Sermon: Yom Kippur 5775: In Defence of Prayer

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 4 October 2014

Britain is once again at war.  Only on a limited, only on a symbolic level, but, as we know here – symbols really matter…  Britain is once again at war.

It has been for the whole of my rabbinate.
Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya. Now Iraq once again. And surely Syria to come.
And before that, Sierra Leone, Kosovo:
For the whole time that I have worked in synagogues, British servicemen and women have fought on foreign fields, or at least in foreign airspace.

And not only here. My rabbinate has seen four, five operations in Gaza, of varying intensity – with no way to break out of the cycle of pain and violence.

And during that time I have sung Oseh Shalom… “May the One who makes peace in the Highest” – Who knows… 1000 times, 2000?
I’ve sung it to the melodies of Hirsch and Ochs, to Friedman, Klepper, Sykes… “May the One who makes peace in the highest bring that peace upon us, upon all Israel and upon all the world”.
And yet the world remains as it is.
Apparently unchanged by my prayer, whatever the melody.


I have been at Alyth now for six years. In that time, an estimated 10 million people have died of AIDS related diseases around the world.
There are, it is said, 15 million children living as AIDS orphans in the world, more than the total number of children in the UK.
And every Shabbat I, or my colleagues, speak of rofeh hacholim, or makor refuah. God as healer of the sick, or as source of healing.
We do so still, as Ebola continues to terrorise west Africa.
God, you are healer we say – but with what sign of that in reality?

This morning we have read l’Adonai ha-yeshua – salvation belongs to God; we have sung ein podeh k’Adonai – there is no redeemer like God.
And yet, we woke today to the news of the death of a captive: unredeemed, unsaved, un-rescued.


And it is not just us.
Every tradition has prayers for peace, prayers for healing, prayers for redemption – Pagans, Baha’i, Muslims, Christians, Hindu…
The pope – every pope, without fail – every Christmas, the pope prays for a year of peace.  You’d think he would know by now it isn’t going to work.
You’d think we would all know by now; would recognise the powerlessness of our words, the futility of the whole exercise.


Of course, I don’t really believe that.
But it would be foolish to deny that there is an issue here; to pretend that the challenge does not exist.  Prayer, especially prayer of petition, is conceptually difficult.  It is, in the wonderful phrase of Eliezer Berkovits “religion’s most problematic child”.

To put the challenge starkly:
Either we believe our prayers of petition to have power, in which case we need only look around to understand our error – and to bring the whole edifice tumbling down around us.
Or, we know that the words we are saying do not have power, in which case, how can we say them with integrity?

Of course, we are not the first generation to face this problem.  We may, however, be the first generation to believe that the problem so invalidates the exercise that we reject religious life entirely.
But to be seduced by this question, is to fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of prayer, certainly of Jewish prayer.

Prayer is not magic.  What we are doing in here today – ritual, worship, prayer – these are not things that, if only we can get them right, will force the universe to bend to our will.  Of course, things cannot work that way.
Whether we believe in a God or not – transcendent, or immanent – it would be deeply arrogant to believe that we can force the world to change, force God to change, merely through our words.

As Immanuel Kant – I told you we are not the first generation to struggle with this – as Kant wrote, the idea that we can “use God as a means to realise our ends” is “a delusion that is, in its conception, preposterous and absurd”.

It would be disingenuous of me to suggest that this idea, preposterous and absurd as it may be, does not appear in Jewish tradition.  In Tanakh and in earlier rabbinic texts you do find the idea that a miracles, healing, change can somehow be brought about by prayer.  But by the early middle ages, the Jewish relationship with prayer was almost entirely more knowing and more sophisticated; aware of the inability of prayer to affect the world directly.
Here, for example, is Nachmanides, the preeminent Spanish rabbi and scholar of the thirteenth century on why we are obligated to pray:
the advantage which results from the observance of these precepts is not to God, may God be blessed, but the advantage is to man himself
Prayer is not for the benefit of God, but for the benefit of the one who prays.  An act that can not shape God, may not shape the world, but should shape us.
Or, as Lionel Blue wrote 700 years later:
prayer has not changed the external world to suit my convenience, but it has changed me, and I am part of that world
This idea is nowhere expressed more powerfully than in a Talmudic discussion about the prayers of God.  Does God pray, the rabbis ask, and if so, what does God say?  “Yhi ratzon milfanai – May it be My will that My mercy conquers my anger… and that I deal with My children with the attribute of mercy.”  That is, God still prays, to God, not that the world be better, not that we behave better – but for self control.


So, if the power of prayer is for us, not for God or the world, why – even for God – does it take the form of prayer – why petition, why dialogue?   Are we engaged in a deep self delusion, or a hideous lie?

