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D'kian
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I am talking of jewish prayer, which is the only one I know. I've long been puzzled by it. I must admit I do not understand it. Neither the content nor the purpose. About 45% of it consists of flattering God, saying how great He is, how powerful He is, how wonderful and holy He is. Another 45% consists of instructions to God, ie heal the sick, make the rain, defeat our enemies, etc. The other 10% are pleas to God to provide the person praying with something, such as peace, tranquility, prosperity, etc.

Now, given the belief that God is omnipotent and omniscient, He wouldn't need flattery and He'd know perfectly well how great He is and what His subject (or whatever we're supposed to be) need or want. When I read prayer books I'm always reminded of a scene in Star Trek Five when Kirk asks "What does God want with a starship?" What does God want with endless flattery? Why does He need to be instructed? The pleas do make some sense, but why would anyone want to approach a vain and, despite the belief, dim-witted deity to provide him with something?

First question, is this just a Jewish practice or is prayer this bad in other faiths?

Recently I had a chance to thumb through a prayer book with annotations and commentary. The daily morning prayers start out with a series of blessings half-thankful, half-flatering, to God for what He does or can do. For example, one goes "Bless You, oh Lord, that I was not made a slave." "The other kind is more on the lines of "Bless You, oh Lord, Who gives sight to the blind." The comentary makes two points about them. 1) God does not need our flattery, He'd do just as well without it. Now, that was an interesting bit to find in such a book, given how much flattering of God goes on within it. 2) We need to flatter God, and to thank Him, and to grovel before Him, every day, every week, for the lenght of our lives, lest we come to forget what He's done for us or take God's work for granted. (another part says the "gives sight to the blind," and "raises the dead," refer to the fact we open our eyes and get out of bed every morning; I find that ludicrous).

Well, I still don't understand the purpose of prayer. Unless it is to keep people under submission. Let's say God does exist and He created everything, including each person who has ever lived (and I suppose each animal, plant, bacterium and virus; possibly even every aminoacid and every protein, too). Now, either He had a a purpose of His own, or He is a benevolent entity overflowing with generosity, or He gave us something in return for the endless flattery and obedience He requires in return. The first two options wouldn't require anything in return. The last one does, but He never asked any of us if we want to be part of his scheme.

Any thoughts?

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Well, it's not just the Jewish faith, it's all the Judeo-Christian faiths and many faiths from other traditions as well. What it all comes down to is trying to have some control over things which humans typically have no control (like whether it will rain, or whether this volcano will bury your town). That is why all the first objects of worship were something important in nature, like the sun. My personal feeling is that if God was real and he was the tempermental, arbitrary, hissy-fit prone being he's portrayed as in books such as the Bible, I would choose not to worship him and would do whatever I could to resist him.

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Well, it's not just the Jewish faith, it's all the Judeo-Christian faiths and many faiths from other traditions as well.

I dont know whether to feel relieved or alarmed at that. Thanks anyway.

What it all comes down to is trying to have some control over things which humans typically have no control (like whether it will rain, or whether this volcano will bury your town). That is why all the first objects of worship were something important in nature, like the sun.

I've thought that for a long time. Judeo-Christian faiths look down on "idolatrers," but in principle they both do very much the same thing. Only polytheists do it retail and monotheists wholesale.

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The hammer meets the head of the nail square on. There is an entire religion whose name means, in English, "submission".

Not only that, but the very act is a contradiction. As you have said D'kian, God is apparently omniscient and thus prayer would only serve to annoy him with things he already knows.

I know God would especially be annoyed with me, because when I prayed when I was a Christian but didn't have anything to say to him. Every night was the same thing, right down to a ritual.

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I know God would especially be annoyed with me, because when I prayed when I was a Christian but didn't have anything to say to him. Every night was the same thing, right down to a ritual.

Most Jews pray in Hebrew (except maybe Reform Jews). Now, the language in prayer books and the Torah is to modern Hebrew as Latin (or perhaps pre-Latin languages) is to modern Italian. Meaning even people who speak Hebrew, including Israelis, don't fully understand the liturgical language they use at Synagogue.

Some books do provide translations (the one I recently saw did), and some Conservative congregations conduct part of the service in the local language. And some people study classical Hebrew. But overall I'd say the large majority don't know what they're saying when they mouth the words.

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Most Jews pray in Hebrew (except maybe Reform Jews). Now, the language in prayer books and the Torah is to modern Hebrew as Latin (or perhaps pre-Latin languages) is to modern Italian. Meaning even people who speak Hebrew, including Israelis, don't fully understand the liturgical language they use at Synagogue.
That's pretty standard for ritual prayers, except in Protestant realms (and it has spread recently to the Cathaholics). Not many Hindi speakers actually understand "Agnim iLe purohitam jajnasya devam rtvijam...". Millions of Muslims across the world misabsorb the Qur'an and still don't know Arabic.
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That's pretty standard for ritual prayers, except in Protestant realms (and it has spread recently to the Cathaholics).

