Saturday, October 18, 2008

Trying (and failing) to find purpose in Prayer

Several weeks ago, I spent some time with friends of mine who happen to be a Rabbi & Rebbetzin. I was talking to them about my general lack of interest in orthodox judaism and how i have a hard time believing in some of the tenants. In any case, the conversation turned to davening (praying) and I said that I just have a hard time really caring about davening. I rarely go to shul during the week and generally go on shabbat, but more for social reasons than anything else.

About a month ago, I saw them again and the Rebbetzin lent me a book called Praying with Fire. It has 80-something 5-minute lessons that are meant to be read one at a time on a daily basis. She had heard good things about the book and thought it might help. I started to read it and have used it to really think about davening in general, the specific lessons for the day, and the words of the prayer i was saying at that specific time.

All this focussed thinking about prayer has led me to believe that prayer is virtually worthless. I don't believe in the power of prayer to change our lot with a higher power. I don't believe that prayer for someone helps them get better.

I have also come to realize, that like the belief in God which can't be proven with absolute certainty in either direction, people have a belief that prayer works. And what happens when the prayers are not answered? Well then, God just said no. So there is really no way to determine with any certainty that prayers do (or do not) work.

This is why I say prayer is "virtually" worthless. If prayer can help someone reflect and think about their life and where they can improve perhaps they will go beyond the prayer and put it into action. Along the same lines, I also think that it shows a caring side of someone when they pray for a sick person.

One side note about the book . . . If you are generally into prayer and just need that extra push or focus, then i would actually recommend this book.


jewish philosopher said...

If praying doesn't help, it couldn't hurt. That may be safer than going to a doctor.

Rich Perkins said...

I agree that it can't hurt per se and that it might just be a simple waste of one's time. That is as long as you are not using prayer instead of more benficial means. i.e. to pray and pray for financial help, but never get job skills or look for as job. Or to pray for the cancer to be healed, but not undergo treatment.

nimrod said...

Interesting post, and worthy topic

Rabbi Kushner who wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People, suggests that prayer is for the person, as a stengthening/healing mechanism to deal with lifes difficulties, and as such has a God connection in that it was given to us, but it is not a simple pray and you shall recieve device.

Rich Perkins said...

Nimrod - you bring up two good issues.

First, i agree with you that praying in a time of crisis could be cathartic for some. Kind of like meditation in a sense. while it may not work for me, i can see this being the case for some.

Second, i understand that praying is not a pray and receive device. However, because it is not and because God does not give us feedback on our prayers there is no way to know if the prayers are meaningless words or if God just said no.

Garnel Ironheart said...

It's worthwhile to look at where prayer came from.
The original service of God was sacrifice. Now, the English word "sacrifice" does not capture the true spirit of the Hebrew "korban". Korban comes from the root KRV which means to draw close. Sacrifice means something quite different - giving up something of value to someone else and losing it as a result. This was not the purpose of the sacrificial ceremony at all. The point of offering the animal on the altar was to bring a person closer to Hashem. Sometimes it was to remedy a negative, like the chatas (ie. it should be me burning up there because of my sin) and more often it was to accentuate a positive (ie. I wish I could dedicate my entire being to a spiritual connection with God). But the point wasn't to appease a hungry God or to bribe Him into fulfilling our requests. Korbanos had specific kavanos meant to better a person's connection to the Divine.
In our time we have only prayer which Chazal said replaced the korbanos. Thus praying is our avodah. Thus when one prays one does not do it because one wants somethings. When one says "Blessed are you oh Lord," do you really think he adds anything to God? And if he says "Gimme good health" does God have a sudden obligation to obey?
Prayer, like korbanos, has different kavanos but none are so petty as to involve bribes or appeasement. Rather, prayer is a dialogue between the person and God. That's why praying without understanding the words is so ludicrous. That really does turn it into rote without meaning.
Now, the other thing to remember is that while formal prayer was instituted by the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah after the return from Bavel, prayer as a form of worship precedes the destruction of the First Temple by centuries. Indeed, the actual obligation from the Torah is simply to pray once a day to acknowledge God as the Master of the Universe. However, the fixed siddur helps people cover a lot more ground and make proper connection with God which is why fixed prayers came about.
A suggestion: If you don't get anything out of prayer, take a step back. Don't listen to the people who say: Well, just daven anyway because you have to. You won't get anything out of it, you won't be sincere and you'll eventually start to resent it so what's the point.
Do a cheshbon hanefesh. How do you relate to God? What do you think you owe Him? How do you feel you should speak to him? Read through the primary sources like the Shulchan Aruch and the Mishnah Berurah on the various prayers andsee which ones relate to you. And slowly start to reintroduce those that are relevant to you into your routine. You'll probably get more of a connection to the Divine out of that, which is the purpose of prayer in the first place.

