Shiur: Rav Soloveitchik on Tefillah #1 – The Redemption of Prayer and the Human

The first of two classes on prayer for my 2020 Rav Soloveitchik course. In this class, we explore the centrality of prayer in Judaism, why prayer really is about asking for our needs, and the critical role of suffering in human experience and prayer.

The Redemption of Prayer and the Human

1. Rav Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart (2003), 2

Therefore, when I speak about the philosophy of prayer or Shema, I do not claim universal validity for my conclusions. I am not lecturing on philosophy of prayer as such, but on prayer as understood, experienced and enjoyed by an individual. I acquaint you with my own personal experience. Whether, taking into consideration the differences between minds and the peculiarities of the individual, my experience can be detached from my idiosyncrasies and transferred to others, I do not know.

The Redemption of Prayer

2. Rav Soloveitchik, “Redemption, Prayer, and Talmud Torah,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought (1978), 55

What is redemption? Redemption involves a movement by an individual or a community from the periphery of history to its center; or, to employ a term from physics, redemption is a centripetal movement. To be on the periphery means to be a non-history-making entity, while movement toward the center renders the same entity history-making and history-conscious. Naturally the question arises: What is meant by a history-making people or community? A history-making people is one that leads a speaking, story-telling, communing free existence, while a non-history-making, non-history-involved group leads a non-communing and therefore a silent, unfree existence.

Like redemption, prayer too is a basic experiential category in Judaism. We have appeared, within the historical arena, as a prayerful nation. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and Solomon all prayed. Through prayer they achieved the covenant with God, and through prayer, we expect eventually to realize that covenant.

3. Rav Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart (2003), 146–147

According to Rambam, it is impossible to conceive of Divine worship without including prayer in it. What then is prayer? It is the expression of the soul that yearns for God via the medium of the word, through which the human being gives expression to the storminess of his soul and spirit.

The Torah commands love and fear of God, total commitment to Him and cleaving unto Him. Antithetical, dynamic experiences which seek to erupt and reveal themselves must be integrated into the external, concrete realm through the forms of language and expression, by means of song, weeping and supplication.

Had the Torah not commanded prayer as the exclusive medium for expressing inward worship—we do not know what the God-seeking human being, whose soul thirsts for the living God, would do. Could one entertain the thought that Judaism would want man to suppress his experience? On the contrary! The Halakhah was always interested in expressions of the inner life, in the uncovering of the subjective and opaque, and in the conversion of emotion and thought into action. How could one assume that the Halakhah was totally oblivious to the supreme attainment—that is, to prayer?! Did Halakhah demand that worship be mute, that experiences be concealed, that they not be allowed expression?

When Rambam said that prayer is Biblically ordained and identical with the service of the heart, he thereby redeemed love, fear, and indeed our entire religious life from muteness. They were given a voice. The lover expresses his yearning, the trembler his fear, the wretched and dejected his helplessness, the perplexed his confusion, and the joyful his religious song—all within the framework of prayer. 

Prayer, Suffering, and Petition

4. Rav Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart (2003), 12

The reason for the centrality that Judaism has given to the element of petition in the service lies in our philosophy of prayer. Avodah she-ba-lev, for all its tendency to express the religious experience as a whole, and particularly its emotional aspect, does also tend to single out a particular state of mind. For when we view the noetic content of prayer we must admit that one emotion is central as far as prayer is concerned— namely the feeling of unqualified dependence. David expressed this experience of complete, absolute, unconditional dependence upon God in his beautiful verses: “If I did not quiet myself like a weaned child upon his mother, verily my soul is like one weaned. Let Israel hope in God now and forever” (Ps. 131:2-3).

5. Rav Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart (2003), 32–33

Human existence exhausts itself in the experience of crisis, in the continual discovering of oneself in distress, in the steady awareness of coming closer and closer to the brink of utter despair, the paradoxical concept of being born out of nothingness and running down to nothingness. This is a part of the ontic consciousness of man. The factum expressed in the two words “I am” is an incomplete sentence. We must always qualify it by adding two words: “I am in distress.” Judaism wants man to discover the tragic element of his existence, to place himself voluntarily in distressing narrowness, to explicate and bring to the fore the deep-seated crisis in his very existence. Surely man must fight courageously against the extraneous surface crisis. Judaism has charged man with the task of improving creation, of confronting evil and destructive forces, of protecting himself against disease and natural catastrophes, approaching the world with an optimistic philosophy of activism…

Out of the depths in which the individual finds himself, one calls upon God in seclusion and loneliness. The existential, passional experience is not shared by the thou, however close he is to the I, since it is an integral part of the existential awareness, which is singular, and hence inexpressible in the universal terms through which we communicate our standardized experiences. No one but the sufferer himself is involved in this deeply human anguish and conflict. It is the sufferer whose awareness oscillates between bliss and pain, in the great negation of the finite that rises out of its confrontation by the infinite. Neither spouse nor child nor parent may understand and sympathize with the lonely individual when his existential experience is at a low ebb, when trials, doubts and inhibitions abound. The prayer echoing the depth crisis of a questing soul emerges from seclusion, from out of the loneliness of the individual whom everybody save God has abandoned.

6. Rav Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart (2003), 35–36

When man is in need and prays, God listens. One of God’s attributes is shomea tefillah: “He who listens to prayer.” Let us note that Judaism has never promised that God accepts all prayer. The efficacy of prayer is not the central term of inquiry in our philosophy of avodah she-ha-lev. Acceptance of prayer is a hope, a vision, a wish, a petition, but not a principle or a premise. The foundation of prayer is not the conviction of its effectiveness but the belief that through it we approach God intimately and the miraculous community embracing finite man and his Creator is born. The basic function of prayer is not its practical consequences but the metaphysical formation of a fellowship consisting of God and man.

Man is always in need because he is always in crisis and distress. Inner distress expresses itself in man’s disapproval of himself. This awareness is of a metaphysical origin, although it may be manifested at an individual-psychological, social-institutional or political level. Man is dissatisfied with himself and he lacks faith in the justifiability and legitimacy of his existence. Somehow, every human being, great or small, however successful and outstanding, loses every day afresh his ontic fulcrum (the equilibrium of his being), which he tries steadily to recover. He feels the paradox involved in an existence which has been imposed upon him in an unexplained way, and which finally betrays and deserts him in the same absurd manner: “Against your will were you born, against your will do you live, and against your will do you die” (Avot 4:29). Even the simplest man may perceive and comprehend this existential tragic aspect of man.

7. Rav Soloveitchik, “Redemption, Prayer, and Talmud Torah,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought (1978), 65–66

Judaism, in contradistinction to mystical quietism, which recommended toleration of pain, wants man to cry out aloud against any kind of pain, to react indignantly to all kinds of injustice or unfairness. For Judaism held that the individual who displays indifference to pain and suffering, who meekly reconciles himself to the ugly, disproportionate and unjust in life, is not capable of appreciating beauty and goodness. Whoever permits his legitimate needs to go unsatisfied will never be sympathetic to the crying needs of others. A human morality based on love and friendship, on sharing in the travail of others, cannot be practiced if the person’s own need-awareness is dull, and he does not know what suffering is. Hence Judaism rejected models of existence which deny human need, such as the angelic or the monastic. For Judaism, need-awareness constitutes part of the definition of human existence. Need-awareness turns into a passional experience, into a suffering awareness. Dolorem ferre ergo sum – I suffer, therefore I am – to paraphrase Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. While the Cartesian cogito would also apply to an angel or even to the devil, our inference is limited to man: neither angel nor devil knows suffering.

Therefore, prayer in Judaism, unlike the prayer of classical mysticism, is bound up with the human needs, wants, drives and urges, which make man suffer. Prayer is the doctrine of human needs. Prayer tells the individual, as well as the community, what his, or its, genuine needs are, what he should, or should not, petition God about. Of the nineteen benedictions in our עמידה, thirteen are concerned with basic human needs, individual as well as social-national. Even two of the last three benedictions (רצה and שים שלום) are of a petitional nature. The person in need is summoned to pray… To a happy man, to contented man, the secret of prayer was not revealed. God needs neither thanks nor hymns. He wants to hear the outcry of man, confronted with a ruthless reality. He expects prayer to rise from a suffering world cognizant of its genuine needs. In short, through prayer man finds himself. Prayer enlightens man about his needs. It tells man the story of his hidden hopes and expectations. It teaches him how to behold the vision and how to strive in order to realize this vision, when to be satisfied with what one possesses, when to reach out for more. In a word, man finds his need-awareness, himself, in prayer. Of course, the very instant he finds himself, he becomes a redeemed being.

