Praying to the Wrong God? An Old/New Approach to Tefillah Education

By Rafi Eis

Photo: Yehoshua Halevi

Most Jewish educators feel frustrated by their inability to help their students appreciate the transformative power of tefillah—and not for lack of trying. Numerous books try to explain the tefillot and new siddurim are published every year with original commentaries and insights.1 Every Jewish educational organization has a tefillah program for schools to implement. Many schools provide multiple prayer service options with varied style and pace. In addition to the minyan that replicates a standard synagogue experience, schools offer explanatory prayer services and services with singing, meditation, discussion and reflection. The numerous options also create additional leadership opportunities for students.

These initiatives respond to the commonly perceived challenges of prayer: we do not know what we are saying; we struggle to focus with our overly scheduled, hectic, stressed and sleep-deprived lives; we also struggle to focus with the constant pinging and buzzing of our smartphones that beg (meekly ask?) for our attention; our lives are too comfortable so we have nothing to pour out our heart to God about; it is hard to connect to esoteric matters; and we lack true understanding of ourselves while also being too scared to let down our guard to truly see our souls. We are afraid to be vulnerable, lest we not like what we see.

Schools implement a combination of ideas to address these challenges, yet the problem does not seem to be getting better. Why?

While these initiatives play a critical role, they only focus on half the problem. At the most basic level, in prayer a human speaks to God. All these tefillah programs aim to improve the human aspect of prayer, which is necessary, but not sufficient.

Tefillah education also requires that we teach about God, Who is the address of our prayers. But how do we talk to Him? The fact is that the Jewish day school world struggles to talk about God.2

The reason schools do not educate about God is because many teachers feel that they don’t have the necessary knowledge or experience. Some teachers feel paralyzed by the most basic questions. How can one really know God? Can we speak with any honesty or confidence about God? Teachers that do proceed usually rely on the great works of the medieval Spanish philosophers, who generally begin with an Aristotelian orientation that defines God as the prime or unmoved mover.3 This God is emotionless, perfect and unchanging, which does not correspond to the way we think of God in the Bible or with our perceptions of tefillah.

Rabbi Joseph Albo clearly articulates the dilemma. He famously asks: if God is perfect and therefore unchanging, what is the purpose of prayer (Sefer Ikkarim 4:17)? How can we expect to change God’s mind?

Rabbi Albo answers that God is, in fact, perfect and we cannot change God’s mind. Through tefillah, however, we can gain a better understanding of what God wants from us and we can therefore change ourselves. By becoming a different person, we put our new selves on a different trajectory and change our future. God gives the new us a new Divine judgment.

While this idea charges us to continually improve, we do not address God in this model of prayer. Rather, God communicates with us as we enter a deep meditative state to figure ourselves out. Our personal preferences do not matter, and tefillah is just pretend.

But is this the best manner for reflection? We want the words to inspire an elevated living, but many people reflect better on a long walk, seeing the beauty, diversity and expanse of nature. Further, does organized, communal prayer in the same room, with the same people and the same words generate a higher level of introspection?

More fundamentally, a concept of God as unchanging paralyzes prayer. If we think that the perfect God has given us a reality that is appropriately suited for us, then we believe that things are meant to be just as they are and there is no room to ask for a change.

Adding to the confusion with prayer is that according to Rabbi Albo, there would be no point in praying for another person, including our family members and friends in desperate need of healing. In Rabbi Albo’s model, tefillah helps us fix ourselves, but an individual’s prayer cannot change another.

We are not the first to suffer from this attitude. That unfortunate distinction belongs to Eli, the high priest and judge at the beginning of the Book of Samuel. He twice receives prophecy that his children’s sins will bring ruin. Eli is far from passive, unsuccessfully rebuking his children for their behavior. Although Eli runs the Tabernacle service, we never see him pray. When he receives the dreadful prophecy, Eli’s response is, “He is the Lord; He will do what He deems right” (I Samuel 3:18).

We cannot change tefillah in our schools or shuls because we do not cultivate an essential experience of tefillah, which is that of Chana, the paragon of prayer. While Eli reacts with revulsion when he witnesses Chana pouring out her heart to God, the Talmud in Berachot (31a) chooses Chana’s prayer as the quintessential tefillah. The laws that the Talmud learns from Chana include the importance of having a focused prayer, enunciating our words, saying the words in an undertone, and praying with our full cognitive capacities and without stimulants that give a spiritual feeling and lead to disrespectful sloppiness. More significantly than the specific laws, the Talmud learns critical principles of prayer from Chana.