I attended a Conservative synagogue until my mid teens. The prayer books had Spanish translations of every page, and part of the service was said in Spanish (on the novel theory that an omnipotent God should also be omnilingual). Initially that's part of what made me leave religion. The prayers, properly comprehended, are pointless whether there is a God or not.

Back on topic, I wonder about people who do understand what the prayers mean. I know several, mostly Jews. Some of them pray also outside the regular prayer services. Those I've seen praying seem either very focused on the act or positively emotional about it, they clearly experience some sort of exaltaion or something close to it. I really wonder why.

I could ask. Indeed, I have asked. Nine times out of ten the answer turned into proselytism in short order. The tenth time I never got a satisfactory answer. So I no longer ask.

Of course prayer isn't all that religion offers. In the synagogue I attended the rabbi would give a sermon, or speech, mostly about religion or the Torah, or other holy or "learned" books, in Spanish which everyone cold understand. At school we read, this is complicated, Yiddish translations of the Old Testament, then explained partly in Spanish, from the first grade onward (it wasn't a religious school, but it was a Jewish one; the rest of my education was very good). In highschool we studied the same thing in Hebrew. Not, mind you, in any depth. We read from textbooks which were sumarized and simplified, ommiting lots of details. We also studied each religious holiday in some detail (Passover more than most).

That's a common enough education for Mexican Jews, and has been for many decades. Therefore I assume most of the people I know in the Jewish community do understand something about their religion. But much of it is not integrated to the rest. I mean, we're told that God set our ancestors free from slavery in Egypt, but not why we need to flatter and isntruct and plead to God in prayer every day.

So I keep wondering what people get out of it, especially those who pay attention only when they ahve to (during the high holy days, or when someone dies, etc)

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I am talking of jewish prayer, which is the only one I know. I've long been puzzled by it. I must admit I do not understand it. Neither the content nor the purpose. About 45% of it consists of flattering God, saying how great He is, how powerful He is, how wonderful and holy He is. Another 45% consists of instructions to God, ie heal the sick, make the rain, defeat our enemies, etc. The other 10% are pleas to God to provide the person praying with something, such as peace, tranquility, prosperity, etc.

Actually, that's a fairly common misconception about prayer. In Hebrew, to pray is ' l'heet'pallel ', as you may know. And you said that you spoke about this to some other Jews, so you may also know that this verb is reflexive, meaning that it is a verb that applies to oneself. I cannot think, off the top of my head, of any English verb that is strictly done to oneself (without making the conversation turn rude, anyway), so for the sake of getting on with it, I'll just say there is no English equivalent to a purely reflexive verb. In English, you must always at 'oneself' to the verb, such as 'to wash oneself', 'to educate oneself'.

Point being, ' l'heet'pallel ' is something that is strictly done to oneself, so it is not directed, ultimately, at Ha'Shem. Prayer is a kind of meditation on the wonder of what Ha'shem has created, and a contemplation of oneself. (Note: I'm an atheist. I'm just explaining this from the point of view of a Hasidic Jew.) When you pray for the health of your friends, you are really confessing your love for them. When you thank Hashem for the beautiful earth, you are affirming your love of life. It is done so that you can confess to yourself what you think and want; and the ritualistic prayers are done to remind you of what Hashem has done for you.

This, however, is not how Christians understand prayer.

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Point being, ' l'heet'pallel ' is something that is strictly done to oneself, so it is not directed, ultimately, at Ha'Shem. Prayer is a kind of meditation on the wonder of what Ha'shem has created, and a contemplation of oneself. (Note: I'm an atheist. I'm just explaining this from the point of view of a Hasidic Jew.) When you pray for the health of your friends, you are really confessing your love for them. When you thank Hashem for the beautiful earth, you are affirming your love of life. It is done so that you can confess to yourself what you think and want; and the ritualistic prayers are done to remind you of what Hashem has done for you.

I don't buy it. If you wanted to say you love your friends, then you'd say so rather than go through a third-party intermediary. Likewise for the rest. I don't doubt some people rationalize their prayers that way, but the words they pray still have a literal meaning.

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What does God want with endless flattery? Why does He need to be instructed? The pleas do make some sense, but why would anyone want to approach a vain and, despite the belief, dim-witted deity to provide him with something?

Wait, religion doesn't make sense? When did this happen?

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Wait, religion doesn't make sense? When did this happen?

