Prayer and the Beauty
of God: Rav Soloveitchik
on Prayer and Aesthetics
RABBI JOSEPH B. SOLOVEITCHIK
Worship of the Heart: Essays on Jewish Prayer.
Edited by Shalom Carmy.
MeOtzar HoRav Series: Selected Writings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik,
volume 2. Published for Toras HoRav Foundation by Ktav Publishing
House, New York, 2003.
pp. xxx+197. $25.
What does it mean to pray? What is the point of petitioning an
all-knowing God for the fulfillment of our needs and desires?
The philosophy of prayer is the attempt to address these
questions and others like them. Until now, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s
published works have not included a systematic treatment of his under-
standing of prayer. Worship of the Heart is a new publication (2003) in
which the Rav’s thought on prayer is presented extensively. This volume
is another installment of the program of the Toras HoRav foundation to
publish for a wide audience lectures and writings of the Rav that he
himself did not bring to print.
As editor Shalom Carmy points out in his introduction, this work
can be neatly divided into two halves. The first half is an attempt to out-
line a general philosophy of prayer, while the second half is largely made
JOSHUA AMARU is working on a doctorate in philosophy at Bar-Ilan University.
Rabbi Amaru has taught Talmud and the thought of Rav Soloveitchik in various
yeshivot and seminaries.
The Torah u-Madda Journal (13/2005)
up of philosophical/theological interpretations of specific prayers, shema
and its blessings and a long-awaited translation (ably accomplished by
the editor) of the Rav’s commentary on the amidah, “Ra‘ayonot Al ha-
Tefillah.”1 According to the editor, each half more or less corresponds to a
different set of lectures given by the Rav at the Bernard Revel Graduate
School in the late 1950’s. This essay will focus on the first half of the
book, which is less accessible to the average reader and contains, in this
reviewer’s opinion, significant philosophical and theological insights that
have not, to my knowledge, appeared in print before.
This focus should not be taken as disparagement of the second half
of the book, which I found both inspiring and enlightening. The Rav’s
interpretation of specific prayers and concepts (such as the acceptance
of the “yoke of heaven”) is brilliant and moving, as well as firmly rooted
in the relevant halakhic and liturgical texts. I will not discuss these here,
but I would recommend to the reader who finds the first section diffi-
cult or uninteresting to proceed to chapters 6-10, wherein he or she will
find much that will edify and deepen their personal prayer experience. If
there is additional unpublished material on prayer, I would suggest to
the editors of this series to consider publishing a siddur, on the model of
Olat Re’ayah, in which the Rav’s interpretations would be published
alongside the text of the liturgy.
This first section of Worship of the Heart, in addition to a theory of
prayer, contains the most extensive discussion of aesthetics in the Rav’s
published oeuvre. This discussion is related to the theory of prayer, as
we will see, but can also stand on its own, and perhaps should do so. I
will outline the theory of prayer as it appears in Worship of the Heart,
followed by some critical comments on that theory. Only then will I
turn to the Rav’s aesthetic theory.
Theories of Prayer
Any attempt to elaborate a philosophy of prayer must address the funda-
mental question: what (or for whom) is prayer for? There are two basic
approaches to this question: an anthropocentric approach and a theurgi-
cal approach. According to the anthropocentric approach, prayer, though
addressed to God, is fundamentally a human focused activity. The All-
Knowing Master of the Universe already knows what is in our hearts and
is not moved by praise or by petition. “Ve-gam nez.ah. Yisrael lo yeshakker
ve-lo yinnah.em, ki lo adam hu le-hinnah.em”—“The Eternal of Israel will
not lie or change his mind, for He is not a man that changes his mind” (I
Samuel 15:29). Divine judgment and justice are not subject to appeal or
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revision, and human petition to God is necessarily futile. Though a sim-
ple understanding of the liturgy implies that we are attempting to influ-
ence the King of Kings, to glorify Him with our praise, to invoke His
mercy with our petition, and to satisfy Him with our thanksgiving, we
should interpret these as anthropomorphic metaphor. As opposed to a
king of flesh and blood, the King of Kings, who is perfect and eternal, is
not subject to influence and not affected by us.
