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Drash Why Pray | What is the Purpose of Prayer

Drash, March 2005 By Mark Berch

         Why pray --- what is the purpose of Prayer?

         For many Jews, prayer is a significant piece of what they do as Jews, but why do it?  There is a huge Jewish literature on prayer. Most of it deals with the "what" of prayer --- the text and meanings of particular prayers. There is still more on the "how" and "when", the rules of recitation.  But the "why" of prayer is usually addressed briefly or not at all. Indeed, the Bible itself does not specifically command us to pray to God.[1]

         In fact, it sometimes seems like we have an ample collection of reasons not to pray. There is for example, the Holocaust. God, it might seem, was indifferent to the most basic human need to survive, so why would God harken unto prayer? And there is the ascendancy of Science, which is what modern Jews tend to turn to for "The Answers", and which seems to portray a deterministic universe which has little or no room for the spirit.  And there is "our seeming needlessness, out fatness", our "placidity and contentment".[2] What is there to pray for?

         Still, people do pray.  But without a clear notion of why, the prayer process risks a slide into meaninglessness.  These evening, I want to give you a broad sampling of views of modern Jewish thinkers on this question. It is my hope that, at least for some of you, one of these answers will make a lot of sense; one of these approaches will work for you.  The ideas presented are not necessarily original to the person who espoused them.  And these are certainly not the only notions these thinkers espoused, and believe me, they were set forth in far greater depth than you will hear tonight. Some will seem to overlap, or express similar ideas in different words.  Still, you'll get at least the essence of ideas which were set forth.

         I'd like to start with Yeshayahu Leibowitz[3] because in some ways his answer is the simplest and the starkest.

         Leibowitz[4] was a vigorous Zionist and humanist, and a relentless and controversial iconoclast. [5]

         Leibowitz asserted that halakha, the framework of our tradition, "is itself a complete and exhaustive expression of the nature of Judaism." Nothing else would do. Monotheism is fine, but theological formulations vary so widely that some Jews will find the beliefs of others pagan or rubbish. "Articles of faith were the subject of violent dispute. Even the idea of divine unity has been interpreted in radically different ways."  Leibowitz argues that "Judaism was not perpetuated throughout history by a community of believers ... but by a community that lived a disciplined way of life within the frame of reference defined by halakha."  Our continuity is not one of theology or belief or culture or philosophy, but a continuity of religious practice. That practice - the observance of halakha - is the tangible form of one's commitment to Judaism.

         This special status for Halakha didn't necessarily have anything to do with revelation. It arose from "its empirical role in history".  The life within halakha has been what has provided continuity. Similarly, "the Jewish prayer book is a normative text by virtue of the fact that it is a living testimony to how Jews prayed."  The prayer book, after all, does not seek to justify itself or comment on itself. It doesn't actually say how or why to pray. It just says, these are the prayers that, historically, Jews have said. They have been authenticated in this way, and they are obligatory because Jews have held them to be part of what Halakha demands.

         Prayer is a mitzvah, an act required by halakha.  We pray because we are supposed to pray.  By praying we fulfill our obligations. "Prayer", he argues, "has no unique ... status in a Judaic way of life. Like every other mitzvah, prayer should be regarded as one of the prescribed mitzvot that define the uniqueness of Judaism as a continuing historical religion." In performing any of the mitzvot, you serve God; you meet your obligation "to make God the center of your universe."

         For him, worship is in no way utilitarian. Indeed, "worship of God must be totally devoid of instrumental considerations" --- prayers are not functional.  Moreover, "Leibowitz rejected any ethical explanation for the significance of the mitzvot."

         And prayer is not about you.  It has nothing to do with your own particular circumstances - psychological or spiritual.  Rich or poor, happy or sad, we all are obliged to the same prayer set. "Human needs ... spiritual, ethical or otherwise, are irrelevant to the prayer moment".  He points out that "The same shemoneh esreh ... are recited by the bridegroom before his wedding ceremony, by the widower returning from the funeral of his wife, and the father who has just buried his only son. Recitation of the identical set of psalms is the daily duty of the person enjoying the beauties and bounty of this world, and the one whose world has collapsed." The prescribed prayers are recited by those who truly need them, and the same set is required of those who do not.

         By praying, you acknowledge "the overriding claim of the mitzvot and the halakha over and above any and all other human concerns." This requires no "intense, personal experiences or investigating different conceptions of God" but instead you live according to the "Halakhic tradition. Judaism is essentially a communal disciplined practice", including the practice of prayer.

         Further, you are not expected to be in any way changed by prayer. Consider a completely pious Jew on Yom Kippur.  She fasts all day, recites the Al Khet (confessional prayers) several times.  She says numerous piyyutim (liturgical hymns) which describe human corruptibility,  mortality and vulnerability.  At the end, she "experiences the dramatic ne'ila ... service with the haunting closing sound of the shofar."

         At this point, she then switches to the standard ma'ariv service, which begins with Ve'hu Rachum, a formulation which asks for forgiveness.

         This doesn't seem to make sense. You've just completed "a whole day devoted to introspection, divine atonement and forgiveness", and then you launch into a standard, everyday request for forgiveness, as if nothing had happened all day. According to Leibowitz, you do your duty because the halakhic system expects it from you. "His point in bringing this example", in pointing out this jarring juxtaposition, "is to show that nothing happens to the individual as a result of the experience of prayer. Prayer is not a transforming experience. The worshiper remains the same", in a situation "exactly what it was the evening before. His sole achievement consists of the great religious effort invested in this day."  Period.

         But since you aren't changed by prayer, you are never done. "Man's path to God, an infinite path ... is, in effect, unattainable... One follows it without advancing beyond the point of departure." 

         While Leibowitz "was adamant in precluding the inner personal life of the individual from prayer", he was perfectly well aware of Jewish traditions "that emphasized the outpouring of religious feeling and emotion in prayer." But he insisted that, as a fact of Jewish history, that Judaism "chose to define prayer as a daily halakhic requirement" rather than an emotional outlet.  He was an arch-exponent of keva, prayer as a fixed task.

