Rabbi Avi Weinstein

“Let me pray on that…” Why do even Jews with religious sensibilities think that this is a strange thing to do.

In Uncategorized on August 28, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Secular and atheist enthusiasts bristle when elected leaders  pray to God for guidance when making critical decisions.  I, too, was deeply uncomfortable when God was implicated in political decisions.  At a glance, the atheists were more consistent than I was.  According to them, why consult an entity that didn’t exist, much less receive guidance from a delusion?  I, however, believe in God, so what’s my problem? Am I only religious when it has no political consequence, or is there a religious reason that creates this discomfort?

The Talmudic examples of prayer as petition reflect a need for a particular outcome.  God “speaks” through the healing of someone who is critically ill.  If one prays for success in a particular endeavor, he doesn’t ask God for advice, but humbly prays for success.  Jews pray for rain, but don’t ask God which crops should they plant. The person is aware that although necessary, his hard work is not sufficient to ensure success.  He therefor prays for a desired outcome.  He doesn’t presume that God will make decisions for him, and he therefore bears no responsibility. Au contraire, one assumes responsibility for decisions on the one hand, but humbly prays for success on the other.  Without the help of his “Partner”, the farmer’s hard work, and the attendant plans may be for naught.

To pray for rain, however, acknowledges a human can only do so much, and the rest is either left to chance or the Creator. To assume that prayer can provoke a conversation akin to the Prophets in the Hebrew Bible would mean that the petitioner was on their level, and that God would see him as worthy of such an encounter.  This, I think, is hubris bordering on arrogance.  The humility of praying for a positive outcome is worlds apart from praying to God to make a decision.  For in the end, who is responsible for that decision?

The Jewish version of praying to God to help effectuate a decision is the relatively recent phenomenon of da’as Torah where people go to a Torah personality, a godol, to help make decisions not necessarily related to Jewish law.  There is little Talmudic precedent for this, but, in this case people are deferring to the wisdom of someone whom they consider more capable. If the decision turns out to be undesirable there is a this worldly recourse for ones grievance.  The petitioner hears an answer from a real person who for whatever reason, he considers to be more capable than he is.

When, however, God is the adviser, we only have the petitioner’s word for it. Even for believers like myself, this should give one pause. Especially since the Talmud teaches that “After the destruction of the second Temple only fools and children give (and presumably receive) prophecy.” (Baba Batra 12b)

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