Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Re'eh (Hasidism)

“’To Serve Him with All Your Heart’—That is Prayer”

Both last week’s and this week’s Torah portions deal with the proper service of God: Last week’s, Ekev, contains the phrase, “and to serve Him with all your heart” (Deut 11:13), seen by the Sages as the basis for the mitzvah of prayer, known as “service of the heart”; while this week’s reading, Re’eh, addresses the practice of Divine service in the Temple. Moreover, this Shabbat we announce the onset of the month of Elul, which serves as a time of preparation for the Days of Awe and hence of more intensive service in all respects. For all these reasons, this is a fitting occasion to present some readings and thoughts about prayer I’ve been carrying around for some while. I shall begin with several more teachings from Sefer Baal Shem Tov on the proper mode for prayer. Amud ha-Tefilah, §58:

When he wishes to pray, he ought at first be in a state of reverent awe, which is the gate by which to enter before Him, may He be blessed (Shabbat 31b, at the top). And he should say in his heart: To whom do I wish to attach myself? To He who created all the worlds with His word, and who allows them to be and sustains them! And he should contemplate His greatness and sublimity. And thereafter he may be in the upper worlds.

This teaching is a brief guide as to how to prepare oneself to pray. Earlier teachings (see HY IV: Balak, Pinhas) have emphasized the need for prayer out of love, or the tension between joy and trembling, or between swift, ecstatic prayer and a slower, more contemplative mode. Here, the Baal Shem Tov emphasizes that, before approaching God with love and ecstasy, one first needs to establish a proper sense of ones own existential position vis-a-vis the infinitely powerful, transcendent God. Then, once having established the proper mode of reverence, the natural sequel is to be “in the upper worlds.” This sequel is also developed in §60:

Prayer which is recited in great joy is certainly more acceptable before Him than that uttered with sadness and weeping. And this is compared to a pauper who comes to beg and plead before the king with great weeping, whom He nevertheless only gives a small thing. But when the minister joyfully recites the king’s praises before him, and in the course of doing so also makes a request, then the king grants him his request with great generosity, as one does with ministers.

This metaphor may sound strange to modern ears. Is our relationship to God built upon what is known in today’s Hebrew as “protektzia,” a kind of favoritism akin to nepotism? This seems a rather coarse translation of the idea that we are beloved by virtue of “the merit of the fathers,” the fact that we are the offspring of those knights of faith who were the patriarchs (a motif, by the way, that is often invoked in the liturgy for the Holy Days). Nevertheless, this does express an important truth: that a Jew ought to feel a certain intimacy with God, even a sense of “at-homeness,” and that his approach to God is not that of the beggar, but that of the friend. (Note also the prayer Hayom harat olam, recited after Shofar blowing within Musaf of Rosh Hashana, in which we pose our relation to God in both ways: “If as sons… if as servants…,” expressing a certain ambivalence about our position).

The next two passages highlight the variety of modes of prayer. First, §70:

At times one must serve God with one’s soul alone, that is, with thought, while the body stands still in its place, so that he shall not become weakened by excess use. And at times a person may recite prayer with love and fear and great ecstasy without any visible motion, so that it seems to another person that he is reciting the words without any devekut (attachment). But a person may do this when he is deeply attached to God, may He be blessed—then he can serve Him with his soul alone, with great and intense love. And this kind of service is better and takes place with greater speed and attachment to God, may He be blessed, than that which is visible upon the organs. And the shells cannot grasp hold upon that prayer which is entirely inwardness.

I would call this passage “Contra Shuckling.” One often sees pious Jews praying with violent bodily motions, swaying or shaking back and forth, at times with almost dizzying speed. This passage suggests that such prayer is not necessarily the highest or most desirable level. The Besht is telling us that prayer is ultimately a union of the spirit with God, the “Active intellect” (to jump back to medieval neo-Aristotelian lingo), and not of the “bodies”? Perhaps, too, there is an awareness here that excessively violent, physical motions in prayer involve the harnassing of a kind of sexual energy and that, notwithstanding the sexual metaphors and analogies used by both Kabbalah and Hasidut, this is not the main thing.

On the other hand, in §71 we read:

Sometimes he can recite the prayer with great speed, because there burns in his heart love for God may he be blessed, greatly, and the letters emerge from his mouth by themselves.

