Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Elsewhere, some of the learned gentlemen and I have been discussing the ins and outs of prayer. All of us say it works (by which we mean the result of prayer is that God relates to us differently) but we disagree on the mechanics.

By my lights, prayer is a personal avodah. We pray because of the affect it has on us. Done correctly, the process of praying changes us, improves us, makes us better. As a result, God who is perfect, and unchanging, relates to us differently. In a famous analogy, the Rambam explains the underlying idea: God is like fire, and fire interacts differently with different things: Some objects burn, and in a variety of different colors; others melt; others glow; others explode. Just as the fire, which is always the same fire, has a different affect on different items, God, who is unchangeable, relates to us differently based on our own state, a state that proper prayer can modify.

The others have been advancing, what I consider to be, a less respectful, nearly heretical view of God. In their conception, its as if our prayers pay God's salary - he needs our tefillot! - and because our prayers sustain God, better prayers have the power to change God's will. Aside from denying the Rambam's third principle of faith (God has no physical properties, including emotions; thus can not change, nor be swayed by anything a human can do) this conception of God as someone who depends on prayers allows for absurdities. For instance, they imagine that the ghosts of our teachers and ancestors can be sent as intercessors in the heavenly court, and that God responds because of the power of their prayers. Along with denying God's incorpreality by suggesting something can sway him, this idea of intercessors, though popular, has the additional shortcoming of denying God's omniscience. After all, what might a our teachers or ancestors add to God's knowledge of the facts? How can prayers -theirs or ours - matter to a supreme, all-knowing, incorporeal, perfectly just, perfectly rational judge? If you truly believe God knows all, and never changes, how can you think of prayer this way?

By imagining a God who needs tefillot, and can be affected the testimony of third parties my opponents are projecting human characteristics onto God. They are saying He is just like us, an approach that can only be described as heresy. Worse, the specific qualities they are projecting onto God are qualities all of us would find repulsive in an actual human judge. Imagine, for instance, a judge who pardoned a criminal because of a private plea made by the criminal's teacher or relative. Imagine a judge who tore up a death sentence because he was impressed by the accused's ability to recite some ancient poetry with special fervor. Would we respect such a judge or condemn him?

Its impossible to accept the God whose seal is truth might function this way, yet this is where we are led, inevitably, by my opponents and their conception of prayer.

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