Prayer After the Death of God

A Phenomenological Study of Hebrew Literature

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Avi Sagi
Emunot: Jewish Philosophy and Kabbalah
  • Brighton, MA: 
    Academic Studies Press
    , June
     300 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Literature on the death of God, as concept, trope, and experience, has, for over a century, concentrated on issues of ontology, moral knowledge, disputed truth claims, and competing models of human integrity and freedom. Typically, everything entailed within the motif of the death of God has pointed to the loss of coherence in traditional worldviews and the marginalization of religion in modern society—a crisis of belief and an erosion of sensibility leading to, among other things, the collapse of prayer as a universal and intelligible human behavior. This slim volume challenges that conventional assessment. For Avi Sagi, professor of philosophy at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, the death of God is far more complex than has been previously imagined, especially when viewed in light of the tenacity of prayer in human existence.

Driving this provocative study is the claim that humans are “praying beings” (ix). Prayer, the author maintains, is a “primary phenomenon” (67). It precedes theological and metaphysical acts in all their variety and persists after the impact of the set of experiences called the death of God. To support his argument Sagi does not draw evidence from the natural or social sciences. Rather, taking the “existentialist view of literature as conveying a life experience” (8), he discovers in the literary record—especially twentieth- and twenty-first-century Hebrew literature—testimony to the primal nature of prayer and its possibility as an idiom of human expression and aspiration while other recognizable markers of religious identity have been fundamentally negated or abandoned. Works from a broad range of Hebrew language poets and writers, some previously translated, others appearing in English for the first time, provide multiple examples of the curious resilience of prayer post mortem dei. From Sagi’s perspective, Yehuda Amichai’s “Gods Change, Prayers Are Here to Stay,” Hayyim Nahman Bialik’s “Alone,” Abraham Halfi’s “An Apostate’s Prayer,” Liova Ilmi’s “From the Night Prayers,” and over a dozen other works of poetry and fiction bear arresting and sometimes anguished witness to the surprising place of prayer in contemporary secular Jewish experience.

Sagi places his literary analysis in the context of a sweeping reevaluation of the history of secularization and unbelief, distinguishing Jewish approaches to the death of God from the dominant Protestant narratives shaped by Georg Hegel, Ludwig Feuerbach, Friedrich Nietzsche, and their disciples. The “searing lava of Jewish existence” (53), Sagi suggests, grants the death of God—arguably constitutive for the full experience of modernity—unique potential in Jewish life and thought, especially for persons “wounded by prayer,” who for one reason or another continue to “bear its pain” (59). The heart of the book, however, is its exploration and affirmation of prayer without divine matrix, object, or addressee. Sagi is most original as he contends with more traditional explanations of the source and meaning of prayer offered by Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Joseph B. Soloveitchik. His entire study is informed by a rare and promising dialogue between continental philosophy and critical appreciation for the relevance of Talmudic wisdom.

Originally published in Hebrew, Sagi’s study represents a unique contribution to the historiography of the death of God and a welcome alternative to the all-too-predictable literature on prayer. Readers unfamiliar with modern and contemporary Hebrew literature will profit greatly from this window into that world of imagination but will likely be frustrated by the lack of biographical information on the writers examined. Critics will question Sagi’s assertion that his work avoids “essentialist claims about human nature” (148). The larger question will haunt future discussion of this topic: is prayer without God the continuation of meaningful human action or the spiritual equivalent of muscle spasms after death?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter A. Huff is director of the John Paul II Center and professor of theology at the University of Mary in North Dakota.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Avi Sagi is Professor of Philosophy and founder of the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Hermeneutics and Cultural Studies at Bar-Ilan University as well as a faculty member at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He has written and edited many books and articles in philosophy and Jewish thought, among them Albert Camus and the Philosophy of the Absurd, Jewish Religion after Theology, and Tradition vs. Traditionalism.



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