More Prose Than Poetry

David Hartman
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David Hartman

The crux of Yeshayahu Leibowitz's approach to prayer derives from his persistent and constant claim that the living framework of the tradition, halakha, is itself a complete and exhaustive expression of the nature of Judaism. For Leibowitz, Judaism cannot be defined according to the tenets of pure monotheism if only because of the diversity of its theological formulations and commitments. In fact if scholarly theologians were to carefully examine the stated beliefs of some respected Jewish communities and individuals there is no guarantee that their beliefs would not be classified as pagan or as imaginative rubbish.

Articles of faith were the subject of violent dispute. The very idea of divine unity was interpreted in ways which were almost antithetic. Nevertheless, the unity of the community remained unimpaired. What Judaism created was a community that maintained the Torah and observed its mitzvot, a community that retained its identity despite extreme differences in theological opinion. Many great sages who succeeded Maimonides and are celebrated as saintly figures would have been regarded by him as idolaters ...

It is an empirical fact, says Leibowitz, that Judaism was not perpetuated throughout history by a community of believers (kehal ma'aminim), but by a community that lived a disciplined way of life within the frame of reference defined by halakha.

It was thus not beliefs or opinions that determined the identity of Judaism. Its continuity was that of its religious praxis - Judaism as a specifically defined entity existing continuously over a period of 3,000 years was not realized in philosophy, literature, art, or anything other than halakhic living.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz did not share R. Soloveitchik's analysis of the roles of covenantal mutuality for an understanding of prayer.

The prayer book, which determines the context of the mitzvah of prayer, does not express the spontaneous outpouring of the soul. It contains a text of fixed prayer, imposed upon one as a duty and not conditioned by his spiritual or material needs or by his feeling. The same shemoneh esreh (18 benedictions) are recited by the bridegroom before his wedding ceremony, by the widower returning from the funeral of his wife, and the father who has just buried his only son. Recitation of the identical set of psalms is the daily duty of the person enjoying the beauties and bounty of this world, and the one whose world has collapsed. The same order of supplications is prescribed for those who feel the need for them and those who do not.

According to Leibowitz, prayer in Judaism has nothing whatever to do with the individual's personal human situation. As he points out with disarming irony, the person who just buried a child recites the same prayers as the person about to be married. From a personal point of view, prayer is contextless. It has nothing to do with the social, psychological, economic or any other aspect of a person's life.

For Leibowitz, prayer is an indistinguishable component of a life of worship that has one and only one purpose: to place God at the center of a person's life and consciousness. Worship, the essence of religious life, means acknowledging the overriding claim of the mitzvot and the halakha over and above any and all other human concerns. The way to achieve this religious state is not by focusing on intense, personal experiences or investigating different conceptions of God and of the universe but by compliance with the normative way of life specified by the Halakhic tradition. Judaism is essentially a communal disciplined practice.

Prayer is a mitzvah and as such it means: You are duty-bound to serve God; you are obligated to make God the center of your universe. For Leibowitz, the essential meaning of mitzvah consists in shifting the focus of one's life from the human to the divine, from the natural, compelling concerns of human life to the reality of God.

Theocentric outlook

Leibowitz fought relentlessly to preserve the integrity of religion by discrediting the use of God or of the Jewish tradition to promote loyalty to the State of Israel and the Jewish people - regardless of the worthiness of these goals. He staunchly opposed the integration of religion and state in any form whatsoever, attacking this as an overt example of idolatry. His arguments derive ultimately from his principal categorical claim that worship of God must be totally devoid of instrumental considerations.

In keeping with his strict theocentric outlook, Leibowitz rejected any ethical explanation for the significance of the mitzvot. Halakha is misrepresented by any attempt to offer utilitarian considerations to what is essentially and must be pure disinterested worship of God. Human needs, be they spiritual, ethical or otherwise, are irrelevant to the prayer moment, which signifies an acceptance of the kingdom of Heaven. The notion of "acceptance of the kingdom of Heaven" (kabbalat malkhut shamayim) must be understood with respect to the authoritative framework of rabbinic Judaism that defined what the "kingdom of Heaven" meant for most of Jewish history. From Leibowitz's perspective, the Talmudic tradition, which was accepted by the Jewish community as the basis of its form of life, constitutes the essence of Judaism.

For Leibowitz, the nature of religious language in this system is primarily prescriptive rather than descriptive. Leibowitz makes the point that the 24 books of the Bible are holy because, and only because, the rabbis of the oral tradition made the decision to canonize these 24 books as the Bible. Leibowitz thus effectively neutralized the authority of the biblical tradition by accepting the authority of the Talmudic tradition as more basic than, i.e., logically prior to, the biblical tradition (with respect to canonization and determining the scope and content of Judaism) ("Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State," edited by Eliezer Goldman, pages 11-12).

