Is Anybody Listening?

Prayer remains a vital component of our religious experience, even if God does not swoop down to remove our tumors.

BY: Rabbi David Wolpe


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Some point to recent research demonstrating that prayer has a medical benefit. But this research is a dangerous, even destructive tool for religion to wield. First, the results are contradictory. Second, if we take our stand on empirical studies, we are confounded when tomorrow a more thorough study comes along disproving the previous research. Faith should not be placed on the statisticians' operating table.

Indeed, I believe that expecting God to answer one's prayer in the fashion that most people expect is to demean God. Our relationship to Ultimacy ought not to be one of favors. Do we pray so that God might act as a Celestial Doctor, a Grand Dispenser of Goods? Or do we pray for relationship, for closeness; to elevate our spirits and raise our hearts?

A good deal of prayer is indistinguishable from barter. Dear God, we pray, heal my mother, and I will be good. Such a prudential arrangement is hardly in the highest spirit of faith.

Judaism offers a different, more powerful model of prayer. Two thousand years ago, Antogonos of Socho taught: "Do not be like a slave who placates his master simply to receive a reward." What then might prayer be?

A medieval rabbi, Leon Modena, expressed the truth of prayer as follows: Imagine a man in a boat who is pulling himself to shore. If one did not know better, it could appear that he is pulling the shore to himself. But indeed, it is the one in the boat who is being moved, because the shore is fixed. So it is, he said, with prayer. We think that when we pray we are moving God closer to our will. But true prayer does quite the opposite: It moves us closer to God's will.

If we rise from our prayer as better human beings than the ones who sat down, our prayers have been answered.

Does God answer prayer? Although I too have heard stories of miraculous recoveries and remarkable coincidences in people's lives, stories of salvation that credit God's power, I do not believe God supernaturally intervenes in the world in response to prayer. Although my heart yearns for such a God--and at times, I confess, my soul prays in such hopes--my experience in this often pain-wracked world belies the yearning of my heart. But to say that God does not remove tumors is not to declare God irrelevant. For we can invoke the strength, guidance, and love of God in our prayers. Calling out to God, we elevate ourselves; seeking God through prayer, we can change our lives.

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