J. (Joshua) Abelson.

The immanence of God in rabbinical literature online

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emotion of the moment might be the cause of some
broken heart pouring out its anguish, so that He might
possibly hear it, although when the emotion has subsided,

321 Y



the suppliant would realise the impossible nature of his
act. But the fact might happen. Moreover, prayer
includes a good deal besides petition. It means the
adoration of God, it means the act of self-abasement at
the thought of the invincible holiness of God. And
the Deist might very well give expression to these
feelings. But to the Pantheist, prayer is not only
impossible, but its very act would involve a self-
contradiction. If God does not transcend the universe,
then He is nothing more than the universe ; and as we
are part of the universe and partially identical with
it, then we are part of God and partially identical with
Him. Accordingly it follows, that in praying to God
we are but praying to what is another name for our-
selves. It would be an act of self-worship ; and the act
of communion between ourselves and a Person greater
than ourselves — the chief constituent of prayer and the
corner-stone of every known religious system — is totally
absent. Then, again, from another standpoint, a basic
psychological factor in prayer is that movement of the
mind which culminates in aspiration. To pray is to
aspire, to aim at reaching something which one has not
yet reached. One of the favourite Biblical phrases
for prayer is that of " stretching out the hands," and
this is expressive of the physical concomitants of
the emotion of aspiration. The hands are thrust
forward as if to grasp something which, though dis-
tant, is yet attainable. Prayer thus involves always
an element of futurity. But the Pantheist, by the
very tenets of his creed, ignores or denies these factors
of aspiration or futurity. If God is so merged in the
universe that the most precious part of man, his soul,
is an integral constituent of God, then what need has
man's soul for the exercise of prayer? What need
has it to aspire ? What quest has it to make ? If it


already possesses God, then it has no need to set out
trying to get possession of Him. It has already reached
its goal before starting. Prayer can have no bettering
effects upon him who offers it, seeing that God is, at the
outset, as near the man who prays as He can be and as
He ever will be. To pray is to expect a condition of
thincjs different from what one has at the moment.
But if this condition of things is realised from the
first, then prayer is superfluous and impossible.

Thus prayer, in the highest and best sense, pre-
supposes a Deity who is at once transcendent and
immanent. The Rabbinic religion, as I have already
had occasion to state, several times, conceives of God
ever under these two aspects in strict combination. I
hope to show shortly how their doctrines about prayer
are framed on this assumption.

In modern times, one of the strongest barriers to the
belief in the utility of prayer is its supposed collision
with the established scientific truth of the uniformity
of Nature. Prayer, it is said, is based on the un-
scientific idea that there is something haphazard or
arbitrary in the ways of Nature. Rain is brought
about by certain atmospheric laws. Good health is the
result of obedience to sanitary laws. Death is determined
by physiological laws. Now, suppose some one prays to
God, asking His intervention in any of these, so that by
His instrumentality something should, or should not,
happen in these spheres, which by the very fundamental
nature of these laws must or T/msi not happen, as the
case may be, is it not totally absurd to think — so it
is often nowadays argued — that the indisputable reign
of law can be arrested by the caprice of an omnipotent
will ? Modern theologians, of course, have their answer.
What are the answers of Rabbinic theology to this
difiiculty ?


According to the Eabbins, petition is only a part
of prayer. Prayer has always suffered from being
wrongly interpreted as a synonym for making requests.
It comprises ever so much more. There is a pregnant
saying on this head, in Deuteronomy Rabba ii. 1 as
follows : ni?itt) (1) \n *i^n"i, n^cn nN-)p2 niDimS n~i2)i? pnv i"n
HN^-ip (7), -i"iH^i (6), ni?^:iD (5), mi (4), rfpt^2 (3), np::^ (2),
D''3"i2nn (10), h^h^ (9), S"idd (8). R. Johanan said there
are ten synonyms for prayer : (1) and (2) cry (based
on Exodus ii. 23b, " And the children of Israel sighed
by reason of the bondage, and they cried (ipi?!5''"i) ;
and their cry (oni^iti?) came up unto God . . .") ; (3)
groaning (based on Exodus ii. 24, " And God heard
their groaning ") ; (4) and (5) cry and intercession (based
on Jeremiah vii. 16b, "neither lift up a cry (rr:i) for
them, neither make intercession " (i?lDn) to me) ; (6) and
(7) distress and calling (based on Psalm xviii. 6, "In
my distress ("isn ) I called (n~ipn) upon the Lord") ; (8)
"falling down" (based on Deut. ix. 18, "And I fell
down before the Lord"); (9) " executing judgment "
(based on Psalm cvi. 30, " Then stood up Phinehas, and
executed judgment" (SSd^i)) ; ^^^ (10) "beseeching"
(based on Deut. iii. 23, " And I besought (pnriNi) the
Lord, at that time, saying ").^"^

