My daughter Avigail is slowly working her way into adolescence, and as part of this process come questions, difficult questions on a wide variety of topics like interpersonal relations, social issues, and of course on religious dilemmas. As I wrote in my last post, she studies in a religious school in Jerusalem, where, to my utmost displeasure, her teachers are doing their very best to kill any trace of creativity and pleasure in her experience of religiosity – or at least that’s what it looks like from where I am standing. Halacha is studied like a phone book, history is seen solely through the eyes of the Jewish people, the Mishna is studied literally without the vaguest trace of a class discussion on the possible meaning of the things studied, etc. etc. Today, Shabat Nasso, Avigail said at lunch that prayer is “boring, unbearably boring.” So instead of telling her that that’s not how we talk about prayer, I engaged frontally – “What is prayer Avigail?”
So – what is prayer? Without going to the various sources on the origins of prayer, the meaning of each service, and the discussion between the various authorities on who’s in favor of spontaneous prayer and who’s in favor of formal times and frameworks, I would like to propose a few alternative thoughts of my own, based on the rather unique thought of Rav Mordecai M. Kaplan. And a spoiler alert is in place – in this piece I tend to present ideas which have been seen as heretical, and I also tend to raise more questions than answers.
Prayer in Hebrew is service, “Avodah,” which means to serve, as in a slave who serves his master – actually, the traditional texts are full of terms which refer to God as king, master, shepherd, etc. reflecting, to a certain point, conceptions which we have been passing from generation to generation for centuries. Together with another two concepts I really cannot understand, that of “fear of God” and “love of God,” service is literally incompatible with my understanding of things. Why must I relate to God as a king, a master, and see myself as one who, when praying, serves, with supine cognition, his master? To say it with Kaplan’s words,
“to speak of God as King is to employ a metaphor that would not readily suggest itself to any modern person. When we use it in our ritual, we are speaking, as it were, in the thought-idiom of an earlier age.”
To refer to God as the king of the universe means to propose a conception of divine sovereignty which is that of a ruler, one whose authority is absolute and detached from the very world he has created. The detachment comes with a price – prophecy, then the end of prophecy, miracles and then the absence thereof, revelation and then nothing but interpretation of historical events, and the ultimate promise of a final and complete establishment of Divine kingship and of “a new social order in the world.” This moment of ultimate encounter between the social and the divine was the millennium, the end of days, with God’s power manifesting itself within the immanent, in a final process of social regeneration. And as the Psalm goes, “He cometh to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with His faithfulness” (96:13). But this moment of social regeneration, as Kaplan calls it, is not one which is performed by human agency – it is, rather, the result of a direct intervention of the Divine in history. Although I am not entirely sure I agree with Kaplan when he says that God “in His own day and of his own will, by a direct and miraculous intervention in the natural order of society, would establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth” and that “man’s task was to wait, to obey and never to lose faith in the ultimate divine salvation,” one may say that the conception of Divine kingship brings with it a series of problematic conceptions as to what kind of relationship there should be between the individual and his Creator.
(Allow me an aside – I said none of this to Avigail, who was already yawning. I didn’t want to bore her beyond the boredom of prayer…)
What is necessary is a change (we really don’t want to use the verb “reform,” do we?) in the conception of the sovereignty of God from one residing in a detached Divine persona, to one which pulses, lives and performs within the immanence of social and individual life. And rather than seeing the Divine agent as a king, distant and jealous, it may be worthwhile undermining the dichotomy between the spiritual and the physical while making the human urge to act as a revelation of that Divine spark, of that creative presence in our lives.
“Men seek to employ to best advantage the physical, intellectual, and emotional powers with which they are endowed in securing human life and rendering it more abundant… From this point of view, the traditional religious objective of ‘perfecting the world under the Kingdom of the Almighty’ must mean the establishment of a social order that combines the maximum of individual self-realization with the maximum of social cooperation.”
When we turn the distance of the Divine kingship into the proximity of a creative agency which the individual is called to reveal through corrective social actions and the glorification of interpersonal ethics, we sanctify the name of God. It is within this creative human cosmos that prayer becomes an act of awareness, an utterance of Divine presence within our cognition, within our actions, or, as Kaplan adds, the verbal revelation of a “desire to attain such an awareness.” Kaplan, again:
“There will always be need… for prayer which voices a yearning for those abilities of mind and body, or for that change of heart and character which would enable us to avail ourselves of such aspects of life as in their totality spell God. By voicing that yearning we take the first step – though only the first step – to its realization.”
The religious yearning which I would like to pass on to my daughter Avigail is one which not only aims to praise the eternal name of God, but to actually express faith in a God that reveals himself within the ethical and perfecting actions of the individual, the performance of a kiddush Hashem that sanctifies and actually demonstrates Divine reality within the human sphere of actions. Similarly, beyond the traditional prayer, conceived as the singing of psalms within the individual sphere or within the framework of congregational liturgy on festivals, the action of “le-hitpallel” (praying in Hebrew) should be a reflective action of self-awareness, a moment in which Avigail looks into herself to reveal her yearning, to speak out her inner fears, a moment of intimacy with herself, and not with some distant universal Divine interlocutor. For, as the Salmist says, “The LORD is nigh unto all them that call upon Him, To all that call upon Him in truth” – God is close to those who call him, for God is actually in the call, he is revealed in that very expression of (religious or non) yearning.
So my beloved Avigail, prayer is not simply opening a book and reciting texts we do not entirely understand or maybe even relate to – prayer is the spontaneous expression of your thoughts, a moment of self-awareness, in which your consciousness produces a true voice, true call.
*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.