For Leibowitz, Judaism consists in accepting and participating in the decision of a people to live according to a particular regime of practices aimed at the worship of God. The collective form of life known as halakha constitutes the essence of an individual's commitment to Judaism.

Prayer has no unique singular status in a Judaic way of life. Like every other mitzvah, prayer should be regarded as one of the prescribed mitzvot that define the uniqueness of Judaism as a continuing historical religion. In Leibowitz's world, the language of prayer is more analogous to prose than to poetry. While not denying the possibility of ecstatic moments of passionate yearning for God, Yeshayahu Leibowitz states unequivocally that the crux of Judaism is expressed in the ordinary, prosaic details of the normative regulations of daily life. The "significant moments" in this kind of religious life are not the sublime, extraordinary, life-transforming moments that only poetry can hope to capture but the ordinary, regular activities of daily life. The sobriety of this way of life extends to the heart of the system; there are no latent, underlying promises of messianic redemption or afterlife rewards.

For Jews such as Leibowitz, the disciplined life of halakha is its own reward. Halakha is a self-contained, self-sufficient disciplined way of life by which the Jewish people throughout history worshiped God.

The exalted position Leibowitz ascribed to halakha was not necessarily due to its status as an expression of the revelation at Sinai, but to its empirical role in history as the mediator of Judaism as a living community of faith. In principle he was not opposed to halakhic change. His criticism of movements calling for halakhic change was directed against their motives, which he suspected were based on "extraneous," "self-serving" considerations. He himself spoke of the need for radical revision within halakha, especially with regard to public activities and responsibilities that came under the Jewish community's control as a result of national independence.

Judaism as worship

According to Leibowitz, the Jewish prayer book is a normative text by virtue of the fact that it is a living testimony to how Jews prayed. It contains neither abstract metaphysical, mystical analyses of the meaning of prayer nor phenomenological descriptions of individual encounters with God. The prayer book contains Jewish prayers pure and simple, without justification and without embellishment. The prayer book is a book of prayers not a book on how or why to pray.

In the end, the act of prayer and the use of the prayer book are aspects of a prescribed activity within a normative system dedicated entirely to the worship of God. The religious meaning of each and every part of this system is derived from the meaning of the system as a whole. The individual practices of a halakhic way of life, such as prayer, should not be understood in isolation from and independently of the overall framework. The normative commitment to the halakhic framework as such overrides and absorbs the particular reasons for performing specific norms no matter how compelling.

For Leibowitz, viewing the fixed structure and format of the prayer book as obstacles to spontaneity and inner spirituality is due to a misguided approach to Judaism. For him, blaming the prayer book for stifling rather than inspiring authentic prayer reflects a deep misunderstanding of the point of normative practices and texts in Judaism. His description of the transition from Yom Kippur to the regular evening service highlights what he believes is a corrective to common misconceptions about Jewish prayer in particular and religious experience in general.

A person who spends the whole day of Yom Kippur fasting, praying, immersed in self-reflection, reciting al het (confessional prayers) and various piyyutim (liturgical hymns) describing human mortality and vulnerability, and who finally experiences the dramatic ne'ila (concluding) service with the haunting closing sound of the shofar, could easily be shocked by the anticlimactic transition to the regular ma'ariv (evening) service beginning with the customary preamble requesting forgiveness: Ve'hu Rachum.

"But He, being merciful, forgave iniquity and would not destroy; He restrained His wrath time and again and did not give full vent to His fury" (Psalms 78:38). "Save, O Lord; May the King answer us when we call" (20:10).

What is the meaning of requesting divine forgiveness immediately after having completed a whole day devoted to introspection, divine atonement and forgiveness? According to Leibowitz, this striking juxtaposition captures the normative, dutiful posture that the halakhic system expects from the individual. His point in bringing this example is to show that nothing happens to the individual as a result of the experience of prayer. Prayer is not a transforming experience. The worshiper remains the same.

Thus the basic situation of repentant man at the close of the Day of Atonement is exactly what it was the evening before. His sole achievement consists of the great religious effort invested in this day. Immediately after, he must begin his preparations toward the next Yom Kippur (page 15).

A halakhic obligation

In Leibowitz's analysis of the halakhic system the meaning and purpose of the "whole" totally informs the meaning and purpose of its parts. Regardless of your personal experience of prayer on Yom Kippur, in the end prayer is a halakhic obligation you perform owing to your commitment to the normative system as a whole. Regardless of what you may have experienced during this intense fast day, as a committed Jew, nothing has changed. Your prayer was and remains a mitzvah; you were and remain a committed halakhic Jew in a system dedicated solely to the worship of God.