         As you might image, Leibowitz was suspicious of, and indeed discounted, petitional prayer. "He ironically refers to praying for the sick as equivalent to making God into the director-general of" an HMO. For Leibowitz, authentic prayer can only be defined as disinterested worship. For him, petitional prayer always runs the risk of degenerating into idolatrous worship with human needs and fears, rather than God, occupying the center of one's religious concerns." He had a very low threshold for idolatry, so that any focus on human needs rather than a divine focus took one on the path to idolatry.[6]

          So what are we to make of this? For those of us who do not accept adherence to Halakha as the full expression of being Jewish, there is a problem right from the start. His view of prayer will strike most Jews as being too crabbed, too limiting.  We want more out of the prayer experience than being able to check the item off our list of daily halakhic obligations.  Still, there is something to what he says.  As we turn the prayerbook, page after page, the prayers present themselves in their order, because, well, that's the rules.  Certain things are said on certain days and not others. Some require a minyon and some do not.  Why?  Well, because that is what Jews have agreed on as the right way.

Also, if you didn't "get anything" out of saying your prayers, well, Leibowitz would say that you weren't supposed to, so don't feel bad about it.  You WERE supposed to say the prayers, and you did, so you did what was expected; you fulfilled your obligation as a Jew.  And that's not an insignificant thing.


Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik[7] learned at a traditional yeshiva and became a master of Talmud, and gained a rigorous grounding in  European Philosophers, and was a lifelong student of neo-Kantian thought. For many years he headed the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University, ordained nearly 2000 rabbis, and is taken to be the greatest leader of Modern Orthodoxy.[8]

            Soloveitchik begins with two modes of God, so to speak, or perhaps two "modes of religious consciousness".  One is Elohim, which is God as manifest in the cosmos, beginning with the creation of the Universe. This is also a more universal God, a God of being, a "God who is accessible to the whole world"  But this "God of creation does not address human beings as singular individuals." As a result, this is not a God of any intimacy, not a God that we can have a personal relationship with.  And hence, not a God that provokes humans to prayer.

            The other mode of God is YHVH, God "as the Lord of history, the revealer of the Torah and mitzvot to a particular people, God who "knows" and "is known by" the people of Israel, i.e., who enters into an intimate, covenantal relationship with a people and its history".  Prayer arises out of this covenantal relationship.

            In the beginning, God spoke to humans. Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah and the other characters in the Humash. This continued with the prophets, ending with Ezra and Nehemiah. In Soloveitchik's view, the men of the Great Assembly responded to this cessation of God speaking to humans by instituting prayer, so that humans would speak to God. The relationship, the covenantal relationship, which began with communication in one direction, would then continue, but in the other direction. As Soloveitchik put it in his book "The Lonely Man of Faith,", "When the mysterious men of this wondrous assembly witnessed the bright summer day of the prophetic community full of color and sound turning to a bleak autumnal night of dreadful silence unillumined by the vision of God or made homely by His voice, they refused to acquiesce in this cruel historical reality and would not let the ancient dialogue between God and men come to an end." 

Communications switched from prophecy to prayer, or, if you will prophecy now took the form of prayer.  The initiative switched from God to Humans.   Prayer thus allows humans to "sustain relational intimacy with God" that once took the form of biblical prophecy.

"Just as God's prophecy was accepted by man, so would man's prayer be accepted by God." At least, that's the assumption.

            Prayer, then is a vehicle for maintaining a relationship, a  "relational intimacy with God" [9], just as prophecy, God speaking to humans had been earlier. When we pray, then, we stand in the shoes, in a way, of those to whom God spoke earlier. The person who prays says, in effect, that maintaining this relationship is now her or his responsibility. Prayer then has humans shouldering what was once God's responsibility, and in that way perhaps represents a more mature religious practice.

            This is a much more purposeful view of prayer than what Leibowitz provides for, as it has the function of continuing a dialog. It also ties Jews to different and earlier people. In Leibowitz's view, prayer reflects the decision of later Jews to make prayer a requirement, but in Soloveitchik's, prayer is connected to those to whom God spoke in the Bible.


         Reform Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn[10] approaches the issue from the perspective of religious naturalism. In this theology, God is to be found within the natural world, and not acting upon nature from the outside. This entails a view of the natural world which encompasses both the physical and the spiritual. In Gittelsohn's words, God is "the Soul of the universe. God is the creative, spiritual Seed of the universe - the Energy, the Power, the Force, the Direction, the Trust -out of which the universe has expanded, by which the universe is sustained, in which the universe and mind find their meaning."[11] He insists that it in no way belittles God to refer to God "as a Life Force, or as the creative, indefinable Soul of the universe" Instead, those who anthropomorphize God risk doing this.

         This approach sets some limits on God's transcendence. "God is transcendent to humanity" and to our Galaxy, but God, in this view, is not transcendent to all of the universe because God is of the universe.

         So what does Prayer accomplish in this theology? Rabbi Gittelsohn puts it this way:

         "Prayer is my constant effort to reinforce my relationship with the Soul of the universe, thereby to emphasize and realize my spiritual potential. Prayer is a reminder of who I am, of what I can become, and of my proper relationship to the rest of the universe, both physical and spiritual. Prayer is an inventory of the spiritual resources which nature has invested in me and a survey of how I can exploit these resources to the fullest. Prayer is a recapitulation of the spiritual laws of the universe and an encouragement to conform to those laws in my conduct." Prayer in this view of course has no effect at all on the Universe itself, since the universe acts as it does regardless of whether or not we pray. Prayer acts only on us. He uses the analogy of himself surrounded by books full of wisdom. The books "did not jump off the shelf and open themselves to the right place and help me...They were there as a spiritual resource for me to activate and energize if I so choose. Similarly, God is a Spiritual Power in the Universe and in myself ... prayer is my way to activate and utilize a Power which otherwise remains dormant."

         Now, what shall we make of this? Prayer as he sets it forth has some substantial similarity to ordinary introspection or meditation. But Prayer in this view must also be outward looking, seeking a connection between self and  "the Spiritual Core of Reality" The person says, in effect, "The spiritual reserves within me are an aspect of the great spiritual reservoir outside me."

