Eight Possible Ways in Which Prayer May “Work”
compiled by Rabbi Amy Eilberg
NCJH Acts of Lovingkindness: A Training Manual for Bikkur Holim
by Rabbi Nancy Flam, Janet Offel, and Rabbi Amy Eilberg
A. Prayer may “work” in that one may have asked God for something which indeed came about.
B. Prayer may “work” by invoking a greater sense of God’s presence.
C. Prayer may “work” by way of distraction, momentarily pulling the one who is ill out of his or her pain and suffering into a place of beauty or transcendence.
D. Prayer may “work” by way of focusing more deeply on the pain or discomfort in the suffering person’s life; in this way, prayer can be deeply grounding and clarifying.
(These last two examples may be compared to different techniques in childbirth preparation: one technique, Lamaze, uses distraction, while the Bradley method helps women to enter the pain more deeply and wholly.)
E. Prayer may “work” by quieting or centering the self.
F. Prayer may “work” by significantly connecting the one praying or being prayed for with Jewish community and tradition.
G. Prayer may “work” by helping the one praying or being prayed for to connect to a deep level of the self which is already healed and whole, reminding the person of his or her essential wholeness. Music, for instance, often has the capacity to put us in touch with that deep place of essential wholeness.
H. Prayer may “work” in focusing the pray-er on the blessings in his or her life, enabling him or her to magnify his or her sense of gratitude.
A quote attributed to Miles Davis, which may reflect the matter of keva/kavvannah:
"I spent 20 years learning how to play the trumpet right,
and 20 more learning how to play it wrong."
Current Contact Information:
Rabbi Nancy Flam - spiritualityinstitute.org
Rabbi Amy Eilberg – yedidyacenter.org
Excerpts from Drash Why Pray | What is the Purpose of Prayer by Marc Berch
Prayer is a mitzvah, an act required by halakha. We pray because we are supposed to pray. By praying we fulfill our obligations. "Prayer", he argues, "has no unique ... status in a Judaic way of life. ... For him, worship is in no way utilitarian. Indeed, "worship of God must be totally devoid of instrumental considerations" --- prayers are not functional. Moreover, "Leibowitz rejected any ethical explanation for the significance of the mitzvot."
And prayer is not about you. It has nothing to do with your own particular circumstances - psychological or spiritual. Rich or poor, happy or sad, we all are obliged to the same prayer set. "Human needs ... spiritual, ethical or otherwise, are irrelevant to the prayer moment". He points out that "The same shemoneh esreh ... are recited by the bridegroom before his wedding ceremony, by the widower returning from the funeral of his wife, and the father who has just buried his only son. Recitation of the identical set of psalms is the daily duty of the person enjoying the beauties and bounty of this world, and the one whose world has collapsed." The prescribed prayers are recited by those who truly need them, and the same set is required of those who do not.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik
...As Soloveitchik put it in his book "The Lonely Man of Faith,", "When the mysterious men of this wondrous assembly witnessed the bright summer day of the prophetic community full of color and sound turning to a bleak autumnal night of dreadful silence unillumined by the vision of God or made homely by His voice, they refused to acquiesce in this cruel historical reality and would not let the ancient dialogue between God and men come to an end."
Communications switched from prophecy to prayer, or, if you will prophecy now took the form of prayer. The initiative switched from God to Humans. Prayer thus allows humans to "sustain relational intimacy with God" that once took the form of biblical prophecy.
"Just as God's prophecy was accepted by man, so would man's prayer be accepted by God." At least, that's the assumption.
Rabbi Roland Gittlesohn
... "Prayer is my constant effort to reinforce my relationship with the Soul of the universe, thereby to emphasize and realize my spiritual potential. Prayer is a reminder of who I am, of what I can become, and of my proper relationship to the rest of the universe, both physical and spiritual. Prayer is an inventory of the spiritual resources which nature has invested in me and a survey of how I can exploit these resources to the fullest. Prayer is a recapitulation of the spiritual laws of the universe and an encouragement to conform to those laws in my conduct." Prayer in this view of course has no effect at all on the Universe itself, since the universe acts as it does regardless of whether or not we pray. Prayer acts only on us. He uses the analogy of himself surrounded by books full of wisdom. The books "did not jump off the shelf and open themselves to the right place and help me...They were there as a spiritual resource for me to activate and energize if I so choose. Similarly, God is a Spiritual Power in the Universe and in myself ... prayer is my way to activate and utilize a Power which otherwise remains dormant."
