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”

Shiur: Rav Soloveitchik on Tefillah #1 – The Redemption of Prayer and the Human

The first of two classes on prayer for my 2020 Rav Soloveitchik course. In this class, we explore the centrality of prayer in Judaism, why prayer really is about asking for our needs, and the critical role of suffering in human experience and prayer.

The Redemption of Prayer and the Human

1. Rav Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart (2003), 2

Therefore, when I speak about the philosophy of prayer or Shema, I do not claim universal validity for my conclusions. I am not lecturing on 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 Redemption of Prayer

2. Rav Soloveitchik, “Redemption, Prayer, and Talmud Torah,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought (1978), 55

What is redemption? Redemption involves a movement by an individual or a community from the periphery of history to its center; or, to employ a term from physics, redemption is a centripetal movement. To be on the periphery means to be a non-history-making entity, while movement toward the center renders the same entity history-making and history-conscious. Naturally the question arises: What is meant by a history-making people or community? A history-making people is one that leads a speaking, story-telling, communing free existence, while a non-history-making, non-history-involved group leads a non-communing and therefore a silent, unfree existence.

Like redemption, prayer too is a basic experiential category in Judaism. We have appeared, within the historical arena, as a prayerful nation. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and Solomon all prayed. Through prayer they achieved the covenant with God, and through prayer, we expect eventually to realize that covenant.

3. Rav Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart (2003), 146–147

According to Rambam, it is impossible to conceive of Divine worship without including prayer in it. What then is prayer? It is the expression of the soul that yearns for God via the medium of the word, through which the human being gives expression to the storminess of his soul and spirit.

The Torah commands love and fear of God, total commitment to Him and cleaving unto Him. Antithetical, dynamic experiences which seek to erupt and reveal themselves must be integrated into the external, concrete realm through the forms of language and expression, by means of song, weeping and supplication.

Had the Torah not commanded prayer as the exclusive medium for expressing inward worship—we do not know what the God-seeking human being, whose soul thirsts for the living God, would do. Could one entertain the thought that Judaism would want man to suppress his experience? On the contrary! The Halakhah was always interested in expressions of the inner life, in the uncovering of the subjective and opaque, and in the conversion of emotion and thought into action. How could one assume that the Halakhah was totally oblivious to the supreme attainment—that is, to prayer?! Did Halakhah demand that worship be mute, that experiences be concealed, that they not be allowed expression?

When Rambam said that prayer is Biblically ordained and identical with the service of the heart, he thereby redeemed love, fear, and indeed our entire religious life from muteness. They were given a voice. The lover expresses his yearning, the trembler his fear, the wretched and dejected his helplessness, the perplexed his confusion, and the joyful his religious song—all within the framework of prayer. 

Prayer, Suffering, and Petition

4. Rav Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart (2003), 12

The reason for the centrality that Judaism has given to the element of petition in the service lies in our philosophy of prayer. Avodah she-ba-lev, for all its tendency to express the religious experience as a whole, and particularly its emotional aspect, does also tend to single out a particular state of mind. For when we view the noetic content of prayer we must admit that one emotion is central as far as prayer is concerned— namely the feeling of unqualified dependence. David expressed this experience of complete, absolute, unconditional dependence upon God in his beautiful verses: “If I did not quiet myself like a weaned child upon his mother, verily my soul is like one weaned. Let Israel hope in God now and forever” (Ps. 131:2-3).

5. Rav Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart (2003), 32–33

Human existence exhausts itself in the experience of crisis, in the continual discovering of oneself in distress, in the steady awareness of coming closer and closer to the brink of utter despair, the paradoxical concept of being born out of nothingness and running down to nothingness. This is a part of the ontic consciousness of man. The factum expressed in the two words “I am” is an incomplete sentence. We must always qualify it by adding two words: “I am in distress.” Judaism wants man to discover the tragic element of his existence, to place himself voluntarily in distressing narrowness, to explicate and bring to the fore the deep-seated crisis in his very existence. Surely man must fight courageously against the extraneous surface crisis. Judaism has charged man with the task of improving creation, of confronting evil and destructive forces, of protecting himself against disease and natural catastrophes, approaching the world with an optimistic philosophy of activism…

Out of the depths in which the individual finds himself, one calls upon God in seclusion and loneliness. The existential, passional experience is not shared by the thou, however close he is to the I, since it is an integral part of the existential awareness, which is singular, and hence inexpressible in the universal terms through which we communicate our standardized experiences. No one but the sufferer himself is involved in this deeply human anguish and conflict. It is the sufferer whose awareness oscillates between bliss and pain, in the great negation of the finite that rises out of its confrontation by the infinite. Neither spouse nor child nor parent may understand and sympathize with the lonely individual when his existential experience is at a low ebb, when trials, doubts and inhibitions abound. The prayer echoing the depth crisis of a questing soul emerges from seclusion, from out of the loneliness of the individual whom everybody save God has abandoned.

6. Rav Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart (2003), 35–36

When man is in need and prays, God listens. One of God’s attributes is shomea tefillah: “He who listens to prayer.” Let us note that Judaism has never promised that God accepts all prayer. The efficacy of prayer is not the central term of inquiry in our philosophy of avodah she-ha-lev. Acceptance of prayer is a hope, a vision, a wish, a petition, but not a principle or a premise. The foundation of prayer is not the conviction of its effectiveness but the belief that through it we approach God intimately and the miraculous community embracing finite man and his Creator is born. The basic function of prayer is not its practical consequences but the metaphysical formation of a fellowship consisting of God and man.