         The one thing that this approach totally dispenses with is the notion of God as a person. Prayer frequently depicts God as a person, and many Prayer forms --- and spiritual leaders ---   encourage us to address God as a person, and sometimes even more specifically as for example, a father or King. But at the same time, our theology tells us that God is not a person at all.  God does not have a human personality, or indeed any personality at all as we understand the word, let alone a body. This contradiction --- of addressing God as if God were a person, even while knowing that God is utterly different from a person --- gets in the way of some people's prayer. Gittelsohn's approach could be a solution for such a person.


         I want to turn next to two ideas which arose from Hasidism. I am not really associating them with any particular thinkers, in part because some major leaders did not leave much in the way of a written record, and will use the positions as explicated by Rabbi Louis Jacobs.

         Hasidism was a pietistic movement that arose in Eastern Europe in the 18th century, fueled in large part by a series of charismatic rabbis. One of the most significant areas of innovation was the treatment of prayer. In traditional Judaism, prayer was of approximately equal rank to study and good deeds, but in Hasidism, prayer was elevated above all else. Prayer had the goal of devekut, commonly translated as attachment to God, or communion with God. Achieving such a state would cause a person to be "seeing beneath appearances only the divine vitality which infuses all things...the only true reality is God. The material world...hides God from human eyes, but...The Hasid can learn to restore all things to their Source, and to see only infinite divine power...".[12] In order to accomplish this feat, the Hasid is expected to achieve a state of Bittul Ha-yesh, or "the annihilation of selfhood", a transcending of the ego which is accomplished in prayer.

         This goal was expressed in different ways. Sometimes erotic language was used. "Prayer is Copulation with the Shekhinah"[13] was how an early hassidic writer put it. A person seeks no longer to be "a being that exists and works for himself, but as an organ of the Godhead."[14] This seems like an extraordinarily difficult goal, but a good deal of prayer effort was to be put into it. The amount of time allocated to prayer was to be raised, and prayer was to be augmented by other means, including involvement of the emotions, and use of melody and movement. Contemplative prayer toward this goal was and is a major feature of Hasidism.

         Petitionary prayer was also quite important to Hasidism. But this presents a conflict. In such prayer, there is a focus on one's own human needs, which is exactly the wrong direction for the self-abnegation that is required for devekut. Such a request has nothing to do with the search for divine vitality.  And the Zohar presented a related problem.  At one place, it says, "whoever does not pray for his own sustenance daily is of little faith.  But in another passage, scorn is poured on those who bark like dogs begging for food."[15] What to do? 

         The solution was that prayers for the benefit of oneself were really to be understood as prayers for the benefit of the Shekhinah, which is God's Indwelling Presence, and are thus actually for the benefit of God.[16]

         This allowed the prayers to be understood as answered, even if there was no apparent benefit for the person who uttered the prayer, because it has "an effect on the wellbeing of the world as a whole". As the Bal Shem Tov is reported to have said, "even though a man's particular request was for his own pain to be removed, his prayer may be answered for the pain of the world to be lessened." [17]

         Of course the person isn't seeking an answer, because that would be the assertion of ego.  But benefit for the one who petitions is still a desirable outcome.  The Bal Shem Tov is reported to have said, "A man should know that whatever he lacks is a lack in the Shekhinah ... Consequently, all prayer should have as its aim that the Shekhinah's lack should be filled, as it were, and man's needs will be automatically satisfied."[18] As Rabbi Jacobs puts it, "If the Hasid finds himself to be sick...he should reflect that God wants him to be well again, and until he recovers from his illness, God's will is unfulfilled. His purpose, then in praying for good health and a speedy recovery should be so that the Shekhinah will lack no more."[19] 

         The Maggid of Meseritch put it even more boldly. "Our rabbis say that the cow wishes the feed the calf more than the calf wishes to be fed. This means that the giver has a greater desire to give than the beneficiary of his bounty has the desire to receive. So it is with God. His delight in benefiting his creatures is greater than that of the creatures He benefits." Therefore, while the benefits that arise can be all very real, the actual purpose of the prayer is to please God in God's role as a giver, and indeed, "the righteous man becomes a giver because he assists God to attain his desire to be a Giver." [20]

         I should add that some Hasidic writers were not so strict in insisting that one cannot truly pray for one's own benefit, only for the Shekhinah's benefit. The weight of troubles could be so great that one cannot pretend to be indifferent to one's own fate, and in that case, prayers could be presented in their plain and simple meaning. 

             Both of these two purposes of prayer, the erasure of ego of the first and the indifference to one's personal fate of the second in some regards resemble the Christian doctrine of quietism, and thus is somewhat at odds with conventional Orthodox thought.  And viewed another way, it gives a radical agenda for prayer. As I mentioned, Hasidic theology holds that when the false appearances are ignored, one sees that all true reality is God, a notion very similar to panentheism.  And petitionary prayer can effectuate repair on the Shekhina.  This means in effect that prayer's goal is "affecting the very fabric of reality itself, restructuring and repairing the" Shekhinah, which is to say, repairing the "universe in a real fashion".[21]  This notion, rooted in Kaballah, that prayer can repair the universe itself is the most grand, or grandiose, purpose of prayer that I have come across.


When Abraham Joshua Heschel[22] was asked what it meant to believe in God, he said, "To have radical amazement." Prayer was the route to this.

For Heschel, the touchstone for prayer is God-consciousness. Heschel begins not with halakha, which is so crucial to Leibowitz and Soloveitchik for example, "but with the sense of God's presence. Awe, wonderment and Heschel's distinctive notion of divine empathy, reflect the immediate and concrete sense of divinity that permeates his entire thinking." And Prayer was a means to this "vivid and gripping awareness of God."[23]

"To pray..." he says, "...is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all being, the divine margin in all attainment; prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living."[24]

This applies even to the simple blessings to be said over food: "We are trained in maintaining our sense of wonder by uttering a prayer before the enjoyment of food.  Each time we are about to drink a glass of water, we are reminding ourselves about the eternal mystery of creation."[25]

And how was this "taking notice" to be done? He explains, "We do not step out of the world when we pray; we merely see the world in a different setting. The self is not the hub, but the spoke of the revolving wheel. In prayer we shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender. God is the center toward which all forces tend. Prayer takes the mind out of the narrowness of self-interest, and enables us to see the world in the mirror of the holy. For when we betake ourselves to the extreme opposite of the ego, we can behold a situation from the aspect of God."[26]

Prayer's purpose, in short, is to get us to see the world in a different way --- so we can glimpse the wonder, the mystery and feel the awe and the sense of God's presence. And one of the ways that prayer does this is to change our orientation.  Instead of seeing the world in the setting of self-as-hub, we see the World as God-as-Hub, with self as spoke. Regular prayer --- and Heschel was a firm advocate of regular prayer  --- can redirect our consciousness of reality.

