Rabbi Soloveitchik and the Lonely Man of Faith

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who lived in the 20th century, was a leader of modern orthodoxy, a Halachic (legal) scholar and a very profound thinker who pursued secular as well as traditional Jewish education.  The names of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s two books (and his only books), the Lonely Man of Faith and Halakhic Man, are revealing – indicating, in my view, that Rabbi Soloveitchik adopts (as reflected in the titles of his two books) a widespread orthodox conception that the essence of Judaism is Halacha and faith in God.  Such a conception is in striking contrast to the Biblical conception of religion and to the conception of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, the two greatest Talmudic rabbis.

The Biblical conception of religion is orthoprax (correct deeds) as reflected in the verse “You shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6, 18) in which the emphasis is upon doing, and not upon believing – the term faith hardly appears in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses), and the few places where it does occur do not stand out in terms of importance.  Furthermore, on the basis of the verse “You shall do that which is right (righteous) and good in the eyes of the Lord”, the essence of religion is doing in a moral sense – and ritual in relation to morality takes on a secondary function in the Biblical conception as symbolizing and expressing moral values (in distinction to the pagan conception in which ritual as the essence of religion is in order to appease the gods conceived as powers of nature).  Immediately prior to this verse it is written, “You shall diligently observe the commandments of the Lord, your God, and his testimonies, and his statutes, which He has commanded you” (Deuteronomy 6, 17) – the general warning “You shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6, 18) is thus meta-Halachic, Aggadic (non-legal) and moral in nature, above and beyond the observance of commandments and laws demanded by the previous verse.

Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, the two greatest Talmudic rabbis, faithful to the Biblical conception, both conceive of the essence of Judaism as morality – Hillel formulates the essence of Judaism as the moral teaching “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others” and Rabbi Akiva cites the Biblical verse “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19, 18) as the essence of Judaism.  Shockingly, both omit God from their secular formulations of the essence of Judaism as moral decency – Hillel does not even quote a verse from the Bible, and Rabbi Akiva omits the continuation of the verse that he cites “I am the Lord”.  The essence of Judaism for both Hillel and Rabbi Akiva is moral decency and not Halacha, traditional ritual practice or faith in God.  Moreover, Rabbi Akiva says (Pirkei Avot 3, 17) “tradition is a protective fence for the Torah”, and tradition includes observance of Halacha and ritual practice.  That is, for Rabbi Akiva, tradition (law and ritual) is a protective fence serving as a means to enable us to observe Torah and not to violate Torah – but, the essence and ultimate goal of Torah is moral decency (“love your neighbor as yourself”).

I want to discuss Rabbi Soloveitchik’s book the Lonely Man of Faith.  What stands out in my eyes in this book is that he, in my view, adopts viewpoints that are foreign to the orthoprax (pragmatic) nature of the Jewish tradition based upon the Bible and the Talmud.  Rabbi Soloveitchik’s book the Lonely Man of Faith is often viewed as reflecting an influence of modern existentialist philosophy; especially that of the existentialist philosopher, and devout Christian, Soren Kierkegaard, who lived in the 19th century – and, this is true.  But, what especially stands out to me besides existentialist influence is the Christian influence reflected in the Lonely Man of Faith.  The term lonely, in the title of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s the Lonely Man of Faith, is actually, in my view, the key term in the title – reflecting in my eyes both existentialist and Christian influence upon the philosophic thought of Rabbi Soloveitchik.

The term lonely is a key term among modern existentialist thinkers who view our existence as human beings as one of existential loneliness – and, loneliness is indeed characteristic of our condition as human beings.  Aristotle long before modern existentialism argued that the human being is a social creature – implying that human beings have a need for social companionship to overcome the existential condition of loneliness characteristic of human life.  Even prior to Aristotle, the Bible viewed human existence as characterized by loneliness for which marriage is a remedy – “it is not good for a man to be alone; I will make a help mate for him” (Genesis 2, 18) and “therefore, a man should leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2, 24).  However, the Bible is characterized by an optimistic attitude (and not one of despair) in the face of existential loneliness that is characteristic of the human condition, which can be overcome (or at least alleviated) through human companionship and social harmony.  The feeling that is evoked, in my opinion, in reading the Lonely Man of Faith is to a large extent despair – another key term of modern existentialist thinkers who argue that our existence is not only one of loneliness but despair.

I want to cite and analyze one passage toward the beginning of the Lonely Man of Faith that reflects, in my view, the feeling of despair that colors the work, and in which Rabbi Soloveitchik even declares explicitly not only that he is lonely but also that he despairs:

I am lonely…I do not intend to convey to you the impression that I am alone…yet, companionship and friendship do not alleviate the passional experience of loneliness which trails me constantly…I despair because I am lonely…I also feel invigorated because this very experience of loneliness presses everything in me into the service of God…I experience a growing awareness…this service to which I, a lonely and solitary individual, am committed is wanted and gracefully accepted by God in His transcendental loneliness and numinous solitude.

