16. Catharsis of the Intellect and of the Religious Experience

  • Rav Reuven Ziegler
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion


by Rav Ronnie Ziegler

LECTURE #14: Catharsis of the Intellect

and of the Religious Experience


Rav Soloveitchik's discussion of the critical concept of catharsis - the purification of man's personality and existence - relates to four areas of human experience: the aesthetic-physical, emotional, intellectual, and moral-religious. In the past several lectures, we examined the first two of these, as well as related issues which they engendered. This week, we will close our discussion of the theme of catharsis with an examination of the last two of these categories: the purification of the intellectual and the religious realms.



     "Judaism has insisted upon the redeeming of the logos and maintained that there is an unredeemed cognitive gesture just as there is an unredeemed carnal drive." (p. 50)


The Rav does not mean by this that we should reject knowledge or withdraw from certain fields of inquiry. On the contrary, we must fearlessly seek the truth and must pursue this task in as precise a manner as possible. Rather, "the catharsis of knowledge refers to something which takes place not within the formal logical realm, but within the experiential" (ibid.).


Here we again encounter an important theme in the Rav's writing: the experience of knowing. (See lecture #12 regarding the experiential aspect of Torah study.) Clearly, this is a powerful feeling for Rav Soloveitchik:

"Knowing is not an impersonal performance which can be computerized, emptied of its rich, colorful, experiential content. It is, instead, an integral part of the knower as a living person... Next to the religious experience, knowledge is perhaps the most vibrant and resonant personal experience. It sweeps the whole of the personality, sometimes like a gentle wave infusing the knower with a sense of tranquillity and serenity; at other times like a mighty onrushing tide, arousing the soul to its depth and raising it to a pitch of ecstasy." (ibid.)


If man feels that he can master everything through his intellect, then his cognitive gesture is arrogant and unredeemed. Although his information may be accurate, his experience of knowledge is defective, misleading and even damaging.


In the scientific realm, cognitive catharsis implies recognizing the ultimate mystery of being. This has two expressions. To begin with, we must recognize that every problem we solve engenders a more complex and inclusive problem than the first. (This situation, while true of all scientific systems, takes on added significance in light of the indeterminacy principle, chaos theory, etc. While in university, Rav Soloveitchik studied physics and mathematics [in addition to philosophy] and was well-versed in early quantum theory, as is evident to anyone who reads "The Halakhic Mind." Throughout his life, he tried to keep abreast of developments in physics.)


Furthermore, once a certain phenomenon has been assigned a scientific explanation, this does not imply that there is nothing more to be said about it. According to a theory of science subscribed to by the Rav, modern science merely creates an abstract mathematical world which parallels the functioning of nature. This quantitative correlate is useful as far as technology is concerned, but it operates on a wholly different plane than the qualitative world experienced by us. We experience not a world of abstract quantities, but rather one of living qualities, of impressions and sensations. An equation describing the flight of a bird or the wavelength of a red flower cannot elucidate the great mystery of qualitative being, in which we live our lives and to which we react with awe and wonder. [We will explore this theory of science further when studying "Ma Dodekh Mi-dod," where the Rav invokes it to describe the activity of the halakhist.]


The second admission that catharsis requires of the scientist (or the philosopher) is that "the moral law can never be legislated in ultimate terms by the human mind" (p. 52). We have already encountered this theme in "Majesty and Humility" (see lecture #6). Modern man, in his unredeemed majesty, is engaged in such an attempt, "which demonstrates pride and arrogance, and is doomed to failure." Although the Rav probably had in mind Marxism and similar pseudo-scientific systems of ethics, his stricture applies equally to any system which intends to supplant (rather than elaborate) the Divine law.


Thus, similar to the dichotomy of gadlut ha-mochin and katnut ha-mochin (intellectual greatness and humble simplicity) in man's relation to Torah (see lecture #10), the quest for knowledge in general must be marked by both daring advance and humble submission. By acknowledging his limitations, man introduces a measure of humility into his intellectual experience and thereby redeems it.