How this can be done is no simple matter, and involves to some degree projecting our emotions onto the actual words of prayer, and not to be too literal about it.  He writes, "in prayer, as in poetry, we turn to the words, not as signs of things but to see things in the light of the words."[27] The words are to get us to see things differently.  He goes on, "It is through our reading and feeling the words of the prayers, through the imaginative projection of our consciousness into the meaning of the words, and through empathy for the ideas with which the words are pregnant, that this type of prayer comes to pass."[28] This is a bit abstract. The point is, the actual recitation of the words isn't the point. As he puts it, "Not the words we utter, the service of the lips, but the way in which the devotion of the heart corresponds to what the words contain, the consciousness of speaking under His eyes, is the pith of prayer."[29]

You may notice some similarity between Heschel's approach and that of the Hassidim, and indeed, he was influenced by Hasidic thought.  But his approach is not as drastic, and thus the goal seems more accessible. For him, prayer's goal was to have the Jew "rise to a higher level of existence, to see the world from the point of view of God ... to behold life as a concern of" God's will.[30]  Still, the human awareness, of awe and wonder, etc was still to be there, in contrast to the full Hassidic approach of the annihilation of self thru communion with God.

            Heschel also set forth a metaphysical effect of prayer as well, though it wasn't centered on petitionary prayer.  He wrote, "For to worship is to expand the presence of God in the World. God is transcendent, but our worship" --- a term somewhat broader than just prayer --- "makes him immanent. This is implied in the idea that God is in need of man. His being immanent depends on us."[31]

            This latter notion imputes a tremendous power to prayer.


Rabbi Dr. Lawrence Hoffman[32] asserts that "good ritual is all about ideas that move us." And we "sell" these ideas "because we find them utterly compelling." Prayer, he contends, "is a delivery system for committing us to the great ideas that make life worth living, because ideas which are ritually construed empower us to do what we would otherwise never have the courage to do. Prayer moves us to see our lives more clearly against the backdrop of eternity, concentrating our attention on verities that we would otherwise forget."[33]

In an earlier day, the ordinary Jew did not own books, and memorized prayers were the way to learn these ideas.  But even nowadays, the ideas are reinforced, and constantly brought before us by the endless repetition of the prayers,

Some are theological ideas. For example, Psalm 23 presents the idea of a "comforting, protective deity", even as we understand that shepherd is only being used as a metaphor.  The Song of the Sea[34] attributes to God "warrior-like vengefulness".[35]  In the Amidah, God is presented in prayer as "giver of knowledge, redeemer of Israel,  ...hearer of prayer"[36] and other attributes.  Adon Olam presents God as completely beyond, and master of, space and time --- and at the same time a completely personal God, emphasizing that the transcendent God and the immanent God are understood by Judaism as one and the same.

            As another example, the blessings convey their own ideas. There is a blessing for washing the hands and one for using the bathroom, conveying the ideas "that the body is valued. Our urinary tract and intestinal system, for example, are as much engaged in doing God's work as is our brain."[37] In a related vein, near the very start of the morning service is a prayer for the body itself, which conveys the idea that we should not take for granted even the routine operations of our body.

            This principle is true for techinis prayers, which appear in women's prayer books.  There is one to be recited for baking challah, which conveys the idea that "baking bread is not mundane cookery, it adds blessing to one's family."[38] A prayer recited in contemplation of sexual intercourse conveys the notion that "Bringing children into the world populates the universe with pious and moral human beings." A prayer for protection when one is about to leave the house for errands or business reminds us of "the comforting presence of God."[39]

            This is a highly utilitarian purpose for prayer.  It's very much at variance with Heschel's insistence that prayer must focus utterly on God.  And it means that there will be a particular problem for prayers that reinforce ideas that the davener does not accept.  Such discomfort has been the impetus for a number of changes in non-Orthodox prayer books.


Aryeh Kaplan presents prayers as "Conversing with God". [40] Such a purpose comes from outside the area of keva, or fixed prayer that is so important in some of the other approaches. While praying in one's own words appears to be form of prayer in the Bible, fixed prayer eventually became the norm for Judaism.  The Jewish thinker who gave the most emphasis to spontaneous prayer in his teachings was surely Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav.  He believed that conversing with God directly in one's own language was the most powerful means for attaining a personal relationship with God. Kaplan points out that this practice straddles the line between meditation and prayer.  He suggests that when this is done as a "fixed practice" on a regular daily basis, then it is more like meditation, and when it is done spontaneously, when one "feels impelled to do so", that it is more like prayer.

            Of course, starting such a conversation can be very difficult, which is one of the advantages of fixed prayers; you know what to say. Rabbi Nachman suggests using that difficulty itself as a topic to start with.

            One question here is whether the conversing itself is the actual purpose, or whether it is to some degree a means toward another end. Rabbi Nachman believed such conversing was the most powerful means for attaining a personal relationship with God. This seems to me a purpose embedded within the conversing,  or perhaps only a very short step away from the conversing itself.  Kaplan suggests that the conversing should eventually lead to one becoming "increasingly aware of God's presence", a goal mentioned by others as well. He also suggests it as a way the person can "overcome the ego", and as a way to "help one find direction in life".  He also argues "by conversing with God, a person can see himself from a God's-eye point of view, as it were".  This is a purpose mentioned by Heschel, although it is a little unclear to me exactly how conversing would actually accomplish this.

            There are risks to this approach. As Kaplan observes, "Nothing is as distasteful as a person who acts as if he has a direct line to God". And Kaplan notes that "speaking to God is like speaking to a therapist." But he insists that it is different in several important ways. For example, "Psychotherapy is primarily a way of working out problems, while meditation is a method of enhancing the spiritual dimensions of life."  And one must note that even the most taciturn therapist is expected to say something during a session; one cannot count on that here.