Sacrifice – Because nothing is ever just one thing

8. Rav Soloveitchik, “Redemption, Prayer, and Talmud Torah,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought (1978), 70–72

What does this term denote? Not the service by the heart, but the offering of the heart; Judaic dialectic plays “mischievously” with two opposites, two irreconcilable aspects of prayer. It announces prayer as self-acquisition, self-discovery, self-objectification and self-redemption. By sensitizing and logicizing the awareness of need, man delivers himself from the silence and from non-being and becomes an I, a complete being who belongs to himself. At this level, prayer makes man feel whole: at this level, prayer means self-acquisition. Yet there is another aspect to prayer: prayer is an act of giving away. Prayer means sacrifice, unrestricted offering of the whole self, the returning to God of body and soul, everything one possesses and cherishes. There is an altar in heaven upon which the archangel Michael offers the souls of the righteous. Thrice daily we petition God to accept our prayers, as well as the fires – the self-sacrifices of Israel – on that altar (ואשי ישראל ותפילתם באהבה תקבל ברצון). Prayer is rooted in the idea that man belongs, not to himself, but that God claims man, and that His claim to man is not partial but total… Of course Judaism is vehemently opposed to human sacrifice. The Bible speaks with indignation and disdain of child sacrifice; physical human sacrifice was declared abominable. Yet the idea that man belongs to God, without qualification, and that God, from time to time, makes a demand upon man to return what is God’s to God is an important principle in Judaism…

A new equation emerges: prayer equals sacrifice. Initially, prayer helps man discover himself, through understanding and affirmation of his need-awareness. Once the task of self-discovery is fulfilled, man is summoned to ascend the altar and return everything he has just acquired to God. Man who was told to create himself, objectify himself, and gain independence and freedom for himself, must return everything he considers his own to God.

Suffering and the Community of Prayer

9. Rav Soloveitchik, “The Community,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought (1978), 19

When the I becomes aware of his being responsible for the well-being of the thou, whom he has helped bring into existence, a new community emerges: the community of prayer. What does this mean? It means a community of common pain, of common suffering. The Halacha has taught the individual to include his fellow man in his prayer. The individual must not limit himself to his own needs, no matter how pressing those needs are and how distinguished he is. Halacha has formulated prayer in the plural. There is hardly a prayer which avails itself of the grammatical singular. Even private prayers, such as those offered on the occasion of sickness, death, or other crises, are recited in the plural.

10. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 19

Job suddenly understood the nature of Jewish prayer. He discovered in one moment its plural voice and the attribute of loving-kindness that sweeps man from the private to the public domain. He began to live a communal life, to feel the community’s hurts, to mourn its disasters and rejoice in its moments of celebration. Job’s sufferings found their true repair in his escape from the prison in which he had found himself, and God’s wrath was assuaged. As it is written: “And the Lord changed the fortunes of Job when he prayed for his friends״ (Job 42:10).

Shiur: Kol Dodi Dofek #2 – Egypt, Sinai, Israel

The second of two classes on Kol Dodi Dofek from my 2020 Rav Soloveitchik course. In this class we explore the way Rav Soloveitchik’s Fate/Destiny dichotomy gives rise to two distinct forms of collective life for the Jewish people, the one based on a sort of bare life and material care, and the second based on living intentionally and seeking transcendence. This necessarily runs into the brutal fact of antisemitism, but also into the reality and possibilities of the Jewish state and the modern State of Israel.

Egypt, Sinai, Israel:
Two Modes of Bnei Yisrael

1. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, trans. David Z. Gordon (2006), 51

Just as Judaism distinguished fate from destiny in the realm of personal individuality, so it also differentiated between these two concepts in the sphere of our national-historical existence. The individual is tethered to his nation with bonds of fate and chains of destiny. In accordance with this postulate, one can say that the Covenant of Egypt was a Covenant of Fate, and the Covenant of Sinai was one of destiny. 

 

Fate

2. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 52

What is the Covenant of Fate? Fate signifies in the life of the nation, as it does in the life of the individual, an existence of compulsion. A strange force merges all individuals into one unit. The individual is subject and subjugated against his will to the national fate/existence, and it is impossible for him to avoid it and be absorbed into a different reality. The environment expels the Jew who flees from the presence of God, so that he is awakened from his slumber, like Jonah the prophet, who awoke to the voice of the ship’s captain demanding to know his personal national-religious identity. 

 

3. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 52–54

Jewish separateness belongs to the framework of the Covenant of Fate that was concluded in Egypt. In truth, Judaism and withdrawal from the world are synonymous. Even before the exile in Egypt, separateness descended upon our world with the appearance of the first Jew, our father Abraham. Abraham the Hebrew (ivri) lived apart. “The whole world was on one side (ever), and he on the other side” (Bereshit Rabbah 42:8)… Even if a Jew reaches the pinnacle of social and political accomplishment, he will not be able to free himself from the chains of isolation. Paradoxical fate watches over the isolation and uniqueness of the Jew, despite his apparent integration into his non-Jewish environment… This singular, inexplicable phenomenon of the individual clinging to the community and feeling alienated from the outside world was forged and formed in Egypt. There Israel was elevated to the status of a nation in the sense of a unity from which arises uniqueness as well. The awareness of the Fate Covenant in all of its manifestations is an integral part of our historical-metaphysical essence. 

 

4. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 55–63

The Covenant of Fate is also expressed in positive categories that stem from the awareness of shared fate. There are four facets to this rare state of mind. 

First, the awareness of shared fate appears as that of shared experience. We are all in the realm of a shared fate that binds together the different strata of the nation and does not discriminate between classes and individuals. Fate does not distinguish between nobility and common-folk, between rich and poor, between a prince dressed in royal purple velvet and a poor man who goes begging from door to door, between a pious Jew and an assimilationist… 

Second, the awareness of shared historical experience leads to the experience of shared suffering. A feeling of empathy is a basic fact in the consciousness of shared Jewish fate. The suffering of one segment of the nation is the lot of the entire community. The scattered and separated people mourns and is consoled together… 

Third, shared suffering is expressed in a feeling of shared obligation and responsibility… Forever after, the “I” is ensnared in the sin of his fellow, if he had it within his power to reprimand, admonish, and bring his neighbor to repentance. The people of Israel have a collective responsibility, both halakhic and moral, for one another… The commandment to sanctify God’s Name and the prohibition against desecrating it are clear in light of the principle of shared responsibility and obligation. The activity of the individual is debited to the account of the many. Every wrong committed by an individual stains the name of Israel throughout the world. The individual is responsible not only for his own conscience but also for the collective conscience of the nation. If he conducts himself properly, he has sanctified the name of the nation and the name of the God of Israel; if he has sinned, he causes shame to befall the nation and desecrates its God. 

Fourth, shared experience is expressed by cooperation. The obligation to perform acts of charity (tzedakah) and loving-kindness (hesed) is derived from the experience of unity that is so all-pervading and encompassing… The oppressive experience of fate finds its connection in the coalescing of individual personal experiences into the new entity called a nation. The obligation of love for another person emanates from the self-awareness of the people of fate, which is alone and perplexed by its uniqueness. For this was the Covenant of Egypt concluded. 

 

Destiny

5. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 65

What is the Covenant of Destiny? In the life of a people (as in the life of an individual), destiny signifies an existence that it has chosen of its own free will and in which it finds the full realization of its historical existence. Instead of a passive, inexorable existence into which a nation is thrust, an Existence of Destiny manifests itself as an active experience full of purposeful movement, ascension, aspirations, and fulfillment. The nation is enmeshed in its destiny because of its longing for an enhanced state of being, an existence replete with substance and direction. Destiny is the font out of which flow the unique self-elevation of the nation and the unending stream of Divine inspiration that will not run dry so long as the path of the People is demarcated by the laws of God. The life of destiny is a directed life, the result of conscious direction and free will. 

 

6. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 66–68

What is the content of the Covenant of Sinai? It is a special way of life that directs the individual to the fulfillment of an end beyond the reach of the man of fate — the striving of man to resemble his Creator via self-transcendence. The creative activity that fulfills the Covenant of Destiny flows from a totally different source, from man’s rebellion against an “as is,” factual existence, and from the longing that impels him to more enhanced and sublime forms of existence. Acts of lovingkindness and fraternity, which are integrated into the framework of the Covenant of Sinai, are motivated not by the strange sense of loneliness of the Jew, but by the sense of unity experienced by a nation forever betrothed to the one God. The absolute oneness of God is mirrored in the unity of the nation that is eternally bound to Him. “You are One, and Your name is One, and who is like Your people Israel, One nation”. The essence of Jewish fellowship on this level is a byproduct of the father-son relationship between the members of the nation and God… At Sinai, God elevated the Covenant of Fate, which He had concluded with a collective that was forced to be alone and that practiced loving-kindness to others as a result of its requisite isolation, to a Covenant of Destiny with a collective of people of free will and volition that directs and sanctifies itself to confront the Almighty. He transformed the “people”— an amalgam bereft of direction and purpose — to a “nation,” a term that signifies a distinct communal profile, a national physiognomy, as it were. The people of loving-kindness was elevated into a holy nation. The basis of shared destiny is the sanctity that is formed from a distinctive existence. 

