Rethinking the Theology of Prayer (Part 1)

Hello everyone,

I thought it would be nice to focus on a topic that I think many of us struggle with–prayer. Here are a few of my meditations.

In our modern age, it is not uncommon for people to think of traditional prayer as childish, if not absurd. Many years ago, I came across an interesting theological objection to the enterprise of petitionary  prayer: If God is allegedly “Omniscient,” then surely God knows what we mortals need, without having us to remind Him!” The question gets even more complex. The individual of the 21st century generally believes more in the physics of natural law than the metaphysics of mysticism.

In a universe governed by natural law, is asking God to alter the laws of physics even appropriate? To petition God in prayer, or to suggest that God can somehow be persuaded to “change His mind,” or show “sympathy” and “mercy” is, from a strict Maimonidean perspective, theologically pointless—even ridiculous. Following Maimonides’ attitude on this subject, the late Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, Lord Jakobovits plainly admits:

“What purpose can be served by formulating our pleas to God? Does the all-knowing God, who knows our needs better than we do, require their articulation of what we feel in our hearts? Still more difficult theologically, how can we hope by prayer to change His will? Our very belief in the efficacy of our petitions would seem to challenge God’s immutability, and even questions His justice, since we should assume that whatever fate He decrees for man is essentially just; why, therefore, do we seek to reverse it?…  But such questions are based on a false, indeed pagan, understanding of prayer as a means of pacifying and propitiating the deity and thus of earning its favors. It was against these perverse notions that the Hebrew Prophets directed their denunciations so fiercely when they fulminated against the heathen form of sacrifices, the original form of worship later replaced by prayer. Like sacrifices, prayer is intended to change man not God. Its purpose is to cultivate a contrite heart, to promote feelings of humility and inadequacy in man, whilst encouraging reliance on Divine assistance. Through prayer, the worshiper becomes chastened, gains moral strength and intensifies the quest of spirituality, thereby turning into a person worthy of response to his pleas.” [1]

According to Maimonides, it is not God who must do the “changing,” rather it is humankind that must do the changing, through prayer and the spirit of penitence. Once the individual changes his/her attitudes and behavior, their perception of God in the world will become greatly enhanced. Maimonides’ attitude is consistent with his other ideas about progressive religion; the Torah sometimes adopts practices that may not necessarily be philosophically sound, but nevertheless serve as a stop-gap until humanity’s next step in its spiritual development and evolution.

Indeed, without these measures being taken, humankind will never evolve to a higher form of worship. In terms of its functional value, intercessory and petitionary prayer serves more of a heuristic purpose in reminding the worshiper that Israel governed by purely secular forces that operate in the world. To eliminate this type of prayer would only lead to national cynicism of Israel’s spiritual vocation.

In one famous passage of the Guide, Maimonides confesses that in evolutionary terms, petitionary prayer represents only a relative improvement over the animal sacrifices the Israelites offered in ancient times. Still and all, as a religious pragmatist, Maimonides knew that purging the liturgy of all its anthropomorphic metaphors would be regarded by the masses as a scandalous act. It would be like Moses attempting to eradicate the Israelite’s desire to offer sacrifices as a way of worship. Had he done so, he certainly would have met stiff resistance!

. . .  At that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times, calling upon the people to worship God, would say, “God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all.[2]

Although intercessory prayer is a concession fraught with linguistic pitfalls, Maimonides felt convinced that most human beings are, unfortunately, incapable of experiencing the grandeur of contemplative meditation. The true worshiper knows the limitations of the spoken word, and realizes that there is no earthly analogy that can do justice in describing the Creator. Yet, were we to eliminate intercessory prayer from the liturgy, the very fabric of our religious and spiritual life would unravel and ultimately disappear.

Regardless of Maimonides’ ambivalence about the nature of intercessory or petitionary prayer, he accepted its place in the spiritual evolution of human consciousness. Perhaps Maimonides felt that this was a small price for the eventual good that it would eventually germinate. God does not work against human nature, but instead patiently prods it along, directing it towards its ultimate destiny. Perhaps as human beings developed, simplistic prayer would eventually be replaced with the silence of the contemplative meditative experience.

But was Maimonides really correct? Stay tuned for more!


[1] S. Singer and Immanuel Jakobovits (foreword), The Authorised Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (Cambridge: Press Syndicate of University of Cambridge), xvi.

[2] Guide of the Perplexed, Shlomo Pines (tr.), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 526.

3 thoughts on “Rethinking the Theology of Prayer (Part 1)

  1. Yochanan Lavie says:

    Yeshayahu Leibovitz said we should pray simply because we’re commanded to. I find his position logical, but emotionally unappealing. There’s got to be a better reason.

  2. admin says:

    Leibovitz (the brother of Nechama, the bible scholar) was in my opinion a religious behaviorist, not much different from John B. Watson (1878-1958). Watson did not believe in consciousness or soul at all. Freud was like a flaming Haredi or Hasid compared to Watson, who happens to be my least favorite psychologist of the 20th century.

    Now, with respect to being “commanded” to pray, I will use Hasdai Crescas’s famous argument about faith that he formulated in the 15th century: If you believe in God, you do not need a mitzvah to command faith; if you have no faith, then no commandment is going to force you to “believe.”

  3. thomas says:

    I believe prayer is like prophecy in that God fulfills the words. As God says, he fulfills the words of his prophets.
    Prophecy is God’s word. I believe God speaks the word, God fulfills the word, and the word returns to God fulfilled. Similiarly, when we prayer, we speak the words and we hope God will fulfill our words, and we hope our prayers return to us fulfilled by God. It is then that we begin to see that God’s will is perfect and his commandments are pure love. Then our prayer become a form of worship instead of a form of pleading.

    Thank you very much.

    God saves.

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