Surrendering to the Preposterousness of Prayer

Jay Michaelson
From: Making Prayer Real. Rabbi Mike Comins. Jewish Lights Publishing. 2010. pages 34-38.

For many Jews, traditional prayer is a relic of an older form of religion, with a place of prominence in Jewish life but rife with outmoded ideas, language, and forms. Secular Jews, of course, object to the notion of “God,” the deity to which Jews are supposedly praying. Progressive religious Jews object to the theology of a God who selectively listens to prayer-particularly after that God chose not to answer the prayers of the innocent victims of genocide. Other progressives take issue with the gendered language of prayer, with the ethnocentric orientation of traditional Jewish liturgy, or with many of the petitions of the Siddur, such as those asking God to smash our enemies. And rationalists and agnostics of all stripes often find it hard to square the notion of a God who hears and answers prayer with anything remotely resembling a philosophically reflective Jewish theology.

Surprisingly, traditional texts tend to agree. While popular discourse is full of exclamations that prayer changes the mind of God, elite literature tends to focus on how it changes the person doing the praying. Even those texts which do suggest that prayer changes reality do so by means of theological-mystical doctrines such as the Kabbalistic understanding of theurgy. Some Kabbalists believe that prayer is effective because of the combination of letters, for example, while others hold that it works because of the symbolic correspondences of words. But almost none say that God hears prayer in the ordinary senses of those words; it fits neither theology (mystical or philosophical) nor the experience of a people persecuted for many centuries.

But the mind – theology, explanations, rationalizations – is not why we pray in the first place; the heart is. It takes only a moment’s review of the Psalms, still the urtext of Jewish prayer, to see that Jewish prayer is, at its core, devotionalistic in nature. Even Maimonides, the great rationalist, understood prayer as a time for the heart to open. And while the mind may know rational skepticism, nondual panentheism, and other -isms and -ists, the heart knows that it yearns, a desire that includes a yearning to have a yearned-for. Yes, devotion implies a devoted-to. It implies duality and a primitive, problematic notion of God. But who except diehard atheists can really say that, when the chips are down, they don’t turn to a primitive theological idea of God? In the hospital, in the trenches – at such times theology goes out the window, and me heart cries in a language the mind can neither approve nor understand. And similar, though gentler, yearnings are with us all me time: to articulate our hopes, to feel that we are loved, to express gratitude. None of this depends on theology.

Devotion can be embarrassing for thoughtful people. We are trained, those of us who read literary magazines and have a stake in culture and art, to develop our minds, and we are rewarded, with money and degrees and plenty of approbation, for displaying me mental dexterities that show us to be successful and advanced human beings. Sure, there is talk these days of emotional intelligence, and elite culture is itself a concept increasingly under attack. But there persists not only the concept but also rewards for certain kinds of rational behavior in businesses, universities, professions, politics.

So who wants to admit that we remain, on a primal level, in some need of primitive notions of prayer and supplication? All the more so because those who do admit such a need often seem weak-minded or brutish or both: fundamentalists, New Agers, the various dope fiends of religion and spirituality-these are the people who need to cry out to God. The only question for the thinking class is which is worse: the nasty dogmatism of the Evangelist or the fuzzy banality of the California-spiritual.

But let’s admit our basic human needs-albeit with a healthy dose of ambivalence, humility, and even insecurity. Let’s concede that traditional prayer is intellectually incoherent. More than that’ll concede that, at times, it is spiritually counterproductive. If everything happens as it must, rather than how we’d like it to, then what is the point of wishing really hard for it to be otherwise? Indeed, to do so increases delusion, craving, and the denial of What Is-perhaps our best translation for the Ineffable Name, YHVH. Let’s not deny that there’s something a bit vulgar about a prayer for a person’s own well-being, especially when it’s simply for a fatter paycheck or thinner romantic partner. In fact, let’s give up on prayer as making any sense at all.

