17. "The Lonely Man of Faith" Part 1 - Presenting the Problem

  • Rav Reuven Ziegler
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion


by Rav Ronnie Ziegler

LECTURE #15: "The Lonely Man of Faith"

Part 1 - Presenting the Problem


In this penetrating and original work, Rav Soloveitchik tackles a number of major issues, the central ones being: A) man's dual role in the world, and B) the possibility of religious existence in modern, largely secular society. Along the way, he offers startling insights on a host of other topics. Some of these ideas develop themes we have already encountered in his other writings; here he places them into broader perspective. Other ideas will be familiar to those who have read "Halakhic Man" and especially "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham." In this sense, "The Lonely Man of Faith" occupies a central place in the Rav's writings and can be regarded as an overture to his entire oeuvre.


Instead of focusing on strands of his thought which appear here and tracing their development, I will attempt in the coming lectures to bring into sharp focus this essay's central line of argument. The essay's rich range of ideas makes reading it a challenging and exhilarating endeavor, but at the same time it often serves to obscure the main point. As we will see below, "The Lonely Man of Faith" is finely crafted, with a clear structure and progression of ideas. In today's lecture, I would like to examine closely the Rav's introductory comments, where he delineates both the goal and the method of this work. Once we understand how the Rav himself defines the issue he wishes to address, we will use this understanding to guide our reading of the rest of the essay, and at the end we will return to see how he answers the questions he poses at the beginning.


[Note: I will refer to "The Lonely Man of Faith" interchangeably as an essay and as a book, since it was originally published in essay form in the journal Tradition (Summer 1965) and subsequently in book form (Doubleday, 1992; Aronson, 1996 - the Aronson edition is merely an offprint of the Doubleday edition). Page and chapter references will follow the Doubleday-Aronson version because these printings are much more readily available than the original issue of Tradition.]




Let me start by doing something unpardonable: trying to sum up the main argument of "The Lonely Man of Faith" in a few short paragraphs. Although this will perforce be inadequate and oversimplified, I think it will aid us greatly in understanding the Rav's characterization of the essay in its opening section. (If this summary is enigmatic, fear not; we will later examine these ideas at length.)


Rav Soloveitchik proposes that the two accounts of the creation of man (in chapters 1 and 2 of Bereishit) portray two types of man, two human ideals. In their approaches to God, the world and the self, these roughly parallel the two personae we examined in "Majesty and Humility" (lectures #5 and #6). The first, whom we will term Adam I, is guided by the quest for dignity, which is a surface social quality attained by control over one's environment. He is a creative and majestic personality who espouses a practical-utilitarian approach to the world. Adam II, on the other hand, is guided by the quest for redemption, which is a quality of the depth personality attained by control over oneself. He is humble and submissive, and yearns for an intimate relationship with God and with his fellow man in order to overcome his sense of incompleteness and inadequacy. These differences carry over to the type of community each one creates: the "natural work community" (Adam I) and the "covenantal faith community" (Adam II).


God not only desires the existence of each of these personality types and each of these communities, but actually bids each and every one of us to attempt to embody both of these seemingly irreconcilable types within ourselves. We must attempt to pursue both dignity and redemption. The demand to be both Adam I and Adam II leads to a built-in tension in the life of each person responsive to this call; and because one lives with a constant dialectic, a continual oscillation between two modes of existence, one can never fully realize the goals of either Adam I or Adam II. Unable to feel totally at home in either community, man is burdened by loneliness. Since this type of loneliness is inherent to one's very being as a religious individual, the Rav terms it "ontological loneliness" (ontological = relating to existence). In a sense, this kind of loneliness is tragic; but since it is willed by God, it helps guide man to realize his destiny and is ultimately a positive and constructive experience.


The contemporary man of faith, however, experiences a particular kind of loneliness due to his historical circumstances, and this "historical loneliness" is a purely negative phenomenon. Modern man, pursuant to his great success in the realm of majesty-dignity, recognizes only the Adam I side of existence, and refuses to acknowledge the inherent duality of his being. Contemporary society speaks the language of Adam I, of cultural achievement, and is unable or unwilling to understand the language of Adam II, of the uniqueness and autonomy of faith. Worse, contemporary Adam I has infiltrated and appropriated the realm of Adam II; he presents himself as Adam II, while actually distorting covenantal man's entire message.


The details of this analysis, as well as possible courses of action in light of it, will occupy us in the next several lectures.




We are now in a position to understand the Rav's description of the nature of "The Lonely Man of Faith" in its opening paragraphs. Firstly, from the very title, it is evident that the essay's message is universal. "The Lonely Man of Faith" refers to any religious faith, not just to Judaism. The dilemma of faith in the modern world applies equally to all religions (or at least to Western religions, which were the Rav's concern; he had little interest in Eastern religion). It should also be noted that the essay addresses men and women equally; nowhere here does the Rav distinguish between them. The word "man" in the title should therefore be understood as "person." The essay's universalistic bent is further expressed in the choice of the text which stands at its center: the story of the creation of Adam and Eve, the parents of ALL mankind. Significantly, references to Judaism and Jewish sources appear almost exclusively in the footnotes. Finally, it is worth mentioning that the essay originated in a series of lectures sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health, delivered before an audience comprised of both Jews and non-Jews.




