Praying with a purpose

"What do you think will happen if you pray?” asked my friend. It was New Year’s Eve, and a left-wing, but religious, fellow journalist had just kindly wished me everything that I prayed for in 2014. In fact he had gone further. He had wished all his followers on social media all that they prayed for. Which, I observed, would be hard, because many of us would be praying for directly contradictory things.
Interesting question, I thought.

My friend’s point, of course, is that it is untenable to hold that you can make things happen just by praying that they will. Your cat will not be found just because you pray that it will be. And he’s right that sometimes the words of prayers do seem — how can I put this — a bit much, going on as they do. Brutally, I can’t think of God as something or somebody who listens to my prayers in Northwood, while simultaneously attending Kinloss to listen to other peoples’.

I remember a story of a seaside town policeman who arranged for citizens to pray as a way of reducing crime. I worried not merely that this was ineffective, but also that it suggested to those living in high crime areas that their problem was that they were not praying hard enough. In other words, the advice, while well- intentioned, was not merely silly, it was actually a little offensive.

If this is true, why bother praying at all? And was my fellow journalist’s New Year’s Eve gesture ridiculous?
Well, first, there is no doubt that it was a kind thing to wish. It was a nice thought that he might be spending his time thinking about everything I and other people he knew might wish. His prayer might not directly change anything in my life but it might make him an even nicer person.

Does God listen to prayers in Northwood and Kinloss?

If more people pray like that, it might make the world a better place. Indeed, seen like that, even the policeman’s crime-fighting policy was not that daft. The people who are actually praying will be less likely to commit crime even if their prayers do not prevent the crime of others.

One of the reasons I am a liberal Jew is that I believe we must learn from our own prayers and the prayers of others. We are changed by it, Judaism is changed by it. I believe precisely in the very act my friend was questioning – trying to think about what would be needed to grant all the prayers of others, even though I know that this isn’t possible and that prayers are often contradictory.

The prayers my friend was questioning were ones mentioned on a social networking site as if made by the person alone. But that’s not how most prayers are offered. They are offered communally, when gathered in a group, or according to rituals agreed communally. They are, in other words, a social act. And one not easily replaced by other social acts.

What happens when I pray is that I get together with co-religionists and share their lives and hopes, their celebrations and sorrows. And I gain something profound from this.
I am not just communing with the living, but also with the dead, with the past. The prayers are a ritual incantation, expressing my attachment to the Jewish tradition, saying that I come from it and intend to preserve it.

When I pray in synagogue I think of my father, of praying with him, of sitting next to him and playing with the tassels of his tallit as a child or of watching him on the bimah. And, you know what, when I do that, the question about what I expect to happen when I pray, doesn’t arise.

Daniel Finkelstein is Associate Editor of 'The Times'

Last updated: 9:52am, January 10 2014