In 1872, Francis Galton wrote a now famous essay entitled ‘Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer’1 and concluded that prayer has no effect on either God, or the health or life expectancy of the person prayed for. The essay is full of value propositions and assumptions presented as fact, so I find it hard to take it seriously. Also, Galton’s starting point is Christian conceptions of both prayer, and God’s relationship to creation and humanity. The etymology of ‘prayer’ (preces) leans heavily on the idea of petition and, by implication, the potential for magical thinking and questions of whether those who pray can turn the mind of God.
I realise that there are Jews throughout history who have pursued the same line. However, there is a counter-thread in Judaism also, that regards this as largely irrelevant. T’fillah might be considered more as a process of self-reflection and personal development, as well as a means for both awakening our higher ethical sensibilities, and nurturing and developing our relationship with God.
On a more personal note, it is one of the areas of Jewish (spiritual) life in which I am especially interested. Even if there is no paradigm shift (sadly) away from naive magical thinking about prayer as humans attempting (or managing) to influence God, perhaps we can hope for at least a ‘software upgrade’ on the language and practices of our prayer so that it can speak better to the contemporary mind and heart. I am not suggesting a clinical, scientifically rigorous language, nor double-blind tested prayer practices. Prayer is (or at least, should be) multi-sensory, includes emotional and emotive elements, admits paradox and poetry, questions, doubts and hopes, despair, anger, and thanks and wonder. I make no definitive claims about the purposes or results of prayer, but my life would be poorer without it, and I suspect communal life would be too.