When the man of destiny stands before the Almighty, he envisions the God of Israel who reveals Himself only with man’s approval and invitation. The God of Israel is united with the finite creature only after man has sanctified and cleansed himself from all pollution, and longingly and agitatedly awaits this wondrous encounter. The revelation of the God of Israel does not come, in any event, in all conditions and circumstances. It demands a special state of spirit and soul, in the manner of “Be ready for the third day” (Exodus 19:11). Without the readiness of man, the God of Israel will not reveal Himself. He does not surprise His creatures. He responds to man’s urgent petition. However, when man does not actively long for God with spiritual intensity, then the God of Israel shows no interest in him. When the God of the Hebrews chases after man against his will, He does not ask him for his opinion or desires. The God of Israel, however, consults with a person before an encounter. Already in Egypt the Holy One revealed Himself to Moses not only as the God of the Hebrews but also as the God of Israel who waits for man and invites him to His service to do His work. “So said the Lord, the God of Israel: Let my people go, that they shall make a feast unto Me in the wilderness”(Exodus 5:1). 

 

Secular Israel

7. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 82–83

These mistakes are outgrowths of the primary error made by secular Zionism when it wished to erase both the feeling of isolation and also the phenomenon of shared suffering from our history books. The beckoning of the Beloved must open the eyes of all of us, even the most confirmed secularists. The State of Israel was not and will not be able to abrogate the covenant of, “And I will take you unto Me as a people” (Exodus 6:7) and put an end to shared fate–the source of Jewish aloneness. The State of Israel is as isolated today as the community of Israel has been during the thousands of years of its existence. And perhaps the isolation of the State is more pronounced than in the past because it is so clearly revealed in the international arena… The assumption that the State of Israel has weakened antisemitism is erroneous. On the contrary, antisemitism has grown stronger and employs false charges against the State [of Israel] in the war against us all. Who can foresee the end of this anti-Semitic hatred? The Covenant of Egypt cannot be abrogated by human hands. 

 

8. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 82

They also sin against the Covenant of Sinai, the covenant of a sacred community and people that finds expression in the shared destiny of a sanctified life. Only religious Zionism with its traditional and authentic perception has the power to “repair the perverted” (Ecclesiastes 1:15). If you were to ask me how the role of the State of Israel can best be described, I would answer that its mission is not to nullify the special loneliness of the community of Israel or to destroy the unity of its fate — in this it will not succeed — but to raise the people of the encampment to the level of a sacred community-nation and to turn Shared Fate into Shared Destiny. We must remember, as we have already emphasized, that fate is expressed, in essence, in the experience of life under duress — in an inability to run away from Judaism, in being forced to suffer as a Jew. This, though, is not the ideal of the Torah or of our Weltanschauung. Our solidarity with the community of Israel, according to an authentic Jewish outlook, must not come from the conclusion of the Covenant of Fate—that of the Encampment-Nation possessed of a compelled existence to which we are subjugated by outside forces—but by the conclusion of a Covenant with a sacred community-nation of Shared Destiny. Man does not find the experience of fate satisfying. On the contrary, it causes him pain. The feeling of isolation is very destructive. It has the power to crush man’s body and spirit, silence his spiritual powers, and stop up the wellsprings of his inner creativity. The feeling of isolation, in particular, troubles man because it is devoid of reason and direction. The isolated person wonders, for whom and for what? Isolation, which cleaves to man like a shadow, shakes his awareness and ability. An existence of destiny, which is based on the Covenant of Sinai, is different. This concept turns the notion of “nation” (a concept that denotes an ordained existential necessity, participation in blind pain, and a feeling of isolation devoid of meaning) into a “sacred people” and to the elevated station of a moral, religious community. Man draws from it strength and sustenance, creative power and a renewed joy in an existence that is free and rejuvenated. 

 

9. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 89

One great goal unites us all. A single exalted vision captures our hearts. One Torah (Written and Oral) directs us all to a unified end — the fulfillment of the vision of aloneness and the vision of the sanctity of an Encampment/People that ascends to the level of a Community/Nation and ties its lot to the destiny that was proclaimed to the world in the words of our ancient father Abraham: “And I and the lad shall go unto that place and shall worship God and return to you” (Genesis 22:5). 

 

Shiur: Kol Dodi Dofek #1 – Theodicy and Destiny

The first of two lectures about Rav Soloveitchik’s “Kol Dodi Dofek.” In this lecture, we explore Rav Soloveitchik’s rejection of theodicy, of attempting to justify God and find divine meaning in suffering that befalls us. Instead, as we explore in the second half of the lecture, he pivots to human action, and the ability to create human meaning in our lives.

 

Theodicy and Destiny

1. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, trans. David Z. Gordon (2006), 21

We too are living in troubled times, in days of anger and distress. We have been afflicted with violent pogroms and have become accustomed to suffering. In the past fifteen years [1941-56] we have undergone tortuous ordeals that are unparalleled in thousands of years of diaspora, degradation, and destruction. This chapter of suffering did not end with the establishment of the State of Israel.

 

Theodicy: Searching for Meaning

2. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 1–2

One of the deepest of mysteries, troubling Judaism from the dawn of its existence, is the problem of suffering… Why and wherefore are hardships visited on man? Why and wherefore do the righteous suffer and evildoers prosper? From that wondrous morning when Moses, the faithful shepherd, communed with the Creator of the Universe and pleaded for the comprehensive solution to this question of questions, throughout the generations, the prophets and sages of Israel have grappled with this conundrum. Habakkuk demanded satisfaction for this affront to justice; Jeremiah, King David in his Psalms, and Solomon in Ecclesiastes all pondered this problem. The Book of Job is totally dedicated to this ancient riddle that still hovers over our world and demands its own resolution: Why does the Holy One, blessed be He, permit evil to have dominion over His creations?

 

3. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 4–5

Judaism, with its realistic approach to man and his status within existence, understood that evil does not lend itself to being obscured and glossed over, and that every attempt to diminish the import of the contrast and cleavage in existence will not bring man to inner peace or to comprehension of the existential secret. Evil is a fact that cannot be denied. There is evil in the world. There are suffering and agony, and death pangs. He who would deceive himself by ignoring the split in existence and by romanticizing life is but a fool and a fabricator of illusions. It is impossible to conquer monstrous evil with philosophical-speculative thought. Thus, Judaism determined that man, submerged in the depths of a frozen fate, will in vain seek the solution to the problem of evil in the context of speculative thought, for he will never find it. Certainly, the testimony of the Torah regarding creation — that “it is very good” (Genesis 1: 12) — is true. However, this is only stated from the unbounded perspective of the Creator. In man’s finite, limited view, the absolute good in creation is not apparent. The contrast is striking and undeniable. There is evil that is not susceptible to explanation and comprehension. Only by comprehending the world in its totality can man gain insight into the essence of suffering. However, as long as man’s perception is limited and fragmented, so that he sees only isolated portions of the cosmic drama and the mighty saga of history, he cannot delve into the recesses of evil and the mystery of suffering. To what might this situation be compared? To a person who views a beautiful tapestry, the work of a fine artisan, which contains, woven into it on its front, a representation dazzling to the eye. To our great sorrow, we see this image [i. e. , the world] from the obverse side. Can such a sight become a sublime esthetic experience? Thus, we are incapable of comprehending the panorama of reality without which one cannot uncover God’s master plan — the essence of the works of the Holy One. 

In short, the “I”of fate asks a speculative/metaphysical question about evil, and this question is not given to solution and has no answer. 

 

4. Rav Shagar, “Muteness and Faith,” Bayom Hahu, 75–76

With the beginning, the concealed and unknown created God. What does that mean? In Ezekiel’s prophecies, we ready about the divine throne: “Above the expanse over their heads was the semblance of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and on top, upon this semblance of a throne, there was the semblance of a human form” (Ezekiel 1:26). In Tanakh, God wears a human face–“ the semblance of a human form”–when revealing himself to humanity and addressing people. Moreover, the human being draws his very humanity from this divine face and address. This divinity is the beginning of the created, human world–the “this palace” of the Zohar–and as such humans can access and know it. The Holocaust revealed something beyond this–the inhuman divine, “the unknown concealed one” who is beyond both the Torah and our human existence, and who therefore cannot be expressed in language–the differend. Perhaps this was what the Lubavitcher Rebbe meant when he said, “We cannot explain or clarify (based on the wisdom of the Torah) at all about the Holocaust. All we know is the fact that ‘thus it arose in thought before me’ and ‘it is a decree from before me.’” Not only can the Holocaust not be explained, but the very language and terminology of Torah also denies any explanation of the Holocaust, as the divine that manifested in the Holocaust is not part of human-divine discourse, a discourse which the Torah itself creates… In regard to God, the Holocaust, revealed the “awe-ful divine” (nora ha’eloki) that is above the “image of man.” It cannot be humanly apprehended, but the human cannot transcend the human in order somehow grasp this meaning that is foreign to him. What does it mean to say that there’s meaning “over there,” other than an acknowledgment of the simple fact, without comprehending its reality? Perhaps this was what the Lubavitcher Rebbe meant when he said, “We cannot explain or clarify (based on the wisdom of the Torah) at all about the Holocaust. All we know is the fact that ‘thus it arose in thought before me’”? Does this meaningless statement function in the same way as “negative attributes”? … “In the differend, something asks to be put into phrases and suffers from the wrong of not being able to be put into phrases right away.” Perhaps a meaningless statement constitutes an encounter with something that asked to be expressed but cannot do so?