            Still, despite the several things can that be expected to flow from speaking to God, it still appears that being, or becoming, or speaking terms with God is, in its own right, a fully legitimate purpose of prayer.


Joseph Rosenstein addresses a somewhat narrower question: What is the purpose of the morning service? In his view, the goal of the morning's davening is to take you on a spiritual journey.  Most importantly, the morning service is specifically structured "to bring us to an awareness that God, however we understand God, can make a difference in our lives." The prayers are "dramatically structured to prepare us for the personal audience with God that we call the A×mi×dah".[41]

This, he explains, is accomplished in a series of 6 stages, each with its own purpose or goal, a goal which in most cases prepares one for the next stage. The purpose of the first stage is "becoming aware of our blessings", which is done in the first piece, the birchot hashachar.[42] With this awareness raised, one is ready for the second stage, which he calls "joining the chorus of praise to the source of blessings".  This runs from Baruch She'amar to just before Nishmas.[43] The third stage is "finding our individual voices" in this chorus, which runs from Nishas through Bar'chu.[44]

These three stages collectively have their goal to "position ourselves appropriately for the A×mi×dah." The next three stages "we position God (that is, our understanding of God) appropriately for the A×mi×dah."[45] That is, "to understand who it is that we will be encountering ...How do we envision God?"[46] These stages again follow a natural progression, each with its own purpose.  Thus, the fourth stage has as its goal "recognizing the many images of God", and constitutes the run-up to the Shema after Bar'chu.[47] After that, the goal of the next stage is "recognizing that all of the many images of God are One, and recognizing the personal God in the transcendent God".  This stage, which is something of an integration of the previous stage, is covered by the Shema itself, and the three paragraphs which follow.[48] The goal of the final stage he calls "Realizing that God can make a difference in our lives", and covers the last paragraphs after the Shema and before the Amida.[49]

Completing this sequence as a whole thus prepares the davener fully for the Amidah, and thus this entire phase of the morning service has that preparation as its goal.

In order for you to be guided through the service in those terms, and for many other reasons, Rosenstein has created a siddur which includes short commentaries, spiritual asides, a few meditations, alternative ways of understanding (and translating) the prayers, and a dazzling assortment of perspectives on the morning's spiritual journey. The standard Hebrew text is included, although in some cases, he has suggestions for small changes in the Hebrew as well. The siddur [raise book] is included on our table of books here, and if you are interested in getting your own copy of this marvelous and unique creation, please see me after Shabbos. I have them with me.

Those of you who are very familiar with the early service may wonder how Az Yashir, the Song of the Sea, and its preliminary paragraph could possibly be fit into stage 2, or stage 3 for that matter.  In fact, it can't be, and so Joe has jettisoned it, relegating it to an appendix.

I should add that he also presents the Amidah itself as a series of four phases, each with its own purpose. And he presents spiritual goals for other prayer services as well, notably Yiskor.

Rosenstein's approach to the purpose of prayer is somewhat more comprehensive and specific than many others, because he presents both an overall purpose for the morning's davening as a whole, but also purposes for individual parts of the service, an approach which ties the purpose to the wording of the specific prayers. It is thus much less abstract than some of the other approaches.


         Harold Kushner[50], argues that prayer, in effect, congregates people. He writes that "In ... regularly scheduled services ... I have come to believe that the congregating is more important that the words we speak. Something miraculous happens when people come together seeking the presence of God.  The miracle is that we so often find it. Somehow the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts.  A spirit is created in our midst which none of us brought there"[51] he observes. This is a phenomenon pretty similar to what is called an "emergent property".[52] He continues, "In fact, each of us came there looking for it because we did not have it when we were alone.  But in our coming together, we create the mood and the moment in which God is present."

         He goes on to relate a similar phenomenon. : "...on an average Tuesday or Wednesday morning, the sanctuary of my synagogue stands dark and empty.  I am not sure that it can be described as 'the dwelling place of  [God's] presence'.[53] Only when people enter it in a mood of reverence and spiritual search does it become a house of worship.  We don't go to church or synagogue at a stipulated time because God keeps 'office hours.' We go because that is when we know there will be other people there, seeking the same kind of encounter we are seeking.  That is why it makes sense to read words someone else has written, words that may or may not reflect what we believe. The purpose of reading those words is not to fool God into thinking we share the pious sentiments of the prayer's author. The purpose is to join in song and prayer with our fellow worshippers, to find God in the exhilarating experience of transcending our isolation, our individuality and become part of a greater whole.  When the service works, we will feel differently about ourselves and the world for having gone through that experience."

         This is not precisely an explicit purpose for prayer, but it certainly functions as one, in the sense that anything which prayer can be expected to accomplish, and does accomplish, is a purpose for prayer.  I suspect that all Conservative prayer communities will have, on a typical Shabbos morning, people coming not so much to pray, but to join others in prayer.

         His other thought is that prayer allows us to "become part of a greater whole", and thus, prayer builds community. People do come to shul, to TI, simply to be with others who are praying.  Of course, you can become part of the greater whole to some degree without doing any praying at all, just by showing up. So this might be thought of as a purpose of being around when communal prayer is recited.

         Whether to call the result bringing about "the presence of God", as Rabbi Kushner puts it, or "the awareness of the presence of God" will depend on your theology, but it can be a real, and concrete, purpose of prayer.


         Rabbi Steven Pruzansky[54] argues "that the purpose of tefillah is, ultimately, to stand before G-d and recite ...[God's] .. praises. Tefillah thus affords us the thrice-daily opportunity to reiterate truisms about G-d, the world ...[God] ... created, and our place in it."[55]

         He supports this notion with a rule of Halacha. He notes that the Shemoneh Esrei, has more supplications than praise. But, "the halacha is that if one fails to concentrate during the first blessings of praise, the entire tefillah must be repeated. This halacha applies to no other beracha, suggesting that the primary blessings are those of praise."

         The idea that the purpose of prayer is to praise God is a quite common one in both Jewish and Christian prayer, since praise is such a recurring theme, especially in the Psalms. The Ashrei[56], which has been elevated by the prayer book into the most important Psalm, is fixed entirely on praise, and the first part of it seems to be about the importance of praise per se.

