Rational Hope and Kavvanah[1] 

by Alan Mittleman Copyright 2016

Several years ago, the rabbi of my synagogue put out an urgent email asking for volunteers to recite a set of five Psalms daily for an indefinite period of time. The reason for the appeal was that a member of our congregation was just discovered to have stage-four lung cancer with metastasis to the brain. She had gone to her ophthalmologist for an eye exam and upon looking into her eyes the doctor discovered evidence of cancer. This came as a complete, devastating surprise. The woman and her husband are pillars of the community.  They are among its most Orthodox, pious, and active members. One can only imagine the theodicy-oriented questions that must have been swirling through their (and others’) minds. But those are not my concern here. I want to focus, rather, on the hope that the congregation and the rabbi invested in her recovery and on one of the expressions of that hope, the practice of “davenning tehillim,” reciting psalms daily.

When I received the email, I immediately wrote back to the rabbi and offered to participate. I didn’t know the woman or her family well, but I always respected them for their sincerity and dedication. I wanted to do the right thing. I was sure that robust participation from the community would buoy her spirits. But I did not think, to be honest, that on the level where it most mattered, the remission of her cancer, it would matter much. (Let me add, from the vantage point of several years afterwards, that the woman experienced a complete remission. My early, pessimistic conclusion about the course her illness would take was, thankfully, completely wrong.)

I received my assignment quickly: Psalms 141-145. I tried to daven them every day. The idea was that the entire Psalter would be read daily by the congregation. The hope, I imagined, was that God would take note of our collective devotion and bring about the healing that the family, and the rest of us, desired. I doubt that many in the shul would have articulated this as a crude quid pro quo, a case of do ut des: I give so that you will give, an old if not very elevated conception of divine-human exchange. I trust that we are not that simpleminded. Most would have a more subtle concept of how a merciful God responds to sincerely given prayer and praise. But, beyond the painful immediacy of that moment, how should one think about this matter? How much hope should one invest in both the desired outcome and in the chosen means? What is the relation among hope for healing, rational belief in the probability of healing, faith in the power of prayer, and, correlatively, doubt about the power of prayer? To put it personally, I tried to recite the Psalms every day. I hoped for a complete remission. But it seemed unlikely to me that it would happen and even less likely that my recitation of Psalms would have any influence one way or the other. I didn’t think that I was alone in either my hopes or my intellectual hesitations. Was I being inconsistent, irrational, impious, or all of the above?

Kant asked, in the first Critique, “Was darf ich hoffen?” What may I hope for? (A806; B834)[2] His concern was to render hope accountable to theoretically and practically rational criteria, to separate hope from wishful or, as we would say today, magical thinking. Kant saw the question about hope as mixing theoretical and practical concerns. His first and second questions—’what can I know?’ and ‘what ought I to do?’—exemplify the theoretical and the practical respectively. But hope entails both. In Kant’s formulation, all hope is ultimately about happiness and happiness is possible for us only if we are worthy of it. So we have to hope to be worthy of happiness; that is, we have to hope that we can live in conformity with the Moral Law. Hope plays a moral-psychological role in strengthening our resolve to live according to the Moral Law. Furthermore, we ought to believe that nature is so arranged that the Moral Law can be fulfilled by rational beings, if not in this finite existence then in a possible future. Hope thus sponsors a theoretical conception of nature as a sphere in which causality and freedom, necessity and desert can cohere. Hope is focused on the achievement of moral worth in a world so conceived that it could ultimately reward our striving with the summum bonum of happiness. This Kantian faith knits together, in the second Critique, a story about nature, with a story about God and the immortal soul, thus indulging some of the yearnings of traditional speculative metaphysics, which Kant would otherwise disallow, for practical reasons.