Before moving to the final form of catharsis, it is important to note a common feature of the previous three types of catharsis (those of the aesthetic, emotional, and intellectual realms). Since Rav Soloveitchik's discussion focuses on the need for retreat, it is easy to overlook the fact that the Divine demand for withdrawal appears against the background of a Divine mandate to advance. The latter is no less novel than the former. Judaism does not discourage involvement in the "real" world, but, instead, promotes bodily existence, emotional engagement, intellectual endeavor, etc. The Halakha is not otherworldly, apathetic, or obscurantist; rather, it demands that one employ all the powers at his disposal within an overall framework of avodat Hashem (service of God) - and this is expressed both in advance and in retreat. God wants man to be fully human, not angelic; but in order to attain his human potential, to realize his destiny, he must live his life as a servant of God. With this awareness, his worldly involvement will avoid becoming self-serving and egocentric. One's "advance," and not just his "retreat," will thereby express devotion to God.


Dialectic, complexity, plurality of demands - these are the fundamental difficulties in studying and teaching the Rav; but they are also his greatness. People are often looking for simple, monochromatic answers to the great questions of life. In his unflinching honesty, the Rav cannot provide these, for he does not believe they exist. In his eyes, man contains conflicting tendencies, God sets forth multiple demands, and the world must be perceived under differing aspects.


The complexity of Rav Soloveitchik's views leads to differing emphases in his various writings and addresses. To an audience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (where "Catharsis" was originally delivered as a lecture), the Rav emphasized the importance of retreat and the heroism of withdrawal; to a more insular and traditionalist audience, he would have stressed the religious requirement of engagement in the cultural and technological arenas. Therefore, the need for a balanced reading of the Rav's writings is paramount. Problems arise when people undertake the opposite process: through a selective reading of the Rav, they pick out those themes congenial to them, and ignore the rest. Although such selective readings frequently result from someone's personal or communal agenda, they can also be innocent and unintentional. Part of the Rav's greatness is that he touches a chord in the hearts of many readers; while grasping an insight which resonates deep within us, we must not allow it to blind us to other strains in the Rav's oeuvre.




In our day, the religious Jewish community concentrates most of its energies simply on the struggle to maintain observance. But by focusing mainly on the QUANTITY of observance (the largest number of people keeping the largest number of mitzvot), we lose sight of the QUALITY of obs. The Rav opens our eyes to a crucial dimension of religious life: the need for humility, especially concerning the religious gesture.

"There is an unredeemed moral and religious experience, just as there is an unredeemed body and an unredeemed logos. Let us be candid: if one has not redeemed his religious life, he may become self-righteous, insensitive, or even destructive. The story of the Crusades, the Inquisition and other outbursts of religious fanaticism bear out this thesis." (p. 52)


Of course, there are less dramatic expressions of unredeemed religiosity than the Crusades. In our own lives, we must cultivate a sense of our own imperfection in order to avoid the pitfalls of religious arrogance.

"Perfect man has never been created. If a man is not conscious of the contradiction inherent in the very core of his personality, he lives in a world of illusion and leads an unredeemed existence. It matters not what we call such a complacent state of mind - self-righteousness, pride, haughtiness, stupidity - it is all a manifestation of a brutish and raw state of mind." (p. 54)


Because of man's limitations and weaknesses, his religious life takes a zig-zag course, marked by ascent and descent, closeness to God and distance from Him. (This forward-backward movement, which is so central to religious life, is the theme of what is perhaps the Rav's most significant philosophical work, "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham.") Anyone who imagines that he experiences no falls is only fooling himself and impeding his personal development. (He will also quite often be insufferable and even dangerous to other people.) In fact, the descent frequently enables one to ascend even higher than before. In our context, this cathartic descent is identical with an awareness of sin and of God's distance. Thus, in a striking turn, the Rav identifies teshuva (repentance) as true catharsis, and viddui (confession of sins to God) as the ultimate cathartic act.


We can say that, for the Rav, everyone must be a ba'al teshuva (penitent). "Great is not the man who has never faltered but the man who tripped, fell and rose again to greater heights" (p. 54). The Rav explains the dynamics of this process in his teshuva discourses (see For Further Reference, #4). One type of teshuva is attained by a person erasing his sinful past and returning to his starting point. However, an even greater form of teshuva can be attained by utilizing the negative energy of the past and converting it to a positive direction (as the Rav puts it, "changing the vectorial force of sin, its direction and destination").


