Rav Kook described prayer as a means to “deepen our feelings of holiness and our sense of closeness to God.” It will be so intense that the “immediacy can be felt by others due to the “exalted sense of Divine immediacy.” And from the midst of all its influence upon the world in the past, present and future.”Rav Kook assures us that “When that prayer of the people of Israel comes, the entire world will be astonished at its glory and splendor, its strength and grace. It will come from the midst of that perfect will that makes the entire world one bloc of holiness, that turns all of life into one chapter of supernal song, a new song, a song of Hashem upon the land of Israel, a song of Zion redeemed and filled with eternal redemption.” (Orot Hakodesh III, p. 227)
However, what happens when your prayer life and the prayer life of your friends and seemingly your entire generation no longer senses the promise described by Rav Kook? What does one do if the hope of a transformed reality through prayer has vanished? What if prayer does not seem to offer benefits and all one has is silence from the act of prayer leaving one without any hope?
To answer this problem, Rav Shagar turns to the thought of Jacques Derrida, the Algerian -born French Sephardi thinker, via a Hebrew secondary source, to respond to the current impasse of prayer without hope. (For links to our more than 17 prior posts on Rav Shagar, see here, here. here, here, and here. We have once again to thank Levi Morrow for his first draft of a translation. Please let me know of any errors.
Rav Shagar acknowledges that for many their prayers are without benefit or hope. To offer a path of continuing to pray despite this lack of hope, he finds a parallel to Derrida’s prayer as without hope in which Derrida nevertheless says despite the despair and lack of hope, there is always a possibility of that one may be answered.
Shagar interprets the traditional Hasidic concepts of offering as prayer without hope. Shagar equates Derrida’s prayer without hope to Rebbe Nachman’s Void, the Halal Ha-Panui, which is seemingly empty without hope. However, according to Shagar, prayer has the possibility to cut through the void. In addition, God must be in His seeming absence. Not because of a holism in which everything is God, rather because there is always the possibility of breaking though the void. In the meantime, prayer is an imposibilty, yet we still pray.
Shagar compares the negative theology of Derrida to the negative theology of Maimonides and kabbalah. Yet, Derrida himself said negative theology was precursor to his concept of différance but clearly differentiated his thought from medieval thought in that medieval negative theology was still tied to a higher reality. Derrida was especially adamant that différance was not God.
In contrast, to the actual thought of Derrida, or his major interpreters, Shagar make Derrida into a mystic and treats deconstructionism as similar to the kabbalah. He also thought Derrida’s différance is God as a higher reality and it is our higher self in the transcendental and existential senses sthat Derrida rejected. In this, Shagar was probably just following the Israeli presentation by Michael Govrin, who combined her own kabbalistic views with those of Derrida in the same volume. Shagar’s usage of Derrida is basically a few unexplained quotes that are contextualized in his own Hasidic thought.
Shifting back to Rebbe Nachman, Shagar considers all prayer as a grace of God and all the words are a grace in that they are not guaranteed in a natural way. Here Shagar shifts Rebbe Nachman’s ideas of divine gift and divine miracle into the ideas of possibility, or even without hope. There is no transcendence, we do not experience the promise of the Kabbalah or Rav Kook, only the possibility.
The essay ends on a more radical note claiming that God lacks independent meaning of our prayer or any transcendence. God is not outside standing above, rather God is our deep self or in the language of Hasidut, it is the root of our souls. This harkening back to the end of the introduction to his work Kelim Shevurim (2002) where he reads Rav Zadok HaKohen in this manner. He concludes by identifying God with the Lacanian Real, thereby collapsing self, God and divine immanence. (see his Hanukhah homily for more on this.) Shagari s using Lacan’s idea that at one stage of development the “I” is an empty signifier within the field of language and one enters via language into the symbolic order. In order essays Shagar identifies Torah with this self-creating symbolic order.
In the 1980’s Shagar used modernist existential themes to interpret the alienation from prayer. For example his student, Rabbi Dov Zinger, head of the yeshiva high school, Mekor Chaim has the students do Buber I-Thou dialogue with their classmates and then has them turn to God with the same I-Thou intimacy. Another student, Rabbi Benny Kalmanson of Yeshivat Otniel, reflects a more frustrated Existential moment by speaking of Elie Wiesel’s concept of the need to argue with God even if one does not belief or expect an effect. Prayer is like story telling it is a form of witness and memory. In this essay, we see Rav Shagar use of postmodern language from the last decade of his life.