Man is always in need because he is always in crisis and distress. Inner distress expresses itself in man’s disapproval of himself. This awareness is of a metaphysical origin, although it may be manifested at an individual-psychological, social-institutional or political level. Man is dissatisfied with himself and he lacks faith in the justifiability and legitimacy of his existence. Somehow, every human being, great or small, however successful and outstanding, loses every day afresh his ontic fulcrum (the equilibrium of his being), which he tries steadily to recover. He feels the paradox involved in an existence which has been imposed upon him in an unexplained way, and which finally betrays and deserts him in the same absurd manner: “Against your will were you born, against your will do you live, and against your will do you die” (Avot 4:29). Even the simplest man may perceive and comprehend this existential tragic aspect of man.

7. Rav Soloveitchik, “Redemption, Prayer, and Talmud Torah,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought (1978), 65–66

Judaism, in contradistinction to mystical quietism, which recommended toleration of pain, wants man to cry out aloud against any kind of pain, to react indignantly to all kinds of injustice or unfairness. For Judaism held that the individual who displays indifference to pain and suffering, who meekly reconciles himself to the ugly, disproportionate and unjust in life, is not capable of appreciating beauty and goodness. Whoever permits his legitimate needs to go unsatisfied will never be sympathetic to the crying needs of others. A human morality based on love and friendship, on sharing in the travail of others, cannot be practiced if the person’s own need-awareness is dull, and he does not know what suffering is. Hence Judaism rejected models of existence which deny human need, such as the angelic or the monastic. For Judaism, need-awareness constitutes part of the definition of human existence. Need-awareness turns into a passional experience, into a suffering awareness. Dolorem ferre ergo sum – I suffer, therefore I am – to paraphrase Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. While the Cartesian cogito would also apply to an angel or even to the devil, our inference is limited to man: neither angel nor devil knows suffering.

Therefore, prayer in Judaism, unlike the prayer of classical mysticism, is bound up with the human needs, wants, drives and urges, which make man suffer. Prayer is the doctrine of human needs. Prayer tells the individual, as well as the community, what his, or its, genuine needs are, what he should, or should not, petition God about. Of the nineteen benedictions in our עמידה, thirteen are concerned with basic human needs, individual as well as social-national. Even two of the last three benedictions (רצה and שים שלום) are of a petitional nature. The person in need is summoned to pray… To a happy man, to contented man, the secret of prayer was not revealed. God needs neither thanks nor hymns. He wants to hear the outcry of man, confronted with a ruthless reality. He expects prayer to rise from a suffering world cognizant of its genuine needs. In short, through prayer man finds himself. Prayer enlightens man about his needs. It tells man the story of his hidden hopes and expectations. It teaches him how to behold the vision and how to strive in order to realize this vision, when to be satisfied with what one possesses, when to reach out for more. In a word, man finds his need-awareness, himself, in prayer. Of course, the very instant he finds himself, he becomes a redeemed being.

Sacrifice – Because nothing is ever just one thing

8. Rav Soloveitchik, “Redemption, Prayer, and Talmud Torah,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought (1978), 70–72

What does this term denote? Not the service by the heart, but the offering of the heart; Judaic dialectic plays “mischievously” with two opposites, two irreconcilable aspects of prayer. It announces prayer as self-acquisition, self-discovery, self-objectification and self-redemption. By sensitizing and logicizing the awareness of need, man delivers himself from the silence and from non-being and becomes an I, a complete being who belongs to himself. At this level, prayer makes man feel whole: at this level, prayer means self-acquisition. Yet there is another aspect to prayer: prayer is an act of giving away. Prayer means sacrifice, unrestricted offering of the whole self, the returning to God of body and soul, everything one possesses and cherishes. There is an altar in heaven upon which the archangel Michael offers the souls of the righteous. Thrice daily we petition God to accept our prayers, as well as the fires – the self-sacrifices of Israel – on that altar (ואשי ישראל ותפילתם באהבה תקבל ברצון). Prayer is rooted in the idea that man belongs, not to himself, but that God claims man, and that His claim to man is not partial but total… Of course Judaism is vehemently opposed to human sacrifice. The Bible speaks with indignation and disdain of child sacrifice; physical human sacrifice was declared abominable. Yet the idea that man belongs to God, without qualification, and that God, from time to time, makes a demand upon man to return what is God’s to God is an important principle in Judaism…

A new equation emerges: prayer equals sacrifice. Initially, prayer helps man discover himself, through understanding and affirmation of his need-awareness. Once the task of self-discovery is fulfilled, man is summoned to ascend the altar and return everything he has just acquired to God. Man who was told to create himself, objectify himself, and gain independence and freedom for himself, must return everything he considers his own to God.

Suffering and the Community of Prayer

9. Rav Soloveitchik, “The Community,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought (1978), 19

When the I becomes aware of his being responsible for the well-being of the thou, whom he has helped bring into existence, a new community emerges: the community of prayer. What does this mean? It means a community of common pain, of common suffering. The Halacha has taught the individual to include his fellow man in his prayer. The individual must not limit himself to his own needs, no matter how pressing those needs are and how distinguished he is. Halacha has formulated prayer in the plural. There is hardly a prayer which avails itself of the grammatical singular. Even private prayers, such as those offered on the occasion of sickness, death, or other crises, are recited in the plural.

10. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 19

Job suddenly understood the nature of Jewish prayer. He discovered in one moment its plural voice and the attribute of loving-kindness that sweeps man from the private to the public domain. He began to live a communal life, to feel the community’s hurts, to mourn its disasters and rejoice in its moments of celebration. Job’s sufferings found their true repair in his escape from the prison in which he had found himself, and God’s wrath was assuaged. As it is written: “And the Lord changed the fortunes of Job when he prayed for his friends״ (Job 42:10).

