Praying without Hoping

Translated by Levi Morrow and Alan Brill, published in the blog

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).”[1]  Derrida’s version: “Prayer does not hope for anything, not even from the future.”[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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,”[5] 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. [6] 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.”[7]

            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.’”[8] 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.[9]

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,”[10] 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.[11] The empty space that is the source of the structural contradictions of reality itself. In Rebbe Naḥman’s language “the questions without answers.”[12] 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.”[13]

            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.”[14]

            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”.



[1] Rebbe Naḥman of Bratslav, Lekutei Moharan, I 15:5.

[2] Jacques Derrida, Guf Tefillah  tr. Michal Govrin (Tel Aviv: Mekhon Mofet Vekav Adom Keheh/Hakibuts Hame’uḥad, 2013), 87.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Naḥman of Breslov, Lekutei Moharan, I 64:1.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] Naḥman of Breslov, Lekutei Moharan, I 15:5.

[8] Michal Govrin, “Setirah Petuḥah. Lelo Siyum, O Segirah,” Ha’aretz – Musaf Tarbut Vesifrut, October 22, 2004. The article was written following Derrida’s death.

[9] Efrat, Derrida Hayehudai, 112.

[10] Cited in Efrat, Derrida Hayehudi, 111.

[11] 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).

[12] Ibid.

[13] 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.

[14] Jacques Derrida, cited in Govrin, Setirah Petuḥah.

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