Shiur #11: Prayer and the Religious Experience

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


Dedicated in memory of Gertrude and Samuel Spiegel z”l
by Michael and Patti Steinmetz



At the end of the previous shiur we examined the complaints raised by the Mitnagdim against the Chassidim. We focused on one general accusation - religious arrogance, and we saw how this was particularly expressed (in the eyes of the Mitnagdim) in Chassidic prayer practices. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi defended the strange movements and raised voices that accompanied Chassidic prayer, and cast the claim of arrogance back at the Mitnagdim. Today we will continue to explore the roots of this disagreement about prayer.


Rabbi Schneur Zalman's claim that the style of Chassidic prayer is appropriate for our generation, whose members are "orphans of orphans," that is to say, at an exceedingly lowly level, is general and requires explanation. What is the advantage of this form of prayer, and what does it contribute? Here are the words of the Baal Shem Tov, as they appear in an early collection of his teachings, Keter Shem Tov:


Rabbi Israel Baal Shem, peace be upon him, said: If a man is drowning in a river, and he engages in movements in the water that will [help] get him out of the water that is inundating him, onlookers will certainly not make fun of him and his movements. So too when a person prays and makes movements, one should not make fun of him, as he is saving himself from the malicious waters, i.e., the husks that come to break his concentration in prayer.[1]


The Baal Shem Tov does not yet relate to such movements as a teaching directed at the public at large, or as a fixed feature that characterizes the special prayer services held in separate synagogues. His words come to explain the practice and its value, and as such they are liable to be interpreted as a recommendation to God-fearing people that they should adopt it. In any case, we are dealing here with existential benefit derived by the worshipper, whose bodily movements assist him in his struggle against the forces of impurity that are trying to redirect him from his prayer.


If, however, we go back to the words of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, we see how they are part and parcel of a fundamental and comprehensive approach regarding the place of prayer in spiritual life:


Also those who say that prayer is only a rabbinic enactment have not seen lights in their lives, for even though the wording of the prayers and their number – three times a day – is by rabbinic enactment, its essence is the foundation of the entire Torah, to know God, to recognize His greatness and His majesty with perfect knowledge and a settled understanding of the heart, that one should contemplate this to the point that his rational soul is aroused to love the name of God, to cleave to Him and His Torah, and to desire His commandments very much. All of this is accomplished in our time through the recitation of Pesukei de-Zimra and the blessings before and after Shema with a full mouth and with a voice that awakens concentration of the heart… But in our time, anyone who is close to God, and has had a taste of prayer [even] one time, will understand that without it a person cannot lift his hand or foot in the true worship of God, but only as a commandment of men learned by rote, as it is written: "[And the Lord said,] Since this people draw near, and with their mouth [and with their lips do honor Me, but have removed their heart far from Me, and their fear towards me is as a commandment of men learned by rote]" (Yeshaya 29:13-14), and therefore Satan accuses us abundantly.


We can infer from here that those who condemned Chassidic prayer thought that the Chassidim's investment in prayer was very exaggerated, as it is only a rabbinic commandment (let us recall Rabbi Schneur Zalman's earlier words, that the Mitnagdim pray "in haste"). According to them, one should save his spiritual energy for Torah commandments, and especially for Torah study (as we shall see below). Rabbi Schneur Zalman's response to them is that while its formal and superficial aspects – the wording and the number of the prayers – are by rabbinic enactment, in its essence prayer is the foundation of the entire Torah.


Religious Experience as a Criterion and as a Goal


How does Rabbi Schneur Zalman know that prayer is the foundation of the entire Torah? He does not cite any sources to prove his position. He relies exclusively on experiential conviction. He asserts that prayer can effect enormous changes in the human soul. The worshiper can reach awakening, love and devotion to God and His commandments, such that the service of God will be his central motive and heart's desire. Without prayer, the religious act is "a commandment of men learned by rote," and this is clear to anyone who has had a taste of prayer, even one time. The passage ends with the significant words: "And therefore Satan accuses us abundantly." That is to say, all of the persecution coming from the Mitnagdim is part of Satan's attempt to undermine the Chassidic prayer enterprise. The positive power of that prayer is such that Satan sees it an unsurpassable threat, and this explains the all-out war that he wages against it.