I'd say about twelve or fifteen thousand years ago.

Seriously, since billions of people are religious to some degree, I expected the rituals they follow would make some kind of sense. Consider astrology. It's bunk, of course, but the casting of horoscopes, astral charts and so on make sense if you accept the ludictrous premise that stars influence or control your fate.

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And so does prayer, in the same way. You rejoice the times that prayers went well, and when they don't, as my teachers and pastors always said, it just turns out, "you were praying for the wrong thing".

God's had a long time to get his bases covered.

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You know, since we are talking about the ancient languages people utter when they pray... What language do Scientologists use when they pray? Klingnon?

I think Klingon came after L. Ron whatsisname and the Thetan he rode in on, or whatever.

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I thought that Andrew Bernstein's explanation of what prayer is was the best I'd heard. In effect, prayer is begging. In this case, one who prays is begging to an alleged supernatural being for whatever that person wants: food on the table, safety, to win a game, etc. It's like a giant con game that people play on themselves. First they arbitrarily accept the existence of this being, then they beg to it for goods and services.

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In effect, prayer is begging.

I think this is essentially correct. I remember at an early age being struck by the incredible amount of "beseeching" that seriously religious people do. After a while, it apparently becomes an ingrained part of one's personality.

I can't claim to understand why anyone would choose to view himself as a metaphysical invalid, eternally dependent upon the good graces of a supernatural being just to be able make it through the day. But I imagine that those who do so must have their reasons.

Edited by Kevin Delaney
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I thought that Andrew Bernstein's explanation of what prayer is was the best I'd heard. In effect, prayer is begging. In this case, one who prays is begging to an alleged supernatural being for whatever that person wants: food on the table, safety, to win a game, etc. It's like a giant con game that people play on themselves. First they arbitrarily accept the existence of this being, then they beg to it for goods and services.

Quite selfish and thus blasphemous of them isn't it?

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I think this is essentially correct. I remember at an early age being struck by the incredible amount of "beseeching" that seriously religious people do. After a while, it apparently becomes an ingrained part of one's personality.

I can't claim to understand why anyone would choose to view himself as a metaphysical invalid, eternally dependent upon the good graces of a supernatural being just to be able make it through the day. But I imagine that those who do so must have their reasons.

Perhaps a belief in magic makes them feel like they possess more power than they actually have and thus gives them comfort from time to time. Let's face it, nature can be very tough, making it hard to gain control over ones life. In fact, no human ever has had complete control over his life, since life is a terminal process and few of us want to die.

Quite selfish and thus blasphemous of them isn't it?

Probably. :lol: But, hey, when reason isn't your modus operandi, anything goes!

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The hammer meets the head of the nail square on. There is an entire religion whose name means, in English, "submission".

Completely off-topic: The amazon context link for "nail square" was The War Against Toenail Fungus (Paperback) by Dwight Thomas.

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I don't buy it. If you wanted to say you love your friends, then you'd say so rather than go through a third-party intermediary. Likewise for the rest. I don't doubt some people rationalize their prayers that way, but the words they pray still have a literal meaning.

Personally, I take Jews to be honest when they give this explanation. Certainly they say, "bless this food", and that has a particular literal meaning--it is a command to a listener. At the same time, there is a literal meaning to the sentence "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse," and I don't doubt it when the speaker says that the literal meaning--constructed of the usual referents and grammar of the composite words--should not be confused with its colloquial or figurative meaning, which is derived from behavior concerning the phrase as a whole rather than from words divorced from relevant context. But moreover, if you are to be a literalist, then this argument should convince you all the more. When a Jew says " heet’pallel ", Anglophones tend to interpret this as the statement "I prayed". However, a literal translation (in which we take the word and its conjugation with as little context, transliteration, or interpretation as possible) would render this, "I examined myself," since the root peh-lamed-lamed is usually taken to mean "examine" or "judge".

Why do I take the Jews to be honest rather than rationalizing? First, it's consistent. Secondly, it is not as though Jews only chose to use the reflexive conjugation in response to philosophical inquiries. ' L'heet'pallel ' was the word used throughout the Torah, before the Talmud began debating these philosophical matters. Third, the answer given is also consistent with the larger picture of Jewish religious tradition. Namely, Judaism emphasizes ritual as a beginning for spiritual development. So, as my Jewish friends have explained it, they do not care if a particular Jew knows why he prays to begin with, so long as he prays. He may even have the misconception that he is praying to someone other than himself. They will let him have this misconception for at least a short while, until he is ready to start inquiring about why he prays, at which time they will tell him the full answer. This is also how Jews are progressively taught to keep kosher and how to observe Shabbos.

