Rav Soloveitchik on Awakening the Emotional on Yom Kippur

In the Sefer, Before Hashem You Will Be Purified, the following is brought down from Rav Soloveitchik’s 1976 Teshuvah drasha:

My religious world-view was formed not only through learning Torah, but also by me religious experience…I continually refer to the the two traditions of Torah learning — halakhah and that or religious life and feeling — the enthusiasm, the love of Hashem, the yearning for Hashem… The first is relatively easy to impart; I can give long lectures on shofar, the halakhot of teshuvah, the Avodah, etc. with great depth and thoroughness. Yet what is easy for me [to explain] regarding the first tradition is very difficult regarding the second tradition.

To recount what Jews of earlier generations–not only the Gedolei Yisrael, but Jews in general — experienced on the Yamim Nora’im — the yearning, the nostalgia that overtook one’s entire being — to impart the emotion is almost impossible. As a child, I remember how infectious that emotion was: I felt the same yearning as everyone else without really understanding what exactly I was yearning for. Those emotions which overtook me as a child stimulate me still today, and my whole Weltenschauung, my whole religious philosophy, is a result of this experience.

Contemporary Orthodoxy is well ground intellectually. In spite of this, however, its followers lack passion and enthusiasm. This deficiency is especially evident on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

How can a Jew pray on Yom Kippur and not feel the greatness, the fire and holiness of the day? How can I possible impart such an experience? Perhaps one can begin to awaken the ecstatic feeling by discussing the customs and laws which we observe on Yom Kippur. From within the allegedly dry confines of Jewish law, there is an awesome, warm, enormous world — there is a definite transition from Halakhah to service of Hashem. Perhaps through such a discussion, the audience will be awakened to the religious mood that a Jew must find himself on Yom Kippur.

Originally published in Sept 2007

19 comments on “Rav Soloveitchik on Awakening the Emotional on Yom Kippur

  1. With all due respect, Rav Soloveitchik and the Yeshivish, Brisker tradition he came from are a big part of the problem. The emphasis on intellectual study with no “deveikus” allowed brings this situation about.

  2. I think in general davening has shifted. The obligation always was that it be impressive — that it impress a set of values and feelings in the davener. And that’s why the siddur is a fixed text; we are told what we should be prioritizing in our relationship to the A-lmighty, and how ideally we ought to feel.

    But pre-War generations had a much more expressive experience during davening than we do — their values already were more in line with the siddur before they started, and so davening was more an expression of what they were already feeling.

    More of their time in shul on Yom Kippur was spent venting the yir’ah they were feeling.

    More of our time in shul is spent using our encounter with the machzor to work up to yir’ah.

    It’s not less kavvanah, it’s just different.

    Very related to R YB Soloveitchik’s son’s (R/Dr Haym Soloveitchik) point in Rupture and Reconstruction. What they got from upbringing and the Jewish Street we need a text — in this case a machzor — and spend our lives learning how to feel that way.

  3. Thank you for republishing this…
    Perhaps it is me, but I find most piyuttim to be an obstacle. My mind chases down as many Midrashic references as it can, and gets bored with the rest. The only ones that work for me are those that are true litanies. And really, who is ever going to do better than Avinu Malkainu? I think the reported practice of the GRA is best (recite the piyuttim after Musaf, for those that want them).

    And I don’t cry when I pray. I’m too busy talking to Hashem. I get the sads and cry when I think about other people having problems, but since most of the problems I myself have are of my own making, why should I have a pity party for myself? And the other problems…well, if Hashem sends me afflictions because of my sins, aren’t they in effect problems of my own making? And frankly, I would rather be afflicted in this world and not the next world, so why have the sads if Hashem is doing something that actually benefits me?
    So I don’t cry when I daven. I just try to internalize the feeling that Hashem is HERE and NOW, that I’ve done plenty of things which are, perhaps not BAD but definitely WRONG, and that to avoid repetition of doing those things, and all their consequences, I will need all the help Hashem can give me…and ask for that.

    And on those plentiful occasions when I can’t muster that feeling, I visualize myself as a sort of spokesman for klal Yisrael. “OK, Hashem, if I don’t deserve help, can you at least do it for my people Am Yisrael?c

  4. FWIW, the excellent Mesoras HaRav Machzor at Pages 442-443 quotes RYBS that Shuvah Yisrael Ad HaShem means not just sanctifying the mind through Talmud Torah at as a level as possible and doing a mitzvah as precisely as possible but also sensing HaShem’s Presence during times of emotional turmoil. In fact, RYBS points out that potential BTs long for the sublime sense of hearing HaShem’s whisper. RYBS maintained that the experience of Ad, unto HaShem, involves the very real perception of contact, communication and dialogye, which is expressed in the Talmud’s comment that “great is Teshuvah for it allows one to approach the Heavenly thrown.” RYBS pointed out that the command to cleave to HaShem is an imperative that can be realized only when one feels His Presence and stands before Him.

