The American Jewish Committee is deeply disappointed by today’s decision of the Israeli government to withdraw from the plan to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall (Kotel).

Prayer seems to be a prominent feature of every religion. When people pray, they attempt to communicate with special persons or entities, such as a God or gods, or dead relatives, or exemplary human beings who are believed to occupy some special status.

People pray for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes people pray in order to give thanks, sometimes to offer praise and adoration, sometimes to apologize and seek forgiveness, and sometimes to ask for things. The focus of this article is petitionary prayer, in which a petitioner requests something. Historically, the most interesting philosophical puzzles concerning petitionary prayer have arisen in connection with the traditional monotheism shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

AJC had hailed the compromise to allow egalitarian prayer at the sacred site in Jerusalem when it was first approved by the Israeli Cabinet in January 2016.

“The Kotel belongs to all Jews worldwide, not to a self-appointed segment,” said AJC CEO David Harris. “This decision is a setback for Jewish unity and the essential ties that bind Israel and American Jews, the two largest centers of Jewish life in the world.”

In a September 2015 letter to AJC, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stated his commitment “to strengthening the unity of the Jewish people,” and pledged “to unequivocally reject any attempt to divide us or to delegitimize any Jewish community – Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.”

According to traditional monotheism, God is omniscient (knows everything that can be known), omnibenevolent (perfectly good), omnipotent (can do everything that is compatible with the other attributes mentioned above), impassible (unable to be affected by an outside source), immutable (unchanging), and free. 

What would it mean to say that a petitionary prayer to God had been effective? Petitionary prayers often make a difference to those who offer them, but the more interesting question is whether or not such prayers make a difference to God. And the question is not whether God simply hears or notices such prayers—after all, we have assumed that God knows everything that happens in the world and is perfectly good. Typically, when philosophers discuss the effectiveness of petitionary prayer, they wonder whether petitionary prayers ever move God to act. What would it mean to say this?

Philosophers usually assume that a prayer is effective if and only if God brings about the thing requested because of the prayer, so that had the prayer not been offered, the thing in question would not have occurred. So if you pray to God for rain tomorrow and it does rain tomorrow, this all by itself is not enough to say that your prayer for rain was effective—it must also be the case that God actually brought about the rain at least in part because of your prayer. If it would have rained anyway, without your prayer for rain, then it doesn’t seem that your prayer for rain was effective. So an effective prayer would be a prayer that made a difference by influencing God to act. 

Theists believe that God is immutable (cannot change) and impassible (cannot be affected by anything external). These ideas are related to one another, but not identical: if God is immutable, then God is impassible. But just because God is impassible, it does not follow that God is immutable—God might be able to change without being affected by any external source. If God is both immutable and impassible, then it seems that no petitionary prayers are effective.

A number of responses are open to traditional theists at this point. Some theists have argued that there are independent reasons for saying that God is neither immutable nor impassible. For example, many people have argued that God is both compassionate and forgiving. But to be compassionate or forgiving seems to require being responsive to the actions of others, so perhaps we should not say that God is immutable or impassible after all (see the entry on concepts of God).

A different response to the puzzle here would involve characterizing the concepts of divine immutability and impassibility so that they apply to God in a way that does not rule out the effectiveness of petitionary prayers. 

Another response would involve claiming that in cases of apparently effective prayer, God is not really responding to the prayer but instead bringing about events as part of a providential plan, a plan that includes both the prayer and the apparent answer to it. Such a position is suggested by the following remark from St. Thomas Aquinas: We pray not in order to change the divine disposition but for the sake of acquiring by petitionary prayer what God has disposed to be achieved by prayer.

A different puzzle concerning the effectiveness of petitionary prayer arises in connection with divine omniscience, the idea that God knows everything that can be known. If God already knows the future, for instance, then how can petitionary prayer make a difference? The future, after all, is just the set of things that will happen. If God knows the future in all of its detail, then it seems that there is no room for petitionary prayers to be effective: either the thing requested in prayer is something that God already knows will be done, or it isn’t, and either way, it looks like the prayer can make no difference. Like many other questions in theology, this puzzle raises an interesting question about the limits of God’s knowledge. Is it possible for anyone, including God, to know the future in all of its detail? Philosophers disagree sharply about this.

The Conservative and Reform movements, joined by AJC and other Jewish groups, have long pressed for equal rights at the Kotel for non-Orthodox worship and religious ceremonies. The landmark compromise, adopted by the Israeli Cabinet on January 31, 2016, recognized that the religious status quo at the Western Wall would continue under Orthodox authority. For egalitarian and mixed-gender Conservative and Reform prayers, however, a new space would be created at the southern wall, commonly known as Robinson’s Arch. But while all streams of Judaism agreed at the time, the ultra-Orthodox representatives reneged and have steadfastly blocked its implementation.

AJC has been focusing on issues of Jewish religious pluralism in Israel for decades. At AJC’s initiative, the effort was elevated in 2014 with the establishment of the multi-organizational Jewish Religious Equality Coalition (J-REC) to press for recognized alternatives to the Chief Rabbinate on procedures relating to marriage and conversion to Judaism.

