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Irreverent Prayer and God’s Answer

What kind of prayer does God want to hear?
Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi s a Jewish institutional leader, author, and sought-after public speaker. Currently, Rachel serves Ohavay Zion Synagogue and is a senior scholar of the Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood. Most recently she served as Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics at Hebrew Union College (HUC) and led a four-campus team to achieve strategic goals. Prior to her national role at HUC, Rachel served as Vice President of the Shalom Hartman

What kind of prayer does God want to hear? This fundamental spiritual question occupied the biblical soul and was at the focus of much debate in the Talmud. Through this question many other questions emerged as the rabbis sought to regulate fixed prayer in the post-biblical period, while at the same time attempting to allow room for spontaneous and personal prayer as well. In the Mishna (Brachot 5:1) the sages made a blanket statement about how one should approach the Amidah – the central prayer of any service: One should pray only with seriousness of intent. But what does this mean? What if we aren’t focused? What if we are angry at God? Can we still pray? As the rabbis understood her, Hannah in the Book of Samuel embodied all of these basic spiritual questions. In the Talmud (Brachot 31a) Hannah is depicted both as incredibly problematic and wonderfully exemplary at the same time. In the biblical text, Hannah’s emotional prayer for a child (I Samuel 1:10) is immediately critiqued by the priest Eli, who watches her long and silent prayer near the entrance to the Temple.

Eli accuses Hannah of being drunk. She was, he erroneously thought, praying the wrong way, at the wrong place and at the wrong time. It isn’t until Hannah explains to him “I a woman of sorrowful spirit, I have had no wine or liquor, but I have poured out my soul before the Lord.” Her radical act was that she had turned to God with great emotion and the deep pain of her infertility and made a vow to God to give over her son – should she be blessed to have one – to the service of the Temple. Only then does Eli say to her: “Go in peace, and the God of Israel will grant that which you have asked of him.” (I Sam. 1:17).

In the Talmudic text, however, Hannah becomes a test case for the most fundamental questions about the nature of prayer: How? When? What? And what are the limits? From Hannah’s model the sages teach – among many things – several core aspects of the halakha (Jewish law) of the Amidah: (1) one should stand and face Jerusalem; (2) one should pray with a serious or focused mind; (3) one should pray silently.

But the rabbis also imagine and give voice to the deeper questions behind the intensity of Hannah’s prayer. In the Talmudic version of Hannah’s debate with God she insists that because she was created with the power to nurse a child God must give her a child to nurse, otherwise he has created a part of her in vain.

“These breasts that you have placed upon my heart – what are they for? Did You not create me this way so that I could nurse?” (Brachot 31b). In another place the sages turn Hannah into a character that even threatens God should she fail to conceive: She will use the Torah against God to force him to give her a child. She expresses enormous sorrow and anger. Hannah expresses frustration with God, and she questions God, and she questions faith. She is entirely inappropriate in some ways, and yet it is so powerful and profoundly true to call out to God out of a place of such private pain.

All of this might be understood to be irreverent or even heretical approaches to God in prayer. Some ancient rabbinic voices in the text insist that her prayer is unacceptable, but others insist that it is precisely Hannah’s kind of prayer, modeled in other contexts by Moses and by Elijah, that is the prayer that is answered.

Something of Hannah’s spiritual and theological truth and courage convinces the sages that her prayer is also authentic prayer.

Is Hannah the ideal model or is it heresy? Is her “throwing words at God” so inappropriate that in fact her prayer is not prayer? The sages employ Hannah as both the character that defines and defies the limits of what prayer should be. The Talmudic sages’ ambivalence about Hannah and about women in prayer and the limits of what can bring to prayer continues to challenge us today. The issue today is not just about who decides, but it’s about whether or not there is room in the public sphere even for the one who seems as Hannah first did to Eli – inappropriate and unwelcome. And how, if at all, can human beings really know what God wants to hear?

Our world might be much better if all women and all human beings had Hannah’s spiritual honesty and depth, and could offer such powerful prayer. Would that all women had Hannah’s courage to speak their human truths in the most public and important ways.
Hannah is both modest and bold, but above all she is honest about her relationship with God. It is that honesty from the depths of her pain which ultimately gains God’s attention. Her irreverence was only in the eyes of human beings. In God’s eyes, and in God’s ears, there seems to be a much greater capacity to see and to hear.

Therefore, perhaps, the sages were trying to signal to their students for the generations to come that we should be very careful in judging the efficacy and appropriateness of another’s prayer. That which may seem to be irreverent may be precisely the prayer that God needs most.

First published in the Jerusalem Post .

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