It is worth noting that in all of his work Rav Shagar identifies with the breakdown not the solution. When Buber, Heschel, and Soloveitchik use Existentialism, they all see prayer and faith as an answer to the absurdity, meaningless, and futility of life. In contrast, Shagar accepts that our thrown situation is absurd, meaningless, and in this case hopeless. His goal is to explain this hopelessness and absurdity as our religious life, then to channel it back to a religious perspective.
To conclude as we started by returning to Rav Kook, one can still use the words of Rav Kook but now we can relate to them in a new Rav Shagar post-Derrida understanding. “When we pray to find our purpose in life and our path to serve God, such a prayer is an authentic reflection of the soul’s inner desires… prayers express our true inner will.” (Olat Re’iyah vol. I) Prayer, in this new reading, becomes the Lacanian Real and the inner self of Hasidut, both of them only a possibility.
Interlude on Prayers of Derrida as needed for this essay.
For those not familiar with Derrida, here are his ideas of prayer and atheism that will add to understanding this essay of Rav Shagar. If you wish, you can skip this interlude and go directly to Rav Shagar’s essay below.
Derrida, the “father” of deconstruction, was nothing like the stereotypical caricatures. The philosopher/theologian John Caputo in his many works especially for this essay The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida (1997) presents a religious use of Derrida and in Caputo’s recent works (2011-2017) of the last few years, brings us a position that is similar to what Shagar is struggling to articulate this essay.
Caputo writes on Derrida’s prayer:
The religion of Derrida, is quite paradoxical. He considered himself an atheist, but yet he would pray at least nightly, sometime to the point of tears. What is so interesting to me is not so much the atheism, nor the fine intricacies that Derrida went about to define his religion as a “Religion without religion” and who prayed to a “God without God.”But rather what has been so moving to me is the sincere humility Derrida went about his religion and prayers…
In short, Derrida realizes first and foremost, that he is human. and thus he is fallen and fallible. And the human tendency is to think that our world revolves around each one of ourselves. But yet, we know the world doesn’t revolve around us, and we are not the center of the universe. Thus prayer in a way, is a way Derrida seeks to rid himself of self. He wants to love people, and thus in prayer he attempts to repent of himself so that he won’t get in the way of love.
Thus, for Derrida, prayer is not just a lifting up of God, but it is also just as much a repositioning of one’s self in relation to God as to not distort our view of God.
“My prayers have more than one age, one layer, in the same instant. There is something very childish, in the imagery, iconography of God as a stern grandfather and at the same time as a mother who thinks I am innocent, who is ready to forgive me. God is just and forgiving at same time. This is the childish layer of my prayers.
“On top of this layer there is another layer: my culture, a very critical, experience of religion, referencing the philosophers and scholars I have studied… In this layer of sophistication, I ask who is praying and who is receiving the prayer.
Thinking about the unnameable, etc.: it is a very skeptical prayer. Skepticism is part of the prayer. The suspension of certainty is part of the prayer.”
My assumption is I must give up any expectations regarding The One or the more than One to whom I address this prayer if this is still a prayer.”
There is at the same time some suspension of any calculation. I’m not hoping. It’s a ‘hopeless’ prayer. Hopelessness is part of what a prayer should be.There’s hope, calculation, economy.
Caputo on theism/atheism
Derrida has continually drawn attention to the “porous boundaries” between atheism and theism. He speaks of a certain type of “theism” that “at times so resembles a profession of atheism as to be mistaken for it,” as well as a certain form of “atheism” that has “always testified to the most intense desire for God.”
Derrida is drawing attention to the “structure of belief/unbelief” itself, as that which always underlies any particular claim, including atheistic and theistic claims. In this way, Derrida was avoiding and critiquing the “dogmatism” that applies equally to any “strong atheistic” or “strong theistic” claim that fails to honor the fact that whatever one believes, belief and unbelief are always inextricably linked.
