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Is Prayer Magic?

by Harold M. Schulweis

Most people don't pray, not in the synagogue, not at home, not on the golf course, except for a divine expletive or in response to a sneeze – "gesundheit." God bless you.

The reasons that are normally given are not real. "I don't know Hebrew."

(Then read in English.)

Most people don't pray because for them prayer doesn't work. Prayer has no cash value. Ours is a pragmatic society, a utilitarian culture. Things have to pay off, there must be dividends. "Crime doesn't pay.” It's the best argument for avoiding criminal behavior.

If prayer worked for us, the shul would be more crowded than a Las Vegas casino. You'd have to be a fool not to pray to the Great Dealer in the sky who owns all the chips. No boredom here, placing a chip on the red or black square or pulling the handles repeatedly, relentlessly on the slot machine. All that pulling is repetitious, but it's important because you can win. To convince people about prayer, show that it's a winner.

Blaise Pascal, the 17th century philosopher, understood the bettor's mentality. He devised a wager that contended that it is smarter to pray than not to pray: If there is a God and you pray to Him, you're going to get something; if there is a God and you don't pray to Him, you're going to lose something; if there is no God and you pray to Him, what have you got to lose? And that's not a bad argument for religious gamblers. It may explain why in certain circumstances people still do pray. Who knows what people on the death bed may calculate: That after all, to pray now, who knows, there really may be a God and if not, what have they got to lose? But when we are healthy and normal and things are going all right,  prayer seems to be a waste of time and energy.

Prayer is to answer petition. Even thanksgiving prayer seems designed to lubricate the machinery for winning a hand - a king or queen or ace. Pray to supplicate, to beg. In Latin, "precare" is a term etymologically and psychologically associated with “preserve.”  And the Jewish folk humor about prayer is invariably about pragmatics. There is the story of Chayim who prays to God–  “Ribono shel ha-olam"…  I come to you for shacharit, for minchah, and for maariv,  and I ask that You give me a little mazel. Let me win a lottery tablet. Ribono shel ha-olam, why don't You respond?" And God answers, "Because Chayim you're a terrible nudnik. And besides which Chayim, you simply have to buy a lottery ticket."

Even children follow Pascal's logic. I once asked Miranda if she ever prayed before a math exam. She said no. She explained, "I don't pray for math because I'm good in math. I pray before geography tests. I'm not good in geography."

We want prayer to work. In fact, for most people prayer is closest to magic. Magic is practical. You want certain results and you want to be able to get it. To get results there are certain formulas, certain chants, certain incantations, and that magic is going to be a shortcut to your desire. In magic, you have to use certain words. You have to say “open sesame” and only then will the cave open. If you forget the right word and use another word, the cave will not open. There is a formula to magic, a name to magic – “abbra-cadabbra” is a word that has a magic of its own. According to some scholars, “abbra-cadabbra” can be traced to a form of Gnosticism, and the word “abbra-cadabbra” is made up of three words:   The first word is "aba," which means father, the second is "bar," which means son, and the third is "ruach," for the holy spirit. This word was written over and over again on a parchment in various geometric forms and folded into a cross.  “Abbra-cadabbra” is a talisman hung on a string around the neck of an afflicted person.

Magic is formulaic, it is a shortcut and it has power. The magician has power and he has the wisdom to know the secret word that will give him that power. Significantly in Judaism, God is nameless.  God has no name. The name of God is ineffable. One cannot pronounce His name (four consonants = tetra grammatic). The reason for that is that if you know the name of God you think you can control God, you can manipulate God, you can use the formula of His name for any purpose that you want. But the namelessness of God, the fact that throughout the Bible Moses tries to find out what God's real name is and God avoids telling him what it is. He gives him an enigmatic answer like, "I am that I am.”   That illustrated the opposition of Judaism to magic, sorcery, witchcraft, shortcuts to God.

What has this digression to do with prayer? Everything. Magic is not prayer and prayer is not magic. In magic, you are concerned with getting the end and you don't care about the meaning or character of the means. Magic is impersonal. In prayer,  you have to be concerned with the means to achieve that end and those means that achieve the end invariably depend upon you, your attitude, your mind, heart and soul.

Let me give you a illustration. A child asks. "Can I pray for an 'A'?" That child is interested in the end, and she expects that in prayer she can touch some secret occult power that will give her the result that she wants. So the proper answer to the question "Can I pray for an 'A'?" is "No.” You can pray properly for the means for getting that “A.” You have to pray to pray to that within you that can achieve that “A.”

This is the beautiful prayer that we recite in the morning:  "Imbue us with the will to understand, to discern, to hearken, to learn, to teach and to obey. To practice and to fulfill all the teachings of Thy Torah.”  The child must be taught that prayer must be worthy. The worthy end is not getting the “A.”  The important thing is the growth and learning for which you may receive a sign of accomplishment. Just to get an “A,” just to get on the Dean's list without any effort, without any growth, without any maturity, without any knowledge, is to miss the whole point of life and education. It is, incidentally, why scandals in colleges and military academies are reported each year. College students steal the tests, cheat on the exams. They are result oriented. But their prayers are not "worthship," the original spelling and meaning of "worship."

Prayer is not wild and frenzied wishful thinking, applauding wildly to Peter Pan's instructions to give Tinkerbell life and not allow the light to be extinguished. That wishing is magic. Prayer, as opposed to magic, requires an awareness of the world and its limits and its reality. Prayer is directed to the means whereby with effort we appropriate the end.