According to open theism, God cannot know those parts of the future that are yet to be determined, such as the future free actions of human beings, either because there are no truths to be known yet or because there is no way for anyone, including God, to know them. This does not mean the God is not omniscient, according to open theists, because God still knows everything that can be known (and that is what it means to be omniscient). So open theists have a way to defuse the puzzle for petitionary prayer involving omniscience concerning the future: if our prayers are free, or God’s decision whether or not to answer them is free (or both), then those things cannot be part of a determined future and God cannot know about them in advance. But open theism is controversial because it appears to deny something that theists have affirmed traditionally, namely, that God knows the future in all of its detail.

There is the middle knowledge view. This positions hold that God knows the future in all of its detail as a result of knowing both what everyone and everything would do in any possible situation and which situations everyone and everything will be placed in actually. According to this picture, God knows the future in all of its detail, but what God knows about the future free choices of human beings depends on what they would choose—and that is something that is up to the human beings in question, not up to God. Even though God knows what you will do in the future, according to this picture, it is still up to you. In fact, when you make a free choice, you have the ability to do something such that were you to do it, God would have always known something different from what he knows in fact. 

According to the proponents of middle knowledge, then, petitionary prayer can still make a difference because God can take into account those prayers that be offered in the future when God plans how to create the world over time. The mere fact that God knows the future in all of its detail does not mean that this future is determined. So the proponents of middle knowledge have a way to answer the puzzle concerning omniscience. But the theory of middle knowledge is very controversial; critics wonder whether there are truths about what everyone and everything would do in every situation, and even if there were, how God could know such things.

Defenders of timeless eternity hold that God knows all of history at once, from a point of view outside of time altogether (see the entry on eternity.) Like the proponents of middle knowledge, the defenders of timeless eternity will say that just because God knows the future, this does not mean that God determines it. They will also say that God’s single act of creation from outside of time has many effects in time, including, perhaps, answers to prayers that God anticipates from the point of view of eternity. In this way, the defenders of timeless eternity can answer the puzzle concerning omniscience. But like open theism and the theory of middle knowledge, the idea that God is timelessly eternal is controversial too.

Some philosophers argue that not only does it make sense to pray for the future if God exists, but also it makes sense to pray for the past as well—such prayers could be effective, depending on the extent of God’s knowledge. For example, given the way we have described effective petitionary prayer, it could be possible for a prayer for something to have happened yesterday to be effective, as long as the thing in question actually did happen yesterday. This is because God could know that I would offer the prayer in the future, and could have taken this into account yesterday, as long as God can know the future. So defenders of middle knowledge and timeless eternity can say that prayers for the past might be effective.

Theists have traditionally recognized a number of limits on God’s actions. For instance, it is common to insist that God’s omnipotence does not imply that God can do impossible things, such as create stones that are too heavy for God to lift. It is also common to insist that God cannot do that which is intrinsically evil, because God is morally perfect. Since God is provident, one might also suspect that God would not answer petitionary prayers for things that would interfere with God’s providential plans for the world. Within these limits, one might wonder whether there is enough room among the space of God’s reasons for petitionary prayers to make a difference, and what kinds of reasons such prayers could provide for God.

Some have argued that God’s moral perfection implies that petitionary prayers cannot make a difference because God will do what is best for everyone whether or not anyone ever offers petitionary prayers for those things. If this were so, then it would seem that petitionary prayers are never effective in the sense described above.

In response to this worry, a number of authors have suggested that it would be better, in some cases, for God to bring certain things about in response to petitionary prayers than to bring about those same things independently of any such requests. In order to explore this idea, it is helpful to draw a distinction. Sometimes people pray for themselves, and sometimes they pray for others. The first kind of prayer is self-directed, and the second kind of prayer is other-directed.

Eleonore Stump argues that in some cases, God waits for us to ask for something before granting it in order to avoid spoiling or overwhelming us. We could be spoiled by God if God answered all of our prayers automatically, and we could be overwhelmed by God if God provided everything good for us without waiting for us to ask first. In a similar vein, Michael Murray and Kurt Meyers argue that by making the provision of certain things dependent on petitionary prayer, God helps us to avoid idolatry, which is a sense of complete self-sufficiency that fails to recognize God as the source of all good things. They also say that requiring petitionary prayer in some cases helps us to learn about God’s will as we recognize the patterns in prayers answered.

Murray and Meyers argue that if God makes the provision of certain things for others dependent on our prayers for them, then this can help to build interdependence and community. By contrast, Richard Swinburne and Daniel and Frances Howard-Snyder argue that by requiring petitionary prayers in some cases, God gives us more responsibility for the well-being of ourselves and others than we would enjoy otherwise. We wonder whether this involves God using others as a means to an end or whether this really extends our responsibility for others.

There are a number of ways to understand God’s obligations toward created persons, only some of which suggest that God’s goodness would be compromised if God withheld things because petitionary prayers were not offered. So there are a number of responses that theists can make to the puzzle of petitionary prayer that stems from divine moral perfection. 

Would it ever be possible to know or reasonably believe that God has answered a particular petitionary prayer? Different authors disagree about this question. Some theists think that for all we know, for any particular event that happens, God may have had independent reasons for bringing it about, so we cannot know whether or not God has brought it about because of a prayer (as opposed to bringing it about for some other reason. This line of thought is especially interesting in light of the recent popularity of so-called skeptical theism, which responds to the problem of evil by claiming that we can never know exactly how particular events are connected with each other and with good or bad consequences, some of which may be beyond our understanding. As long as people are justified in believing, in general terms, that God sometimes answers prayers, then it is possible to believe reasonably that one’s petitionary prayer has been answered when one knows that the thing requested has come to pass.


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