To me, prayer has never been better described than in an essay by George Santayana, a Spanish-American philosopher with a great turn of phrase.  He is best known for the line “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.  Santayana was a pithy thinker somewhat undermined by being, by all accounts, a deeply unlikable anti-Semite.  But his description of prayer resonates for me more powerfully than any other:  He described prayer as “poetry in which we believe”.

Prayer is poetry.
Of course it is.
The liturgy we are blessed to inherit is the poetry of our people, the religious art of generations.
It is a poetry that grapples, with unparalleled imagery and furious honesty, with the truly important things in life.  Petitionary prayer is poetry; poetry that expresses our aspirations about how we want the world to be.
As the Orthodox thinker, Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik put it, “Prayer is the doctrine of human needs.  Prayer tells [us] what [our] genuine needs are, what [we] should, or should not, petition God about…”
When we ask God for something we are forced to reflect on whether it is really of importance.
The script of prayer is the expression, refined over generations, of our real needs.   The dialogue of prayer challenges us to focus on that which really matters.  Which is why when something does not matter, is no longer a true aspiration, it has no place in our liturgy.

Fundamentally, prayer challenges us not to descend into indifference…  To pray for peace says “peace still matters, we still aspire, we still have hopes and ideals. We still believe that the world is purposeful enough to be worth investing in.  We still believe in the possibility of better.”

And through prayer we express our frustration that the world is not what we need it to be.  Our petitionary prayer should not be thought of as a mere request, but as a question – to ourselves; and as a cry – a cry of hope, or of pain, very often a cry of rage as Tony demanded last night.

And if we cry in pain, or rage, or frustration, then prayer also makes demands of us.  Prayer is not a substitute for work, for action, but is a call to it: inextricably bound up with human behaviour.  Prayer may have been called ‘poetry in which we believe’ but Jewish prayer, to quote Rabbi Harold Schulweiss is “not just poetry believed in but poetry acted on”.

To pray for healing is to say: “I have responsibility, we have responsibility: to care about the suffering of others, to respond to their pain, to seek to support and comfort.  Makor refuah: God may be the source of healing, but we must be the channel through which it flows.


Prayer is not an untruth, and nor is it powerless.
It may not have the power to bring peace or physical healing, but it has the power to give us comfort
The power to unsettle us
The power to give us self awareness (think of today’s confessions)
The power to give us (or God, midrashically) self-control
The power to make us better, to spur us to action
Something we know very well at Alyth – it has the power to bring us together as community.

And, in case this all sounds terribly egotistical – and it does – the poetry of prayer has one more extraordinary power: the power to put us in our place.
A fundamental part of religious life is bittul hayeish – the negation of the self – the awareness that what matters most is not me.  Perspective comes from the possibility of otherness, of transcendence expressed in our text.  The openness to genuine wonder.  The God of our liturgy – perhaps especially at this time of year – reminds us that we are not the centre of the universe.


Why do I speak of this, this Yom Kippur morning?
Why a defence of prayer?

In part, it is because today can be such a difficult day to do it.
Too many words, unfamiliar liturgy, different melodies, complex, alienating, theologically baffling imagery; this is, unquestionably, the worst day of the whole year for anyone who does not regularly pray to try it out.
So, perhaps, I feel like prayer on a day like today needs defending.

And perhaps at a time like this, as the world is rocked once again, prayer needs defending.

But this also reflects a firmly held belief – one shared by all of us who occupy this Bimah.  We believe that prayer matters.
Not all communities or Jewish institutions do.

Some institutions, especially these days, say that we can live a full Jewish existence without religious life.  “Don’t worry about services,” they say, “They are a niche interest now.”
But one of our values as a community is that coming together in prayer matters.  That it is a central element of the lives of Jews, a fundamental form of Jewish expression.
This belief does not come from a naïve, childish belief in prayer’s supernatural power, but in a firm belief in its power for us.

And from that belief comes a commitment: to continue working at it.  To keep working at creating an experience of prayer that meets the needs of all; to keep crafting new services, to learn new melodies, to build new liturgies, while always honouring the poetry we have inherited.
If the power of prayer is its effect on us – as individuals, as a community – and Kant tells us it would be preposterous and absurd to say otherwise, then prayer has to move us and move with us, change us and change with us.


Over the course of the next few hours, I, we, will call on God – God “the One who makes peace in the highest” – to bring that peace upon us and the world.
We will do so in the certain knowledge that peace is still far out of reach, that tomorrow may well be even more painful than today.
But that should not deter us.
For in doing so, we affirm that we still hope, we cry out in frustration, we ask questions of ourselves, we commit to do better, and we do so together with community – with those who we love.

We do so knowing that we will not leave here at the end of today and go into a transformed world;
but at the end of today – if we have worked hard enough, if our prayer does its job – we should leave here transformed.