I will conclude with the posing of these questions.

 

Destiny: Make Your Own Meaning

5. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 2–3

Posing the question of suffering, claims Judaism, is possible in two separate dimensions: the dimension of fate and the dimension of destiny. Judaism has always distinguished between an “Existence of Fate” and an “Existence of Destiny,” between the “I”which is the progeny of fate and the “I”which is the child of destiny. In this distinction lies hidden the Jewish doctrine of suffering. 

What is an Existence of Fate? It is an existence of duress, in the nature of “against your will do you live”(M. Avot 4: 29). It is a factual existence, simply one line in a [long] chain of mechanical causality, devoid of significance, direction, and purpose, and subordinate to the forces of the environment into whose midst the individual is pushed, unconsulted by Providence. The “I”of fate emerges as an object. As an object, man appears as acted upon and not as actor. He is acted upon through his passive collision with the objective outside, as one object confronting another. The “I” of fate is hurled into a sealed dynamic that is always turned outward. Man’s existence is hollow, lacking inner content, substance, and independence. The “I” of fate denies itself completely, because the sense of selfhood and objectification cannot dwell in tandem. 

 

6. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 5–6

What is an Existence of Destiny? It is an active Existence, when man confronts the environment into which he has been cast with an understanding of his uniqueness and value, freedom and capacity; without compromising his integrity and independence in his struggle with the outside world. The slogan of the “I” of destiny is: “Against your will you are born, and against your will you die”(M. Avot 4: 29), but by your free will do you live. Man is born as an object, dies as an object, but it is within his capability to live as a “subject” — as a creator and innovator who impresses his individual imprimatur on his life and breaks out of a life of instinctive, automatic behavior into one of creative activity. According to Judaism, man’s mission in this world is to turn fate into destiny — an existence that is passive and influenced into an existence that is active and influential; an existence of compulsion, perplexity, and speechlessness into an existence full of will, vision, and initiative. The blessing of the Holy One to his creation fully defines man’s role: “Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). Conquer the environment and subjugate it. If you do not rule over it, it will enslave you. Destiny bestows on man a new status in God’s world. It bestows upon man a royal crown, and thus he becomes God’s partner in the work of creation. 

 

7. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 6–9

As stated above, in man’s “Existence of Destiny” arises a new relation to the problem of evil. As long as man vacillates in his fateful existence, his relationship to evil is expressed solely in a philosophical/speculative approach. As a passive creature, it was not within his power to wrestle with evil in order to contain or to exploit it for an exalted purpose. The child of fate is devoid of the ability to determine anything in the realm of his existence. He is nurtured from the outside, and his life bears its imprint. Therefore he relates to evil from an impractical perspective and philosophizes about it from a speculative point of view. He wishes to deny the reality of evil and to create a harmonistic outlook on life. The result of such an experience is bitter disappointment. Evil mocks the prisoner of fate and his fantasy of a reality that is all good and pleasant. 

However, in the realm of destiny man recognizes reality as it is, and does not desire to use harmonizing formulas in order to hide and disregard evil. The “Child of Destiny” is very realistic and does not flinch in anticipation of a face-to-face confrontation with evil. His approach is halakhic and moral, and thus devoid of any metaphysical/speculative nuance. When the “Child of Destiny” suffers, he says in his heart, “There is evil, I do not deny it, and I will not conceal it with fruitless casuistry. I am, however, interested in it from a halakhic point of view; and as a person who wants to know what action to take. I ask a single question: What should the sufferer do to live with his suffering?” In this dimension, the emphasis is removed from causal and teleological considerations (which differ only as to direction) and is directed to the realm of action. The problem is now formulated in the language of a simple halakhah and revolves around a quotidian (i. e. daily) task. The question of questions is: What does suffering obligate man to do? This problem was important to Judaism, which placed it at the center of its Weltanschauung. Halakhah is just as interested in this question, as in issues of issur and heter and hiyyuv and p’tur. We do not wonder about the ineffable ways of the Holy One, but instead ponder the paths man must take when evil leaps up at him. We ask not about the reason for evil and its purpose, but rather about its rectification and uplifting. How should a man react in a time of distress? What should a person do so as not to rot in his affliction?

The halakhic answer to this question is very simple. Suffering comes to elevate man, to purify his spirit and sanctify him, to cleanse his mind and purify it from the chaff of superficiality and the dross of crudeness; to sensitize his soul and expand his horizons. In general, the purpose of suffering is to repair the imperfection in man’s persona. The halakhah teaches us that an afflicted person commits a criminal act if he allows his pain to go for naught and to remain without meaning or purpose. Suffering appears in the world in order to contribute something to man, in order to atone for him, in order to redeem him from moral impurity, from crudeness and lowliness of spirit. The sufferer must arise therefrom, purified, refined, and cleansed… From the midst of suffering itself he will achieve lasting redemption and merit a self-actualization and exaltation that are unequaled in a world devoid of suffering. From negation sprouts affirmation; from antithesis, thesis emerges; and from a denial of existence, a new existence is revealed. The Torah gave witness to man’s mighty spiritual reaction to suffering inflicted upon him when it said,“In your distress when all these horrors shall come upon you, then you shall return to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 4:30). Suffering requires man to repent and return to God. Distress is designated to arouse us to repentance, and what is repentance if not the renewal and supreme redemption of man?

 

8. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 22–23

If we want to ask a penetrating question at a time beset by terrifying nightmares, it is incumbent upon us to do so in a halakhic mode: What obligation accrues to the sufferer as a result of his suffering? What commanding heavenly voice breaks through from the midst of suffering? As we have said, this question has a solution which is expressed in a simple halakhah. There is no need for metaphysical speculation in order to clarify the rules of rectifying evil. “For it is not in Heaven”(Deuteronomy 30:12). If we succeed in formulating this doctrine without dealing with questions of cause and telos, we will earn a complete salvation, and the scriptural promise will be fulfilled for us, as it is written: “Take counsel together, and it shall come to naught; speak your harshnesses and they shall not come to fruition, for God is with us” (Isaiah 8:10). Then and only then shall we emerge from the depths of the Holocaust with enhanced spiritual stature and augmented historical splendor, as it is written, “And the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10) — double in quantity and quality.

When the doctrine of the corrective effect of suffering is put into practice, it demands of the sufferer courage and spiritual discipline. He must gird himself with extraordinary strength, make a detached assessment of his world, examine his past and look to his future with complete honesty… And we, too, who are softhearted, weak-willed, bound by fate, and devoid of spiritual strength, are now bidden by Providence to adopt a new attitude; to ascend and raise ourselves to a level where suffering teaches us to demand from ourselves redemption and deliverance. For this purpose we must look at our reflection with spiritual fortitude and pure objectivity. This reflection bursts through to us from both the present and the past.

 

9. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 85–86

Let us return to what we said above. How does destiny differ from fate? In two respects: fate means a compelled existence; destiny is existence by volition. Destiny is created by man himself, who chooses and makes his own way in life. Fate is expressed in a teleological sense, in a denuded existence, whereas destiny embodies purpose and objectives. 

 

10. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 6–9

In short, man must solve, not the question of the causal or teleological reason for suffering with all its speculative complexity, but rather the question of its curative role, in all its halakhic simplicity, by turning fate to destiny and elevating himself from object to subject, from thing to man.

Shiur: The Lonely Man of Faith #3 –Translation and the Untranslatable: Religion vs. Faith

This is the third of three classes on The Lonely Man of Faith that I recorded for my Rav Soloveitchik course after it was unceremoniously cut short by the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

This class explores the different religious communities created by”Adam the first” and “Adam the second” respectively, focusing on the true nature of faith and importance both of translating faith into intellectual terms, and of faith being partially untranslatable.

I think I forgot to mention this in the class itself, but the “Adam the first” category of religion and finding pragmatic value in faith/ritual/etc. should definitely include “social orthodoxy” and orthoprax models of Judaism.

 

 

 

Translation and the Untranslatable: Faith vs. Religion

 

From Tension to Resolution and Back Again

1. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 75–76

The element of the tragic is not fully eliminated from the destiny of the man of faith even after joining the covenantal community. We said at the very beginning of this essay that the loneliness of the man of faith is an integral part of his destiny from which he can never be completely liberated. The dialectical awareness, the steady oscillating between the majestic natural community and the covenantal faith community renders the act of complete redemption unrealizable. The man of faith, in his continuous movement between the pole of natural majesty and that of covenantal humility, is prevented from totally immersing in the immediate covenantal awareness of the redeeming presence, knowability, and involvement of God in the community of man. From time to time the man of faith is thrown into the majestic community where the colloquy as well as the covenantal consciousness are swept away. He suddenly finds himself revolving around the cosmic center, now and then catching a glimpse of the Creator who hides behind the boundless drama of creation. To be sure, this alternation of cosmic and covenantal involvement is not one of “light and shade,” enhanced activity and fatigue, as the mystics are accustomed to call their alternating experiences, but represents two kinds of creative and spontaneous activity, both willed and sanctioned by God. Let us not forget that the majestic community is willed by God as much as the covenantal faith community.

