Worship of the Heart: Essays on Jewish Prayer and Worship

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780881257717
  • Publisher: KTAV Publishing House, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 197

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Worship of the Heart

Essays on Jewish Prayer
By Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

KTAV Publishing House, Inc.

Copyright © 2003 Toras HoRav Foundation
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0881257710

Chapter One

"When I Speak about the Philosophy of Prayer"

Before we turn our thoughts to the analytical process of comprehension, I want to make the following reservation. John Henry Newman, at the beginning of chapter 10 of his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, says that in the provinces of religious inquiry, egotism is true modesty. One can express only his own feelings. He cannot and should not lay down universal postulates and general rules. He may hope that by formulating his own experiences in clear language, others may benefit from this self-revelation and enrich their own religious life. However the latter, being the most subjective and intimate of all modes of existence, is many a time inseparable from the individual personality-its character, temper, moods, and susceptibilities. Any attempt at standardization or generalization is based upon the assumption that what satisfies me is likely to please others as well. Yet, at times, my feelings and convictions are exclusively my own and I have no way to pass them on to others.

Therefore, when I speak about the philosophy of prayer or Shema, I do not claim universal validity for my conclusions. I am not lecturingon philosophy of prayer as such, but on prayer as understood, experienced and enjoyed by an individual. I acquaint you with my own personal experience. Whether, taking into consideration the differences between minds and the peculiarities of the individual, my experience can be detached from my idiosyncrasies and transferred to others, I do not know.

The pride and audacity which usually mark the philosophical pronouncements in the field of Jewish religion by secular scholars who have never had the opportunity to live through great religious experiences must be done away with. I am lecturing on prayer as understood, experienced and enjoyed by an individual. Of course, I try to corroborate my own convictions and feelings by coordinating them with the great disciplines of Halakhah and Aggadah. However, to say that my feeling of certitude carries universal significance would be sheer ignorance. Hence, in all humility I warn you not to ascribe to my remarks more veracity than an individual may claim for his subjective experiences.

Prayer and the Media of Religious Experience

Prayer (Tefillah) is one of the media through which communicates with the Almighty God. I purposely say "one of the media" in order to refute the doctrine advanced by the mystics, and accepted by the advocates of religious subjectivism, that prayer is the only means leading to the successful realization of our blind intent of reaching out to Him. Judaism has not subscribed to the idea of the centrality of prayer, even though it has not underestimated the importance of prayer as regards our God-searching and God-pursuing. Basically prayer is a mode of expression or objectification of our inner experience, of a state of mind, of a subjective religious act, of the adventurous and bold attempt of self-transcendence on the part of the human being, and of his incessant drive toward the infinite and eternal. This truth was discovered by Maimonides (Hilkhot Tefillah 1:1), when he raised the precept of prayer to the status of a Pentateuchal commandment, and rehabilitated the midrashicaggadic term avodah she-ba-lev (worship of the heart).

Prayer designates certain aspects of avodah she-ba-lev, the intimate and silent worship of God by the heart. Worship of the heart actually embraces the total commitment of man to his Creator, his being rooted in, close to and at the same time infinitely far from God, his fear and his love of God, his anxiety and security, despair and hope, his certainty and doubts, his awareness of Being and non-being, of rationality and purposiveness, and, simultaneously, of the absurdity and meaninglessness of the human performance. Prayer is one aspect of avodah she-balev, but worship is not confined in its process of objectification to prayer; worship expresses itself in a variety of ways, since it is the sum total of man's relationship to God. In other words, it is the quintessence of Judaism. If we want to understand tefillah (prayer), we must explore the media through which the religious experience manifests itself.

We shall discuss four such media of experience-the intellectual, the emotional, the volitional, and the dialogical.

