Rabbi Ralph D. Mecklenburger
When prayer works it seems to transport me to another realm, a place where ideas and ideals come together and the world, despite its manifold problems, makes sense. I know how many wars rage around the world, but whether singing shalom rav al yisraeyl amchah tasim l’olam (“Grant abundant peace to Israel Your people”) or reciting the Reform variation which places the onus for action on us, too, “Grant us peace, Your most precious gift, O Eternal Source of Peace, and give us the will to proclaim its message to all the peoples of the earth,” I am moved by the affirmation that the daily headlines are not the final word. Where there is God there can be peace.
But does God truly “hear” such prayers? The personal image of God as Shomaya Tefilla, “Hearer of Prayer,” is more common but no more literal than “my Rock and my Redeemer” or “shelter us beneath the shadow of Your wings.” All God-talk is metaphorical and God is not limited or exhausted by our metaphors.
Prayer impacts us, whether or not a given worshiper believes it evokes divine response. The pious thought, the poetic language, and often the music give prayer an emotional impact. Continuing with the same example, to affirm God is to believe that there can be peace, whether God grants peace or is peace.
I call prayer “a place where ideas and ideals come together,” both to echo the classic rabbinic divine name, HaMakom (The Place), and to stress the interplay of ideas and emotion—for ideals are yearned-for ideas. Our spirituality, in prayer as elsewhere, is always an amalgam of the rational and emotional. In evoking emotion, touching and activating our yearning, prayer is not theology. It is art.
Rabbi Ralph D. Mecklenburger is author of Our Religious Brains: What Cognitive Science Reveals about Belief, Morality, Community and Our Relationship with God. He speaks nationally on topics related to science and religion, Judaism and Jewish-Christian dialogue. He is rabbi at Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth, Texas, an adjunct faculty member at Brite Divinity School, and has served as the Jewish co-chair of the Texas Conference of Churches’ Jewish-Christian Forum.