Out of all these ten it is only the tenth (D''D*i3nn)
that belongs to the domain of pure request. Numbers
(1) (2) (3) merely refer to the simple act of com-
munion, the unloading of one's cares before God and
the conveying of them into His ear ; (4) and (8) are
the act of adoration, the word n^n, although trans-
lated "cry" in the A.V., literally = song, or song of
praise ; (5) refers to mediation ; (6) and (7) are of
the nature of aspiration ; (9) to righteous and just
dealing. This view is summarily put in a passage
preceding the Midrash just quoted, where we are told :



" I might have thought that man need only ask his
wants and that would suffice, but Solomon has already
made it clear in the words, ' To hearken unto the cry
and unto the prayer' (1 Kings viii. 28). Cry refers to
the adoration of God, prayer denotes the petition for
one's wants." Here " crying " and " praying " are really
meant to be the two constituent elements of prayer.
But it is noteworthy that not only does the adoration
element constitute half of prayer, but it also takes
precedence of the element of petition.

The point here is this : Petition, according to Rabbinic
ways of thinking, is only one department of prayer,
and not by any means the most important department.
Prayer is the spiritual action of the soul turned towards
God as its true and adequate object. It is a spiritual
intercourse with God. To utter requests, to tabulate
petitions, to compose prayerful words and songs is one
thing ; but to pray is to come into vital communion
with God. It is to have God by one's side : on one's
right hand, as the Scripture terms it ; it is to enter into
an actual fellowship with a Divine Companion ; it is to
experience the Presence of One with whom "eternal
strength and wisdom are." And, as a consequence, the
emotion that one experiences in prayer, is that of the
inrushing of a new life. A great refreshing comes over
mind and body, all sorts of potentialities and possibilities
are let loose so that the soul feels that it has a new
lease of vigour and energy, and the question whether
the prayer is objectively answered or not becomes of
quite secondary consequence. Prayer becomes its own
answer, its own reward. The assurance of the nearness
of God swamps all other considerations. Prayer is the
end as well as the means.*

* In T. B. Berachoth .32b there is a passage in the name of R. Hanina
recommending lengthy prayers (opn ninn inSsn px inVsni "inNnn bj). Another
passage is there quoted in the name of R. Johanan deprecating lengthy i>rayers


Among the mediaeval theologians, Bahya has voiced the
mystical view of prayer in the following words : " It is meet,
my brother, that thou shouldst know that our object in prayer
is but the consummation of the soul's longing for God and its
humiliation before Him, coupled with its expressed exaltation
of the Deity, its bestowal of praise and gratitude upon His
name, and its casting of all its burdens upon Him." Fixed
forms of prayer were only invented, according to Bahya, in
order to guide the soul in its behaviour before its Maker,
because it is not given to every one to express his feelings
in words which would be seemly to the King of Kings. And
when language fails, thought also fails ; the only incentive to
thought is the ability to express thought. This, by the way,
is an accepted modern psychological truth. Therefore, says
Bahya, man's communion with God customarily runs along
the lines of stereotyped formulae of prayer. But this need not
he soP^ Prayer can be an affair of the heart, without any
words at all, "^^^ '^)^y^r^ Sn T"i2 "iD"'N p3^ni/*^ " The sub-
ject of the prayer requires no words in such a case where it
is possible to compose it entirely in the heart. The latter
comprises the essence of our communion, and is the stay
upon which our object in prayer must rest." In support of
this statement, Bahya quotes the Eabbinical ordinance : ni?l
'^^'^ *il^n imnn ^"ip S:>n pnin. " In the time of emergency,
he who is ritually unclean may meditate his prayer in his
heart, and need not say the necessary benedictions, neither
before nor after it." " Prayer," says Bahya in the same chapter,
" is a sign of God's good faith in thee and a pledge of His ; for
He has given its context into thy hand and placed it in thy
power." In this view, prayer is the movement of God to man
rather than the reverse. And this of course is perfectly
correct. For prayer is ultimately based on love, and " no soul
can possibly know that it loves God and not at once infer that
God loved it first ; ... if therefore we, imperfect and puny,

