Saturday, November 8, 2008

Power of Prayer

Recently I listened to an interview with Larry Dossey author of "Healing Words"

"In this groundbreaking classic linking prayer and health, physician Larry Dossey shares the latest evidence connecting prayer, healing, and medicine. Using real-life examples and personal anecdotes, Dossey proves how prayer can be as valid a healing tool as drugs or surgery.

Dossey explores which methods of prayer show the greatest potential for healing; presents compelling evidence that patients' and doctors' belief in a treatment increases its efficacy; explains that discoveries in modern physics allow us to integrate the spiritual and the scientific and make the power of prayer provable in the lab; and much more. "

Dr Dossey claims scientific evidence for the power of prayer, he cites research studies and claims that there is conclusive evidence that prayer works. While I have not read the book, but hearing him preach as a MD on prayer as a scientific phenomena was interesting, more for his conviction and emphasis on scientific backing.

Recently we had an illness in the family, as a skeptic I have a hard time praying. I hear all the various arguments for and against God, religon, judaism etc. Every word is an intellectual struggle. I guess this is why they say prayer should come from the heart, because once you engage the brain its becomes difficult. (I didnt pray, and everything turned out ok) .

Yeshayuahu Leibowitz, describes prayer as a Avodah, an obligation. It is not meant to be satisfying or spiritually fulfilling, or a wish list, it is a mitzvah, a command, which we are not to have expectations. We pray because we are Jewish, and if it help me as a person, its a side benefit, if it somehow cause some cosmic change and bring about a medical recovery or financial gain, it is incidental. There is no implied promises or guarantees in prayer, it is a simple master-servant relationship.

In contrast, Dossey states categorically, prayer works as a healing device, similar to drugs or procedures, and we are only just beginning to understand its power.

Unfortunately Jewish history, provides many examples of prayers not working or perhaps as the religously devout might say, God can say no. This was most powerfully stated by the parents of Nachshon Wachsman, who was murdered despite the pleas of the entire Jewish nation - a father can say no. As the Rabbis are well aware that prayer is not a sure thing, prayer is relegated to a routine obligation, with a loosely believed in faith that our prayers are somehow connected to and have a direct effect on the world we live in, but no one is really 100% sure.

Should we test this by analyzing the effects of a "Mi sheberech" on shabbat? As a child in school, we had a mi sheberech board with the list of names of ill people, who we would say tehilim for . At one point, as they say, "they were dropping like flies", our teacher scolded the class for lack of kavana when saying tehilim, and indeed the proof was staring at us in the face.

So , although Dossey is interesting to listen to, I am skeptic of prayer and those who view it as a mechanistic process which will yield a specific outcome. And more to the point, this is part and parcel of Judaism, there is an undercurrent of knowing that prayers can be for nought. You can say that God can say no, or that it is our own fault, we are not deserving, or its God testing us by making faith challenging, or the miracle quota for the year gets filled up very quickly.

Every year we pray for rain, yet some years are good , some bad. Every year we pray for health, wealth, yet some years are good, some bad. Our prayerbooks are filled with direct petitions.

IMHO, ultimately, any attempt to simplify or create causal relationships between prayer and outcome is destined for failure, and I think Judaism recognizes this at a theology level, yet our daily tefilos continue to imply a simple cause/effect relationship.