Prayer and faith are based on “trust,” in God and trust always demands a certain level of “risk.” In this sense that a confessing believer can admit that at times she “quite rightly pass[es] for an atheist.” (For more on this topic, see this NYT interview
Praying without Hoping
Translation by Levi Morrow & Alan Brill Here is a downloadable version of Praying Without Hoping in Word to create handouts for synagogue and classroom. At 1500 words it can be covered entirely in a single class. The original Hebrew is here The Redemption of the Postmodern- On the Messiah of the Matrix. This essay on prayer is an appendix at the end of a longer essay on the movie The Matrix. If you have suggested improvements to the translation, then please let me know
Both Rebbe Naḥman of Bratslav and Jacques Derrida taught that prayer, as well as faith, are only possible through absolute renunciation, praying without hope or future.
Rebbe Nachman wrote: “This is when you pray without any intent for personal benefit, without thinking about yourself at all, as if you did not exist. Following the verse, ‘It is for your sake that we are slain all day long’ (Psalms 44:23).” Derrida’s version: “Prayer does not hope for anything, not even from the future.”
Prayer without hope does not demand the typical religious self-sacrifice (mesirut nefesh), in which a person nullifies (mevatel) his self and his needs in favor of God. Rather it embodies self-sacrifice, in that the purest prayer is located in its impossibility, as total self-sacrifice, purposeless suicide.
[According to Derrida,] Prayer turns “to the other without future hope, only towards the past. It returns, without a future. However, despite this, you pray. Is this possible?” If this is so, we might ask: why, indeed, should you pray?
[Derrida answers:] Is it possible to pray without hope, not just without any request, but while renouncing all hope? If we agree that this prayer, pure prayer, cleansed of all hope, is possible, would that not mean that the prayer’s essence is connected to this despair, to this lack of hope? […] I can imagine a response to this terrifying doubt: even then, at the moment when I pray without hope, there is hope within the prayer. I hope, minimally, that someone takes part in my prayer, or that someone hears my prayer, or someone understands my hopelessness and despair. Thus, despite everything, there is still hope and future. But perhaps not. Perhaps not. At least perhaps. This too, in regards to the terrifying nature of prayer.
Prayer is empty mechanical speech, but in some form or another, it cuts through what Rebbe Naḥman called the void [lit. empty space] (haḥalal hapanui) thereby overcomes the gap, even though it remains in the negative space of complete silence:
It requires you to affirm two opposites, Aught (yesh) and Naught (ayin). The empty space comes from the contraction (tsimtsum), as if God had removed himself from that space, as if there was no divinity there, otherwise it would not be empty […]. But in the absolute truth, there must be divinity there despite this […] and therefore it is impossible to understand the idea of the void until the future yet to come.
Even though both of them recognize the impossibility of prayer, Rebbe Naḥman and Derrida do the opposite – they pray. Paraphrasing Maimonides’ statement that God “exists, but is not in existence,” Derrida and Rebbe Naḥman ask if the Naught cannot also be Aught? Is it possible to pray without hoping? Is it possible to despair of hope and thereby to receive it, as a despairing hope? Then there is a hope and a future, and someone hears my voice. The connection to Maimonides is not incidental. Derrida saw the idea of negative attributes, Maimonides’ negative theology, as the basis for deconstruction, and thus also for prayer.  Similarly for Rebbe Naḥman: “this is prayer, for when we call to God with the attributes of flesh and blood, and it is improper to describe and call to God with attributes and praises and words and letters.”
Some found Derrida’s statements about prayer incredibly shocking for “the philosopher who for years was considered the standard-bearer of anti-metaphysical radicalism, the guru of believers in materialism lacking any ‘beyond.’” Indeed, Derrida was forced to defend himself from criticism by thinkers including Jurgen Habermas, according to whom he was nothing less than a Jewish mystic.
Is this claim not correct? Derrida’s worldview is far from rationalist or anchored in philology. His deconstructive games sometimes seem, not coincidentally, like Kabbalistic-Hasidic homilies. He defended himself, claiming that his project was “a deconstruction of the values underlying mysticism,” and in this, he was correct. However, Habermas’ accusations are not wiped away or confronted by Derrida’s claim since the passage from deconstruction to mysticism is not just possible, but is, perhaps, obvious. Derrida’s project denied all positivity, but this goal clears the way for the mystical leap, for the hope “that someone takes part in my prayer […] At least perhaps.”
