Sunday, February 15, 2009

Prayer As A Concession To Human Nature.

We cannot know the essence of God; we can only know that such an entity exists, where the word existence itself, in this context, is not what we know existence to be. Any description, attribute or any other designation of God is only a verbal construct that we use in communicating and thinking. These words are descriptions of what we as humans believe are traits of an entity that could have caused existence, as we know it to exist. They are intrinsically untrue and artificial words. However, as humans we have no choice but to use these words to communicate both, with each other and internally, to ourselves, when we want to translate an abstract concept into something that we can call reality. If daily prayer is an expression of this meditation, how do we verbalize it without saying falsehoods? In fact why pray at all?

“The idea is best expressed in the book of Psalms, "Silence is praise to Thee" (65:2). It is a very expressive remark on this subject; for whatever we utter with the intention of extolling and of praising Him, contains something that cannot be applied to God, and includes derogatory expressions. It is therefore more becoming to be silent, and to be content with intellectual reflection, as has been recommended by men of the highest culture, in the words "Commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still" (Ps. iv. 4).” (MN 1:59)

In fact, prayer has the same inherent problem that exists with Korbanot, burnt offerings. In our contemporary society, the latter stands out as an archaic custom and raise the hackles of modern man. If we were to think about it more carefully, any form of physical expression of worship should be suspect and questioned. What exactly are we doing? Are we bribing God or cajoling Him? What does it mean to worship? If prayer is worship, why is it better than bringing burnt offerings? Korbanot, with their animal slaughter, offend modern sensibilities but in reality prayer as worship should just as strongly offend our theological and ontological understanding of God. Why should an omnipotent entity that is the First Cause and the only non-contingent entity require us to worship Him? Does it not suggest a lack of self-confidence?

The surprising answer is that just like Korbanot; prayer is a concession to our humaneness. We as human beings, whose existence is rooted in a physical world, cannot operate in an abstract conceptual realm only. We need to express our abstract thoughts. In MN 3:32, the famous chapter where Rambam expounds his controversial explanation of Korbanot, he explains that human beings are conditioned to worship. Although the ideal would be to just meditate internally without giving expression to these thoughts -

“It would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble. If he told us that, we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action. For this reason, God allowed these kinds of service to continue.”

Note how he lumps together all types of worship including prayer and discusses prayer as a contemporary form of such an expression. The idea is that just meditation and no further worship or any physical action would be the ideal but impractical. The danger with this concession is that if the form this worship takes is left to the untrammeled human imagination, all kinds of bizarre practices emerge. As I discuss in depth in my article in Hakirah (available in full on line at ) unregulated worship is at the root of Avodah Zara. That is why the concession comes with very restrictive and punctilious regulation. Halacha is saying that if we want to express our emotions and feelings that result from our meditation, we have to do it in a minutely detailed prescribed form. Just as Korbanot are strictly regulated, so too must Tefilah be, if to a lesser extent as, after all, verbal expression is closer to meditation than the action packed Korbanot.

You must surely know the following celebrated passage in the Talmud--would that all passages in the Talmud were like that! Although it is known to you, I quote it literally, as I wish to point out to you the ideas contained in it. "A certain person, reading prayers in the presence of Rabbi Hanina, said, 'God, the great, the valiant and the tremendous, the powerful, the strong, and the mighty.' The rabbi said to him, have you finished all the praises of your Master? The three epithets, 'God, the great, the valiant and the tremendous,' we should not have applied to God, had Moses not mentioned them in the Law, and had not the men of the Great Synagogue come forward subsequently and established their use in the prayer; and you say all this! Let this be illustrated by a parable. There was once an earthly king, possessing millions of gold coin; he was praised for owning millions of silver coin; was this not really dispraise to him?" Thus far is the opinion of the pious rabbi. Consider, first, how repulsive and annoying the accumulation of all these positive attributes was to him; next, how he showed that, if we had only to follow our reason, we should never have composed these prayers, and we should not have uttered any of them. However, it has become necessary to address men in words that should leave some idea in their minds, and, in accordance with the saying of our Sages, "The Torah speaks in the language of men." The Creator has been described to us in terms of our own perfections; but we should not on that account, have uttered any other than the three above-mentioned attributes, and we should not have used them as names of God except when meeting with them in reading the Law. … Were it not for the first reason, we should never have uttered them; and were it not for the second reason, we should not have copied them from the Pentateuch to recite them in our prayers; how then could we approve of the use of those numerous attributes!” (MN 1:59)

To be continued…

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