 

2. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 78–79

If one would inquire of me about the teleology of the Halakhah, I would tell him that it manifests itself exactly in the paradoxical yet magnificent dialectic which underlies the Halakhic gesture. When man gives himself to the covenantal community the Halakhah reminds him that he is also wanted and needed in another community, the cosmic-majestic, and when it comes across man while he is involved in the creative enterprise of the majestic community, it does not let him forget that he is a covenantal being who will never find self-fulfillment outside of the covenant and that God awaits his return to the covenantal community. I would also add, in reply to such a question, that many a time I have the distinct impression that the Halakhah considered the steady oscillating of the man of faith between majesty and covenant not as a dialectical but rather as a complementary movement. The majestic gesture of the man of faith, I am inclined to think, is looked upon by the Halakhah not as contradictory to the covenantal encounter but rather as the reflex action which is caused by this encounter when man feels the gentle touch of God’s hand upon his shoulder and the covenantal invitation to join God is extended to him. I am prompted to draw this remarkable inference from the fact that the Halakhah has a monistic approach to reality and has unreservedly rejected any kind of dualism. The Halakhah believes that there is only one world—not divisible into secular and hallowed sector…

 

3. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 82–83

Since the dialectical role has been assigned to man by God, it is God who wants the man of faith to oscillate between the faith community and the community of majesty, between being confronted by God in the cosmos and the intimate, immediate apprehension of God through the covenant, and who therefore willed that complete human redemption be unattainable.

Had God placed Adam in the majestic community only, then Adam would, as it was stated before, never be aware of existential loneliness. The sole problem would then be that of aloneness—one that majestic Adam could resolve. Had God, vice versa, thrust Adam into the covenantal community exclusively, then he would be beset by the passional experience of existential loneliness and also provided with the means of finding redemption from this experience through his covenantal relation to God and to his fellow man. However, God, in His inscrutable wisdom, has decreed differently. Man discovers his loneliness in the covenantal community, and before he is given a chance to climb up to the high level of a complete covenantal, revealed existence, dedicated in faith to God and in sympathy to man, man of faith is pushed into a new community where he is told to lead an expanded surface existence rather than a covenantal, concentrated in-depth existence. Because of this onward movement from center to center, man does not feel at home in any community. He is commanded to move on before he manages to strike roots in either of these communities and so the ontological loneliness of man of faith persists.

 

Subversion

4. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 86–87

Contemporary Adam the first, extremely successful in his cosmic-majestic enterprise, refuses to pay earnest heed to the duality in man and tries to deny the undeniable, that another Adam exists beside or, rather, in him. By rejecting Adam the second, contemporary man, eo ipso, dismisses the covenantal faith community as something superfluous and obsolete. To clear up any misunderstanding on the part of my audience, I wish to note that I am not concerned in this essay with the vulgar and illiterate atheism professed and propagated in the most ugly fashion by a natural-political community which denies the unique transcendental worth of the human personality. I am referring rather to Western man who is affiliated with organized religion and is a generous supporter of its institutions. He stands today in danger of losing his dialectical awareness and of abandoning completely the metaphysical polarity implanted in man as a member of both the majestic and the covenantal community.

 

5. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 88–89

The prime purpose [of the religious community] is the successful furtherance of the interests, not the deepening and enhancing of the commitments, of man who values religion in terms of its usefulness to him and considers the religious act a medium through which he may increase his happiness. This assumption on the part of majestic man about the role of religion is not completely wrong, if only, as I shall explain, he would recognize also the non-pragmatic aspects of religion. Faith is indeed relevant to man not only metaphysically but also practically. It gives his life, even at the secular mundane level, a new existential dimension. Certain aspects of the doctrinal and normative covenantal kerygma of faith are of utmost importance to majestic man and are, in a paradoxical way, translatable into the latter’s vernacular. It is very certain and self-evident that Adam the first cannot succeed completely in his efforts to attain majesty-dignity without having the man of faith contribute his share. The cultural edifice whose great architect Adam the first is would be built on shifting sands if he sought to conceal from himself and from others the fact that he alone cannot implement the mandate of majesty-dignity entrusted to him by God and that he must petition Adam the second for help. To be sure, man can build spaceships capable of reaching other planets without addressing himself to the mystery of faith and without being awakened to an enhanced, inspired life which reflects the covenantal truth. He certainly can triumph to a limited degree over the elemental forces of nature without crossing the frontiers of here-and-now sense-facticity. The Tower of Babel can be built high and mighty without beholding and acknowledging the great verity that Heaven is yet higher. However, the idea of majesty which Adam the first is striving to realize embraces much more than the mere building of machines, no matter how complex and efficacious. Successful man wants to be a sovereign not only in the physical but also in the spiritual world. He is questing not only for material success, but for ideological and axiological achievements as well. He is concerned with a philosophy of nature and man, of matter and mind, of things and ideas.

 

6. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 92–93

Since majestic man is in need of a transcendental experience in order to strengthen his cultural edifice, it is the duty of the man of faith to provide him with some component parts of this experience. God would not have implanted the necessity in majestic man for such spiritual perceptions and ideas if He had not at the same time endowed the man of faith with the skill of converting some of his apocalyptic experiences—which are meta-logical and non-hedonic—into a system of values and verities comprehensible to majestic man, the experimenter, aesthete, and, above all, the creative mind.

 

7. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 93–5

At this point, however, the crisis in the relations between man of faith and majestic man begins to develop. If the job of translating faith mysteries into cultural aspects could be fully accomplished, then contemporary man of faith could free himself, if not from the ontological awareness which is perennial, then, at least, from the peculiar feeling of psychological loneliness and anguish which is due to his historical confrontation with the man of culture. The man of faith would, if this illusion came true, be at peace with the man of culture so that the latter would fully understand the significance of human dialectics, and a perfect harmonious relationship would prevail between both Adams.

However, this harmony can never be attained since the man of faith is not the compromising type and his covenantal commitment eludes cognitive analysis by the logos and hence does not lend itself completely to the act of cultural translation. There are simply no cognitive categories in which the total commitment of the man of faith could be spelled out. This commitment is rooted not in one dimension, such as the rational one, but in the whole personality of the man of faith. The whole of the human being, the rational as well as the non-rational aspects, is committed to God, Hence, the magnitude of the commitment is beyond the comprehension of the logos and the ethos. The act of faith is aboriginal, exploding with elemental force as an all-consuming and all-pervading eudaemonic-passional experience in which our most secret urges, aspirations, fears, and passions, at times even unsuspected by us, manifest themselves. The commitment of the man of faith is thrown into the mold of the in-depth personality and immediately accepted before the mind is given a chance to investigate the reasonableness of this unqualified commitment. The intellect does not chart the course of the man of faith; its role is an a posteriori one. It attempts, ex post facto, to retrace the footsteps of the man of faith, and even in this modest attempt the intellect is not completely successful. Of course, as long as the path of the man of faith cuts across the territory of the reasonable, the intellect may follow him and identify his footsteps. The very instant, however, the man of faith transcends the frontiers of the reasonable and enters into the realm of the unreasonable, the intellect is left behind and must terminate its search for understanding. The man of faith, animated by his great experience is able to reach the point at which not only his logic of the mind but even his logic of the heart and of the will, everything—even his own “I” awareness—has to give in to an “absurd” commitment. The man of faith is “insanely” committed to and “madly” in love with God.

 

7a. Rav Shagar, Faith Shattered and Restored, 22–23

In effect, according to Rabbi Naman, not only is faith not a public language, it is not a language at all. That is why it is so difficult to fully depict one’s faith. Something will always remain unspoken, a mystery and intimacy that cannot and should not be revealed, for baring it would violate the intimacy of faith… The freedom to be private is a prerequisite of faith, and the only thing that can lead, on the next level, to honest, genuine dialogue between believers.

Hence, what I am trying to describe here is not a philosophy or outlook regarding faith. Philosophies and outlooks are, in this context, nothing but rationalizations – apologetics, even – whose sole role is to justify what has already been arrived at, and which must thus be regarded with a certain wariness. They are not the substance of faith but explanations for it; thus, they are ancillary to it and always involve a degree of duality. To paraphrase the opponents of Maimonides and his school, who stated that a God whose existence must be proven is no God at all, I offer the absurd assertion that a believer who requires an intellectual proof for his faith is no believer at all.