If this is the case, and prayer does not “work” in the sense of impact-
ing upon the Divine, what is prayer for? The answer is that prayer is for
people; it is anthropocentric. The act of prayer does not affect the Divine
so much as the pray-er. His or her soul is refined through relating his or
her life to the Divine. Prayer is not answered in the conventional sense.
Rather, the person who prays becomes more worthy or able to receive
Divine grace than before the prayer.
As one would imagine, one who subscribes to the anthropocentric
approach to prayer can be comfortable with the praise and thanksgiving
components of prayer. In encountering the greatness of God and His
Creation, he or she is inspired to sing His praises; likewise the human
object of divine grace is morally obligated to express thanksgiving.
Petition, however, remains a problem from this perspective: what
human good is achieved by the detailing of our needs before an all-
knowing God and the begging for His grace?2
The alternative to the anthropocentric perspective is the theurgical.
This approach can embrace the simple meaning of the liturgy in under-
standing prayer as the attempt to influence and impact upon the Divine.
Prayer, so to speak, can “work.” There is a two-way relationship between
the human and the Divine, such that the scope of human action, of
which prayer is part, extends to the divine realm. Prayer is a means of
affecting God. Anthropomorphic metaphors of God referring to Him as
Supreme Judge, Loving Father and so forth, are not to be dismissed as
mere abbreviations for aspects of divine perfection, but are, in fact, the
best way to understand different aspects or manifestations of the Divine.
The dialogue of the created with the Creator, as mediated through
these metaphors, includes praise and thanksgiving, but also petition and
request. Just as a plea for mercy or for assistance may affect a judge or
inspire kindness in a father, so may they affect God. To be sure, it is no
small theological challenge to understand how such influence is possible
without giving up on principles such as the perfection and eternity of
God. The most explicit and comprehensive expression of the theurgical
approach in Judaism lies in the Kabbalistic tradition, in which such
notions as “raising the sparks,” and “tikkun olamot elyonim” (repairing
of upper worlds) are expressions of such an approach and attempts to
grapple with its theological implications.3
One should note that the two alternative approaches mirror one
another’s basic strengths and weaknesses. The anthropocentric approach
preserves the immaculateness of its conception of God at the expense of
emptying the liturgy of much of its content. God is glorified at the
expense of religion. The theurgical approach strikingly empowers the
religious personage, granting him or her the ability to impact the
Divine; religion becomes the tale of the empowerment of humanity vis à
vis God. There is a certain irony about these opposing approaches to
prayer: in order to glorify God, one approach tends to turn the focus of
prayer away from God and towards a kind of self-focused meditation.
The other approach, in understanding prayer as truly directed at God,
threatens to conceive of God in a limited human image.4
At first glance, it would appear that any coherent theory of prayer,
whatever its nuances, must fundamentally line itself up in one camp or
the other, for the theological options are to a large extent mutually
exclusive. In Worship of the Heart, however, the Rav outlines a dialectical
approach to prayer that embraces elements of both opposing perspec-
tives. He asserts categorically that prayer is a real dialogue with God and
that one can encounter God through religious metaphors such as the
Loving Father or Supreme Judge. In fact, these terms are not really
metaphors according to the Rav; they are accurate descriptions of a
human encounter with the Divine. At the same time, we do not find a
significant theurgical element in the Rav’s thought. In no place does the
Rav consider a theology that does not maintain divine perfection and
immutability. The way the Rav negotiates this tension is by understand-
ing prayer as a dialogue that is an end in itself rather than a means to
change or affect the Divine. By focusing on the understanding of prayer
as both a halakhic obligation and a human need, the Rav sidesteps the
question of its impact on God. How, why, and whether prayer “works”
is relatively incidental to its analysis:
The efficacy of prayer is not the central term of inquiry in our philosophy
of avodah she-ba-lev. . . . The basic function of prayer is not its practical
consequences but the metaphysical formation of a fellowship consisting
of God and man (35).
As is apparent, the Rav is committed to a metaphysical understand-
ing of prayer, as “a fellowship consisting of God and man,” while avoid-
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ing the theurgical implications of such a position. Prayer is a real com-
munion with God—not mere psychology. Yet the Rav’s account of
prayer has an anthropological rather than a theological focus—it will be
about human nature rather than the nature of God.
