Rabbi Oury Cherki
Experiencing Prayer in a Proper Way
A. Various Types of Religious Experience
What in the end is the experience that should accompany a person when he really stands before G-d?
In the phenomenology (that is, the study) of the religious experience there are several approaches to the question of the prime source of the experience, which is also felt to be the prime feeling that accompanies every religious activity:
The first approach claims that the religious experience is a result of a bitter spirit. A person feels ill at ease, depressed, and sad, and instead of turning to a psychologist he unloads these feelings with the help of the religious experience that they create.
Another approach claims that the religious experience is a result of guilt feelings. During his life, a person commits various sins – related to health, ethics, and the Torah – and these sins create a feeling of guilt.
The third approach claims that the religious experience is a result of fear. Man feels tiny and insignificant in relation to infinity, and as a result of the fear for his or her fate he tries to establish an eternal place for himself. According to this approach, this fear results in a desire to become linked to an infinite being by performing various rituals.
Another approach claims that the religious experience is simply a result of an esthetic experience. Beauty – which occurs either in nature or in art – creates wonder in a person, and this causes him to want to return to his hidden roots.
All of these approaches are based on the assumption that there is no such thing as revelation. They therefore view the religious experience as a personal way to cope with existing phenomena and nothing more.
B. Praying as a Result of a Serious Approach
Let us look at the words of the sages. The Mishna which is concerned with the proper intentions for prayer begins with the words, "One should only stand up to pray out of a feeling of seriousness." This phrase – koved rosh – is also used to describe the experience that a person has as a result of an encounter with G-d, and we are therefore told to achieve this state before starting to pray (the experience itself is not an encounter with G-d, but it can open the gateway for an exalted experience). But what exactly is this experience? As part of a discussion of the source for this law, the Talmud brings many different interpretations (this summary is based on an analysis by Rabbi Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi):
According to Rabbi Eliezer, the source of this law is the prayer by Hannah, who prayed out of bitterness. This means that the serious feeling is bitterness, a feeling of lack. But the Talmud rejects this interpretation because Hannah's soul was especially bitter, and this cannot serve as a guide for the general public.
It should be noted that a feeling of a lack really is the most authentic way to pray and to stand before G-d, but this raises a problem: A person has no way of knowing if his bitterness is justified or not – how can he know if he deserves what he is asking for? But with respect to Hannah, the bitterness stemmed from a place of truth, because she knew from her own prophecy that she was meant to give birth to a son who would establish the kingdom of Israel. Thus, specifically for her the bitterness was justified (and therefore especially strong) so that it would serve as a channel for an encounter with G-d.
Rabbi Yossi son of Rabbi Chanina feels that the prayer of King David – which was filled with the fear of G-d – is the source of this law. A serious feeling is thus an attitude of fear. How is this fear defined? The verse implies that what concerns us is a fear that appears at a time of chessed (kindness). "And I, with Your abundant kindness... with fear of You" (Psalms 5,8). At a time of kindness, we fear the consequences of sin – man fears that his actions will interfere with the good things that he receives. But this opinion is also rejected by the Talmud. It is true that a man will sometimes commit a sin: "For there is no man in the world who is so righteous that he always does good and never sins" (Ecclesiastes 7,20). But it is wrong to base all of life and the service of G-d on the experience of sin. Putting religious life on a foundation of guilt, as is done by Christianity, cannot serve as a permanent basis. After all, man was expected to pray even before he sinned. King David's fear is relevant for his specific circumstances and it cannot serve as a model for the general public.
Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi comments on the verse, "Bow down to G-d with holy beauty" (Psalms 29,2). He sees this as a commandment to be influenced by a holy anxiety (replacing the word hadrat by herdat). From the context of this chapter in Psalms, it seems that this anxiety is related to the infinite strength of the Creator – similar to the experience of Soren Kierkegaard (a Danish philosopher, the father of existentialism, 1813-1855). But the Talmud rejects this approach, because the verse can be read in a straightforward way, to bow down to G-d in a majestic way. At first there was concern that if the verse had been interpreted this way it might cause man to revert to the pagan worship of nature. But in the end the Talmud relies on the approach of Rav Yehuda, who finds the proper place for human beauty, which evidently hints at internal, spiritual beauty.
The fact that the Talmud continues to search for a source for the law as given in the Mishna shows that this last way of interpreting the verse cannot serve as a source for a "serious attitude," because this mode of preparation corresponds to only one aspect of the soul – anxiety or beauty – and does not bring about a unity of values, as is worthy of faith in the Divine unity.
C. A Combination of Joy and Fear
Rav Nachman Bar Yitzchak, whose approach is accepted at the conclusion of this passage in the Talmud, explains that the source for this law is in the requirement, "Be joyous in your trembling" (Psalms 2,11). The serious attitude, then, is a combination of joy and fear. Usually these two emotions are mutually exclusive – when a person is full of happiness he cannot be in the throes of fear, and when he is afraid it is hard for him to be happy. But a true encounter with G-d requires a mixture of the two emotions. On one hand, the encounter with G-d fills a person with ecstasy, since G-d is the source of life and the source of his identity. On the other hand, the encounter fills the person with fear, since it implies that he will be judged based on the question of whether he is in fact worthy of life, and whether he is faithful to his true identity.
Thus, a feeling of both joy and fear together – being close and maintaining our distance at one and the same time – is a sign that we are indeed standing in front of G-d. "Be joyous in your trembling" – that is the proper religious experience that should be taught to the general public.
In the continuation of the passage in the Talmud a Baraita is quoted which gives a broader insight of prayer. "One should only stand up to pray... based on halacha that has been decided." The Talmud states that all of the sages followed the instructions of the Mishna, "with a serious approach," and Rav Ashi followed the instructions of the Baraita, "based on halacha." Why did Rav Ashi specifically act in this way? It is because Rav Ashi is the one who compiled the Talmud. All day long he was intimately involved in disputes by the sages. In order to be able to pray to the One who unifies all values and is beyond any dispute, Rav Ashi needed to determine the decision of the halacha, with is a unifying expression of the will of G-d.