The (odd) deixis of 'you' in rabbinic prayer
University of Virginia
Anyone who opens a siddur, a
Jewish prayerbook, will quickly notice that many parts of the traditional
liturgy are formulated as an address in the second person, using the word
'you.' If an innocent questioner should happen to ask, "What is the meaning of
these repeated occurrences of 'you'? To whom does the 'you' refer? Who is
being addressed?" a common reply might be, "Obviously, the 'you' refers to God,
to whom the prayers are addressed." While such a response is not necessarily
erroneous, the jump from 'you' to 'God' may be too hasty and potentially
misleading. In this essay, I take a closer look at some of the ways that 'you'
functions in rabbinic prayer. My primary approach will be to analyze the
language of prayer in light of the concept designated in pragmatics
as 'deixis.' This analysis will reveal some unique and unexpected properties
of the 'you' of prayer, especially when contrasted with the typical use of
'you' in other contexts. Throughout, I draw upon examples from the traditional
Jewish liturgy, which I assess and interpret according to the wide-ranging
implications of rabbinic prayer's odd deixis.
Unlike other instances of deixis, the 'you' of prayer
functions in the absence of contextual specification
Deixis can be understood as the way
in which certain utterances 'point' to features of the circumstances in which
they were spoken. While the
meaning of some utterances can be understood without knowledge of their context
of utterance (e.g. "Mount Everest is the tallest mountain in the world"), the
meaning of a deictic utterance is dependent on, and can change with, the
context in which it is uttered. For example, in order to adequately interpret
the statement, "I love you," we would need to know more details about the
circumstances in which it was spoken: who is saying it, and to whom is it
said? The mere words of the utterance are not sufficient; we must also know
the identity of the speaker and the addressee in order to determine whom the
deictic words "I" and "you" point to. In the absence of such knowledge,
communication and understanding will tend to break down. Consider the
following example: "[I]magine that the lights go out as Harry has just begun
saying: 'Listen, I'm not disagreeing with you but with you, and
not about this but about this.'"
If the lights had not gone out, the direction of Harry's glance or his pointing
finger would have enabled us to understand the referents of his two utterances
of the word 'you.' In the dark, without the specifying and contextualizing
visual information, we cannot understand Harry's intended meaning and
reference. Similarly, if I am listening to a tape-recorded conversation of a
group of people, and I hear one voice say, "You should come sit over here," I
won't know who is being addressed. Or, suppose that I am walking down the
street, and I notice a folded-up piece of paper in the gutter. I pick it up,
unfold it, and discover a note written on it, which reads, "You mean everything
to me." However, I have no idea who left the note, and thus both the 'you' and
the 'me' remain unspecified. In each of these cases, a context is lacking, and
the 'you' alone does not enable me to determine the utterance's meaning.
These examples of deixis demonstrate that a
further specification of context is necessary for a hearer to properly
interpret the utterances in question. In those examples, though, the speaker
did not require further informationi.e. since Harry already knew who he was addressing
before the lights went out, he could utter his statement even in the dark.
However, there are cases where a lack of context can prevent a speaker from
speaking. Suppose I dial a phone number, and someone picks up on the other end
and says, "Hello." If I recognize that person's voice, I can comfortably say,
"How are you?" or even "I love you" or "I hate you." Once the person has been
identified, I know who I am speaking to, and I am then able to use the word
'you.' In contrast, suppose I dial a phone number, and someone picks up on the
other end but says nothing. In the absence of further information that would
identify the addressee, it would be strange for me to say, "How are you?" let
alone "I love you" or "I hate you." Thus, the lack of specification prevents
the saying of 'you.'
If such are the typical circumstances of the use
of the word 'you,' we find a very different situation when we turn to rabbinic
prayer. Here, the word 'you' appears to be employed without any of the
empirical elements (e.g. visual, auditory) that are normally required to
specify and identify the referent of 'you.' Thus, although I may directly
observe another person using the word 'you' in prayer, I am put in the
position, as it were, of one who is listening to a tape recording: the only
available specification is 'you.' Furthermore, even the person who speaks the
word 'you' in prayer has no further specification: she too has only 'you.'
At the same time, nothing is lacking
or missing. In most cases, proper interpretation depends on additional
specification; without this, the meaning of utterances involving 'you' remains
ambiguous and indeterminate. As indicated by the examples above, a person
placed in such a situation will feel the lack: in the case where the
lights went out as Harry began to speak, someone might respond, "I couldn't
tell who you were talking about!" Likewise, if the person on the other end of
the telephone doesn't identify herself, I might ask, "Who's there?" before
addressing her with 'you.' In contrast, no additional specification
accompanies the use of 'you' in prayer, and yet people do not demand such
specification, as they would in other circumstances.
One way of accounting for the odd use
of 'you' in prayer is to say that prayer constitutes a unique use of the word
'you' in which no further contextual specification is necessary.
Whereas additional specification normally serves to overcome the ambiguity of
the deictic 'you' and thereby uniquely identify the object of the address, the
'you' who is addressed in prayer is uniquely identified simply by the word
'you.' That is to say, in prayer, 'you' is sufficient in itself. As such,
this mode of speech could also be described as one of sheer address. Put
differently, we might say that the very absence of specification is itself a
form of specification: there is only one who can be addressed by 'you' alone;
all other addressees require further contextual details.
