There are a number of cases in which Jewish law orders an individual to act in the manner most suitable to the masses. While the law has little choice but to address public needs even at the expense of individual preferences, when it comes to spiritual pursuits this attitude can frustrate personal growth.
A primary example is the set prayers. The Talmud tells us that Shimon the cotton merchant arranged the order of the 18 blessings before Rabban Gamliel in Yavne (B. Berachot 28b). Another tradition attributes the order of the blessings to Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly, a legislative body that existed from the end of the Babylonian Exile and during the early Second Temple period (B. Megilla 17b, 18a). The two conflicting accounts are reconciled with the suggestion that the original sequence was forgotten and Shimon the cotton merchant subsequently reinstated the order of old.
Either way, we can ask: Why do we need an order at all? Indeed why are standard prayer texts necessary?
A clear defined prayer formula provides an accessible framework. Such set prayers present a scaffold for people unable to author their own prayers, a structure through which they can connect to their heritage and commune with God. Moreover a standardized text unites supplicants under one banner and promotes the creation of community.
Regularized prayer has advantages, yet the moment the prayers are given a defined, bounded form they can also be limiting. This may lead to a perplexing situation, one that challenges many a supplicant: If we are inspired to stand before the Almighty and pour out our hearts, set prayer can be suffocating.
While a number of explanations have been offered to explain set prayer, let us explore the rousing approach of the first chief rabbi of the Land of Israel, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook (1865-1935). Rabbi Kook's explanation appears in a context seemingly divorced from set prayer.
The Torah instructs that bikurim, the first fruits, must be brought to Jerusalem and presented to the priests. All this must be done with ceremonious pomp and pageantry, and a prescribed text was instituted for the rite (Exodus 23:19; Deuteronomy 26:1-11).
The Mishna tells us that originally all those who knew how to recite the set text would do so on their own (M. Bikurim 3:7). Those who were unable to say the required verses would repeat the words after the priest. This mode, however, resulted in some people refraining from bringing bikurim, for they were ashamed that they were unable to recite the prescribed text. A new procedure was instituted: Henceforth every person would say the text in the same manner by repeating after the priest, whether he was able to recite it on his own or whether he needed assistance.
While the new arrangement solved one problem, it may have resulted in another: Those who were able to recite the prescribed text were denied the opportunity to fully fulfill this rite.
Rav Kook points out that where a deviation from the general practice does not harm the public, it should be allowed so that each individual can reach personal spiritual heights. In the case of bikurim, this is clearly not the case: Individuals departing from the norm would endanger the goals of that very norm. Indeed, once a practice has been officially adopted, the individual may no longer differ.
At this point Rav Kook cites the case of set prayer: Those who have the spiritual capabilities would benefit from an unregulated prayer rite, a system where the inner soul could roam freely in search of the Almighty. For the sake of the masses, however, a fixed rite was instituted so that the majority of individuals would still be afforded the prayer opportunity. And once a set text had been legislated, the individual may no longer stray, even if that individual perceives that there is a private course of action that is preferable.
Lest one entertain the thought that the set text denies personal spiritual growth, Rav Kook is quick to acknowledge this: Doing something for the benefit of the community - as with any volunteer situation - always involves relinquishing some individual return. Rav Kook's explanation for this state of affairs is stirring: The ultimate benefit for the individual is when the collective grows. Any personal growth accrued by choosing a route that differs from the shared path is dwarfed by the gain amassed by the collective. Rav Kook adds that the individual should actually feel tremendous joy at the opportunity to contribute to the collective by forgoing a personal spiritual experience.
Rav Kook sees the development of the bikurim rite as an archetype, and he includes the institution of set prayers in this category. We could suggest a third example from under the wedding canopy.
Before a groom betroths his bride, a blessing on the holy act is said. What great joy for a groom to sanctify the union of husband and wife by reciting a blessing before placing the ring on his bride's finger. This was indeed the custom in many locales, but is no longer practiced today.
One commentator explains the prevalent custom in terms of utilizing the opportunity to bless the couple (Vilna Gaon, 18th century). Other authorities offer an explanation along the lines of bikurim: In order not to embarrass a groom who knows not how to recite the blessings, the blessings are always recited by a third party (Rabbi David Halevi, 17th century, Poland; and others). Today, the blessings are recited by the city rabbi or the officiating rabbi acting in the chief rabbi's stead (Rabbi Hayim Hezekiah Medini, 19th century, Jerusalem-Constantinople-Crimea-Hebron). Thus the groom is compelled to forgo the opportunity to proudly recite the blessing over the betrothal of his bride for the sake of the lofty value of not embarrassing another.
Leaders and people capable of soaring piously - concludes Rav Kook - must at times be prepared to curtail their own spiritual journey, forgoing experiences they savor and instead remaining steadfast to the accepted norm. All this for the spiritual growth of the collective, the good of the Jewish people. This knowledge in itself should be spiritually satisfying and fulfilling.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.