'The Issue of Prayer Is God'

For Abraham J. Heschel, regularity of prayer is an expression of belonging to an order, to the covenant between God and Israel, which remains valid regardless of whether one is conscious of it or not. Last in a series of three articles.

David Hartman
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David Hartman

While Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Yeshayahu Leibowitz use the prayer book to define their respective experiences of Judaism - the former refers to the sense of sacrifice before God, the latter, to the individual's total subservience to the broader institutional framework - A. J. Heschel approaches prayer from the religious perspective of a committed halakhic Jew driven by a vivid and gripping awareness of God. The central motif of Heschel's religious thought is God-consciousness. In "God in Search of Man" and other works, Heschel begins not with halakha but with the sense of God's presence. Awe, wonderment and Heschel's distinctive notion of divine empathy, reflect the immediate and concrete sense of divinity that permeates his entire thinking. For Heschel, "the issue of prayer is not prayer; the issue of prayer is God"

What then is the meaning of prayer for such a "God-intoxicated" Jewish thinker? How does Heschel deal with prayer and the rigid formality and structure of institutionalized prayer? Given the role of the individual, is there a sacrificial element in prayer similar to R. Soloveitchik's intuitive understanding of the faith experience?

Heschel's short book, "Man's Quest for God," presents a penetrating phenomenological account of prayer for a religious Jew, deeply anchored in both the Hasidic, mystic tradition and the rigorous, halakhic legal framework. Like R. Soloveitchik and Leibowitz, A. J. Heschel addresses the issue of spontaneity versus formality in terms of the problematic spiritual consequences of keva. The term "keva" refers to the fixed times, content and formats of formal prayer, and the duty and legal obligation that inform the mitzvah of prayer, i.e., the overwhelming sense of "ought" that can smother other motives for worship based on individual initiative and spontaneity.

Heschel was unique in having the ability to dissolve conflicts by presenting alternate descriptions that reveal possibilities and challenges where intractable problems once stood. Heschel's description of the inner world of halakha presents the "rough" problematic features of this heteronomous, authoritarian legal system in such a way that the reader begins to perceive a living reality infused by gentleness, softness and profound sensitivity. The hardness and rigidity of halakhic practice and divine commandment dissipate when re-presented from Heschel's phenomenological viewpoint.

Prayer is not a substitute for sacrifice. Prayer is sacrifice: "Accept the offerings of praise, O Lord," says the Psalmist (119:108). "Let my prayer be counted as incense before Thee and the lifting of my hands as an evening sacrifice" (141:2). In moments of prayer we try to surrender our vanities, to burn our insolence, to abandon bias, cant and envy. We lay all our forces before him. The word is but an altar. We do not sacrifice. We are the sacrifice.

Uplifting, personal message

The sacrifice at the heart of Heschel's analysis of prayer differs entirely from the primal experience of faith that R. Soloveitchik attributes to prayer. Unlike the sense of ontological unworthiness that drives the human being to a state of terror and dread (as in Rudolph Otto's "The Idea of the Holy," to which R. Soloveitchik refers), the sense of sacrifice described in Heschel's phenomenology of prayer refers to the vanities and self-delusions that obstruct an individual's quest for personal holiness and integrity.

For Heschel, the sacrificial component of the prayer experience is a psychological struggle for self-purification. The object of the act of sacrifice is not the human self as such, but the human conceits that prevent the individual from approaching God in honesty and truth.

With regard to the issue of keva, the fixed, standardized features of formal prayer, Heschel again reads an uplifting, personal message into the institutional framework of the halakha. For R. Soloveitchik, halakhic precedence is the justification for prayer, an act that would otherwise be impossible because of the intuitive existential sense of human unworthiness; for Leibowitz, halakha established a practice, i.e., it formally prescribed an activity totally independent of individual subjective experience.

For Heschel, however, halakha prescribed prayer for the individual, thereby raising it from the level of an individual act to that of an eternal intercourse between the people of Israel and God; from the level of an occasional experience to that of a permanent covenant. It is through halakha that we belong to God not occasionally, intermittently, but essentially, continually. Regularity of prayer is an expression of my belonging to an order, to the covenant between God and Israel, which remains valid regardless of whether I am conscious of it or not.

Rather than being an obstacle to genuine prayer, the presence of a normative, obligatory framework enhances our subjective experience of prayer. Because of the mitzvah of prayer, we are conscious of the fact that we belong to God continuously and not only during moments of subjective inspiration.

