Prayer doesn’t change the world (but it helps, a lot)

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EnglishThe following essay of mine was presented at the international peace meeting entitled Peace Without Borders in Madrid in September 2019, an interfaith meeting organized for the last 30 years by the Sant’Egidio Community, a Catholic lay organization. I attended representing the Conference of European Rabbis.

Around 1990, a euphoria filled the Western world. The Cold War had come to an end, the West (which also included many countries in the east) had won, and most of the eastern bloc countries became liberal democratic free market societies. It looked like we were going to enter a permanently peaceful era, termed by Francis Fukuyama the End of History.

Unfortunately, in many regards, it is the competing and generally less appealing prediction of Samuel Huntington that became realized, the Clash of Civilizations. We are witnessing the reemergence of ancient prejudices and feuds as drivers for contemporary conlficts.

As religious people, our natural disposition is to pray, to cry out to our Father in Heaven for a blessing of peace and brotherhood. Surely, in our increasingly secular world, in which the practice of prayer has declined dramatically during the past century,1 religion may just provide such answers to contemporary challenges that were mostly overlooked. So is prayer the answer to our quest for peace? Prayer surely opens gates of inner peace, can it also unleash the loving torrents of brotherhood?

Though I will argue that in some ways, prayer can truly be helpful in this quest, I would like to first warn against the effectiveness of prayer in solving human conflicts. Well over 2500 years ago, the prophet Isiaiah admonished the people of Judah, saying to them:

Hear the word of the Eternal G“d, you rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our G“d-Almighty, you people of Gomorrah. To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? said G”d-Eternal; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats. When ye come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hand, to trample My courtyards? Bring me no more vain meal offerings and incense offerings of abomination; new moon and Sabbath, the holding of convocations – I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hates; they are a burden unto Me; I am weary to bear them. And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; even when you make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. (Isaiah 1:10-15)

At first sight, the addressees of this terrible admonition seem to be some terribly wicked, godless people. Not so. Upon closer investigation, we discover that Isaiah is talking to people who are deeply religious. They bring sacrifices, frequently visit the Temple to seek Divine blessing, observe the Sabbath and the various holy days, pray regularly and intensely, even assemble to read Bible together and seek inspiration from G“d‘s Word.

Yet the prophet bears G“d‘s admonition that He now hides His metaphorical face. Isaiah calls the people the „rulers of Sodom“ and the „people of Gomorrah,“ saying „your hands are full of blood.“ It seems that piety alone cannot heal the world, we need to act against injustice, lest we become accomplices of wickedness, as Isaiah reproaches them:

Wash yourself, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith G“d-Eternal; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. (ibid. 16-18)

If prayer alone cannot bring about peace, what wondrous vision do the prophets offer, instead? On Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza opposite the United Nations headquarters in New York, there is a monument that cites the unforgettable prophecy by Isaiah: „they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.“ (ibid. 4-5)

The monument unfortunately contains only half the quote, and though the hope and the vision remain before our eyes, the planners ignored the essential recipe to bring about that utopian vision. Preceding the above half quote are what amounts to both a vision and an admonition:

… many peoples shall go and say: ‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of G”d-Eternal, to the house of the almighty G”d of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Eternal One from Jerusalem. And He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples… (ibid. 2:3-4)

So it is when people seek G“d‘s teachings and His values, that they come to seek His counsel in order to resolve their conflicts, rather than wage war. Then, they will finally melt down their weapons to turn swords into plowshares and spears into pruninghooks.

Prayer is not sufficient; it is seeking the teachings of G“d that changes the world and brings peace.

That said, in some ways, prayer is a catalyst for change. The Hebrew word for prayer, lehitpallel, is in the reflexive form, incidentally conveying that prayer isn’t about asking G”d to fulfill your latest desire, but rather to impact yourself. When we turn to G“d in prayer, we mentally prepare ourselves for an audience with the mightiest Ruler of the universe, who’s our Father in Heaven. This mental preparation, when done well, has the potential to make us more humble, more grateful and then more generous and forgiving.

There is a fascinating story in the Talmud about a blessing Jews recite after a meal with bread. The blessing in question expresses pure gratitude, and isn’t particularly connected to food. Originally, the grace after the meal was composed of three blessings, which Jews recite until this very day, but it was lacking that fourth blessing. However, something very tragic happened. During the first two centuries of the Common Era, there was a lot of tension between monotheistic, independent minded Jews, on the one hand, and polytheistic imperialist Romans on the other. Twice tensions ran to high that Jewish zealots rebelled, and twice the Romans brought all of Rome’s military power to quash the rebellion, and after much gruesome fighting, the Romans succeeded.

