A selection of passages in which modern thinkers ponder the meaning of prayer:
In the mitzvah [commandment] man is one, and as a whole he relates himself to the One God. The most revealing example in this connection is, perhaps, the case of prayer. No doubt, it is possible to pray “in one’s heart,” without words and without any bodily movements or gestures. One may pray in silent meditation. But it ought to be understood that such prayer may be appropriate for a being that is pure in mind or soul; it is most certainly not the adequate manner of praying for a being like man.
The perfect prayer on earth is one which is prayed not only by the soul of man but by the whole of the human being, body and soul. As the Psalmist exclaims, “All my bones shall say: ‘Lord, who is like unto Thee…?'” Man’s situation requires that his very bones should be capable of “prayer.” But this is only possible if prayer too becomes a mitzvah, i.e., a deed unifying body and soul. Prayer, therefore, cannot be only silent meditation; it has to be spoken word. It has to be bodily action, informed by kavvanah [intention]. Bodily prostration before God, for instance, is no less essential for prayer than is spiritual concentration. The prayer of man should be “manly” and not “angelic.”
–Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992) was chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois. Reprinted from God, Man and History: a Jewish Interpretation, published by Jonathan David
Prayer is a Gesture Toward God
[In this book of fictional dialogues, Judd Lewis has asked Albert Abbadi about traditional Jewish practice.]
Albert Abbadi: Prayer, you see, is what we offer up to God, and our offering, like the sacrifices that were offered in the Temple, should be perfect. This is another reason why you should concentrate on learning the prayers by heart.
Judd Lewis: Yes, but this is a little unclear. Because if you say “prayer” to most people in America, it means asking for things, or perhaps meditating, but not offering something.
AA: But with us it is different. Not that we do not ask for things in our prayers, but even this asking is also a form of service.
JL: I don’t follow you.
AA: It goes back to the sacrifices I mentioned. While our Temple still stood in Jerusalem, the kohanim (that is, the priests who served there) would offer up sacrifices every day, animals and sweet-smelling incense.
JL: I knew that, though I must say it has always struck me as a little primitive.
AA: It was a gesture.
JL: I beg your pardon?
AA: It was a gesture, in fact the gesture, the principal form of worship. Some day, perhaps, we may discuss this, but for now it is necessary only to understand that this was the way things were. Each day in the Temple in Jerusalem, Israel would make such offerings to God and so serve Him; this was our most direct and constant gesture. And then, when our Temple was destroyed and sacrifice was no longer possible, it was as if this reaching out to God might no longer be possible either. Yet there did exist another gesture, another form of contact, which was well known to everyone, and that was prayer. And so our Rabbis established prayer in place of sacrifices, as even the prophet had earlier proposed, “And let our speech take the place of sacrifices.”
— Dr. James Kugel is Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University and Professor of Bible at Bar Ilan University. Reprinted with the author’s permission from
On Being a Jew
, published by The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Prayer is a Drawing Near of Human to Divine, and, We Hope, of Divine to Human
Prayer is not a soliloquy. But is it a dialogue with God? Does man address Him as person to person? It is incorrect to describe prayer by analogy with human conversation; we do not communicate with God. We only make ourselves communicable to Him. Prayer is an emanation of what is most precious in us toward Him, the outpouring of the heart before Him. It is not a relationship between person and person, between subject and subject, but an endeavor to become the object of His thought.
Prayer is like the light from a burning glass in which all the rays that emanate from the soul are gathered to a focus. There are hours when we are resplendent with the glowing awareness of our share in His secret interests on earth. We pray. We are carried forward to Him who is coming close to us. We endeavor to divine His will, not merely His command.
Prayer is an answer to God: “Here am I. And this is the record of my days. Look in to my heart, into my hopes and my regrets.” We depart in shame and joy. Yet prayer never ends, for faith endows us with a bold craving that He draw near to us and approach us as a father–not only as a ruler; not only through our walking in His ways, but through His entering into our ways.
The purpose of prayer is to be brought to His attention, to be listened to, to be understood by Him; not to know Him but to be known to Him. To pray is to behold life not only as a result of His power, but as a concern of His will, or to strive to make our life a divine concern. For the ultimate aspiration of man is not be a master, but an object of His knowledge. To live “in the light of His countenance,” to become a thought of God–this is the true career of man.
—Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel Ph.D. (1907-1972), born in Warsaw and educated in Poland and Germany, was Professor of Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Reprinted with permission from Man’s Quest for God.