Halakhic Positions of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik
by R. Aharon Ziegler
According to Rav Soloveitchik, Halacha is not simply law. It is a way of living and thinking. It is true that there are many areas of Jewish law where what matters is what we do, not what we think. But, on the other hand, there are some areas where intention is most crucial in the performance of my actions.
This is certainly the case in Tefillah. For example there is the ma’aseh hamitzvah, the verbal act of reciting the Shema morning and evening, but there is also the inner gesture, known as kiyum hamitzvah, defined by our Sages as “Ol Malchut Shamayim—accepting the yoke of sovereignty of Heaven”. Saying the words without the intent means that we have performed the commanded deed but we have not fulfilled the command itself. Thought about prayer must proceed from the laws of prayer, and those laws deal with more than mere externalities—they are about kavanah, the focus of the mind.
Likewise, the Rav said, we find this vividly true concerning Teshuvah, repentance. Going through the motions—confessions and, in biblical times, the bringing of a korban, sacrifice—is not enough. There must be remorse and a resolve for the future, an act of mind and will, as well. This is the distinction between ma’aseh hamitzvah, the outward behavior, the commanded act, and kiyum hamitzvah, the fulfillment of the command, which requires something more than a physical deed.