During the Second Jewish War, the Romans laid siege and totally destroyed the city of Beitar. Thousands of Jews were massacred and their bodies laid in the fields and among the ruins. Along with Beitar, the Romans had destroyed much of Judea, almost 1000 towns and villages.2 Whoever could, fled, whoever survived must have doubted that Jews would remain in existence. In that horrible situation, the rabbis identified a miracle: six days after the destroying Beitar, the Jews had the opportunity to bury the dead.3 To most onlookers, this was a most tragic event, as the few survivors had to recon with the staggering number of corpses, but the Jewish Sages saw something very different: even when living through the greatest tragedies, one can still find things to be grateful for, still recognize that G”d touches our hearts and gives us hope. And so they decreed that from then on, every Jew who broke bread had to add a blessing of thanksgiving right after reciting the grace after the meal.4 From then on, every downtrodden Jew would learn that life hadn’t ceased and that there was still what to be thankful for, what to hope for.

Emmons & Mishra analyzed the psychosocial effects of gratitude and concluded that there is “considerable evidence that gratitude builds social resources by strengthening relationships and promoting prosocial actions.5 Robert Emmons, a preeminent scholar in this field, makes the argument6 that gratitude allows a person to:

  • celebrate the present
  • block toxic emotions (envy, resentment, regret, depression)
  • be more stress-resilient, and
  • strengthen social ties and self-worth.

Prayer alone may not change the world, but it can make us grateful and hopeful, both indispensable ingredients for change.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, expressed very powerfully the relationship between prayer’s ability to touch an individual heart, and that soul’s ability to bring about change. Thus he writes:

Prayer is for us, and for the entire world, an absolute necessity, as well as the most legitimate of all pleasures. The fluctuations of our soul advance and retreat, as we seek in ourselves and in the world a kind of perfection that mere physical existence cannot grant us. Without prayer we often find ourselves immersed in great suffering, in states of despondency that distract us from our knowledge of self and of our Creator. … our inner life impacts on the outer world precisely because its inwardness is a part of the world, and thus our prayers cause the whole world to move toward reward and fulfilment. … through prayer a person can elevate the whole of Creation, and unify all being in himself, uplifting all, raising everything to the Source of blessing and the Source of life.7

Prayer alone cannot change the world, but when we increase prayer in the world, particularly communal prayer, we do help change the world to become a more grateful, more hopeful, more united and happier place, in which we can indeed effect change.

Consistent with the Isaiah‘s admonition not to rely on prayer alone, but to fight injustice and the abrogation of rights, the Conference of European Rabbis, along with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Rabbinical Council of America, in its 2017 declaration Between Jerusalem and Rome proclaimed that the main vector of expression of our interreligious relationship should be interfaith action on behalf of society. Thus we declared:

As the Western world grows more and more secular, it abandons many of the moral values shared by Jews and Christians. Religious freedom is thus increasingly threatened by the forces of both secularism and religious extremism. We therefore seek the partnership of the Catholic community in particular, and other… faith communities …, to assure the future of religious freedom, to foster the moral principles of our faiths, particularly the sanctity of life and the significance of the traditional family, and “to cultivate the moral and religious conscience of society.” …

We condemn hereby any and all violence against any person on account of his beliefs or his religion. We similarly condemn all acts of vandalism, wanton destruction and / or desecration of the hallowed places of all religions.

We seek to deepen our dialogue and partnership … in order to foster our mutual understanding and to advance the goals outlined above. We seek to find additional ways that will enable us, together, to improve the world: to go in God’s ways, feed the hungry and dress the naked, give joy to widows and orphans, provide refuge to the persecuted and the oppressed, and thus merit His blessings.

Footnotes

2Boaz Zissu, „Village Rased, Rebel Beheaded,“ Biblical Archaeology Review 33:5, September/October 2007

3BabTal. Taanit 31a. According to BT Gittin 57a, this was actually seven years (and six days later. Cf. Jerusalem Talmud Ta‘anit 4:5.

4BT Berachot 48b, BT Ta‘anit ibid.

6See ibid.

7Introduction to his siddur, Olat Reiyah

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