In order to understand how prayer can give rise to this “fellowship
consisting of God and man,” the Rav situates prayer in the broader con-
text of avodat Hashem, service of God, or, more generally, of religious
experience. He catalogues the different modes in which contact between
God and human beings takes place.
Media of Religious Experience
According to the Rav, religious experience is deserving of the name
insofar as it is a way in which a person relates to God. The Rav asserts
that religious experience is direct experience of God that is available, in
principle, to all, and can be found in a broad range of human activities.
Prayer is but one form or medium through which a person can relate to
God. Perhaps less obviously, other central human experiences, when
interpreted religiously, are to be understood as religious media, as
modes of relating to the Divine.5
There are four media of religious experience. The first medium is
the intellectual, which includes not only study of the Torah, but also the
knowledge and understanding of creation and of metaphysics. The Rav
draws on the Maimonidean emphasis on knowledge of God to elaborate
this theme, but goes much further and understands the intellectual ges-
ture to be a true meeting between God and the intellectual seeker. The
intellectual, especially the intellectual whose focus is the Divine word,
arrives through his knowledge and understanding at a kind of commu-
nion with the Divine.6
The second medium of religious experience is the emotional.
Experience of God is to be found in the extremes of human emotion.
Passionate love of God and the yearning for His presence can give rise to
the actual experience of that presence. In elaborating this point, the Rav
draws upon the description of revelation in R. Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari.
The direct experience of God that Halevi understands to lie at the center
of the revelation at Sinai was not, according to the Rav, a one time
event. It can be achieved by the ecstatic, whose passion makes it possible
to break the bonds of the world and encounter God directly. This
encounter is apprehended emotionally; depending on the situation, one
may feel the presence and companionship of the Heavenly Father or the
glory and awesomeness of the Creator. One may also feel God out of a
feeling of despair and anguish. The sufferer, who turns to God in his
moment of crisis, may suddenly be filled with the joy of existence. This
radical uplifting of his spirit is nothing but the emotional encounter
with God, the Divine Comforter. As we will see, the emotional appre-
hension of God is deeply related to the experience of prayer.
The third medium of religious experience, and the main focus of
religious experience in the Halakhah, is the volitional. One serves God
through intentional action, that is, through the performance of miz.vot.
There is no significant difference between ritual and ethical miz.vot in
One serves God and enters into an intimate relationship with Him by self-
realization on the part of the moral will, by living a moral life, by walking
humbly with people, be engaging in deeds of charity, by being just and
merciful, generous and kind, by cultivating the truth, by helping others, by
disciplining oneself, by taming one’s animal desires and impulses and by
introducing axiological worth into the realm of a bodily existence (9-10).
Finally, communication or contact between man and God can be dia-
logical, i.e., involving a speaker and a listener. The Rav points out that
there are two manifestations of dialogue between human beings and God,
prophecy and prayer. These are mirror images of one another. In prophe-
cy, God is the speaker and the prophet is the listener. In prayer, the roles
are reversed and the person standing in prayer becomes the speaker.
This is a striking juxtaposition—we do not usually think of prayer
as related to prophecy. Yet in the context of the Rav’s general view of
religious experience, it is appropriate. For the Rav, religious experience
in its various manifestations, the intellectual, the emotional, the voli-
tional, as well as the dialogical, involves the direct experience of God.
Communion with the Divine is not some lofty goal limited to the mys-
tic or the prophet but is the real substance of all religious experience
and is available to all. Within this framework, the association of prophe-
cy and prayer should come as no surprise. True prayer is a means of
coming into contact with God through speech, much the same as
prophecy. The difference (and it is no small difference) lies in the direc-
tion of communication and the initiator of that contact.7
Centrality of Petitional Prayer
As mentioned above, for the Rav, prayer, like the other modes of reli-
gious experience, must be interpreted anthropologically. Human beings,
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by their very nature, strive for contact with the Divine. Religion is the
institutionalization and the formalization of this striving,8 and must be
understood to be about the created rather than the Creator.9 At the same
time, the Rav remains consistent with the tradition10 in its emphasis on
petition.11 However, petitional prayer is difficult to explain without refer-
ence to theurgy. If we cannot affect God’s will, what is the significance of
the asking of God for one’s needs? Moreover, how does the emphasis on
petition fit with the Rav’s commitment to understanding prayer as an
instance of religious experience—as a means of communing with God?