Performance of the mitzvot is man's path to God, an infinite path, the end of which is never attained and is, in effect, unattainable. A man is bound to know that this path never terminates. One follows it without advancing beyond the point of departure. Recognition that the religious function imposed upon man is infinite and never ending is the faith which finds expression in the regularity, constancy, and perseverance in the performance of the mitzvot.

"The aim of proximity to God is unattainable. It is infinitely distant, `for God is in heaven and you on the earth' (Eccles. 5:1). What then is the substance and import of the performance of the mitzvot? It is man's striving to attain the religious goal" (pages 15-16).

The content of Judaism is ultimately prescriptive, offering no descriptive truths about God, the world or the human condition. From a phenomenological point of view, the God you worship is not a God of history. The religious situation is not a response to God's involvement in the fate of human beings and history. Unlike biblical and rabbinic theology, there is no divine providential concern for human beings in Leibowitz's theology. The biblical world view is neutralized. History, revelation, providence, etc. are drained of the vitality they enjoy in traditional Judaism.

If asked whether Passover or the parting of the Red Sea occurred, Leibowitz answers in the affirmative offering the halakha as the reason and justification for his affirmative answer. "The halakha established Passover; therefore, Passover occurred." In Leibowitz's world, the normative practice of the festivals establishes their reality in history. There are no factual truth claims about God's action in history in this tradition. Leibowitz personally had no difficulty acknowledging a positivistic-type view of metaphysics as a practicing scientist while living as a devoutly observant Orthodox Jew. Nothing in Judaism can conflict with scientific statements in any area of human life.

With respect to the issue of prayer, Leibowitz can be said to have reduced prayer to its essential properties as a mitzva. Yeshayahu Leibowitz differed from both R. Soloveitchik and A. J. Heschel in eliminating psychological and existential motifs for understanding the significance of the mitzvot. He alone was adamant in precluding the inner personal life of the individual from prayer, in particular, and from Judaism, in general. For Leibowitz, the individual is simply not relevant to characterizing Judaism because Judaism is an institutional communal framework. Judaism as embodied in halakha prescribes (and subsequently describes) how a particular community lives in the presence of God.

`Praxis' approach

Leibowitz was fully aware of motifs in the Jewish tradition that emphasized the outpouring of religious feeling and emotion in prayer. His claim, however, was that from an empirical point of view, Judaism as a historical religion chose to define prayer as a daily halakhic requirement. He repeatedly mentions examples of prayer that ignore a person's existential situation in order to show how his "praxis" approach to halakha and prayer explains the actual practice of the community.

Prayer as an expression of seeking mercy from God was not accepted by the Jewish faith community as a necessary condition for authentic prayer. In contrast to Rabbi Eliezer in the Mishna, who stated that if one makes of his tefillah into a fixed task (keva), one's tefillah is not considered tachnunim, supplication, Leibowitz claims that keva, rather than tachnunim, best describes the community's practice of prayer.

In spite of the rich variety of suggestive midrashic and mystical approaches to prayer in the Jewish tradition, Leibowitz believed that Jewish thought and philosophy should be anchored in the prosaic, daily practice of the community. The halakhic institutionalization of prayer - the obligation to pray three times daily and to repeat the same amidah (18 benedictions) each time - is the essential framework for understanding Judaic prayer. The prayer book is, in many ways, more fundamental to understanding Leibowitz's approach to Judaism than the Bible or the variety of aggadic and halakhic texts on prayer in the Talmud.

It is surprising, however, how Leibowitz totally neutralizes the significance of petitional prayer. He ironically refers to praying for the sick as equivalent to making God into the director-general of the local Kupat Holim (health maintenance organization). For Leibowitz, authentic prayer can only be defined as disinterested worship. For him, petitional prayer always runs the risk of degenerating into idolatrous worship with human needs and fears, rather than God, occupying the center of one's religious concerns.

What is strange about Leibowitz's claim to have explicated the empirical practice of the historical community of Israel is his total disregard of the significance of the language of prayer used by this community. It seems clear, therefore, that his strong beliefs about what constitutes idolatry, and not only the ongoing halakhic practice of the community, are essential to explaining his philosophy of Jewish prayer and halakha.

Both R. Soloveitchik and A. J. Heschel rejected Yeshayahu Leibowitz's approach to petitional prayer. Neither of them shared his strict and uncompromising notion that appealing to God for mercy and support constitutes idolatrous worship. If (as Leibowitz insists) a philosophy of prayer is to be judged according to its affinity to community practice, then Leibowitz's radical approach to idolatry and authentic Jewish prayer are a departure from the historical community's understanding and experience of prayer.

Leibowitz's philosophy is not a mirror of a halakhic way of life but a bold expression of an Israel thinker's passionate reaction to the instrumentalization of God and halakha for the sake of nation building.

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

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