Sunday, October 19, 2014


Many people turn away from prayer because they realize that it can rarely produce concrete results. Therefore, it is important to understand what prayer can do and what it cannot accomplish. For me, this is the scope of prayer:

1.    One should not pray for the impossible. Nature will not respond just because we pray with reverence. Our rabbinic sages already knew that “to cry over the past is to utter a vain prayer” (Ber. 9: 3). They even give a few examples: for instance, a person whose wife is pregnant should not say, “May it be Your will that my wife should have a boy” (idem). Such a prayer is “vain,” they add, because the sex of the child was already determined at the time of conception, and no prayer, however sincere and heartfelt, will change it. Similarly, they taught that if a person, coming home from a journey, hears crises of distress in his town, he should not say, “(God) grant that this not be in my house,” for this, too, is a vain prayer (idem), here  for two reasons: a) if the problem is in his house, it is too late for this type of prayer; b) then, the prayer implies that the distress should be in someone else’s house; and that is unethical.   

2.    Prayer alone does not modify the course of nature. It can, however, affect the worshiping individuals. It can give them a new insight; it can deepen their understanding of how the world operates; and both can prepare them to face the world with courage and clarity of mind.

3.    We often worry about the acceptance of our prayers when we should be more concerned about our ability the express them with a certain sense of realism. Mordecai Kaplan once wrote: “Religious prayer is the utterance of those thoughts that imply either the actual awareness of God, or the desire to attain such awareness” (The Meaning of God, 1962, 33). The key word here is “utterance.” High expectations can lead to disappointment. By expressing our hopes and aspirations properly and within reason, we can take the first step towards their realization. Every prayer becomes a program of action, motivating us to work towards its fulfillment.

4.    We must remember that the main goal of public worship is to strengthen the bonds that unite the community engaged in prayer. When we get together for worship, even though some of us may not be in the mood, we are still given the opportunity to identify with the hopes, aspirations and goals of the congregation. By joining the worshiping community, we strengthen the group as we strengthen ourselves.

5.    We have come a long way from the ancient days when worship in the ancient Near East meant taking care of the individual needs of the gods. The challenge today is not only to ground the prayers in an acceptable rationale but also to formulate them in such an equivocal language that they will reflect the different theologies of the praying individuals, and thus unite us in our endeavors to create a society in which everyone has the maximum opportunity for self-realization. Regrettably, we are not there yet.

Rabbi Dr. Rifat Sonsino
Oct. 2014

PS. For more and other details on prayer, see my 6 Jewish Spiritual Paths (Woodstock, VM: Jewish Lights), 2002, 72-92.

Thursday, October 2, 2014


In confronting daily struggles, some people remain apathetic and ignore them, hoping the problems will go away; others, confront the issues with full force, at times, even acting blindly and with anger; however, the best way is to take the middle road and resolve them by learning how to live with the ambiguities of life.

Thus, for example, the prophet Ezekiel criticizes those people “who have eyes to see but see not, ears to hear but hear not” (12: 2). Biblical law decries this uncaring attitude and, in fact, states, “You shall not stand (idly) by the blood of your neighbor” (Lev. 19: 16; cf. Rashi based on the Sifra). 

At the other extreme, the zealot is characterized in the biblical tradition by the hot-blooded Phineas, the grandson of Aaron, who attacked and killed a non-Jewish woman and her Jewish husband in their tent, presumably because of some idolatrous practice, thus putting an end to a plague. For this act, Phineas received God’s “pact of friendship” (beriti shalom) as well as “a pact of priesthood” (berit kehunat olam) for all time (Num. 25:12). Later rabbinic tradition shows a great deal of ambivalence regarding Phineas, some considering him a hero, while others view him as  a dangerous fanatic who needs to be contained (See, for ex., “Coping with Zeal,” N. Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, 328.ff). I still remember Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention of 1964 when he said: “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” I disagree: extremism is always a vice. 

Between these two poles, the medieval Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, suggests a third option. He calls it “the middle road,” or “the happy medium” (midah benonit). He says this is the most desirable path, as it requires the individual “to be angry only for a grave cause that rightly calls for indignation, so that the like shall not be done again” (Mishneh Torah, Knowledge: 1: 4). 

I admit that the “middle road” is not an easy path, because it requires the individual to learn how to live with lack of precision and within the shades of gray. Some people simply cannot handle it. They want clear and cut answers. It is “yes” or “no.” Life, however, is never “black and white.”  It is not always an uphill road. It meanders; there are low points followed by great achievements. As we become more mature, we all need to learn how to live with uncertainties, with sudden deviations, with momentary greatness, with long range goals and broad perspectives, so that when we look back, we can say, “Not bad; I did all right.”

Apathy is inhuman. Extremism is easy but dangerous; it is even arrogant. The middle road, though far from being smooth, is wholesome. Thus, Maimonides suggests that those who follow it should not be “tight-fisted nor a spendthrift…neither frivolous and given to jesting, not mournful and melancholy” (idem). He ends by saying that those who follow the “middle road” are termed “wise.” 

Regrettably in our time, especially in the political scene, many people choose an extreme path. They view themselves as saints and consider others as villains. It is regrettable that the social and political agendas of many societies have now been high jacked by narrow-minded fanatics. Many countries in the world (e.g. the Middle East, Latin America, Eastern Europe) are suffering because of this malaise. This is not helpful. It is simply wrong. 

So, don’t be an apathetic person, ignoring what is going on around you. On the other hand, stay away from intolerance, because it only leads to mental blindness. The middle road is the wholesome road.

Rifat Sonsino

Oct. 2014