Joodah said...

Prayer doesnt hurt, but neither does a swift kick in the balls after 24 hours, but i don't recommend that either.

Say (god forbid this should happen to anyone) someone has a grandmother that is dying and there's a chance that an operation can save her life. the person prays for the operation to be a success, but it fails and she dies.

How can a person, in their right mind, say the Hoda'ah part (the 'thanks' blessings) of shemoneh Esrei with any real sincerity? How do you thank the God who, as we say in the same shemoneh esrei, has the power to heal the sick?

thanking the person who just kicked you in the balls can't hurt. but it is pretty stupid.

Garnel ironheart said...

No, it goes beyond that.

Prayer is based on the simple fact that all human beings have needs and that the Master of the Universe is the only force capable of meeting them. He may choose not to, "no" is sometimes an answer, but our parents said "no" to us. Did we dismiss them and refuse to ask them any further questions because of that?

Prayer is a person speaking to God, sharing his fears, hopes and dreams and asking for things to go his way for a while. It's a chance to take a look at what's good in one's life and thank God for that too.

A person who thinks God needs to automatically answer all his prayers with "yes" is too arrogant to understand the concept of prayer. That kind of person also probably screams at his parents when they don't say "yes".

Take a moment, Rich, and try to connect to God personally. Not through a siddur or predetermined formula but just personally. See if you get something out of that and if you do, that's where you start again.

Rich Perkins said...

Garnel -
>Rather, prayer is a dialogue >between the person and God.

If it was truly a dialogue and God spoke back to me, it would make things a hell of a lot easier.

>That's why praying without >understanding the words is so >ludicrous.

I agree 100% and would go further and say that saying words you understand, but disagree with is even more ridiculous.

Since you brought up karbanot, how often did someone really bring one themeselves. I bet not very often. So while praying 3x a day may be mirroring what was done in the beit hamikdash, it certainly does not mirror what the average jew did.

Rich Perkins said...

Joodah, you make a valid point. It is extremely hard to really put meaning behind the prayers when you don't believe in the praise you are bestowing on God after you experienced tragedy.

Garnel, nobody is saying that God can't say no. All I am saying is that it is a really convenient fall back to say that he said no as opposed to the fact that my prayers are going nowhere but at the wall in front of me.

It is like going to a restaurant and speaking my order out loud on the highway as I drive. I could say that the waiter said no and decided not to listen to my order. Or logic would say that he couldn't hear me when I was miles away in my car and nowhere in his earshot.

Garnel Ironheart said...


The average person probably didn't offer many korbanos at all. But since the daily Tamid (both of 'em) was offered on behalf of the entire nation, he had a share in at least 2 korbanos daily, hence the idea that we all daven because of that share.

>If it was truly a dialogue and God spoke back to me, it would make things a hell of a lot easier.

So two thoughts back:
1) God doesn't answer with words but with He handles the flow of your life. Sometimes events around you are His answer. Sometimes seeming coincidences, or casual interactions. A person needs to be aware of that.
2) And this sounds harsh but I apply it equally to myself: What have you done lately to deserve an answer? You have doubts and questions, sure. That's understandable but through your actions, have you demonstrated that you want a connection with Him? Have you adjusted your life in a sincere way to encourage that connection? Many people pray with the attitude that God has to listen to them. He doesn't. We must approach Him with our sincerity and willingness to listen. What if He tells us to do something we don't want to do? Well, do we say back: Listen, God, you're welcome to speak to me when it's what I want to hear but when I don't agree, butt out? No parent would put up with that attitude from their child but we expect God to nod silently at all our actions.
Again, it's harsh sounding. I don't know you or anything about you (except you paint, it seems) so I'm not casting any judgement on you, chas v'shalom. Just something that I think about and try to us to moderate my own thoughts during prayer.

Joodah, I disagree with your example. The difference between speaking to the waiter while in the car and speaking to God is that He hears you wherever you are, the waiter doesn't.