The power of the latter form of teshuva is based upon two factors.

A) The dynamism of sin: Because of the powerful drives which lead one to sin, a person may discover while sinning that he possesses reserves of energy and stubbornness previously unknown to him. In the process of teshuva, this newfound energy can be used to propel him to even greater heights than before.

B) The intensity of longing: When a person realizes how low sin has led him to sink, it awakens in him a painful longing for a past state of relative wholeness and closeness to God. While experiencing God's nearness and a sense of personal wholeness, a person can become complacent and cease to aspire to further ascent. However, when one loses this sense, when he feels distant, forlorn and tarnished, he begins to appreciate the value of what he has lost. (In a similar vein, the Rav would often say in eulogies that we can appreciate what a person meant to us only when he is no longer present.) This sense of contrast can become a springboard for spiritual ascent, thereby turning a sin into a powerful source of religious growth.


In an early memorial lecture for his father (1945, later printed as "Sacred and Profane"), Rav Soloveitchik connected these two forms of teshuva to the ideas of acquittal and purification (kappara and tahara). Acquittal means that, although God "owes" one a punishment for his sin, God is willing to erase the "debt" due to the sinner's sincere remorse. However, despite the fact that punishment no longer hangs over one's head, the spiritual pollution of sin has not been cleansed. This is attained by means of purification, which is not a supernatural process of forgiveness but rather a psychological remaking of one's personality. It entails not just regretting a sin, but leaving the entire "path of sin;" it necessitates soul-searching and redirection of energies. Acquittal parallels the teshuva of erasing sin; purification parallels the teshuva of elevating sin.


[In later discourses, included in "On Repentance," the Rav expanded upon these two sets of ideas and treated them separately. The key to linking them is found in the earlier essay. I urge readers to see these penetrating and inspiring teshuva discourses in full, as I cannot possibly do justice to them in a few paragraphs.]


The idea of the repentance of purification (tahara) brings us full circle, for what is catharsis if not purification? One offers up to God his mundane existence, his daily activities and self-awareness, and then receives these back in a purified and sanctified form. In the religious realm, a person's awareness of his own fallibility cleanses him of self-righteous intolerance; moreover, his recognition of his own sinfulness and distance from God brings him rushing back into God's arms. By performing an accurate and exacting self-assessment, he allows himself to grow in new directions. Although in other realms the Rav talks about how defeat is built into the structure of victory (since there is no full victory for finite man), in the religious realm we can say that victory is built into the structure of defeat. The recognition of defeat, of one's sinfulness, is itself a victory that brings one closer to God.


In truth, however, the statement that defeat is built into the structure of victory requires modification. The idea that the servant of God can never completely attain his own desires, that total commitment to God necessarily entails defeat of one's personal wishes, is true only at lower levels of the religious consciousness. At the very highest level of religious development, man overcomes the dichotomy between externally-imposed divine law and human freedom and creativity. "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham" describes the long path to this goal; we will examine it in future shiurim.



1. The Role of the Intellect: "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham," pp. 204-207, 215-217.

2. Ethics in the Rav's Thought: see Rav Shalom Carmy, "Pluralism and the Category of the Ethical," Tradition 30:4 (Summer 1996), pp. 145-163; Rav Walter Wurzburger, "The Maimonidean Matrix of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik's Two-Tiered Ethics," in Through the Sound of Many Voices, ed. J. Plaut (Toronto, 1982), pp. 172-183.

3. The Danger of Unredeemed Religiosity: "Sacred and Profane," in Shiurei Harav, esp. p. 8.

4. Using Sin in the Process of Teshuva: On Repentance (essays entitled "Acquittal and Purification" and "Blotting Out Sin or Elevating It"); "Sacred and Profane," esp. pp. 25-31. See also Rav Yitzchak Blau, "Creative Repentance," Tradition 28:2 (1993), pp. 11-18.

5. Religious Tolerance: see the Netziv's classic introduction to Sefer Bereishit at the beginning of his Torah commentary "Ha'amek Davar."


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