Is Prayer Selfish?

Response to “Is Prayer Selfish?” | Alternet

by Rabbi Rick Brody

Prayer is an exercise in both humility and in strengthening our own capacity to achieve fulfillment.

I dislike the title of this article from Alternet (we can also ask, “Is Breathing Selfish?” no?), and it’s helpful to note that the author, Valerie Tarico, penned the book, “Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light” because it seems a lot of her own baggage is seeping out in her critique.

I wish Ms. Tarico didn’t spend so much time inveighing against intercessory, “bad prayer” and presenting ridiculous straw-man examples of religious extremists faking the efficacy of such prayer to gullible children. In the middle of the article, she states that “The answer [to why we pray, given the apparent inefficacy of petitionary prayer] is that there is more than one kind of prayer.” But it is not until her 3rd-to-last paragraph where she offers any constructive comments about the importance and possibility of such different prayer as a fundamental part to living fully and deeply:

There is an alternative, another kind of prayer that isn’t about requesting or celebrating special treatment at the hands of an interventionist deity. Instead it is about something within us, about our struggle to live in alignment with our deepest values. In fact it is about resisting the self-serving impulses that drive so many bowed head moments.

I fully affirm the idea that prayer is about articulating — and attempting to live in alignment with — our deepest values. For many of us, that articulation is connected to our yearning for connection with something beyond ourselves. I think there’s a big difference between yearning for the benevolence of a Divine benefactor and falling into the childish, magical thinking that assures us that whatever we want and ask for, we will get. When our articulations take the form of traditional petitions and invoke the imagery of the benefactor, we can and should take the liberty of reminding ourselves that we’re not expecting “direct responses.” Rather, it is the act of asking, of recognizing a degree of our own powerlessness in the face of the enormity of existence — and the act of actively hoping to harness some strength to achieve the alignment we seek — that is the ikar, the essential component to this ancient human activity. It troubles me to no end when those who so cavalierly dismiss religious language out of a humanist impulse seem to lack any faith in our amazing species to be able to think with a degree of sophistication such that we can continue to employ symbolic language, to use words that say much more than their literal meaning.

And even in this endorsement of “good prayer,” I am troubled by Ms. Tarico’s rejection of the centrality of gratitude. She herself, as I quote below, seems to appreciate the way we can joyfully and humbly drink of the gifts of being alive — and I agree with her that much of the bowed-head prayer that proclaims “there but for the grace of God go I” fails to take note of the problematic messages embedded within such statements. But she seems to argue that in general, prayers of gratitude (as well as the petitions that precede the presumed Divine benevolence that yields such gratitude) almost necessarily spiral down into the absurd pettiness of a zero-sum game, whereby because God helped my team win, that means God made your team lose, or because God diverted the hurricane from me, God sent it to you. Our gratitude doesn’t have to include a perfectly rational explanation for “how God works” (if God wanted me to survive my car crash, does that mean God didnwant your friend to survive hers?). If you’re trying to articulate such a coherent theology at a moment of genuine gratitude, you’ve completely missed the point — and are suffering from a much deeper psychic problem of emotional paralysis that, presumably, prayer seeks to address. A lovely counter-example of the purity of gratefulness comes from Adam Frank, at NPR’s “Cosmos and Culture” blog, who states simply and poignantly, as a self-proclaimed atheist, in an entry before Thanksgiving:

I will feel the mystery and be thankful to it, to [my family] and to the world entire.

What else, after all, is there to do?

Ms. Tarico herself goes on, in her final paragraph, to offer a similarly inspiring perspective on a relevant form of prayer:

A prayer may be nothing more than a deep, centering breath; a moment of silence; a thrill of delight; or a surge of love that brings tears to our eyes, reminding us beautifully, painfully, quietly of our small place in the greater whole. In a world with gods or without, in our world today or even a world beyond belief, that is a kind of prayer worth praying.

I just wish she could have arrived at this approach earlier in her article, devoting less energy to railing against the bad forms of prayer.

In addition, while perhaps all prayer needs to include an element of selflessness, it is — as I sarcastically suggested above in my parenthetical comparison to breathing — a crucial aspect of our self-care. Hillel asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” To express poetically or passionately our fervent desire to live in good health and to fulfill our potential, with the intention that naming such desires will bring us closer to realizing them — and to offer prayers of gratitude for achieving those realizations — are steps that, while not sufficient to living fully (Hillel’s next question, of course, is “But if I am only for myself, what am I?”), almost necessary come early in the process of building our relationship to the Divine. The author herself suggests breathing — a very selfish act! — as a form of prayer. (But isn’t that taking away oxygen from others who might need it more? Isn’t a zero-sum game?!)

I also wish the author didn’t present (Jewish) Biblical theology in such a reductionistic fashion and without any comment on the evolution of ideas within religious communities. She misses a golden opportunity to describe how the Jewish and Biblical tradition does tell the story, essentially, of “a nubile 17-year-old” being wooed and chosen by a powerful and handsome man — we see this imagery throughout the Prophets and especially in Song of Songs. She also inappropriately conflates Jewish and Christian ideas by introducing promises of immortality into the same sentence that begins by discussing the choosing of a “tribe of wandering herdsmen” (which is, itself, both inaccurate — we can say the Torah depicts the choosing of “one wandering herdsman” or a “tribe of redeemed slaves” — and also possibly a bit demeaning to Jews with its emphasis on a “wanderer” status, which was not the case at all during the First Commonwealth, when much of the Biblical material was likely written).

In Ms. Tarico’s all-too-easy dismissal of the chauvinism inherent in the traditional Jewish morning blessings that thank God “for not making me a gentile, a slave, or a woman,” she neglects to note the almost universal modifying of these blessings in non-Orthodox prayerbooks into positive statements, thanking the Source for “making me a Jew, a free person, and with the Divine imprint.” Also noteworthy is vocal criticism from those within the Orthodox community, particularly an article by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Los Angeles (it appears the original piece that set off the firestorm is no longer online) and other posts that followed.

As the above example should make clear, I don’t believe that all traditional prayers are salvageable. And I recognize that for some people, petitionary prayer is simply not the manner in which they interact with the Divine. For me, such prayers are quite likely very different than what they were to people of long ago. But the basic human need to express our needs and the desire to connect with a Power that can help us meet them are not aspects of the human condition that necessarily hold us back. I believe we ought to own them. Yes, we ought to respond to these human qualities responsibly and intelligently. But they will not go away, so the challenge lies before us to make our prayer life as rich, exciting, and relevant as possible.

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