REVIEW: Birth of the Spoken Word

Yitzchak Blau Tradition Online | December 28, 2023

Dovid’l Weinberg, Birth of the Spoken Word: Personal Prayer as the Goal of Creation (2020), 427 pages

R. Dovid’l Weinberg has long peyos, plays the guitar, and likes gematriyot – but you would be mistaken to stereotypically confuse those as markers of a shallow thinker, as evidenced by his Birth of the Spoken World, a book of great depth and breadth which advances an important thesis about the significance of prayer for our day. The author’s erudition is manifest in the wide variety of sources cited in one hundred and thirty seven pages of footnotes which almost constitute a separate work in their own right.

One advantage of neo-Hasidut over “actual” Hasidut is that it allows for an eclectic approach that does not feel beholden to a narrow and particular path. We might justifiably expect works from a Breslov or Habad Hasid to be dominated by the thought of their own school of Hasidism. Though Weinberg begins each chapter with a quote from R. Nahman of Breslov, the work is not dominated by that figure and his school. Indeed, ideas from R. Kook, R. Hutner, and R. Soloveitchik play crucial roles in his thesis.

While Jews have always found prayer challenging, I think that obstacles to meaningful prayer increased in our era. Shorter attention spans and science’s ability to explain more of the physical universe thereby reducing the sense of divine involvement have negatively impacted our prayer lives. I personally find it much easier to educate towards greater Torah study than towards better prayer. Because of this, Weinberg’s contribution through a volume arguing for the indispensability of prayer is both timely and welcome.

According to the author, a rabbinic colleague and friend of mine at Yeshivat Orayta, the purpose of creation is encounter and dialogue with God. God created the world with speech (amira) since He is interested in communication. R. Yisrael Lipshutz explains that the first speech act in creation is beresihit and not amar since God had nothing yet to talk to at that initial moment (Tifferet Yisrael on Avot 5:1). Amira merely conveys information while dibbur forges a deep connection between speaker and listener. Therefore, the asara ma’amrot of creation give way to the aseret ha-dibrot of revelation at Sinai; matan Torah generates a much more intimate relationship than Creation itself.

Humans have too often abandoned this conversation with the Divine but we are destined to return to it as the redemption approaches. One might think that Torah study can accomplish this meeting with transcendence but Torah study alone is subject to potential drawbacks. A bright student might simply love the intellectual excitement of learning without looking for personal transformation. Study could remain a cold experience devoid of the warmth of powerful emotions. Finally, success in the beit midrash, with its often competitive intellectual atmosphere, might lead a religious individual to arrogance. Prayer restores the necessary humility and clearly conveys the need to work on one’s character.

Yet the work also incorporates balancing claims. Based on a Tifferet Shelomo (in Teruma and not Yitro as the work says), we discover that some Torah scholars succeed in avoiding these pitfalls through Torah study alone. For them, Torah learning provides inspiration, character development, and humility engendered by its wisdom. R. Shlomo of Radompsk identifies these individuals with those fully occupied with Torah study (toratam um’natam) who are halakhically exempt from reciting Shema.

Though the following idea appears only in the notes and not in the text, Weinberg also realizes the danger of prayer not tempered by Torah study.

Of course, tefillah needs Torah as well: too much self-effacement can lead to inaction and a sense of uselessness, even nihilism; raw, unbridled emotion can lead to recklessness and impulsive decision making; and childlike faith is tough to articulate, making it difficult to pass on to others (393 n. 234).

The mention of “self-effacement” highlights one aspect of the book I could not identify with. Weinberg conveys a strong Hasidic sense of self-nullification in which “Our ingenuity and creativity are not really ours at all” (260). Individuals must set aside selfhood for authentic prophecy (227). He cites the Ba’al ha-Tanya’s view that our current world is an illusion since everything is truly God (251). Though this is not the space for an extensive argument, I posit that the world truly does exist, that God made it run with a consistent natural order, and that our naturalistic efforts really do directly bring about results. Given those differences, I still found the author’s thoughts about the balance between Torah study and prayer quite relevant.

Our breakdown in conversation applies to the interpersonal as well. Based on a comment by R. Uri Sharki, Weinberg explains that Adam makes a mistake by naming Hava, thereby treating her as an object akin to the animal kingdom. Additionally, she feeds her husband from the forbidden fruit but we never hear any dialogue between the first man and woman. On account of this, we now must strive for redeemed communication between man and man, as well as between man and God.

Among the other noteworthy and stimulating ideas from this rich work, Weinberg suggests that gratitude is a mitzva between man and himself rather than a commandment between man and God (237, 408). I have long wondered if an atheist or agnostic can feel gratitude towards the universe and Weinberg’s thesis certainly affects this question. In a beautiful and famous passage in “The Lonely Man of Faith,” R. Soloveitchik argues that prayer came to replace fading prophecy. Weinberg instead points to the prayer of Hanna (I Samuel) as the point from which prayer begins to flower, not the later period of the Men of the Great Assembly, and thereby views the growth of prayer as coinciding with the development of prophecy. Hanna promotes prayer even as her son Samuel becomes a paradigmatic prophet.

Another worthwhile insight: R. Tzadok writes that the placement of aggadic content in the Talmud reflects purposeful activity and not a mere pragmatic search for somewhere to park good stories. In other words, aggadot belong thematically in a given chapter or tractate. Weinberg applies this methodology to aggadot about the Hebrew letters appearing in HaBoneh (chapter 12 of Shabbat). The kabbalists see Hebrew letters as the building blocks of the cosmos so the discussion belongs in a Talmudic section about building.

Those interested in understanding the balance between Torah learning and tefilla and those who want to experience a neo-hasidic model that also sees beyond Hasidism will benefit from this volume.

Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City, is an Associate Editor of TRADITION.

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