Without Intelligence, Whence Prayer?

What is the role of intellectual analysis in the world of prayer? On the one hand, analyzing the prayers is not the same as davening and can actually get in the way of the experience of prayer. On the other hand, a deeper understanding of the meaning of prayer and of the content of individual tefillot enhances that experience. As illustration, Rabbi Carmy shows how analysis teaches us to differentiate between the praises of hallel and of pesukei de-zimrah as well as between the thanksgiving of the amidah and that of birkat ha-mazon. Indeed, a musician cannot perform a piece of music if he or she has not studied the piece beforehand.

Is petition for basic human needs central to the act or prayer? Rav Soloveitchik answers in the affirmative. In explaining this position, Rabbi Carmy cites Karl Barth who argued that "only in this way is there any safeguard that the real man comes before God in prayer." Rav Kook disagrees and downplays the prominence of personal petition. Yet both of these rabbinic luminaries would demand cultivating inwardness as the gateway to a successful prayer.

What is the balance between the communal and the individual in prayer? Halakhah clearly plays great value in communal prayer. This both enhances kavvana and insures that prayer not become an "entirely selfish affair." At the same time, "a spiritual lifestyle, conducted completely in the glare of communal space, is liable to marginalize those features of religious existence that are predicated upon inwardness and self-examination." This is a particular danger in contemporary Western society where a herd mentality often eviscerates any real individuality. Rabbi Carmy advocates not making the "communal dimension shallower" but building up "the intimate, individual side in whatever way possible."

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Tradition 37:1 (2003): 1-26. (© Rabbinical Council of America, with permission.)

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