It was Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said, To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing. Prayer is arguably the most fundamental, intimate, and unique element of a life of faith. The way a person of faith is called to prayer, what words they articulate during prayer, and their thoughts and intentions while praying speak volumes about their particular faith. Prayer is the vehicle by which sages of any religion put to words their deepest hopes and visions for all of humanity. If you want to gain a glimpse into another faith, one needs only to turn to their prayer books.
Thus, the question arises of the nature of Jewish prayer. Why do Jews pray? If the method by which we understand any religion is by their prayer then it holds true that if we understand Jewish prayer then we can gather a much better appreciation for Judaism. First, before we can begin to look at the motivation for Jewish prayer, we need to acknowledge one crucial tenet of Jewish faith as demonstrated by prayer itself. Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks in the introduction to the Koren Sacks Siddur explains that:
The very fact that we can pray testifies to the deepest elements of Jewish faith: that the universe did not come into existence accidentally, nor are our lives destined to be bereft of meaning. The universe exists, and we exist, because someone “ the One God, Author of all “ brought us into existence with love. It is this belief more than any other that redeems life from solitude and fate from tragedy.
Every moment that we stop and begin to move our lips in prayerful words towards God is a testament to the notion of purposeful creation. The basic ability to pray, to yearn for a connection to God, demonstrates the meaningfulness of life. Yet, this only explains a broad universalistic Jewish motivation for prayer. What lies at the core of Jewish prayer?
The question is answered, like most Jewish questions, with a debate. Maimonides (Laws of Prayer 1:1) argues that it is a commandment to pray to God everyday based on the verse And you shall serve the Lord your God. The service being referred to in this verse is none other than prayer as the sages in the Talmud (Tractate Taanit 2a) had already noted. However, for Nahmanides (Notes on the Book of Commandments, Positive Commandment 5), the commandment to pray applies only when the community is faced with great distress and then, in that moment, it is an imperative to affirm our belief in a God that listens to prayers and intervenes.
We are thus presented with two differing reasons for Jewish prayer. On the one hand, as expressed by Maimonides, praying daily is of fundamental importance. One can speculate a myriad of reasons why this would be so. On the other hand, however, prayer is only necessary when the community is faced with a tremendous difficulty and needs to turn to God and cry out for help in that very moment.
My mentor Rabbi Avi Weiss, quoting his teacher Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, presents a possible path towards reconciling these opinions in his book Women at Prayer :
Rabbi Yosef Dov [Joseph] Soloveitchik reconciles the views of Rambam [Maimonides] and Ramban [Nahmanides] by maintaining that both see prayer as meaningful only if it derives from a sense of tzarah [difficulty]. For Ramban [Nahmanides], tzarah [difficulty] is an external crisis which arises independently of man. It emerges out of the environment and usually appears suddenly. The surface tzarah [difficulty] of Ramban [Nahmanides] arises only at particular moments.
Rambam [Maimonides] regards daily life as being existentially in straits, inducing in the sensitive person feelings of despair, a brooding sense of lifes meaninglessness, absurdity, lack of fulfillment. It is a persistent tzarah [difficulty], which exists bekhol yom , daily. The word tzarah [difficulty] connotes more than external trouble; it suggests an emotional and intellectual condition in which man sees himself as hopelessly trapped in a vast, impersonal universe, desolate, without hope.
Maimonides, then, is in agreement with Nahmanides that meaningful prayer arises only when one is in a state of difficulty. But the difference lies in the application of difficulty to the circumstances of life. Nahmanides considers trouble to be something that can only manifests itself as a distinct and recognizable event, Maimonides, however, sees life itself as full of difficulty and burden. The very nature of what it means to be alive is one that is rife with existential strife and tension that necessitates daily prayer.
One wonders if the Jew prays only out of a sense of hopelessness or lack of fulfillment. Is it true that when a Jew opens up their prayer book and begins to utter prayers to God, they do so only because they feel as if all of life is lost and they are reaching with desperation for a wisp of meaning and fulfillment?
I argue that, yes, this is partially why a person of Jewish faith prays. Life can be profoundly difficult. The challenges presented to us personally, communally, nationally, and globally are dark, looming, and overwhelming. The faces of starving, malnourished children in a world that could produce enough food to feed every one of them are heartbreaking. The images of violence all over the world that appear to have no end are, to say the least, discouraging to the prospect of hope. It is in this desperation, this recognition of our smallness and limits that we turn to God, on a daily basis, and pray for strength, courage, and hope.
This is not a complete explanation though for why we, as Jews, pray. We recognize that lasting success is based on modeling our lives after those who have already succeeded. What better role model could there be than God? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel suggested this approach to Jewish prayer when he stated in Man in Search of God :
As a tree is torn from the soil, as a river is separated from its source, the human soul wanes when detached from what is greater than itself. Without the holy, the good turns chaotic; without the good, beauty becomes accidental. It is the pattern of the impeccable which makes the average possible. It is the attachment to what is spiritually superior: loyalty to a sacred person or idea, devotion to a noble friend or teacher, love for a people or for mankind, which holds our inner life together. But any ideal, human, social, or artistic, if it forms a roof over all of life, shuts us off from the light. Even the palm of one hand may bar the light of the entire sun. Indeed, we must be open to the remote in order to perceive the near. Unless we aspire to the utmost, we shrink to inferiority.
Prayer is our attachment to the utmost.
Jewish theology, at its root, seeks to transform the world into a place of ethical and moral rectitude. It seeks to transform the world into a place where all people recognize the unity and magnificence of the Divine in all of creation. It seeks to transform the nature of humanity so that we consider committing an act of violence against another human to be utterly impossible, because we are all created in the image of God. Jewish theology aims for nothing less than the beating of swords into plowshares.
These goals are so awesome in scope, so radical in what they propose, that any adherent to Judaism could easily be left paralyzed into inaction at just pondering the aims of their faith. It is at that precise moment that we open up our prayer book and aspire to the utmost and, in doing so, find inspiration and encouragement to pursue the path set out before us. In every act of prayer, we express our belief that God created the world with love and purpose, that we, at times, feel hopeless and lost, and that God illustrates what it means to perform deeds of justice and righteousness in the world.
Those of us that follow the Jewish calendar year have just exited an extended period of focused and intense prayer. We have sat in judgment on the New Year, atoned for our transgressions on the Day of Atonement and celebrated Divine providence during the Festival of Booths. This week, we return to the routine of thrice daily prayer. As we find ourselves once again in the routine of Jewish prayer, may we experience the meaning of creation in that moment of prayer. Furthermore, may we know that it is permissible to feel bereft of meaning and hope and that we can express that in our prayers, and, lastly, may we see God as the ultimate role model and translate our verbal prayers into actualized transformative deeds.
Rabbi Ben Greenberg is the Orthodox Jewish Chaplain of Harvard University, and the Orthodox Rabbi of Harvard Hillel.