Kant’s distinction between (and reintegration of) the role of hope in theoretical reason and its employment in practical reason endures in the literature. Contemporary philosophers writing on hope see it as both in need of justification by epistemic norms in one context and relatively free of them in another. Hope considered in the context of theoretical reason—for example, the hope that it will not rain tomorrow—needs to take account of empirical, evidentiary constraints. But when considered in a practical context, hope is evaluated by the work that it does rather than by the success of its descriptive fit with world. That is, insofar as hope has a valid role to play in sustaining confidence, orienting action, and underwriting agency it can be seen as practically rational despite the fact that, if the probability for the hoped-for outcome is low, it may not be epistemically rational. The epistemic constraint on hope in a practical context is minimal: it should not be formulated in a self-contradictory manner. Hope may fail a test of theoretical rationality yet pass one on practical grounds. One shouldn’t cease to hope, just because, from an epistemically rational point of view, an outcome is unlikely. Significant hope is therefore typically “hope against hope.” Where mere doxastic considerations would discourage hopefulness, moral normativity would fund it and be funded by it. That, in very simplified form, is the consensus view of such analytic philosophers as Luc Bovens, Victoria McGeer, Philip Pettit, and most recently Adrienne Martin.[3]

So, on this contemporary modified Kantian account, I am not being inconsistent or irrational. I can have well founded doubts as to the efficacy of prayer, given the skein of my rational beliefs about nature, causation, and the scope and efficacy of human action. But it can also be practically rational for me to hope just so long as I do not hope for something that is logically self-contradictory and that my hope has benign practical consequences. If hope for remission sustains my, or more importantly our ability to care, comfort, support, and inhabit our own agency in ways that allow us to resist succumbing to despair and resignation, then hope is justified on the grounds of practical rationality.

This is an appealing view insofar as it facilitates participation in religious practices, which might otherwise be foreclosed by the scruples of a skeptical philosophical conscience. On the other hand, although one might not be irrational or inconsistent one might still be impious. Would such practice amount to anything more than “religious behaviorism,” in Heschel’s disparaging phrase? So let me rephrase the question: granted that hope is a phenomenon of such complexity as to admit of different relations among desire, belief, rationality, and agency, must one nonetheless, in a religious context, faithfully believe that God is always capable of granting one’s hope however long the odds against the hoped-for outcome? In the case of healing, must a Jew believe that the blessing, “Heal us Lord, then we will be healed. Save us, then we will be saved, for you are our praise. Bring complete recovery for all our ailments, for you are our God, King, the faithful and compassionate healer. Blessed are you, Lord, who heals the sick of the people Israel” states a truth? If one were to say “amen” to the blessing, must one actually believe it in a way that escapes death by a thousand qualifications? Should our principle be “no bakkashah without emunah?”  That is, no Pascalian wagers; either one is all in, in good faith, or out of the game?

One way to approach these questions is through interrogating the meaning of kavvanah, the mental attitude of attention that, on most accounts, prayer requires.[4] Maimonides is categorical: kol tefillah she’eynah b’khavvanah, eynah tefillah, any prayer that does not have kavvanah is not (a valid) prayer (H. Tefillah 4:15).[5] But what is kavvanah? The term is introduced in the Mishnah at Berakhot 2:1 and 5:1 to indicate different types of intention.[6] The case at 2:1 concerns the recitation of the Shema (k’ri’at Shema). If one was reciting from the Torah and the time came for k’ri’at Shema and one just happened to be reciting the section that constitutes the Shema (Deut. 6:4), one could fulfill one’s obligation of k’ri’at Shema by the reading one was already immersed in if one intended one’s reading to be for the sake of the commandment. Anscombe might have analyzed this in terms of act descriptions. Under one description, a person is reading from the Torah. Under another description, one is fulfilling the mitzvah of k’ri’at Shema—and one gets to decide which description is controlling. So the first dimension of kavvanah is an intention to fix or describe an action as a mitzvah, to discriminate and attend to its standing and significance. This requires an individuation of the action, an awareness of the array of possible act-descriptions available, and an intention to give primacy to one description. In Anscombe’s terms, if one were asked “Why did you read Deut. 6:4?” the proper answer would have to be: because I was at that moment fulfilling a commandment.