Note: the converse is not true: the fact that one is davening quickly doesn’t necessarily mean that one’s heart is burning with love. It may just as well mean that one’s heart is burning to get out of shul and turn to other, more mundane concerns: work, business, chatting with your neighbor, or the kugel whose fragrance may be wafting into the synagogue of a Shabbat morning.

More seriously: the important concept here is that the text of prayer is essentially an instrument for expressing devekut: that is, attachment to God, the desire for His closeness. Hence, the actual words and their comprehension don’t matter so much. As I recall, J. G. Weiss has a paper in which he uses the word “atomization” to describe the Maggid’s approach to prayer: that is, the paragraphs, sentences, and even words of the Siddur are broken down into individual letters, through which one “attaches” oneself to God.

A Conversation on Prayer

About six weeks ago [n.b., this was written in 2003]I was present at an evening at the Hartman Institute devoted to the question “Does liturgical change work?” The speakers were two major intellectual figures of non-Orthodox Jewry: David Ellison, president of the Hebrew Union College, and Arthur Green. Both began by discussing their early personal experiences of prayer. The former went on to discuss the ideological issues involved in prayer book reform, while the latter spoke of how he raised to himself the question, “Why can’t the atmosphere of intimacy, warmth and informality found in the Hasidic shteibel be recreated in a non-Orthodox setting?”—and proceeded to do so in the Havurat Shalom.

What I found interesting about this evening was what might be called the persistence, in less traditionalist schools of contemporary Judaism, of the two great archetypes of Judaism: i.e., the focus upon the intellect and the emotions, respectively. (Which persist, among other reasons, because they express certain constant inclinations in human temperament.) I found myself viewing the two speakers as in some sense latter-day representatives of new kinds of Mitnaggedism and Hasidism. (But, I should perhaps emphasize: without any rancor or polemics. The entire evening was conducted in a mood of mutual respect and good fellowship.) These two aspects have their roots, inter alia, in Rambam’s remark in Sefer ha-Mitzvot §5, in which he defines the service of God as being two-pronged: “Serve Him through His Torah, serve Him in His Temple.” That is to say: the love of God finds expression both in the intellectual activity of Torah study, and in the ritual/emotive one of Temple service, which is the forerunner to or parallel of prayer. (See also the “three pillars” upon which the world stands, in Avot 1.3).

This set in motion the following reflections: How may these “pillars” be defined in a naturalistic theology, in the non-revelation-centered terms used by these figures? This is not merely an academic exercise. To my mind, it is important to develop a theological language for understanding mitzvot in a variety of ways. The usual Orthodox polemics, in which everything comes back to the single pillar of Torah min ha-shamayim, excessively narrows the terms of discussion, and creates a serious obstacle to spiritual dialogue with other Jews. (This, I am convinced, is a modern disease. Earlier generations of Jewish thinkers did not revert to revelation alone in the same way as many do today.)

My own answer to this question goes something like this, and begins with a prior question: what is the link between prayer and animal sacrifices? Both are called avodah, service of God: the one is service of the heart, the other service of the limbs, and also of the pocket. The essence of Divine service is the turning of one’s emotions, of love and fear, toward God. Even in the case of sacrificial offerings, the real sacrifice is ultimately not only the gift of a valuable animal, but the inner psychological process in which one relinquishes something that belongs to one, so as to engage in an act of giving to God. Prayer, as an act of inner emotional service, but without any concomitant monetary sacrifice, is in a sense a more rarified version of the same type. (It is interesting that Sefat Emet draws an interesting connection between korbanot and prayer in another context. See HY IV: Pinhas.) Viewed naturally, prayer is thus a kind of inner meditation, an awakening of the holy spark, of the element of Divinity, within a person’s own soul. As the Besht says elsewhere in Amud ha-Tefillah, “The act of prayer itself is the Holy One blessed be He.”

By contrast, Torah study, within a non-Orthodox or modernist Judaism, might be seen as studying those texts which embody the collective genius or wisdom of the Jewish people. The activity of the intellect is to construct a coherent, ethical, responsible picture of the world, and of man’s duties and activity within it, as a kind of holy activity, as an expression of the Divine within man (if you will, the “Active Intellect”). In some peculiar sense, we here come full circle to the medieval view of the role of intellect. In any event, in this way, even without a literal understanding of Sinai, Torah study may become an avenue to the Divine.


Blogger Sadiq M. Alam said...

its a beautiful post.

i also blog on religion and all faiths. can i repost your thoughts from here giving due credit?


8:01 AM  

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