During the Pope’s recent visit to Israel he invited Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres to the Vatican for a prayer session. It was a decent, generous gesture, but I was surprised that so many writers I respect (David Horovitz in particular) thought it might come to something, even though we all know that Shimon Peres has no authority to make concessions, and, in any case, the Pope can’t possibly offer more attractive incentives to peace than John Kerry. I suppose Horovitz and others figured prayer was worth a try. Nothing else has worked.
My own skepticism is probably informed by a more Jewish – and, I’d say, less Christian — approach to prayer. I have a minister friend who tells me he starts all of his marriage counseling sessions by insisting the couple pray with him. I imagine he’s trying to create a spiritual atmosphere, but mostly he’s hoping that prayer will bring extra insight. Christians I know will often use the preposition “on” or “about” with praying – referring to prayer as a spiritual practice that can help them make decisions. They’re not praying “for,” they’re praying “on” – almost as if prayer were synonymous with thinking, or reflecting. Should I take that new job? I’ll “pray on” it.
For the most part (there are exceptions) Jews don’t pray “on,” we pray “for.” In a recent Torah reading, Moses prays twice, both urgent petitions. In one, he insists that God stop a fire that God Himself had created as a punishment. Interestingly, Rashi and other commentators suggest that Moses here screamed in anger at God, literally “getting in God’s face,” almost commanding God to intervene. In the other, Moses implores God to heal his sister. In neither case is Moses seeking a spiritual atmosphere, or reflecting on a decision. The reflecting comes before. He knows what he wants, and so he articulates it, demands it.
Of course Jewish liturgy evolves from Moses and nowadays we have many prayers which are not simply demands. Most of our regular weekday and Shabbat prayers are not petitions; they’re expressions of gratitude or awe. But still, I wouldn’t characterize our words thanking God for waking me up in the morning, or praising God as “awesome and mighty” as reflecting, or “praying on.” Jewish prayer encourages us to articulate our deepest thoughts and to uncover our most immediate needs. Hasidic masters wrote about prayer as piercing the veil of heaven, of getting through to God with a personal urgency. A former professor of mine explained that in Jewish prayer we talk to God, but God doesn’t necessarily talk back.
There is, however, a Jewish spiritual technique where God does talk back: Torah study. For me, that’s how we reach clarity of thought, how we achieve new insights. I used to be amazed how my study of the weekly portion always magically corresponded to some issue I was facing in my life until I realized that’s exactly the point of Torah study. We examine a particular Torah text with an open mind, and a clear sense of distinct personality, and God talks. We just have to listen. In fact Torah study, as opposed to prayer, is mostly about listening – to our hevruta study partner, or to the many different layers of text, or to our classic commentaries. It’s a spiritual activity, but it engages the intellect at its finest. We bring to Torah study a listening, reflective, open mind, eyes and ears sensitive to nuance, and a humble heart.
In some ways, praying about the Israel/Palestine conflict might make it worse. In prayer we open our hearts to God, and express our deepest, darkest longings. And it’s not an exaggeration – or particularly an embarrassment — to admit that both Jews and Palestinians sometimes pray with a full heart that the other simply go away. We pray for the third Temple, they pray for a Middle East free of Jews. Deep, deep down we probably prefer that the other cease to exist, and that becomes our prayer.
But Torah study isn’t about articulating or admitting our mythic desires. Particularly in the Talmud, it’s about solving problems, resolving difficulties, sharing information, hearing different opinions, finding a middle ground. I’m not unhappy that Peres and Abbas will pray together. I’d just prefer that they study.