The mishnah in Berakhot 5:1 works in a somewhat different direction. There the case has to do with focusing one’s attention on prayer such that one’s mind is free of distractions; a serious, solemn disposition (koved rosh) is required. One has fully to attend to what is being said. The mishnah tells us that the early pietists would wait an hour to prepare themselves for prayer so that they could direct their hearts (yekhavvenu libbam) to their Father in Heaven. This instance seems less cognitive and more psychological, in the sense that one has to settle one’s mind, bracket out distractions, achieve a serious mood, and then direct one’s words to God.  Kavvanah in this case means managing one’s consciousness. It implies attending to a single, crucial mental activity, giving it the full measure of one’s devotion against both internal and external competition. It is less a matter of defining the act than inhabiting it. The Tosefta, Yerushalmi, and Bavli explore types of distraction and the responsibility to ignore or mitigate them.

On both of these construals of kavvanah, belief, in the sense of affirmation or denial of the propositional content of prayer, does not figure at all.  To direct one’s heart to God in the intentional performance of a mitzvah does not involve making a truth claim; one’s responsibility for the act and the conditions which facilitate it do not extend to an obligation to settle the truth or falsity of the statements that are partially constitutive of the act. So it would seem that, on these construals of kavvanah, I could pray the tefillah, including the prayer for healing, with full attention and intent, and yet entertain doubts as to whether God would heal in this case. More radically, I could continue to have doubts as to whether God was the omnipotent, effective healer that the prayer proclaims Him to be. If that is the case, then the latitude afforded by the broadly Kantian view of hope that emerges in contemporary philosophy carries through into Jewish thought. One can pray for healing, as one can hope for healing, appreciating the significance and benefit of hope and prayer without, however, believing in a robust way that one’s hope will be fulfilled or one’s prayer answered. This would not, of course, be an ideal outcome from a religious point of view, but it might be a permissible one.

There is a complicating factor, however. The Shulkhan Arukh rules (H. Tefillah, para 124:6) that one who says “amen” to a blessing must actually believe it. To say “amen” with kavvanah means “that he intends in his heart that the blessing that the prayer leader recited is the truth (emet hi) and that I believe it (va’ani ma’amin bah). On this view, we are obligated to affirm the truth of the propositional contents of our prayers and to confirm our first-person assent to that truth. The Mishnah B’rurah glosses this to mean that we must believe that God does the things our prayers ascribe to him and that our prayer is said with the intention to motivate God to do them in this particular instance (v’gam ani mitpallel she-yehi ratzon she-yekuyyam davar zeh). This ruling greatly raises the epistemic bar. It is insufficient merely to believe that prayer has positive psychological or communal consequences; that the praxis per se has value. The ruling forces us to home in on the propositional content of our prayers and affirm it; we must believe what we say. It would seem then that to pray with intent, as well as with integrity, one must make both theoretical and practical commitments.

This view aligns with David Novak’s view of prayer. Writing of our “covenantal right” to cry out to God, we must believe “that God will listen to our cry, even though we do not have the right to determine what God will actually do to us or for us in response.”[7] Novak emphasizes the doxastic dimension. We are allowed neither the certitude that God will answer our prayers nor a denial of God’s responsiveness. Certitude would lead to magical thinking; denial of divine responsiveness would equate to fatalism. Novak would have us believe that God, our covenantal partner, is open and responsive toward “legitimate human claims,” although He might not, for his own reasons, respond to our particular claim. This doxastic commitment underwrites a practical one: “we are required to hope.”[8] Novak contrasts Elihu’s call to Job to hope in God (Job 35:13-14) with Eli’s resigned acceptance of his fate (I Samuel 3:18). Believing that God will respond to legitimate human claims and hoping that He will do so, are fundamental to faith on Novak’s account.

Is there room for someone who does not share these sanguine beliefs? What space is there for a philosophical piety that accepts a naturalistic understanding of causality but also accepts the perspective of contemplative religiosity? I suggest that Psalm 147:1-5 provides an opening:

Hallelujah! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant, and praise is seemly.

The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers together the outcasts of Israel.

He heals the broken hearted, and binds up their wounds.

He counts the number of the stars; he calls them by their names.