... The Bal Shem Tov is reported to have said, "A man should know that whatever he lacks is a lack in the Shekhinah ... Consequently, all prayer should have as its aim that the Shekhinah's lack should be filled, as it were, and man's needs will be automatically satisfied. As Rabbi Jacobs puts it, "If the Hasid finds himself to be sick...he should reflect that God wants him to be well again, and until he recovers from his illness, God's will is unfulfilled. His purpose, then in praying for good health and a speedy recovery should be so that the Shekhinah will lack no more.
The Maggid of Meseritch put it even more boldly. "Our rabbis say that the cow wishes the feed the calf more than the calf wishes to be fed. This means that the giver has a greater desire to give than the beneficiary of his bounty has the desire to receive. So it is with God. His delight in benefiting his creatures is greater than that of the creatures He benefits." Therefore, while the benefits that arise can be all very real, the actual purpose of the prayer is to please God in God's role as a giver, and indeed, "the righteous man becomes a giver because he assists God to attain his desire to be a Giver."
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
...in prayer, as in poetry, we turn to the words, not as signs of things but to see things in the light of the words...The words are to get us to see things differently... "It is through our reading and feeling the words of the prayers, through the imaginative projection of our consciousness into the meaning of the words, and through empathy for the ideas with which the words are pregnant, that this type of prayer comes to pass.... "Not the words we utter, the service of the lips, but the way in which the devotion of the heart corresponds to what the words contain, the consciousness of speaking under His eyes, is the pith of prayer."
Heschel also set forth a metaphysical effect of prayer as well, though it wasn't centered on petitionary prayer. He wrote, "For to worship is to expand the presence of God in the World. God is transcendent, but our worship" --- a term somewhat broader than just prayer --- "makes him immanent. This is implied in the idea that God is in need of man. His being immanent depends on us.
Aryeh Kaplan and and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
Aryeh Kaplan presents prayers as "Conversing with God".  Such a purpose comes from outside the area of keva, or fixed prayer that is so important in some of the other approaches. While praying in one's own words appears to be form of prayer in the Bible, fixed prayer eventually became the norm for Judaism. The Jewish thinker who gave the most emphasis to spontaneous prayer in his teachings was surely Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav. He believed that conversing with God directly in one's own language was the most powerful means for attaining a personal relationship with God.
Harold Kushner, argues that prayer, in effect, congregates people. He writes that "In ... regularly scheduled services ... I have come to believe that the congregating is more important that the words we speak. Something miraculous happens when people come together seeking the presence of God. The miracle is that we so often find it. Somehow the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts. A spirit is created in our midst which none of us brought there he observes. This is a phenomenon pretty similar to what is called an "emergent property". He continues, "In fact, each of us came there looking for it because we did not have it when we were alone. But in our coming together, we create the mood and the moment in which God is present."
Rabbi Harold Schulweis
In a similar vein, Rabbi Harold Schulweis argues, "In prayer you pray to move God. But the way you move God is through moving the divine in yourself...the purpose of prayer is to activate the godly in and between ourselves. To put it more bluntly, we cannot pray for anything that doesn't call on us to do something whether it's in terms of our attitude, our will, our energy or our intelligence. You can't pray for health however earnestly by expecting God to say yes or no. To pray for health means that you take seriously the means and meaning of health. You can't properly pray to God for health with a cigarette in your mouth ...You cannot pray for peace and do nothing about it. You cannot pray that God should love the Jewish people without expressing your love for the Jewish people."
Such a goal, in a more limited form, does not require a supernatural God at all. Rabbis Rebecca Alpert and Jacob Staub, writing from a Reconstructionist stance, argue that prayer can function as "Acknowledgement of Need". They write, "Most of us are raised to think that we have control of our lives, and that therefore we are responsible for what happens to us--good and bad. In truth, we have far less control that we think, and it is good to acknowledge our vulnerability. Prayer allows us to admit that we need help when we are frightened, overwhelmed, or desperate. Removing our defenses can move us to the honest self-awareness we require to get past our personal obstacles.
I will close with a reason given by Elie Wiesel, who gives an answer that possibly only he could suggest. He urges the "doubter" in God's beneficence to pray anyway, thus "forcing God to resemble His attributes. . . . Prayer then becomes a form of protest and defiance. One calls Him loving because He is something else sometimes. Because He permitted bloodshed, one extols His justice."