Heschel thus places the mitzvah of prayer and halakha within a mode of discourse that transforms the problematic features of formality, regularity and blind obligation into affirmative aspects of a prayer narrative involving the ongoing relationship between God and the people of Israel. The formality of institutionalized prayer and halakha are no longer threatening to individual initiative and spontaneity if only because of their new contextual setting. Heschel introduces the individual into this new context by teaching his reader to view legal regularity and constancy as signs of belonging to an historic people engaged in an eternal relationship with God.

Once the context is changed, the formal structures and features that seemed inherently problematic assume new significance. Halakha is, as it were, rehabilitated by being absorbed into the drama of God and the people of Israel. The normative legal system gets absorbed by a descriptive narrative that gives new meaning and spiritual impetus to its technical, legalistic features. The impersonal, technical aspects of halakha are transformed into nonverbal signs expressing an ongoing personal relationship with an accepting, loving God. By being constant and ever-present, the halakhic practice of prayer "informs" me that the bond between Israel and God is eternal.

"How grateful I am to God that there is a duty to worship, a law to remind my distraught mind that it is time to think of God, time to disregard my ego for at least a moment! It is such happiness to belong to an order of the divine will. I am not always in a mood to pray. I do not always have the vision and the strength to say a word in the presence of God. But when I am weak, it is the law that gives me strength; when my vision is dim, it is duty that gives me insight" ("Man's Quest for God," page 68).

Heschel's articulate presentation of complex theological issues in flowing eloquent prose bordering on the poetic, and his sensitive appreciation of the spiritual dimension of religious behavior enabled him to confront one of the central crises facing traditional societies in the modern world by creating a compelling narrative to support a weakened normative framework. By presenting inspired alternate descriptions of halakha and of the significance of mitzvah and duty, he sought to turn the potentially crushing aspects of formality, regularity and obligation into enriching, elevating symbols of a Jew's abiding relationship with God.

The psychological impact of modernity on a traditional form of life that claims the right to control every aspect of a person's life "from the cradle to the grave" can be devastating for people taught to value independence, autonomy and freedom. Nevertheless, Heschel tried to confront this dilemma by shifting the focus from the individual to the community and by interpreting the regularity, fixity, i.e., the formality of the system, as properties signifying membership in an eternal community covenanted to God. This story of God and of the community of Israel is essential to Heschel's description of the individual's prayer experience. The individual is not alone in prayer. The halakha, the prayer book and the regularity of prayer are infused with a covenantal, historical consciousness.

From God's point of view

The contrast between A.J. Heschel, on the one hand, and R. Soloveitchik and Yeshayahu Leibowitz, on the other hand, reflects two very different religious sensibilities. Heschel relates to prayer as an affirmative spiritual experience that encourages and confirms the individual to stand in the presence of God. The alternative approach shared by R. Soloveitchik and Yeshayahu Leibowitz relates to prayer as a kind of akedah experience where the worshiper, like Abraham, sacrifices the human self on the altar of faith. According to this religious sensibility, Abraham sacrificed his rationality, his moral intuitions, his natural feelings of compassion, in short, his humanity, in obeying God's command.

The history of worship testifies to the presence of this sacrificial posture in the life of faith. Descriptions of human encounters with God speak of awe, dread and terror. Moses hides his face in God's presence (Exodus 3:3); the people tell Moses at Mount Sinai: "You speak to us ... let not God Speak to us, lest we die" (Exodus 20:16). The reality of God creates an overwhelming sense of nothingness and insignificance. For many people, therefore, self-sacrifice is a natural, intuitive response to being in the presence of God.

For Heschel, however, the main thrust of prayer is not self-annihilation but, on the contrary, making ourselves the object of God's attention. In contrast to the instinct of fright and flight from God's presence, Heschel draws upon the worshiper's longing "to become the object of His thought."

The purpose of prayer is to be brought to His attention, to be listened to, to be understood by Him; not to know Him, but to be known to Him. To pray is to behold life - as a concern of His will, or to strive to make our life a divine concern.

For R. Soloveitchik, petitional prayer is equivalent to proclaiming: "I cannot exist alone. I am existentially lonely and inadequate. I must sacrifice myself if I am to stand in the presence of God." For Heschel, however, petitional prayer is an experience that elevates me, the worshiper, out of insignificance by making me - my concerns, my suffering, my goals - the subject of God's thoughts.

"What is the meaning of praise if not to make His concern our own? Worship is an act of inner agreement with God. We can only petition Him for things we need when we are sure of His sympathy for us. To praise is to feel God's concern; to petition is to let Him feel our concern" (page 18).

For Heschel, the essence of prayer - making oneself known to God - presupposes "a way of living, a way of seeing the world in the light of God." This transformation of self is the crux of the religious consciousness that Jewish prayer tries to inculcate.

To worship is to rise to a higher level of existence, to see the world from the point of view of God (Preface, page xii).

