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Experiencing the Divine through Prayer I

Your Humble Blogger was lucky enough to hear Larry Hoffman give a talk this weekend. He is a remarkable speaker—if you get a chance, go and listen. Just to say: a few minutes in, I was thinking that I wasn’t going to like it much at all, that it was going to be a great speaker giving a dopey, easy talk. Fifteen minutes in, I admitted to myself that it had more content than I thought it would. Half an hour in, I thought it was terrific, provocative and insightful. By the end, I was wishing that all my friends (and Gentle Readers) were there with me and that we could all spend the day kicking it around. It was wonderful.

It was also, as it happens, the middle lecture of a planned series of three—he also gave a sort of bonus fourth talk as a homily at shacharit, which was pleasant enough if a trifle long—and I missed both the first and last lecture. Which means, of course, that the one I sat in on was the boring middle one… I have some sense of what was in the first one, but none of what he was leading up to in the final talk. I will have to ask my Rabbi.

Anyway, what follows here is my own thoughts that were inspired and informed by Rabbi Hoffman’s talk. The errors are probably all my own; Rabbi Hoffman’s scholarship is renowned, so while it’s possible he said some not-quite-truths for effect, it’s more likely that I misunderstood at the time or am now misremembering. Because of that, I’m not going to attribute his stuff to him, getting it wrong and all. Suffice to say: if you assume that all historical errors are mine, and all insights are his, you’ll be in a good place.

All right. So. I’m going to start with the idea of experiencing the Divine through prayer. One of the motivations for going to prayer services is the hope of experiencing the Divine. I know, it isn’t the only motivation, nor is it a simple matter to figure out one’s motivations for things, but I think it’s fair to say that one of the motivations for many people is that hope of experiencing the Divine through prayer. Vaddevah you mean by Divine, Vaddevah you mean by prayer. And so the liturgy—the choice of texts, the choice of sounds (melody, chant, monotone, conversation), the choice of locations, the choice of actors (cantor, priest, choir, congregants, etc), the choice of languages—all are informed in part by this desire to experience the Divine.

Now, that’s enough to begin with, and I’m going to split the next bits off into separate notes, so that I can (I hope) get some comments on this part. Does this idea of experiencing the Divine make sense? Is that part of why you attend prayer services (if you do, of course, attend prayer services)? Have you ever had the opportunity to hear Rabbi Hoffman, or read his books?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Does this idea of experiencing the Divine make sense? -- Yes.
Is that part of why I attend prayer services? -- Yes (if prayer services is broadly construed and not just referring to Judaism)
Have you ever had the opportunity to hear Rabbi Hoffman, or read his books? -- No.

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