In 1978, my teacher, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik published an essay titled REDEMPTION, PRAYER, TALMUD TORAH. It began,
Redemption is a fundamental category in Judaic historical thinking and experiencing. Our history was initiated by a Divine act of redemption and, we are confident, will reach its finale in a Divine act of ultimate redemption.I decided to reread this essay because I thought I might add it to the readings in a seminar that I am teaching at JTS. I decided not to. The reasons - for just about every paragraph, I either don't understand the author's intent or I don't agree with how he characterizes Judaism.
What is redemption?
Redemption involves a movement by an individual or a community from the periphery of history to its center; or, to employ a term from physics, redemption is a centripetal movement. To be on the periphery means to be a non-history-making entity, while movement toward the center renders the same entity history-making and history-conscious. Naturally the question arises: What is meant by a history-making people or community? A history-making people is one that leads a speaking, story-telling, communing free existence, while a non- history-making, non history-involved group leads a non-communing, and therefore a silent, unfree existence...
To start with, I don't know what a fundamental category is, what Judaic historical thinking is or what experiencing is. It could be that he means to say in sentence one, "God's redemption of Israel is a prominent theme in Judaism." Or maybe not.
It could be that he means to continue in sentence two, "We believe God redeemed us in the past from slavery in Egypt and that he will redeem us in the future in the Messianic age." Or maybe not.
I simply disagree with the claims of the next paragraph. I just never heard anyone define redemption as moving to the center of history - becoming history-making and conscious - being able to speak, tell stories and commune and be free. And actually I do not know what all that means. But even so - I disagree with it, and I think that the physics example doesn't help matters.
The Rav goes on in the essay to speak about slaves and slavery - how slaves are mute and have no narratives, makes a passing reference to concentration camps, and how free people speak and have a voice, and a word, and a logos, how that is what prayer is all about and how prayer is related to the study of Torah.
And he tells us there is another type, an existential slave, whose world is in chaos because he is ignored and anonymous. Man is lost, sin is born until man "finds himself" through prayer in which he finds his needs awareness. Prayer makes man "feel whole" and it is where "God claims man."
My best estimate of what the Rav tried to do here - this is his exercise in insinuating an existentialist philosophical reflection into a contemplation of Jewish prayer.
The Rav wrote more about prayer elsewhere, some of which I will assign to my seminar, just not this article.