Prayer in other faiths - Judaism

Rabbi Seth Kunin, of the Reform tradition of Judaism, kindly spared me an hour of his research time between two of my teaching and tutoring hours at Nottingham University. It soon became apparent as we approached the topic of prayer how impossible it was to separate our discussion of it from a wider consideration of faith and practice. How these two are linked will determine the place of prayer and how it is conceived, realised and experienced. It seemed helpful to begin from, and to keep returning to, the common ground of Scripture. This shared treasure provided a real meeting point for us - and also immediately showed us how we differed.

We could meet in the words of Psalm 46, which I recalled in Coverdale's translation as my first-remembered perception of a divine voice directly addressing and challenging us:

O come hither, and behold the works of the Lord:
what destruction he hath brought upon the earth.

He maketh wars to cease in all the world:
he breaketh the bow, and knappeth the spear in sunder,
and burneth the chariots in the fire.

Be still then, and know that I am God:
I will be exalted among the heathen,
and I will be exalted in the earth.

The Lord of Hosts is with us:
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

We could share a joy in the fulfilment of this great proclamation: it is manifestly the God who demands righteousness and who will (if we obey His Word) destroy destruction itself, who is "exalted" among Christians - the God of Judaism has become our God.

But in discussing this, it was made apparent that for Jews there is no difference in authority between the direct utterance of God as rendered in prophetic writing, or Law or History. All are records of His action and expressions of His will. Accordingly, faith is not expressed through credal statements so much as through the characteristic activity of Judaism. For Seth Kunin, religious life began with his observation of this and his progressive involvement with it.

Emphasis is placed on obedience to the Law of God, which it is in the power of every believer to hear and obey. Judaism has no doctrine of Grace as a "preventive" or enabling act on God's part, towards the individual. Accordingly, the wicked can and do turn aside from evil ways - as in the case of a famous teacher who had repented of his earlier life as a highway robber. But the penitence expressed towards God and enacted towards the neighbour must be complete: I was reminded of Jesus's warning that we must be reconciled to our brothers before seeking to make any offering to God. Thanks is expressed in the blessing which is returned to God for every act of bounty towards us, as for instance in the blessing over bread - which is echoed in our Eucharist as the bread and wine are received by the clergy from representatives of the people. The presence and blessing of God can thus pervade everyday actions - as is seen perhaps most characteristically in the Friday evening supper (since the Sabbath lasts from sunset to sunset). And whatever tradition of Judaism the believer follows - whether there is any belief in a bodily resurrection, or a messianic epoch, or a virtual denial of any life after death - the emphasis is on our service of God in the here-and-now. Seth Kunin quoted one great Rabbi's observation from the Mishnah, Perkei-Arot (Sayings of the Fathers): One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is more than the entire life of the world to come.

Moreover, we are individually responsible to God. In Judaism it makes little sense to pray on behalf of others, to try to substitute for the spiritual duties which they have neglected, though it is inevitable that the Jewish believer, like the Christian, will be mindful in God's presence of the needs of others - especially the needs which are most keenly sensed, being those of the people we love.

The conviction that we can choose to obey God, and that his will can be known through study and application of the Law, which is both divinely-given and reasonable, is inevitably reflected in the character of thankfulness. It is no coincidence that the full enablement of Christians to live their lives in obedience and thankfulness to God, is linked to the Jewish festival of Pentecost, the day of thanksgiving for the giving of the Law. Seth Kunin stressed the rationality of Judaism as a faith. What we Christians call the "Ten Commandments" - and sometimes worry about as a string of "Thou shalt nots" - are known in Judaism as the "Ten Words" - creative words which, by way of obedience, effectively shape humanity in the image of God. Judaism does indeed reflect a very reasonable sense of God's goodness in its relationship to his justice.

We looked together at that great chapter of Deuteronomy which exhorts us to "choose life", and which seems so strangely neglected in the Christian tradition:

For the commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off.
It is not from heaven, that thou shouldest say, "Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it?"
Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, "Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it?"
But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.

A typical Christian difficulty in relation to this would be the final "that" - it would be linked to the idea of God's enabling Grace. Seth Kunin consulted the Hebrew text for us, and found nothing beyond the infinitive of the verb - "to do it".

Robert Cockcroft
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 30th July 1997