In the essay's opening sentence, Rav Soloveitchik informs us that he will not address the intellectual challenges which modernity poses to faith, but rather something much more basic: the challenge which modernity poses to the EXPERIENCE of faith. He will focus on "a human life situation in which the man of faith as an individual concrete being ... is entangled" (p.1). In this sense, the essay is not a work of abstract theology but rather "a tale of a personal dilemma," whose power derives from the fact that it is based on "actual situations and experiences with which I have been confronted" (ibid.). In a striking characterization, unparalleled in other classic works of Jewish thought, the Rav concludes:

"Instead of talking theology, in the didactic sense, eloquently and in balanced sentences, I would like, hesitatingly 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." (pp.1-2)


Furthermore, he confesses, he does not have a solution to the problem he will pose, "for the dilemma is insoluble" (p.8). Why, then, does he bother to present the problem at all? He offers two reasons:

1. "All I want is to follow the advice given byElihu the son of Berachel of old who said, 'I will speak that I may find relief;' for there is a redemptive quality for an agitated mind in the spoken word and a tormented soul finds peace in confessing" (p.2).

2. "...[T]he defining itself [of the dilemma] is a worthwhile cognitive gesture which, I hope, will yield a better understanding of ourselves and our commitment" (p.8).

 Why is the dilemma insoluble? Let us first consider the Rav's definition of the dilemma, and then we will return to this question.



     "The nature of the dilemma can be stated in a three-word sentence. I am lonely." (p.3)

Here we must distinguish between being alone and being lonely. Aloneness means lacking love and friendship; this is an entirely destructive feeling. Loneliness, on the other hand, is an awareness of one's uniqueness, and to be unique often means to be misunderstood. A lonely person, while surrounded by friends, feels that his unique and incommunicable experiences separate him from them. This fills him with a gnawing sense of the seemingly insurmountable gap which prevents true communion between individuals. While painful, this experience can also be "stimulating" and "cathartic," since it "presses everything in me into the service of God," the Lonely One, who truly understands me.


As mentioned above, loneliness - the sense of the uniqueness and incommunicablility of one's inner life - can have two causes: ontological and historical. These two forms of loneliness, while stemming from the same basic dichotomy in the human personality, are experienced differently and must be addressed separately.




The ontological loneliness of the man of faith derives from the very nature of his religious experience. In a phrase that may seem surprising at first, the Rav characterizes this experience as "fraught with inner conflicts and incongruities;" he also calls it "antinomic" and "paradoxical" (p.2). ("Antinomic" means contradictory, or rather self-contradictory in our context. This is not to be confused with "antinomian," which denotes refusal to recognize the authority of moral law. While the Rav loved a good antinomy, he hated antinomianism, which espoused rejection of Halakha.)


This description of the religious experience initially strikes us as odd because modern man often equates religious belief with tranquility and peace of mind. However, bearing in mind the summary of the Rav's argument at the beginning of this lecture, it should be clear why Rav Soloveitchik totally disagrees with this approach. In his view, God demands of man to live in two seemingly incompatible modes of existence - that of Adam I and that of Adam II. Thus, one who heeds God's dual demand lives a life full of dialectical tension.




However, it is important to understand that this tension does not derive only from the requirement to be both Adam I and Adam II, but is inherent within Adam II himself, within "Religious Man" and the religious realm proper. Religious man himself, and not only the compound persona of majestic and religious man, is an antithetical character. He constantly grapples with dichotomous concepts and experiences located at the heart of religious existence: "temporality and eternity, [divine] knowledge and [human] choice (necessity and freedom), love and fear (the yearning for God and the flight from His glorious splendor), incredible, overbold daring and an extreme sense of humility, transcendence and God's closeness, the profane and the holy, etc." (Halakhic Man, p.142).


Many contemporary popularizers of religion portray faith as offering ready comfort and easy inner harmony to believers, providing a refuge from the discord, doubts, fears and responsibilities of the secular realm. From his earliest writings until his latest, Rav Soloveitchik took umbrage with this shallow and false ideology, which he found to be particularly prevalent in America. Religion does not provide believers with instant tranquility, but rather forces them to confront uncomfortable dichotomies; it is "a raging, clamorous torrent of man's consciousness with all its crises, pangs, and torments" (ibid.). Religion is not less demanding than secularity, but rather more so. It does not offer an escape from reality, but rather provides the ultimate encounter with reality. It suggests no quick fixes, but rather demands constant struggle in order to attain spiritual growth. As the Rav so memorably put it, "Kedusha (sanctity) is not a paradise but a paradox" ("Sacred and Profane," p.8; see also "For Further Reference" below, #1.)




