15. The Need for Action

  • Rav Reuven Ziegler
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion


by Rav Ronnie Ziegler

LECTURE #13: The Need for Action


Given Rav Soloveitchik's emphasis on inwardness, which we have explored in the last few lectures, we might well be tempted to ask: why does Judaism require action at all? What is the point of the myriad commandments governing every aspect of our lives? Why not suffice with religious feeling and thought?


Much of lecture #8, dealing with the sanctification of physical existence, dealt with this question. Before offering new answers, let me briefly reiterate some of the conclusions reached there. Judaism wants man to live a full natural life, and the commandments relating to the physical side of his existence force him to involve himself with the natural world. In this manner, he can avoid the temptation of a purely ethereal, otherworldly spirituality, which leads to a dualistic approach of affirming the spirit while rejecting the world.


On the other hand, while Halakha demands involvement in natural life, it also demands that one actively sanctify his physical existence. This is attained through the observance of mitzvot, which affect every facet of one's worldly existence, from the moment he wakes up until the moment he falls asleep. These mitzvot have the effect not just of sanctifying one's personality (e.g. by asserting control over one's physical drives), but of sanctifying his very actions and his physicality. Thus, one does not live a divided existence, but rather infuses all areas of his life with meaning, giving the totality of his existence significance and purpose. The all-encompassing demands of the mitzvot ensure that one will be conscious of God at all times, not just when one is in the synagogue or beit midrash. Serving God by all means at one's disposal, the individual's entire life becomes consecrated to God, offering God an integrated and complete service.


While lecture #8 focused on the concrete ways in which observance of mitzvot sanctifies one's physical existence, I would now like to focus on the dangers inherent in a religious posture which ignores the arena of one's natural worldly existence, concentrating instead on religious feeling and contemplation. I believe that the Rav's objections to such an approach can be grouped under four headings: this form of religiosity is

1) otherworldly;

2) unrealistic;

3) subjective;

4) esoteric and undemocratic.

Let us examine each of these.



According to Rav Soloveitchik, what distinguishes Halakhic Man from the general homo religiosus (religious man) is his attitude to olam ha-zeh (this world, i.e. the physical world, as opposed to the World-to-Come). While homo religiosus seeks to flee the impurity of our mundane world towards a supernal region of pure spirit, Halakhic Man seeks to do precisely the opposite: he attempts to bring the sanctity and purity of the transcendent realm INTO the material world. The existence of Halakhic Man is firmly centered in olam ha-zeh, which he tries to fill with sanctity by realizing the ideals of the Halakha.


Religiosity which does not concern itself with man's physical activities, social interaction, etc., will thereby withdraw from engagement with the outside world and will not be able to sanctify it. It will encourage man to view his physicality with contempt, as a barrier between his soul and its ultimate felicity. Judaism, however, believes that the world is "very good," and frowns upon monasticism. Furthermore, an otherworldly religiosity leads one to adopt a quietistic mystical approach which looks inward while ignoring the reality of others' suffering. Judaism finds this morally repugnant, and instead enjoins man to engage in tikkun ha-olam, mending the world.




Ideally, a strong component of action in one's religiosity will strengthen the internal component; at minimum, it will preserve religiosity at times when the internal component is lacking. In Rav Lichtenstein's words ("R. Joseph Soloveitchik," [=RJS], in S. Noveck, ed., Great Jewish Thinkers of the Twentieth Century, 1963, p. 294):

"With its pervasive psychological realism, Halakha has recognized that ordinary mortals need to be jogged out of their spiritual lethargy, and that unless they are prodded to specific action, many will be quite content to neglect the religious life completely. Habitual observance ingrains moral and religious sensibility into the very fiber of the personality. It strengthens the inner power of spirit and, at a deeper level, human emotion is profoundly affected by the very process of externalization...

"We should keep in mind, however, what we often tend to forget: the most legalistic ritualism is better than no worship whatever; and the individual who, within Halakha, lapses into a formalistic rut, would very likely be bereft of religious awareness completely were he without it. At the very least, ritual establishes a floor for religion; at most, it leads man to the scaling - and holding - of the loftiest spiritual heights."




Rav Soloveitchik believes that it is not only undesirable for man to try to escape his corporeality, but it also is impossible for him to accomplish this. Therefore, any ideology based on the premise that man can become a purely spiritual creature is inherently false and doomed to failure. By focusing solely on man's contemplative-spiritual side, it fails to acknowledge the strength of his inner drives and passions. Seeking to do the impossible - to eliminate or ignore man's physical nature - it lacks the power to do what is necessary, namely, to restrain and channel man's drives and thus use them positively.


If religion does not provide man with an objective framework of action, containing specific divine norms, it will at best be vague and transient, and at worst will lead to the most horrible excesses.

"Religiosity lacking an objective-revelatory foundation, which obligates one in certain actions, cannot conquer the animal in man. Even if it assumes a guise of love of God and man, the subjective faith of which Paul of Tarsus spoke ... cannot endure if it does not contain explicit commands to perform good deeds and to fulfill specific mitzvot... The Holocaust can serve as proof of this. All those who spoke of love stood by silently and did not protest. Many of them even participated in the extermination of millions of human beings."

