Hezbollah is also praying for victory

[On a gut level it is great to see pictures of Jews praying before going into battle. What is prayer for if not to ask for G-d to trample your enemies before you? Problem is both sides pray for victory. It diminishes the purpose of prayer to see it flatly as a means to obtain a tangible result.

Here is a relevant item from the wayback machine at archive.com (where you might find content from defunct web sites). On March 31, 1997 B.B. (before blogging) I published this short op-ed online at the JCN.

Let Us Pray For a More Mature Discourse!

A cover story (Newsweek, March 31, 1997) reports some astonishing results of a Newsweek Poll on the current common American beliefs regarding prayer.

87% say that God answers prayers
82% ask God for health or success of a child or family member when they pray
82% say that they believe that God does not play favorites in answering prayers
82% don't turn away from God when prayers go unanswered
79% say God answers prayers for healing someone with an incurable disease
75% ask for strength to overcome personal weakness
73% think prayers for help in finding a job are answered
54% say when God doesn't answer their prayers, it wasn't God's will to answer
51% think that God does not answer prayers to win sporting events
35% never pray for financial or career success
29% say they pray to God more than once a day
25% pray once a day

These are valid concerns about praying. But Newsweek sticks to an analysis of a childlike, lowest common denominator, theology of prayer. "Lord, I need a job." "God, I need to get well." From a pop magazine about pop culture perhaps all we can expect is pop theology.

Astonishing that we cannot say more about prayer. In this day and age after so many years of study and analysis at schools and seminaries, we ought to be able to go deeper into the meaning of devotion. All those endowments, fellowships and scholarships have gone for naught. Apparently we have out there a vast theological wasteland.

And I mean that we should be considering the social, the psychological and the political dimensions of prayer. And maybe we ought to delight in the poetry of liturgy. Let me offer a few short examples of these facets for your consideration.

Consider the prayers that we say, where and how we say them, what they highlight and how we include or exclude others in our community of devotees. All of this has a profound effect on the social construction of our reality.

"Blessed art thou, O Lord our God - who has not made me a woman." Those of our faith who say this blessing, mean it. Those who oppose it are demeaned by it. But all Jews say "Our God" in blessings to define the parameters of social solidarity.

"Let us stand. Please be seated. We pray silently. Let us chant together." The monotone of the rabbi of New York's Temple Emanuel lulls us -- over the radio airwaves -- into another slightly altered state of mind. We become receptive to suggestion, calmer and more certain that a God looks upon us with favor. Or we may shuckle together in close proximity in our shuls, exchanging a nervous energy that renews our wellsprings of creativity. I'd call all of this, the psychological metaphysic of praying. You may prefer to see it as the invigoration of the soul. Newsweek? Hello are you there? We are not all asking the Almighty for new bicycles!

Of the politics of prayer, I think back to Rabbi Aqiba, tortured and martyred by the Romans for teaching Torah. Surely the sight of his thousands of followers "studying and praying" sent shudders up the spines of the local Roman governors. Today in Israel, West Bank Jews and Arabs alike gather for "prayer" and have in mind mainly the political conflict that they thrive on. A few years back, when the Catholic Pope stood before a million Poles to conduct a "mass", the communist authorities heard no prayers. They saw only the "masses" rising up against their rule. Surely Newsweek understands politics. Yet they reduce prayer to its most trivial value and leave it there. Clever secularists, those journalists.

The beauty and poetry of prayer. Nah, why even bother discussing that? I'd guess if Newsweek got into the subject, the most profound text they would choose for a serious analysis would be this elevated epiphany of cynicism from a great cultural icon (recently inexplicably relegated to the advertisement of the product it invokes):

Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
My friends all drive Porches, and I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends.
So, oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
-- "Mercedes Benz" By: Janis Joplin, M. McClure, B. Neuwirth. Album: Pearl.


Anonymous said...

"It diminishes the purpose of prayer to see it flatly as a means to obtain a tangible result."
-- I suppose that's why we, in our Amidah, sandwich our requests (including the one for God to uproot and smash the wanton sinners) with Praise and Thanksgiving.

Tzvee Zahavy said...

There are high-class and low-class prayers. I'll take the high road.

Tzvee Zahavy said...

The Talmud says a lot about the state of mind one needs to have for prayer and none of it supports the idea that one can pray while standing in front of a tank. If asked, I'd say any prayer uttered while standing in front of a tank like that one in the picture -- are invalid prayers. Feel free to differ.

Anonymous said...

Would you prefer they pray far enough away from the tank such that if they heard gunshots or a general's command to get in the tank, it would take them extra time to reach the safety of their tank?

Anonymous said...

This might be relevant:

IF ONE WAS RIDING ON AN ASS etc. Our Rabbis taught: If one was riding on an ass and the time arrived for saying Tefillah, if he has someone to hold his ass, he dismounts and prays, if not, he sits where he is and prays. Rabbi says: In either case he may sit where he is and pray, because [otherwise] he will be worrying. Rab — or, as some say, R. Joshua b. Levi — said: The halachah follows Rabbi. (Berachos 30a)

Tzvee Zahavy said...

We don't know that this was their tank.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if, when Yaakov was about to meet up with Esav's 400 men, he asked his family to stand far away from their weapons when they were praying.