21. "The Lonely Man of Faith" (Continuation) Part 4 - A Perpetual Dialectic

  • Rav Reuven Ziegler
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion


by Rav Ronnie Ziegler

 LECTURE #18b: "The Lonely Man of Faith" (Continuation)

Part 4 - A Perpetual Dialectic


(Continuation of lecture 18a.)



At the end of his book The Halakhic Mind, Rav Soloveitchik has the harshest words for Rambam's attempt at formulating a teleology of Halakha. ("Teleology" is an explanation of a phenomenon in terms of its ultimate purpose, derived from the Greek word telos, meaning goal.) The Rav takes the halakhic system as a given which does not need to be justified in other terms. Accusing the Rambam (in The Guide of the Perplexed, not in the Mishneh Torah) of trying to make Halakha adhere to values derived from an external philosophical system, thus turning it into merely a means to attain some philosophically-determined end, the Rav counters that Halakha is autonomous and must be understood in its own terms. Its values must be derived from a study of its norms, thereby learning our philosophy FROM Halakha. As we have seen in previous shiurim, the Rav discovered a basic pattern underlying various halakhic norms: the idea of catharsis, consisting of a dialectic of advance and retreat, the latter purifying the former. (See Reference #4 for an example.)


In "The Lonely Man of Faith," the Rav offers his own teleology of Halakha, finding it to lie precisely in the attainment of catharsis:

"If one would inquire of me about the teleology of the Halakha, I would tell him that it manifests itself exactly in the paradoxical yet magnificent dialectic which underlies the halakhic gesture." (p.82)

(See also Reference #5.) God summons man to live both a majestic and a covenantal life, and by adhering to Halakha man can answer both of these calls. This can be understood in two ways, both of which receive expression in "The Lonely Man of Faith."


A) Although the realms of majesty and covenant remain conceptually distinct and even incompatible, Halakhic living provides a practical means of meeting God's dual demands. Analogously, the Rav writes in "Majesty and Humility" (p. 26):

"[Halakha] did not discover the synthesis [between majesty and humility], since the latter does not exist. It did, however, find a way to enable man to respond to both calls."

This is an example of a broader phenomenon which also can be said to constitute the telos of the halakhic system according to the Rav. In his understanding, Halakha's goal is to help man take constructive action in the face of dichotomous demands and insoluble problems, without necessarily overcoming the conceptual dichotomies or solving the dilemmas. (For an example, see Reference #6.) According to this reading of "The Lonely Man of Faith," Halakha provides a practical means of negotiating the unavoidable tension between the positions of Adam I and Adam II, without reaching a synthesis between these two approaches.


B) Alternatively, we can regard Halakha as a unifying and even harmonizing force. Its telos is ultimately to unite the natural and the spiritual in man, not merely to provide a roadmap for an endless oscillation between contradictory modes of being. It enables man to live an integrated existence: a this-worldly life suffused with sanctity. This chord is more dominant in "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham," as exemplified in the following passage:

"[B]y sanctifying the physical, [Halakha] creates a unified psycho-somatic ["psyche" = spirit, "soma" = body] individual who serves his Creator with both his spirit and his body and elevates the animal [in him] to the heights of eternity." (p.215)

Similarly, the goal of "Halakhic Man" is to bring kedusha down into this world. As we shall see when we study that book, Halakhic Man sees no inherent problems in fulfilling this task, nor does he live a life of dialectical tension.




To summarize: Halakha can be seen either as a means to negotiate an irreconcilable dialectic (as in "Majesty and Humility") or as an ultimately unifying force (as in "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham"). Both of these notions receive expression in "The Lonely Man of Faith." How can this be? I think we can gain insight from a very significant footnote (at the end of Chapter 8):

"Maimonides distinguishes between two kinds of dialectic: (1) the constant oscillating between the majestic and the covenantal community; (2) the simultaneous involvement in both communities, which is the highest form of dialectical existence and which, according to Maimonides, only Moses and the Patriarchs achieved. See Yesodei Ha-Torah 7:6..." (pp.87-88)

This distinction can answer two questions we have raised.