Once we observe that specification is
not necessary for the use of 'you' in prayer, we are led to the recognition
that such specification is also not possible or appropriate. One would not
say, "Yes, in this instance of prayer, there happens to be no additional
specification in connection with 'you,' but perhaps in another instance there
might be additional specification." Rather, prayer is characterized by
the complete absence of such specification. One need not, but also can not,
specify furtherif empirical specifying features were part of a supposed case
of prayer, it might well be labeled as idolatry. At the same time, this
restriction also serves as a form of unique identification: the 'you' of prayer
is specified, oddly, by the impossibility of further specification. That is,
the 'you' addressed in prayer is precisely identified as the 'you' who cannot
be further specified, the 'you' for whom no finite specification is
Now, someone might agree with my
observation that the use of 'you' in prayer occurs in the absence of outward
specification but then argue that there is specification of an 'inward'
variety. "Yes, it is intriguing that prayer does not involve or require visual
or auditory contextualization; however, the 'you' is not complete in itselfit
requires that the praying individual be thinking of God, and not another
person or deity." However, according to my model, the lack of outward
specification is indicative of the inappropriateness of all
specification, whether through sight and sound or in thought and
The 'you' of prayer strips away the significance of
My goal in this essay is to present
prayer as addressed to 'you' by means of 'you'-alone, to the 'you' who can be
(and can only be) addressed in the absence of further specification. Lacking such specification, we ought to be
wary about saying that prayer is "an address to God." While the term 'God' or particular divine
names may be present in the words of prayers, these are not necessarily an
essential part of the grammatical or pragmatic structure of prayer and can
potentially distract from the primacy and uniqueness of the 'you.' To
illustrate, I will examine and interpret the sentence, "Mi khamokha ba'elim
adonai," which is part of the Friday evening liturgy and is taken from
Exodus 15:11. In its written
form, the final word of the phrase is the tetragrammaton, YHWH, but when
uttered in prayer, the final word is vocalized in the Jewish tradition as "adonai,"
"my lord." Thus, one might translate the written version as "Who is like you
among the gods, O YHWH?" while the spoken version could be translated as "Who
is like you among the gods, O my lord?" Here, I will examine the pragmatic
implications of each version as well as the significance of the difference
between the two versions.
Let us begin with the written
version, "Who is like you among the gods, O YHWH?" At first glance (and
perhaps in its original historical context), the statement appears to praise
and elevate a certain deity, designated by the name YHWH, above other deities.
Taken in this sense, it could be seen as equivalent to "Who is like the god
YHWH among the other gods?"
Accordingly, the 'you' would simply be a substitute for the particular name
YHWH, used in a typical deictic form of address. In other words, the 'you'
alone would not be complete in itself, and to omit the final namei.e.
simply saying, "Who is like you among the gods?"would leave the address vague
and unspecified. Without the concluding, "O YHWH," an interlocutor might
protest, "Who does the 'you' refers to? Who is being addressed? How do we
know that the 'you' doesn't refer to Baal or Marduk?" In the typical
(non-prayer) use of 'you,' such objections would be completely legitimate.
However, when viewed in light of my
interpretation of the 'you' of prayer as fully specifying in itself, the
statement takes on a very different sense. Here, since 'you' is not a
substitute or placeholder for another name, the formulation "Who is like you
among the gods?" would also be complete in itself. As it appears in the
biblical and liturgical texts, the statement does not ask, "Who is like YHWH
among the gods"; instead, it asks, "Who is like you?" That is, the
primary contrast is not between "YHWH" and "the gods," but rather between "you"
and "the gods." It is not "YHWH" who is being singled out for praise, but
rather "you." No longer is it a matter of one deity being praised above his
fellow deities; since "you" is in the second person, while "the gods" is in the
third person, we now have a contrast that involves a qualitative difference of
categories. In other words, we could reformulate the statement as "Who is like
the 2nd person among the 3rd persons?" or "Who is like
the you among the its?",
Furthermore, since the 'you' of
prayer consists of 'you' only, with no additional specifying features, we can
say that the 'you' of prayer, the mere-'you,' is equivalent to the 'wholly
other' or 'absolutely other'that is, as mere address, the sole identifying
characteristic is that of otherness. As such, "Mi khamokha" gains
added significance; the phrase "Who is like you?" can now be understood as "Who
is like the absolutely other?" In its original context, the statement may have
been an attempt to declare that the gods of all other nations pale in
comparison to YHWH, and this stance may have had an element of ethnocentrism or
tribal bias. However, when the 'you' of the statement is taken to be
'you'-alone, the 'you' that fully specifies in itself, then the assertion of
incomparability is no mere chauvinism but is an obvious and logical property of
the 'you'-alone, of the absolutely other: since there are no specifying
characteristics, there is nothing which could serve as a basis for comparison.
These observations can shed light on
the traditional contrast between 'God' and 'the gods.' It is often claimed
that 'God' is not 'a god' or 'one of the gods' but is instead qualitatively
different. However, it is not always clear what this difference consists in,
apart from a capitalized letter. Often, the way that religious practitioners
speak about 'God' (especially when denigrating other religious traditions)
seems very much like the venerating of one deity (i.e. "my god") over another
deity (i.e. "his god"). I hold that the contrast between 'you' and 'gods' is
much clearer and more substantive than that between 'God' and 'gods.' 'God'
and 'gods' are both third-person designations and hence fall under the same
category. The true qualitative difference is found in 'you,' and one could
even view the concept of 'God' as a projection onto the third person of the
second-person 'you'-alone of prayer. While potentially legitimate if
recognized as such a projection, the third-person term 'God' is more often
treated as a particular name that diverges from 'you'-alone and can even come
to oppose it. Such a development ought not be surprising, since the second
person is not the same as the third person, and treating them
interchangeably will inevitably lead to distortion. Hence, while it is not
technically wrong to say that "one addresses God in prayer," it is, practically
speaking, a potentially misleading phrasing that ought to be treated with
caution. Part of the problem stems from the impossibility of adequately
translating from the second person to the third person, from address to
description. If, in an attempt to explain what happens in prayer, person A
tells person B, "I address you in prayer," this would be blasphemy, since
person A ought not to be praying to person B. Even if we try to
insert quotation marks into the statement, so that person A says to person B,
"I address 'you' in prayer," such written signs are not distinguishable in
actual speech. In addition, such a description still turns 'you' into a
third-person name, creating the same distortion as does 'God.' No solution is
possible, since the 'you' of address (and especially the 'you'-alone of prayer)
simply has no equivalent in description. Accordingly, a formulation such as
"In prayer one addresses God," is probably as good as any other descriptive formulation,
but the priority of the addressive 'you'-alone must constantly be kept in mind.
However, if the primary focus of "Mi
khamokha" should be placed on 'you,' how ought we to understand the fact
that the statement does end with "O YHWH"? I claim that the particular
name that concludes the phrase is in many ways superfluous. Since the 'you' of
prayer already specifies completely, the name does not add any new information,
as it would in non-prayer instances of 'you.'