Lag Ba’Omer and Authenticity – My Introduction to Studying Lekutei Moharan

Lag Ba’Omer and Authenticity – My Introduction to Studying Lekutei Moharan

For Lag Ba’Omer, I want to look quickly at a piece from Rebbe Naḥman’s Lekutei Moharan which served as my entrance into studying, and actually finding meaning in, Rebbe Naḥman. This piece (LM I:66) is the longest piece in the first half of Lekutei Moharan, and covers a huge variety of topics. However, there are clear threads that emerge throughout, and this actually helped me learn a key skill in studying Rebbe Naḥman, which is the ability to pick up on recurring themes or ideas, and make note of specific lines or paragraphs where the idea is expressed particularly clearly. (Another important step in my introduction to Lekutei Moharan was reading this essay by Shaul Magid.)

lag-baomer

Turning to the teaching itself, Rebbe Naḥman begins the teaching as a meditation on the scene of Elijah’s ascent to Heaven in 2 Kings, focusing on one specific aspect of the scene.

As they were crossing, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” Elisha answered, “Let a double portion of your spirit pass on to me.”
“You have asked a difficult thing,” he said. “If you see me as I am being taken from you, this will be granted to you; if not, it will not.” (2 Kings 2:9-10)

What grabs Rebbe Naḥman here, and what is glossed over but certainly not intuitive in the the biblical text itself, is the possibility of someone giving twice what they have. Thinking perhaps overly literally about Elisha’s request, Rebbe Naḥman sets out to solve how it is that Elijah could have only a certain amount of spirit (ruaḥ), and yet potentially give twice that amount.

In the process of grappling with this issue, Rebbe Naḥman expands the range of his discussion from the scene of Elijah’s death in the bible to include all deaths of all tzaddikim everywhere.

At the time of a tzaddik’s passing, he attains far more than he attained during his lifetime; each one according to his spiritual level. We find this in connection with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the Idra, Rabbeinu HaKadosh, and other tzaddikim.

While the significance and power of the tzaddik is an important theme in writings form a large variety of Hasidic authors, Rebbe Naḥman emphasizes it to a strong degree. In this piece, it serves to connect disparate characters. Elijah is one of the biblical characters who manages to bridge heaven and earth, and is considered the prophet who will bring the messiah and new messianic revelations. Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai is the hero of the Zohar, who brings down and reveals heavenly secrets that were never before revealed, and would never be revealed again until the Messianic Era, with his most intense revelations taking place on the day of his death. Rebbe Naḥman also mentions Rebbe Yehuda Hanasi, who compiled the Mishna, presumably because this could be seen as a form of revelation.

Though left unsaid, the fact that Rebbe Naḥman considered himself a tzaddik (in fact, not just a tzaddik, but the tzaddik of his generation) probably hovers in the background here. That will be important later.

Rebbe Naḥman then returns to the particular issue of the double-spirit that Elisha requests, explaining that the tzaddik has two spirits, a higher spirit and a lower spirit, and that they always fail to bring down the higher spirit and only ever access the lower spirit. The only exception to this, Rebbe Naḥman says, is when the tzaddik dies (“passes on/away” in this translation), when they can access both spirits. As he explains it, this timing is not incidental.

Know, too, that the reason for this is that at the time of [the tzaddik’s] passing, the spirit and vitality from on high descend. The lower and higher spirits then embrace and unite. In truth, they are one, so that as soon as they reveal themselves to each other, they bond in a most exceptional oneness. Yet the spirit from on high cannot stay in this world, since by nature it cannot bear this world at all. It therefore departs for on high, and consequently the tzaddik passes on. For when the aforementioned spirit departs, the spirit from below departs with it, on account of the most exceptional oneness in which they were united.

Rebbe Naḥman essentially argues that when the higher spirit ascends, when the tzaddik achieves this peak state, then he must necessarily die, the lower spirit departing with the higher one. While that is all well and good as an abstract statement, it’s a little hard to evaluate, and certainly hard to translate into the language in which I live my life. What does it mean to have a higher and lower spirit? Why can’t the tzaddik ever attain the upper spirit? And why does attaining it result in the tzaddik’s death?

Rebbe Naḥman himself will do some of the work of answering these question. He takes a first step in this direction by explaining that when he talks about the death of the tzaddik, that doesn’t have to be understood literally.

There are many expressions of ascents and descents, since there are many different aspects of passing away. There is the soul’s passing, and there is the loss of one’s name, which is also an aspect of passing away.

So whatever the higher and lower spirits are, and whatever it means to attain the higher one, it doesn’t have to lead to the tzaddik literally dying.

Rebbe Naḥman then clarifies what he means when he refers to higher and lower spirits, shifting from mystical to philosophical/existential terminology.

This also corresponds to the two spirits mentioned above: the spirit from on high and the spirit from below, which are the aspects of potential and actual.

This is a significant moment in Rebbe Naḥman’s teaching, when he translates the abstract language into more concrete ideas. This is something he actually does fairly often, usually tying his complex theory and exegesis into concrete rituals. In this teaching, Rebbe Naḥman translations “higher and lower spirits” into the still somewhat abstract “potential and actual,” but he also ties this directly into issues of intention (kavvanah) in prayer, as we will touch on below.

To flesh this out a bit, Rebbe Naḥman is saying that a person always has two aspects, potential and actual, and they can never really attain the potential. As he explains at length through various Kabbalistic interpretations (such as the shape of the aleph and the interweaving of the divine names “Adonai” and “YHWH”), a person can never realize her vision perfectly. The “potential,” the idea she hold in her head, never survives the process of bringing it into the real world. There’s an unbridgeable gap between “potential” and “actual.” It is this gap that the tzaddik overcomes at the time of her death, a process that, in fact, causes her death (literal or otherwise). The question that Rebbe Naḥman therefore needs to tackle is how you overcome this gap.