To be sure, Rabbi Albo’s outside-in approach of prayer, which requires listening and submitting to the Divine will, plays an important role.4 That however, is just one aspect of prayer. The Talmud also develops another feature of tefillah that is missing in our tefillah education. Below I will highlight a handful of the lessons that we learn from Chana’s prayer that reject the Aristotelian God and require a return to the Biblical sense of God—engaged with humanity and influenceable.

What does Chana teach us?
1. We speak and pray to God.
Chana said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: “Master of the Universe, of all of the hosts and hosts that You created in Your world, is it difficult in Your eyes to grant me one son?” (Berachot 31b)

Chana addresses God directly, sometimes using the direct second person. She is not just in a deep meditation, she speaks to God. She takes her crisis and asks God to solve it. The Tanach is filled with numerous people speaking directly to, praying to and challenging God.

2. Our understanding of God is supposed to evolve.
She said, “Lord of Hosts [Tzeva’kot]” (I Samuel 1:11). Rabbi Elazar said: “From the day that the Holy One, Blessed be He, created His world, there was no person who called the Holy One, Blessed be He, ‘Lord of Hosts’ until Chana came and called Him ‘Lord of Hosts’” (Berachot 31b).
Not only does Chana speak to God, she also creates a new name for God. She is the first to address God as “Lord of Hosts.” Chana forever transforms the way humans speak to and understand God. In explaining the meaning of this new name for God, the Talmud remarks how Chana’s new name for God creates a different type of mechanism between man and God: the all-powerful means caring for the particular individual. Similarly, the Talmud Berachot 7b records that Abraham is the first to address God as Adon, meaning master, and that Leah is the first to give thanks to God. Our understanding of God is supposed to evolve.

3. We can change God’s mind.
Unlike Eli, Chana refuses to accept the status quo. She begs God to give her a child, which He does. Our prayers can change reality! And Chana is not the only one. While ultimately unsuccessful, Avraham tries to change God’s judgment about Sodom. God rejects his attempts because of the guilt of Sodom, not on the grounds that God is unchanging. The Talmud then explicitly states that God changes His mind and agrees with Eliyahu (31b) and Moshe (32a).

Understanding God
Given Rabbi Albo’s powerful question, however, we need to probe deeper and understand why the Talmud presents a different picture of the ideal prayer, especially since the rabbis of the Talmudic period were aware of Aristotelian ideas. Our first step requires a different approach to understanding God. Before we enter this difficult arena, we must note that finite humans have no way to understand our infinite God. Throughout the ages many theological explanations from inside and outside Judaism have been proposed, spanning the spectrum from the rational to the mystical, and using the mind, experience or holy books as foundations. Ultimately, we can never escape the fact that God is beyond human comprehension and that we do not and cannot have complete knowledge. “For My plans are not your plans, nor are My ways your ways—declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).

We find the infectious and seductive nature of Greek epistemology seeping into the thought of Rabbi Albo. Greek philosophy tries to delineate God: perfect, unchanging, necessary, all-powerful, all-knowing, et cetera. These definitions come from a) the Greek approach that tries to define the truth5 of things, including God, based on eternally existing traits, and b) the Aristotelian idea that perfection equals the geometric perfection of a circle.

In contrast, the Bible presents a picture of a God engaged with humanity, caring about world affairs and One who sometimes changes the status quo in response to prayer and the raw human cry. This is how God wants us to relate to Him.6

Here the work of the prophets becomes critical, as they speak of God using metaphor: God as spouse, parent, farmer, shepherd, potter, builder, king, et cetera. The prophets believe that we can never have full knowledge of God or define Him with words. At best we can talk about our relationship with God. At times, one metaphor suffices. When one metaphor won’t capture a particular point, a prophet will employ two simultaneous metaphors to highlight a particular aspect of our covenantal relationship. The prophets employ different metaphors to describe the relationship depending on circumstances. As circumstances change, so do the metaphors and our relationship with God. These metaphors are not just rhetorical flourish; they are theology.

Metaphor also makes God as relatable as possible, despite His transcendence. Each metaphor, “God as King,” “God as Father” or “God as Manufacturer” plunges the petitioner into a world of associations and concepts with new terms of engagement and memories to draw upon. The usage of metaphor enables us to relate to God experientially, making our tefillot a connecting vehicle between us and God.7 In fact, after exclaiming the radical idea that Chana creates a new name for God, the gemara refuses to go into abstract theological discussions of “What God is” or “How His power is used.” Instead the Talmud transitions into a parable about the relationship between a king and his servants and subjects, “A parable: To what is this similar? To a flesh and blood king…”8 The newly created name for God defines a new relationship with God to support the new reality.

Perhaps this is the meaning of God’s response of, “I will be what I will be” (Exodus 3:14) to Moshe’s request of, “What is Your name?” God does not want Moshe to begin the elusive endeavor of trying to understand His inner workings. Metaphor and relationship, yes; description, no. Instead, God reminds Moshe that his concern should be about freeing the people.

