Prayer and Religious Consciousness

For Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, prayer is not driven by the concept of the God of being, but by the relational intimacy of the God of revelation. First in a series on prayer as approached by three great Jewish thinkers.

David Hartman
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David Hartman

Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Abraham Joshua Heschel - three thinkers deeply rooted in the classical Orthodox Jewish tradition - dealt with the issue of prayer in ways that revealed three distinctive religious sensibilities and approaches to Judaism. All three were modern, 20th-century Jewish theologians schooled in Western culture and philosophy, yet deeply committed to and immersed in the traditional Jewish normative tradition. This tradition, the halakhic tradition, is a culture in the broadest sense of the term, consisting of a distinctive intellectual framework based on biblical and rabbinic concepts, values and texts and by a practical form of life closely regulated by the code of behavior known as halakha.

One cannot fully appreciate the meaning of prayer and religious consciousness for such thinkers without clarifying certain fundamental patterns of thought and organizing images that characterize the intellectual, normative tradition that informs their thinking.

The problematic nature of prayer, the theme of this three-part essay, exemplifies some of the crucial issues with respect to views of God, nature, history, etc., that distinguish rabbinic civilization from its biblical foundations. The formalization of prayer in the Talmud, which transformed prayer from a spontaneous, unstructured personal expression into a regulated institutionalized public practice, signifies a major transition from biblical to rabbinic traditions, calling for the Jewish philosopher's careful attention and analysis.

When prayer is regulated and standardized using fixed linguistic formulas and prescribed times and format, the psychological/religious qualities of inwardness and spontaneity, which are generally considered necessary conditions for experiencing relational passion toward God, become problematic.

R. Eliezer says: If a man makes his prayers a fixed task, it is not a [genuine] supplication. What is meant by a fixed task? - R. Jacob b. Idi said in the name of R. Oshaiah: Anyone whose prayer is like a heavy burden on him ["as the fulfillment of a duty" - Rashi]. Rabbah and R. Joseph say: Whoever is not able to insert something fresh in it. R. Zera said: I can insert something fresh, but I am afraid to do so for fear I should become confused.

The fixity and regularity of the legally prescribed practice of prayer are hardly conducive to personal intensity and longing to be in the presence of God. In addition, as a halakhic Jew, one can become conditioned to relate to prayer as the fulfillment of a duty rather than as a living encounter with God (which is the thrust of Rashi's understanding of keva, or fixed task).

The prayer book has become synonymous with the "lip service" phenomenon of prayer where becoming a "prayer expert" means being able to rattle off blocks of liturgy at incredible speeds and where the words of prayer seem to flow automatically, divorced from any sense of religious inspiration and devotion.

All three thinkers discussed in this essay relate to this Talmudic dilemma with utmost seriousness. They all acknowledge that the regularity and formality of prayer and the sense of duty associated with its performance as a halakhic norm may become obstacles to developing a religiously meaningful attitude to prayer. Their individual responses, however, are far from similar, reflecting different philosophical approaches to halakha, Torah and God.

Soloveitchik: Prophecy and communal prayer

For Rabbi Soloveitchik, as for Maimonides, the biblical tradition provides two pivotal spiritual/philosophical frames of reference: creation and revelation. From a philosophical point of view, the creation story in Genesis represents an orientating moment of religious consciousness that differs significantly from the covenantal relationship between God and the patriarchs (beginning in the Book of Genesis) and between God and the people of Israel (in the Book of Exodus and throughout the Tanach).

In later post-biblical times, these two moments - creation and revelation - served as organizing metaphors for different spiritual world views: God, the creator of the universe, God who is accessible to the whole world, as distinct from God as the Lord of history, the revealer of the Torah and mitzvot to a particular people, God who "knows" and "is known by" the people of Israel, i.e., who enters into an intimate, covenantal relationship with a people and its history; in a word, the God of being in contrast to the God of history.

While individuals can choose to express their own preferred philosophic/spiritual orientations to God and Judaism by emphasizing one mode above the other, the philosopher of Judaism who is committed to articulating a comprehensive and faithful interpretation of the tradition must not only acknowledge the existence of both modes of religious consciousness, but must also integrate them into a coherent, plausible account of Jewish thought and practice.

In R. Soloveitchik's essay, "The Lonely Man of Faith," there are two fundamental notions of God that shed light on his approach to prayer. One revolves around the concept of God referred to by the divine name elohim, which focuses on God as manifest in the cosmos: Bereshit bara elohim ("in the beginning God - elohim - created ..."). The manifestation of God as elohim does not engender relational intimacy. The God of creation does not address human beings as singular individuals. It is only when God is addressed be'shem havayah, in the name YHVH, the Tetragrammaton, that a new religious context is created that is relational and intimate, providing the phenomenological conditions necessary for interpersonal love and prayer. The shem havayah is thus interpreted as a personal mode of divine manifestation that provides the metaphysical, conceptual and psychological conditions necessary for a covenantal relationship between God and human beings. "Covenantal man of faith craving for a personal and intimate relation with God could not find it in the cosmic E-lohim encounter and had to shift his transcendental experience to a different level at which the finite `I' meets the infinite He `face to face.' This strange communal relation between man and God is symbolized by the Tetragrammaton."

The cosmic drama, notwithstanding its grandeur and splendor, no matter how distinctly it reflects the image of the Creator and no matter how beautifully it tells His glory, cannot provoke man to prayer.

