The Role of Prayer in Times of Tragedy

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The entire Jewish world is wrought with anxiety and anguish as we worry for our three teenage boys who have been reportedly abducted by sworn enemies of Israel. We cry because we want them to #bringbackourboys. It hurts. People cope with tragedy in different ways. It’s important to remember that we all feel things in different ways and different emotional places so it’s understandable that we will deal with tragedy in different ways.

One of the most universal responses to distress is prayer. It’s not just the super religious people who pray either. It’s pretty much everyone. The prayers are not all the same. Some might hold candles in silence, others may sit in a corner and quietly recite Psalms. I’ve seen prayer groups that seem more like concerts, and some people gather in large groups and bombard the heavens with their pain induced screams for mercy. It takes all types. But they are all praying.

Two controversial articles in Jewish publications took notice of all this praying for the safety of our three boys. In Haaretz, Professor Samuel Heilman argued that Psalms are not enough of a response. In the Forward, Leah Bieler wondered if prayer was the most effective way to #bringbackourboys. Unfortunately, both articles were sabotaged by attention grabbing headlines that substantially misguided readers about the content of the article.

Both writers were trying to make fine points with laser precision but the headlines put a sledgehammer in their hands instead. Inevitably, people saw the headlines and had already determined that these articles were undermining the value and efficacy of prayer. Fortunately, neither article actually did that and I think there is value in attempting to understand their intended overall message.prayer

The loudest protestations against these articles erupted from the camp of Orthodox Judaism. Many argued that according to Orthodox Jewish beliefs, prayer absolutely can change the outcome of a catastrophe and therefore there is no way to overestimate the power of prayer. Thus is it blasphemous to imply that prayer is not enough or that prayer won’t bring the boys home. In their view, God is anthropomorphized to an extent and can change a decree based on the prayers of the supplicant. This is a maximalist position. There are other versions of understanding prayer in Orthodox Judaism. Another perspective follows a more Maimonidean approach and holds that prayer changes the supplicant but it cannot change God. The impetus for this position is that God’s perfection precludes God from being influenced by human reasoning or tears of pain. In this view, God is not going to change but we can change. When we change, our Divine fate can change. More importantly, even if our prayer is not answered in the way we hope, we have grown from the experience.

Thus, I think there is a nuance of a difference between the attitude of the Maximalist Prayer and the Maimonidean Prayer. I see the first view as more confident in man’s ability to change outcomes through prayer and that change could even be the primary goal of prayer. I think the latter view is more concerned with the personal growth of the supplicant and if the situation is changed by the act of prayer it’s like a bonus.

This is important because the first view is the view that is more likely to be outraged by the aforementioned articles. If prayer is primarily a tool that can change things then if prayer isn’t working we just need more prayer. It will work eventually. Prayer ought to work on its own. If it doesn’t work, it’s only because our prayer was flawed. the second view is less concerned with the Divine response so the prayer is not expected to yield their desired outcome.

If you subscribe to the first view, the two articles may never reconcile with your worldview. They might, but it’s harder. But if you hold the second view, I think the articles are actually pretty good.

The fine point both articles tried to make was that prayer is but one part of our response to a tragedy. It’s not the only response. It’s also not the response that should be given primary credit if we obtain the desired outcome.

Professor Heilman’s article is very practical. Obviously the terrorists are the problem. They are the violent people who are harming our children. But Professor Heilman argues that we have not done enough to protect our children. Yeshiva students are expected to hitchhike in potentially dangerous areas. They are being placed at risk. Then when something bad happens, we turn to the heavens. Prayer is great, but is that the best way to react here? Maybe a policy change or a campaign for safer transportation would be a more appropriate reaction. His point is that prayer and God are often scapegoats for solvable problems.

His model is more like the model of Jacob as he prepared for war with Esau. Jacob prayed. But Jacob also strategized and did everything in his power to find a diplomatic resolution. Prayer is one element of a solution. Practical and earthly ideas are also part of a solution. We need both and we can’t fixate on just one. Especially when it’s the easier one.

Ms. Bieler’s article focuses on how prayer can misattribute blame too. If we pray to God, perhaps it’s because God is at fault for our predicament. We pray so we can change God’s evil plan for us. But this is a primitive view of God, that I don’t actually think accurately describes the way most religious Jews view God, and Ms. Bieler urges the reader to be more sophisticated than that. Thankfully, most of us are. Further, the blame here should not be attributed to God, God forbid, the terrorists and their enablers are the problem here.

More importantly, when the boys are brought home safe and sound, God willing soon, who gets the credit? If you believe in the maximalist version of prayer, it seems obvious that God gets at least a portion of the credit. But if you believe in the more Maimonidean version of prayer who gets the credit? The person praying was never expecting a specific result so it is only reasonable to give all the credit to the soldiers and politicians and activists who brought the victims home. In any case, they definitely get some credit.

It seems that this divide explains the consternation over Ms. Bieler’s article and to a lesser extent, the potential bewilderment over Professor Heilman’s article. They both hold of the second approach to prayer.

Neither of their articles actually say what their headlines imply. They both value prayer and they both encourage prayer. But they are also passionate about doing things the best way we can do them and developing a more nuanced approach to prayer is a worthy endeavor. This is especially true when so many of us have been inspired to pray fervently for the safety of our boys.

I think both of these articles make good points that can absolutely be reconciled with Orthodox Judaism. I think the writers make good arguments for their positions and we should consider their ideas. Leah Bieler’s argument that although we pray to God, we blame the evildoers is not offensive at all. In fact, I think we would all agree. Professor Heilman’s argument that we tend to turn to God and prayer instead of fixing actual problems is something we’ve seen before and is far from ideal.

One more thing. At the very least, prayers are a potentially unifying activity. They signal our concern for others to others. When we know that others are feeling the pain of a tragedy that is hurting us, we can experience a small level of comfort. Stated another way, prayer is an ancient hashtag.

Let us hope and pray, together, that we can #bringbackourboys using Jacob’s formula. We pray, we prepare for combat and engage in battle, and we use backchannels to come to a peaceful resolution. God willing, we can emulate Jacob’s strategy and merit the same positive result.

  • Yochanan

    Is the Maimonidean approach based on “LehitPallel” being reflexive?

    • It’s based on the primacy of God’s “oneness.”

  • Yes, these articles might be based on legitimate approaches to tefillah. But this is really not the time to publicly criticize those praying. The authors could just as easily write these articles when the issue isn’t so sensitive. Are they afraid their writing won’t attract as much attention later on? Too bad. A little sensitivity would be nice.

    • The articles did not criticize the people who are praying. And I disagree, now is the time to inspire people to change.

      • I stand corrected about the criticism, although for those involved it is taken the same way (think the impact the Novominsker’s words had even thought they weren’t technically directed at the people).

        In terms of inspiring change, I get that issues lose their impact when they are no longer occurring. However, I personally would put the value of being empathic to those pouring out their hearts in prayer waaay above trying to convince people to adopt a different approach to tefillah.