         But is the praise an end in itself, or is it a means toward some other purpose? Jewish thought tends toward the view that God does not need our praise, even though praise is normally understood as providing a benefit the one praised, in a way that giving thanks does not. Now, praise carries something of a sense of obligation, so that giving praise could be a means to convey our recognition that we are obliged to be appreciative and to recognize God's worth. Praise can also be as driven by joy --- thanks, by contrast, is derived more from duty, and so giving praise can be a form of expressing joy.

            Still, it must be noted some Jews, and I specifically include myself here, are made uncomfortable by the siddur's seemingly endless repetition of praise.  This is particularly true as we generally use praise in two situations: where we wish to ingratiate ourselves with another human by the mouthing of pleasing words, or where we wish to make the other person feel good about himself or herself.  Neither of these seems at all appropriate when speaking to, or about, God. And it should be noted that some argue that praise, while essential, is fundamentally different from prayer.[57]


            I should note that Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz sees a specific purpose in prayers of praise.  He observes, "The structure of giving thanks on a regular basis, even in hard times, encourages us to focus on the positive side of life. It does not mean that we forget the dark side, just that we keep a true perspective, giving the positive side its due. Sorrow and anxiety should not extinguish our ability to say "thank you" for our blessings, even when they are obscured by pain."[58] Of course, it's natural to give thanks in good times, but it can still be managed in bad time. He recalls the story of the famous Reb Zushya: "When he was poor and starving" Zushya "is said to have thanked God for giving him such a good appetite!"  Steinsaltz notes that the Modim prayer[59] includes the line, "We thank You for inspiring us to thank You."


            Rabbi Daniel Gordis argues that fixed prayer can provide a communal response to evil and suffering, and he illustrates it with a vivid episode. On a Thursday night in 2001, the Versailles wedding hall collapsed in Jerusalem killing 23 and seriously injuring hundreds more. It was a shattering event for Israel. The following evening, people "trudged off to shul and dutifully recited the" Friday night service, "but without the joy that usually attends such worship."[60] It concludes with the end of Yigdal:


God will send our Messiah by the end of days,

To redeem those who await God's final salvation.

God will revive the dead in abundant kindness

Blessed forever is God's praised Name.


At the end, he writes, "we did not disband as usual.  This time, we continued singing those lines over and over. The notions that God will send out Messiah, that God will redeem us, and that God will revive the dead, were too powerful that particular night to sing only one time. The message of hope in the prayer book, which we often ignore or do not realize is there, was at that moment, exactly what we needed. Without anyone coordinating or planning ... we found ourselves, along with friends and neighbors, singing these lines, again and again, and the passion and volume of the singing increased each time. ...Eventually ...we all...made our way home to Shabbat dinner.  But I heard many people humming" the particular melody that had been selected, as people "fanned out across the neighborhood."  "We had been transformed", he writes. "After entering shul after one of the worst days any of us could remember, we walked home feeling hopeful, feeling redeemed.  The siddur had not only spoken of redemption, it had actually brought us redemption." --- at least in part. Gordis notes that this community has people with very different theologies, and notions of what prayer means, and yet still it worked.  He concludes, "By giving us an opportunity to express our pain, or loss, our confusion, and our sadness, prayer re-instills in us a belief in a better tomorrow."


         A related purpose is set forth by Carol Hausman, but addressing personal rather than communal loss, and using unfixed as well as fixed prayer. She notes that prayer is "One of the major tools of Jewish healing"[61], in part because "at a time of illness or loss ... it helps us to be hopeful" and because "Sometimes we don't know what else to do, and so we pray." Prayer at such a time "can provide a place of inner peace where we can retreat from medical procedures and from the demands of the outer world.  It connects us to our tradition as we recite the words that millions of Jews have spoken as they search for healing." She argues that the benefits of hopefulness and connection can flow even without the conviction that anyone is actually listening to the prayer. She also argues that much value can come from the composing of prayers, and indeed, "the composing of prayers" is "a vital part of every group", a task for which she supplies them substantial source material.[62]  This is a highly instrumental use of prayer. She asks the participants  "to think of what they need from God to find comfort" and craft the prayers accordingly. This may strike some of you as very ambitious, and risking problems, especially since these prayers are commonly shared with the group. Still Dr. Hausman, a former Tier, a clinical psychologist and gerontologist is a founder and coordinator of the Washington Jewish Healing Network, and has had much experience in seeing just such an approach truly work.


            In this regard, I would mention Rabbi Amy Eilberg's related suggestion that one purpose of prayer can be to help a person move away from a focus on their ills. She suggests two different directions this can move in. One is outward: "Prayer may 'work' by way of distraction, momentarily pulling the one who is ill out of his or her pain and suffering into a place of beauty or transcendence." Or, the movement can be inward, "by helping the one praying or being prayed for to connect to a deep level of the self which is already healed and whole, reminding the person of his or her essential wholeness."[63]  She points out that music has that ability too, and of course there are many distracting techniques available. 


Rabbi Jules Harlow, editor of the first Siddur Sim Shalom, says that a purpose of worship is having "a beneficial impact on human character, leading us to exemplify virtues in our lives, and bringing us closer to perfection, to being God-like in our behavior...A basic purpose of prayer is to improve human behavior and thought, the enhance the quality of the human spirit."[64]

            In a similar vein, Rabbi Harold Schulweis argues, "In prayer you pray to move God. But the way you move God is through moving the divine in yourself...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 ...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."[65]

            These sentiments, that prayer is for general human betterment, are fairly common, especially in liberal writers.  It's often unclear, though, exactly how this is supposed to operate. If you have to work for peace, fine, work for peace, but then, what did you need the prayer part for?