While the particular name might have been more important in its original
historical context (where YHWH was one god among many), the statement is
transformed by its use in prayer, which shifts the focus away from the
particular name and towards the 'you' alone.
While it may seem presumptuous for me to so cavalierly dismiss a divine name,
the Jewish prayer tradition has itself displayed a similar tendency. That is,
when YHWH, the tetragrammaton, appears in prayers, the custom is not to
pronounce the name as it is written but rather to say "adonai," meaning
"my lord" or "my master." "My lord"
is not a proper name in the sense of a label used to differentiate one person
(or god) from another; it indicates a relation between the speaker and the
addressee. 'Adon' (lord, master) is the counterpart to 'eved'
(slave, servant), and so by saying "adonai," the speaker is placing
himself in the role of servant. Thus, we might translate "Mi khamokha
ba'elim adonai" as "Who is like you among the gods, O you-whom-I-serve?"
Thus, "adonai" does not attempt to add any specification to the identity
of the 'you' who is addressed; it simply indicates the speaker's relation of
service to that 'you.' Thus, in its spoken modification (keri) of the
written text (ketiv) and in its move towards a wholly relational form of
address, the Jewish tradition demonstrates that the name of a particular deity
is neither a necessary nor appropriate part of prayer.
The tradition of not pronouncing the divine name can even be seen as a natural
consequence of the sufficiency of 'you' in prayer. That is, if nothing need be
said beyond 'you,' the pronunciation of any names would be improper, since this
would imply that the 'you' needed further specification and was not
sufficient in itself.
In addition, the analysis of prayer presented
here has interesting implications for the 'catholicity' of God. If the 'you'
is fully sufficient and the particular divine name superfluous, the importance
of prioritizing one named deity over another also appears to fade. That is, in
the typical (non-prayer) use of 'you,' there would appear to be a significant
difference between "Who is like you, O YHWH" and "Who is like you, O Marduk."
If supreme preeminence among the gods is attributed to YHWH and Marduk,
respectively, then the two statements are mutually exclusive, since there can
be (logically speaking) at most one deity who is supreme over all other
deities. However, once the emphasis shifts toward the 'you' and away from the
particular name, the utterances lose their incompatibility and become identical
in their pragmatic functioning. While this
does not imply that a single individual could affirm both statements
simultaneously, it should make a person more hesitant to insist that a member
of another religious tradition must automatically be "doing something
different" simply because he or she employs different names or formulations in
Frequently, particular names for God (or even the name 'God') can become
semantic red herrings that distract from the commonality of the 'you' in the
actual prayer practices of diverse religious traditions.
We can also view the contrast between
the written form of "YHWH" and the spoken form of "adonai" in relation
to the difference between what might be called monolatrous and monotheistic orientations.
Indeed, we could even imagine a scenario in which prayer could play a role in
bringing about a transition from the former toward the latter attitude: if the
emphasis in "Who is like you among gods, O YHWH" is initially on "YHWH," the
repeated use of this phrase in performative address of prayer (in which
pragmatic elements become more prominent, while semantic elements are less
salient) could shift the emphasis more towards "you" and away from the
As the pragmatic emphasis on 'you' increases, the religious situation can
become progressively riper for a transition to the conscious affirmation of the
unique God, in which all of the emphasis is on 'you.'
This transition may be even more likely to occur if the act of prayer-address
takes place in the absence of visible idols. While it is still possible for a
person to have an "invisible idol" (e.g. in terms of conceptual reifications),
the lack of visual specification (so that there is nothingno "thing"to latch
on to) combined with the utterance of "you" can increase one's propensity
toward actually addressing the mere-'you.' While it is by no means clear that
this hypothetical sequence corresponds to the actual history of past religious
development, it is intriguing, and not utterly implausible, to locate one
potential source of increasing monotheism in the practice of prayer.
Predicates and the existential demands of the 'you' of prayer
While this transition to 'you'-alone can have a
broadening effect on one's view of the religiosity of other groups, it also
creates distinctive restrictions and responsibilities. I have said that the
use of 'you' in prayer is sufficient in itself and does not require any further
specification; as such, it can be characterized as 'you'-alone, or mere-'you.'
However, this description refers to an ideal case; not all acts of pronouncing
the word 'you' in a "prayer context" are automatically equivalent to the act of
saying mere-'you'. While outward (visual, auditory) specifying elements are
already absent, the pray-er must also take care lest he or she add extraneous
concepts or thoughts to what should be 'you'-alone. Indeed, the very absence
of outward factors makes it easier to deceive oneself regarding inappropriate
inward accretions to the 'you.' The true
'you'-alone contains no other features, and so the speaking of this 'you' is
sheer address, an address to the absolutely other from oneself. However, if
additional concepts are present, these concepts belong to the speaker himself and
are not fully other. Hence, one who speaks 'you' in this way actually
addresses a projection of his own ego. If the statement "Who is like you, o my
lord" are spoken with such an adulterated-egoized 'you,' the speaker is
engaging in self-worship. The saying
of mere-'you' is no easy task and it may not even be fully achievable by human
beings. As such, all human utterances of 'you' in prayer may contain a degree
of ego-projection. Still, different utterances of 'you' can be closer or
further from the ideal saying of 'you'-alone, and thus concentration,
self-examination, and an active striving towards this ideal are crucially
This need for focus highlights another difference
between the use of 'you' in prayer and its typical deictic use. Normally, the
meaning of an utterance involving 'you' is determined by external contextual
factors. Levinson provides the example, "You are the mother of Napoleon."