  5. I don’t find it that difficult to get into the davening on Yom Kippor because all year long, I feel connected to Hashem. When I daven during the year, I often add some of my own words, my own petitions, and express my gratitude, and I also ask for help for my wife and children and express graditude for their good fortune. I also don’t feel I am out of line when I complain about the bad things as long as I don’t forget to give thanks for the good things.

    I act as if I think that I am really being heard because I really do believe that I am being heard. I am talking to someone who I have a real realationship with, who I am comfortable talking with. Hashem is real to me in a very simple way. I am not intimidated by His greatness, etc, etc. He’s my friend, plain and simple, and I just happen to have this very powerful and incredible friend. Sort of like my relationship with my father. He was my best friend but I also respected him and honored him as much as I could. It sort of works on two levels. Same with Hashem. We are friends, but I know my place in the realtionship.

    So, I talk, He listens, and then I wait for an answer. I ask for guidance and look for hints — I don’t expect miracles, but just a nudge on my shoulder when he wants me to do a certain thing. I’ve had to learn to listen better, and I found I do get answers.

    None of this depends on the shule I am in. Even if I am in a shule I am not very comfortable in, I can still have our meaningful conversation. Certainly, if I am among friends and we sing some tunes that hit me in the right place, it helps, and it can even make it better.

    Sometimes, I get a sort of lightness, maybe a tingling, in my chest, and I try to lock onto that because I know that is the connection. I know that I’ve got His attention and I try to send my soul down the line because I think that is our real connection. But I’ve also done that without any help, but the right environment helps.

    So, since I’m practicing all year, doing it all day, one day a year does not seem so difficult. It’s like all year I get myself into shape for the marathon, and on marathon day, I feel ready, willing, and able. I’m gonna run the best race I’ve run all year.

    I find it’s really not so difficult if you just start talking to Him.

  6. Mussar and chassidus both discuss emotion as an accurate measure of one’s internalization of a truth. There is a classical distinction between Chochma (factual knowledge) Binah (understanding – both intellectual and gestalt comprehension) and Da’at (deeply internalized reality).

    So you can “know” something is true without it having the immediacy of being part of your reality. Sincere tears on Yom Kippur come from Da’at – deeply internalized acceptance of what we all “know” to be true – intellectually.

    Similarly: Rav Dessler describes how all sin springs from a lack of internalization of G-d’s reality and presence – as he memorably puts it ( with an image taken perhaps from his wartime experiences) you don’t have to tell anyone to run away from a bomb-blast – your feet just carry you. If we had that total conviction about G-d and Torah, we would run away from sin.

    At least we are trying for that level of “da’at” on one day of the year.

    From this perspective, the fact that we are better educated than previous generations is cold comfort – how REAL is what we know, in our bones?

    For many years I felt like a bit of a sham reciting the piyutim and prayers that mentioned previous generations’ martyrdom – I am sure I never will say those prayers like my parents and granparents, who remember fleeing Europe, remember a time before the State of Israel was established and radically changed the experience of being a Jew in the world.

    Now that I live in Israel, I FEEL those prayers with much more immediacy. Not because of any new knowledge – it’s not something achieved “from the neck up”.

    The lump in my throat when I say these prayers now comes from what is REAL to me. Now.

  7. Where Mark and I daven on RH, there are a handful of Rabbanim that cry quite audibly. Sometimes this sobbing moves me to deeper kavanah and at other times it leaves me wondering why I’m not crying, even though I believe that is not what is expected of me.

  8. I would tend to agree with both Steve and Ron on this one, as well. I remember being a freshman at YU in 1989, right out of public school, and somehow ending up right behind Rav Dovid Lifshitz, Z”TL (the Suvalker Rav) and listening to him cry at Kol Nidre and flippantly thinking to myself, “If he’s crying and he’s one of the top rabbeim at YU, then I’m in big trouble”.

    I also have spent a Yom Kippur as one of the TEN in a minyan for Maariv, Shacharis, Mincha, Ne’elah, and Maariv. Not to much crying, but a very introspective davening on my part. In that case I knew that my tefillos literally counted.

  9. I am sure many people have a shul or beis medrash where they believe the yomim noraim davening is amazing. I know I do.