Thus far we have discussed the ontological loneliness of the man of faith, the crises and tensions inherent in religious existence. However, Rav Soloveitchik informs us that in this essay his "prime concern" is not ontological loneliness but rather the man of faith's experience of historical loneliness, in which "a highly sensitized and agitated heart, overwhelmed by the impact of social and cultural forces, filters this root awareness [of ontological loneliness] through the medium of painful, frustrating emotions" (p.6). Rav Soloveitchik does not wish to focus on a general, timeless theological issue, but instead to address the predicament of the CONTEMPORARY man of faith who, "due to his peculiar position in our secular society ... lives through a particularly difficult and agonizing crisis" (p.6). A sharp and prescient social critic, Rav Soloveitchik is here keenly sensitive to the changes society has undergone and for the need to reassess the role of the man of religion within it.


"Let me spell out this passional experience of contemporary man of faith [passional = expressing suffering].

"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 reality. 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 ... - 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?" (pp.6-7)


The Rav is certainly not anti-intellectual or opposed to technological advances (see, e.g., lecture #14). What he is asserting here is the autonomy of faith. Our society speaks in pragmatic and utilitarian terms, and expects religion to justify itself in these categories. But the value of religion, the Rav believes, is independent of its practical utility, its usefulness in helping man attain dignity and majesty. Rather, faith is a response to a divine summons, a call to submit ourselves to God. Its meaning and value far exceed justification by the human intellect. However, pragmatic modern man - whether secular or religious - works only with categories of the intellect, not realizing their limited purview. The danger, then, is not just that secularists have ceased to understand the man of faith; it is that adherents of religion have ceased to understand themselves.


We can now appreciate the true import of the concluding sentences of the Rav's introduction:

"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." (p.9)


The Rav is not being coy or diffident here. Rather, as Rav Jonathan Sacks points out (see Reference section, #2), this is "an expression characteristic of the man of faith in the modern world. He no longer speaks the shared language of society. ... How then is he to communicate? Simply by speaking out of hiinner situation and hoping to find an echoing response in his audience." Thus, the man of faith's uncertainty about his ability to communicate lies at the very heart of his problem.




Returning now to our question of why the dilemma this essay poses is insoluble, we must offer a dual response.

A) In terms of ontological loneliness, the answer should be clear. An essential dichotomy is woven into the very fabric of the religious experience. As such, this basic dialectic is not subject to "solutions;" it is part of the definition of religious existence.

B) There is no a priori reason why there should not be a solution to the problem of historical loneliness. This feeling does not stem from any inherent qualities or basic definitions of religiosity. Rather, it is the product of the confrontation of the man of faith with specific historical and cultural circumstances. Therefore, as you read the essay, keep in mind the following questions: what are the possible solutions to this problem? Is it perhaps insoluble? Even if the problem admits of no solution, one must still respond to it somehow. What course of action does the Rav advocate? We shall return to consider these questions when we reach the end of the book.




To assist you in following the Rav's argument, I would like to end by presenting two outlines of the book, one briefly presenting its overall structure and the other detailing the contents of each chapter.


[Note that I follow the chapter numbering in the Doubleday-Aronson edition. While the original Tradition 1965 edition counts the introduction as Chapter 1, the Doubleday edition does not number it. Therefore, Chapter 1 in the Doubleday edition is Chapter 2 in the Tradition version, etc.

However, although the Doubleday-Aronson edition does away with sub-chapter headings, e.g. 8.A, 8.B, etc., I will retain these in order to clarify the internal structure of chapters. These sub-chapter divisions are indicated in the Doubleday-Aronson edition by a blank line between paragraphs.]



Intro - I.A The problem

I.B Biblical framework

I.C - II, IV.A Contrasts between A1 & A2

III, IV.B-VII Contrasts between communities formed by A1&A2

XIII Ontological loneliness

IX Historical loneliness

IX.D, X Conclusion(s)




I. The Issue: Loneliness

A. Ontological and historical loneliness

B. The biblical framework: Genesis 1 and 2

C-D. Adam 1

II. Contrasts between Adam 1 and Adam 2

III. Adam 1's community (natural work community)

IV. A. Dignity vs. redemption (more on A1 vs. A2)

B-C. Adam 2's community (covenantal faith community)

V. God as a member of the Adam 2 community

VI. The cosmic encounter with God

VII. Prayer and prophecy communities (A2)

VIII. Ontological loneliness - A1/A2 oscillation

A. Man's tragic destiny; the role of Halakha

B. Man must be both A1 and A2

C. Complete redemption is impossible

IX. Historical loneliness

A. Contemporary dilemma

B. Religion of Adam 1

C. Autonomy of faith (Adam 2)

D. Implications of A-C (conclusion #1)

X. Conclusion (#2)



 1. Religion is No Escape from Struggle: Although this theme occupies the Rav in many of his writings, his two classic treatments of it are found in "Sacred and Profane" (reprinted in Shiurei Harav [Ktav, 1994]) and footnote 4 of Halakhic Man (JPS, 1983). This footnote is a small jewel of an essay in its own right.

2. Rabbi Sacks' excellent essay on "The Lonely Man of Faith," as well as several other essays on the Rav, are found in his book Tradition in an Untraditional Age (London: Valentine, 1990). The quotation is from page 41.


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