The Lonely Man of Faith: My Perspective on the Role of Loneliness in Human Creativity

It was the summer of 2014, and I was pursuing my Masters’ degree in Jewish Education and Administration at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University.  The institution’s hybrid nature intrigued me, and I developed a keen desire to understand its underpinnings and history.

Late one night, as I sat hunched over a pile of books in the Gottesman library engaged in some fascinating research, a rare photograph caught my eye.

The photograph, taken in 1974, portrayed Rabbi Dr. Samuel Belkin, erstwhile president of Yeshiva University, standing together with Hacham Ovadia Yosef (former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel), and Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik. The thought struck me that although I was highly knowledgeable about the life and legacy of Hacham Ovadia Yosef, I knew nothing at all about Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. This notion perturbed me, and I felt driven to learn more. When I read his famous philosophical essay, The Lonely Man of Faith, I knew I had found an influencer who would impact my life.

Yeshiva University – Centre Left to right: Rabbi Dr. Samuel Belkin, president; Hacham Ovadia Yosef; and Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Courtesy, via Yeshiva University Archives)

Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), known as “The Rav” by his followers, was a major American Orthodox rabbi, Talmudist, and modern Jewish philosopher. He dealt extensively with the meaning of Jewish law, and notably helped mediate between traditional Orthodox Judaism and the modern world. Rabbi Soloveitchik founded the Maimonides School in Boston where he resided, and for many years made the commute to New York City to teach at Yeshiva University. He was Rosh Yeshiva of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University.

Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik  (Courtesy, via Yeshiva University Archives)

The Lonely Man of Faith

In The Lonely Man of Faith, first published as an essay in Tradition magazine in 1965, Rabbi Soloveitchik investigates the essential loneliness of the person of faith in our narcissistic, materially oriented, utilitarian society.

In this thought-provoking work, the rabbi investigates the dual nature of man through an in-depth analysis of the apparent contradictions in the portrayals of Adam in each of the two creation stories presented in the Book of Genesis. In the first Genesis account, Adam I is commanded to dominate the earth. In the second account, Adam II is placed in the Garden of Eden in a close relationship to God. Adam I is described as a technologically sophisticated, utilitarian secular figure, while Adam the II is represented as a more spiritual creature in touch with the Divine.

According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, this textual disparity represents the fundamental paradox integral to the human condition. Man is driven simultaneously by two conflicting urges: his desire to dominate the world and fulfill his practical needs on the one hand, and a quest for meaning which requires complete submissiveness to God, on the other. Faith is lonely because it cannot be fully understood by the secularly-oriented aspect of the human psyche intent on controlling the environment. So the human being both craves faith and evades it.

As the essay unfolds, the rabbi delves into an ever-deepening analysis of the internal experience of those who seek both creative, domination-inspired engagement with the world, and redemptive closeness with God. With characteristic brilliance, he delineates the person of faith’s lifelong struggle to navigate between the spiritual and the material, the religious and the scientific, the covenantal and the majestic.

What made Rabbi Soloveitchik lonely?

A close reading of this work reveals its author as a man torn between two conflicting aspects of the human condition.  Within his life, Rabbi Soloveitchik stood out as “a man of faith” in touch with the human need for submissive faith in God, even as he proactively engaged with the modern world intent on shedding this component of its existence. The rabbi writes in his memoir, “I am lonely because, in my humble, inadequate way, I am a man of faith for whom to be means to believe….  Apparently, in this role as a man of faith, I must experience a sense of loneliness which is of a compound nature.” [1]

The rabbi’s loneliness stemmed from the inability of the secular society he inhabited to come to terms with the notion of faith so fundamental to his existence. However, the way I see it, the rabbi’s loneliness was more than just the outcome of his experience of faith, but also a necessary prerequisite for him to reach ever deeper levels in this faith.  In my evaluation, man can only truly connect to God from a place of aloneness, from a place of connection to one’s self, a silent place devoid of extraneous distractions.  Thus, even the solitude so profoundly experienced by Rabbi Soloveitchik was dual in nature: it functioned both as a means of furthering his connection to God, and as an inevitable outcome of each level of connection he achieved.

My perspective on the loneliness-creativity connection

The nucleus of the word “loneliness” is “alone,” and it is only by silencing the voices external to oneself, that man can connect to his own inner core. As I suggested above, this state of aloneness is a prerequisite for the human being to develop his personal relationship with God, achieve true faith, and find fulfillment in his capacity as the spiritually-oriented Adam II. But there is even more to loneliness than this.  This loneliness is necessary as well in order for a person’s creativity and unique style of expression and interaction to begin to blossom, allowing him to find fulfillment even in his role as the creative Adam I. Thus, the loneliness intrinsic to the life of the man of faith, is actually a gift that enables him to find fulfillment on every level.

Loneliness stems from the awareness of our own unique individuality. In the words of Rabbi Soloveitchik, “‘to be,’ by definition, ‘means to be the only one, singular and different, and consequently lonely.” But this loneliness, grim as it might seem to us sometimes, is what enables us to live our lives most profoundly: remaining true to ourselves even while interacting with the community, and humbly relying on God – the true source of creativity – even while engaged in “majestic” pursuits.

On some level or another, each one of us is “a lonely man of faith.” The role of loneliness in our lives is to mobilize us into finding our truest selves, seeking the solace of God, and wielding our unique form of creativity to fulfill the Godly mandate of conquering nature. Every person experiences this gift of loneliness in his own unique way.

Personally, this idea resonates with me strongly, as it is the sense of loneliness I experience in my quest to preserve the heritage of Sephardic Jewry that powers my creative drive to research, write and produce. Although I have many colleagues who are active in this realm as well, and equally as passionate as I to keep the Sephardic heritage alive, I feel utterly alone in the sense of urgency I ascribe to this mission. My awareness that the future of our community is contingent upon a solid understanding of our history and roots is what fuels my deep concern for the next generation. As today turns into tomorrow and the present morphs into the future, my sense of urgency deepens. And so does my sense of loneliness.

But it is precisely this feeling that propels me to reach out to God for assistance, and to reach inward in discovery of my deepest wellsprings of creativity.

Praying at the kever of Rabbi Soloveitchik Boston, Massachusetts, September 21, 2014.  (Darcie Davida-Giborah Nadav-Sasson)

[1] Lonely Man of Faith, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Crown Publishing Group, page 4-5.

Edited by Brocha Speyer

About the Author
Yehuda (Allen) Azoulay is the founder of the Sephardic Legacy Series – “Institute for Preserving Sephardic Heritage." Yehuda is Co-founder to Ezrat Achim (Sephardic Resource of Toronto). He is a young and passionate noted scholar, educator, columnist, speaker, author, political activist, and entrepreneur. He is the Vice President of Concrete Mortgage Capital Inc. and as well head of Investor Relations for Queen Funding LLC.
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