There is no proof of faith, and no certainty of faith to be gained with a proof. In any event, proofs do not impact our existence like a gun pointed at one’s temple; they do not touch upon the believer’s inner life. That is why, when it comes to faith, I prefer to use terms such as “occurrence” and “experience.”

 

8. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 95–97

The untranslatability of the complete faith experience is due not to the weakness, but to the greatness of the latter. If an all-embracing translation of the great mystery of revelation and its kerygma were possible, then the uniqueness of the faith experience and its commitments would be lost. Only peripheral elements of the act of faith can be projected on a cognitive, pragmatic background. Prayer, for instance, might appeal to majestic man as the most uplifting, integrating, and purifying act, arousing the finest and noblest emotions, yet these characteristics, however essential to Adam the first, are of marginal interest to Adam the second, who experiences prayer as the awesome confrontation of God and man, as the great paradox of man conversing with God as an equal fellow member of the covenantal society, and at the same time being aware that he fully belongs to God and that God demands complete surrender and self-sacrifice…

In a word, the message of translated religion is not the only one which the man of faith must address to majestic man of culture. Besides this message, man of faith must bring to the attention of man of culture the kerygma of original faith in all its singularity and pristine purity, in spite of the incompatibility of this message with the fundamental credo of a utilitarian society. How staggering this incompatibility is! This unique message speaks of defeat instead of success, of accepting a higher will instead of commanding, of giving instead of conquering, of retreating instead of advancing, of acting “irrationally” instead of being always reasonable. Here the tragic event occurs. Contemporary majestic man rejects his dialectical assignment and, with it, the man of faith.

 

9. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 103–106

Elisha was a typical representative of the majestic community. He was the son of a prosperous farmer, a man of property, whose interests were centered around this-worldly, material goods such as crops, livestock, and market prices. His objective was economic success, his aspiration—material wealth. The Bible portrays him as efficient, capable, and practical, remindful of a modern business executive… Suddenly the mantle of Elijah was cast upon him. While he was engaged in the most ordinary, everyday activity, in tilling the soil, he encountered God and felt the transforming touch of God’s hand. The strangest metamorphosis occurred. Within seconds, the old Elisha disappeared and a new Elisha emerged. Majestic man was replaced by covenantal man… However, Elisha’s withdrawal from majesty was not final. He followed the dialectical course of all our prophets. Later, when he achieved the pinnacle of faith and arrived at the outer boundaries of human commitment, he came back to society as a participant in state affairs, as an adviser of kings and a teacher of the majestic community. God ordered him to return to the people, to offer them a share in the covenantal drama and to involve them in the great and solemn colloquy. He was God’s messenger carrying, like Moses, two tablets of stone containing the covenantal kerygma.

Shiur: The Lonely Man of Faith #1: What Kind of Lonely?

This is the first of three classes on The Lonely Man of Faith that I recorded for my Rav Soloveitchik course after it was unceremoniously cut short by the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. I do not focus on the pandemic in the class, but I felt it was necessary to make a note of the current situation at the start, and of course it came up a few times in the course of the 30 minute class.

This class introduced the book by focusing on how Rav Soloveitchik frames it as a subjective exploration of the topic of loneliness, and by looking at the various types of loneliness he describes.

 

 

Loneliness: Social, Ontological, and Faithful

1. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 3

The nature of the dilemma can be stated in a three-word sentence. I am lonely. Let me emphasize, however, that by stating “I am lonely” I do not intend to convey to you the impression that I am alone. I, thank God, do enjoy the love and friendship of many. I meet people, talk, preach, argue, reason; I am surrounded by comrades and acquaintances. And yet, companionship and friendship do not alleviate the passional experience of loneliness which trails me constantly.

 

A Subjective Exploration

2. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 1–2

It is not the plan of this essay to discuss the millennium-old problem of faith and reason. Theory is not my concern at the moment. I want instead to focus attention on a human-life situation in which the man of faith as an individual concrete being, with his cares and hopes, concerns and needs, joys and sad moments, is entangled. Therefore, whatever I am going to say here has been derived not from philosophical dialectics, abstract speculation, or detached impersonal reflections, but from actual situations and experiences with which I have been confronted. Indeed, the term “lecture” also is, in this context, a misnomer. It is rather a tale of a personal dilemma. Instead of talking theology, in the didactic sense, eloquently and in balanced sentences, I would like, hesitantly and haltingly, to confide in you, and to share with you some concerns which weigh heavily on my mind and which frequently assume the proportions of an awareness of crisis.

 

3. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 9

Before beginning the analysis, we must determine within which frame of reference, psychological and empirical or theological and Biblical, our dilemma should be described. I believe you will agree with me that we do not have much choice in the matter; for, to the man of faith, self-knowledge has one connotation only—to understand one’s place and role within the scheme of events and things willed and approved by God, when He ordered finitude to emerge out of infinity and the Universe, including man, to unfold itself. This kind of self-knowledge may not always be pleasant or comforting. On the contrary, it might from time to time express itself in a painful appraisal of the difficulties which man of faith, caught in his paradoxical destiny, has to encounter, for knowledge at both planes, the scientific and the personal, is not always a eudaemonic experience. However, this unpleasant prospect should not deter us from our undertaking.

Before I go any further, I want to make the following reservation. Whatever I am about to say is to be seen only as a modest attempt on the part of a man of faith to interpret his spiritual perceptions and emotions in modern theological and philosophical categories. My interpretive gesture is completely subjective and lays no claim to representing a definitive Halakhic philosophy. If my audience will feel that these interpretations are also relevant to their perceptions and emotions, I shall feel amply rewarded. However, I shall not feel hurt if my thoughts will find no response in the hearts of my listeners.

 

4. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 7

It would be worthwhile to add the following in order to place the dilemma in the proper focus. I have never been seriously troubled by the problem of the Biblical doctrine of creation vis-a-vis the scientific story of evolution at both the cosmic and the organic levels, nor have I been perturbed by the confrontation of the mechanistic interpretation of the human mind with the Biblical spiritual concept of man. I have not been perplexed by the impossibility of fitting the mystery of revelation into the framework of historical empiricism. Moreover, I have not even been troubled by the theories of Biblical criticism which contradict the very foundations upon which the sanctity and integrity of the Scriptures rest. However, while theoretical oppositions and dichotomies have never tormented my thoughts, I could not shake off the disquieting feeling that the practical role of the man of faith within modern society is a very difficult, indeed, a paradoxical one.

 

What Kind of Loneliness?

 

5. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 4

I must address myself to the obvious question: why am I beset by this feeling of loneliness and being unwanted? Is it the Kierkegaardian anguish—an ontological fear nurtured by the awareness of nonbeing threatening one’s existence—that assails me, or is this feeling of loneliness solely due to my own personal stresses, cares, and frustrations? Or is it perhaps the result of the pervasive state of mind of Western man who has become estranged from himself, a state with which all of us as Westerners are acquainted? I believe that even though all three explanations might be true to some extent, the genuine and central cause of the feeling of loneliness from which I cannot free myself is to be found in a different dimension, namely, in the experience of faith itself.

 

6. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 5–7

On the one hand, the man of faith has been a solitary figure throughout the ages, indeed millennia, and no one has succeeded in escaping this unalterable destiny which is an “objective” awareness rather than a subjective feeling. On the other hand, it is undeniably true that this basic awareness expresses itself in a variety of ways, utilizing the whole gamut of one’s affective emotional life which is extremely responsive to outward challenges and moves along with the tide of cultural and historical change. Therefore, it is my intent to analyze this experience at both levels: at the ontological, at which it is a root awareness, and at the historical, at which a highly sensitized and agitated heart, overwhelmed by the impact of social and cultural forces, filters this root awareness through the medium of painful, frustrating emotions.

As a matter of fact, the investigation at the second level is my prime concern since I am mainly interested in contemporary man of faith who is, due to his peculiar position in our secular society, lonely in a special way. No matter how time-honored and time-hallowed the interpenetration of faith and loneliness is, and it certainly goes back to the dawn of the Judaic covenant, contemporary man of faith lives through a particularly difficult and agonizing crisis.

Let me spell out this passional experience of contemporary man of faith.

He looks upon himself as a stranger in modern society, which is technically-minded, self-centered, and self-loving, almost in a sickly narcissistic fashion, scoring honor upon honor, piling up victory upon victory, reaching for the distant galaxies, and seeing in the here-and-now sensible world the only manifestation of being. What can a man of faith like myself, living by a doctrine which has no technical potential, by a law which cannot be tested in the laboratory, steadfast in his loyalty to an eschatological vision whose fulfillment cannot be predicted with any degree of probability, let alone certainty, even by the most complex, advanced mathematical calculations—what can such a man say to a functional, utilitarian society which is saeculum-oriented and whose practical reasons of the mind have long ago supplanted the sensitive reasons of the heart?

