Rabbi Soloveitchik on prayer and life

Worship of the Heart

By Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Ktav Publishing House, 2003, 197 pages

 

This is one of about a dozen volumes published after Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s death (1903-1993) based on writings he never published. This one, the second of the posthumous volumes, contains ten essays on prayer. He offers his understanding of the purpose of prayer, the meaning of several specific prayers, and his concept of what God expects of people. This is the third of his posthumous book that I read – see my reviews of The Emergence of Ethical Man and Family Redeemed, the first and the last of the published posthumousvolumes. In all three books, contrary to the current thinking of many Jews, Rabbi Soloveitchik frequently uses biblical and halakhic sources that show that Judaism expects its adherents to live a full, enjoyable, and natural life. However, in seeming contrast to this liberal approach, he insists that Jews sacrifice their desires and fully accept the dictates of halakhah.

 

Rabbi Soloveitchik sees prayer as “the media through which man communicates with the Almighty God.” Prayer is “an expression of human nature.”  People need to pray. They can experience God while praying. But this encounter can only be achieved when people pray with kavanah, deep concentration, because “the physical performances (of prayer) divorced from the inner experience is worthless.” For example, the basic theme of the Amidah prayer – the prayer recited while standing – is distress, and people who say this prayer should be conscious of their distress while saying it. Similarly, the purpose of the Shema prayer – “Hear, Israel, the Lord our God is one” – is a “declaration, confession, profession of faith,” and people should feel and understand the verse’s meaning while reciting it.

 

Prayer, he teaches, should prompt people to stop being passive, to become involved with the world, “improving creation, of confronting evil and destructive forces, of protecting himself against the disease of natural catastrophes, approaching the world with an optimistic philosophy of activism.” People need to understand that God is not only “the source and root of truth and light, of fact and value…but also that He is the origin of beauty, of the delightful and the pleasant” and these creations should not be ignored. “Only through coming in contact with the beautiful and exalted may one apprehend God…feel the embrace of the Creator, and the warm breath of infinity.”

 

God is not found in books, even holy books, but only when one experiences the beauties and difficulties of life. “Only when man lives through the great encounter with the unknown in the night of doubt, suffering incessant dread and depression, does he experience the daybreak of a cheerful faith, full of promise of delivery and bliss.” Contrary to the views of some people, “accepting the yoke of Heaven signifies the fulfillment of both the natural law and moral law.”

 

People must understand that prophecy, communication with God, has not ceased.  God speaks to man through “the immediate, living, avid concrete and fleeting world of sense perception and sensation. Being, in all its dimensions, is a revelation. God wills the cosmic process and speaks through it.”

 

But, Rabbi Soloveitchik states, Judaism insists that people sacrifice themselves whenever halakhah (Jewish laws as interpreted by the rabbis) demands that the Jew perform certain acts. “The most satisfactory offering to God is the conquest of one’s culturally-conditioned desires if they are opposed to God’s will. Halakhah did not prescribe total withdrawal from life or an asceticism of the flesh. On the contrary, Halakhah wants man to enjoy God’s world.”  One example is mentioned in his book Family Redeemed: husbands should enjoy the benefits of married life; however, because ancient halakhah demands it, they should know that Judaism does not allow their wives to participate fully in Jewish life.

 

In summary, Rabbi Soloveitchik teaches that people need to understand that God did not create the world so that is should be ignored, God is revealed in the laws of nature and the beauties of the world; and prayer, like many other things, is a natural phenomenon, a human need, a way of expressing love and distress, and communicating with oneself and with God. Jews should live a full natural life. However, they must observe all the dictates of halakhah.

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