The difference between Derrida and the mystic is a matter of pathos. Someone once said that the mystic and atheist say the same thing, “nothing.” The difference is that the mystic says it with a capital “N,” with a feeling of tremendous freedom that breaks him loose from the constraints of reality. Meanwhile the atheist says it as a depressed and “terrifying possibility.”
Rebbe Naḥman and Derrida perhaps expressed better than others did the gap, the différance between the word and what we expect to accomplish. The void is the source of the structural contradictions of reality itself, what Rebbe Naḥman called “the questions without answers.” 
And yet they prayed?! This miracle happens in present tense. This moment has no external justification nor is it a result, rather an event. This is grace that is a possibility; a possibility for prayer without promise. “Prayer is when we call to God using flesh and blood qualities. He is then present for us in our calling to him. This is the grace of God. Without the grace of God, it would be improper to describe and call to God with attributes and praises and words and letters.”
The question becomes one of grace, and paradoxically this grace is dependent on the human renunciation of the will to transcend. Self-acceptance, giving up on transcendence, “is not true or false. It is, word for word, prayer.”
Self-sacrifice, suicide, is a condition for prayer because it liberates a person not just from the language, but from its logic as well. Prayer is therefore divine grace because it is impossible and yet occurs, or at least, perhaps occurs. This “perhaps” is important, because the “perhaps” elevates it to the realm of worldly possibilities; it therefore exists, if only as a possibility.
Perhaps someone hears and takes part with me in the prayer? Is this enough to create hope? I pray, but am I certain that I will be answered? No, I am not certain. I am also not certain that I will not, but the prayer does something. Someone hears. Who is this someone? We say “God,” but this word lacks any independent meaning. It is enough for me that “I” hear, but who is the “I” that hears? I believe in the deep “I”, an “I” with a transcendental horizon. This is what the Hasidim called the root of the soul. Where there is an “I” like this, there is God.
The problem of attributes that Rebbe Naḥman pointed to is the impossibility of language actually doing what it claims to do, actually making contact with the real/Real. If I understand God as something that exists outside of me, I have strayed from the Real. Yet, in truth, [Lacanian] psychological reduction of faith is possible when raised to the Lacanian Real.
Reaching the Real requires the human renunciation of the will to transcend itself, and only after this, it is correct to say that this “someone” is the “I”.
 Rebbe Naḥman of Bratslav, Lekutei Moharan, I 15:5.
 Jacques Derrida, Guf Tefillah tr. Michal Govrin (Tel Aviv: Mekhon Mofet Vekav Adom Keheh/Hakibuts Hame’uḥad, 2013), 87.
 Naḥman of Breslov, Lekutei Moharan, I 64:1.
 Rabbi Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, I:57, Unlike Maimonides, Derrida rejects the second part of Maimonides’ teachings, which believes in the knowledge of God, in the unity of the knower, the knowing, and the known, in the possibility of “if I knew him, I would be him,” which according to Derrida is simply death.
 Derrida was not familiar with the theory of attribution from Maimonides himself. See Gidon Efrat, Derrida Hayehudi: Al Yahadut Kepetsa Ve’al Haguto Shel Jacque Derrida (Jerusalem: Ha’akademiah, 1998), 68.
 Naḥman of Breslov, Lekutei Moharan, I 15:5.
 Michal Govrin, “Setirah Petuḥah. Lelo Siyum, O Segirah,” Ha’aretz – Musaf Tarbut Vesifrut, October 22, 2004. The article was written following Derrida’s death.
 Efrat, Derrida Hayehudai, 112.
 Cited in Efrat, Derrida Hayehudi, 111.
 In the language of Rebbe Naḥman: “There needs to be a separation, so to speak, between the filling and the surrounding. If not, then all would be one. However, through the empty space, from where God contracted his divinity, so to speak, and in which God created all of Creation, the void has come to encompass the world, and God surrounds all worlds, surrounding even the void […] and in the middle appears the void from where God withdrew his divinity, so to speak” (Rebbe Naḥman, Lekutei Moharan, I 64:2).
 Rebbe Naḥman, Lekutei Moharan, I 15:5. Based on this paradox of impossible prayer as the only possibility of prayer, the possibility of a miracle, Rebbe Naḥman and Derrida claim that they are the only people who really pray.
 Jacques Derrida, cited in Govrin, Setirah Petuḥah.