The last point I'll make is that sometimes I speak to other people, or write in a journal, not simply to communicate the literal meaning of my words, but to explore my own thoughts. By expressing them in words, even just to myself, I am forced to make them clear and explicit. I think this is also the idea behind psychiatry.

I don't take Jews to be liars, rationalizers, or idiots. I just take them to be wrong.

[Edit: P.S., also notice how Jews make a fairly common habbit of communicating through non-literal expressions. I remember, as a goy, they would often tell me on Shabbos "Wow, it's pretty bright in here," when they wanted me to turn the lights off. Also note how Jewish moms speak, e.g., "Oh, so you're going to move away and break your mother's heart. Here, if you want to stab your mother in the back, you should do it with a sharp knife. I'm so proud I raised a son who doesn't love his mother," none of which was communicated by, "I'm moving away."]

Edited by aleph_0
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[Edit: P.S., also notice how Jews make a fairly common habbit of communicating through non-literal expressions. I remember, as a goy, they would often tell me on Shabbos "Wow, it's pretty bright in here," when they wanted me to turn the lights off. Also note how Jewish moms speak, e.g., "Oh, so you're going to move away and break your mother's heart. Here, if you want to stab your mother in the back, you should do it with a sharp knife. I'm so proud I raised a son who doesn't love his mother," none of which was communicated by, "I'm moving away."]

A Jewish mother gives her son two shirts for his birthday. He puts one of the shirts on and shows his mother. She says "What, You didn't like the other one?"

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Personally, I take Jews to be honest when they give this explanation. Certainly they say, "bless this food", and that has a particular literal meaning--it is a command to a listener. At the same time, there is a literal meaning to the sentence "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse," and I don't doubt it when the speaker says that the literal meaning

But then why should prayers be metaphors? To be honest i'm reminded of a not-so-bad Star Trek ep where the aliens du jour spoke in allusions all the time, making their languge difficult to interpret (and, IMO, impossible in fact).

People use metaphors for effect, not for meaning. You could say "I'm very hungry" rather than "I'm starving," but the latter has more effect, it's more drmatic if you will, than the former. In literature they can also serve to evoke a feeling, an emotion or an object, usually a beautiful one.

[Edit: P.S., also notice how Jews make a fairly common habbit of communicating through non-literal expressions. I remember, as a goy, they would often tell me on Shabbos "Wow, it's pretty bright in here," when they wanted me to turn the lights off. Also note how Jewish moms speak, e.g., "Oh, so you're going to move away and break your mother's heart. Here, if you want to stab your mother in the back, you should do it with a sharp knife. I'm so proud I raised a son who doesn't love his mother," none of which was communicated by, "I'm moving away."]

Let me tell you I have a Jewsih mother, and I had two Jewish grandmothers, and I know a large numbers of Jewish mothers (cousins, aunts, my sistser, among others), and none use the stereotypical melodrama you quote.

As for religious Jews using you turn off the lights on Saturdays, they're pretty big hypocrites. But you probably knew that.

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But then why should prayers be metaphors? To be honest i'm reminded of a not-so-bad Star Trek ep where the aliens du jour spoke in allusions all the time, making their languge difficult to interpret (and, IMO, impossible in fact).

I vaguely recall the episode, but that is quite another matter. There is no metaphor involved. Prayer in Judaism is quite simply self-judgment, which is straight-forward. Certainly a Jew-in-training could have a mistaken idea of what prayer is, and could be told later in life, "You really weren't speaking to god, at least not in any meaningful way. Still, your prayers were good because you were expressing your thoughts and feelings to yourself, and this is what a Jew should do when he prays." But that is not the same as his prayers being a metaphor for anything.

Let me tell you I have a Jewsih mother, and I had two Jewish grandmothers, and I know a large numbers of Jewish mothers (cousins, aunts, my sistser, among others), and none use the stereotypical melodrama you quote.

Most of my friends are Orthodox Jews and, while their mothers are not so forward, their mothers do manifest some stereotypes, like being clingy and talking about something without addressing it directly. For instance, if my friend failed to call his mother for three days or more, she would go on and on about how worried she was.

As for religious Jews using you turn off the lights on Saturdays, they're pretty big hypocrites. But you probably knew that.

I've always found that to be suspect, but I will admit that it does not violate the letter of the Talmud. The point of not using electricity is to prevent one from doing work, and it is not exactly work for a Jew to say something calculated which will cause electricity to be used. All the same, the laws of Shabbos are very disputable, and exactly where you draw the line on most matters is a judgment of risk and benefit. For example, Jews will tell you that nobody knows exactly when to say that the sun is down (either touching the horizon, half-way down, or completely gone from the sky), and you can use any point they want depending on how careful they want to be about keeping Shabbos.

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