It is clear according to this that insistence about the centrality of prayer, as is found among the Chassidim, is the key to bringing down Satan; surrender, therefore, is not an option. Also in the section of the letter cited in the previous shiur, Rabbi Schneur Zalman described the decrees against Chassidic prayer as "persecution." This extreme expression as well leaves no doubt that in this matter there will be no compromises.


In summary, according to Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the form of the Mitnagdim's prayer stems from the view that prayer does not have far-reaching significance. It is merely a rabbinic enactment, to be observed as any other halakhic obligation. Among Mitnagdim, all religious service falls in the category of "commandments of men learned by rote," and so too their prayer. But, in truth, prayer is the key to true closeness to God, and therefore it is the foundation of the entire Torah, and it requires great investment of time, effort and style, in order for its spiritual potential to be realized.


Rabbi Schneur Zalman's manner of argumentation attests to assumptions that outside the Chassidic world were considered baseless. The centrality of prayer is proven, according to him, by the subjective effect that it has on the worshipper. This argument assumes that one can measure the level of a person's service of God through his personal spiritual experience. It is also clear that this experience becomes the most sought after goal in the religious act. It follows from this assumption that religious experience can decide halakhic questions: Should time and effort be invested in prayer at the expense of other commandments; should one devise movements and other new means to increase the tangible spiritual influence of prayer.[2]


Religious Experience According to the Mitnagdim


The world view of the Mitnagdim rejected this direction of thought. Indeed, one who has studied with us the scholarly-spiritual path of the Vilna Gaon knows that, in his opinion, halakhic decisions must not be made on the basis of feelings and experiences, even if these are good and fitting in themselves. Let us remember that the Gra felt a need to adduce talmudic proofs even for factual truths (e.g., that the examination of a slaughtering knife requires the examiner's concentration). Trustworthy determinations must be based on a literary precedent in the Torah tradition; factual experience is irrelevant.


Therefore, Rabbi Shneur Zalman's argument that "one who has had a taste of prayer" understands on his own that prayer is the foundation of the entire Torah and of the service of God, is baseless and incomprehensible to a Mitnaged. Desirable religious closeness and devotion is not a personal experience, but a matter of fact. Did the person truly reach an elevated spiritual level? Is he truly connected to the Master of the Universe? Perhaps he cleaves only to the musings of heart, to the prayer customs that he himself invented, and to things that are not rooted in the true will of God, as it has been revealed to us in the Torah.


A student of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Pinchas of Polotsk, relates to Rabbi Schneur Zalman's thought process in his book Keter Torah,[3] without mentioning him by name. According to him, the arguments that establish prayer as the foundation of the Torah are the counsel of the evil inclination. "On three things the world stands - on the Torah, on service, and on lovingkindness." The Chassidim say that "service," i.e., prayer, is the central, and therefore also the most important pillar. Rabbi Pinchas, on the other hand, rejects this argument: Torah study is second to none, and therefore it is mentioned first. Prayer, in contrast, is secondary, definitely not "the foundation of the entire Torah."


Rabbi Pinchas understands that the attraction of prayer lies in the experience of closeness to God that it offers, and therefore he addresses this attraction, which appears to be pure and spiritual, as another one of the evil inclination's temptations. This is the way Rabbi Pinchas formulates Satan's preaching:


… What is the essence and benefit of Torah study? It is a means of cleaving to God, and to know His ways and attributes. If so, is it possible that you can do this while you day and night trouble your mind with a pilpulistic study of the Talmud and codes? Rather it is preferable that you study less and reflect on God's ways and providence… and that you seclude yourself with your yearnings for him day and night, as it is stated: "The desire of the soul is to Your name and to Your remembrance" (Yeshaya 26:8).