 

7. Rav Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 97

The situation has deteriorated considerably in this century, which has witnessed the greatest triumphs of majestic man in his drive for conquest. Majestic Adam has developed a demonic quality: laying claim to unlimited power—alas, to infinity itself. His pride is almost boundless, his imagination arrogant, and he aspires to complete and absolute control of everything. Indeed, like the men of old, he is engaged in constructing a tower whose apex should pierce Heaven. He is intoxicated with his own adventures and victories and is bidding for unrestricted dominion. From a religious point of view, as I said before, they are quite legitimate and in compliance with the divine testament given to Adam the first that he should rule nature. When I say that modern man is projecting a demonic image, I am thinking of man’s attempt to dominate himself, or, to be more precise, of Adam the first’s desire to identify himself with the total human personality…

On Themes of Tradition, Authenticity, and Chosen Identity in Moana, with Continual Reference to Rav Shagar

 

This short piece is in lieu of a much larger essay that I don’t have time to write exploring the topic of tradition, authenticity, and chosen identity in Disney’s “Moana,” by way of reference to ideas from the writings of Rav Shagar (even when I do not mention him explicitly). As such I will assume the reader’s basic familiarity with the film, and I will write briefly, without necessarily providing quotes or references.

The three terms I have mentioned are explored in two different arcs in the plot of the film, each fleshed out by three characters. Moana’s story is about the tension between authenticity and tradition, represented by her grandmother (Tala) and her father (Tui), respectively. The theme of chosen identity, on the other hand, is explored through the contrast between the giant crab, Tamatoa, on the one hand, and Maui and Tafiti/Te Ka, on the other. Notably, these two themes are roughly the two ways Rav Shagar understands the term “Accepting the Yoke of Heaven,” regarding which I have an essay forthcoming.
rabbi-shagar

 

Arc #1 – Tui, Tala and Moana: Tradition and Authenticity

Starting at the beginning, the first song in the movie, “Where you are,” sets up the basic tension between Moana’s father and grandmother. The majority of the song is Tui talking about their island society and how everyone has their place in it, in an attempt to convince Moana to accept her life and role there. The basic message is that the answer to “who am I?” can and should be answered like recognizing your place in your society and tradition. If you’re a fisherman then you’re a fisherman, and if you’re a chief then you’re a chief. The song’s title, “where you are,” shows up a few times denoting how a person’s location in the space of the tradition and society is what defines who they are. Near the end of the song, however, Tala cuts in, identifying herself as the village crazy person who drifts too far outside the traditional social framework (and, notably, we always see her by the shore, on the physical fringe of the society), and arguing that who you are is actually a function of a voice within you, not your positioning in relation to those outside you. For Moana, as Tala herself, this voice seems to call her toward the ocean, in contrast to the tradition’s aversion to straying into open waters. Moana is thus caught between being authentic to the voice within her and filling her role as chief for which she has been designated by tradition and society, and her personal arc in the movie is about her learning to resolve the tension.. This topic was already discussed by Sarah Rindner in a relatively excellent article on thelehrhaus.com, but I don’t think it quite reached all the details of this theme, particularly when it comes to how exactly Moana resolves the tension.

A first watershed moment for Moana is discovering that her ancestors had once been sea voyagers. This enables her to challenge her tradition and is part of her being able to eventually strike out on her own. A second is when, in the process of learning to pilot a ship, she learns that in order to know where you are you have to know where you’ve come from. Perhaps tradition is not to be rejected entirely. The two come together when Tala returns in ghostly form during the song “I am Moana (Song of the Ancestors).” In this song, Moana identifies herself with the island, her father, and her future role as chief, as well as with the sea and her voyaging ancestors. She is staying true to to her inner voice, while still identifying with her tradition.

It is worth taking a second to note the specific manner in which she has done that. The voyaging ancestors provide a nexus where the sea and the island meet, where the voice of tradition and the voice of authenticity say the same thing. Moana essentially explored her tradition and found a previously unknown aspect that matched her inner voice. She found a space for herself within the tradition, which is more expansive that she had previously suspected. In traditional Orthodox language, she found her portion in Torah. This is significant because of what the other options could have been. What if Moana had never found the boats? She might have identified with her role as chief and still struck out on the waters in order to save her people. In doing so she would have added something new to the tradition, taking something from outside and introducing it into the tradition by virtue of her identification with it. This is the road not taken in Moana,where the emphasis is on finding one’s own place within their tradition. Moana remains entirely faithful to the pre-existing tradition, but it is broader than previously thought.

For reference, see “The Name of the Father” (על שם האב), a derashah for Pesah and Shavuot , published in שארית האמונה, where Rav Shagar confronts and works with the thought of Alain Badiou, and identifies Pesah with approach to resolution that Moana takes and Shavuot with the other possibility that I outlined here.

Bonus reference: see the earlier published essay “The Hearts of Fathers with their Sons” (לב אבות על בנים) from the book זמן של חירות, many sections of which were republished in “The Name of the Father,” and which gives a slightly different angle on the topic.

 

Arc #2 – Tamatoa, Maui, and Tafiti/Te Ka: Chosen Identity

There is a second thematic arc in Moana that directly contrasts to, and to some degree, undermines the first arc. It thus makes sense that the theme is expressed by Tamatoa, who is a villain, and Te Ka, who is certainly something like a villain, but it is also expressed in the story of Maui, one of the heroes. This is the theme of choosing, or perhaps constructing, your identity, as opposed to accepting an identity that you find within yourself or that your society defines for you, were there to be such a thing.

Tamatoa, the giant crab who has Maui’s hook, sings a song called “Shiny” about how he used to be drab and boring but now is shiny and glamorous. In the process he specifically mentions that Moana’s grandmother said to listen to your heart, to who you are on the inside, and that in this her grandmother lied. But in place of an inner identity the crab suggests not conforming to societal expectations but shininess, making yourself into who you want to be on the outside. In a fantastic lyric, he says that he has made himself shiny like treasure from a sunken pirate ship, and then says that the deck of the ship, the visible outer surface, should be swabbed until it is shiny; there is no treasure, but the outside is made to look like treasure. Tamatoa is arguing for the importance of the identity that you can create for yourself, that any sort of pre-existing essence is a lie (rav Shagar associates this model both with Sartre and Postmodernism).

Te Ka/Tafiti and Maui both express this theme via basically the same movement in their personal story arcs, if the former somewhat more subtly. At a glance, both arcs would seem to affirm the existence of a pre-existing self, namely, Maui’s hook and Tafiti’s heart, but a more comprehensive reading of each indicates otherwise. Maui starts off as someone who assumes his self is synonymous with his hook, and his whole arc is about unlearning this idea. He has to be ok with not having his hook, not having a specific pre-existing self, before he can achieve a new self, represented by the new hook he receives in the end. Only by recognizing that his hook is not his self, and letting it be destroyed, is he able to get a new hook to build his life around.

The same basic story holds true for Te Ka/Tafiti. The nature goddess Tafiti loses her heart and, as we discover at the end of the film, thus becomes the fire demon Te Ka. It would seem to be hard to have a clearer metaphor for a pre-existing self than a small rock called your heart, and thus it makes some sense that Te Ka is continuously upset about not being able to get her heart back, being landlocked on a tiny island. Te Ka’s violent frustration at being separated from her self is what causes the toxic seepage that Moana’s journey is meant to rectify. When she gets her heart back, she returns to her natural state as Tafiti, which would seem to argue for the “self as pre-existing” model. However, in the scene immediately before the restoration of Tafiti, Moana realizes who Te Ka really is and walks toward her singing the short song “Know Who You Are.” In this song, Moana recounts how Tafiti/Te Ka’s heart was stolen, but then says that this does not define Te Ka; Te Ka is not “Tafiti minus her heart.” Upon hearing this, Te Ka immediately calms down, and she and Moana rest their foreheads against each other. This moment is the resolution of the peak tension in the movie, the drama of the violent demon Te Ka, rather than the moment when she turns back into Tafiti. Then Te Ka takes up the identity of Tafiti out of calm choice, and the motion of face-to-face reconciliation is repeated. The story arcs of both Maui and Te Ka/Tafiti thus express the idea that you choose who you are and what your identity is, and that a key step in this process is accepting that whatever you thought your identity is, it is not inherent to you. Only once you accept this fact, the fact that Tamatoa was essentially correct, can you consciously choose to take up a new identity.

For reference, see Rav Shagar’s discussion of Rebbe Nahman’s story about the poor man and the diamond in “Self (?): A Study of One of Rebbe Nahman’s Stories” (עצמיות (?): עיון באחת מסיפורי רבי נחמן), published in נהלך ברג״ש.

Bonus reference: See the essay “Redemption and Accepting the Yoke of Heaven” (גאולה וקבלת עול מלכות שמים) in זמן של חירות and “Freedom and Holiness” (חופש וקודש) in לוחות ושברי לוחות.

Eruvin 54a – Hedonism, Death, and Non-Being

Before you is an aggadah from Masekhet Eruvin that seems almost hedonistic on a textual level, but I think the motivation behind the hedonistic statements is almost more interesting. Beneath the main quotation of the whole text is my breakdown and analysis thereof.

