It is the fate of many famous essays that readers tend to remember its first major idea, overlooking important insights that appear later on. If asked to name the most significant idea in The Lonely Man of Faith, most readers would mention the dialectical tension between Adam I and Adam II. In this, Rabbi Soloveitchik affirms the scientific quest of modern man while at the same time emphasizing that this aspect alone renders unattainable the crucial covenantal community that can only be formed by Adam II. Without denying the significance of this idea, I would say that the most important part of the essay for me has always been the section in which the Rav draws parallels between prophecy and prayer. I will briefly sketch these parallels, adding why I find each to be of ongoing significance.
Rabbi Soloveitchik makes three fundamental parallels. Both prayer and prophecy are essentially about standing before God in dialogue. The difference being that in the latter, God talks to man, while in the former, man talks to God. In a beautiful passage, the Rav uses this theme to explain what motivated the Anshei Kenesset ha-Gedolah to initiate a more formalized obligation of prayer: “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” (p. 58).
As a person who sometimes struggles with the mitzvah of tefillah, I find this idea of great significance as it explains the unique role of prayer in a life of mitzvot. Any other mitzvah can be done without thinking about Hashem, but prayer cannot--as the very act consists of communicating with our Maker. Thus, despite the difficulties in achieving kavannah, the thrice daily prayer serves as a crucial reminder to be conscious of God. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s idea entails rejecting Leibowitz’s theory of prayer as simply executing a Divine command in which we could just as easily be reading names out of the phone book. It also eliminates theories of prayer that emphasize introspection but portray it as a meditation that does not depend on any metaphysical assumptions about the Being one talks to. The Rav agrees with the introspective significance of prayer but argues that such introspection happens in the context of a genuine dialogue with God.
The second parallel between prayer and prophecy states that both must take place within a communal context. Prayer ideally takes place in a public forum and the prophet only merits his Divine message as the representative of the community. For this reason, halakhah renders a harsh punishment on a prophet who fails to deliver his prophetic message. This idea makes it clear that Judaism does not speak to the religious elitist who separates himself from the community, but rather always talks with a communal voice. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s personal example as manifest in this and other essays serves as an argument against those who claim that strong intellectualism inevitably leads to elitism. He demands complex thinking even as he insists that mitzvot apply equally to each individual.
Finally, Rav Soloveitchik mentions that these two mitzvot of dialogue with God must not be divorced from the norms of an ethico-moral message. In other words, we should not identify prophecy with the mystic’s quest for rapture in a vision of Divinity. Rather, prophecy always functions to bring an imperative message. Even the great mystical visions of the Divine Chariot found in Yeshayahu and Yehezkel are accompanied by a concrete message calling for action. This point has special resonance in our contemporary Jewish scene. The recent surge in interest in Jewish mysticism may stem from an authentic desire for the spiritual. However, this interest sometimes fails to coincide with greater striving towards moral and religious excellence. I have seen several students in recent years whose overwhelming need for a religious high blinded them to other basic responsibilities. When the spiritual search fails to impact on the broader world of moral and religious behavior we must conclude the main point has been left out.
This idea also shapes our understanding of prayer, which can no longer be viewed as a magical act that brings atonement or enables a person to receive his requests. Prayer must take place within the context of a prayerful life that includes a realization of the wide spectrum of religious duties. “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” (p. 65). Among other things, this idea helps challenge the old secularist contention that people take on religion as part of an all too easy desire for comfort. Authentic prayer, and authentic religion in general, challenges man as much as it comforts him.
The Rav connects the emphasis on the norm with the democratic character of Judaism. Mystical visions can only be achieved by the few, whereas religious and moral obligations make demands on us all. If we add the realization that much of our best thinking about those demands takes place within our daily conversations with God, the link between all three themes becomes clear. In the absence of prophecy, we must rely on prayer for a dialogue with the Divine, in the context of a community, that imparts an ethical message. These ideas constantly animate my thinking about prayer and, as I have argued, should have far reaching impact on many of the religious issues of our day.
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau currently works as a Rebbe at Yeshivat Hamivtar and previously taught at the Yeshivah of Flatbush High School. He publishes widely in periodicals such as The Torah U-Madda Journal and Tradition.