The Lonely Man of Faith: Part Two – The role of solitude in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s life and philosophy

As a self-proclaimed student of Rabbi Soloveitchik, I have spent years studying the intricacies of his life and philosophy. A penetrating examination of the rabbi’s life narrative highlights multiple areas in which the rabbi’s solitude – with all its profound overtones – helped form his reality.  I would like to expound on three of them.

Conversation & Prayer

For Rabbi Soloveitchik, prayer was a platform for profound interaction between man and God.  Rabbi Jonathan Lord Sacks, a man who writes of Rabbi Soloveitchik, “he challenged me to think,” articulately describes the space Judaism affords interactive conversation between man and God:

“Judaism is also about conversation. It is the only religion known to me in which human beings talk, argue and remonstrate with God. Abraham argues with God. So do Moses, Jeramiah, Jonah and Job. There is nothing remotely like this in the sacred books of either Christianity or Islam.”

This idea echoes Rabbi Soloveitchik’s assessment of the history and nature of prayer in Lonely Man of Faith[1]: “(After the destruction of the First Temple) the men of the Great Assembly refused to acquiesce in the cruel historical reality of the cessation of prophecy and insisted that the colloquy (between man and God) must go on forever. If God had stopped calling man, they urged, let man call God.”

Expounding on this idea yet further, he asserts, “While within the prophetic community God takes the initiative – He speaks and man listens – in the prayer community the initiative belongs to man: he does the speaking and God, the listening.”[2]

Judaism is the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind. Therefore, Rabbi Soloveitchik perceived it as a Jewish responsibility to keep the conversation going with God, and his view of the function of prayer was molded in this light. Yet even while ascribing this unique form of human empowerment to the act of prayer, the rabbi still conceded that at its very essence, prayer required the same submissive faith in God that lies at the core of the experience of loneliness. “Ultimately,” he writes, “prayer consists not only of an awareness of the presence of God, but of a commitment of oneself to God, and the acceptance of His ethico-moral authority.”[3]

Relationship

A famous saying asserts: “A man with dreams needs a woman with vision. Her perspective, faith and support will change his reality. If she doesn’t challenge you, then she’s no good for you. Men who want to stay ordinary will tell you not to have expectations of them. Men who want to be great will expect you to push them, pray with them, and invest in them.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik was fortunate in that his wife, Tanya, truly lived up to this depiction of a visionary woman. She offered her husband unwavering support, creating the safe space from which he was able to reach deeply inside himself and discover his most profound depths. This intimate contact with his most inner self contributed to the sense of loneliness projected in his work.

I humbly believe that our relationships with God are rooted in our relationships with other human beings. We connect to God through the prism of the successful and unsuccessful experiences that define our significant relationships here on earth. Perhaps it was the quality of the relationship the rabbi shared with his wife, together with the unique experience of profound loneliness that this safe relationship afforded him, that lay the foundation for his unique understanding of the profound interactive quality of the human relationship with the Divine.

The Mishna describes the relationship between God and humanity in the following terms: “God has a general relationship with all humanity and a specific relationship with the children of Israel… Beloved is humanity, for it was created in God’s image… Beloved are Israel for they are called God’s children.’”[4]

Along these same lines Rabbi Jonathon Sacks writes, “I have argued, not only in this chapter but throughout the book, that a basic duality runs through Judaism, shaping its view of the world. It honors both the universality of the human condition and the particularity of Jewish faith.[5]

Rabbi Soloveitchik develops this theme even further: “God is never outside the covenantal community. He joins man and shares in his covenantal existence. Finitude and infinity, temporality and eternity, creature and creator become involved in the same community. They bind themselves together and participate in a unitive existence.”[6]

 

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

Unique Torah Dedication

Rabbi Soloveichik emphasizes the supremacy of Torah and halacha, as well as the centrality of Torah-derived morals, ethics, values, and honesty in all areas of life. The rabbi emphatically maintained that a vibrant Jewish orthodoxy could not exist without a real commitment to intellectual honesty, and that life must be anchored in unbending principles. Halacha, in his eyes, served this purpose.

The cluster of concepts to make them organized was one of the methodologies Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik used in his method called the Brisker learning method. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was a grandson of Rabbi Haim Soloveitchik of Brisk, a man renowned for his analytical, original, and creative approach to Torah study, as well as his distaste for the ancient mechanical method. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik fully embraced his grandfather’s ground-breaking contribution to the world of Torah study, adopting it as the cornerstone of his own educational philosophy. According to the Rav [7], “Halachic man received the Torah from Sinai not as a simple recipient but as a creator of worlds, as a partner with the Almighty in the act of creation. The power of creative interpretation (hiddush) is the very foundation of the received tradition.”

Thus, a pattern begins to emerge: even as the rabbi advocates the need for a Jew to submit himself entirely to the halachic dictates of God, on the one hand, he simultaneously exhorts us to wield our unique creative powers to help shape these same dictates. Here too, in the field of Torah and halacha, in the realm of the soul, heart and mind the upshots of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s experience of loneliness clearly left their mark.

[1] Lonely Man of Faith, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, page 37

[2]Lonely Man of Faith, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, page 55

[3] Lonely Man of Faith, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, page 40

[4]Mishnah Avot 3:14.

[5] Future Tense: Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the Twenty-first Century pg. 226 – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Schocken, 2012.

[6]Lonely Man of Faith, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, page 42

[7] Halachic Man, page 81

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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