Last Saturday, a hateful bigot armed with a legally purchased assault rifle murdered scores of people in the name of Islam at an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando. Social media was flooded almost immediately with #PrayersforOrlando, though the denunciations of this sentiment came just as fast. The basic critique went as follows: America needs policy change – including stricter gun control and more protection for the LGBTQ community – not prayer.
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The implicit message in this criticism is that prayer is incompatible with human action. Praying, the argument goes, is just a distraction from taking the necessary steps to actually solve the problems at hand. But is this portrayal of prayer fair?
Perhaps surprisingly, many religious leaders think it is. In response to a similar outpouring of prayers after the Paris attacks, the Dalai Lama said, “I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”
Prominent Jewish leaders have expressed similar, even harsher critiques. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the most cited Orthodox halakhic authorities of the past few centuries, suggested that it is prohibited to simply pray for things over which people have agency (Igrot Moshe, Orah Hayim, Part II, Responsum 111). Doing so, he wrote, would be a violation of a Talmudic injunction against praying for miracles (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 60a). Instead, Rabbi Feinstein stressed, it is absolutely necessary to take action that is within human control and only then to pray.
If even religious leaders like the Dalai Lama and Rabbi Feinstein argue that human action is a prerequisite for prayer, then why pray at all? If prayer is not about asking for miracles, then what is it about?
First, the act of prayer may offer solace to those who pray. All too often, we keep our deepest emotions pent up inside. We may be embarrassed to scream out loud about the horrors of existence. We may be afraid of how others will respond to us in our most raw states. Prayer, however, offers the opportunity to call out to the mysteriousness of the universe from our emotional and spiritual depths without any judgment in return. This outpouring of emotion can be deeply comforting.
Perhaps more importantly, prayer can actually work to bring about the very change that people have suggested it is meant to avoid. This assertion does not require belief in a personal God that intervenes in the world, nor does it need to violate Rabbi Feinstein’s warning against praying for miracles. Instead, it requires a reorientation about what it means to pray.
People often think of prayer as directed towards a God that stands outside of the universe. This perspective, however, misses a critical understanding of the divine. The book of Job refers to humanity’s “part of God above” (Job 31:2). The Tanya, an 18th century mystical work, interprets this verse as referring to the human soul. In conjunction with a reading of Genesis 2:7 that says God breathed a divine soul into the first human, the Tanya submits that the soul is itself a piece of divinity, a “part of God above” (Tanya 1:2).
Based on this understanding, every person is divine. It is our role, therefore, not only to pray when we feel compelled, but also to respond to the prayers that we hear. This is not to suggest that every person should act as though they are God. Rather, the implication is for people to take on the responsibility of responding to others’ prayers the way they hope their own prayers are listened to. In this way, prayer is actually a charge for increased human action, not an abdication of it. The recent calls of many rabbis to lobby politicians for more gun control and to “make gun control a gay issue” demonstrate how this type of faith works.
When offered in isolation, prayer as a response to tragedies that could have been prevented is problematic from both secular and religious perspectives. Coupled with human action, however, prayer has the power to offer comfort available in few other ways, and to call people to perform as their best, most elevated selves.