1) The Telos of Halakha:

According to the first kind of dialectic described by the Rambam ("constant oscillating"), Halakha is a practical response to an unending, insoluble tension. According to the second ("simultaneous involvement"), Halakha is a unifying or harmonizing force.


2) The Nature of the Adam I / Adam II Dialectic:

I pointed out above that the Rav generally portrays the dialectic between majesty and covenant in terms of conflicting movements, while on page 83 he describes it as a complementary gesture. Now we can see that these two portrayals reflect the two types of dialectic cited by the Rambam. The first requires constant oscillation, since the two modes of living are seen to be contrasting and therefore they cannot easily abide together. The second, higher dialectic allows "simultaneous involvement in both communities" because the two are now perceived as being complementary. "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham" describes a similar progression of perception: the "natural" and the "revelatory" are first seen as contradictory, then as complementary, and finally they are united.


The continuation of this footnote makes an important point about the higher mode of dialectic:


"Maimonides is more explicit in the Moreh III:51 ... 'When we therefore find [the Patriarchs] also engaged in ruling others, in increasing their property and endeavoring to obtain possession of wealth and honor, we see in this fact a proof that when they were occupied in these things their bodily limbs were at work while their heart and mind never moved away from the name of God...' In other words, the Patriarchs were builders of society, sociable and gregarious. They made friends with whom they participated in the majestic endeavor. However, axiologically [= in terms of values], they valued only one involvement: their covenantal friendship with God. The perfect dialectic expresses itself in a plurality of creative gestures and, at the same time, in axiological monoideism." (p.88)


This significantly modifies our perception of the relation between Adam I and Adam II. No longer are they on equal footing; no longer do they constitute equal and opposite poles of a dialectic. Rather, "The perfect dialectic expresses itself in a plurality of creative gestures and, at the same time, in axiological monoideism." This means that although a person should engage in different spheres of activity, he should adopt only one set of values - and these are the values of Adam II. Only they are of ultimate significance: "[A]xiologically, they valued only one involvement: their covenantal friendship with God."


When Adam I is uninformed by the values of Adam II, he does not factor God into all of his considerations. (Recall that God is not a member of the Adam I natural work community.) Nevertheless, his existence has religious significance because it expresses his tzelem Elokim and manifests dignity, even if he is not directly motivated by a divine command. But while the ACTIONS of Adam I have religious worth, Adam I is not a religious PERSONALITY because he is not interested in cultivating a personal relationship with God.


When a person participates in the majestic realm in consonance with the higher mode of dialectic, it is with the self-conscious intention of fulfilling God's will. Whether engaged in politics oin prayer, one must poa constant awareness of being involved in avodat Hashem - which is a value of Adam II. This is not to say that we totally reject the values of Adam I. Man's involvement in the cultural domain is not optional - it is mandated by God, and is crucial to Jewish spirituality, which, as we have explained, is rooted in this-worldly existence. Furthermore, as we shall see especially in Halakhic Man and "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham," Judaism assigns great importance to human creativity and autonomy (which are Adam I categories) - but these should ideally be incorporated into one's avodat Hashem. In short: one must always keep in mind that nothing is more important than his relationship with God, and must gear all of his actions accordingly.


We must remember, however, that according to the Rambam, this ideal of perpetual engagement with God was attained by only four individuals in the course of Jewish history. Similarly, Rav Soloveitchik assigns the ultimate overcoming of the dialectic, resolving all contradictions and filling the world with harmony, to the realm of an eschatological vision (p.87). However, he claims elsewhere, we can begin to fulfill the eschatological vision while still in this world:

"Devekut [the pinnacle of religious achievement attained by unifying man's creativity and autonomy with his absolute religious commitment], which essentially is an eschatological vision... begins to be realized even within this divided and fragmented world and in the actual life of flawed and solitary man. Judaism always recognized the continuity of temporal and eternal existence, of a world struggling for its existence and a redeemed world, of a polluted world and a world which is completely pure and good." ("U-vikkashtem Mi-sham," p.189)


The vision of unity cannot be fully realized before the messianic era, but it can at least point out a direction to us. Perhaps the Rav is saying that although most of us are fated to live in a world of dichotomies and dialectical oscillation, we must strive to the extent of our ability to approach the ideal of unifying the different aspects of our existence.

