Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: Micheline Lemoine

The Service of Prayer

“To serve!” What variety of meanings are ascribed to this verb? (From the service in the game of tennis...) I am not sure, however, that this is the contextual meaning of prayer. The above use of the expression “to serve” is closely linked to our discussion of the role of prayer in Judeo-Christian dialogue in that it derives from a Hebrew root meaning “to work."

This implies the effect that prayer is to have on us: it is to “work us up” and consequently “put us to work.” The question remains then: In what way is prayer meant to fulfill this role?


“When God said at Sinai: During six days you shall work (ta’avod) and shall perform your duty (malakhekha - your mission), but the seventh is the Sabbath of the Lord your God...” (Ex. 20:9), He gives man the mission to cultivate and dominate the earth, and by extension, the sin of the earth. The term Avoda designates the physical and material life-sustaining work as well as the duty to praise God and to participate in the worship service. Judaism makes no difference between the action of sanctifying God at work and doing so in praise. This principle finds its echo in the Benedictine precept, “Ora et labora.” The Jew (and from there the Christian) knows that he is a “Worker of God,” “Eved Hashem,” a servant of the Creator, who is Master of time and space.1

Yet, the duty of prayer implies much more than asking, interceding, thanking, remaining silent, etc. Beyond all this, beyond the difficulties encountered, prayer retains an intrinsic simplicity as it pertains to the unifying act of a God who is one. “Prayer is Jacob’s ladder linking heaven and earth.”2

A Service for God

God is first served. But what service can we possibly render to God? The psychosociology of religions teaches us that the illusion of serving God by “nourishing” Him with offerings is in fact a veiled attempt to bend Him to our interests. By her prophets, Israel has continuously denigrated this idolatrous practice, to the point that it was believed that the whole notion of cult was condemned: “I hate, I despise your feasts, I cannot stand your solemn assemblies when you offer unto me holocausts” (Amos 5:21). There are more than twenty equivalent texts.

It is the worship of God “in spirit and in truth” and in the line of prophetic authenticity that should be the believer’s prime concern, whether he is a Jew or a Christian.

In reality, however, the Jewish and Christian worshipers remain on divergent levels, and the rupture between both recipients of the Covenant must not be allowed to deepen. Enrooted in mutual disrespect, this schism now nourishes ignorance. Yet, who has not heard the moving confession of Martin Buber: “Since my youth, I have recognized Jesus as my older brother...” echoing Shalom Ben Chorim’s assertion: “The faith of Jesus unites us; it is the faith in Jesus that separates us.”3

And what of God the Father? Let us recall the series of conferences regrouped under the topic “Have we not the same father?” (based on Mal. 2:104) during the week of the “Unité de Janvier,” twenty years ago. And the pertinent question, somewhat differently formulated by Colette Kessler5: “Have we the same father?” And in these notes of F. Lovsky: “A Jew feels himself simultaneously very close and very far from these fundamental texts of Christianity.”6

What can be done? First, one must be careful not to separate prayer from study. This is, by the way, a typically Jewish attitude. One must allow oneself to experience other forms of worship. Let the Christian discover the historical background to his own liturgy, as is developed by the work of Carmine di Sante: “The prayer of Israel at the source of Christian liturgy.”7 The readers of Shabbat Shalom are already accustomed to unearthing the Jewish roots of Christian rituals such as baptism, communion, etc. There is yet another reuniting tentative: the constitution of a Hebrew songbook for Christians that respects the fundamental structure of Jewish prayer, from which the Church inherited the diversity of her liturgies.8 This truly ecumenical proposition, by reintroducing the first forms of Christian prayer still attached to their Jewish source, shows us not the rupture but the continuity between the two traditions. The Christian contribution is not in the words but in the “way that Christ bound them to his life and to our faith in him.” For more than ten years, the author of this ritual, centered on praise, has helped Christians familiar with Hebrew find spiritual nourishment “anchored in tradition.” To serve God with such renunciation is, consequently, to serve people, as it emphasizes the universal dimension of the biblical message, serving well the Judeo-Christian effort of dialogue.

