Just a Thought: On the meaning of prayer

The siddur is ironically both the most popular book in Judaism, and least understood and studied.

Siddur 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Siddur 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
The siddur is ironically both the most popular book in Judaism, and least understood and studied.
While a synagogue might pride itself on having three or even four copies of the Talmud, it must ensure that it has enough copies of the siddur for each and every congregant. If you multiply that by all the synagogues, educational institutions and Jewish homes in the world, the number becomes astronomical.
The siddur consists of prayers that were either taken directly from the Bible, or composed during the eras of the Temple, the Mishna, the Talmud, the Middle Ages or the modern period. Sometimes texts from different eras are interwoven within a single prayer. Although these prayers represent vastly different voices, like a choir, they form one song.
But why do we pray? The Jew meets God in prayer and has his day revolve around the necessities of prayer more than is the case with most other mitzvot. The sages have informed us that “prayer is more precious than sacrifices,” and some go so far as to say that “prayer is greater than good deeds.” Why? The truth is that asking why we pray is like asking why we breathe: “The reason we pray,” says philosopher William James, “is simply because we have to.” We pray because it is the natural reaction we have to the beauty of the world. It is the reflex that pours forth from our mouths when we are in distress or overcome with gratitude and have no one to thank. We pray because we have a need to connect with our Father in heaven.
Since the very beginning of our history we have prayed. The patriarchs and matriarch were all described as people who pray. We seek to emulate them when we add our voices to the rhythms and sounds they made in trying to create a bridge between the material and the spiritual.
Still, perhaps the best way to answer the question is to exercise some negative theology and examine the reasons we don’t pray.
First and foremost, we do not pray in order to tell an All-Wise God what to do, and we don’t pray to prompt an All-Good God to do good. “For infinite wisdom does not need telling what is best,” says C.S. Lewis, “and infinite goodness needs no urging to do it.”
Nor do we pray because it “works.” If prayer always “worked,” it would mean that the power is not with the divine, but with us and our ability to manipulate God to do our will. This would be an example of magic, not prayer. Yet, sometimes, we need to pretend that it works. “God,” said Pascal, “instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality.”
Rabbi Louis Jacobs believed that prayer was worthless without a belief that God was somehow really being addressed. The word Jacobs uses is “accosted”; he says one cannot pray without faith in Man’s ability to accost God. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “accost” as “approach and address (someone) boldly or aggressively.”
Sometimes, the purpose of accosting is not to achieve any other end save the confrontation alone. We pray to approach and address God. Not to get what we want, but simply to be heard.
In addition, Jewish prayer gives one the opportunity to insert oneself into Jewish consciousness. One recites the same words that have been recited for millennia and address the God of Israel in much the same way He has been addressed since we first met Him. Through prayer we step into the same roles in which we have been cast since the beginning of time.
Yet I think one of the best explanations I have ever seen for prayer came from C.S.
Lewis, who wrote: “Prayer is either a sheer illusion or a personal contact between embryonic, incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person. Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine. In it God shows Himself to us. That He answers prayers is a corollary – not necessarily the most important one – from that revelation. What He does is learned from what He is.”
In other words, we pray in order to stand in the presence of God. We make requests as the fig leaf for our meeting, but the real goal of that meeting is just to spend time together. When a man courts a woman and asks her out for dinner, or to go ice skating, the goal isn’t the need for food or fun; these are just excuses for two people to be together. And that is the purpose of prayer – to spend a few minutes with God, enjoying each other’s company.
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.