On alternate spiritual outlooks within halakha


Maimonides' description in "The Guide for the Perplexed" (3:32) of the stages of worship is an interesting theoretical analysis of types of worship in terms of modes of religious consciousness. Aside from its historical veracity, the theory draws upon psychological and theological concepts to describe forms of worship in terms of their underlying religious outlooks.

According to Maimonides, the first stage of worship, animal sacrifices, was derived from pagan cultural practices that existed in Egyptian society. Because of the people's being accustomed to this form of worship, it was tolerated by God in accordance with the basic principle of biblical theology: God does not change at all the nature of human individuals by means of miracles ... It is because of this that there are commandments and prohibitions, rewards and punishments (3:32).

According to Maimonides, the commonly accepted practice of animal sacrifices was condoned despite its inherent deficiency, while new limitations were added to gradually wean people away from this pagan mode of worship. Divine legislation was influenced by the historical context and by the psychological and cognitive dynamics of human change, with divine compromise and patience serving as the central operative principles of the Sinai revelation.

Maimonides' rationale for the first stage of worship is predicated on the image of a personal, caring God. Divine compromise and patience are not qualities of divine transcendence but of a personal deity, a God who may be likened to a loving teacher who recognizes and accepts "others" in terms of their real, rather than ideal, capacities.

Maimonides' second stage of worship is petitional prayer as developed in the rabbinic tradition. I suggest that petitional prayer is conceptually related to the doctrine of individual divine providence and, therefore, the religious mode of consciousness underlying this form of worship can best be described by the idea of not being alone in the universe, i.e., by the principle of God's responsiveness to human suffering. Maimonides believed in the relationship between the motivation to pursue a moral life and the belief in divine providence, i.e., in a universe where human suffering and injustice matter, where God is attentive to human concerns ("Guide," 3:17). The institution of petitional prayer and its theological counterpart, a personal, providential God, developed after the destruction of the Temple and was vital in counteracting the belief in divine indifference to Israel's historical fate.

The final stage of prayer, which Maimonides discussed in the "Guide" (3:51), refers to a state of mind where the individual is totally absorbed by the divine reality. In this moment of worship, the centrality of human needs and of God's personal involvement in human affairs are superseded by an awareness of God's wisdom and power manifest in the cosmos. The impersonal, transcendent God of the cosmos supersedes the personal, immanent God of revelation.

Contemplative prayer is also a moment of personal self-transcendence, a moment of pure and disinterested love, of selfless wonder and consciousness of the unique reality and perfection of God. If the first stage of worship, sacrifices, expresses God's love and acceptance of human beings with their limitations, then the last stage expresses humanity's love and acceptance of God. In contemplative worship, God is worshiped solely for being God and not necessarily for being responsive to human needs.

Maimonides' account of the three stages of worship traces a process that, from a theological perspective, begins with divine love for humanity and ends with human love of God. Sacrifices and petitional prayer revolve around the notions of divine acceptance of an imperfect human reality and of divine concern for and responsiveness to the human condition. The moment of contemplative worship, however, involves a radical departure from an anthropocentric to a theocentric perspective, from an experience of God rooted in divine responsiveness to human needs, to a fascination with and appreciation of the divine reality. Maimonides compares contemplative prayer to the lover's passionate longing for the beloved as described in the Song of Songs.

In the "Guide" (3:51), Maimonides described halakhic forms of prayer as a training process leading to contemplative forms of worship. The halakhic world view is anthropocentric insofar as God responds to human beings in history by providing a normative framework aimed at promoting individual and collective well-being. The transition from halakha to a philosophical contemplative mode of spirituality shifts the worshiper's attention to the God of being - an impersonal God whose reality and perfection elicit the passionate yearnings to know and to love (see M. T., "Hilkhot Yesodeh HaTorah," 2:1-2, 4:13).

Maimonides' analysis of the progressive stages of worship includes various models of God and modes of worship, including a form of worship and spiritual outlook that differs from the classical legal/theological framework of traditional halakha. Following Maimonides, a person might learn to appreciate the significance of biblical and rabbinic modes of worship and conceptions of God, but feel personally drawn to and inspired by the spiritual world view expressed by the contemplative form of worship, which Maimonides himself classified as the highest form of religious worship.

This brief survey shows that prayer can have multiple meanings and can serve as a moment of worship defined by a person's individual spiritual and intellectual capacities. Prayer can serve as an opening for individual expression by providing an open-ended normative context in which to express spiritual aspirations inspired by theological frameworks not necessarily mediated by the halakhic tradition.