But let’s not stop praying. Ironically, the very act of admission of surrendering the pretension of sense-making and admitting that yes, damnit, I want to pray; I want to yearn; I want to ask that all-powerful Mother or Father figure for what I need most-this very act is the gateway to authentic prayer itself. Giving up the attempt to square the circle, to make all the parts fit, is a great release of inhibition and the pretensions of knowledge. A great “I don’t know” replaces the arrogant (and ridiculous, if we consider the limits of human knowledge relative to the size of the universe) claims to metaphysical certainty. This “I don’t know” is not defeatism; it is the negative theology of the Cloud of Unknowing, the limits of reason according to Kant, the limits of language according to Wittgenstein, the mystery of Being according to Hegel and Heidegger. This “I don’t know” is the absurdity of Zen, the transrational of Ken Wilber, the transcendent keter of Kabbalah, the impossible unity of emptiness and form. It is that toward which art gestures, the mystery that is rendered banal by explaining, the poetry lost in translation.

From this unknowing springs a kind of permission given by the mind to the heart. Of course, prayer is absurd. Its language is primitive, outmoded, and ridiculous – nearly as ridiculous as love itself. Nor is it strictly necessary. But to those of us who seek to be connoisseurs of the self, to know the intimations and stirrings of our souls, to go without the self-abnegation of prayer is like forgoing music or wine. Yes, life goes on. But without the heart being allowed to cry in the modality of prayer, some of its flavors are drained out, like the industrial foods that pass for produce today.

And so prayer flows from surrender-at first, the mundane surrender of the pretension that I am too sophisticated for prayer, or too intelligent; then, the surrender of the attempt to make it all work out theologically; and finally, the surrender of the “I” itself. In the progressive Jewish world today, you often hear a language of wrestling: with problematic texts, with ideas, with that in which we don’t believe but with which we struggle. But if everything is God, the wrestling of Jacob with the angel is the wrestling of the One with the One. It is not a contest; it is an embrace, an act of love in which God is the only lover. It is a divine role play, one moment taking on the submissive role, allowing, begging, being pressed to the ground, and the next assuming the active role, insisting, demanding, expressing the will. It is none other than the drama of prayer itself, once the demands of the intellect bend to the dance of the imagination.

This is prayer set loose from the repressive shames of the self and the preposterous fantasies of theology. It is the heart dancing, imagining, and of course, projecting. Unlike naive prayer, it does not assume the existence of a separate deity who will answer the petitions of the sufficiently pious. Unlike rationalized prayer, it does not masquerade as meditation or magic. And unlike the avoidance or hesitation of the overly uptight or sophisticated – the religious equivalent of hipsters too cool to dance to simple music – it does not submit the needs of the heart to the cynical auditing of the intellect.

To be sure, the edifying notes of chorus-sung hymns can elevate the refined soul to heights of aesthetic pleasure. So, too, can the dull responsive readings of American Judaism inculcate, in some, the ponderous ethical values of tradition. But give me the guts and tears and life-blood of a prayer unashamed of its nakedness, pleading and demanding, shuckling and clapping, or at times at which the soul is in constriction, just going through the motions in the hope that something, somewhere, will loosen.

Is prayer preposterous? Is it susceptible to dangerous fanaticism and pathetic delusion? Is it, like other erotic acts, unsuitable for polite conversation? Of course. But I, too, am often preposterous, susceptible to danger and error, and impolite. I am also, often, trapped, running to and fro in the service of pointless demands that need to be forcibly interrupted. When enlightened consciousness arises, then, yes, there really is no need for prayer. But the rest of the time, I need to do work to see the obvious – and the type of work varies with the type of lack I experience. Sometimes, the mindful space of meditation quiets the nonsense that masquerades as sense, so that the sense that looks like nonsense can remind me of its truth. Sometimes, the body is the key. And sometimes, what’s needed is the courage to give the heart its due. Sometimes I need to pray even for that.