The Relationship Between Prayer and Your Imagination

September 1, 2015Aron Hirt-Manheimer

When the words of liturgy are taken too literally, the sacred power of prayer is often lost. In his latest book, Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman offers a way worshipers can transcend the limitations imposed by language. You recently published Volume Six of “Prayers of Awe,” your series on the High Holidays. Naming God: Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father Our King, from Jewish Lights Publishing, explores the problems we have in naming God. What are the problems and why did you choose Avinu Malkeinu to illustrate them?

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman: Jews the world over are often deeply moved by the memorable music of the familiar Avinu Malkeinu prayer, which we sing in the synagogue at the High Holidays, but many of us find it difficult to repeatedly call God “Father” and “King.” The Reform Jewish community has worked hard to make our liturgy inclusive. Do we really want to focus the High Holidays on such clearly masculine imagery of God?

These names made sense in antiquity, when kings and fathers were authoritarian power brokers. Nowadays, though, we run from such relationships. Americans abolished monarchy eons ago. Do you know how many people tell me privately that their fathers were absent or even abusive? Calling God “father” helps for some, but causes pain to others.

But if not, “Father” and “King,” then what? “Our Mother, Our Queen” is equally problematic. “Our Parent, Our Ruler” solves the sexist issue but sounds too distant. A child with a scraped knee doesn’t run into the room crying, “Parent, help me!”

We chose to focus on Avinu Malkeinu in this book because it illustrates so clearly the liturgical difficulty in naming God.  

It sounds to me as if Avinu Malkeinu is just the tip of the iceberg.

Exactly. The deeper issue is how we dare name God altogether – yet worship requires our calling God something or other.

The solution lies in understanding that what we name God says more about the power of our imagination than it does about God. Prayer is really all about imagination, the conceptual roadmap that we humans have to take us beyond ourselves. Nothing grand and glorious comes without imagination. Love, loyalty, honor, character: These must all be imagined before they can be believed. That’s what great art or poetry does – and liturgy too. They instill imagination.

This volume, like the others in the series, contains 40 or so short essays by rabbis, artists, scholars, and others. Your own essay recommends prayer even for disbelievers. What do you say to them?

Disbelieving in prayer is like disbelieving in painting or music. All three establish virtual universes that expand our horizon: Monet’s water lilies are not what you ordinarily see in nature, but having experienced them in museums, they become just as real, in their own way; you see nature differently ever after. So, too, does Beethoven’s “Ninth” teach us what exaltation is. Walk down the aisle to Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” and your gait changes all day long.

Prayer, too, establishes a virtual universe: a spiritual one that helps us explore our souls, reach to the stars, affirm our passions, and rekindle faith in something worth living for.

You neither believe nor disbelieve in Beethoven or Renoir. You encounter them because life is impoverished without them. So, too, with prayer, a human activity like listening to music and looking at art. You don’t even have to believe what the prayers say, any more than you have to believe the outrageous plots of most operas. You attend opera for the artistry that provides revelations of truths beyond what the words alone can contain.

What prayer requires is appreciation. “Prayers of Awe” is a series that instills appreciation – like a do-it-yourself art or music-appreciation course, but in prayer.

But what about people who disbelieve in God, not just in prayer?

Even disbelievers in God may find themselves praying, because contrary to what people think, prayer does not require believing that there is “someone up there listening.” God references are metaphoric, so the terms “someone,” “up there,” and “listening” are not intended as literal truths. God is not a “someone”; there may be no “up there” up there, and if God listens, it isn’t the way humans do.

We are back where we started. We need prayers that evoke human imagination. Life requires imagination, and prayer is the longest-running play of imagination that we humans have ever devised.

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