Does God Hear Our Prayers?

Traditional Judaism answers with an emphatic

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That was an innovation beyond what biblical men and women had known. In the Bible, people pray only when they feel like it. Moses asks God to heal his sister Miriam. Solomon requests wisdom so that he can lead his people wisely. Miriam sings God's praises to celebrate crossing the Red Sea; Hannah asks for a baby boy. But once a prayer is said, it is over and done with. No one feels the need to pray the same words twice, and the prayers don't get fixed so that other people in the same situation are obliged to copy them.

The Rabbis did not question a person's right to speak directly to God with heartfelt praise, petition, and gratitude, just as biblical heroes had, but in addition, they took the next step of establishing the times and structure of a regular communal prayer cycle, the one we use to this very day. For the Rabbis, then, personal prayer was juxtaposed with communal liturgy--a far cry from biblical days, when the only public worship service had been the sacrificial cult. The God to whom the community spoke, how­ever, was still portrayed as a personal deity who hears what people say and acts upon our words the way a powerful monarch--the Roman emperor himself, perhaps--did for powerful petitioners in court.

Answering the Question Today

Most of us grew up with that kingly image of God in mind. For those of us who still believe in a God who can be pictured that way, prayer is mostly not a problem. Such a God might easily de­mand prayers from us, the subjects of the divine kingdom. In return, since God is all-powerful just, and good, we might expect a posi­tive response to our petitions, as long as we deserve it.

But here is where even those who still believe in the biblical notion of a personal God run into difficulty. It is hard to prove that God really does answer our prayers, and sometimes, as when "bad things happen to good people," it is hard not to wonder why God doesn't respond the way we think a good God would.

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Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D., is Professor of Liturgy at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He is the author of The Art of Public Prayer: Not for Clergy Alone, Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide, and The Way Home: Discovering the Deep Spiritual Wisdom of the Jewish Tradition.