He does this when he shifts to a more concrete topic, prayer. He wants to talk about how you pray with “truth,” essentially meaning with proper intent (kavvanah). In terms of the discussion of “potential” and “actual,” it is a question of how you actually pray the ideal prayer that you would like to pray. Rebbe Naḥman first and foremost sets up the problem.

Now, truth is greatest when a person is not dependent on other human beings since “When someone is dependent on other human beings, his face changes color like a kroom to many different shades.” This is the reason someone who is dependent on other people finds it very difficult to pray with the community. It would be more beneficial and easier for him to pray in private, since in public he is plagued by powerful ulterior motives and appearances. On account of his being dependent on other people, he prays with affectation and pretense in order to impress them. Even someone who earns his own living, and so does not have to rely on others for livelihood, may nevertheless be dependent on others for respect or some other thing. In other words, if he craves respect, prominence and the like, he is dependent on other people since he needs their respect and esteem. When he is dependent on other human beings for any of the above he is in jeopardy of perpetrating a grave lie while praying i.e., of gesticulating unnecessarily in order to impress people.

This is the passage that most struck me when I first read this teaching. Rebbe Naḥman here essentially recreates the problem of authenticity. How can we act truly, actually express ourselves, when we are dependent on other people? And are we not always dependent on other people, for recognition at the very least? Since we are always dependent on other people, we can never truly pray around them. In contrast, Rebbe Naḥman says,

someone not dependent on other humans, who is not reliant on them for anything, can stand in the midst of thousands of people and pray honestly, to God alone. This is because he does not depend on any human being for livelihood, honor or anything else. Rather, “his hope is in God his Lord.”

People who are independent, are capable of being true, and of actualizing their potential. How is this connected to death? As Rebbe Naḥman said, “death” here includes “the loss of one’s name, which is also an aspect of passing away.” The willingness to lose your name, your reputation, is very logically connected to social independence (Rebbe Naḥman makes this explicit in Lekutei Moharan I:260, but it’s clear enough from the piece we’re looking at). Someone willing to break free of the need for recognition, someone who can recognize that their own self-approval is enough, can realize their potential and attain the double-spirit that Elisha requested from Elijah on the day of his death.

In these few excerpts, RebbeNaḥman has reframed the death of tsaddik as the capacity to escape the social bonds holding you back and actualize your potential. This also shifts the way we should understand the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai. Rebbe Naḥman is explaining that Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai managed to reveal such important teachings on the day of his death because he was finally free of his social constraints and able to make his vision a reality. (For people interested in differences between the rest of the Zohar and the Idrot attributed to the day of Rabbi Shimon’s death, and the corresponding differences between the teachings of the Ramak and Arizal, this is a fascinating analytical lens).

 

There’s a lot more in this piece that I didn’t even get to touch on, such as a connection between words, meaning and desire that practically cries out to be read through a Lacanian lens (such as Yishai Mevorach provides in chapter 3 of Yehudi Shel Haketse, though he focuses on the parallel in Lekutei Moharan I:31). However, as I hope I’ve demonstrated here, part of reading long teachings from Lekutei Moharan is the ability to break them down into smaller passages and connect different ideas. The understanding of death and authenticity that I have drawn out here is a valuable idea in and of itself, even without the larger train of thought to which it contributes.

On the Idea of Prayer as Human Nature in Contemporary Israeli Neo-Hasidut

On the Idea of Prayer as Human Nature
in Contemporary Israeli Neo-Hasidut

(Some Preliminary Thoughts)

 

I want to look at some texts from the contemporary Dati Le’umi turn to Hasidic texts in order to examine the theme of prayer as a natural human action. Specifically, I will look at texts from Rav Menahem Froman, Rav Dov Singer, and Yishai Mevorach. However, I will first briefly examine a similar idea from the writings of Rav Soloveitchik, in order to highlight the difference between Soloveitchik’s idea and the Israeli texts.

 

Rav Soloveitchik

In various text, Soloveitchik argues that petitionary prayer is the purest, most authentically Jewish form of prayer. He argues that petition is the aspect of prayer that corresponds to a person’s essential creaturely neediness.[1]

soloveitchik_web_0

Prayer as a personal experience, as a creative gesture, is possible only if and when man discovers himself in crisis or in need. That is why the Jewish idea of prayer differs from the mystical idea, insofar as we have emphasized the centrality of the petition, while the mystics have stressed the relevance of the hymn. Since prayer flows from a personality which finds itself in need, despondent and hopeless, its main theme is not praise or adoration, but rather request, demand, supplication. True prayer comes to expression in the act of begging and interceding.[2]

Therefore, prayer in Judaism, unlike the prayer of classical mysticism, is bound up with human needs, wants, drives and urges, which make man suffer. Prayer is the doctrine of human needs. Prayer tells the individual, as well as the community, what his, or its, genuine needs are, what he should, or should not, petition God about […] In short, through prayer man finds himself. Prayer enlightens man about his needs. It tells man the story of his hidden hopes and expectations. It teaches him how to behold the vision and how to strive in order to realize this vision, when to be satisfied with what one possesses, when to reach out for more. In a word, man finds his need-awareness, himself, in prayer.[3]

Prayer, Soloveitchik says, fits with human nature. Moreover, it actually helps a person recognize her own nature. Petitioning God is both natural, and helps us be natural. However, it is not itself human nature. Additionally, he sees petition as just one part of prayer, if the primary one, and the rest of prayer is not as essentially linked to human nature. The texts from Israeli thinkers that we will see below will differ on these points, from him and each other.