Such an utterance is true "just in case the addressee is indeed the mother of
anyone can appropriately say, "You have red hair," so long as the person
standing before them actually has red hair. In other words, the burden in
these cases lies entirely with the empirical evidence regarding the addressee;
the 'you' serves primarily as a pointer, and no existential concentration is
required of the speaker. In the case of prayer, because no external evidence
or specification is present, the burden is shifted to the speaker of the words,
and the 'you' becomes subject to the dangers of egoization, as described
above. In terms of "Mi khamokha," we could say that in the normal usage
of 'you,' the statement "You are incomparable, O YHWH," would automatically be
legitimate, independently of the speaker's stance, so long as the addressee was
actually YHWH and YHWH was truly incomparable. However, as the focus shifts to
'you' and away from the particular name, the importance of such external
considerations fades away, and the legitimacy of the utterance becomes
dependent on the extent to which the 'you' that is spoken is a speaking of
Since my thesis has emphasized the danger of
conceptual accretions to the 'you', how ought we then to understand the many
instances of Jewish prayer that appear to predicate qualities of the one
addressed in prayer? For instance, consider the statement from the Amidah, "Ata
gibor l'olam adonai," "You are powerful infinitely, my lord" (304). If the
'you' already specifies and identifies completely, don't predicates seem
inappropriate, since there is no additional information that needs to be
conveyed? What role, then, does the subsequent "are powerful" play? One
possible account is the following: in principle, the saying of 'you' contains
everything that needs to be said. Accordingly, "you are powerful" must already
be implied by the saying of mere-'you'; the former follows naturally from the
latter. That is, a person who is able to utter 'you'-alone would also readily
acknowledge "you are powerful." Thus, although nothing more needs to be
said beyond 'you,' the predicate (in this case, "powerful") can be helpful
for directing the speaker's attention and awareness to a particular feature of
the relation to the 'you'-alone. Since the saying of 'you'-alone is a
difficult task, focusing on different aspects at different times can serve as
an important form of training and exercise.
Put differently, one who can already say 'you'-alone would not need to say "you
are powerful" (since this would be implied by her saying of 'you'), but thosei.e.
all human beingswho are still striving to say 'you'-alone can be aided by
saying "you are powerful."
The recognition that the predicates are already
implied by mere-'you' also plays an important role in understanding the meaning
of those predicates. Consider the sentence from the Kiddush for Shabbat
evening: "Ki vanu bacharta, v'otanu kidashta, mi kol ha'amim," "For you
have chosen us and sanctified us from among all the peoples" (726). Here, the
fact that the 'you' in this utterance is mere-'you' determines the proper
interpretation of 'chosen.' While the word 'chosen' can have different senses
in different situations, not all of these senses can be appropriately linked to
Accordingly, if a person's saying of 'you' diverges from the ideal mere-'you'
(i.e. if the saying of 'you' is marred by egoistic conceptualizations), his or
her understanding of the predications will also be distorted. Without the
proper relation to 'you'-alone, one is more likely to interpret this
"chosenness" in an improper and egoistic manner (in this case, group-egoistic
rather than individual-egoistic). Thus, when
considering 'chosen,' as well as all other predicates, we must refrain from
automatically applying our instinctive connotations of the word, since some of
them may not be valid for the 'you'-alone; indeed, the context of prayer can
often radically transform our everyday understanding of many words and
Part of the reason for this transformation stems
from the fact that the saying of 'you'-alone is a form of sheer address, sheer
relation, without a separate object to which the predicates are attached. Let
me illustrate this through "Ata gibor." In saying, "You are powerful,"
I acknowledge that I stand in a relation to powerfulness. Compare this to a
statement that is phrased in the third person such as, "God is powerful." This
latter statement implies that a) there exists a particular entity/being/object,
"God" and b) this entity is powerful. However, it does not in itself imply that
the speaker has any relation to this entity. In contrast, when I say, "You are
powerful," in the second person, I do not assert the existence of any entity,
nor do I claim knowledge about any entity; I am not making a claim about a
detached state of affairs "out there."
I simply acknowledge my situation, in which I stand before ____ in a relation
of powerfulness. In this description, the ____ must remain unfilled, since the
saying of 'you' cannot be translated to the third-person. In prayer, I can say,
"I stand before you in a relation of powerfulness," but the quotation marks
cannot be removed. Thus, if someone else heard me say in prayer, "You are
powerful," and that person asked me, "Who were you speaking to? Who is
powerful?" I could not answerI cannot say who is on the other end of the
relation of powerfulness. This inability to say is not simply a matter of
incommunicabilityI myself do not know who is on the other end of the relation,
since knowledge is also a third-person function that breaks the immediate
relation to the 'you.' Because the 'you' is mere-'you,' merely second-person,
there can be neither description-of nor knowledge-about. In a sense, I am
simply saying, "Powerfulness, there," or, "There (i.e. outside of me) is
powerfulness-in-relation-to-me." These have the advantage of emphasizing that
there is no cognizable object or entity to which the powerfulness is attached,
but, again, they are not fully adequate since the 'you' of address is lost in
In the context of the Amidah, "Ata gibor"
indicates the speaker's trust in this relation of powerfulness. "You are
powerful infinitely" is followed by a list of the other wondrous deeds that the
addressee performs: "You lovingly sustain the live, you revive the dead with
great mercy, you support the fallen, you heal the sick, you free the fettered,
you keep your faith with those who sleep in dust." Thus, "You are powerful
infinitely," has the sense of "For you, all things are possible." Again, this
should not be taken as saying "there exists an entity for whom all things are
possible," but simply that when addressing mere-'you,' I stand in a relation to
infinite possibility. This is
different from asserting as a general proposition that all things are possible;
I am only able to be aware of and acknowledge the infinite possibility while
(or to the extent that) I stand in relation to the mere-'you'. It is the
address to the mere-'you' that brings about the situation of my standing before
infinite possibilitythe ability to say mere-'you' is one and the same as the
awareness of standing before infinite possibility.
In uttering such a statement, I thereby affirm my commitment to maintain hope
and shun despair.
Here, it is important to note the difference
between saying "You are powerful" to the mere-'you' and saying the same thing
to a human being. When one human being bows down to another and acclaims the
second as powerful, this creates a hierarchical structure that leads to the
comparative lowering and degradation of the less powerful individual. The act
of submission before another human being undermines the principle of human
equality and curtails the freedom of the one who submits. In contrast, the
acknowledgement of power in addressing the mere-'you' does not debase or lower
the one who does so; such degradation occurs only when there is a more powerful
object or entity to which the human being is negatively
compared. Rather, acknowledging the mere-'you' as all-powerful raises up the
one who does so, resulting in increased freedom and possibility. The meaning
of 'powerful' (or more precisely, the effect of addressing someone as powerful)
is thus completely reversed in the case of 'you'-alone.
