Tuesday, June 24, 2014
The Function of Prayer and Tehillim
As we have discussed before, one of the main differences between the rationalist and mystical schools of thought in Judaism relates to the function of mitzvos. According to the rationalist approach, prevalent amongst the Rishonim and best expressed by Rambam, all mitzvos serve one or more of three purposes: teaching us concepts, improving our characters, or improving society. There is nothing else that mitzvos do, because there is nothing else that they can do. Mitzvos can only affect our minds and personalities.
According the mystical approach, on the other hand, while mitzvos can do all of the above, that is only a relatively minor aspect of their function. Their primary function is to manipulate various spiritual metaphysical forces.
(It is crucial to stress that my goal - and I believe this should be everyone's goal - is not to delegitimize either approach. Rather it is to help people understand that both approaches have a long history to them, and are both part of Torah Judaism.)
Previously, we have discussed numerous examples of this difference. Mezuzah, according to the rationalist Rishonim, serves as a reminder of our duties; whereas according to the mystical Acharonim, it provides metaphysical protection. Netilas yadayim, according the rationalist Rishonim, cleanses our bodies and puts us in a fresh frame of mind; whereas according to the mystical Acharonim, it exorcises harmful spirits. Shiluach hakein, according to the rationalist Rishonim, is all about compassion; whereas according to the mystical Acharonim, it is about manipulating the celestial court. Studying Torah, according to the rationalist Rishonim, is about understanding Judaism, improving our characters and improving society; whereas according to the mystical Acharonim, it is about creating spiritual energy.
I would like to introduce another example: prayer. This is a complex topic, but without getting into too much detail here, we can say as follows: According to the rationalist Rishonim, prayer is solely about our relationship with God. According to the mystical approach, on the other hand, prayer is primarily about manipulating various metaphysical energies, with a corresponding effect on the material world.
What about Tehillim? This is an interesting case, which I think also expresses the difference between the two schools of thought. According to the rationalist approach, Tehillim such as those commonly recited after tefillah in a time of crisis - e.g. Shir lama'alos esa einai - are effectively a form of prayer, and function in the same way. On the other hand, the concept of reciting the entire book of Tehillim, which includes those that solely consist of praise, would be done by adherents of the mystical school. They perceive mystical benefit in all the chapters, and even more so in the unit of the entirety of Tehillim. (Rationalists would also see a benefit here, but of a different sort - in the emotional effects.)
Again, I must stress that I think nobody should try to delegitimize either approach. This also means that nobody should try to impose their own approach on others. It's different strokes for different folks.
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Amidst everything we do, we say Hashem, please help our soldiers bring our boys back home.
Posted by Natan Slifkin