 

Contemporary Israeli Neo-Hasidut

Contemporary Israel thinkers, specifically Dati Le’umi thinkers working off Hasidic texts, have also connected prayer to human nature, but they have done so very differently from Rav Soloveitchik. For example, Rabbi Dov Singer explores the nature of prayer in his book, Tikon Tefilati.

singer

Various thinkers have given different answers to the philosophical question, which is to a great degree an existential question for humanity, what is man. The most famous answer is that Latin term, “Homo sapiens,” which means “thinking man” or “cognitive man.” Perhaps I could give a different answer: Man is “Homo mitpalelos,” a praying creature, or more specifically, a prayerful creature. The unique ability of the human soul to express prayer from within itself differentiates man from animal even more sharply than his cognitive capabilities. [4]

Singer argues that prayer is the very essence of human nature. This is in contrast to Soloveitchik’s argument neediness and lack are essential to human nature, and that prayer is a natural next step from them. Neither of them embrace the model of man as an essentially cognitive being, though Soloveitchik does not frame that model as prayer’s antagonist. Singer, on the other hand, sees intellectual reflection as an obstacle to prayer, overriding man’s nature.

In defining man as a praying creature, I am trying to free us from the need to explain to ourselves what prayer is, who God is, whether or not prayer works. The primary obstacle to prayer is often the theological, intellectual obstacle, the attempt to delineate and understand exactly how things work. Prayer suggests putting those questions aside for a time, an instance of “We will do and [then] we will understand.” We let the naturalness of prayer act upon us, exactly the way that we breath, without understanding the mechanism of breath entirely.[5]

Singer’s argument is essentially that we need to stop asking question about prayer, stop analyzing it, and just begin to pray. We shouldn’t be looking for a reason for prayer, because it is just who we are. Moreover, analyzing prayer and trying to explain it actually disrupts prayer. The same way breathing consciously and intentionally requires effort and disrupts our natural breathing, trying to be too conscious about prayer can disrupt it. Instead, we have to take prayer as our starting point.

The significance of taking prayer as our starting point receives an added layer in a short paragraph from Rav Froman’s Hasidim Tsohakim MiZeh. Froman formulates the idea aphoristically, so he lacks Singer’s systematic approach, but he makes up for it with emotional resonance.

froman

I sometimes think that all theology, all religions, all of the things we say about God are just how we explain that basic, instinctive, human thing we call “prayer.”

A person prays, and he must explain to himself to whom he is praying, why he is praying, and what he is doing, so he calls it “God” and constructs a whole religious understanding of the world around it.

But the very core of it all is prayer.[6]

Froman claims that not only do we not need to explain prayer, prayer can in fact explain all of religion! While man comes up with the rest of religion in order to explain religion, the actual causal order is the reverse. Prayer is “instinctive” and “human,” and thus cannot be explained other than by saying it is human nature. There’s no room for any more analysis than that, and trying to insert such analysis, trying to explain why we pray, would be putting the cart before the horse.

            Singer and Froman both frame prayer as part or all of human nature, and they both seem to see this as a good thing. However, that’s not the only form this idea has to take. Yishai Mevorach, in the process of shaping a Jewish theology heavily influenced by Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, describes prayer as if it were a symptom from which a person suffers.

mevorach

Just as a troubling thought does not exist independent of its manifestation in the troubled person, so too prayer does not exist independent of its manifestation in the praying person. The troubled thought, and prayer like it, is an integral element in the troubled-praying person, even though it is a perversion. […] The fact that prayer is “natural” does not mean that it is correct or good or successful. Obsession, anxiety, and depression are all natural and primordial parts of a person, but this does not mean that they are correct or good for him. They’re just there.[7]

Mevorach compares prayer to psychological conditions like depression and anxiety. These conditions naturally occur within a person, Mevorach says, and so too prayer naturally occurs within a person. With all of these, the goal isn’t to analyze them to determine if they’re good or correct or if they serve some sort of purpose. We have to accept that they exist, and then figure out how to work with them, how the individual person can tolerate them. Much like Singer and Froman, Mevorach places prayer within the realm of human nature and before any reflective analysis, moving away from questions of its function and efficacy. Unlike them, however, he does not speak of prayer and human nature in grandiose terms, but in the clinical language of psychoanalysis. As part of this, he makes no essentialist claims about the nature of all human beings, only about himself and those for whom his description rings true (much of the chapter from which the above quote is taken is written in first person language). He therefore also does not say that prayer is the defining characteristic of human nature, only a part of it, taking him back in the direction of Soloveitchik’s ideas. This is as opposed to Singer, while Froman’s unsystematic statement is silent on the issue. The three thus all take prayer as its own starting point, not to be explained by other factors, and an essential part of human nature.

 

The Maggid of Mezritch and Rav Kook

Having established this common theme, I want to take an aside to look at two texts that I hope will help sharpen this theme. I will argue that the first, from the Maggid of Mezritch, is only superficially similar, while actually differing in important ways. Meanwhile the second piece, from Rav Kook, is significantly similar to our theme, despite the ways it differs.

            In a famous passage, the Maggid of Mezritch denigrates any prayer where the individual praying seeks her own benefit.

“Don’t make your prayers set,” meaning that you should not pray for your business endeavors, only mercy and supplication before the Lord (makom), meaning for the sake of the Shekhinah, which is called “makom. So too the Zohar refers to brazen dogs who bark, “Woof! Woof!” etc., and this is the meaning of the verse, “I asked for one things,” which finishes “ I sought you,” meaning for the sake of the Shekhinah, as discussed above.[8]

Much like the Israeli thinkers quotes above, the Maggid is not interested in questions about what prayer accomplishes, whether it works, etc. However, he is not pushing for non-reflective prayer, prayer as human nature, taking prayer as its own starting place, or any of the other formulations I used above. Instead, he is trying to shift us from a human-focused to a divine-focused understanding of prayer, with assumed divine-centric answers to those questions. Thus he differs significantly from the Israeli thinkers I discussed above.

rav-kook-375

Rav Kook, on the other hand, is surprisingly similar to them. I say “surprisingly” because Kook was heavily involved in analyzing prayer, throughout his writings. However, in the very first passage in the introduction to Olat Re’iyah, the collection of his writings organized as a commentary on the siddur, he says that prayer is not something a person does, but a function of their soul.