I'll close with a few shorter and more focused answers:

         Ari Goldman suggests that contacting another realm, or even just trying to reach the Divine, is sufficient reason to pray. He writes, "I wrap a ... tallit ... over my head; gather its four fringes; and bring them to my lips.  It lasts only a moment, but under the tallit I feel a sense of security and warmth. It is the closest I get to heaven all day...Under the tallit I feel connected to a different realm where I encounter my parents and even the Almighty Himself....I pray, knowing I've started my day attempting to reach the Divine.  My hope is that it makes an impression on my God, my ancestors and my children. I know it makes an impression on me.  I feel fortified by prayer. I am in a relationship with God.  I praise, acknowledge ...[etc] ... My connection with the rest of the world ... flows out my of daily encounter with God"[66] His reference to children is because this often happens when they are at breakfast, which he admits limits his concentration on prayer.  This is a modest goal, and thus perhaps a more reachable one than some of the lofty goals I've mentioned. He sees real benefits for himself arising just from the knowledge that he has tried to reach God that day to continue their relationship.


         Michael Berg[67], drawing from the writings of Rabbi Moshe from Trani,[68] presents the notion that "the process of prayer is that we show and understand that we have nothing of ourselves, and that there is no one in the world who can truly fulfill our needs except the Creator."[69]  Thus, the purpose of prayer is not to actually seek or secure the granting of requests, but "to strengthen our understanding that we have nothing by ourselves, and that all that we need can only come from the Creator. In other words, prayer is a tool for us to use in order to strengthen our trust and understanding that, all that we need and lack can only come from the Creator."  The form of prayer can still take form of a request, but "we should imbue within our consciousness that we can only receive this fulfillment from the Creator."

         This is an approach that requires a great deal of humility, and would appear to run the risk of infantilizing the davenner, because it emphasizes his or her helplessness. We like to feel that we have some direct ability to achieve our own fulfillment. At one level, if everything comes from God, then nothing comes from us, and prayer can serve to remind us of this sometimes inconvenient understanding.


         Such a goal, in a more limited form, does not require a supernatural God at all. Rabbis Rebecca Alpert and Jacob Staub, writing from a Reconstructionist stance, argue that prayer can function as "Acknowledgement of Need". They write, "Most of us are raised to think that we have control of our lives, and that therefore we are responsible for what happens to us--good and bad. In truth, we have far less control that we think, and it is good to acknowledge our vulnerability. Prayer allows us to admit that we need help when we are frightened, overwhelmed, or desperate. Removing our defenses can move us to the honest self-awareness we require to get past our personal obstacles."[70]


Stan Tenen[71] uses an approach drawn from mysticism. In the beginning, God to some degree withdrew from the world, to leave an arena for humans, a process called "tzimtzum".  In this way, we obtained our free will, which is "a portion of" God's Will. "When our ability to find a place in the world, by means of our portion of His Will, is insufficient, it is appropriate for us to return our will to His. This is prayer"[72], he says. Prayer is often presented in terms of sacrifice. Here, there is the sacrifice of our free will to God's Will in prayer. Prayer, especially petitionary prayer, is our asking God "to take back a bit of our will and use it ... better than we could." This entails a sacrifice of one's ego or perhaps the illusion of the power of our will. The result can be to ready ourselves "to be aware of, to receive, to accept, and to make best use of" God's answer. Moreover, he suggests that this  "part of our ego or our willfulness or our expectations" may be part of our problem in the first place. When we cry out to God, our cry may consist of our changing ourselves by releasing some previously highly-valued part of our ego or willfulness that we have previously been dependent on, that now stands in the way." In his view, this sacrifice of ego that prayer is to bring about, is essential. "When there has been no sacrifice, there is nothing for" God "to respond to."

         This approach is less drastic than Berg's, since it is only ego that we become bereft of, and not our ability to get anything done. And it is less focused on fulfillment per se. Some prayers do have a tone of self-effacement, and if this is seen is just diminishing our ego or expectations, that may be more palatable than Berg's more comprehensive sense of inadequacy.


Steven Schwarzschild suggests that prayers should be uttered so that we know our own heart. Ideally, a person would say nothing at all, a notion called "Silence before God", and espoused by some hassidic thinkers. It is an ultimate trust in God, an expression of such deep inadequacy that we cannot even pray.  But, he says, a human "is not the perfect spiritual being that can...express himself without speaking words. God may know what goes on in his heart without it having been articulated, but man himself would not know it...The thought does not exist prior to its name. Our emotions, in turn, are only chaotic and undirected psychic states until they have been channeled into self-conscious verbalizations."[73]

         This is an approach which seems more directed to spontaneous or unfixed prayer than to fixed prayer.


            Rabbi Jakob Petuchowski urges that we should pray to keep in practice for when we really need to, in much the same way that an athlete or writer needs to keep in practice. He warns, "...if the Jew were to make his praying entirely dependent upon his moods, he may find soon enough that he has lost his ability to pray, to be on intimate terms with the Sovereign of the universe --- even if, one day, circumstances should produce the "mood" in which prayer is felt to be desirable."[74]


I will close with a reason given by Elie Wiesel, who gives an answer that possibly only he could suggest.  He urges the "doubter" in God's beneficence to pray anyway, thus "forcing God to resemble His attributes. . . . Prayer then becomes a form of protest and defiance. One calls Him loving because He is something else sometimes. Because He permitted bloodshed, one extols His justice."[75]


So there you have a smorgasbord of views.  I hope that you have heard something that can make your own prayer more meaningful.

Shabbat Shalom.


Given by Mark L. Berch at the Tifereth Israel (Washington, DC) Annual Retreat, November 4, 2005.



[1] The commandment to say the Shema is generally taken to be the recitation of a declaration rather than prayer to God. Deut 13:11 commands us to "...serve Him with all your heart..." Biblical exegesis has interpreted this commandment as the obligation to pray.

[2] This list of three, and the quotes, are from Rabbi Ely S. Pilchik, "Stumbling Blocks to Prayer" CCAR Journal, 16(1), pages 65-69 (1967).

[3] All material and quotes come from Professor Rabbi David Hartman "More prose than poetry"  Haaretz 4/17/2003 http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=285012

[4]  Born in Riga in 1903, schooled in Germany, and died in 1994.

[5] Although a deeply religious man, "He staunchly opposed the integration of religion and state in any form whatsoever, attacking this as an overt example of idolatry." (Hartman; see footnote 3)

[6] Of course, this hostility toward prayers for divine support runs somewhat contrary to his close adherence to community practice, so clearly he had two separate values in play here.