But, argues Rabbi Pinchas, it is our duty to expose the lie: "And know now that this too is a fraud perpetrated by the evil inclination… to cast you down in its net and catch you in its trap…." But what is the lie, and where is the fraud? Here comes the fundamental point, a new idea concerning the relationship between the Torah and closeness to God:


Do not imagine that you will reach closeness to God or the [Divine] attributes without the Torah, because it is not merely the means to closeness and the [Divine] attributes… Rather, it itself is the true closeness, that one should not separate from, as it is like separating from life. For the entire Torah is the names of God and it is woven and embroidered on the attributes of the Creator. And there is not even a trivial matter in the words of the Sages of the Gemara that does not touch upon heavenly conduits and reach up to the Throne of Glory… And if someone says to you that he achieved closeness without it, that is an outright lie, because he separated himself from the truth and joined a lie…


In other words, a person cannot attribute to himself closeness to God based on subjective feelings or uplifting experiences. Such communion is false. With what exactly is he communing? Only with images and content that are the product of his own imagination. True closeness to the heavenly spiritual worlds is found most clearly in a person who diligently sits over the Talmud and codes day and night. The world of Halakha is the external garment of a deep spiritual world which we are unable to grasp, but with which we are connected when we study Torah.


In this way, the personal experience simply drops completely from the agenda; it is not the goal and it does not serve as a moral criterion in any way. The words, "the desire of the soul is to Your name and to Your remembrance" which impress us as describing a strong personal experience, are explained by Rabbi Pinchas in an entirely different manner: The goal to which we must strive is not tangible exaltation, but rather mental effort in study. "The desire of the soul" is but a synonym for "supreme goal," and is in no way connected to inner passion or fire. "The desire of the soul" is "to Your name and to Your remembrance," that is – to the Torah. All of the opposite arguments originate with the evil inclination, which tries in every way, even with promises of holiness and closeness to God, to let our hands go from the Torah.


"True Closeness to God"


It is obvious that the implications of this fundamental disagreement about the role of personal religious experience go far beyond the issue of prayer. The Chassidic masters instilled the importance of constant adherence to holiness even not when praying, and claimed that this is an important task that is suited for an ordinary person. For this end they recommended means that do not demand extensive knowledge of the Torah or real scholarly achievements, and therefore even simple people are capable of using them. For them closeness of the mind is based on the imagination, and is frequently portrayed as a sort of mental-emotional muscle, which the more it is worked, in quantity and in depth, the more efficient it becomes, and the more it produces a real connection between a person and the Master of the Universe.


Practical guidelines that a person "should cleave upwards," that is, that he should imagine himself connected to the heavenly worlds, appear many times in the early writings of Chassidut, e.g., Tzava'at ha-Rivash, and are attributed to the Besht and the Maggid of Mezeritch. The Chassid should strive that such a thought will accompany him for as long as possible, and the Chassidic masters guide their disciples how to behave when this is difficult to implement, for example, when one is tired, or when he is busy with his daily routine. The gist of what they say is that imaginative thought like this creates or reflects reality, and indicates a high level of Divine service.


An explicit expression of this idea is found in Rabbi Schneur Zalman's foundational work, the Tanya, where he deals with things that stir up joy of the soul:


This, also, will be the true joy of the soul, especially when one recognises, at appropriate times, that one needs to purify and illuminate one's soul with gladness of the heart. Let him then concentrate his mind and envisage in his intelligence and understanding the subject of His blessed true Unity: how He permeates all worlds, both upper and lower, and even the fullness of this earth is His blessed glory; and how everything is of no reality whatever in His presence; and He is One alone in the upper and lower realms, as He was One alone before the six days of Creation… For all things created are nullified beside Him in their very existence, as are nullified the letters of speech and thought within their source and root, namely, the essence and substance of the soul… Exactly so, figuratively speaking, is the world and all that fills it dissolved out of existence in relation to its source, which is the light of the blessed En Sof, as is there explained at length. When one will deeply contemplate this, his heart will be gladdened and his soul will rejoice even with joy and singing, with all his heart and soul and might, in [the intensity of] this faith which is tremendous, since this is the [experience of the] very proximity of God, and it is the whole [purpose] of man and the goal of his creation, as well as of the creation of all the worlds, both upper and lower, that he may have an abode here below… In other words, when his heart will exult and rejoice in his faith in G-d's Unity, in perfect joy, as though he had but this one commandment, and it alone were the ultimate purpose of his creation and that of all the worlds — then with the force and vitality of his soul which are generated by this great joy, his soul will ascend ever higher above all internal and external obstacles which hinder his fulfillment of all the 613 commandments. (Tanya, chap. 33)


From the words of Rabbi Schneur Zalman it is clear that God's "abode below," the resting of His Shekhina in this world, can be achieved solely through the observance of the mitzva of faith. The fulfillment of this mitzva is achieved through the mental image that the Chassid raises in his imagination, devotes himself to, and deeply delves in – that all the worlds are nullified in the infinite light of God. This faith brings a person to "the very proximity of God," and raises him "ever higher," when his image of nullification turns into actual spiritual reality.


