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Why Study is More Important than Prayer: A Jewish Perspective

In many religious circles it would seem strange to say that study is more important, or even of equal importance, to prayer. In a tradition whose religious adherents probably pray a good deal more than most Christians, the Jewish gathering place (synagogue) is called a “shul.” This word, as may be guessed, comes from the same root word that “school” comes from, the Greek (and then Latin) word schola. On the other hand, a Jewish meeting place can also be called a “house of prayer.” For Jews, study and prayer are not disconnected. I must admit that my title employs an either/or dichotomy that better expresses Western culture than Judaism, where a more holistic approach to life and worship allows for study and prayer to be intertwined. Thus it could probably be said that on the one hand study is more important than prayer, but on the other hand prayer is more important than study. Judaism allows for much more tension, where questions are often more important than answers, than in Christianity where answers all too often supersede questions. This paradoxical tension is illustrated by the internal dialogue present in Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye, the main character, often says to himself “On the one hand…, but on the other hand…” when trying to make a decision. As humans we share the same questions and could experience greater unity if we made those shared questions the defining mark of our communities. When we try to move from shared questions to shared answers, disagreement flourishes and unity fails.

When we study God speaks to us, and when we pray we speak to God. Notice that it is a “we” and “us,” not an “I.” Judaism views true worship as taking place in community. Yes you can study and pray alone, but true worship happens when people come together. That is why there must be a minimum number of (unfortunately exclusively) male worshipers (ten) in order for a synagogue to exist. While Adventists are one-upping each other in Sabbath School with stories of found keys and their new prophetic interpretations, Jews are having lively discussions, which we might see as arguments, over the text. Among Jews, a high value of learning is instilled in the home from a young age. They do not just entrust the education of their children to “professional” teachers. Instead, they see themselves as the primary educators of their children while the professional teachers are seen as vicarious educators continuing the stimulation of learning already started (and continuing) in the home. Since the Jewish community values learning so highly, more people are able to join into lively discussion where one or two “smart people” might otherwise dominate the conversation.

Having made a distinction between study and prayer up till this point, I will now render my title more inaccurate by saying that in a sense Jews see study as prayer. This is because it is the other side of prayer, the side in which you can “hear” God by seeking guidance from his special and general revelation. In a broad sense study is a contemplative “listening,” a concerted discernment. In Hebrew thought the ability to listen is linked with true wisdom; it was a discerning (or “hearing) heart that Solomon asked for (1 Kings 3:9). It seems we often get frustrated with God because it seems he does not tell us what to do in various situations. However, the Bible and other religious writings are available, as is nature, science and personal experience. From these things a “response” can usually be gleaned through contemplation that uses our God-given sentience. This then is a synergetic cycle because it is from our experience and reflection upon life that prayers arise, necessitating contemplation of the sources and help available. On the one hand we have the Bible which is the primary source of special revelation as well as the writings of others who can help provide analysis, and on the other hand we have nature, the primary source of God’s general revelation, and all the other ruminations and writings humans have produced as a reflective aid upon the physical world and the human experience. Thus if we pray without studying we are mailing out questions but not checking our inbox.

The biggest challenge some people (including myself) often have with prayer is it feels like a one-way conversation. However, life and everything is a communication from God. Yes, it is now a damaged and censored communiqué in which smudges make things hard to read, words and even whole pages are missing, and some of it seems to be written in incomprehensible code. But we have it nonetheless. The difference will be whether or not we treat it like spam to be ignored or like a love-letter to read and re-read continuously. Study of the Bible (special revelation) and of everything else (general revelation) is reading and re-reading a love letter from God. And we keep getting more bits and pieces as time goes on in response to our continued experience. This is called progressive revelation.

A further value of study is that it helps us shape our own words to God. It is as if we were babies just learning to talk. God loves what we have to say, but because we cannot articulate much, we can’t ask for much of true significance. The only way to learn to speak better ourselves is by listening to what God has to say. This is how babies learn to speak, by listening to their parents. Yes, anyone can pray and God loves their prayers just as a parent loves anything their baby has to say. But as time goes on a parent hopes that their child will learn new words and be able to have a developing relationship with them. If a baby learns how to say “momma” and “dada” yet never progresses in their ability to communicate beyond this point, much will be lost in the way of potential relationship. The same is true of study. It is through listening to what God says to us that we will grow in our communication and relationship with him.


A recent theology graduate of Walla Walla University, Landon Schnabel is studying at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

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