I want to address two issues here.  First, regarding the issue of modern existentialism and despair, the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) of the Hebrew Bible can be seen as a precursor of modern existentialism both in terms of literary style, and the major theme and tone of the book of meaninglessness and despair – and, if life is meaningless and “all is vanity” as Kohelet declares, then this implies that there is no God (according to the Biblical conception of God) who is provident as an absolute source of truth and justice (for, if there is a God who is provident as an absolute source of truth and justice, then life has inherent meaning).  Yet, the Book of Kohelet is part of the Biblical canon and part of a wider Biblical context in which the essence of religion is morality – and, even if assumed that God does not exist, the living of a life of morality, of righteousness and goodness (as well as the living of a traditional Jewish life), gives meaning and significance to our lives as Jews and human beings so that we do not despair in the face of life’s difficulties.  Moreover, the Book of Kohelet is read in the Synagogue according to Jewish tradition during Sukkot, which is according to our tradition “the time of our joy” – that is, we read the Book of Kohelet only when we are experiencing great joy and happiness, and are much less likely to be brought to despair in reading the book.  The Biblical spirit is one of optimism and hope rather than despair despite the inclusion of the Book of Kohelet in the Biblical canon.

Second, and this in my eyes is a more crucial issue, Rabbi Soloveitchik presents a conception of God and religion that is foreign to the Biblical spirit.  Rabbi Soloveitchik speaks of God’s “transcendental loneliness and numinous solitude” – and, the term numinous is a term used by Rudolf Otto, a Christian theologian of the 20th century, who in his book The Idea of the Holy, defines holiness as the numinous, which is a Greek term that means that holiness is a mystery and a non-rational experience.  Such a Greek and Christian conception is foreign to our Biblical heritage.  God, in the Biblical conception, has a transcendent aspect as the Creator, but is most importantly a moral God of revelation and redemption.  When God is revealed to Moses at the burning bush (a central passage of the Bible), God tells Moses “do not come near; put off your shoes from off your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3, 5).  The religious experience of Moses is not one of mystical union or communion with a God of transcendental loneliness but one of moral vision in which Moses hears the voice of God (who is depicted as a God of redemption) calling him to lead the people Israel out of oppression – “I have also seen the oppression with which Egypt oppresses them…I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people the children of Israel out of Egypt” (Exodus 3, 9-10).  The holiness connected with God here is not holiness in a non-rational, numinous sense of mystery but in a moral sense of redeeming the people Israel from injustice – and the feeling that is evoked in the story of the burning bush is one of hope and optimism, and not despair.

There is a passage in the Book of Psalms (Psalm 97, 9-12) that also reveals the Biblical conception of holiness as a moral concept:

For You, Lord (YHVH), are high above all the earthYou are exalted far above all godsYou that love the Lord (YHVH), hate evil.  He preserves the souls of His pious ones. He delivers them out of the hand of the wicked.  Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart.  Rejoice in the Lord (YHVH), O you righteous, and give thanks to His holy name.

In the context of this passage from the Book of Psalms, the holiness and essence of the name YHVH is clearly morality, which distinguishes and exalts YHVH “far above all gods” – as in the pagan conception the gods were amoral powers of nature, and the essence of religion was ritual as a means of appeasing the gods.  The holiness of the name of God (YHVH) in this passage is sanctified by righteous behavior, and not ritual – “You that love the Lord (YHVH), hate evil…rejoice in the Lord (YHVH), O you righteous, and give thanks to His holy name”.  Further, a central passage of the Torah is Leviticus 19, the Holiness Chapter, which begins with a command to the people Israel “You shall be holy for I the Lord, your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19, 2).  What stands out in the Holiness Chapter is that intermixed are laws that are both ritual (“You shall keep My Sabbaths”) and moral (“love your neighbor as yourself”).  The passage is revolutionary in its conception that morality is an essential part of a life of holiness as holiness is usually understood (and this was the pagan conception) to be connected only to ritual and not to morality.  In the view of Isaiah, the prophet, the essence of holiness expresses itself not in mystery or ritual but in morality – “the God of holiness is sanctified in justice” (Isaiah 5, 16).

Mysticism, in which God is conceived as a transcendental God of loneliness and numinous solitude leads to preoccupation with oneself as we as human beings stand before such a God alone and lonely concerned with our own individual salvation.  By contrast, in the Biblical conception, God is conceived as a moral God who demands morality, and the essence of holiness and religion is morality, which leads to a preoccupation with such moral and social values as peace, justice, equality, compassion, cooperation, social harmony and companionship – and, we are optimistic in refusing to despair in our commitment to redeeming this world morally and spiritually.

