To some, G-d is great because He makes the wind blow.
For others, because He projects space and time out of the void.
The men of thought laugh and say He is far beyond any of this, for His Oneness remains unaltered even by the event of Creation.
We Jews, this is what we have always said:
G-d is so great, He stoops to listen to the prayer of a small child;
He paints the petals of each wildflower and awaits us there to catch Him doing so;
He plays with the rules of the world He has made to comfort the oppressed and support those who champion justice.
He transcends the bounds of higher and lower.
He transcends all bounds.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Indeed, the prayer of the community was born the very instant the prophetic community expired and, when it did come into the spiritual world of the Jew of old, it did not supersede the prophetic community but rather perpetuated it. Prayer is the continuation of prophecy, and the fellowship of prayerful men is ipso facto the fellowship of prophets.
-Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
from Chapter VII of his book
The Lonely Man of Faith
Rabbi Soloveitchik says a very interesting thing. He links the age of the prophets to the post-Second Temple world of Rabbinic Judaism. This may seem strange to most Christians, since we are taught a good many things passed away with the ascendency of Christ and the demise of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. In fact, Christianity tends to discount the early Rabbinic period forward in the history of Judaism and “replace” it with the grace of Jesus Christ.
Of course Rabbi Soloveitchik as an Orthodox Jew, would not offer any sort of acknowledgement of Christ, but I think we can take his words, and those of Rabbi Freeman’s and try to apply them to the world of prayer among all men. While the prophets of old were unique and (as far as I can tell) no man has the “gift of prophesy” today as did Jewish men such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel, we all have the capacity to engage God in the realm of prayer. This makes no man a prophet in the manner of those I have just mentioned, but the ability of humanity to connect, through faith, with God was not ended when the Second Temple was destroyed. Nor did it end with the life, death, life, and ascendency of Jesus. As Rabbi Freeman tells us, God is so great that “He stoops to listen to the prayer of a small child.”
And yet, from a Jewish point of view, prayer is not the exclusive property of the individual as Rabbi Soloveitchik notes:
No man, however great and noble, is worthy of God’s word if he fancies that the word is his private property not to be shared by others.
Judaism sees its relationship with God as largely corporate as indeed, is the Sinai covenant between God and the Israelites. Yet each Jew living today is also to consider himself as having stood personally at the foot of Mount Sinai as God gave the Torah through Moses. By comparison, Christianity, though the “body of Christ,” exists conceptually as a large collection of individuals, and each believer interacts as a unique personality, almost exclusively independent of the community of the church.
We see this most often in how we, as Christians, pray. It’s an almost irresistible temptation to pray about me, myself, and I, and Jesus did not prohibit this. And yet, he also told us to pray for others, even our enemies, and to petition God for the welfare of our leaders, our neighbors, and our oppressors. Rabbi Soloveitchik echos this when he writes “Man should avoid praying for himself alone…When disaster strikes, one must not be immersed completely in his own passional destiny, thinking exclusively for himself, being concerned only with himself, and petitioning God merely for himself.” To do so would be to imagine that God is little more than Aladdin’s genie and we alone are the one holding onto the lamp.
But what is prayer and how is it somehow connected to perpetuating the continuation of prophecy?
Who is qualified to engage God in the prayer colloquy? Clearly, the person who is ready to cleanse himself of imperfection and evil. Any kind of injustice, corruption, cruelty, or the like desecrates the very essence of the prayer adventure, since it encases man in an ugly little world into which God is unwilling to enter. If man craves to meet God in prayer, then he must purge himself of all that separates him from God.
God hearkens to prayer if it rises from a contrite heart over a muddled and faulty life and from a resolute mind ready to redeem this life, In short, only the committed person is qualified to pray and to meet God. Prayer is always the harbinger of moral reformation.
So who can pray? On the one hand, it seems as if prayer is reserved for the person who is passionately dedicated to removing all sin and evil from his being and who longs to engage God in a realm of purity. On the other hand, what man, no matter what his condition, is completely clean and pure except that God has made him so?
Even an unbeliever can pray and be heard by God, otherwise no one could ever come to faith and be accepted by God. No one would ever be able to come to faith in God through Jesus Christ and be cleansed, healed, and reconciled with his Creator unless God was willing to hear the prayers of people covered in filth. It’s the desire to have the mantle of sin be removed from our shoulders, not the success of that removal whereby God is willing to hear us. In that sense, we do possess a “specialness” that was experienced by the prophets of old in that they too were willing, though still mortal and imperfect men.
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” –Isaiah 6:4-5 (ESV)
As I mentioned before, the prophets didn’t consider God’s revelations to them to be their exclusive property but rather, they shared God’s word with all, even as they were commanded to do. Should we, in our own human need, keep prayer just for us and not share it with all of God’s creations?
But since we are all imperfect and perhaps never, even for a moment, attain a purity that allows a true connection to God, how does God hear? What of the person so damaged and injured in his spirit, that he only knows to cry out but is unable to shed his “skin of evil?”
Likewise, we encourage the sinner to pray even though he is not ready yet for repentance and moral regeneration, because any mitzvah performance, be it prayer, be it another moral act, has a cleansing effect upon the doer and may influence his life and bring about a complete change in his personality.
It seems as if I’m wandering further and further away from the prophets or rather, Rabbi Soloveitchik did when he penned these words. On the other hand, the Rav seems to be saying what he did before; that prayer isn’t the exclusive property of the pious and the holy and the righteous. Even sinners can and absolutely need to connect to God. Jesus was criticized for eating with sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors, yet he said this:
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” –Luke 5:31-32 (ESV)
Thus access to the heart of God is available to all, not just to the perfect and those who sit in clean suits and dresses in pews on Sunday morning.
But going back to the very beginning of today’s “meditation,” we as Christians see that God is accessible not just to us and not just to “sinners,” but to all Jews everywhere, whether they are in the Messiah or not (and I am not lumping the Jewish people in with “sinners”).
I know it’s strange. Do I speak blasphemy? Do I ignore John 14:6? I suppose it looks that way. But I’m not willing to throw post-Jesus Jews under a bus because Christianity (and many in the Hebrew Roots movement) think “Rabbinic Judaism” is a dirty word.
I’ve sat in synagogues on Shabbat and during the Shema, have felt God enter as a tangible presence. I’ve sat in churches during prayer and singing and felt as if the room were completely empty. This is not to say that all synagogues possess God’s presence and all churches contain only God’s absence. Far from it. I am only saying that the 21st century church is not the only receptacle for the spirit of God. God is present where all men who desire Him are gathered, and resides in the heart of each individual, no matter who he is, who longs for the lover of his soul.
Who is qualified to engage God in the prayer colloquy? The person who is ready to cleanse himself certainly, but more than that, even the person who is at present unable or unwilling to be clean may still cry out. The very act of calling God’s Name may not “command” God to listen, but it may require the person praying to change his heart in acknowledgement of Him.
Thousands of years before the coming of Christ, while most of our non-Jewish ancestors (I’m speaking to Christians right now) were dancing around the pagan fires and worshiping “gods” of stone and wood, the Jewish people were turning their hearts to the One God. True, they also turned away many times, but God called them back and they returned. Otherwise, there would be no Christians today, for there would have been no Judaism by which the Messiah entered the world (and will enter it again).
Whoever you are reading this, know that God is not your exclusive property. God is a God to all or He is a God to none. While He has a special and unique relationship with the Jewish people which is perpetual and unable to be broken, He sent His only begotten Son for the rest of us, too. The rest of us just need to make sure that we don’t try to “take over” and restrict God to only ourselves.