On Doubt and Prayer (Part 3)

By :  Samuel Barth Posted On Feb 11, 2014 / 5774 | Service of the Heart: Exploring Prayer | Prayer

The droughts experienced recently in California and Israel became so severe that religious leaders of many faith traditions called for special prayers for rain. In the context of the history of Jewish liturgy, this is especially resonant, for much of our earliest data about rabbinic liturgy is based upon the detailed description of prayers for rain in the Mishnah (see Mishnah Ta’anit chapters 1 and 2, and extensive discussion in the Gemara). However, prayers for rain, especially in modernity, also bring us immediately into some of the most challenging contemporary reflections about prayer and ritual: “Does it work?!” Even though meteorology is far from an exact science, I suspect that there are few (if any) climate scientists who would include ritual gatherings, no matter how sincere, among the variables that determine the likelihood of rain.

So, if prayer does not “work” in any way that can be measured scientifically, if our prayers cannot cause the rain to fall, or keep away the enemy bullets; if, in spite of Psalm 91, we cannot “tread safely on vipers and serpents”; if the descriptions and affirmations in the liturgy of God’s capacities do not ring true for us—how then can we pray? How can we, with integrity, even come within the community of those who pray?

It seems to me that this need not be seen as an “all or nothing” question. If we cannot see God as the direct source of rain, or healing, are there other pathways into the world of prayer that are open, especially, to those who find doubts and challenges in their hearts and souls?

The small, simple, second word of every blessing, Ata (You) offers an approach. There is an exaggerated politeness and deference found in protocol for interacting with the most eminent of leaders in society. In a royal court, one would not say to the queen, “Would you like a cup of tea?,” but the preferred language would shift from the second to the third person: “Would Her Majesty like a cup of tea?” It is in some way presumptuous to address an exalted person directly. But our prayers address the Holy One, the most Exalted of all, and immediately use the most intimate form of language: we say to God, “You”(Ata). To turn in a private moment to the “Eternal Other,” to know or dream or “pray” that we are not alone in the universe, perhaps that might be a starting point for many. Martin Buber suggests that many of our relationships and engagements in the world are at the level of “I-It”—we seek information, privilege, objective data. How tall is the building? How much money will I be paid?

But there is another level of relationship that Buber (poetically) designates as “I-Thou.” Such a relationship does not engage that which can be quantified, but seeks that which can be experienced and shared. To reach out for the Other, for the “Eternal Thou.” Every blessing, every utterance of spiritual yearning, every moment in a sacred space amidst a holy community invites us to seek the Eternal, who is waiting for us.

Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev wrote his famous poem “A Dudele” seeing God (addressed as “Thou”) as the only reality:

Read the full text in Yiddish and English, and listen to recordings by Yitzhak Perlman and Hazzan Meir Helfgot and Jan Peerce.

As always, I am interested in hearing comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at sabarth@jtsa.edu.