The Rav and Rebbe Nachman on Tefillah

I have always wondered what it was like to pray with Rav Soloveitchik - primarily, and with some degree of confusion - because I have davened in many Modern Orthodox institutions in which the service felt somewhat distant from the cutting edge of encounter that I believe was articulated in Rav Soloveitchik’s writings and persona. 

So I found this article about the differences between the Koren Soloveitchik Siddur and the Rav’s own nusach/practice/hashkafa to be quite interesting. 

Let me say here that I am in no way qualified - nor do I at all intend - to address Yaakov Jaffe’s claims about how the Rav prayed, and whether this Siddur is a useful window into what the Rav would want us to know about prayer. Rather, I am accepting the claims of this article wholesale and focusing my attention on what may have been a minor point to the author but is very alive for me as an issue. Jaffe writes: 

R. Soloveitchik helped convey the feeling of surrender towards God and Halakhah precisely through a series of differences between his liturgy and the conventional one, with the differences all pointing in the direction of withdrawal and recoil. The one offering prayers before God must be nearly passive or mute, constantly unable to even formulate certain prayers. It is an approach to prayer that carries intense caution, even fear, lest the wrong words be put forth, Heaven Forbid. And so, as much as we think about the prayers we do say, we are also constantly reminded of all the prayers we cannot utter. Permission is needed to be able to pray, and prayer without permission borders on heresy. Or, in the words of the Koren Soloveitchik Siddur (120):

Mortal man, puny and insignificant, must first ask permission before engaging in a dialogue with the Infinite. Man needs a license, a matir…. An acknowledgment of His grandeur—an introduction with serves as the matir, the humble request for license which allows us to proceed to the gates of prayer.


Some of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s customs are grounded in a lack of “license” or “right” to pray, unless certain preconditions and introductory prayers have been invoked first.

Some prayers are omitted because they were created in the modern period, and carry the hubris of creativity, unbecoming of the humble, defeated penitent.

Other prayers are omitted because they are too anthropomorphic in nature, or describe the Creator on the same level as human beings and not as significantly greater and beyond.

At other times, prayers must be removed from the Siddur because we cannot offer a prayer at the wrong time in the service, or the wrong day of the week, so we recognize withdrawal by confessing that we cannot offer this particular prayer at this particular time.

We accept defeat by not repeating verses in the service, and not reciting mystical prayers or catechisms. We humbly pray what we can bring ourselves to say, but nothing more. 

What I find particularly intriguing here is, for lack of a better word, the monolithic nature of prayer that is being attributed to the Rav. The way that Jaffe lays it out, the Rav’s approach to prayer was singular and absolute: prayer is a function of surrender, withdrawal, recoil, defeat. “Prayer is rendered with caution, even fear, lest the wrong words be put forth, Heaven Forbid.” “The one offering prayers before God must be nearly passive or mute, constantly unable to even formulate certain prayers.” “Permission is needed to be able to pray, and prayer without permission borders on heresy."

Again I write what I am about to write with the caveat that I am not wading into the debate of whether or not this is an accurate appraisal of the Rav’s take on prayer. And I have no doubt that the Rav’s approach is based upon seamless and accurate readings of countless texts, with the Rav’s incredible genius for assembling those texts into a cohesive view. But when I read this article, I think of something Rebbe Nachman wrote:

