Why Theologians Have Trouble with Prayer

In the final public lecture of his life which you can read here, Reb Zalman, (a’h) said:

You will see: The more you do it, there will be a moment of the breakthrough that you will have the sense that ‘Ah! Today, not only did I talk to God; today I knew that I was heard by God and I was given back an answer!’, though not necessarily in words. So keep trying that. I wrote a piece called ‘Why Theologians Have Trouble with Prayer,’ and if you write to me, I’ll send it to you so you’ll see it’s all laid out there.

Here is the referenced piece so that your Pesach will bring some mamash DavvenenGabbai Seth Fishman


Why Theologians Have Such Trouble With Prayer
By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
of Blessed Memory

The more conceptually correct and abstract the notion of God is for the theologian, the harder it is for him/her to pray.

It has been my good fortune to meet and share with great theologians; with philosophers of religion. When we spoke about the conceptual, the intellectual realms, we were in great harmony. And with those who were in touch with the spirit of the times and had, within themselves, made the paradigm shift away from triumphalism and the mechanical reality map and onto a Gaian perspective, having a sense of the quantum realities, the zero point field, string theory or even developmental theologies such as Teilhard DeChardin’s evolution of creation growing toward God, or with those people who had traced the evolution of God ideas over time, when it came to discussing prayer beyond its psychological benefit for the individual, they could not meet me in a place where there was ontic facticity to the One who hears the prayer; nor could we connect on the real/empirical efficacy of prayer.

I would come away with the sense that for all their holistic thinking, they could not make sense of prayer. And they were looking at me as though I was reverting to the superstitious/magical past, as though I am stuck in an old anthropomorphism.

It strikes me as strange that these are people who have embraced the notions of Jung’s archetypes somehow, or Larry Dossey’s research on healing and precognition, and that they find it easy to talk about karma, kundalini, chakras and bardos.

Or that they could even meet me and have a conversation, (though only tentatively), about the reality that exists in what Henri Corbin describes as the Alaam Al Mithal / the imaginal realm. And some might even entertain the possibility of a reality of greater consciousness in some extraterrestrial beings.

However, it seemed that they would shy away from prayer of petition, prayer of devotion and that which is experienced in a heart facing the divine other.

With this as background, I will try to clear up some confusion of categories to help make room and give respectability to the “service of the heart”, as prayer is called in our tradition.

In the past, Will Herberg pointed out that there is a great deal of difference between even the best ideas about God and the living “God”. Clearly, one cannot make a covenant with a God-idea or follow the command to love that God-idea with “all your heart and all your soul and all your might”. Meister Eckhardt pointed out: There is an infinite distance between God and the Godhead. Put in Kabbalistic terms, one would say that the Ayn Sof we cannot know, which we cannot even speak about, is not the God whom we serve, whose “body” is made up of 613 limbs of the King.

All the teachings of Kabbalah give us cosmologies in which we are dealing with at least four worlds. (And don’t forget that Rabbi Isaac Luria, known also as the holy AR”Y, gave the disclaimer that everything that he said in words was to be understood as an allegory for the reality beyond what words could say.) These four worlds are behind the four yogas, the four realms of Sufism, even the archetypes of the I Ching: old Yang, old Yin, young Yang and young Yin. And so, too, do we find them in Jung’s categories of sensation, feeling, reason, intuition.

I feel that behind all these Quaternities are realities to which we best can tune in when we look at the triune brain plus the field beyond, i.e., the reptilian, limbic, cortex and the fourth, those fields from which intuition comes. So when the Kabbalah speaks about four worlds connecting them to the four letters of the divine name, they were not merely talking about concepts; they were attaching labels to realms of reality to which they could make connections with their spiritual know-how.

While most theologians operate in the realm of reason, prayer takes place in the realm of feeling, addressing one of the Partzufim.

Just a brief bit on this word, “Partzuf“. In the current Israeli Hebrew usage it means a face. It derives from the Greek per-se-phone which refers to the mask the actor has over his face through which he sends the sound he makes in his portrayal. Etymologically, it shares with the word person, also related to the Latin per-sonare, meaning to sound through. The persephone gives to the actor the person of that character who he portrays. (Also, refer to Joseph Campbell and his telling of the hero with 1000 faces).

So that the infinite and faceless God could communicate with us, God puts on the mask (Partzuf) making it possible for us to relate. (And another good way to think of Partzufim is in terms of root metaphors.)

Why are the Partzufim/root metaphors necessary?

Imagine an extraterrestrial, one whose visage is strange and scary for us, who wants to try to communicate with us: Such a  being would be wise to first explore our culture and then don a mask appropriate for the most harmonious relating.

In a similar way, the Infinite invites us, and to no less a degree, with each new paradigm, holding up in front of us such appellations which God, in divine grace, will inhabit for us so that we might get to that attunement which would make it possible for a covenant with a compassionate being addressed in prayer. In this process, many of the words found in our liturgy are affirmations of God’s virtuous caring.

Kabbalists often speak of Levushim, garments, in which the  presence and consciousness invests itself so that it will make itself present to us. The grace of the “other” is in inhabiting that attribute, that name or that Partzuf, with compassion and an openness to be addressed.

Our contribution to the process of meeting with the divine reality is to provide a meaningful garment or Partzuf or root metaphor to make the process work in the context of our awareness.

This we do by finding a term, a name, an attribute which we address in prayer.