("U-vikkashtem Mi-sham" [=UVM], pp. 162-3)


Thus, despite the importance of the spiritual and contemplative sides of religion, "Confining religious experience and existence to a purely spiritual framework deprives religion of its splendor and influence" (UVM, p. 162). In addition to its spiritual facet, religion also plays a practical role: "to straighten man's earthly actions and to impose severe authority upon him, which will stand fast in the face of attacks of burning desires, covetous and evil drives" (ibid.). Freedom from the authority of specific norms, and from a sense of coercion in following them, leads to moral anarchy.


Rav Soloveitchik identifies the major feature of the Halakhic process as taking the components of religious subjectivity and quantifying and objectifying them. By making it concrete and specific, religion acquires the strength to affect man's entire life, to withstand the assaults of temptation, to endure regardless of the individual's mood, and to survive from generation to generation. This accounts (in part) for Judaism's attention to detail, its concentration on standards and measures - times of the day (e.g. when to pray, when Shabbat begins), amounts of food and drink (how much wine to drink at Kiddush, how much matza to eat at the Seder), etc. (This is no less true in "ethical" matters as in "ritual" matters - but we will deal with this in the next lecture.) As Rav Soloveitchik memorably puts it:

"The fundamental tendency of the Halakha is to translate the qualitative featuresof religious subjectivity - the content of religious man's consciousness, which surges and swells like the waves of the sea, then pounds against the shores of reality, there to shatter and break - into firm and well-established quantities, 'like nails well fastened' (Kohelet 12:11), that no storm can uproot from their place." (Halakhic Man, p. 57)


Both by emphasizing the necessity of action, and by specifically regulating man's internal states, "The objective halakhic mold ... channels religious feeling into 'the depth, and not the tumult, of the soul'" (RJS, p. 294). In Rav Soloveitchik's words:

"The Halakha wishes to objectify religiosity not only through introducing the external act and the psychophysical deed into the world of religion but also through the structuring and ordering of the inner correlative in the realm of man's spirit. The Halakha sets down statutes and erects markers that serve as a dam against the surging, subjective current coursing through the universal homo religiosus, which, from time to time, in its raging turbulence sweeps away his entire being to obscure and inchoate realms." (Halakhic Man, p. 59)


A final consequence of the Jewish focus on action is noted by Rav Lichtenstein (op. cit.):

"The objective character of the Halakha helps the Jew transcend his own subjective existence. In one sense, the Halakhic way of life serves as a distinctive mark of identification. As a minimal, uniform tradition, it helps weld the organic whole of the community of Israel. Halakha places the Jew's life in a total perspective: he can see his isolated efforts as part of Israel's timeless and universal enterprise..."




A purely internal religiosity based on a deep feeling of the sublime, or a purely intellectual religiosity based on serene contemplation, is by its very definition confined to a small elite of particularly gifted individuals. The average person is incapable of attaining the requisite state of mind, depth of experience and detachment from materialism. By emphasizing the centrality of clear-cut action, which can be accomplished by anyone, Judaism maintains a democratic and exoteric character. The Torah is the inheritance of ALL of Israel, not just a clique of spiritual adepts. One does not need to be privy to secret knowledge or mystical techniques in order to fulfill God's commandments. The simplest and most obtuse individual can observe the mitzvot to the same extent as the spiritual genius - both eat matza on Pesach, honor their parents, are bound by the same restrictions, etc.


Thus, all individuals are equally able to approach God. A religion lacking this common basis of connection to God

"gives rise to ecclesiastical tyranny, religious aristocracies, and charismatic personalities. And there is nothing that the Halakha loathes and despises as much as the idea of cultic mediation or the choosing of individuals, on the basis of supernatural considerations, to be intercessors for the community." (Halakhic Man, p. 43)


Of course, there are areas of Halakha where individuals of differing talents will achieve different levels. Returning to our distinction between chovot ha-evarim (duties of the limbs), chovot ha-levavot (duties of the heart), and mitzvot which are performed externally (ma'aseh be-yadayim) but fulfilled internally (kiyyum ba-lev), the area of differential achievement would refer primarily to the latter two categories. For example, the level of one's love of God (a duty of the heart) or prayer (an external performance with an internal fulfillment) depends on his emotional depth and spiritual capacity. To take another example, through hard work and innate ability, one person may reach greater heights in his Torah study than another will.


This is as it should be. Halakha must give a person the ability to express his individuality in his service of God, and must allow him the opportunity to strive for ever greater heights in his worship. However, the strong component of action in Jewish religiosity, emphasizing the simple ma'aseh ha-mitzva (performance of the commandment), maintains the underlying basis of equality of individuals.




In exploring the Rav's concept of catharsis, we began by examining the catharsis of the body (lecture #8). Our subsequent discussion of catharsis of the emotions (lecture #9) led us to explore the Rav's emphasis on inwardness (lecture #10), which we rounded out by studying the crucial roles of thought (lecture #12) and action (lecture #13). Having examined the interplay of thought, feeling and action, we will complete the topic of catharsis in the next lecture with a presentation of catharsis of the intellect and of the religious experience. After that, we will finally begin our study of "The Lonely Man of Faith."



1. Halakha as quantification of religious subjectivity: Halakhic Man, chapter 9.

 2. Esotericism and exotericism: Halakhic Man, chapter 8; UVM, chapter 7, sections E & F.


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