However, we must also keep in mind that this
reversal occurs only when the 'you' spoken in prayer is uttered as
'you'-alone. If conceptualizations attach to the 'you,' the address is no
longer mere address, and the addressee has become an object. As a result,
submission before this 'you' will have the effect of degrading and
limiting the freedom of the one who submits.
This form of submission has much in common with submission before another human
being, although in this case the person debases himself before a projection of
his own imagination. This
dynamic can serve as a litmus test for healthy or unhealthy prayer: to the
extent the saying of 'you' in prayer results in increased freedom and vitality,
that saying of 'you' is likely to be nearer to a saying of 'you'-alone.
Conversely, to the extent the saying of 'you' results in degradation, it is
likely that the speaker is addressing herself to an objectified pseudo-'you.'
This state of affairs can also illuminate the objections of people who reject
the idea of "praying to God" on the grounds that it seems to involve
assumptions about a dubious entity for which there is little supporting
evidence. In an important sense, their objections are correct, since no entity
or object (real or imagined) should be part of saying 'you'-alone; there should
only be relation. Likewise,
we are obliged to raise doubts concerning people who characterize their own
activity as "praying to God." It may be that in actual practice they do
say 'you'-alone, and their report is basically an attempted translation into
descriptive language. Or, it may be that the third-person description is a
manifestation and reflection of an objectified and unhealthy relation in their
saying of 'you.' Both
possibilities should be kept in mind when assessing a given individual's
creedal or confessional self-portrayal.
These considerations can also be applied to the
authors and editors of the traditional Jewish liturgy. I have argued that the
'you' of prayer ought to be understood as 'you'-alone, a 'you' of sheer
relation. This 'you'-alone in turn shapes and restricts the proper
understanding of the predicates found in rabbinic prayers. However, we cannot
be certain that the original authors/editors had the 'you'-alone in mind when
they composed and selected their predications and descriptions; a more
objectified 'you' (perhaps influenced by, e.g., sexist, ethnocentric, or
superstitious attitudes) may have guided some of their choices. In what ways
should this possibility inform our contemporary approach to the traditional
prayers? On the one hand, it could be argued that the original intent does not
matter. Even if "You are powerful infinitely" was composed with a partially
distorted 'you,' the same formulation can still be used in the saying of
'you'-alone. In this way, the words transcend the human fallibilities of their
authors. It may even be the case that some of the most deficient original
intentions can produce some of the deepest truths when reinterpreted in light
of the 'you'-alone. On the other hand, certain formulations may prove more resistant
to attempts at reinterpretation. Depending on the audience, certain
undesirable interpretations may present themselves so forcefully that saying
'you'-alone in connection with such formulations is all but impossible.
Furthermore, even when reinterpretation
is theoretically possible, certain formulations may more often have the
practical consequence of creating or reinforcing objectified or distorted
conceptions. While one should not over-hastily dismiss the words of prayer
simply because of their imperfect human origins, it is also irresponsible to
ignore the words' actual typical effects simply because an esoteric or erudite
interpretation is capable of recovering a more positive meaning. This caution
applies even if we regard the words of prayer as originating in an undistorted
or divine source: though their 'true meaning' may be godly, one must not forget
that their effect on us imperfect humans can easily be dangerous or harmful.
Ethicizing and restorative effects of the 'you' of prayer
I now want to briefly discuss some of
the broader ethical implications of the saying of mere-'you' in prayer. Often,
treating other human beings as persons can prove challenging. Instead of
relating to others according to their common humanity, we view them prejudicially
in terms of their skin color, ethnic group, gender, nationality, or countless
other particularities; as a result, the other person becomes an 'it' rather
than a 'you.' Even if we
use the word 'you' in addressing another human being, the relation may still be
objectified; it is possible to pronounce "you" without truly saying 'you.'
In the face of this predicament, I suggest that prayer can function as a form
of practice in saying 'you.' If I can learn to say 'you' in the absence of
specifying details, this skill can help me focus on addressing a fellow human
being as 'you' without being sidetracked or led astray by his or her specific
mere-'you' of prayer, when transferred to the human realm, becomes the ethical
'you' of true personal relation. If a person can address the absolutely
other, then the contingently other is like a brother in comparison.
As usual, the converse also holds: if my saying 'you' in prayer does not lead
to my being able to say 'you' to other human beings, the 'you' that I address
in prayer is not the mere-'you.'
In a similar manner, the practice in saying
'you' that enables a person to treat others as human can also develop and
enhance the freedom and humanity of one who says 'you.' While anyone can
vocalize the sound of "you," only an I can truly say 'you'-alonehence, to be
able to say 'you' is to be truly human. Through engagement in the task of
learning to say 'you'-alone, an individual becomes more and more an I, a free
ethical agent who can speak and act. Although saying 'you'-alone is an ideal and
not fully achievable in actualityhence, we can never completely become an Iwe
can and must persist in striving towards this goal. One need not view this a
setback or flaw; rather, it provides us with the opportunity to continually
deepen our humanness through the continuing task of saying 'you'.
In light of this human task of becoming and
remaining human, we can draw a connection the third-person descriptive
statement "Saying 'you' preserves the 'me'" with the second-person addressive
prayer utterance "You preserve me." In the context of the rabbinic liturgy,
one may apply this insight to the statement "Mechaye metim ata rav l'hoshia,"
"You revive the dead; great is your saving power" (296). We could render "mechaye
metim ata" as "'You' revives the dead": the saying of 'you' in prayer and
the ability or willingness to say 'you' can restore the 'I'-ness, the
dialogical selfhood, of one who had become inwardly deadened.
Furthermore, since the 'you' of prayer correlates with the 'you' of ethical
relation, "mechaye metim ata" can be read as implying that saying 'you'
to other human beings can also resuscitate the speaker's humanity. 'You' (the
saying of 'you') has great saving power generally, in both prayer and human
relations, no matter who the addressee is.