A Service to Humanity

The Jacob’s ladder that prayer embodies is perceived, in a liberating dream, as our most uplifting aspirations. Jacob is himself reminded of the promise made to Abraham: “All the families of the earth shall be blessed because of you and your descendants” (Gen. 28:14). The universalism of the Covenant is still implied in the more specific alliance with Israel. In memory of this, Jacob sets up a stone that “shall be God’s house” (Gen. 28:22).

Humanity is concerned by the Hitlerian madness when it attacks man, when it attacks the Jew, who embodies the human and the spiritual in his relation with the Creator of the universe.

If the use of the word “service” in prayer becomes unexpected, it is certainly in the context of Yad Vashem–a moving ceremony that I was allowed to experience on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1990. After a silent march from Ein Karem, Jews and Christians of diverse confessions together rekindled the flame of the wounded memory in an outcry of the past to the present!

It is evident that the prayers experienced around the time of Yom Kippur and the feasts thereafter in Jerusalem are privileged moments in the Judeo-Christian dialogue. Yet much still remains to be done. One must, however, recognize the numerous colloquiums, committees, and prayers geared toward a more genuine encounter. A large web of dialogue has been woven on personal and official levels. But beyond all this, there continues to be a silent dialogue, an invisible dialogue, as pointed out by Mr. Lovsky in a conference at Toulouse.9 And in the same line of thought, permit me to mention the “silent places of prayer” of the monasteries, where the awareness of the mystery of Israel is the most acute, such as the abbey of Bec-Hellouin where the first Judeo-Christian encounter took place.

But praying must not exclude reflecting on prayer. If I may again quote Mr. Lovsky: “In Elie Wiesel’s fourth novel, p. 56 of The City of Chance, the young Michael hears a stranger reciting in the anteroom of the synagogue an unknown prayer that moves him. He speaks of it to his Hassidic master, who answers him. Each man has a prayer that belongs to him only. As much as it is hard for a man to find his soul, it is also hard for him to find his prayer. Most people live with souls and say prayers that are not theirs. Today, Michael, you have encountered your prayer.” Mr. Lovsky then comments: “In these first attempts at dialogue, we, the people of Israel and the believers of the Church, have not encountered the prayer we are to pray for one another. The failure to achieve authentic communication may be due to the prayer. Or that we recite prayers that are not ours. We have not had, as Christians, a truly evangelical prayer for the Jews, nor have the Jews for us. We must admit it: The prayers we have spring up more from our triumphs or sufferings than from our vocations. I do not imply that the true Christian prayer and the true Jewish prayer should be the same. But, as different as they may seem, they are related. These prayers that we are to receive are the soul of our dialogue, and even for those that do not pray, the soul is linked to this prayer.”10

It is for us to consider if prayer has any relation to service. Through prayer, however, whether it be liturgical or personal, we are surely led to the true prayer, which purifies and recreates.

  1. Alexandre Abraham Winogradsky, Le sacrifice de louange, fruits des lèvres qui célèbrent Dieu,Éditions Peeters, Louvain-Paris, 1989, pp. 6, 7.
  2. Grand Rabbin Bernard M. Casper, Causeries sur la prière juive, OSM, Département de l’Éducation et de la Culture, Jérusalem, 1974.
  3. Shalom Ben Chorim, Mon frère Jésus, Éditions Le Seuil, Paris 1983, p. 12.
  4. Ali Mérad, Armand Abecassis, D. Pezeril, N’avons-nous pas le même Père, Le Chalet, 1972.
  5. Colette Kessler, Vice President of l’Amitié judéo-chrétienne.
  6. Foi et Vie, no. I-2 de janvier 1985, p. 76.
  7. Carmine di Sante, La prière d’Israël, Desclée Bellarmin, 1986.
  8. Références données au cours de l’article à Foi et Vie, Cahiers d’Études juives, Paris, janvier 1985, et Sens, “L’actualité du dialogue,” Paris, 1989, nos. 6, 7.
  9. Cf. “L’actualité du dialogue,” Sens, nos. 6, 7 1989, p. 206.
  10. Ibid.
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