prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive

I gave (a modified version of) this to my “Theology of Jewish Prayer” class. The assignment was to “present a prayer theology that differs from your own, making an effort to highlight its strong points; then present a prayer theology congenial with your personal views, highlighting a difficulty or challenge it poses.”

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This semester I am taking an online class called “Spirituality and Social Justice,” which focuses on the philosophies and theologies of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The two theologies of prayer that I want to present today both come from Rabbi Heschel: One I find difficult, and the other, I find compelling.

In The Insecurity of Freedom Heschel writes about prayer as a discipline. Alluding to Buber, Heschel argues,

To worship G-d means to forget the self, an extremely difficult, though possible, act. What takes place in a moment of prayer may be described as a shift at the center of living – from self-consciousness to self-surrender. This implies, I believe, an important indication of the nature of man. Prayer begins as an “it-He” relationship. . . . In prayer, the “I” becomes an “it.” This is the discovery: what is an “I” to me, first of all and essentially, and “it” to G-d. If it is G-d’s mercy that lends eternity to a speck of being which is usually described as a self, then prayer begins as a moment of living as an “it” in the presence of G-d. The closer to the presence of Him, the more obvious becomes the absurdity of the “I.”

For Heschel, then, prayer requires extreme humility and self-abnegation. Our complete submission to the divine is what allows us to even draw close to G-d, let alone worship G-d. This involves a recognition of our own finiteness, undeservedness, and absurdity; we denigrate ourselves “to become worthy to be remembered by G-d,” as Heschel writes a few paragraphs later. He continues, “Thus the purpose of prayer is to be brought to G-d’s attention: to be listened to, to be understood by Him. In other words, the task of man is not to know G-d but to be known to G-d.”

As I read this text, I had an immediate and strong reaction to this theology (not to mention the gendered language for G-d and for people). Over Shabbat lunch some weeks ago, I explained my objections to several classmates of mine, and one of them was quite surprised. After years of resistance and subsequent spiritual work, he explained, he had found connection to the divine in this surrender, in the recognition of his unworthiness. This philosophy has much to recommend it to someone who has been able to believe in the possibility of control over his life. I think it is significant that my interlocutor was a straight, cisgendered, able-bodied white man.

abraham joshua heschel

abraham joshua heschel

To me, Heschel’s writing here cries out for a feminist analysis. I agree with the assumption that Heschel seems to be making: that seeking communion with the divine should not feel quotidian. Being in the presence of G-d should absolutely feel different than other moments of our lives might. What “different” is, however, depends on who you are.

Heschel survived horrors as a Jew in Europe in the 1930s, and he lost much of his immediate family in the Holocaust. I don’t want to leave that unacknowledged. And, he also benefited from much privilege accorded him here in the United States, through his skin color, his gender, his sexual orientation, his education, his able-bodiedness. For those similar to him, daily experience might be able to be described as affirming. Safe. Comfortable. It is understandable why, then, it might be desirable for prayer, for immersion in the divine, to be an uncomfortable and challenging experience. A denial of the self that is otherwise universally affirmed. A submission to a force with which one otherwise feels in harmony.

I pray, in part, because I feel empowered and affirmed and worthy and safe when I am in the presence of the divine. G-d has already remembered me, brought me to G-d’s attention, is desirous of listening to me and of understanding me. I don’t have to work to make that happen; G-d meets me where I am. So doing means, for me, that G-d acknowledges the brokenness of my experience. The G-d of my prayer is one whom I, in the words of Tamara Cohen, “hold . . . responsible for failing me as a Jewish woman by giving me a world and a people and a text that continue to betray women, often making it difficult for us to uphold our side of the covenant.”

Heschel actually acknowledges something similar to this in his work on prophetic consciousness. Elsewhere he says that the job of the prophet is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” And if the prophet is the messenger of G-d, it stands to reason that his actions might be a reflection of G-d’s role. I wonder whether Heschel himself held contradictory theologies of prayer. I think he might: It’s hard for me to understand how he could connect with a theology that objectifies human beings.

Indeed, I find deeply moving a seemingly quite different part of his theology: his thought about the obligations that we have to each other as prerequisites for prayer. A journalist once asked him why he had come to a demonstration against the war in Vietnam. “I am here because I cannot pray,” he replied. “What do you mean, you can’t pray so you come to an anti-war demonstration?” Said Heschel: “Whenever I open the prayerbook, I see before me images of children burning from napalm.”

Heschel was an outspoken opponent both of the Vietnam War and of the racism he saw manifest in the segregationist laws of the American South in the 1950s and 1960s. In his June 16, 1963, telegram to President Kennedy in advance of a meeting of religious leaders at the White House, Heschel said, “We forfeit the right to worship G-d as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes.” In Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, he wrote, “To speak about G-d and remain silent on Vietnam is blasphemous.” For Heschel then, we cannot be in any relationship with G-d when we are not in right relationship with our fellow human beings. This latter relationship also involves G-d: “The image of G-d is either in every man or in no man . . . “ he wrote in The Insecurity of Freedom. If we’re not able to see G-d in others, how can we see our way to G-d?

In the great Talmudic tradition, Heschel’s statements are extreme. Just as one might rightly be mystified (as I am) by R. Eleazar’s claim that “One who prays behind his rebbe, and one who greets his rebbe, and one who returns a greeting to his rebbe, and one who divides his rebbe’s yeshiva, and one who says something which he has not heard from his rebbe causes the shekhinah (divine presence) to depart from Israel” (Berakhot 27b), so too might Heschel’s claim be perplexing. We’re never completely right with our community: I only called Sen. Warren’s office once to urge her to vote in favor of a bill that could close Guantanamo – and the phone just rang and rang. I decided I had too much homework to attend the Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony last Sunday. I provoked a fight with my husband. I used ableist language. As I said earlier, my prayer is comforting: I need connection to G-d precisely when I am feeling most un-human.

But Heschel’s commitment to the primacy of interpersonal relationships speaks to me and calls me to action. It puts moral obligations ahead of religious obligations, ha’olam ha’zeh before ha’olam ha’bah, the communal antecedent to the personal. I also love the global nature of Heschel’s community: besides the war in Vietnam – in which he was concerned primarily about native, civilian casualties – he also did much work on the issue of Soviet Jewry. Foreign, domestic, Jew, Gentile – Heschel tried to see the image of G-d in all. Again, The Insecurity of Freedom: “All of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person; when one person is offended, we are all hurt. What begins as inequality of some inevitably ends as inequality of all.” This view also highlights the enormity of what is at stake: We human beings have always been in special relationship with G-d, as b’tzelem elohim. We cannot come before G-d with our prayers when we commit atrocities against the one image we have of the divine: human beings.

This theology also expands for me the definition of prayer. In so prioritizing our community, we see the world as G-d does, and we become partners with G-d in alleviating the agony of human beings. Upon the occasion of his marching with Dr. King in Selma, Ala., Heschel famously said that he “felt like his legs were praying.” Our work on behalf of others is sacred. G-d-like. And if activism is prayer, it can go the other way, too. Prayer is activism – as Heschel well noted when he said (in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity) that “prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive . . . Prayer is our greatest privilege. To pray is to stake our very existence, our right to live, on the truth and on the supreme importance of that which we pray for. Prayer, then, is radical commitment, a dangerous involvement in the life of G-d.” And, I think, in the lives of others, too.

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