Micheal Fishbane in his Sacred Attunement writes about theology as integral to Jewish life and piety.
Prayer and study are central to Jewish life and are acts of theology.
Prayer begins with the human body and senses receiving the gift of perception. The human responds out of gratitude or need. For the spiritually aware this response goes to the Source and Ground of it all, God.
Prayer begins in silence and moves to speech. For Jewish people this speech often falls into the language passed down by ancestors. One way for this to happen (which also comes into Christian practice) is to pray the Psalms.
Fishbane uses the example of Psalm 104, especially vs. 27 ff. This Psalm illustrates a response to what we see with our eyes and ears since it is about ongoing creation. It talks about the “hand” of God opening to feed. It talks about the “face” of God turning away when death comes.
Once again he uses the four modes of interpretation to show how prayer moves. It starts with the plain meaning (peshat) of the Psalm as an expression of the human experience of existence as both a gift of abundance and as the horror of death.
But as the prayer contemplates God’s action to care for plant and animal life it moves to the level of seeking to care for the world along with God (the moral reflection of derash).
It then notices that the concrete details of the text like the hand and face of God are hints (remez) pointing to something that transcends nature. But language is limited when it comes to speaking of God, so prayer participates in a dialectic between reverently saying nothing about God and the tentative attempt to speak only in hints and symbols. This leads to an awesome quote:
“One must stand before that which we sense as God’s ‘Shall Be’ with terror and awe, mindful that we only see with human eyes and hear with human ears, and that God’s own truth (the whole truth such as it is) is wholly hidden from view.”
Then there is the level of mystery (sod). Prayer moves from silence to speech, but ends up back in silence again. In regard to Psalm 104 the “let the glory of the Lord endure forever” of v. 31 is a falling back into silence, a bowing to the absolute transcendence of God.
Study is also an act of piety, a form of spiritual cultivation, in Jewish life. Through study one assimilates the written Torah and the oral traditions.
The levels of study begin with the individual studying the Torah for its own sake. This involves a humility and divestment of the ego so that one may become a desert upon which the Torah makes its impression.
Then the individual enters into dialog with partners. This may involve disagreement and controversy. It requires a readiness to hear and answer the viewpoints of others. It leads to divine moments when God is also a partner in the dialog.
Finally, there is a community level of study where the Torah is not so much studied for its own sake as for its guidance of the community.
I was especially moved by the idea of dialog and partnership in study. Although this blog is something I do alone in my man cave, it is almost always in dialog with the writings of others. I really like the idea of studying the Bible for its own sake. That is sort of my project in retirement. But it is not a solitary thing. I hope that my disagreements with others, even when expressed forcefully, are respectful and focused on the attempt to understand rather than just to argue.