As long as reason does not recognize the reality of the dimensions of attunement and vibration, it cannot make sense of the world of Yetzirah. Reason flattens Yetzirah into mere concepts. Thus, one does not face a real and present “other”; one only faces a figment of one’s mind.

But there is a reality to these dimensions: In the imagination of the Talmudic mind we are speaking to the one who sits on the throne, to the meta-thron, the Metatron.

Or, at other times, we aim our prayer to the heart of God (for a Christian, it is the Sacred Heart of Jesus; for the Buddhist, it is the bodhisattva with the thousand arms of compassion.)

That is the One we can address with the word “Thou,” second person singular; in Hebrew “Attah”, and do so without a diminishment of the sacred “Other”.

From that source, we feel ourselves addressed and challenged, encountered and commanded.

To make this real for us, we had to have entered into the sanctuary of our heart. It is that entry about which I have often spoken: It is the lonely place into which we withdraw in solitude. There, we build a sanctuary. In it, we carve out space with longing and yearning. Thus, we seek to address the sacred “Other” and use the secret and intimate terms of endearment.

It is so much easier to begin with gratitude expressed to that Bestower, to that gracious giver, lover, parent, friend. In placing oneself before that sacred “other” and expressing gratitude in spoken words, the ear can hear and the heart can feel the portals of prayer open.

It is a shift from the world of concepts to the world of the sacred “person”.

Paying attention to the Kabbalistic understandings, we can also become aware of their claim that in the four worlds, this, the mundane, the sensory reality level in which we live, is called the world of Assiyah. And this level of nefesh, also has nonverbal biological and neural energies beyond the containers of the neural pathways in the body.

A second world, one in which we feel ourselves in touch with the mood of the person, the affect aspect of energies connected with some holy places, when these enter into our space and we become attuned to them, it is the world of Yetzirah, the world of ruach. The Kabbalists point out that the soul is bigger than the body container, like a field that surrounds the person. Also, in the world of Yetzirah there are beings: Some are discarnate souls; others are intelligences and entities connected with the archetypes and the various morphogenetic fields.

For the many people who have not developed the focused consciousness needed to pay attention to the states of ruach and the connection ruach makes with the Chayot, a conversation about these would seem to make no sense.

Signals coming from the brain are miniscule, and so, when people undergo an electroencephalogram, these signals have to be greatly amplified before they can register. In contrast, an electrocardiogram needs less amplification because the heart signals are very strong. And since we are speaking of prayer as “the work of the heart”, it follows that we have to find out what the pathway by which we approach the heart is.

How foolish it would seem if I were to write a score for violin and then ask the timpani to play it. And it would similarly seem foolish if there has not been enough experience and practice in heart-ing through head-ing, i.e., understanding prayer conceptually. When it is good theology, it is merely the afterthought of the believer, (read that last word as be-live-er: One who has lived that as an experience). That person will want to tell the head of it as a “something” that the head might, possibly, understand. But when theology tries to make sense of God ideas without a basic experiential basis, it is a house of cards built out of concepts.

Some examples from history:

In the middle of his life, Aquinas created the structure of Catholic theology. But later, after having had an immediate experience of the God theologians try to understand, he said that everything he had written before was like empty straw.

Similarly, Blaise Pascal, for all his mathematical genius, wrote the note with his own blood about his encounter – not with the God of philosophers: With the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

To recap: When we look for relationship with God, we must identify in which “world” we are seeking to relate. When we are relating to the world of sensation, Assiyah, we are dealing with God, the Creator, in an indirect way, in the third person: Hu Elokeynu. We are dealing with the effects of his/her creation and prayer does not apply.

When we are relating to God as the vast, infinite intelligence and consciousness behind the universe, we are dealing with the mind of God and in the mode of reason. This is the world of Briyah. Prayer does not apply, though contemplation does.

When we are dealing with divine infinity extending infinitely, what the Kabbalah calls the Ayn Sof, we cannot connect with our sensation, feeling or reason. In that infinity we do not yet exist. Yet, we may be able to intuit, at moments, a flash of our identity with that infinity since that was imprinted on our souls in a moment of rare grace which we may bring down into our experience.

However, when we have dealings with the world of Yetzirah, with the realm of feeling, there, the monism of the other worlds does not apply. For the heart, it is essential to have an “other”. The world of Yetzirah is the world of feeling. It is the dialogical universe and it is here that prayer does apply.

In this world of Yetzirah we are dealing with the reality of the archetypes, what the Kabbalah calls the Partzufim. The Sufis speak of that realm as the Alaam Al Mithal. Henri Corbin uses the term of the imaginal realm which he understands as having ontic reality.

Thus, herein is the difficulty that the theologian experiences: In order to allow for a real “other”, he/she must descend from the brain into the heart.

There is no shortcut, but it is important that the reasoning mind is grounded enough in the four worlds to give assent to the reality of the heart.

It is for this reason that we study the writings of the praying mystics: It is to allow the mind to consent to the work with the heart. For this reason, prayer has been called in Hebrew: Avodah sh’b’Lev. And the more conceptually correct and abstract the notion of God is for the theologians, the harder it is for him/her to pray.

One Response to “Why Theologians Have Trouble with Prayer”

  1. Man’s Quest for God (book by Heschel) | Alexander Massey Says:

    […] [Compare Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s article, ‘Why theologians have trouble with prayer’ at https://www.jewishrenewalhasidus.org/why-theologians-have-trouble-with-prayer. A what is infinite and an intellectual concept, and too vast and abstract to relate to personally. […]

Leave a Reply