The constant prayer of the soul constantly attempts to move from concealment to revelation, to extend to all the forces of life of all the spirit and the soul and all the life forces of the whole body. It also yearns to reveal its nature and the force of its action on everything around it, on the whole world and all of life. For this we need the accounting-of-the-world that we arrive at through Torah and wisdom. We therefore see that the entire work of the Torah and its wisdom is the constant revelation of the prayer hidden within the soul. “The soul of all life blesses your name, the Lord our God.”[9]

While none of the Israeli thinkers I discussed used this metaphysical framing, Rav Kook arrives at a similar idea by locating prayer within the soul.[10] He makes prayer into an essential aspect of human nature, so that all that remains for the individual is to stop fighting her nature and just pray.

For Rav Kook, this human nature is explained by its context within broader national, human, and cosmic selves, but prayer inheres on all those levels as well. The contemporary Dati Le’umi thinkers don’t make that turn, starting from and staying at the level of the individual human. Starting from prayer as an aspect of human nature keeps them from reflecting on the purpose and function of prayer (in a way that theo-centric prayer wouldn’t), though it didn’t need to do so. This doesn’t mean that Kook’s idea led them to this idea, but it’s worth considering the way their texts reflect him. Dati Le’umi thinkers, whether they affirm, reject, or ignore Rav Kook’s thought, write in a context built entirely on his thought, and their writing can reflect this. They may even reflect Rav Kook more than the Hasidic texts toward which they turn.

 

rabbi-shagar

Rav Shagar

Another important thinker to mention in this context is Rav Shagar, as all three of the Israeli thinkers I mentioned were either students or close friends of his, or both. Rav Shagar does not identify prayer with human nature in any text of which I am aware, but he does push for a non-reflective approach to prayer, something that Dr. Smadar Cherlow has described as the primary innovation of his “Postmodern” approach to Judaism.[11]

[1] In addition to the sources below, see Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Three Leaves Press, 2006), 54.

[2] Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Mourning, Suffering and the Human Condition (Jersey City: Ktav Publishing House, 2003), 161.

[3] Rav Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, “Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah,” in Tradition Magazine 17, no. 2 (Spring 1978), 65-66.

[4] Rabbi Dov Singer, Tikon Tefilati: Matkonei Tefilah (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2014), 13.

[5] Ibid., 15.

[6] Rav Menachem Froman, Hasidim Tsohakim MiZeh (Jerusalem: Hai Shalom, 2016) §179, p. 160.

[7] Yishai Mevorach, Teologiah Shel Heser (Tel Aviv: Resling Books, 2016), 157

[8] Rabbi Dov Ber of Metzritch, Ohr Torah, §502.

[9] Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, Olat Re’iyah (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook), Introduction §1.

[10] Singer does use the term “soul” (nefesh), but he uses it in the way that contemporary Israelis use it, where it means something more like “the self,” and has connotations as much mental as metaphysical. He therefore may not mean “soul” in any strong sense. Regardless, he is certainly essentialist in his approach, and that is certainly similar to Rav Kook.

[11] See also the second chapter of her Mi Heziz Et HaYahadut Sheli?, pp. 71-88.

The Practice and Possibility of Prayer: Rabbi Dov Singer’s “Tikon Tefilati”

In an article entitled “Towards an Understanding of Halakhah,” later incorporated into his book on prayer, Man’s Quest for God, R. Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel sets up a dichotomy between prayer and philosophy.[1]

The duty to worship stood as a thought of ineffable meaning; doubt, the voice of disbelief, was ready to challenge it. But where should the engagement take place? In an act of reflection the duty to worship is a mere thought, timid, frail, a mere shadow of reality, while the voice of disbelief is a power, well-armed with the weight of inertia and the preference for abstention. In such an engagement prayer would be fought in abstentia, and the issue would be decided without actually joining the battle. It was fair, therefore, to give the weaker rival a chance: to pray first, to fight later.

I realized that just as you cannot study philosophy through praying, you cannot study prayer through philosophizing.[2]

Prayer, as Heschel argues extensively throughout the book, is not a primarily cognitive or reflective activity. The reflective stance of philosophy, he argues, actually obstructs prayer rather than aiding it. There is no degree of philosophizing, even about prayer, that will lead a person to prayer. You have to just start praying, and let that show you why you should pray.

Perhaps ironically, Heschel’s words are set within a broader work reflecting on the meaning and nature of prayer. Man’s Quest for God simultaneously tries to give the reader a broader understanding of prayer, and tells them to stop trying to understand prayer and just pray. To some degree, this calls into question the value not just of Heschel’s book on prayer, but of any book on prayer. Books would seem to be an inherently reflective medium, so how can a book be anything other than an obstacle to prayer?

Enter Rabbi Dov Singer’s Tikon Tefilati: Matkonei Tefilah (Maggid Books, Jerusalem, 2014. English title, May My Prayer Be Pleasing: Recipes for Prayer).

matkoney_tfilla_09_sc_for_print_small1

Singer begins the book with a short introduction where he lays out the same problem that Heschel describes. Thinking about prayer, he says, is an obstacle to actually praying. Moreover, he adds, prayer is more essential to humanity than thinking is. Homo Sapiens (“thinking person”) would be better described as Homo Mitpalelos (“praying person”). We pray by our very natures, so all we need to do is get out of our own way and pray. Why, then, did he write a book on prayer? For the same reason that people write cookbooks. Cookbooks don’t explain to people why they should cook, or how cooking functions. They give practical instructions on how to cook for people who already want to cook, and so too with Tikon Tefilati and prayer.

Notably, the twin themes of non-reflective prayer and prayer as part of human nature can be found in two Singer’s three teachers that he mentions in his introduction, Rabbis Shagar, Froman, and Steinzaltz. While I am not familiar with the works of Rav Steinzaltz, Rav Shagar compares praying to the ability to enter into a story while reading it, rather than standing outside the story and reflecting upon it.[3] Rav Froman boldly suggests that all of religion, God included, may be humanity’s attempt to “explain that basic, instinctive, human thing called ‘prayer.’”[4] These two themes come together in Singer’s brief introduction, which then explains that, because of these two themes, the rest of the book will be very different.

After that short introduction, the form of the book changes drastically. Each section starts with powerful snippets on prayer from traditional Jewish texts (from the Mishnah to Rambam to Rebbe Naḥman) and from contemporary Israeli poetry. Then it briefly depicts forms of prayer, such as supplication, praise, dialogic encounter, or connecting with nature, and provides practical instructions, “recipes,” for practicing these forms. Some of the “recipes” are meant for individuals, some for pairs, and some for groups. The common thread is that they show the reader how to pray, without trying to explain why to pray or what that even means.

And that, perhaps, is the weakness of the book, and why Heschel’s encouragement of non-reflective prayer is somewhat ironically located in a very reflective book. Tikon Tefilati can tell you how to pray, but it can’t tell you why to pray, or what prayer is. While it serves as an excellent guide for someone who is already praying, it cannot explain to someone who does not pray why they should start. For someone who finds prayer impossible, practical advice on how to pray is useless at best. The book thus carves out a niche audience for itself – those who want to pray, but do not know how – much as as a cookbook serves only those who want to cook, but don’t know what to make.

I would end by noting that the book succeeds in being emotionally impactful on all levels. The quoted texts are powerful, and the graphic design is striking on each and every page. It will be pleasing to those who would pray.

[1] The original article was published in Conservative Judaism and Jewish Law, ed. Seymour Siegel, (New York, 1977).

[2] R. Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man’s Quest for God (Santa Fe: Aurora Press, 1998), 99-100. Emphasis in original.

[3] Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Shiurim Al Lekutei Moharan (Alon Shevut: Mekhon Kitvei Harav Shagar, 2012), vol. 1, 77-8.

Dr. Smadar Cherlow has an excellent treatment of this source in the second chapter of her book on Postmodern Judaism in contemporary Israel. See Smadar Cherlow, Mi Haziz Et Hayahadut Sheli (Tel Aviv: Resling Books, 2016), 71-88.

[4] Rav Menaḥem Froman, Hasidim Tsoḥakim Mizeh (Jerusalem: Tsur Ot, 2016), §179, p. 160.

Berakhot 32b – The Subversion of Tefillah

Berakhot 32b – The Subversion of Tefillah

Before you is a gemara from Masekhet Berakhot that I can only describe as subversive. Beneath the main quotation of the whole text is my breakdown and analysis thereof.

 

אמר רבי חנין אמר רבי חנינא: כל המאריך בתפלתו אין תפלתו חוזרת ריקם. מנא לן – ממשה רבינו שנאמר: “ואתפלל אל ה’,” וכתיב בתריה “וישמע ה’ אלי גם בפעם ההיא.”

איני? והא אמר רבי חייא בר אבא אמר רבי יוחנן: כל המאריך בתפלתו ומעיין בה – סוף בא לידי כאב לב, שנאמר: “תוחלת ממשכה מחלה לב,” מאי תקנתיה – יעסוק בתורה, שנאמר “ועץ חיים תאוה באה,” ואין עץ חיים אלא תורה, שנאמר “עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה!”

לא קשיא, הא – דמאריך ומעיין בה, הא – דמאריך ולא מעיין בה.

אמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא: אם ראה אדם שהתפלל ולא נענה יחזור ויתפלל שנאמר “קוה אל ה’ חזק ויאמץ לבך וקוה אל ה’.”

Hanin said in the name of R. Hanina: If one prays long his prayer does not pass unheeded. Whence do we know this? From Moses our Master; for it says, “And I prayed unto the Lord,” and it is written afterwards, “And the Lord hearkened unto me that time also.”

But is that so? Has not R. Hiyya b. Abba said in the name of R. Johanan: “If one prays long and looks for the fulfilment of his prayer, in the end he will have vexation of heart, as it says, ‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick?’ What is his remedy? Let him study the Torah, as it says, ‘But desire fulfilled is a tree of life;’ and the tree of life is nought but the Torah, as it says, ‘She is a tree of life to them that lay hold on her!”

There is no contradiction: one statement speaks of a man who prays long and looks for the fulfilment of his prayer, the other of one who prays long without looking for the fulfilment of his prayer.

Hama son of R. Hanina said: If a man sees that he prays and is not answered, he should pray again, as it says, “Wait for the Lord, be strong and let thy heart take courage; yea, wait thou for the Lord.” (Translation from halakhah.com)

 

This gemara presents 4 differing approaches to the question of the effectiveness of prayer, with most of them being quite subversive. I’m still not quite sure what to do with this gemara myself, so for now I would just like to lay out the gemara as I understand it.

 

אמר רבי חנין אמר רבי חנינא: כל המאריך בתפלתו אין תפלתו חוזרת ריקם. מנא לן – ממשה רבינו שנאמר: “ואתפלל אל ה’,” וכתיב בתריה “וישמע ה’ אלי גם בפעם ההיא.”

Hanin said in the name of R. Hanina: If one prays long his prayer does not pass unheeded. Whence do we know this? From Moses our Master; for it says, “And I prayed unto the Lord,” and it is written afterwards, “And the Lord hearkened unto me that time also.”