    I really appreciated Steve’s points and sources, though I have always been rather skeptical of Dr. Chaim Soloveitchik’s thesis. But I am very suspicious of big shows of emotion, even if they are not meant for third parties. I used to sit next to a guy in shul and, well, when you sit next to someone for a few years you have a pretty good idea about how seriously he takes his davening on a daily basis. Let’s just say the “production” he put on at Rosh Hashanah / Yom Kippur presented a tremendous incongruity.

    Perhaps it was my exposure to method acting in college. It is possible to manipulate yourself into emotion and cry (physically) real tears, but is this really what Hashem wants from us? On the other hand, I agree that plowing through the machzor as an intellectual exercise can leave us wanting more.

    That’s why I agree, again, with the suggestion here that the right environment for davening can help provide an emotional wave that everyone catches, and everyone adds to, on each others’ behalf.

  10. Mark,

    I cannot say that everyone is crying their eyes out at the YU beis medrash, but I can say that the religious sensation and spiritual elation (no rhyme intended) are very evident. I am sure that this is the case in many, many mekomos tefillah as well; no one has a monopoly on ruchnius.

    I wish you a g’mar chasima tova.

  11. Jeff, Is everybody crying there eyes out at the YU Beis Medresh? Should they be? What is the proper blend of Intellectual and Emotional? Does it change from generation to generation and place to place?

    I’ve talked to Rebbeim who say that we shouldn’t view a lack of tears today as a deficiency. While some seforim and Rebbeim say it is. Rav Dessler was a little suspect of the staying power of emotionalism, but I assume on Yom Kippur he would agree that it is a necessary component.

  12. Come to the YU beis medrash for the yomim noro’im and you will feel a sense of what the Rav describes above…Incredible.

  13. Mark-I think that you have hit on a major issue here.

    No less than Dr Judith Bleich, a professor of Jewish history at Touro, has written that the tears that were prevalent in earlier generations were in many ways theatrical in nature and no substitute for a generation of educated Jewish men and women who know what they are saying, its significance and try to implement it into their lives. OTOH, Dr Chaim Soloveitchik, in his often cited and discussed article about the shift within Orthodoxy, views the past generation, which was nowhere as literate as today’s generation, as superior simply because it had more of a emotional connection to the essence of the Yamim Noraim.

    I have often thought about this issue. However, I tend to side with Dr Bleich possibly because the means of experiencing the Kedushas HaYom of the Yamim Noraim has changed in a huge way. Perhaps, our predecessors in the US and elsewhere felt some aspect of the Kedushas HaYom from enjoying a Chazan who made you cry during Kol Nidre or Unesaneh Tokef or from nervously feeling Elul in the air. I suspect that many of us, myself included, realize intelectually and emotionally that Elul and Tishrei are the times of the year that are most conducive to reexamining one’s connection with HaShem Yisborach.Great Baalei Tefilah, which our shul has, enhance that experience and make it an active experience,

    IMO, if one davens in a yeshiva or a shul where the Baalei Tefilah understand Nusach HaTefilah and ensure that the congregation are so into the davening that they won’t even think of looking at their watches and leave after Neilah thinking that they only said a fraction of what was on thei mind, that is far superior to crying about a text that you don’t have the foggiest notion about its significance. I realize that others may differ, but I would side with a shul with great Baalei Tefilah whose members appreciate the Kedushas HaYom over a shul where the tears can be considered purely theatrical in nature.

  14. What a great post, thanks!

    In terms of only having one shul to daven in…
    Well, Bob, I know how you feel.
    The best advice is probably to join in with the niggunim and remember the words of Reb Nachman, “You are wherever your thoughts are, make sure your thoughts are where you want to be.”
    Over the years I spent davening in the only shul in my community I would think about the feelings of davening at the Kotel, YU, Shor Yoshuv, etc.
    This year the first day’s niggunim were so-so and the second day was amazing. I sang and even clapped (my son was a bit embarassed b/c I was, like, the ONLY one clapping).
    In the end, we do what feels right within the guildlines of halachah (this point is actually brings this point up in Relections of the Rav vol. 1 -The Common-Sense Rebellion).

  15. I like our Baalei Tefilah, but I think to get to the emotion of real tears we need to do a lot of internal work. External inspiration can only take us so far.

  16. At other shuls that don’t quite rock, the Baalei Tefila are often superb, but the congregational response is so-so.

  17. I think that at least Mark and I can vouch for our shul during the Yamim Noraim that the combination of superb Baalei Tefilah helps make our shul feel like the walls are rocking during the davening.

  18. Over 30 years after this drasha was given, restoring the passion of our Yamim Noraim is still on our agenda. Some BT’s have noticed that services in their own shul lack this quality. I wonder what is the best course for the BT in this situation—there’s often no other shul nearby.

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