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…

No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 4: Axioms and Subjectivity

No Fear Biblical Criticism – Part 4

Axioms and Subjectivity

(For those just joining us, here are Parts One, Two, and Three)

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about the intersection of Biblical Criticism and religious thought is that they have fundamentally different ways of thinking about and approaching the Tanakh. This isn’t a matter of proofs or faith, simply of axioms. An axiom is a starting point for a line of reasoning, one that is not proven, but simply accepted. Most axioms are understood to be self-evident, but that does not have to be the case. Sometimes, an axiom that some find to be self-evident can be disagreed with by others, without either side actually being able to prove their axiom more correct. Such is the case when it comes to Biblical Criticism, as I will attempt to demonstrate in brief.

The first and most important axiom to appreciate regarding Biblical Criticism is the Non-Existence of Prophecy[1]. This is in direct contrast to the basic assumption of most religions, certainly of Orthodox Judaism, that ‘א communicates His Will to man. This is important to realize because it enables proper understanding of things like the Documentary Hypothesis. The Documentary Hypothesis was never meant to prove that the Torah is not Divine. Rather it started with that assumption, with the knowledge that the text was human, and based its approach on that. It is true that Source Critics at no point ran into anything that made them stop and consider that the text might be Divine, but that was also never really an option. Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, tend to start with the belief that the Torah is Divine, or at least that such a thing is possible. Therefore when looking at the text Bible Critics and Orthodox Jews are more or less guaranteed to see different things, simply due to their underlying assumptions.

A second important axiomatic difference to appreciate is the understanding of Context[2]. Everyone agrees that ideas must be understood in their proper contexts, including Tanakh. However, the Academic and Traditional[3] approaches to the text differ in terms of what context they put the Tanakh in. The academic approach understands all things in terms of their Historical context. Israelite society and the Tanakh are put in terms of other Ancient Near Eastern civilizations and their literatures, both sacred and secular[4]. Such comparisons can be both helpful and misleading (This will be discussed further in a later segment on Archaeology and Patternism). The traditional approach sees Tanakh, and all of our sacred texts, in light of the Jewish Tradition. This is most obviously true in terms of Halakhah, which gets decided based on the various texts of the Jewish Tradition, but it is also true for Tanakh. Even where they are not decisive, midrashim and later commentaries are taken into account by the Traditional scholar when reading Tanakh[5].  Thus the traditional scholar and the academic will see the text of Tanakh in very different lights.

Having said that, it’s worth taking a look at the historical context of Biblical Criticism, at least at its origins. Biblical Criticism, and the Documentary Hypothesis in particular, sprouted up in the latter half of the 19th century[6]. This had a lot of ramification in terms of the way Critics treated Tanakh like other literature of the time, without proper understanding of Israelite Society, but its greatest effects on Biblical Criticism came from the Scientific and Religious atmospheres of the time.

The triumphs of evolutionism in natural science have made it a hallmark of intellectual modernity. Over against the essentially medieval unconcern (and unawareness) of history, so characteristic of theological exegesis, current critical exegesis opposes its perspective, developmental view of the text as its chief qualification for intellectual respectability in our time. Hence any proposal of literary development is better than none–better in that it demonstrates sophistication, that is, advance beyond medieval dogmatic prejudices and naiveté. (M. Greenberg, The Vision of Jerusalem in Ezekiel 8-11, pg.147-8)

Once science discovered the idea that nature and life had evolved over time, that idea spread like wildfire through the consciousness of the time, pervading all discussions. Everything had to have developed over time. In many, many, arenas this proved to be an excellent method, but it’s important to note that, as opposed to in the natural sciences, it was something external that was imposed onto whatever was studied, rather than something internal discovered through study. When it come to the text of Tanakh, some minor development over time is self-evident, letters and words and the like[7], but there is no obvious and self-evident evidence of a slow and steady evolution from a core text, or texts, to what we have today.

A second need for the historical-analogic method arises from the situation of the Christian faith community which is its matrix. First, that community must justify its retention of the Old Testament alongside the New, and does so by showing that light is shed upon the New by viewing the Old as a series of steps leading up to it. The more fully this can be worked out, the greater the value set on the Old Testament. Second (though less articulated), that community, though buffeted by change and modernity, affirms the validity of its ancient Scripture in the present. This affirmation is accomplished by showing that the biblical text itself incorporates a record of reinterpretation, adjustment to change and supplementation by later hands. Given the community’s overriding need for validating constant reinterpretation, any proposal that roots that process in the biblical text itself will have bias in its favor. (Ibid, pg.148)

Ironically, much of the challenge to Divine Unity of the Torah came not from secularist but from religious individuals. Julius Wellhausen, father of the Documentary Hypothesis, was a Professor of Theology who retired upon realizing that instead of preparing his students to join the clergy he was disqualifying them from that role[8]. Christianity needed Tanakh to have developed over time and to have been subject to constant reinterpretation, something Source Criticism confirmed with gusto. Thus the Documentary Hypothesis was accepted much more readily than it would have been otherwise. Thankfully, Biblical Criticism has moved away from these harmful mindsets, particularly with the rise of both Literary Criticism and the number of Jewish Academic Scholars in the second half of the 20th century.

At this point it’s worth taking a minute to point out something that has plagued Biblical Criticism from the start, namely, Subjectivity. Biblical Criticism is by its very nature an incredibly subjective field.

The book of Micah itself structurally alternates three prophecies of doom with three prophecies of restoration or hope…These restoration passages may seem a little out of keeping or out of step with the scathing denunciations or condemnations of Judah in the other parts of Micah’s prophecy, and so some scholars have suggested that…these must be interpolations by a later editor…But this is always a very difficult case or issue, because we know that the prophetic writings do fluctuate wildly between denunciation and consolation. So I think that a shift in theme alone is not ever a certain basis for assuming interpolation — outright contradiction perhaps — but a shift in theme or tone is never a solid basis for assuming interpolation. (Prof. Christine Hayes, from the transcript of Lecture 18 of the Yale Open University’s RLST 145: INTRODUCTION TO THE OLD TESTAMENT)

All textual analysis, regardless of what the text is or who is reading it, suffers from the subjectivity of the interpreter. It’s unavoidable. However, it is particularly prevalent in Biblical Criticism where so little is known about the historical nature of the text under discussion, and so any conception of what it “should look like” originally has to be incredibly speculative. This does not mean that all or any of Bible Critics’ conclusion are necessarily wrong, but it does indicate that we should look at their conclusions with a healthy degree of skepticism.

(The rest of this series is being hosted at dafaleph.com. Onward to Part Five.)

 

[1] For more on this, see this excellent lecture by Rabbi Jeremy Wieder.

[2] An excellent discussion of this idea by Rav Natan Slifkin can be found here.

[3] I switch here from the terms “Religious” and “Orthodox” that I have been using to the term “Traditional” as this is one area where even the religious may often make use of the Academic approach.

[4] This simple point is often missed by Rabbis who ridicule Biblical Criticism for not taking Midrashim into account. For one such example, see here.

[5] For more on this, see Rabbi Hayyim Angel’s lecture on contradictions between laws from Sefer Devarim and narratives from later in Tanakh, downloadable here. Pay particular attention to his discussion of “Halakhic Man” vs. “Tanakhic Man”.

[6] The ideas in this paragraph come a fuller and truly excellent discussion by Moshe Greenberg at the beginning of this article.

[7] For more on this, see our discussion of Lower Criticism, here.

[8] From his letter of resignation (quotation available here), cited in Robert J. Oden Jr.,”The Bible Without Theology”, Harper and Row, 1987.