Iconic Letters & “Meaningless” Prayer (Pillar of Prayer)


It came across my desk and I thought I should read Meanchem Kallus’ translation of the Pillar of Prayer (Amud ha’Tefilah). It’s a loosely organized anthology of sayings attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, but it seems that it was his student, Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye who put it together. I might be getting this wrong, and if so I’ll make the necessary corrections to this post. To tell the truth, I did not know what I was expecting to find in it; probably a little chasidus. Turns out that I read it in Hebrew years ago. The precise contents proceeded to merge into a general sense of Hasidic piety, and then promptly I forgot having read the thing by the time I went and picked up the translation. Most likely what I picked out reading it this time differed from the more general sense that I read the first time around.

What caught me this time was the notion of non-semantic prayer, namely prayer that remains meaningless in terms of strict semantic content or meaning. This, of course, makes sense if one is talking about a community in which there are/were many members ignorant of the semantic content of the Hebrew prayer. In the Pillar of Prayer, there is virtually no attention paid to the meaning or “interpretation” of this or that prayer or set of prayers. The center of attention is not the prayer as an entire construct. It’s not even the sentence as a unit of meaning. It’s the word itself, in strict isolation, and the letter, as a graphic, let’s call it iconic form, that matters or means

First the word. The person at  prayer is told to put one’s entire power, physical and mental, into the single word, to make the word luminous and to divest it of “corporeality.” The single word is the locus of God’s indwelling presence or Shechinah. Then there’s the letter, the conception of whose form seems atomistic. “I heard from my maser and grandfather [the Besht], that ‘letters’ in and of themselves, are devoid of meaning” (#8). Indeed, the proper pronunciation of Torah is not as important as the intention one brings to it. By definition, of course, the meaning of the isolated letter has to be non-semantic or meaningless. It’s just a letter, hardly even a sound (all by itself, the individual letter would constitute at best half a sound or a stutter). These letters will, of course combine with other letters, but viewed in isolation, they are divested of sound and sense.

Without sound, the single letter would have to stand out as a meditative device that is visual in character, but without the semantic content. Not entirely unlike an “idol,” its primary meaning is iconodulic, a locus of God in the world. Indeed, God, as the place of the world, is held up as the essence (and object?) of one’s vision. One’s looking at God is as if one’s looking at another person, and that other person is looking at you. One should think of God, who sustains the world, surrounding the person, contracted into one’s speech. We’re always walking around within or inside God (#42.3-#42.4).

As ritual theorists have begun to recognize, in religion and religious studies, “meaning” and “interpretation” are completely overrated concepts. From the form of the letter to complete illumination, the vision’s ultimately acosmic. Divested of corporeality, divested of a separate self or sense of self in its non-separation with God, the person no longer knows if he or she is in this world or not. In the state of complete cleaving, there’s no grasped and no grasper (#73.4). Again, what comes to the core is the non-semantic experience. If not “meaningless,” the whole thing, God’s saturation of the letter and then this absorption of the dematerialized self into God, is ultimately unworldly and without any intelligible meaning whatsoever.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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