The paradox of prayer

Here’s a famous theological problem: The Paradox of prayer.
M.C. Escher Relativity in 1953

In his book, Kavvanah, Seth Kadish writes

“When we take an overall look at the content of Jewish prayer, it immediately becomes clear that the bakkashah is the central aspect of tefila. The prayers of biblical characters…revolve almost totally around entirely around petition. Rabbinic prayer as embodied in the Amidah consists of petitions on thirteen different themes in its ‘middle’ blessings, as opposed to just three blessings of praise and three for thanksgiving. But while petition is the essence of prayer, at the same time it poses the deepest and most fundamental problems about prayer.”

The philosophical paradoxes include:

* If a person deserves God to give him the thing he prays for, why doesn’t God give it to him even without prayer? And if a person is not deserving of it, then even if he does pray and request it, should it be given just because of his prayer?

* Why should it be necessary to pray with speech? Doesn’t God know the thoughts of all people?

* If God is omniscient (all-knowing) then doesn’t God know what we are going to ask Him for even before we pray?

* How can a human being hope to change God’s mind? Why should human prayers affect God’s decisions?

These questions are really philosophical paradoxes. As anyone can see, their implications for the very possibility of prayer are devastating. They imply that prayer is a naive illusions at best and a ludicrous activity at worst. The practical import of these questions is so serious that it is really impossible for any person who ask them to pray in the conventional sense, unless he first resolves them.

Because of this, various philosophic reinterpretations of prayer have been offered that avoid the paradoxes and still allow the activity of prayer to continue. When we study these in later chapters, our primary task will be to discover how each philosophy deals with the essential paradoxes of petitionary prayer. But for the moment, before we deal with any of the answers, we must content ourselves with fully understanding the questions.”

Kadish, p.57

Here’s another one: If we are driving home, and see smoke, and hear sirens, should we pray “Dear God, please let that not be my home!” After all, if it is our house already on fire, then presumably God won’t change the universe to make that not so. And doesn’t such a prayer imply that we’re asking it to be someone else’s house?

Sometimes these questions arise in Hebrew school (or adult ed, yeshivah, etc.) Hopefully that leads to some good discussions. Other times, though, people may be taught how to daven. and yet not think about these famous paradoxes.

How do we approach these problems?


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