one praying may sometimes be represented as either male or female (especially since, in Hebrew, the first person singular is gender neutral), the God to whom one is praying is always identified as male. If these assumptions are correct, and to a large degree they are, then how can someone living in the 21st century possibly find meaning in this form of prayer?

There is a tendency, perhaps there has always been this tendency, to assume that when I identify a problem on my own, that this is the first time the problem has been noticed. But what happens when I discover that I am far from the first to see these issues. What can I take from previous identifications of the same issue and to what extent do I need to adjust my own conclusions based on this knowledge? For example, critical students of Bible noticed that there are sharp differences in the way creation is described in the first two chapters of Genesis. This “discovery” led to challenges of the integrity of Torah as well as its accuracy. However, these differences were also noted by rabbinic scholars of the Talmudic and post-Talmudic periods as well. Committed as they were to the integrity of the Biblical text, they resolved these differences by positing Divine adjustments in the plan of creation itself as it unfolded. God noticed, as it were, that the plan to organize creation only through cause and effect, karma in the east and din in Hebrew, (often rendered as judgement in English), was fatally flawed once the human being was introduced and that therefore there was a need to inject a second major, and counterbalancing force called rachamim, mercy or compassion, without which humanity, with its inherent freedom of choice and therefore of error, could not survive. This solution maintains the integrity of the text even when we grant that the two sections come from different geographic areas and times, what I’ve seen scholars in the Conservative Movement call “R,” not the redactor as in critical circles but rather “Rabbenu,” our teacher, the one who moulded these disparate units into coherence.

And so it is with prayer as well. The Jewish mystical tradition knows full well that a commitment to the absolute unity of God challenges the notion that there is a me which is so separate from God that it is only through prayer that God can know what I need. In the opening chapter of the Tikkunei Zohar, we find the expression quoted frequently by all later mystics, including the Eastern European Hassidim, “there is no place free of God.” As the Zohar understands the process of creation, somehow the unstirring, never changing Ein Sof, the Infinite, experiences a desire. At that very moment the possibility of creation, of an other, comes into being and the creative process begins. How that happens is a mystery which could not be resolved, both then and now. That it happens is obvious, for we are the products of a long chain of creative moments.


*Illustrations of this appear too many times in the Bible to list here. One example to which I’m particularly drawn is this verse from one of the Selichot prayers recited in the week before Rosh HaShanah and the melody to which Belzer Hassidim sing it. I so want this image to be true.

For the words: Hakshivah Adon

The music: