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).