Book review: R’ Soloveitchik: Experience of Prayer

The fact that Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik was one of the greatest Talmudists of his era is well-known. What Dov Schwartz (professor of Jewish Thought at Bar-Ilan University) brilliantly details in his remarkable new book  Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik on the Experience of Prayer (Academic Studies Press 978-1618117182) is that R’ Soloveitchik applied that same rigid Talmudic approach to prayer also.

The book argues that the primary goal of R’ Soloveitchik’s thought on prayer is to offer a phenomenological description of the consciousness of prayer. Phenomenology is the study of the structures of consciousness as experienced at the individual level. The discipline of phenomenology is a subset of philosophy and related to areas such as logic, ontology, ethics, epistemology, and more.

This is a highly sophisticated book written for those who have a profound understanding of the topics as mentioned earlier, something this reviewer lacks. As such, I found myself continually Googling various topics and terms mentioned. The reader may want to invoke some of the elements of prayer described to help them understand large parts of the book.

While some view canonized prayer as the ultimate in impersonal worship, Schwartz expands on R’ Soloveitchik’s notion that prayer is one of the supreme expressions of religious individualism. This was quite important for R’ Soloveitchik, as he saw prayer as a conscious act that emanates from the experience of being in the presence of God.

Much of this work is an analysis of R’ Soloveitchik’s seminal work Worship of the Heart: Essays on Jewish Prayer. Moreover, as noted, R’ Soloveitchik there was not concerned so much with prayer itself, rather the consciousness of prayer.

After spending over 300 pages discussing the extraordinarily abstract and complex ideas of prayer, Schwartz quotes Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Rav Shagar) who was critical of the excessive formalism of R’ Soloveitchik’s analytical lectures on prayer. While R’ Soloveitchik was indeed quite formal, his approach to prayer was such that it was not exclusively an intellectual experience, as one might have assumed from this book. Instead, it was an opportunity for deep communion with God. The endless stories R’ Soloveitchik shared through the years points to that.

If someone viewed that formalization alone, it would appear R’ Soloveitchik’s approach to prayer would be one of pure obligation, without any sincere, meaningful intent. Schwartz quotes R’ Soloveitchik as noting that the Hebrew term for a synagogue, beit ha’kneset, should not be translated as a house of prayer. Instead, as a home of prayer. A house of prayer is symbolic and institutional. However, a home of prayer is a grand idea, namely the house of man, which at the same time is the intimate home of God.

Schwartz has written an utterly brilliant work, that details R’ Soloveitchik’s philosophical approach to prayer. He shows how R’ Soloveitchik was not just the Talmudist par excellence of his generation, but an equally great philosopher, with uniquely profound insights into prayer.

About the Author
Senior information security and risk management professional. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. Here for Times of Israel, book reviews on religion and philosophy.
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