While this account highlights ways in which
addressive prayer could shape a person's ethical and existential capacities, it
may also sound as though it has removed God's agency from the matter. After
all, I have elaborated on the effects of the human act of saying 'you',
but doesn't the plain sense of the prayer text seem to emphasize God's
action and God's power to give life to the dead? In response, I contend
that while human will alone can easily utter the sound, "you," the act of
actually saying 'you' in the sense of mere-'you' requires an element of grace.
If I am revived by becoming able to say 'you' in prayer and in human relations,
this process is not solely my own doing. The line between opening myself to
saying 'you' and being opened to saying 'you' is not a clear one. Thus,
"saying 'you' revives the dead" (a formulation in which the act of human speech
seems to bring about the revival) cannot be sharply distinguished from "you
revive the dead" (in which the addressee is more clearly identified as the
agent of revival).
Indeed, the rabbinic liturgy seems quite aware of
this ambiguity, as the preface to the Amidah indicates: "Adonai sefatai
tiftach u'fi yagid tehilatecha," "My lord, open my lips and my mouth will
declare your praise." Here, the speaker asks for help in order to declare
"your praise," the praise of 'you', of mere-'you'. Without outside assistance,
it appears, such a declaration would not be possible. This seems to answer the
question of agency in favor of the addressee. Yet, paradoxically, the speaker
must already be able to say mere-'you' in order to be able to request such
help; otherwise, she would not be able to specify that it is 'your'
praise that she wishes to declare. Thus, even here, the question of will
versus grace, of whether the act as well as the efficacy of prayer are products
of the human or of the divine realm, remains ultimately unresolvable.
In the foregoing discussion, taking
the observed anomalous deixis of 'you' in prayer as a starting point, we have
drawn out a number of varied implications and illustrations. Potentially, these
could prove useful in reading afresh the work of religious writers and thinkers
from the past, under the assumption that some of their third-person
formulations and descriptions may have their origins in acts of second-person
address. In addition, the idea that prayer is addressed simply to 'you,' to
'you'-alone (in contrast to describing or conceiving of it as an address to
'God') could potentially reconfigure the battle lines of some contemporary
philosophical and theological divides and disputes. Finally, some of the
interpretations offered here may provide practitioners, anti-practitioners, and
those in between with a new and perhaps helpful way of approaching problematic
texts in the traditional Jewish liturgy.
Pragmatics is the branch of linguistics concerned with the study of language as
it is used in a social context.
 Stephen C.
Levinson provides the following, more formal, definition: "[D]eixis concerns
the ways in which languages encode or grammaticalize features of the context of
utterance or speech event, and thus also concerns ways in which the
interpretation of utterances depends on the analysis of that context of
utterance." See Levinson, Pragmatics (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1983), p.54.
 Levinson, Pragmatics,
 This is not
to say that the 'you' of prayer has nothing in common with more typical deictic
utterance. As with all instances of deixis, the use of the word 'you' in
prayer can be understood as 'pointing' at something (although, as we shall see,
the term 'something,' being in the third person, is somewhat problematic).
Likewise, this utterance of 'you' takes place a context of sorts, in that the
'you' of prayer is uttered in the context of the siddur and the prayer service
as a whole. Still, important differences remain, and my aim here is to
highlight and explore the significance of these departures from normal deixis.
 This last
phrase has echoes of the idea (common to many philosophical accounts of God)
that finite attributes cannot be applied to the infinite God. However, while
most philosophical accounts derive this impossibility from a presupposition of
"God's infinite nature," my description begins with the odd deixis of 'you'
that can be observed in prayer. It may be that philosophers arrived at their
'presuppositions' in part from previous familiarity with actual instances of
the practice of prayer.
 Perhaps we
might say: to du an sich.
one might say that God is "the one addressed in prayer."
Sim Shalom: a prayerbook for Shabbat, festivals, and weekdays, ed.
Jules Harlow (New York: Rabbinical Assembly: United Synagogue of Conservative
Judaism, 1989), p. 290. All liturgical excerpts used in this essay are found
in the Friday evening service and will be identified in the body of the essay
by their page number in Siddur Sim Shalom.
 See Jon D.
Levenson, Sinai & Zion: an entry into the Jewish Bible (San
Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), pp. 56-70.
 I.e. YHWH
belongs to the class of 'gods' and is the greatest from among them.
neither of these reformulations is fully adequate, since neither "the 2nd
person" nor "the you" are the same as "you" in the form of address. Both "the
2nd person" and "the you" are abstract conceptualizations, whereas
"you" in performative prayer-address (i.e. "you"-alone) is free from/goes
beyond conceptualization. That is, both "the 2nd person" and "the
you" are third-person terms and are therefore qualitatively different from the
second-person use of "you" in prayer. As such, the reformulations given here
should not be treated as synonymous with or as translations of the original
 We could
analyze the first of the Ten Commandments"You shall have no other gods before
me"in a similar fashion. That is, one way of understanding this is that one
god (YHWH) forbids the worship of other gods. However, we could also look at
it as a contrast between "gods" and "me." All gods (or even God) should be
rejected; only the one who says "me"i.e. the one to whom we say "you"is
worthy of service. In other words, the commandment can be understood as: "You
shall have no 3rd persons before the 1st person."
the inadequacy of this attempt, A himself has no more than 'you' and so has
nothing else that he could say.
 Cf. the
observation made by Kierkegaard/Johannes Climacus in the Concluding Unscientific
Postscript: "With regard to loving
it holds true that a person cannot say
what or whom he loves by defining the 'how.' All lovers have the 'how' of
erotic love in common, and now the particular individual must add the name of
his beloved. But with regard to having faith (sensu strictissimo [in
the strictest sense]), it holds true that this 'how' fits only one object."
Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical
Fragments, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1992), p.613fn.
places in the Bible itself already indicate a hesitancy to name God. For
example, in Exodus 3:13-14, Moses requests the name of the one who is speaking
from the burning bush and receives the answer "ehyeh asher ehyeh." This is
less like a name in the normal sense, and more like a relation. It can also be
understood as a type of non-answer to the name-question.
is actually a plural form, meaning "my lords." I'm not aware of the origin/significance
of the plural in this case, but it is likely related to the fact that the
plural form "elohim" is used (with singular verb forms) as a designation for
God in the Hebrew Bible.
