Shiur: Rav Soloveitchik on Tefillah #2 – The Community of Prophecy and Prayer

The Community of Prophecy and Prayer

  1. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 51–52

With the sound of the divine voice addressing man by his name, be it Abraham, Moses, or Samuel, God, whom man has sought along the endless trails of the universe, is discovered suddenly as being close to and intimate with man, standing just opposite or beside him. At this meeting—initiated by God—of God and man, the covenantal prophetic community is established. When man addresses himself to God, calling Him in the informal, friendly tones of “Thou,” the same miracle happens again: God joins man and at this meeting, initiated by man, a new covenantal community is born—the prayer community.

Covenantal Dialogue

  1. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 52–53

I have termed both communities, the prophetic and the prayerful, covenantal because of a threefold reason. (i) In both communities, a confrontation of God and man takes place. It is quite obvious that the prophecy awareness, which is toto genere different from the mystical experience, can only be interpreted in the unique categories of the covenantal event. The whole idea of prophecy would be fraught with an inner contradiction if man’s approach to God remained indirect and impersonal, expecting nature to mediate between him and his Creator. Only within the covenantal community, which is formed by God descending upon the mount and man, upon the call of the Lord, ascending the mount, is a direct and personal relationship expressing itself in the prophetic “face-to-face” colloquy established. “And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face as man speaketh unto his friend.”

Prayer likewise is unimaginable without having man stand before and address himself to God in a manner reminiscent of the prophets dialogue with God. 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.

  1. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 55–56

Indeed, the prayer community was born the very instant the prophetic community expired and, when it did come into the spiritual world of the Jew of old, it did not supersede the prophetic community but rather perpetuated it. Prayer is the continuation of prophecy, and the fellowship of prayerful men is ipso facto the fellowship of prophets. The difference between prayer and prophecy is, as I have already mentioned, related not to the substance of the dialogue but rather to the order in which it is conducted. While within the prophetic community God takes the initiative—He speaks and man listens—in the prayer community the initiative belongs to man: he does the speaking and God, the listening. The word of prophecy is God’s and is accepted by man. The word of prayer is man’s and God accepts it. The two Halakhic traditions tracing the origin of prayer to Abraham and the other Patriarchs and attributing the authorship of statutory prayer to the men of the Great Assembly reveal the Judaic view of the sameness of the prophecy and prayer communities. Covenantal prophecy and prayer blossomed forth the very instant Abraham met God and became involved in a strange colloquy. At a later date, 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. For the men of the Great Assembly knew that with the withdrawal of the colloquy from the field of consciousness of the Judaic community, the latter would lose the intimate companionship of God and consequently its covenantal status. 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. And so the covenantal colloquy was shifted from the level of prophecy to that of prayer.

Ethics – Third Parties to Prayer

  1. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 57–59

Both the prophetic and the prayerful communities are threefold structures, consisting of all three grammatical personae—I, thou, and He. The prophet in whom God confides and to whom He entrusts His eternal word must always remember that he is the representative of the many anonymous “they” for whom the message is earmarked. No man, however great and noble, is worthy of God’s word if he fancies that the word is his private property not to be shared by others.

The prayerful community must not, likewise, remain a twofold affair: a transient “I” addressing himself to the eternal “He.” The inclusion of others is indispensable. Man should avoid praying for himself alone. The plural form of prayer is of central Halakhic significance. When disaster strikes, one must not be immersed completely in his own passional destiny, thinking exclusively of himself, being concerned only with himself, and petitioning God merely for himself. The foundation of efficacious and noble prayer is human solidarity and sympathy or the covenantal awareness of existential togetherness, of sharing and experiencing the travail and suffering of those for whom majestic Adam the first has no concern. Only Adam the second knows the art of praying since he confronts God with the petition of the many. The fenced-in egocentric and ego-oriented Adam the first is ineligible to join the covenantal prayer community of which God is a fellow member.

Law and Democratization

  1. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 59

Both communities sprang into existence not only because of a singular experience of having met God, but also and perhaps mainly because of the discovery of the normative kerygma entailed in this very experience. Any encounter with God, if it is to redeem man, must be crystallized and objectified as a normative ethico-moral message. If, however, the encounter is reduced to its non-kerygmatic and non-imperative aspects, no matter how great and magnificent an experience it is, it cannot be classified as a covenantal encounter since the very semantics of the term “covenant” implies freely assumed obligations and commitments. 

  1. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 61

The above-said, which is true of the universal faith community in general, has particular validity for the Halakhic community. The prime purpose of revelation in the opinion of the Halakhah is related to the giving of the Law. The God—man confrontation serves a didactic goal. God involves Himself in the covenantal community through the medium of teaching and instructing. The Halakhah has looked upon God since time immemorial as the teacher par excellence. This educational task was in turn entrusted to the prophet whose greatest ambition is to teach the covenantal community. In short, God’s word is ipso facto God’s law and norm.