[7] 1903-1993

[8] Biographical details from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Soloveitchik

[9] Above quotes from Professor Rabbi David Hartman, "Prayer and religious consciousness" Haaretz 2/22/2005 http://www.haaretzdaily.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=284909

[10] 1910-1995

[11] All information and quotes drawn from Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn, "A Naturalist View" in  The Theological Foundations of Prayer: A Reform Jewish Perspective. Papers Presented at the UAHC 48th Biennial (Bemporad, Jack, ed. Commission on Worship, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York 1967)

[12] Rabbi Louis Jacobs, Hasidic Prayer (with a new introduction) (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1993), page 21

[13] Ibid, page 60.

[14] Ibid, page ix.

[15] Ibid, page 29.

[16] Ibid, page 23.

[17] Ibid, page 26 for both quotes.

[18] Ibid, page 28

[19] Ibid, pages 26-27.

[20] Ibid, page 30 for both quotes.

[21] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prayer

[22] 1907-1972

[23] Both quotes come from Professor Rabbi David Hartman "The issue of prayer is God" http://www.haaretzdaily.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=286188

[24] Abraham Joshua Heschel Man's quest for God: Studies in prayer and symbolism, 1954 page 5

[25] Abraham Joshua Heschel God in Search of Man: A philosophy of Judaism, 1955 page 49

[26] Abraham Joshua Heschel Man's quest for God: Studies in prayer and symbolism, 1954, page 7.

[27]  Ibid, page 26.

[28] Ibid, page 28. 

[29] Ibid, page 13.

[30] Professor Rabbi David Hartman "The issue of prayer is God" http://www.haaretzdaily.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=286188

[31] Abraham Joshua Heschel Man's quest for God: Studies in prayer and symbolism, 1954, page 62

[32] Professor of Liturgy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

[33]  All quotes this paragraph from Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman The Way into Jewish Prayer (Jewish Lights, 2000) page 104.

[34] Notably Exodus 15:3-4, read as part of the early morning service.

[35] Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman The Way into Jewish Prayer (Jewish Lights, 2000), page 111

[36] Ibid, page 114

[37] Ibid, page 118

[38] Ibid, page 106

[39] Both quotes ibid page 107

[40] All quotes and information drawn from Aryeh Kaplan, Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide (Schocken Books, 1985), Chapter 10.

[41] Joseph Rosenstein Siddur Eit Ratzon (www.newsiddur.org 2003) page 3.

[42] Ibid, pages 9-18.

[43] Ibid, pages 19-34.

[44]  Ibid, pages 35-42.

[45] Both quotes Ibid page 3.

[46] Ibid, page 43.

[47] Ibid, pages 43-50

[48] Ibid, pages 51-53

[49] Ibid, pages 54-57

[50] Rabbi of Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts

[51] All quotes from Harold Kushner Who Needs God, 1989, pages 149-150 ,

[52]  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergent_property

[53] Psalm 26:8

[54] Rabbi of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, NJ, Orthodox.

[55] http://groups.google.com/group/soc.culture.jewish/browse_thread/thread/40127acbdf0167be/b9c0d92855e46104

[56] Psalm 145

[57]  See for example Barbara and Reuven Sutnick "The Problem With Prayer Is We Are Still Not Praying" http://www.jafi.org.il/education/juice/siddur/week5.html

[58] Adin Steinsaltz,  "Thankful For Thanksgiving" http://www.steinsaltz.org/learning.php?pg=Essays&articleId=1470

[59]  Part of the Amidah.

[60]  All quotes from Rabbi Daniel Gordis  "Prayer as a  response to evil and suffering", in Pray Tell: A Hadassah Guide to Jewish Prayer  (Claudia Chernov and Carol Diament, Editors), pages 310-311.

[61] Carol Popky Hausman, Ph.D., "Using Personal Prayer for Healing" in Kerem #8 (2002), pages 17-24. The essay also appears at http://www.ncjh.org/downloads/PrayerUseHealing.doc

[62] Specifically, these excerpts: David Wolpe, Healer of Shattered Hearts, New York: Penquin Books, 1990, pp.102-3; Reuven Hammer, Entering Jewish Prayer, New York: Schocken Books, 1994, p.12; "a list of the uses of prayer composed by Rabbi Amy Eilberg" which can be found at http://www.ncjh.org/downloads/PrayerEightWays.doc and "a recorded interpretation of Al Tatzir by Debbie Friedman" , which is available on two of her albums, "Debbie Friedman at Carnegie Hall" and  "Renewal of Spirit".

[63] Both quotes from Rabbi Amy Eilberg "Eight Possible Ways in Which Prayer May 'Work'" http://www.ncjh.org/downloads/PrayerEightWays.doc

[64] Rabbi Jules Harlow, "Introduction to the Prayer book", in Pray Tell: A Hadassah Guide to Jewish Prayer  (Claudia Chernov and Carol Diament, Editors), page xiv.

[65] Rabbi Harold Schulweis,  "IS PRAYER MAGIC" https://www.vbs.org/worship/meet-our-clergy/rabbi-harold-schulweis/sermons/prayer-magic

[66] Ari L. Goldman Being Jewish: The Spiritual and Cultural Practice of Judaism Today (Simon and Schuster 2000) pages 209-210

[67] Of The Kabbalah Centre and author of The Way: Using the Wisdom of Kabbalah for Spiritual Transformation and Fulfillment

[68] Known as the Mabit.

[69] All quotes and ideas  from http://www.kabbalah.com. Specifically at http://tinyurl.com/6wr7h5e

[70] Rabbis Rebecca Alpert and Jacob Staub, Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach (The Reconstructionist Press, 2000) page 82

[71] Of The Meru Project.

[72] All quotes and ideas from http://www.meru.org/praypurp.html

[73] Steven Schwarzschild, "Speech and Silence Before God" in Jakob J. Petuchowski, Understanding Jewish Prayer (Ktav, 1972), page 96

[74] Jakob J. Petuchowski, Understanding Jewish Prayer (Ktav, 1972) page 23

[75] From “Boston University World of Ideas with Ted O'Brien: Sunday, September 25, 2005”,  A sound file of the full lecture is at http://worldofideas.wbur.org/2005/09/25/elie-wiesel-on-why-pray