כִּי יֵשׁ דָּרֵי מַעְלָה וְיֵשׁ דָּרֵי מַטָּה, דְּהַיְנוּ עוֹלָם הָעֶלְיוֹן וְעוֹלָם הַתַּחְתּוֹן, בְּחִינַת שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ, וְצָרִיךְ הַצַּדִּיק לְהַרְאוֹת לְדָרֵי מַעְלָה, שֶׁאֵינָם יוֹדְעִים כְּלָל בִּידִיעָתוֹ יִתְבָּרַךְ, שֶׁזֶּה בְּחִינַת הַשָֹֹּגָה שֶׁל מָה, בְּחִינַת: 'מֶה חָמִית מַה פִּשְׁפַּשְׁתְּ', בְּחִינַת: אַיֵּה מְקוֹם כְּבוֹדוֹ וּלְהֶפֶךְ: צָרִיךְ לְהַרְאוֹת לְדָרֵי מַטָּה, שֶׁאַדְּרַבָּא, מְלֹא כָּל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ (יְשַׁעְיָה ו). כִּי יֵשׁ שׁוֹכְנֵי עָפָר, שֶׁהֵם בְּנֵי - אָדָם הַמּוּנָחִים בַּמַּדְרֵגָה הַתַּחְתּוֹנָה, וְנִדְמֶה לָהֶם שֶׁהֵם רְחוֹקִים מְאֹד מִמֶּנּוּ יִתְבָּרַךְ, וְצָרִיךְ הַצַּדִּיק לְעוֹרְרָם וְלַהֲקִיצָם, בִּבְחִינַת (שָׁם כ"ו): "הָקִיצוּ וְרַנְּנוּ שֹׁכְנֵי עָפָר". וּלְגַלּוֹת לָהֶם שֶׁה' עִמָּם, וְהֵם סְמוּכִים - אֵלָיו יִתְבָּרַךְ, כִּי "מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ". וּלְחַזְּקָם וּלְעוֹרְרָם, שֶׁלֹּא יִהְיוּ מְיָאֲשִׁין עַצְמָן, חַס וְשָׁלוֹם, כִּי עֲדַיִן הֵם אֵצֶל הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ וּקְרוֹבִים - אֵלָיו, כִּי "מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ”
“For there are those who dwell below, and those who dwell above (darei malah) - meaning, the upper world and the lower world, an aspect of heaven and earth. And the righteous one must show those who dwell above that they know nothing of the knowledge of God, and this is the aspect of ‘what?’, from the concept (in the Tikunei Zohar), ‘What have you actually seen? What have you searched out?’, a function of ‘Where is the place of His Glory?’ And, the opposite: the righteous one needs to show those who dwell below that, the opposite! The world is full of His Glory. For there are those who dwell below, who are people who are situated at the lowest level, and it seems to them that they are very far from Him, may He be blessed, and the righteous one must awaken them and rouse them, in the sense of ‘wake up and shout, you who dwell in the dust,’ and to reveal to them that Hashem is with them, and they are in proximity to Him, because ’the world is full of His Glory,’ and to encourage them and to rouse them, such that they not despair, God forbid, for they are still near God and close to Him, for ‘the world is full of His Glory.’

I do not know if it is fair or reasonable or accurate to map the Rav into Rebbe Nachman’s configuration, but assuming it is OK to do so, the Rav is davening like Rebbe Nachman’s darei malah - one who dwells above. On this map, the one who dwells above moves and grows through realizing that, really, he knows nothing at all. He is, as it were, grasping in the dark for some foothold, some place where he can stand in relation to the Divine.

But for Rebbe Nachman, in this particular framework, there is another position from which to pray - those who feel so far from God that they are in danger of giving up on relationship with Him must be shown that, in fact, they are very close to God. I believe this means that there is no barrier to prayer, no need (or place) for the kind of clamoring in the dark that the Rav describes. 

In this sense, the Rav’s view of prayer addresses only one particular kind of pray-er, and in that sense, as Jaffe correctly, points out, the Koren siddur is really not a Soloveitchik siddur. But what I find useful for my own purposes is the acknowledgment that there are different kinds of pray-ers (and therefore different kinds of siddurim). 

And a question I have - and I surrender, withdraw, and admit defeat when bringing this question to bear on the Rav himself, who seemed to be eternally darei malah on this point - is around how we are different kinds of pray-ers at different times. Sometimes we are darei malah - we are so close that we need to remember how far we are. And sometimes (I imagine this is pretty common for most of us) we are darei mata - dwelling below, lost, out of contact, wondering what it is we are even doing by opening a prayer book because it feels futile, it feels like no one is listening (and, possibly, no one is even praying). At such points, the Rav’s warnings about the true status of “Mortal man, puny and insignificant” are only counterproductive. Rather than engender awe, they engender despair. And, in Rebbe Nachman’s telling, it is actually inaccurate in that it only articulates one approach to prayer. At such times, a different sort of prayer is needed. Maybe the Koren Siddur, if it does not articulate the Rav’s own view, could theoretically be useful at those moments. 

On the point of having access to a varied tool box containing different modes of prayer, I offer this passage from Gemarra Berachot:

מעשה בתלמיד אחד שירד לפני התיבה בפני רבי אליעזר והיה מאריך יותר מדאי אמרו לו תלמידיו רבינו כמה ארכן הוא זה אמר להם כלום מאריך יותר ממשה רבינו דכתיב ביה את ארבעים היום ואת ארבעים הלילה וגו' שוב מעשה בתלמיד אחד שירד לפני התיבה בפני רבי אליעזר והיה מקצר יותר מדאי אמרו לו תלמידיו כמה קצרן הוא זה אמר להם כלום מקצר יותר ממשה רבינו דכתיב אל נא רפא נא לה
“There is a an occurrence when a certain student who descended before the ark (to lead prayers) before Rabbi Eliezer, and he prayed at excessive length. Rabbi Eliezer’s students said to him, “Rebbe! What a lengthy pray-er this one is!” He answered them “He is not praying any longer than Moshe our teacher, about whom it is written, ‘For those 40 days and nights…’ Later, there was an occurrence of a certain student who descended before the ark (to lead prayer before Rabbi Eliezer, and he prayed very succinctly. His students said to him “What a short pray-er this one is!” He said to them, “No shorter than Moshe our teacher, about whom we are told (that he prayed) ‘Please, God, heal her, please.’”