We pray for very concrete things: for understanding, for forgiveness, for
health, for economic well-being. How are such prayers a religious experi-
ence in the sense of communion with the Divine? The Rav’s answers to
these questions can be found in the phenomenology of prayer laid out in
the second chapter of Worship of the Heart.
Prayer as a Miz.vah with a “Kiyyum she-ba-Lev”
In order to properly understand prayer, we must first address its status
as a miz.vah. The Rav quotes the positive commandment to serve God
from Rambam’s Sefer ha-Miz.vot. According to Rambam, this command-
ment has two aspects; it is both a general principle, which the Rav takes
to mean a subjective obligation with no physical action attached to it,
and a specific performative norm — the obligation to pray daily.12
According to the Rav, the miz.vah of prayer belongs to a special class of
miz.vot. These miz.vot have a specific physical action associated with their
performance, a physical ma‘aseh ha-miz.vah, yet the fulfillment of these
commandments is not achieved through the mere performance of the
action. The action must be associated with a specific state of mind; it
must be the expression of a particular inner experience. This is what the
Rav refers to as a kiyyum she-ba-lev. The actual fulfillment of the miz.vah
involves the achievement of a certain type of consciousness.13 The fact
that prayer is a miz.vah with a kiyyum she-ba-lev explains the fact that
prayer requires kavvanah, intention, even according to those who hold
that miz.vot do not generally require kavvanah. “For kavvanah with
respect to tefillah forms the very core of the act; without it prayer would
become a meaningless and stereotyped ceremonial” (21).
The Rav explains the content of this kavvanah, again drawing upon
Rambam. While praying, says Rambam, “one must free one’s heart from
all other thoughts and regard himself as standing before the Shekhinah.”14
Kavvanah has two elements, the psychological—“free one’s heart from
all other thoughts”—and the mystical—“regard himself as standing
before the Shekhinah.” In explaining the psychological aspect of total
focus, what he calls “mono-ideaism,” the Rav quotes from the famous
passage in the Guide to the Perplexed (III:51) in which Rambam describes
living in a continuous state of such focus as the highest form of human
existence. Kavvanah in prayer is a microcosm of such a state.
However, prayer consciousness is not just a conscious focus on God;
it has an experiential element of “standing before the Shekhinah.”
According to the Rav, “standing before the Shekhinah” is not a metaphor
that emphasizes the intensity of focus, but an exact description of the
experience of prayer. As elaborated above, this element is central to the
Rav’s notion of religious experience. Prayer is a mode in which human
beings find themselves in direct contact with the Creator.
Prayer as the Expression of Existential Need
For the Rav, it is inconceivable that the Torah could command an act
that is not accessible to everyone as a miz.vah. The Halakhah is not eso-
teric; the miz.vah of prayer must apply equally to all, whatever their spir-
itual abilities. Such a conception of miz.vot does not easily accommodate
an understanding of prayer as mystical communion with the Divine.
Even if it is possible for a select few, how is it possible for ordinary peo-
ple who are not spiritual giants to break the bounds of their finite exis-
tence to connect with the Infinite? Yet, according to the Rav, it is possi-
ble: such is the miz. vah of prayer. Communion with God is made
possible by the fact that the prerequisites for its achievement are part of
the human condition. Prayer, even in its mystical sense, is not accessible
only to the spiritual elite because it is a basic human need.
In this understanding of prayer as both a miz.vah and a need one
finds the Rav’s response to one of the difficulties with petitional prayer
mentioned above. What is the significance of petitioning God for our
needs? The Rav’s answer is that we pray because we must, both norma-
tively and existentially. God’s response, if any, is not a function of the
success or failure of the attempt at prayer, but is a separate question
altogether. Prayer remains essentially a human activity and must be
understood as such; yet it is a religious activity, and thus, a means of
breaking through the limits of the world and accessing the transcendent.
