Wednesday, 17 Aug 2011

Written by Rabbi Larry Tabick

What is prayer? This is one of those questions that seem to have an obvious answer, until we begin to consider it more closely. If you think of yourself as religious in any way, you probably engage in prayer regularly, but what do you think you are doing?

My guess is that most people would define prayer as talking to God, and within that definition, there are at least two different approaches: praying your own prayers from the heart, and praying other people’s prayers using a prayer book. Either way, we are talking to God … or so it would seem.

In parashat Ekev we find the following verse: ‘[God] is your praise and is your God’ (Deuteronomy 10:21). The phrase ‘[God] is your praise’, clearly means that God should be the object of our praise; but Pinchas of Koretz, an eighteenth century Hasidic teacher and contemporary of the Ba‘al Shem Tov, prefers to understand the Biblical phrase in a literal fashion, and this leads him to contrast two very different approaches to prayer. Here is what he says:

On the verse: ‘[God] is your praise and is your God.’ The prayer that a person speaks is itself divine… But those who pray before the Holy Blessed One as if the prayer were something else are like those who receive something from outside, like servants who make requests and the king commands that their wish be fulfilled. In contrast to them are those for whom the prayer is itself divine – they are like children [of a king] who search in the king’s treasury and themselves take what they want, because they are trusted by the Holy Blessed One…
Pinchas of Koretz (1726-1791), ’Imre Pinchas (‘Pinchas’ Words’) (Tel Aviv, 1974), §123, p. 40.

On one side, he places the more ‘normal’, we might say, ‘western’ view of prayer as a conversation between the worshipper and God, in which the three elements (God, the worshipper and the prayer itself) are separate and distinct.

On the other side, he posits a different, more ‘eastern’ view, which he reads into his literal rendering of the text. Your praise is God! So are you, because ultimately everything derives from God and partakes of God’s divinity. In this view, the three elements are essentially one. This turns prayer from a conversation into a meditation.

This grants enormous power, and, by implication, responsibility, to the worshipper, but also reflects a more intimate connection with God. It means that prayer is our opportunity to reflect on our essential unity with the divine. We are not supplicants asking God to intervene to save us; we are full participants in the divine enterprise that is the world and life. If our hearts and minds are pure, we can purify the world.

For many post-modern people, the traditional ‘western’ notions of God and prayer are outmoded so they turn to ‘eastern’ religions in search of alternatives. In Judaism at least, however, these alternatives have been present for some time, as the passage from Pinchas of Koretz demonstrates. It is not necessary for Jews to look elsewhere for a doctrine of God within.

Rabbi Larry Tabick
August 2011

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.