Anonymous said...

I think davening can hurt in the sense that if you follow the siddur you might be praying for things that you don't think are wothwhile, or you might be professing an adherence to beliefs that you can't justify.

The problem I see with GI's approach is that it doesn't have much to do with the text of the davening.

Why pray for the rebuilding of the temple, or for the restoration of the Davidian monarchy if you don't think those would be good things? Why recite a history of the Jewish people that we have good reason to believe isn't literally true? Why ask for the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem when we have Jerusalem and walls would make no sense? Why bench tal? Why have such a long grace after meals?

I could go on and go on with the daily or Shabbat prayers. And then there's the piyyutim. Don't get me started on those.

So Rich, I think you have a point.
But I don't think that the approach of seeing prayer as a communication with God is going to solve the problems you see.

Ichabod Chrain

Joodah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joodah said...

"Many people pray with the attitude that God has to listen to them. He doesn't"

Seriously, garnel? Aren’t you anthropomorphizing (I just butchered that spelling) just a tad? A famous saying goes "There is nothing but God", and If there is a God, this is the best way I’ve would define what God is. If you believe that there is a concept of God NOT listening, I'd go as far as to say that you have just made an idolatrous statement. There is no anything and God, There is just God. If you believe that, what's to say that thought alone can't be a prayer?

There are many sages who would not limit their prayer to the synagogue, who would speak their prayers out loud in the streets, in their homes, in the forest. Their opinion, I believe, is that God is always listening because God is everywhere. Maybe what you meant is “God doesn’t always acknowledge” which is an understatement. More like God doesn’t acknowledge and those who say he does can’t prove it.

"What have you done lately to deserve an answer?...What if He tells us to do something we don't want to do?"

Have you heard of a famous biblical character named BILAM? He was a friggin prophet who was an enemy to the Jewish people, advising Balak on how to destroy the Jewish people. Beat his donkey till it talked to him. What do you think he did to warrant a dialogue with God? This is a perfect example that you don't need to be "worthy" in order to get an answer from God. God doesn't decide to only communicate with good people.

Look at the story of Job. The text clearly states he did not deserve the suffering he got. He cried out to God and he did nothing as his children were killed, his possessions stolen, his health deteriorating till he's nothing but an itching shell of pain. His friends (AKA you) tell him he must have done something to WARRANT his punishment, but Job was sure that he did not. If there is anything Job teaches, life is rarely "schar ve'onesh".

IMHO, there is no more dialogue with God. God doesn't answer prayers or at best, He's selective, but no one knows how to really be worthy of an answer, which is much scarier. He doesn't aid the good and he doesn't create evil (IE the holocaust, destruction of the temples, u name it). If God exists, then somewhere in history, he took a backseat and gave us the wheel. We can ask God for help all we want, but we're in the drivers seat now, and God has his ipod on and some sound canceling headphones, blasting metallica. AKA he's not going to help you.

Anonymous said...

an agnostic orthoprax jew told me this: "pretend ur talking to a friend. u can do whatever u wnat- just talk to them."

in this manner, u get the benefits of prayer without the theological complications

Talmidin said...

Joining in a little late....Garnel is getting the closest to the truth in all of this, I have learned from you. None-the-less, I would still like to add :-).
Rich doesn't seem to believe in G-d at all. You wrote, "If it was truly a dialogue and God spoke back to me, it would make things a hell of a lot easier." Hmmm, well as Garnell said, it is a dialogue. HaShem does speak to us. If you could get your head around the fact, the truth that HaShem actually desires to speak with you, you might feel a little diferently. But if you don't believe that HaShem exists, why should you recieve an answer. HaShem is interested in the intracies of your life, take a look at Tehillim 139. For frustrated Ortho, maybe the fixed prayers in the siddur aren't your thing. You are getting nothing out of them and losing interest, I find much power in praying from the siddur, but I don't stop there, I continue, with what is actually on my heart, consider David in 62 or Bnei Korach in 42, pouring out 'their' hearts before G-d. If you pour out your heart, and your frustration, not the prayers others have written, (I still use the siddur)HaShem will answer your heart and your cry. But if 'you' are not in your prayers, how can HaShem answer 'you'? If your own nefesh is not involved, it becomes a dead exercise, and is indeed futile. I advise, keep the customs, but also pour out 'your' heart like water