How does this miz.vah bring about the metaphysical transformation
that is communion with the Divine? According to Ramban, the Torah
commandment of prayer is only in times of z.arah. Rambam disagrees
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and claims that there is a commandment to pray every day. The Rav con-
tends that Rambam does not disagree with Ramban about the principle
that distress lies at the foundation of prayer. Their disagreement lies only
in the source of the distress. Ramban focuses on external, physical z.arah
—famine, war, poverty and death. These are what the Rav calls “surface
crises,” and since they generally strike communities rather than individu-
als, they inspire communal prayer, as in the laws of ta‘anit z.ibbur. In con-
trast, Rambam’s notion of prayer as a daily obligation, while in no way
obviating that of Ramban, is a response to a “depth crisis.” This is not the
result of disastrous physical conditions but is a function of the human
existential condition. Every person must realize that despite the greatness
of the human personality, each individual is a “being born out of noth-
ingness and running down to nothingness” (36). We are equipped with
infinite imagination and desire but “must be satisfied with a restricted,
bounded existence” (34). The miz.vah of prayer includes the responsibili-
ty that a person realizes this fact and experience the distress attendant
upon it. From the depths of crisis a person is drawn to call upon God out
of the realization of his utter dependence every day. This call, when
issued from the depths of the human personality, brings about the
miraculous manifestation of the divine presence.
Though the Rav does not say so explicitly, it would appear that the
normative element of prayer is not merely the required recitation of the
liturgy but rather the demand for a kind of daily existential self-appraisal
that imposes upon the individual a crisis-awareness. This crisis-awareness
becomes prayer when it inspires a calling out to God “out of the depths.”
Thus, in a fascinating way, there is a circular movement in the act of
prayer: one recites the liturgy in order to remind oneself of one’s existen-
tial situation. One brings about a crisis-consciousness that in turn is the
source for a calling out to God embodied in the liturgy one is reciting.
Absence of God as an Existential Crisis
As noted above, although prayer is a human activity, it carries within it
the potential for transcendence, for communion with God. How does
the crisis awareness, and the subsequent lifting up one’s eyes to God as a
response to it, give rise to actual contact with God? One source of the
existential distress that forms the depth crisis lies in the experience of
the absence of God.15 This absence expresses itself in both the cosmic
and historical realms. In modern times, with the great success of science
and technology, the “cosmic” absence of God is particularly felt. “Not
always do the heavens proclaim the Glory of God” (75). God’s absence
is also felt in the historical realm through our awareness of the “unrea-
sonableness of historical occurrence” (76). One cannot make sense of
history; it seems to lead nowhere and to serve no purpose. Both of these
awarenesses inspire awe, fear, and, ultimately, despair; they present
human life as tragic-comical and meaningless.
Man feels a grisly emptiness and chilling cruelty pervading the uncharted
lanes of the universe. . . . Nature is cool, mechanical and devoid of mean-
ing; man, searching for salvation, is a tragi-comical figure crying out to a
mute insensible environment which does not share his troubles and suf-
This feeling, claims the Rav, “is not to be confused with agnosticism
or Greek mythological fatalism. It is the religious emotion at its best. It
is the experience of God as numen absens” (77).
Communion with God Through Identification with His Will.
The numinous experience of divine absence gives rise to a profound exis-
tential loneliness, a feeling of desolation and alienation from the Creator.
However, when interpreted religiously, this experience can be the foun-
dation of prayer as a means of breaking through the silence and finding
companionship. Through prayer a person can miraculously convert the
distance into closeness, the numinous into the “kerygmatic,”16 loneliness
into communion with God.
The possibility of this miracle, as well as the means of its achieve-
ment, can be learned, claims the Rav, from the Biblical account of the
avot. The avot instituted a covenantal relationship between God and the
Jewish People that holds the promise of redemption. This covenant
promises suffering and travail (e.g. Berit bein ha-Betarim), but, because
of His promise, God cannot forsake us forever. The individual stories of
the avot furnish us with an account of individuals whose lives are full of
alienation and regret, suffering and privation, but who made use of these
experiences to deepen their relationship with God. The avot discovered
the formula for transforming the numinous into the kerygmatic: “the
acceptance of the numinous authority, truly wholeheartedly and with
conviction, the result of which is the easing of the mind and dispelling of
inner fear and anxiety” (81). When a person identifies the will of God
with his own will, when he accepts both the cosmic and historical reality
that he finds himself in, not through submission and defeat but actively
and deliberately, he can convert distance into closeness.