Why must we worship God? Rabbi Louis Jacobs asks the question that should bother
every Jew. “If all the details of divine worship are so interpreted that they
are seen to have as their sole purpose the enrichment of human life, then the
man who carries them out is a self worshiper, or [at] best, a worshiper of human
society, rather than a worshiper of God. If, on the other hand, worship is for
God’s sake the obvious theological difficulty arises, how can God be said to
need man’s worship?” Jacobs further argues that “the dilemma is insoluble for
one who sees it from the outside.
But for the Jews – who see it from
within, who live by the Torah and in the performance of mitzvot, the difficulty
For them there is no doubt that worship is for God’s sake in
the sense that it is a giving of the self to the Creator – God wants us to
worship Him because man can have no higher privilege than the opportunity to
reach towards the infinite.”
Judaism defines worship of God in three
ways. The first is in prayer, the second in performance of the commandments and
the third is learning Torah. A thorough examination of each of the three would
lead to volumes of study. What I would like to briefly look at here is the first
mode of worship, prayer. Why would or should we, for that matter, pray? It would
seem that the question is sharpened by the fact that the Jew meets God in prayer
more often and has his day revolve around the necessities of prayer more than
most other mitzvot. The sages have informed us that “prayer is more precious
than sacrifices,” and some go so far as to say “prayer is greater than good
deeds.” Why would that be so? Prayer falls into four categories: petition,
intercession, praise and contemplation. All of these serve as a bridge over the
abyss between man and his Creator. Michael Fishbane writes that “the details of
prayer life give expression to the essential realization that no area of human
existence is irrelevant before God and that no earthly pain or productivity is
separable from divine reality.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls prayer a way
to “experience commonplace deeds as spiritual adventures, to feel the hidden
love and wisdom in all things.”
Is what Heschel is describing not the
essence of the Torah’s goals for mankind? Heschel calls this approach radical
His doctrine of radical amazement sees prayer and blessings as
a means of expressing how wondrous this world is and directing our amazement and
appreciation toward God.
Prayers and blessings in Judaism are both
spontaneous and set. They are institutionalized and extemporaneous. We pray in
service to God, and in gratitude to Him. We pray for peace, health and
redemption, and we pray before we eat or drink. We pray before we pick up a
lulav, and after we answer the call of nature. We pray when we see lightning,
and pray when we see a gentile king or scholar.
everything we do, because Jewish theology demands we see God in everything.
Since man more often than not ceases to see wonder and beholds routine instead,
Judaism institutionalizes prayer to train man not forget how amazing all of
One of the loudest complaints heard about Jewish prayer is
that it comprises a set text repeated almost verbatim three times a day. I often
ask my students in a lesson on prayer to take the opportunity in class to write
their own prayers out. I tell them to try in their own words to replace the set
text that Judaism has written out for them in the siddur (prayer book). The
students’ prayers (some more eloquent than others) rarely exceed 60 seconds to
read out loud (most are in the 30-second range). And while prayer is never to be
measured in length, it is hard not to take notice of how little time each day
these students would devote to contemplation of the divine if left to their own
The more interesting observation, though, isn’t in what their
prayers say, but what their prayers don’t say. The Amida, the main Jewish
prayer, recited thrice daily, is made up of 19 blessings. It is rare for any of
my students to cover in their written prayers more than five or six of the
topics covered in the Amida.
This means that when it comes down to it
these topics aren’t part of their consciousness.
I do not blame them; I
cannot claim that most of the blessings of the Amida are part of my
The lesson I believe the sages mean to convey with
the set text of the Amida is that these are things you should be caring
Yes, they might not be close to your heart or at the tip of your
tongue, so that’s why we included them here.
These are the things that
Jews throughout the world and throughout the millennia should be focused on and
directing their energies toward. When I pray for the restoration of justice, it
is a subtle message to myself that this world is one in which justice is
When I pray for the restoration of the Temple sacrifices it
makes me sensitive to their absence. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch said it best
when he said that the prayer book is our catechism.
If you truly want to
know what Jews believe or think, or at least what they should believe and think
about, then look no further than our liturgy. Theologians and philosophers have
spilled gallons of ink arguing about the parameters of Jewish belief and trying
to define it. The reality though is that the answer was in our siddur all the
time! The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently
teaches in many posthigh- school yeshivot and midrashot.
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