as leading to disappointment (nS 3N3 n'S ki «]id). The difficulty is got over by
saying that it all depends npon whether the suppliant is rtn p'vo. This, accord-
ing to Rashi, means that "he who prays looks anxiously forward to the fulfil-
ment of his request by reason of the lengthiness of his prayer." We seem to
have here a good instance of the mystical as opposed to the petitioning side of
Rabbinic prayer. Make a long prayer if you like, but don't do so because
you think you will gain something thereby ! See also T. B. Berachoth 55a.


in truth love Him who is unseen and dimly known, how much
more does He, who cannot overlook us, assuredly love us, not
indeed because we deserve it, but because it is part of His
own nature's perfection ? " ^^^ It follows from all Bahya's
arguments on this head, that the groundwork of prayer is the
felt inner necessity to pray. We pray, in the last resort,
because we feel that we ought to pray. It is not petition but
communion. It is not begging but thanksgiving. We want to
mingle our spirit with His, and prayer is the only instrument
for doing this. The very act of prayer gives us the assurance
that if we have any needs or requests to be fulfilled, they will
be fulfilled quite apart from the asking. The very adoration
of the Being who vouchsafes His loving companionship to us
at all times when we need Him, begets in us the consciousness
that He knows our burdens even without our uttering them.
And this adoration is prayer.

Let us now see how these ideas are reflected in the
Rabbinical teachings. In T. B. Ta'anith 2a it is said,
"'^y\ n'^ntn miii? ntt irw, " What service is heart-service ?
Prayer." If prayer is a heart-service, it cannot be
other than a seeking after God for what He is, and
not for what He gives. It is a panting, not for gifts,
but for the consciousness of the God-presence. In
T. B. Berachoth 30b, R. Eliezer says : D~rN "nc^ nh^:h
"iD"i losi? riN. " A man should take an estimate of himself
(previous to praying). If he finds that he will be able to
feel a real heart-devotion (plD^:'), then he may pray. If he
finds that he cannot, then he must not pray." For want
of a better word in English, the word ]iidS, or its noun
n:i"iD are invariably rendered " devotion." It is only in
the mysticism of the mediaeval Kabbalah, that justice is
done to the real drift of the word " Kavanah." This
can be seen by a glance at those Prayer- Books which
contain, either in marginal notes, or in the body of the
text, the "'isn "^d h:) ni3"iiD, " meditations according to the
view of R. Isaac Luria of blessed memory." The true


" Kavanah " means the abandonmeDt, for the time
being, of all mundane thoughts and of all physical
necessities, in the unalloyed consciousness of a union
with God. What often passes now for " Kavanah " is
only a faint and ofttimes a spurious imitation of
the real thing. What the Rabbins actually intended
when they laid it down, as in T. B. Berachoth 13a, b,
that n^^iD niD"'i2 niso, or when R. Simeon, voicing
their view, remarked (Aboth ii. 18), "And when thou
prayest do not make thy prayer a fixed task " (I'lp), was
a mystical communion in which the soul bows down
in adoration before its Maker, without any necessary
thought of eliciting a favour.^^^ And it is some
such interpretation that best suits the recurring
Rabbinical saying about the reading of the " Shema "
being " a receiving upon oneself of the yoke of the
kingdom of heaven." The reading of the " Shema "
and the reading of nSon (Prayer), stand on very much
the same level in the Rabbinical codes. The prescrip-
tions hedging round each, are largely identical. Hence,
it is no undue deduction to say, that prayer in their
opinion is a " receiving upon oneself of the yoke of the
kingdom of heaven " * — a mystical expression for the
closest possible spiritual contact with God.^^^

Other illustrations of the preceding views are the
following : In T B. Berachoth 29b, R. Eliezer permits a
brief prayer (in place of the statutory Eighteen Benedic-
tions) in the case of one who is in fear of attack from
brigands. And the prayer he suggests is this : " Do Thy
will in heaven above, and give contentment of spirit to
those who fear Thee beneath, and do that which is good
in Thine eyes. Blessed art Thou, Lord, who hearest
prayer." There is simple communion here without the
least notion of material gifts. In T. B. Berachoth 34b we

