Why Pray? Jewish Answers

Jews pray in order to enrich our lives and seek comfort, to connect to the past and to others, to celebrate and develop a sense of the sacred, to serve God and help make ourselves Godlike.

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We Pray Out of a Sense of Both Obligation and Purpose

Why pray? There are many answers to this question. They include a question that many believers would ask in response: "How could I not pray?" A committed Jew prays because prayer is one of the Jew's many obligations (mitzvot).

prayer quizAs loyal servants, of course, we should obey the commands of our Sovereign. Yet even the most loyal and devoted servant must, at one time or other, ponder the question of purpose.

Reflecting on the question, I favor the approach suggested by Rabbi Louis Jacobs, who attempts to answer why a Jew should fulfill any of the mitzvot. In his book, A Jewish Theology, he points out that in ancient Babylonia, the sage Rav taught that the commandments were given to refine human character, to ennoble humanity, to have a positive impact on our lives.

Rav offered a brief lesson. "What does it matter to the Holy One if a cow is slaughtered in front at the neck (according to ritual law) or stabbed in the back of the neck (not according to ritual law)?" The goal of this particular mitzvah--the kosher slaughter of an animal--is to teach about care and compassion. Jewish ritual slaughter prescribes taking the life of the animal in the most painless way possible.

If the lesson stops with careful attention to the details of ritual slaughter, we may be obeying the letter of the law but we are not led to the basic purpose of fulfilling the law--avoiding cruelty in our relations with all creatures, animal and human alike. Hence, observing the dietary laws is meant to influence human character so that we act with compassion.

The medieval philosopher Nahmanides, in his discussion of the purpose of worship (in his commentary on Deuteronomy 22:6), arrives at the same conclusion. The proper worship of God should have a beneficial impact on human character, leading us to exemplify virtues in our lives, and bring us closer to perfection, to being God-like in our behavior.

--Rabbi Jules Harlow edited many prayer books and other liturgical works as Director of Publications for the Rabbinical Assembly. Excerpted from Pray Tell: A Hadassah Guide to Jewish Prayer (c) 2003 Hadassah (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing). $29.95+$3.75 s/h. Order by mail or call 800-962-4544 or on-line at www.jewishlights.com. Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091.

Why Pray “To” A Nonsupernatural God?

Given the notoriety Reconstructionists have acquired because we do not believe in a God who intervenes supernaturally in our lives, the extent of our prayer lives raises questions.

Why do Reconstructionists pray? Here are some reasons:

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