 

Opinion #1, that of Rabbi Hanin and Rabbi Hanina is what I think of as the classical approach to tefillah. Prayer works. If you pray for something you will get a response. If you pray for something and there is no noticeable, presumably positive, response, it is because you are not praying properly. If you want your prayer to succeed, then you have to pray harder. Pray longer. Prayer works, so if it’s not working for you than the problem must be with you/ The flipside is that this means the problem is likely within your power to fix.

 

איני? והא אמר רבי חייא בר אבא אמר רבי יוחנן: כל המאריך בתפלתו ומעיין בה – סוף בא לידי כאב לב, שנאמר: “תוחלת ממשכה מחלה לב,” מאי תקנתיה – יעסוק בתורה, שנאמר “ועץ חיים תאוה באה,” ואין עץ חיים אלא תורה, שנאמר “עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה!”

But is that so? Has not R. Hiyya b. Abba said in the name of R. Johanan: “If one prays long and looks for the fulfilment of his prayer, in the end he will have vexation of heart, as it says, ‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick?’ What is his remedy? Let him study the Torah, as it says, ‘But desire fulfilled is a tree of life;’ and the tree of life is nought but the Torah, as it says, ‘She is a tree of life to them that lay hold on her!”

 

Rabbi Hiyya the son of Abba presents Opinion #2, a radically opposite to Opinion #1. Expecting your prayer to work is just going to frustrate you. Tefillah doesn’t “work” in the classical sense. However tefillah is thought to work, it is not a guarantee. It does not itself effect any process in some sort of mechanical way. If you think it does, then prayer will inevitably be a frustrating experience for you. His solution for this frustration is to study Torah, presumably either because A) it is a process the results of which are obvious, thus alleviating the frustration of waiting unendingly for the results of prayer, or, conversely, because B) Torah study is a practice with no expected results, and the change of mindset from result-focused to process-focused relieves the frustration.

 

לא קשיא, הא – דמאריך ומעיין בה, הא – דמאריך ולא מעיין בה.

There is no contradiction: one statement speaks of a man who prays long and looks for the fulfilment of his prayer, the other of one who prays long without looking for the fulfilment of his prayer.

 

The gemara is alive to the fundamental contradiction between the two opinions. The two opinions present opposite results (tefillah works/frustrates) for almost exactly the same process (one who prays long, כל המאריך בתפילתו). The gemara resolves this by focusing on the one difference between the two descriptions of tefillah: “looking for fulfillment,” “המעיין בה.” The gemara thus resolves the contradiction by saying that the two results (works/frustrates) apply to two distinctly different processes.

This provides us with Opinion #3. Tefillah works, but only when you have given up on any thought that it works. If you pray thinking that your tefillah works, that your prayer sets in motion a process leading to the results you desire, then it is seemingly guaranteed that your prayer will not work. If you think tefillah works, then it only frustrates. On a theological level this has its own logic to it. Process A leads to Result A; while Process B leads to Result B. On an existential level, Opinion #3 is asking you to pray without expecting any results from it.

EDIT: It’s important to note, in terms of understanding the Gemara, that at this point one should probably assume Opinions 1 & 2 never existed. They arise in the course of the discussion with a superficial contradiction, but a careful reading by the anonymous voice of the Talmud points out the obvious resolution, leading us to realize that Opinions 1 & 2, then, are really just different facets of one opinion, Opinion #3. My thanks to David Nagarpowers for pushing me to clarify this point.

 

אמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא: אם ראה אדם שהתפלל ולא נענה יחזור ויתפלל שנאמר “קוה אל ה’ חזק ויאמץ לבך וקוה אל ה’.”

Hama son of R. Hanina said: If a man sees that he prays and is not answered, he should pray again, as it says, “Wait for the Lord, be strong and let thy heart take courage; yea, wait thou for the Lord.”

 

This last piece of the gemara might seem to be technically separate from the previous pieces. It falls outside the immediate argument, but is also about prayer and thus might have been recorded together. However, I think the connection goes deeper than that. Rabbi Hama the son of Rabbi Hanina (see the author of Opinion #1) gives us Opinion #4, which is somewhere in between Opinions #1 & #3, while rejecting Opinion #2. Rabbi Hama says that tefillah does not work in a strict sense. There is no one-to-one connection between prayer and result. Thus when one prays one should not expect their prayer to work, but nor should they simply expect their desires to be frustrated. Instead, they should hope. Rav Hama invokes a verse which equates praying with “קוה,” which can be translated as “wait” or “hope.” The verse refers to קוה, then to taking courage, then to קוה again. So too Rav Hama says that a person should pray, then they should not be frustrated if their tefillah is not answered, and then they should pray again.

Opinion #4 says tefilla can work even if you think it works, but also says that it may or may not work no matter what you think. But it’s that “may” that makes it distinct from Opinion #2, indeed from all the previous opinions. All those opinions insisted on an absolute approach to tefillah. It either works, or it doesn’t, or either one depending on the specific conditions of the prayer. Opinion #4 doesn’t leave you with a strong sense of certainty, which can be troubling. But it leaves the options open, and leaves you the ability to hope.

 

This gemara presents 4 opinions about tefillah, with one being the classical approach that “Tefillah works” (#1), while the other three range from simply complicating how tefilla works (#3) to rejecting the idea entirely (#2), suggesting, that rather than working, Tefillah frustrates. Even the more moderate final approaches that the gemara concludes with (#3 & #4) are a strong step away from the classical model that the gemara starts with, and thus this gemara can only be seen as subversive. I’m not sure yet what to make of this gemara, how to fit it into a broader picture of prayer, Hazal, Judaism, etc. I am, however, fascinated by it, and I would love to hear if anyone has any different ways of interpreting it.