* In a passage in T. B. Berachoth 10b, prayer is actually so called.


read : "It was said concerning R. Hanina b. Dosa, that
when he used to pray on belialf of the sick, he used to
say, ' This one will recover and live, but that one will die.'
When they said to him, ' How do you know this ? ' he
used to reply, ' If my prayer is fluent upon my lips then
I know that it is accepted, but if it is not fluent, then
I know that it is rejected.' " This is one of the most
cogent illustrations possible, of prayer being an end
in itself, its own reward, the act of communion success-
fully accomplished and with no admixture of objective

T. B. Sanhedrin 22b says : " He who prays must
regard the Shechinah as standing over against him,
as it is said (Psalm xvi.), ' I have set the Lord before
me continually.' " Taking " Shechinah " as denoting
the idea of an immanent God, it is clear, that the
object of this saying is to emphasise the nearness of
the Deity, the possibility of maintaining a close fellow-
ship with Him through the medium of prayer. God
is not the far-otf unapproachable monarch who has
to be petitioned. One can only commune with a
Shechinah, and not with a transcendent God.

The point, then, which we have attained by the pre-
ceding discussion is this : Firstly, it has been shown
that prayer, in the Rabbinic view, must be based on the
assumption of Transcendence and Immanence combined.
Prayer is always addressed to a Person, a Person far
mightier and far better than he who prays, a Person
whose power to help or save, far exceeds that which we
can attribute to any mundane being or to any of the
impersonal powers vested in the universe. Here is Tran-
scendence. But prayer gives also the assurance of
the nearness of God, His abiding fellowship and com-
panionship, and the ever-possible joys of communion.
The basis of prayer is the likeness of the human soul to


God, and its capacity of love. For love is an emana-
tion of Grod, and makes prayer possible through love's
eternal longings for union with its source. Here is
Immanence. Secondly, it has been shown from the
numerous Rabbinical illustrations adduced, that com-
munion rather than petition, is a substantial constituent
of prayer, and that this communion is self-sufficient and
self-satisfying. The satisfaction of prayer is not always
the realisation of the outward. The communion is an
end in itself, and the thrill of new inward vigour and
blessedness that it infuses into the suppliant is often
the supreme answer to the prayer.

But is it not obvious to even the tyro in Rabbinical
literature, that the element of petition, although absent
from a large portion of both public and private prayer,
is present in very great degree in many instances, as is
clear from the traditional Jewish liturgy ? What answer,
then, does Rabbinic theology afford to the difficulty
created by the allegation of prayer being an attempt
to persuade the Deity to interfere with the reign of
inexorable natural law which holds sway in the
universe ?

Rabbinical thought is largely based upon the O.T.
idea that the natural phenomena of the world are
the messengers or agents of God. " Fire and hail ;
snow and vapour ; stormy wind fulfilling His word "
(Psalm cxlviii. 8). Natural law is part of God's regular-
ised working. It is what we see and feel of His free-
will as it acts on the universe. The uniformity of
nature proves the perfect symmetry with which the
moral and intelligent Artist of the universe works. To
think that God could not grant an event to come to
pass because it is contrary to what we know, is to
make the Creator a slave, bound hand and foot by
that which He has created. It is to limit His omni-


potence, curb His freedom, and deny His Transcendence.
If, however, we willingly concede Him these three
qualities, why should we hesitate to think that He is
capable of superseding the working of some lower
natural law, by the working of some higher natural law,
and thus fulfil the petition of one who prays to Him ?
Were we to adopt the immanent theory exclusively,
there would certainly be cause for hesitation and doubt,
because, as has been already shown, in any pantheistic
form of religious thought there is little room for prayer.
But with a theory of Transcendence and Immanence
combined, the position should be intelligible. If God
transcends the world, then there must necessarily be
certain portions of His workings that are entirely
beyond our ken — a goodly number of natural laws
*' doing the word " of the supreme Author of nature
must be, as yet, unrevealed to us. Surely this lack of
knowledge on our part gives us no passport to doubt
or deny.