For R. Soloveitchik, prayer is not driven by the concept of the God of being - by the awe and wonder one feels when contemplating nature and the cosmos - but by the relational intimacy of the God of revelation. The idea of prayer in terms of relational intimacy is at the heart of R. Soloveitchik's characterization of the emergence of institutionalized, communal prayer. Ezra and Nehemiah and members of the Great Assembly responded to the cessation of prophesy (God's addressing human beings) by instituting prayer (human beings' addressing God) in order to perpetuate the dialogue between God and Israel.

Prophetic moment

The word of prophecy is God's and is accepted by man. The word of prayer is man's and God accepts it.

"When the mysterious men of this wondrous assembly witnessed the bright summer day of the prophetic community full of color and sound turning to a bleak autumnal night of dreadful silence unillumined by the vision of God or made homely by His voice, they refused to acquiesce in this cruel historical reality and would not let the ancient dialogue between God and men come to an end."

In prayer they found the salvation of the colloquy, which, they insisted, must go on forever. If God had stopped calling man, they urged, let man call God. So the covenantal colloquy was shifted from the level of prophecy to that of prayer.

According to this account of communal prayer, the prophetic moment centers on the divine initiative expressed in revelation, whereas the prayer moment focuses on the human initiative to continue the covenantal relationship with God. Prayer is thus the experiential, spiritual counterpart to prophesy. It emerges when the prophetic word of God wanes and the community responds by instituting a practice to continue and sustain relational intimacy with God.

According to R. Soloveitchik, prayer at the institutional communal level is fundamentally prophecy in another form; it is a continuation of prophecy defined not by its content but by its covenantal relational context. By instituting prayer, the covenantal community rescued relational intimacy with God, which constituted the essential framework of the prophetic experience, giving it a new and different form through communal prayer.

Prayer as precedent, and as sacrifice

In "The Lonely Man of Faith," prayer expresses the bold refusal of covenantal man of faith to allow the intimate dialogue with God to cease. The absence of revelation does not undermine belief in his own adequacy to initiate the ongoing dialogue with God. The attitude to prayer in the "The Lonely Man of Faith" shifts completely, however, when R. Soloveitchik introduces the themes of sacrifice and precedence as constitutive of the prayer experience. The crucial difference between R. Soloveitchik and other Jewish thinkers on the issue of prayer is R. Soloveitchik's conviction that prayer derives its legitimacy from and only from precedents in the Jewish tradition. This radical approach to prayer is based on an important and recurrent theme in R. Soloveitchik's writings, namely, human unworthiness, terror and dread before the reality of God.

In other words, the formal structure of prayer that would seem to inhibit the role of individual inwardness and spontaneity is, according to R. Soloveitchik, a profound existential expression of human finitude. Were it not for the precedent of communal prayer instituted by the Men of the Great Assembly or the precedent of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who, according to the Talmud, established the morning, afternoon and evening prayers, respectively, the individual could not initiate an encounter with God. Your right to approach God derives solely from your membership in the covenantal community of Israel, and therefore, you are bound by traditional forms and language of prayer. What to an outside observer appears as blind submission to an authoritarian religious system that crushes inwardness and spontaneity becomes for R. Soloveitchik a profound inner experience of self-surrender to God.

According to R. Soloveitchik, the preliminary words recited before the tefillah ("prayer" - the rabbinic designation of the shemoneh esreh, or the 18 benedictions), "Adonai sefatai tiftah" - "O Lord, open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise" (Psalms 51:17), express the sacrificial posture that informs prayer. Prayer, which is essentially the sacrificial offering of oneself to God, is captured metaphorically in this declaration of helplessness and unworthiness, of not having any right to speak in the presence of God.

R. Soloveitchik's arguments against the legitimacy of tefillat nedava, voluntary prayer (despite its acceptance during Talmudic times) may seem strangely counter-intuitive especially to a modern sensibility where free and spontaneous expression of prayer are considered its most authentic form. Nevertheless, given R. Soloveitchik's approach to prayer as precedent and the sacrificial akedah (the binding of Isaac) motif in the Jewish tradition, his refusal to give legitimacy to spontaneous, self-initiated prayer is less problematic. " ... [T]he worshiper does not have permission to ask for his own needs. An egoistic supplication which falls outside the form of prayer that was instituted by the men of the Great Assembly is forbidden."

R. Soloveitchik's analysis of prayer as a sacrificial act is a classic example of the powerful appeal of the sacrificial motif. This approach differs from the active, empowering halakhic framework that emphasizes and promotes belief in human adequacy and creativity that R. Soloveitchik developed in "Halakhic Man." For R. Soloveitchik, prayer, as distinct from talmud torah (the study of Torah), is not informed by the values of human autonomy and creativity.

"The akedah of Isaac, which occupies such an important place in the liturgy and world view of Israel, signifies: the akedah and sacrifice of a man. The law of sacrifices demands a human sacrifice clothed in the form of an animal" (pages 254-5).

"Build an altar. Arrange the pieces of wood. Kindle the fire. Take the knife to slaughter your existence for My sake. Thus commands the awesome God who suddenly appears from absolute seclusion. This approach is the basis of prayer. Man surrenders himself to God. He approaches the awesome God and the approach expresses itself in the sacrifice and akedah of oneself."

Professor Rabbi David Hartman is co-director of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

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