Redefining the role of prayer in a modern age is one of modern Judaism’s greatest challenges. This is true not only of Judaism, but of all religion as well. I see prayer primarily in existential terms.
Prayer is rooted in the conviction that there is more to human life and consciousness than just the five-sensory world we experience. Our hunger and yearning the meaning of the universe and our lives prompts us to move from the ordinary to a reality that is extraordinary and profound. It is precisely when this impulse is frustrated, we feel alienated and apart from the deepest spiritual dimension of our lives. Human loneliness can be transcended if we can discover the Ultimate that is not only Present within the world, but beyond it as well. Sufi tales, like the Hassidic stories, touch upon the universal truths that bind us together.
Once somebody dared the Sufi master Halqavi to go before the presence of a certain king and say a disparaging remark that would most likely cost him his life. Without hesitation, he accepted the challenge. As soon as he was shown the throne-room, the king–a capricious character said, “Since you are reputed to be so clever, for my amusement, to say something which nobody who is present can say.” Once again, without the slightest pause, the Sufi said, “I am not in Your Presence.”
This Sufi story has its parallels in the old Midrashic stories depicting the ever-closeness of God. When we pray, we become aware that we are standing in the Presence of God, before Whom, our tradition says, “There is no place that is void of the Divine Presence.”
It is funny how our language is couched in the geometry of time and space. Sometimes we imagine that God is “out there,” when we pray “to” God. However, in truth, our prayers do not have to travel through some ethereal space to God. God’s Presence is much more non-localized then we ever imagined possible. He is here at this moment and not here at the same time — Hidden but yet revealed — all at the same time. Prayer awakens within us a sense of unity we feel in the heart of our soul.
Although God transcends the world, He infuses it with soul and existence. He is paradoxically close and yet infinitely distant. He is closer to us than we are to ourselves. He is not perceivable even when His Presence is encountered, yet He is present even when His absence is most felt. He is inherent in the world and but not contained in it; He embraces it and nevertheless is not confined by it. God’s Presence surrounds us in ways we can never fully know or understand.
Now, thus far I have used masculine imagery to explain God’s relationship to the world. Let’s use feminine metaphors to convey the same truth, which should present to the reader an altogether different perspective.
Although God transcends the world, She infuses it with soul and existence. She is paradoxically close and yet infinitely distant. She is closer to us than we are to ourselves. She is not perceivable even when Her Presence is encountered, yet She is present even when Her absence is most felt. She is inherent in the world and but not contained in it; She embraces it and nevertheless is not confined by it. Her Presence surrounds us in ways we can never fully know or understand.
The time has finally come for us to realize that our concepts of God are invariably mediated through human language, which reveals concepts much like a prism refracts light. We cannot help but conceive of God through our unique cognitive and cultural lens. The Zohar certainly intimates this truth in one of its more profound statements concerning the gender inclusiveness of the Divine,“High mysteries are revealed in these two verses ‘Male and Female He created them’ (Gen. 1:27) to make known the Glory on high, the mystery of faith, out of this mystery, Adam was created. . . . Any image that does not embrace male and female is not a high and true image.”
 Daniel Matt, Zohar, The Book of Enlightenment (Philadelphia: Paulist Press, 1983), 55.