However, as mentioned, the assumption on which all of this stands, that personal experience attests to spiritual reality, and maybe even creates it, is not proven or self-evident. It is interesting that even in the Chassidic tradition we find second thoughts about this. Even the movement's masters sometimes wondered whether the ascent that they experience is an illusion. In this context, I wish to tell a story that I heard on several occasions from my revered teacher, HaRav Yehuda Amital, ztz"l.


Rabbi Elimelech and Rabbi Zusha


Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli once laid out his doubts before his older brother, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhenzk, saying: "Every Shabbat, while singing the zemirot I sense that it is a time of great favor. The chambers of my heart expand and fill with the air of the Garden of Eden, and my additional soul plays like a harp. But nevertheless, my brother, I have suspicions about myself. Was it really an abundance of heavenly sanctity that rested upon me at that time? Or perhaps it's merely self-deception, an illusion born from the wishes of my heart?"


"Let me counsel you, my brother Zusha," responded Rabbi Elimelech. "Conduct the following experiment. Set the table on one of the weekdays, as if it were Shabbat. Light candles, arrange for all the special Shabbat foods, sing the same songs that bestow upon you the spirit of the holy day. If you do not feel any exaltation of the soul, then you will know that it is only Shabbat itself that sends you its light, and this should calm your mind."


Rabbi Elimelech was confident about his brother's righteousness. So what a great surprise it was for him when a few days later, Zusha returned, his eyes tearing and his face grim, looking as if his world had been destroyed. "Alas, Rabbi Elimelech! I heeded your advice, and I am now broken! That same elation that overcomes me on Shabbat rested upon me on Wednesday night!"


Rabbi Elimelech was touched by Rabbi Zusha's pure-hearted worry, but after a moment's thought he found a way to restore a twinkle to his eyes. "Listen to me, my brother," he said, "I must apologize. My advice was wrong, and my mistake saddened you unnecessarily. Quite simply, I had misjudged the strength of Shabbat, and only now do I understand the truth. So great is Shabbat, so vast is its holiness, to the point that even its imitation is saturated with its supreme spirit, and even its celebration in the middle of the week can raise an abundance of sanctity!"


This is the anecdote. The doubt raised by Rabbi Zusha at the beginning of the story about the reliability of his own personal experience, almost becomes an overwhelming proof to the position of the Mitnagdim, as it becomes clear that his experience of Shabbat is not really connected to Shabbat. Rabbi Zusha is personally distressed, but in his distress one can hear the echoes of a greater threat to the whole Chassidic approach. Rabbi Elimelech's response "saved" not only his brother, but also the spiritual-educational foundations of the movement: personal religious experience is in fact reliable, true, and indicative of a real connection to a higher reality.


But how would the Mitnagdim receive the end of the story? For them, Rabbi Elimelech's conclusion that spiritual power is found even in Shabbat's imitation, is wholly unfounded. A meal eaten on Wednesday is not even an imitation of a Shabbat meal. Let us recall the words of the Gra about those who read from the Haggada on Shabbat ha-Gadol – "it is incorrect." The Chassidim say that the pure intentions of the diner can recreate the holiness of Shabbat even on a weekday, but from the perspective of the Mitnagdim, this is an exaggerated and anti-halakhic assessment of the value and power of intention.


(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] Keter Shem Tov, 215 (ed. Kehat-Lubavitch, 5741)

[2] These assumptions are already implicit in the words of the Besht cited earlier from Keter Shem Tov. But they are stronger in the letter of Rabbi Schneur Zalman.  

[3] Rabbi Schneur Zalman wrote his letter in response to the restrictions imposed upon the Chassidim by the community of Shklov in 5547. Keter Torah was published in 5548. The passage cited here is found on p. 31 (ed. Ashdod, 5771).