אמר ליה שמואל לרב יהודה: שיננא, חטוף ואכול חטוף ואישתי, דעלמא דאזלינן מיניה כהלולא דמי.

אמר ליה רב לרב המנונא: בני, אם יש לך – היטב לך, שאין בשאול תענוג ואין למות התמהמה. ואם תאמר אניח לבני – חוק בשאול מי יגיד לך. בני האדם דומים לעשבי השדה, הללו נוצצין והללו נובלין.

Samuel further said to Rab Judah, ‘Shinena [commentators indicate this means something like “clever one” ~LM], hurry on [lit. “grab” ~LM] and eat, hurry on and drink, since the world from which we must depart is like a wedding feast’.

Rab said to R. Hamnuna, ‘My son, according to thy ability do good to thyself, for there is no enjoyment in she’ol nor will death be long in coming. And shouldst thou say: “I would leave a portion for my children” — who will tell thee in the grave? The children of man[or more colloquially, “People” ~LM] are like the grasses of the field, some blossom and some fade’. (translation from halakha.com)

This gemara has a broader context that would certainly be worth looking into for anyone interested, but it’s not so important for the purposes of analyzing these two statements, which I will now examine piecemeal.

אמר ליה שמואל לרב יהודה: שיננא, חטוף ואכול חטוף ואישתי,

Samuel further said to Rab Judah, ‘Shinena [commentators indicate this means something like “clever one” ~LM], hurry on[lit. “grab” ~LM] and eat, hurry on and drink,

Shmuel’s statement to his student Rav Yehudah, to take and consume, and quickly, seems to express a hedonistic sentiment that we’re not used to seeing in religious text. The contrast is so stark that several commentators argue that the various forms of hedonistic pleasure that appear in aggadah all refer to learning Torah and performing mitsvot (Meiri, Sefat Emet). Despite this, Rashi is quite clear that the simple, hedonistic, meaning of the gemara is the correct understanding. Interestingly, the Maharsha comments throughout the aggadah, noting how consistently the aggadah reflects themes and ideas found in Sefer Kohelet, if not always as intensely. What makes this particularly interesting is that there is a rabbinic statement in Kohelet Rabbah to the effect that “every time Kohelet discusses food and drink, it is in reality referring to Torah and Mitsvot.”[1] This then suggests that perhaps the approach of the first commentators we mentioned is not so wild after all. Certainly, it shows how the commentators often relate to the Gemara the same way Hazal related to the Biblical text.

What is, to my mind at least, more interesting is the explanation Shmuel invokes for why Rav Yehudah should consume so voraciously.

דעלמא דאזלינן מיניה כהלולא דמי.

since the world from which we must depart is like a wedding feast’.

The most obvious connection between this argument and the instruction to hedonistically consume is the statement that the world we live in is like a celebratory feast. The clear purpose of such a meal is to enjoy it, so the argument based on that would just be “the world is for enjoying yourself, so enjoy yourself.” But there’s more to it than that.

Rashi explains that the “wedding feast” image is meant to convey the rapidity with which our tenure in this world ends. Much as a wedding feast is over in the course of a night, so too we all one day wake up much closer to the ends of our lives than we’re comfortable admitting. This also means that the wedding feast section of the argument is of one cloth with the section of the argument that we had skipped until now.

The first part of Shmuel’s argument is actually in the term he uses to refer to the world we live in, “the world from which we must depart,” or perhaps more literally, “the world from which we are departing.” Our time in this world is measured in sparse seconds that slip through our fingers ever fast the more we try to hold on to them. Our existence is not static; we are inexorably moving toward the ends of our lives, leaving more and more of this life behind us. Taken this way, Shmuel’s argument is strikingly reminiscent of the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger’s idea that existence is “dasein,” a term which literally means “being there.” Heidegger argued that to exist to is be “thrown” into this life without a choice in the matter, and to be inexorably moving towards death. Moreover, human existence in particular is marked by consciousness of this inevitable process. Shmuel may thus be best understood to be saying, “this life is short and fleeting, so make use of it while you can!” Whether you understand that as physical or spiritual pleasure is up to you.[2]

And now to turn to the second section of our aggadah.

אמר ליה רב לרב המנונא: בני, אם יש לך – היטב לך,

Rab said to R. Hamnuna, ‘My son, according to thy ability do good to thyself,

Rav’s instruction to Rav Hamnuna opens, as with Shmuel’s to Rav Yehudah, with a simple and seemingly hedonistic instruction: “according to thy ability do good to thyself.” If you have it, enjoy it. Once again paralleling Shmuel’s statement, Rav then provides a reason for this instruction. His reason, however, differs from Shmuel’s in ways that I think are significant.

שאין בשאול תענוג ואין למות התמהמה.

for there is no enjoyment in she’ol nor will death be long in coming.

In She’ol, an ancient and murky term for the afterlife, there is no enjoyment or physical pleasure. Moreover, not only is there no pleasure after death, but death is fast approaching. Thus it is imperative, Rav seems to argue, to get your pleasure now, while you can. Once again, there are commentators who understand this to refer to the pleasure of Torah and Mitsvot, rather than more hedonistic satisfactions, but Rashi is consistent as to hedonism being the plain sense of the aggadah.

This explanation differs from that of Shmuel in its consciousness of life after death. Shmuel simply argues that this life ends. Being disappears into Non-Being.[3] Rav, in contrast, is arguing that Being continues after death, only qualitatively differently. It is this qualitative difference that motivates his instruction to Rav Hamnuna. Death is coming and She’ol fast on its heels. We leave this life and and move to one without pleasure, spiritual or physical. It is thus incumbent upon us, argues Rav, to seek out this pleasure while we can.

 ואם תאמר אניח לבני – חוק בשאול מי יגיד לך. בני האדם דומים לעשבי השדה, הללו נוצצין והללו נובלין.

And shouldst thou say: “I would leave a portion for my children” — who will tell thee in the grave? The children of man [or more colloquially, “People” ~LM] are like the grasses of the field, some blossom and some fade’.

Perhaps the most immediate, natural, response to “If you have it, enjoy it” might be, “Can’t I share it?” Most particularly, what if a person wants to share what they have with their children, an act that manages to be caring for another person while simultaneously caring for oneself. This could be material wealth, or the knowledge and ability to succeed in Torah and Mitsvot, as per the consistent debate we have seen among commentators.

Rav preempts this response, suggesting that it fails on two counts. First off, it’s all very nice to say that you want to leave behind something for your children. However, Rav argues, what you really care about is their experiencing whatever you left for them, and you will have no way of knowing about it after you have died. Second, when a person leaves something for their children, it is generally with a specific idea in mind of how they want their children to use it, how they want it to affect their children’s lives. But after you have died, says Rav, your children will continue to grow without your supervision, and you will have no way of controlling how they develop. So it is pointless to deny yourself enjoyment, be it spiritual or physical, for this reason.

We have thus seen two distinct but similar reasons provided by sages to pursue some sort of pleasure in this world. Shmuel, whose reason I will call “Non-Being,” focused on the end of Being as we know it. This world is for pleasure and it ends, so you better use it quick. Rav, whose reason I will call “Death,” focused on not the end of this life so much as the beginning of a new way of Being, one which differs significantly from this one. In that existence, in She’ol, there is neither pleasure, nor knowledge of pleasure occurring in this world. And She’ol comes sooner that we expect.

While they differ in their discussion of Being after this life, Death and Non-Being share the same sense of the end of life as a crisis. There is something about this world that ends permanently, that cannot be regained or recalled even in the afterlife. This sense of loss is quite powerful, and moreover is a stark contrast to ideas we may be more used to hearing, such as how suffering in this world is compensated for by reward in the next, and how this world is just an entry-way to the more real existence in the next world. These ideas aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but it is a stark contrast. Other ideas from Hazal that indicate that death is a crisis might be Lo’eg LeRash, the idea that the departed are bothered by their inability to perform mitsvot. This is clearly the same idea as “Death” that we have looked at here, where there is a distinct form of existence after this life, but it is missing a crucial aspect of this life. So too the mishnah in Avot (4:17) which states that one moment of good deeds in this world is better than all of the next, though that also states that one moment of bliss in the next world is better than all of this one, and is thus more complicated.

As with my piece on the subversive aggadah about tefillah in Masekhet Berakhot, I don’t have a specific point I’m getting at with this piece. I just think that it’s an interesting and somewhat surprising viewpoint to find in Hazal, and it’s worth talking about. I would to hear any questions or comments.

 

[1] Sourced in the second chapter of Moshe Halbertal’s “People of the Book,” in a discussion of interpretation and the Principle of Charity.

[2] The ever-scholarly David Nagarpowers has pointed out to me that both historically and content-wise, Epicurus may be a more apt comparison than Heidegger. However, I’ve chosen to stick with Heidegger due to the sense of movement inherent in both Shmuel’s “the world that we are departing from” and Heidegger’s “being-towards-death.”

[3] This isn’t to say that Shmuel denies the existence of the afterlife. It simply does not feature in his argument.