 It would
be interesting to know whether this process of un-naming can also be found in
the prayer practices of other religious traditions.
 This can
serve as an additional illustration of why the fact that no further
specification is necessary also implies that no further specification is
appropriate. Because "can" implies "needs," we can conclude by way of
the contrapositive that the "need not" implies "can not."
Formulations that assert the incomparability of a deity (e.g. Marduk, Sin,
Shamash, Aton) are quite common in ancient Near Eastern literature. See
Levenson, Sinai & Zion, pp.63-64.
differently, one might say that the two become pragmatically equivalent
while remaining semantically contradictory.
 Herbert H.
Farmer also remarks on the tendency for the practice of prayer to blur certain
types of religious distinctions: "[T]here is, in the act of prayer and worship,
an inherent tendency towards what may be called concentration. Worship
assembling together of the whole being, and the focusing of it, in a unitary
way, on the divine reality
We may surmise that at moments of living prayer and
worship there is in primitive man a turning to a god as if he were in
fact the one and only God, thought without any expressly formulated denial of
the existence of others; for the time being, the god worshipped fill the whole
sphere of the divine." Herbert H. Farmer, Revelation and Religion (New
York: AMS Press, [1981, c1954]), p. 105. (See also Levenson, Sinai &
Zion, p.63.) Farmer notes the "inherent tendency" for concentration in
prayer to unite the many into one, thus making the experience of "god-worship"
equivalent to that of "God-worship." Similarly, I hold that concentration in
prayer can also have the effect of reducing the significance of particular
specifying details of the addressee (such as names) until only the 'you' of
in our understanding of "monotheism" it is important to distinguish between the
oneness and the uniqueness of God. According to Hermann Cohen, it is the
latter that characterizes the Jewish understanding of God. His account of
"uniqueness" has much in common with my portrayal here of the sufficiency of
the 'you.' See Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of
Judaism, trans. Simon Kaplan (Atlanta, GA: Scholar's Press, 1995), p.35ff.
 Here, the
act of performative address is to be contrasted with the act reflective
speculation, in which the semantic element will predominate. In reflection,
the second-person 'you' disappears, and the particular name will stand out more
sharply and will accordingly appear more significant.
 A similar
transition could be understood as applying to the Shema. In its written
form, it reads, "Shema yisrael, YHWH eloheinu, YHWH ehad." In its
original historical setting, its sense might have been something like: "Hear O
Israel, YHWH is our god, YHWH only." In other words, Israel is enjoined to worship only YHWH and no other gods. As the transition towards
'monotheism' occurred, and the sense of the last clause might have moved closer
to "YHWH is unique." Furthermore, in the traditional liturgical enunciation of
the Shema, the reading of 'YHWH' as 'adonai' moves the prayer
closer to the second person: "Hear O Israel, my lord is our god, my lord is
unique." If we move translate completely to the second person, substituting
'you' for 'YHWH,' the meaning could become: "you are our god, you alone," or,
"our god is you, you alone," or, "our god is 'you,' 'you'-alone." In other
words, 'you'-alone, mere-'you' is our god, whom we worship exclusively.
 Later in
this essay, I argue that 'monotheism' ought to be understood not as an
ideological position that a person can 'hold,' but rather as an ideal or task
that one must continually strive to actualize. However, while a person can
potentially become more and more monotheistic, it is impossible for someone to
ever truly "be a monotheist." Thus, there can never be a full transition from
monolatry to monotheism. The above paragraph states only that the practice of
prayer could conceivably lead to increasingly monotheistic attitudes and
thought patterns, and that one might be able to trace the evidence of those
changes in the speech and writings of an individual, society, or culture.
 On the
other hand, the mode of address can itself aid the speaker in her task freeing
herself from inappropriate conceptualizations. That is, because concepts are
confined to the mode of reflection (the 3rd person), the very act of
saying 'you' (in the 2nd person) moves the speaker to a domain in
which concepts have no foothold.
 In this
context, one might define idolatry as saying 'lord' to anyone other than
 Levinson, Pragmatics,
 One can
view in a similar manner those parts of the liturgy that refer to the addressee
in the third person. Because the same word, "you," is also used in non-prayer
addresses, its use in prayer has the potential to obscure the uniqueness of the
prayer-addressee. Without concentration, one's uttering of 'you' can slip into
the everyday use of the term, which requires less effort but which diverges
from the mere-'you.' For this reason, a third-person phrasing, with a unique
name that is used only in prayer, can help maintain the speaker's awareness of
the difference and distinctiveness of the 'you'-alone. However, as discussed
above, this mode of expression has its own particular risks, such as
objectification. Thus, second-person and third-person formulations each have
advantages and disadvantages. The liturgy's alternation between the two modes
may represent an attempt to allow for mutual correction, avoiding the one-sided
distortion that can arise from any single mode of expression.
differently, since all the predicates must already be contained in and follow
from the mere-'you,' we could say that not all senses of 'chosen' will validly
follow from mere-'you.'
 The two
principles described in this and the preceding paragraph constitute a
dialectic, a type of relational-hermeneutic circle: on the one hand, the
predicates can help focus attention so as to better enable the saying of
mere-'you.' On the other hand, the saying of mere-'you' enables proper
interpretation of the predicates. John J. O'Keefe and R.R. Reno find a similar
dialectic among many ancient Christian theologians: on the one hand, they saw
Scripture as the ultimate source of moral and spiritual truths; on the other
hand, they held that proper interpretation of Scripture requires a proper moral
and spiritual discipline. See John J. O'Keefe and R.R. Reno, Sanctified
Vision: an introduction to early Christian interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), pp. 23, 130.