You have to be sane and sober before you pray.  Rav said, "He whose mind is not quieted should not pray." Rav Hanina was warned not to pray when he was irritated (Talmud Erubin 65a). The explanation is that he who is in distress should not make decisions. To pray is to make the most important decisions in our lives. Prayer requires wisdom. As J. B. Soloveitchik had written, "To pray means to discriminate, to evaluate to understand, in other words to ask intelligently.” The very first prayer in the week day petitions before you pray for anything is to pray for wisdom. You grace man with understanding, and give him knowledge:  "Grant us knowledge, understanding, and discernment. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who bestowest knowledge on the human beings."

You need knowledge because there are limits to prayer. You can't pray for anything that you want. You can't, for example, pray that this amputated limb should suddenly spring to life. You can pray for courage. You can pray for the acquisition of prosthetics. You can't pray for things which violate the laws of logic or the laws of nature. You have to respect nature and nature's laws.

Pertinent here is the Talmudic discussion (Brachoth 54a) of foolish or vain prayers – tefillat shav. You cannot pray to God that the embryo of a woman advanced in her pregnancy should be a male child. The prohibition here is not in opposition to your genderism, the fact that you favor a male child over a female child, but because you fly against the way of nature, you show ignorance of the irreversibility of time. As the rabbis put it, whoever cries out over matters which already have happened pronounces a vain prayer. If on returning from a journey a person hears the sounds of wailing and lamentation, one cannot pray "May it be thy will that they who make lamentation not be of my house.” The reasons why that is regarded a vain prayer, it seems to me, is that first of all whatever happened has happened and you can't reverse it. And secondly, I think, it is because it is morally obscene to pray that it should be somebody else's loss and not my own.

It is important to understand that Jewish prayer is not magic. Prayer is no surrogate for action or for effort. Prayer is not magical thinking in which you depend entirely on forces outside of your own self. You depend on the magician, on the formula, on the incantation.

In prayer, you pray to move God. But the way you move God is through moving the divine in yourself. If you divide God from the image of the divinity within you, if you separate the two, then you speak about moving God without it affecting you at all. You ask “Can I move God?” without asking whether you can move yourself. You ask "Does God listen to prayer?" instead of asking "Am I listening to my prayer?” All your questions are directed toward somebody totally other than yourself. But the purpose of prayer is to activate the godly in and between ourselves. To put it more bluntly, we cannot pray for anything that doesn't call on us to do something –  whether it's in terms of our attitude, our will, our energy, or our intelligence. You can't pray for health, however earnestly, by expecting God to say “yes or no.”  To pray for health means that you take seriously the means and meaning of health. You can't properly pray to God for health with a cigarette in your mouth or a hot pastrami sandwich in your hand. You can't pray to God for peace with folded arms, crossed legs, and unopened hands. As Rav puts it in the Talmud, “Man's prayer is not accepted unless he puts his heart in his hands" (Taanit 8a). Prayer is meant to move you, otherwise you depend upon magical thinking. You cannot pray for peace and do nothing about it. You cannot pray that God should love the Jewish people without expressing your love for the Jewish people, nor pray for the rebuilding of Israel without personal involvement.

Does prayer work? Only if you do. If you expect magical results. it's foolish to pray. Prayer works only if you are willing to work with it. It is dangerous to confuse prayer and magic. So when the child or yourself asks “Can I pray for anything?” the answer really has to be thought out very carefully.

A further illustration of a good answer that turns out to have terrible consequences: Susie has asked for a doll. She has wanted it for Hanukkah. She has prayed for it and behaved very well to get it. She didn't get it. She asks her parents if God hears prayer. They tell her to speak to the rabbi. The rabbi says, "Of course God hears prayer." Susie asks if He answers them. The rabbi says, "Of course He answers them." "Well," she says, "what about my doll?" The rabbi answers "Well I didn't say that God always says yes. God said no."  That 's a very satisfying answer for the moment, because, after all, to ask for a doll is a trivial matter. But it opens up Pandora's Box. Three years have passed, and Susie's mother is deathly ill. Susie is desperately worried. She prays hard for the recovery of her mother. Susie's mother dies. What is Susie to make of this? Can she lean upon the rabbi's answer and say simply, “God said no”? Would any of us want to develop such a theology? If we do, a whole dust of problems rises. Why did God say "no"? Was it my fault that my mother died? Was it because there was something wrong with my mother that caused God to say no? Was this a punishment? If so, what did any of us do? So to treat prayer as a petition for getting results creates more problems for faith than we would suspect. In prayer, you cannot come to God without coming through yourself and through your community.  The nineteenth century neo-Orthodox theologian Samson Raphael Hirsch explains the Hebrew root of the term prayer as self-judgment.  

The self who prays is connected to the whole community. That is why we pray ideally in a community and in matters of holiness with a minyan. That minyan focuses attention to this world and to the needs of this world. Individual prayer within the community appeals to the collective conscience of my people. In the earthquake, I sought my people for wisdom and consolation. "If the community is in trouble a person must not say I will go to my house and eat and drink and peace shall be with thee, O my soul. But a man must share in the trouble of the community, even as Moses did. He who shares in the troubles are worthy to see its consolations" (Taanit 11a).

Prayer is not magic. Prayer is built on the foundation of reality and morality. Prayer brings me to the community through which communion is experienced.


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