The Intellectual Medium

Man must serve God at the intellectual level. Judaism believes that human thinking is only a reflex of the infinite mind and that knowledge and cognition are basically Divine possessions. Man is only allowed to share these treasures with their real Master-with God. Thought is the link connecting finite and infinite, creature and Creator. In the intellectual gesture, man meets God, and joins Him. Maimonides considers this thesis the crux of his religious philosophy. The intellectual approach to God is closely bound up either with scientific-metaphysical research and knowledge or with the study of the Torah. Maimonides considered both of these cognitive performances to be an expression of man's clinging to God. Thinking in terms of eternal truths, whether theoretical or ethical, is an act of love, of craving for God. In theory and ethos we give ourselves to Him. He claims us and our total being. God reveals Himself in the cosmic, as well as in the moral law. By discovering these principles, we meet God. In the intellectual gesture, there is a human turning towards God, a silent communication, a speechless dialogue with the Creator, Artist and Lover. Man and God are united through the bond of wisdom (see Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 10:6).

In an excerpt from Maimonides' Guide, which we shall discuss below, the exclusively intellectual feature in the communication between God and man is stressed with almost unrestrained zeal. The true worship of God is possible only when correct ideas of Him have previously been conceived. It is when one has arrived by way of intellectual research at a knowledge of God and His works that one commences devotion to Him; it is then that one may try to approach Him and strengthen even further the intellect which is the link to Him.

At this intellectual level, Judaism considered the study of Torah as the most sublime kind of worship, a way of meeting God, of breaking through the barrier separating the Absolute from the contingent and relative. Human intellectual engagement in the exploration of God's word, thought and law is a great religious experience, an activity bordering on the miraculous, a paradoxical bridge spanning the chasm that separates the world of vanity from infinity. The leaders of both Hasidut and Lithuanian halakhic rationalism saw in the preoccupation of the intellect with the Torah a sort of identification with Divine thought, the realization of man's longing for companionship with God, reaching the dimensions of the supra-natural unio mystica.

The Emotional Medium

Man is also able to approach God through his great and passionate love for Him, through an ecstatic experience which enables the finite being to transcend the bounds of finitude and to rise above the limited and relativve to the heights of absoluteness and endlessness. Man, many Jewish philosophers and mystics maintained, may reach God not only through the intellect but also through the "heart," through a pure and serene mind, however naive and simple; through a passionate, sincere, though not intellectually enlightened love; through craving for God, even when the heart which craves has not been illumined by Divine knowledge and wisdom; in loneliness and despair, even if the lonely and despairing soul cannot interpret its own misery; or through joy and jubilation, notwithstanding the fact that the heart which is filled with gratitude and happiness is too ignorant to analyze its aroused emotions. One may find access to God in ignorance and intellectual want as long as he is truthful and his feelings are sincere and genuine.

Yehudah Halevi expounds his theory of religious emotionality in the Kuzari. The king of the Khazars inquires of the haver (Jewish spokesman) concerning the relevance of the visionary experience: "When His divinity penetrates the mind, and His unity and power and wisdom, and that all is dependent on Him, while He does not depend on anything, should not the fear of God and His love penetrate, so that we would not require these corporeal images?" (Kuzari 4:4). The haver answers him as follows:

This is the philosophers' argument. But experience of the human soul shows that it fears when it experiences frightening sensations, and not when one is simply told about something, that it loves a beautiful form that is present, which it does not love when told about it. Do not believe the clever person who says that his thought attaches itself in an orderly manner, so that he attains what is requisite to knowing God through his intellect alone without relying on sensation ... Do you not see that you cannot arrange all your prayers in thought alone without speech? (4:5)