example, consider the application of this principle to another section of the
liturgy: "Kadshenu b'mitzvotecha, v'ten helkenu b'toratecha, sabenu mi'tuvecha,
v'samhenu bishuatecha, v'taher libenu l'avdecha b'emet," "Sanctify us with
your commandments, and let your Torah/instruction be our portion, satisfy us
with your goodness, and gladden us with your saving help, and purify our hearts
so that we may serve you truly" (298). While 'commandments' can have many
meanings in general usage, how does the requirement that they be your
commandments, the commandments of mere-'you' (as opposed to commandments of our
ego) affect our understanding of the term? What can be included in and what is
excluded from the Torah of mere-'you' or the saving help of mere-'you'?
prayer involves an address to the mere-'you', to the absolutely other, it makes
sense that people would be inclined to say that it involves an address to someone
or something "out there," other than myself. However, the 'otherness'
in prayer is not objective or detached; it is dependent on the relation of
address, and hence third-person terms such as "someone" or "something" are
misleading. Thus, paradoxically, one could say that the addressee in prayer is
both "most other" (as absolutely other) and the "least other" (as completely
lacking objective otherness).
one does not know the origin of the possibility (since one does not 'know' the
'you'-alone), to say that "it comes from God" can be misleading. In an
important sense, the presence of the possibility is a mystery.
Kierkegaard's comment in The Sickness Unto Death: "[S]ince everything is
possible for God, then God is thisthat everything is possible." Kierkegaard's
odd grammar also seems geared to avoid portraying God as an object or thing rather than
in terms of a relation. Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto
Death, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1980), p.40.
 In other
cases of a person's own concepts adhering to the 'you'-alone, the result may be
the opposite: egoistic self-aggrandizement. Both forms, arrogance and
debasement, result from an objectifying deviation from the 'you' of sheer
portrayal has echoes of Ludwig Feuerbach's account of religion in The
Essence of Christianity. However, the "projection theory" that I present
applies only to the extent that the 'you' that is said is not 'you'-alone.
 Again, no
answer can be given to the questions, "Relation to what? Relation to whom?"
The saying of 'you'-alone is not "relation to nothing," nor is it "relation to
something," as both of these are third-person terms. It is relation to _____.
we may raise the general problem of whether speaking about "God" or being
taught about "God" tends to create a concept in a person's mind that in turn
becomes the objectified god that the person serves. When does speaking and/or
learning about "God" aid the saying of 'you'-alone, and when does it hinder the
saying of 'you'-alone? An empirical study of the practical effects of
different modes and methods of religious speech would be useful for answering
particularities should not be ignored or blurred away, but at the same time
they ought not to prevent my relating to another person as 'you.' Indeed, it
may be that a true 'you' can only be said when I first acknowledge the
particularities and differences and then say 'you.'
 As noted
above, this also a possibility when speaking the word "you" in prayer.
 In fact,
the very absence of distracting specifying features can potentially make the
'you'-saying of prayer easier (at least in certain ways) than 'you'-saying to a
human. However, the 'you'-saying of prayer could also be more difficult,
since an addressee with no concrete features can more easily be displaced by
fanciful projections. In either case, whether it is easier or more difficult,
the skill of 'you'-saying in prayer can still aid in breaking though
particularities to reach the 'you' of another human being.
 Cf. Andrew
Greeley's sociological study entitled "The Pragmatics of Prayer," in which he
presents the following as one of his initial hypotheses to be tested: "Intense
and benign relations with the Transcendent Other, as measured by frequent
prayer and benign images of God, will tend to correlate with benign
relationships with the contingent intimate otherthe self, the spouse, the
familyand the distant otherthe condemned criminal and the AIDS victim."
According to Greeley, his data confirmed this hypothesis, although the strength
of the correlation depended on the praying subject's image of God (e.g. as
"Master" vs. as "Spouse). Another of his initial hypotheses was the following:
"It will be the experience of prayer itself and not formal doctrinal position
on the existence of God that will be decisive for the for the effect mentioned
in the previous paragraph." This hypothesis was confirmed by his data as well,
a result that meshes well with my account of the 'you'-alone: the closer a
person comes to saying 'you'-alone in a strictly second-person address, the
more will doctrinal positions, which fall under the category of third-person
conceptualizations, fade in significance. See Andrew M. Greeley, "The
Pragmatics of Prayer," in Religion as Poetry (New Brunswick, NJ:
Transaction Publishers, 1995), p. 159.
 A similar
implication is that if the 'you' that I address in prayer is not mere-'you', my
inclination and ability to say 'you' to other human beings will be lessened and
impaired. That is to say, worship of or love for the one who is addressed as
mere-'you' will not compete with but rather strengthen my love for other human
beings, but worship of and devotion to a "divine" addressee that is not
mere-you will compete with and commandeer energy that might otherwise be
channeled into my love of other humans.
 That the
same practice can aid in both processes is not surprising, since becoming human,
and becoming able to treat others as human cannot be sharply distinguished from
one another. One might say that treating others as human is the very
definition of being human.
 We might
also say that the very utterance of "mehaye metim ata," "You revive the
dead," revives the dead (as it were). Thus, the voicing of/the ability to
voice the prayer brings about/constitutes its own fulfillment. This is not to
exclude the possibility of relating "mehaye metim ata" to the
traditional idea of bodily resurrection in the world to come. Rather, my main
intention is to emphasize that such an utterance can also have effects
in the here and now.
addition, we could also read "mechaye metim ata," "'you' revives the
dead" as indicating that the hearing of 'you' also revives one who is
dead. In other words, being addressed and related to as a 'you' can revive
and restore a person who had previously been treated as an 'it.'
richness and complexity of this preface to the Amidah can extend even further.
Adonai sefatai tiftachif you will open my lips, if you will open the
lips-of-'I', if you will transform my present lips into the lips of an I, into
the lips that can say 'you'u'fi yagid tehilatechathen my mouth, which
will have become the mouth-of-'I', the mouth of an I, will declare your praise,
will declare the praise of 'you', will declare your praise by saying 'you.'
And then, since 'you' can be both the 'you' of prayer and the ethical 'you': To
say 'you', to address other human beings by saying 'you,' to truly treat them
as human beings, is the highest possible praise of the divine you. The mouth
of an 'I' will declare your praise: even the least eloquent words, if they come
from the mouth of an 'I,' if they are spoken in a genuinely human manner,
inherently praise you.