Anticipating the High Holidays

chagall abraham

My wife and I had a breakfast conversation today as we often do triggered by the morning news. The lead article on the Boston Globe was about praying for three infants whose skeletal remains were found in a derelict home along with four other neglected children. Pretty gruesome. The prayers also included the mother who obviously needed help from somewhere. I was a bit surprised by the prayers for the dead infants whose innocence should carry them straight to heaven. Ruth and I have had a running conversation about what is prayer for some time and this turned it on.

My argument generally starts with pointing to the origin of the word, which comes from the Latin for entreaty or beg. I found this neat etymology on the web.

Before the 13th century, the word was preien “ask earnestly, beg”. By the late 13th century it had become praien “pray to a god, saint, etc.”, and by the end of the century pray had taken on its current form. The word entered English via Old French preier, which came from Latin precari “ask earnestly, beg, pray”. An old word for “please” is prithee, a contraction of “I pray thee”.

The ultimate Latin root is prex “prayer, request, entreaty”. Prayer too comes from Latin prex via an only slightly different route. The Indo-European root which gave Latin prex is *prek-.

Some interesting related words which descended from precari are deprecate and precarious. How can precarious be related? Interestingly, it originally meant “obtained through asking”. The meaning shifted and was applied to items “held by another as a favor”. Later the idea arose that the “holding” was potentially tenuous as the “favor” could be withdrawn, and that is how the notion of “uncertainty” entered into the word’s meaning. By the 18th century it had acquired the “risky” meaning which it has today. Precarious entered English in the 17th century.

If one examines the word carefully, it has no practical meaning without making explicit both the person or entity to whom it is directed and the substantive request. “I beg/pray to God that Joe will repay the note he owes me.” There is, as used, a sense of indirection as the request is made to some entity not responsible for the reason triggering the request. My example is a bit facetious because if I really wanted Joe to hand me my money I would simple demand that he does. As the quote above indicates, the current use of pray generally is directing the request to God or some other transcendent being. If I said I prithee to any real person, they would look at me askance.

Prayer has different meanings for the three main theological classes of God: theism, deism, and atheism. Theists who believe that God is responsible for all human action and wants only good to surround human existence pray to God to correct an error he (I pray you will forgive me for using a masculine voice) made in creating the less than good situation I am experiencing. Or it may be to ask God to forgive transgressions, errors I made, not God’s. Deists, who believe God created us and then left us to find our own ways in the world pray, only as a last resort, in hopes that God, after all, is listening and has a Plan B for every bad situation.

Atheists, which I am an example, are stuck when life confronts us with situations for which we cannot conceive of any way to deal with. Prayer can’t work because there is no one to pray to. If the situation is so dire that one cannot go on without terrible suffering, some atheists may recant and pray to God, perhaps returning to their state of unbelief when the crisis is over. Importantly, there is an alternative to atheists and also God believers: hope. Hope differs from prayer in that hope is always about the success of something I am doing. Hope comes only while my actions have not yet resulted in the state we had envisioned. If they have worked, there is nothing left to hope for. I am using the first person deliberately here. I believe that hope only refers to my actions. When I say, “I hope you will feel better” or something similar, there is no agency involved. I am not doing anything to make you feel better. I am using hope here only as an expression of sympathy.

We rarely, if ever, think that when we hope, we are asking some agent to act because nothing intentional happens without an agent. Hope is an entreaty to a transcendental, but impersonal, formless, mute power. At that moment, I have stopped believing that my previous agency will get the results I want. Hope is an expression of the unpredictability of the way the world works. It is a silent appreciation of its complexity, an understanding that anything may happen at any moment.

Hope is an entreaty to an imaginary metaphorical system operator sitting at the controls of the world. Not a God, but someone who knows how to pull every lever, like a genuine Wizard of Oz. Hope is a request for a miracle, something that is possible, but very unlikely to happen. A glass of water can start to boil spontaneously, however unlikely that is. We hope when we begin to suffer in the knowledge that our efforts are not bearing fruit. As long as our project is progressing satisfactorily, we are immersed in it and hoping is redundant. Hope transfers the responsibility for failure from us to some other entity. Hope does not let us off the hook, however. We must continue acting as long as we carry the original vision of the eventual outcome.

You might hear some slight defensiveness in what I am saying. The Jewish High Holidays are almost here and I will make my yearly appearance at the several ceremonies. Much of the time there is spent in prayer. Although Reform Judaism, my kind, accommodates all kinds of believers, the liturgy springs from a theist foundation. Our prayers are directed to God in any of his several names for a myriad of reasons. We call on him to bless our wine, our food, our sanctuary, our people, and to forgive us for our failings. The theist’s God will forgive our transgressions against him, but the deist’s God leaves us to seek forgiveness from those other humans beings who we may have wronged. The idea of sin is different in Judaism. As our rabbi always reminds us each year, the Jewish word, chet, often translated as “sin” has its roots in archery and means missing the mark, going astray. With or without God present, I become mindful of all the times I have missed the mark.

Ruth asked me this morning if I was being hypocritical in joining in the prayers in Temple. Tough question. I am in the sense that I am uttering the words of prayer, but I am not in the sense that I am expressing my solidarity with a community of fellow Jews. To be Jewish is to be a member of the Jewish community and live a Jewish life. It is not so much that I am praying to a God, but expressing my aliveness and connections to the world through the liturgy. In reciting the prayers, I do have a spiritual experience, but one originating inside. It is the circumstances of the Holiday tradition and the closeness of a crowd of fellow congregants that brings forth that spirituality for me; not a sense of a connection with God.

(Image: Chagall: “Abraham and the Three Angels”)

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