Maimonides' analyses of Judaism, in general, and of prayer, in particular, show that the acceptance of the tradition with its highly regulated framework of halakha need not stifle individual interest in and exposure to alternate traditions and spiritual forms of expression. As the author of the Yad Ha'Hazakah, the comprehensive, ground-breaking 12th-century codification of Jewish law that consolidated the discipline of halakha as the definitive framework of Jewish life, Maimonides, nevertheless, made worship based on love and knowledge of God, i.e., worship that transcended the traditional halakhic categories of religious thought and experience, the pinnacle of Jewish worship.

J.B. Soloveitchik

It is interesting to note that R. Soloveitchik's self-abnegating, sacrificial approach to prayer, which he developed in his essay, "Reflections on Prayer," stands in sharp contrast to the notions of covenantal relationship and prophetic dialogue that inform his analysis of prayer in "The Lonely Man of Faith."

My book, "Love and Terror in the Theological Legacy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik," explores this dichotomy of themes from within the inner dynamics of his religious and spiritual world view. As I argued there, R. Soloveitchik's understanding of prayer is not only opposed to the affirmative thrust of covenantal thought, but it is also irreconcilable with standard Talmudic approaches to prayer where spontaneous prayer, tefillat nedava, was considered perfectly natural and legitimate. One rabbinic view went so far as to recommend that people pray as much as they wanted, whenever they wanted. There is no evidence in the Talmud to support the idea that prayer is inherently impossible because of the recognition of our utter inadequacy before God. On the contrary, the traditional rabbinic understanding of prayer seems to accept divine availability for prayer as a given. Talmudic prayer reveals a covenantal sense of confidence born of faith in divine accessibility and responsiveness.

My own vivid childhood synagogue memories of my mother spontaneously pouring out personal feelings and emotions before God testify to a living tradition of prayer that had little in common with the speechless dread of R. Soloveitchik's terror-stricken supplicant.

In the light of the absence of Talmudic sources in support of his rejection of voluntary prayer or for his general approach to prayer in terms of human terror and inadequacy, I suggested that R. Soloveitchik's views on prayer are more compatible with external sources, such as Rudolf Otto's "The Idea of the Holy," than with mainstream traditional Jewish thought. The sharp dichotomies in R. Soloveitchik's thought between love and terror, intimacy and alienation, human adequacy and inadequacy are indicative of a sharp division in his thinking and religious consciousness between his personal internalization of the world of halakha in terms of its intellectual tradition of learning, scholarship and debate, on the one hand, and his individual, God-centered theological passion, on the other hand.

For R. Soloveitchik, the essence of the rabbinic tradition was personified in his widely read "Halakhic Man," where the intellectual qualities of confidence, self-reliance and autonomy derive from the Talmudic tradition where the authority of the scholar to interpret the word of God using legal reasoning and argumentation reached unprecedented heights.

The halakhic tradition of learning and independent reasoning, especially the Lithuanian "Brisker" school of thought, of which R. Soloveitchik was a direct descendent, reflected a profound inner sense of adequacy and empowerment, which, I would suggest, derives from the rabbinic understanding of the concepts of mitzvah and covenant. In "The Living Covenant," I argue that the tradition of learning and interpretation of the word of God is a particular development of the idea of covenantal adequacy implicit in covenantal Judaism.

R. Soloveitchik's presentation of prayer as sacrifice is strikingly different from the primary ethos of this tradition and, I suggest, is informed by a religious consciousness not exclusively mediated by the halakha.

In contrast to his phenomenological description in "Halakhic Man," R. Soloveitchik's analysis of prayer in "Reflections on Prayer," is predominantly theocentric. In prayer, the human being stands before God filled with a sense of "creature consciousness." The passion that informs prayer is God-centered. In this respect, R. Soloveitchik's notion of prayer is similar to Maimonides' conception of philosophic contemplative prayer.

Whereas Maimonides uses Aristotelian metaphysical and philosophical notions to describe his alternate, i.e., non-halakhic, frame of reference, R. Soloveitchik, in a revealing footnote in "The Lonely Man of Faith" (page 41), refers to Rudolf Otto as a source from which to gain an understanding of "creature consciousness" he associates with tefillah (prayer) as distinct from the Shema ("Here O Israel ...").

Despite the vast differences between Aristotelian and existential theological concepts, these two traditional Jewish thinkers represent a trend in Jewish thought of individuals who accepted the halakhic tradition as their guiding form of life, yet, at the same time, accepted a God-consciousness not necessarily confined to or controlled by their community's traditional theological frame of reference. Both these philosophers shared a total commitment to the halakha as an indispensable living framework for Jewish life, yet both were cognizant of the existence and value of a spiritual path to God independent of this framework.

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