Halakhic Positions of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik
by R. Aharon Ziegler
Both Torah study and Tefillah [prayer] rank high in the annals of our religious faith and tradition. As a matter of fact Moshe Rabbeinu points to these two factors as the pivotal aspects of our greatness and uniqueness. In Parashat Va’et’chanan [Devarim 4:7-8] Moshe states: “Which is a great nation that has a G-d Who is close to it, as HaShem, our G-d, whenever we call to Him” [That’s Tefillah]. “And which is a great nation that has righteous decrees and ordinances, such as the entire torah that I place before you this day?” [That’s Torah]”. They are both important, but they are not the same.
Rav Soloveitchik beautifully explains the difference between these two of our most fundamental Mitzvot. One can truly pray only with the heart of a child. Prayer requires that we surrender ourselves to G-d with complete trust in the only true Provider. One must be willing to bare his soul to cry out to G-d. Faced with needs, we beseech G-d to provide for us. The sophisticated adult, with defense mechanism in full force cannot do so. Our amazing accomplishments delude us to believe that we are completely in control of the world, instead of understanding that nothing happens without HaShem.
On the other hand, only an adult can truly learn Torah. Those qualities that make Tefillah so effective would render our learning as meaningless. True Torah learning requires intellectual sophistication, in-depth analysis, creative thinking, and the ability to search deeply for truth. Real Torah learning does not focus on Midrashic stories about Avraham smashing idols, number games, gimatri’ot, or merely entertaining Divrei Torah.
The Rav was fond of saying that his grandfather, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, saved Torah in nineteenth century Europe by demonstrating that Talmudic learning could compete with-and surpass-the intellectual vigor offered by the best of the scientific world. The Lithuanian yeshiva world emphasized the depth and complexity of Torah, and many Jews who no longer observed Jewish law continued the most enjoyable of intellectual pursuits- the study of Torah.
It is most interesting that, while the Lithuanian world focused on Torah study, the Chassidic world focused on prayer; it seems as if the two are mutually exclusive. It is truly the rare individual who can follow in the footsteps of Sarah Immeinu, praying like a child, learning as an adult, with the energy of youth. May we be Zocheh to be such a person.