I emphasize that although solitude may at times be necessary and a part of life, it is not a religious ideal in Judaism; and, the ideal in Judaism is a life of morality.  There is a remarkable teaching of Rabbi Yehuda in the Talmud (Baba Kamma 30a) – “one who wants to be pious should observe the laws of damages”.  Piety, for Rabbi Yehuda, is (like holiness in the Biblical conception) a moral (and not mystical) concept; and, is not concerned with ritual but with the pain and hurt that we cause to others – and, piety comes not from a life of solitude but from good social relations with our fellow human beings.  This is a radical conception of religiosity, holiness and piety.  Usually when people want to judge whether one is religious or pious, the focus is upon ritual behavior or mystical experience – not so Rabbi Yehuda; and, he suggests that if we want to be truly religious and pious we need to observe laws of damages in refraining from causing harm to our fellow human being.

I want to add one other thing here in relation to religiosity and the tendency to associate religiosity with ritual.  In the Jewish tradition, we do not make blessings upon acts of a moral nature “between a person and one’s fellow human being”, such as giving charity, and we make blessings only over ritual practices “between a person and God”.  Why?  In my view, the reason we do not need to bless regarding ethical matters such as giving charity is that such a moral act is clearly Divine – especially in the Biblical conception in which the essence of the name of God, and the essence of religiosity and holiness, is morality.  Only regarding ritual matters, which we would not conclude on the basis of our own reason and understanding that such matters are Divine, do we then need to make a blessing giving religious meaning to the act.  Regarding ethical matters such as giving charity, the religious meaning (the Divinity) is inherent in the moral nature of the act itself, and we are then not in need of any external blessing to give religious meaning to the act.

The notion of a lonely man of faith is, in my view, not only an influence of modern existentialism but also an influence of Christianity in reflecting an orthodox (correct belief) conception of religion; and, Kierkegaard, who exerted such a profound influence upon Rabbi Soloveitchik, was a devout Christian.  Christianity is a religion in the sense of a faith commitment (faith not only in God but in Jesus as the messiah).  In Christianity, in which there is no notion of nationhood or peoplehood as in traditional Judaism, a human being indeed stands alone as an individual before God, and experiences a great deal of existential loneliness – standing before God as “a lonely man of faith”.  Salvation of the human being is dependent on one’s faith in God and faith in Jesus.  However, in traditional Judaism, which is a religion in a pragmatic sense of a way of life of the Jewish people, we as Jews stand before God as a nation (and we reach God only moving upward on the basis of family, community, nation and humanity); and, the emphasis is an orthoprax (correct deeds) emphasis upon repairing and redeeming this world.

By the way, the notion of repairing the world is a fundamental idea in the Jewish tradition, which is deeply rooted in the spirit of the Bible.  The concept of repair of the world implies an image of a world of broken, shattered glass, and that we, as human beings, must repair the broken glass of the world.

In my view, the most important message of the creation story of the Torah is the idea of the repair of the world.  After God creates the universe, God says “behold, it is very good” (Genesis 1, 31).  Strikingly, God does not proclaim that the world is perfect or even excellent but merely very good – meaning less than perfect, or imperfect in need of repair and improvement.  The human being created in the image of God is the only animal who has the creative power to take what is God given such as wheat and to transform it into something even better such as bread – and, the concept of the repair of the world implies a moral obligation not only to overcome hatred, injustice, violence and cruelty in the world but a moral obligation to use scientific knowledge and its practical application of technology in order to improve the quality of human life.  After God creates the entire universe according to the Biblical account, it is written (Genesis 2, 3) “because on it (the 7th day) He ceased from all His work which God created to do” – God creates a world then that is imperfect in need of repair in which there is what to do for the human being (the human being is to improve the quality of human life, and to overcome the hatred, injustice, violence and cruelty in the world).

In traditional Judaism, we are not to despair in our moral commitment to repair and redeem the world.  Our salvation for Jews and all human beings is not dependent upon individual faith but upon our repairing and redeeming this world – in the words of our traditional prayer Aleinu “to repair the world in the kingdom of God” (implying that the kingdom of God is not of another world but the repair and redemption of this world).  In traditional Judaism we stand before God not as “a lonely man of faith” but as a nation refusing to despair in our dedication and moral commitment to repairing and redeeming this world.

Note – I am the author of a recently published book on the nature of the Hebrew Bible and Biblical theology (and the nature of Biblical faith), Reconciling a Contradictory Abraham – https://www.amazon.com/Reconciling-Contradictory-Abraham-Orthoprax-Anti-Theological/dp/1946124176/ .

About the Author
Jeffrey Radon is a teacher of Jewish studies and the author of the internet site - www.orthopraxjudaism.com - a site devoted to Jewish studies in a democratic spirit. He studied over 10 years in yeshivot in Israel. He has a teaching degree as a teacher of Jewish studies from Achva (brotherhood) College, a small secular teachers' college in Israel, and a master's degree in Jewish philosophy (from Bar Illan University in Israel). He also has a master's degree in educational psychology (from the Israeli branch of Northeastern University in the United States), as well as certification as a marriage counselor and mediator.
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