Great is our Lord, and of great power; his understanding is infinite.

In this psalm, God is a healer of broken hearts (shevurei lev). But the healing seems to come not from direct interventions into the natural order of causation but through a contemplative perspective. Viewing the world sub specie aeternitatis, with a view to the named and numbered stars, we find our broken hearts healed and our wounds bound. Contemplating God’s power and infinity strengthens us and gives us hope. We find a place in God’s cosmos where we are fully and completely at home, but not, as it were, where all our dreams come true. The world has not changed but we have changed, for we have an inkling into an eternity that subtends every moment. Praise for the inexhaustible wonder of the world of which we are a part is spontaneous. There is no gap between reason and feeling, belief and practice. In this psalm, gratitude for our sheer being knits judgment and affect together in song.

I am gesturing here toward a philosophical mode of piety, a rational mysticism, nourished by an intuition of divine presence and purpose. From the perspective of this intuition, and the conviction of the fundamental goodness of Being which it supports, hearts may be healed. Nonetheless, one holds back from the most overt and assertive forms of belief about divine activity. Whether this goes to the depth of faith or merely signals its evasion is not for me to say. Until it was time to stop, I continued to daven tehillim. I continue to pray for healing and hope for a world redeemed by the goodness of God in the fullness of time.


alan-mittlemanAlan Mittleman is Aaron Rabinowitz and Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Jewish Philosophy at The Jewish Theological Seminary. His teaching focuses on the intersection between Jewish thought and Western philosophy in the fields of ethics, political theory, and metaphysics. His many articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in such journals as Harvard Theological ReviewModern JudaismPolitical TheologyJewish Political Studies ReviewJournal of Religion, and First Things. A fellow of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, he served on the advisory boards of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the John Templeton Foundation and currently serves on the academic board of the Ethikon Foundation. An active participant in interfaith dialogue throughout his career, Dr. Mittleman was part of a leadership delegation that met with Pope John Paul II, and he has lectured at the Gregorian University in Rome.

[1] Adapted from a lecture delivered at the annual Judaism, Science and Medicine Group conference in October 2014, at Arizona State University.

[2] For Kant’s treatments of hope, see Sidney Axinn, The Logic of Hope: Extensions of Kant’s View of Religion (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994), Alan Mittleman, Hope in a Democratic Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 167-181 and Andrew Chignell, “Rational Hope, Moral Order, and the Revolution of the Will,” in Eric Watkins (ed.), Divine Order, Human Order, and The Order of Nature, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[3] Luc Bovens, “The Value of Hope,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 59, No. 3 (September 1999) pp. 667-681; Philip Pettit, “Hope and its Place in Mind,” Annals, AAPSS, 592 (March 2004), pp. 152-165; Victoria McGeer, “The Art of Good Hope,” Annals, AAPSS, 592 (March 2004), pp. 100-127; Adrienne Martin, “Gratitude, Disappointment, and Normative Hope,” accessed at: http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~adrm/Site/Research_files/GDH-PI.pdf. For Martin’s full-length treatment, see Adrienne M. Martin, How We Hope: A Moral Psychology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014). For a review of Martin’s book, see Alan Mittleman in SOCIETY (October 2014).

[4] Authorities differ as to how much of the Shema, for example, requires kavvanah and as to whether actions that couldn’t be mistaken for something else, for example, putting on phylacteries require kavvanah. A comprehensive halakhic treatment can be found under kavvanah (Heb.) in J.D. Eisenstein, Otzar Dinim U’Minhagim (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1938), p. 178.

[5] To be clear, “prayer” in these discussions means the Shemoneh Esreh or Amidah; the fixed statutory prayer of the Jewish liturgy. It does not mean personal prayer.

[6] A useful analysis of the meanings of kavvanah in early rabbinic literature may be found in Tzvee Zahavi, “Kavvanah (Concentration) for Prayer in the Mishnah and Talmud,” accessed at: http://www.tzvee.com/Home/kavvanah#N_9_.

[7] David Novak, Covenantal Rights: A Study in Jewish Political Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 58

[8] Ibid.