A significant passage from Genesis Rabba xii. 1 runs as
follows : " It is written (Job xxvi. 14), ' Lo, these are as
parts of His ways ; but how little a portion is heard of
Him ? But the thunder of His power who can under-
stand ? ' R. Huna said all that thou seest is but part of
the ways of God. . . . But the thunder of His power who
can understand ? R. Huna said no man can under-
stand anything about the thunder at the time that it
comes out upon the world. . . . R. Huna further said,
if it is impossible to understand its [i.e. the thunder's]
workings, how much more impossible is it to understand
the working of the universe ? " It is upon this human
inability to grasp the whole of the Divine scheme of
things, that prayer is based. The proved uniformity of
natural laws is no contradiction to the idea that there is a
resourcefulness about an immanent and transcendent God


which men's ingenuity is too poor to explore. If only
we knew more, we should see harmony where now we
suspect opposition. Law is only our limited way of
conceiving the operations of the Divine World- Spirit.
God's work includes far more.*

But it will be asked, What about the " special provi-
dences " which figure so largely in the Rabbinic theology
of prayer ? How can these be brought into line with
the established modern notions not only of the un-
changeableness of natural law, but also, the unchange-
able goodness of God ? No one nowadays thinks of
regarding the Deity otherwise than from the stand-
point of the Psalmist's declaration, that " God is good
unto all, and His mercy is upon all His works." The
idea of God granting special favours, special privileges,
special exemptions to certain individuals or classes of
men in response to their prayers is becoming increasingly
hard to reconcile with the modern conceptions of the un-
varying universal Divine love and the unvarying wisdom
and justice of His decrees. If e.g. one man prays to be
vouchsafed a large share of worldly prosperity, and the
prayer is granted, it means that either God will exert a
special interference with the natural laws governing
the productivity of the soil, or with the economic
laws governing demand and supply, or it involves
taking away aught of what another man tries to get,
and the granting of preferential treatment to one above
another. In all these cases, even if the problem of
Divine intervention with law were got over in the way
stated above, we should still be faced with the duty of
explaining, how such prayers can be efticacious, when
they involve an assumption which conflicts with the
modern scientific conception of a good God ?

The problems raised were not unfamiliar to the

* See, on this point, the Pcsilfta liabhati (edit. Friedmann), p. 189.


Rabbins. The prayers which suggest these problems
may be classified as follows : —

(a) Private prayers by individuals for their own
private ends, such as health, prosperity, safety from
enemies, recovery from disease. The technical name
for these is rD~i!i n^"'NQ>, " asking for his necessities."
These prayers were mostly extemporised ; their sub-
stance depended on exactly what the individual felt at
the moment of prayer. But most noteworthy is the
fact, they were not to constitute the whole of a man's
petitions. They were to be inserted at certain points in
the canonical Eighteen Benedictions. The favourite
place for inserting them was within the benediction
called nhiin i?D^ti?. The following statement in T. B.
Berachoth 31a bears this out : " R. Hiya son of Ashi
said in the name of Rab, that although they [the sages]
said that a man must petition for his necessities in the
nhsn i?Di2?, yet, if, after his prayers [i.e. after the fixed
Eighteen Benedictions], he wishes to utter petitions as
long and numerous as the Abodah of the Kippur Day,
he is at liberty to do so." Thus, private petitions for
favours did not occupy the highest rung on the ladder
of prayer.

(h) Private prayers by individuals for needs of the
collective body of Israel. These consisted of (1) the
Eighteen Benedictions ; (2) certain additional petitions
for the collective welfare, of which we have some very
fine specimens on pages 16b, 17a of T. B. Berachoth,
including those of R. Eliezer, R. Johanan, R. Zera, R.
Hiya, Rab (Abba Arika) R. Judah the Prince, R. Saphra,
R. Alexandri, Raba, and R. Shesheth. It is noteworthy
that the staple of these prayers is for spiritual rather
than for material blessings.

(c) Public prayers in synagogues. These include
not only the " petition-for-favours " element, but also


such constituents of purer prayer as adoration, thanks-
giving, confession, praise, aspiration, etc.

(d) Prayers by individuals or communities for the
granting of a special favour which involves some Divine
interference with the phenomena of the natural world,
chiefly rain, of which we have instances in T. B.

This classification shows that (l) private petition
occupies a place of only secondary prominence ; (2)
prayer is for spiritual as much as for material blessings ;
(3) prayer counts, among its factors, other acts of
worship, as adoration, praise, etc., which, as has been
hitherto remarked, are part and parcel of all mystical
communion with the Deity. But we also find (l) the

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