The relationship that we approach God with also shapes the meaning of the words that we say. As an example, if we would approach the Fourth Blessing of the Amidah (Da’at) with a perspective of “God as Manufacturer” then our request for intelligence focuses on raw intellectual abilities; if we approach the Blessing from viewpoint of “God as Shepherd,” then our request is emphasizing our desire to receive God’s guidance in order to make proper decisions.

Our individual relationship with God is part of the larger britot/covenants we have with God. After numerous missteps by humanity in Genesis 1-11, God creates a covenantal relationship with Avraham to start a nation that will serve as a model people and be a blessing for the other nations (Genesis 12: 2-3).

With the giving of the Torah at Sinai, God elevates the covenant from individuals to the whole nation. God reframes the mission as Israel being a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6) for the rest of humanity. Israel serving in this model role is reinforced throughout the prophets.9

Herein lies a great paradox in the Bible. All-powerful God needs man’s help. One part of our covenant with God states that the Israelites have been chosen to play a unique role in history, to be God’s people and shine His light on to the community of nations. The flip side is that God needs us. Without the covenant, God would not be present in human existence the way He wants. God’s presence in this world comes through human action.

God reveals His plan to Avraham to destroy Sodom and then needs to explain His thinking to Avraham because God needs Avraham (Genesis 18:17-19). Moshe too invokes the fact that God needs the Israelites (Exodus 32:11-13, Numbers 14:13-16) in getting God to change His plan of destroying the Jewish nation.

Our students need to clearly understand our role and its historythe times that we have demonstrated the path to human flourishing and the times that we have failed. The idea of minyan and praying for others stems from the covenantal community. Even if communal prayer is not the most conducive setting for personal intent and focus, we instead pray as a community, as Am Yisrael, with whom God made His covenant. We need Him and He needs us.

Photo: Yehoshua Halevi

Teaching Tefillah Successfully
Our ability to speak to God, beseech God and appeal to Him to change reality stems from our individual and communal covenantal relationships with God. While we cannot know God, we can perceive, define and refine our relationship with God. Reality changes, and with it our relationship with God and our understanding of Him also changes. That is not a flaw, it is a feature.

We must teach our students to speak with God, using metaphor, covenant, Jewish history and peoplehood. Missing these, a critical ingredient in how our students approach tefillah will be lacking, and no matter how much we try, our schools will fall short.

Here comes the critical point of all this. How do we know if we are teaching tefillah successfully? What is the output to look for in our students’ tefillah?

We currently judge the success of tefillah by assessing student understanding, focus and intensity of prayer; however, those are inputs that are important, but not determinative. While the Talmud learns about the importance of concentration from Chana’s prayer, the Talmud does not make concentration the linchpin. The outputs of successful tefillah are a transformative sense of personal relationship with God, partnership with God and dedication to God, to bring His light into this world. As the Talmud continues understanding Chana’s prayer, it emphasizes her relationship with God, her commitment to halachah and her oath to dedicate her son to do God’s work. May it be soon with our students and ourselves.

1. This paper responds to ideas raised and developed at the Herzl Institute’s first workshop on “Teaching Tanach as a Source of Theology and Philosophy,” which took place on August 1-4, 2016, and which I organized as convener. I would like to thank Drs. Yoram Hazony and Joshua Weinstein, who led most of the sessions, for their insightful and pioneering work on Biblical philosophical theology. Thank you as well to my wife, Atara Eis, Dr. Hazony, and my father-in-law Rabbi Dr. Meir Sendor, for their comments. All errors are, of course, my own.
2. See also the subsequent Lookjed educator forum discussion.
3. Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book 12.
4. See Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Genesis 48:11.
5. Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book 5 begins with defining terms. No Biblical book contains such a structure.
6. Rav Chaim Volozhin makes a similar distinction in his Nefesh HaChaim 2:2, that human beings cannot understand how God is Ein Sof (endless); rather, we can gain an understanding of God’s connection with the worldly powers that God created in the world, sometimes referred as the sefirot. Thank you to my father-in-law, Rabbi Dr. Meir Sendor, for this source.
7. Chana is not the only figure to define the terms of God’s engagement. The Talmud (Berachot 7a) relates that the High Priest Rabbi Yishmael, son of Elisha, defines for God His relationship with the Jewish people and humanity in the Holy of Holies.
8. Readers are encouraged to study the powerful parable that the Talmud provides.
9. There are too many examples to cite, but readers are encouraged to look at Isaiah, chapters 2 and 56.

Rabbi Rafi Eis is director of educational programs, the Herzl Institute and Ra”m at Midreshet Lindenbaum.

This article was featured in the Fall 2017 issue of Jewish Action.
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