  1. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 61–63

Let me add that for Judaism the reverse would be not only unthinkable but immoral as well. If we were to eliminate the norm from the prophetic God—man encounter, confining the latter to its apocalyptic aspects, then the whole prophetic drama would be acted out by a limited number of privileged individuals to the exclusion of the rest of the people. Such a prospect, turning the prophetic colloquy into an esoteric-egotistic affair, would be immoral from the viewpoint of Halakhic Judaism, which is exoterically-minded and democratic to its very core. The democratization of the God—man confrontation was made possible by the centrality of the normative element in prophecy. Only the norm engraved upon the two tablets of stone, visible and accessible to all, draws the people into this confrontation “Ye are placed this day, all of you, before the Eternal, your God; your heads of your tribes, your elders and your bailiffs, with all the men of Israel… from the hewer of thy wood unto the drawer of thy water.” And how can the woodchopper and the water drawer participate in this adventurous meeting of God and man, if not through helping in a humble way to realize the covenantal norm?

Prayer likewise consists not only of an awareness of the presence of God, but of an act of committing oneself to God and accepting His ethico-moral authority. Who is qualified to engage God in the prayer colloquy? Clearly, the person who is ready to cleanse himself of imperfection and evil. Any kind of injustice, corruption, cruelty, or the like desecrates the very essence of the prayer adventure, since it encases man in an ugly little world into which God is unwilling to enter. If man craves to meet God in prayer, then he must purge himself of all that separates him from God. The Halakhah has never looked upon prayer as a separate magical gesture in which man may engage without integrating it into the total pattern of his life. God hearkens to prayer if it rises from a heart contrite over a muddled and faulty life and from a resolute mind ready to redeem this life. In short, only the committed person is qualified to pray and to meet God.

Prayer is always the harbinger of moral reformation. This is the reason why prayer per se does not occupy as prominent a place in the Halakhic community as it does in other faith communities, and why prayer is not the great religious activity claiming, if not exclusiveness, at least centrality. Prayer must always be related to a prayerful life which is consecrated to the realization of the divine imperative, and as such it is not a separate entity, but the sublime prologue to Halakhic action.

Masorah and Overcoming Finitude

  1. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 61–63

Let us not forget that the covenantal community includes the “He” who addresses Himself to man not only from the “now” dimension but also from the supposedly already vanished past, from the ashes of a dead “before” facticity as well as from the as yet unborn future, for all boundaries establishing “before,” “now,” and “after” disappear when God the Eternal speaks. Within the covenantal community not only contemporary individuals but generations are engaged in a colloquy, and each single experience of time is three-dimensional, manifesting itself in memory, actuality, and anticipatory tension. This experiential triad, translated into moral categories, results in an awesome awareness of responsibility to a great past which handed down the divine imperative to the present generation in trust and confidence and to a mute future expecting this generation to discharge its covenantal duty conscientiously and honorably. The best illustration of such a paradoxical time awareness, which involves the individual in the historic performances of the past and makes him also participate in the dramatic action of an unknown future, can be found in the Judaic masorah community. The latter represents not only a formal succession within the framework of calendaric time but the union of the three grammatical tenses in an all-embracing time experience. The masorah community cuts across the centuries, indeed millennia, of calendaric time and unites those who already played their part, delivered their message, acquired fame, and withdrew from the covenantal stage quietly and humbly with those who have not yet been given the opportunity to appear on the covenantal stage and who wait for their turn in the anonymity of the “about to be.”

Thus, the individual member of the covenantal faith community feels rooted in the past and related to the future. The “before” and the “after” are interwoven in his time experience. He is not a hitchhiker suddenly invited to get into a swiftly traveling vehicle which emerged from nowhere and from which he will be dropped into the abyss of timelessness while the vehicle will rush on into parts unknown, continually taking on new passengers and dropping the old ones. Covenantal man begins to find redemption from insecurity and to feel at home in the continuum of time and responsibility which is experienced by him in its endless totality. מעולם ועד עולם, from everlasting even to everlasting. He is no longer an evanescent being. He is rooted in everlasting time, in eternity itself. And so covenantal man confronts not only a transient contemporary “thou” but countless “thou” generations which advance toward him from all sides and engage him in the great colloquy in which God Himself participates with love and joy.

Conclusion

Perpetuation of ProphecyHalakhah is “Democratic”Mesorah
Halakhic ManMake yourself into someone who could get prophecyHalakhah’s obligations are equally fulfillable by each and every JewParticipation in Halakhic discourse makes your part of trans-historic mesorah and thus overcomes death
And From There You Shall SeekIdentify with the chain of figures stretching back to the Prophets and Moshe, giving rise to Oral TorahHalakhah’s obligations are equally fulfillable by each and every JewIdentify deeply with and feel driven by the passing on of the tradition
The Lonely Man of FaithPrayer as a covenantal dialogueHalakhah’s obligations are equally fulfillable by each and every JewIdentify with the covenantal dialogues with the eternal God of Jews both past and future, and feel the moral imperative of that “paradoxical time-awareness”

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