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.