Of course, Yehudah Halevi is speaking of prophetic vision in contrast to philosophic abstraction. Let us not forget, however, that although nevu'ah (prophecy) has come to an end, the immediate apprehension of God has not been eliminated from the perspective of our religious experience. The emotional approach to God via the ecstatic leap into the beyond is to be considered a direct beholding of Him. There is no need for additional visionary perceptions characteristic of prophecy. The feeling of His presence, companionship and closeness is vivid and overpowering. One feels the breath of infinity in the stillness of a clear starlit night, when he simply perceives the great miracle of being in touch with the Creator who resides beyond the endless spaces of the flying nebulae. One may feel the "unseen reality," as William James calls it, in the happiness of self-fulfillment, in the embrace of a child and in the joy of spiritual accomplishment. It is not the physical law or the mathematical formula, but the overpowering thirst for God, the great hope for and experience of Him. The craving for closeness to Being as such, with the origin and root of everything, is an avodah she-ba-lev. Avodah she-ba-lev is realized in the misery of humiliation, when the soul cries out "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me" (Ps. 22:2), in the bliss of beholding His glory, when man sings out: "Raise O gates your heads ... and let enter the King of glory" (Ps. 24:7), in the suffering of the human being when he wears himself out in trying to appease a desire that is renewed with every gratification, in his frustrating undertaking to lend meaning and sense to his life, in his despair over the emptiness and absurdity of existence which he, together with the wise king of the Kuzari, recognizes as the vanity of all things and, it is realized when he feels unburdened and happy with his destiny and accomplishments, when his life is suddenly filled with positive significance and he experiences boundless joy in existing. In a word, the emotional life of man is an outstanding medium of communication with God.

The Halakhah recognizes the legitimate role of the affective approach to God, since it formulates norms with respect to the feelings of man. The prime task of these norms is to lend religious significance to human emotion, which, on its own, is quite often devoid of rationale and comparative coherence, logical continuity and sensibility. Rabbinic passages pertaining to the love and fear of God give uncontrovertible proof of the Halakhah's concern with the sentiments of man.

Even Maimonides, the great rationalist, who considered the intellectual connection to God as the prime objective of man's pursuits and cognitive attainments, as the safest way leading to God, admitted that a rational, intellectual approach is not enough. The intellectual quest must express itself in an act of love whereby man attaches himself to the Infinite. The distinction between Maimonides and Halevi is to be understood in terms of philosophical order rather than of essence. Maimonides posits the intellect as the point of departure for the dramatic ascent of man to God that coincides with the great, passionate love of man: "according to the knowledge, so is the love" (Hilkhot Teshuvah 10:6). Yehudah Halevi, as an adherent of visionary experience, starts out with the emotional response of man to the vision of God to man; he depicts man confronted with the reality of the Infinite and from there he proceeds to the interpretation of the emotional experience in rational terms. Medieval Jewish philosophers who had, in the main, a good halakhic training, and were thus perpetually occupied with difficult intellectual matters, could not, like Christian mystics, simply abandon themselves to fantasies and emotional, uncontrolled outbursts and upheavals. The ecstatic moment in the religious experience must be harnessed by intellectual categories and must never exceed the bounds of rationality. Judaism has always tried to maintain a fundamental equilibrium of thought and emotion, of cognition and feeling. Feeling is always seen as a conative experience and this aspect is analyzed in the light of rational criteria. The meaning is analyzed, the worth of the striving is examined, and the possibilities of attainment scrutinized.

The Volitional Medium

Man also approaches God through a third medium, the volitional sphere. By exercising his free moral will, arriving at reasonable ethical decisions and attempting to translate them into facts, man serves God and communes with Him. Halakhic Judaism has placed the main emphasis upon this type of service, which consists in raising natural man to the plateau of the spiritual, harnessing and guiding physiological-psychical man's insensate drives and impulses, and endowing them with meaningful content and purposive directedness.


Excerpted from Worship of the Heart by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Copyright © 2003 by Toras HoRav Foundation
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

"When I Speak about the Philosophy of Prayer" 1
1 Prayer and the Media of Religious Experience 3
2 Prayer, Petition and Crisis 13
3 The Human Condition and Prayer 37
4 Exaltation of God and Redeeming the Aesthetic 51
5 The Absence of God and the Community of Prayer 73
6 Intention (Kavvanah) in Reading Shema and in Prayer 87
7 The Essence of Shema: Unity of God, Love of God, and the Study of His Law 107
8 Immanence and Transcendence: Comments on Birkat Yotzer Or 122
9 Accepting the Yoke of Heaven 133
10 Reflections on the Amidah 144
Index of Topics and Names 183
Index of Biblical and Rabbinic Sources 193
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