To conclude, what is most novel about Rav Soloveitchik's theory of the two Adams? I would highlight two points:

1) Adam I's existence is willed by God and therefore his actions have religious value.

2)   Nevertheless, Adam II is independent of Adam I and is ultimately more significant. Religion is not subservient to culture; it is a primordial force which has no need to legitimize self in other terms. This will be the focus of the next three lectures.



1) AFFIRMATION OF THIS-WORLDLY EXISTENCE: See lecture #8. This is also a major theme in Halakhic Man.

After writing this lecture, I came across an excellent book which contains an extended analysis of Rav Soloveitchik's views concerning the relationship between religion (Adam II) and culture (Adam I), and the this-worldly attitude of Judaism: The Jewish Idea of Culture, by Rav Sol Roth (Ktav, 1997). Much of the book focuses on "The Lonely Man of Faith."

 2) BLESSINGS: It has long been noted that in our recitation of blessings, we switch in mid-berakha from addressing God in the second person ("Barukh ata") to addressing Him in the third person ("asher kidishanu be-mitzvotav," instead of "asher kidashtanu be-mitzvotekha"). In a footnote here (p.80), Rav Soloveitchik attributes this change to "man's dialectical see-sawing between the cosmic and the covenantal experience of God." Note, however, that in "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham" (p.178) he attributes this switch to the dialectic of ahava and yira, love and fear of God.

3) THE DEFINITION OF CATHARSIS (quoted from lecture #6): The dialectic of advance and recoil, of victory and defeat, is built into the structure of man's existence and constitutes the essence of halakhic living. On the one hand, God desires that man move forward and attain mastery over his surroundings. On the other hand, from time to time man must halt his headlong rush towards triumph and success, and be willing to retreat, to be defeated by a higher authority.

"The movement of recoil redeems the forward-movement, and the readiness to accept defeat purges the uncontrollable lust for victory." ("Catharsis," p.37)

In other words, left to itself, man's desire for victory can be merely an expression of his egocentric interests and self-aggrandizement. His forward-movement can be regarded as a response to divine mandate only if he is willing to curtail it when God so demands. In this way, not only is his retreat sanctified, but so is his advance.

4) AN EXAMPLE OF CATHARSIS (quoted from lecture #8): According to the Rav, God does not desire that man live an otherworldly ascetic existence, nor does He wish for man to adopt an ethereal and abstract spirituality. Rather, God wants man to lead a full and enjoyable natural life. However, he must instill it with meaning and direction, thus grounding his spirituality in his concrete life. For example, if unrestrained and unredeemed, the sexual act can be brutish and dehumanizing. Man succumbs to a frenzy of primitive passions and treats his sexual partners as things, as mere means to fulfill his desire. However, within the framework of marriage (and at the permitted times), sexuality becomes something beautiful and sacred. Hedged in by prohibitions, it turns into an act conforming to God's will. Between husband and wife, it expresses love and commitment (which are also desired by God). Furthermore, it actually becomes a vehicle for fulfilling mitzvot, such as procreation ("peru u-revu") and the obligation of conjugal relations (onah). Thus, one's physical life becomes the fountainhead of kedusha.

 5) CATHARSIS IS THE TELOS OF HALAKHA: Several statements in articles we have already read also point in this direction. For example, in "Catharsis" (p.42), the Rav writes:

"[Biblical heroism] is perhaps the central motif in our existential experience... The individual, instead of undertaking heroic action sporadically, lives constantly as a hero."

As the Rav explains there, infusing all of one's life with heroism means living in accordance with Halakha, with its perpetual dialectic of bold advance and humble retreat. Since "the central motif in our existential experience" is halakhic heroism, i.e. cathartic action, catharsis would seem to constitute the telos of the halakhic system.

In a related fashion, at the end of "Catharsis" Rav Soloveitchik designates catharsis as God's central demand of man. Paraphrasing Micha 6:8, he writes (p.54):

"He showed thee, man, what is good, and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to move forward boldly, to triumph over and subdue thy environment, and to retreat humbly when victory is within thy grasp."

Likewise, "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham" is full of statements to the effect that the goal of Halakha is to unite man's "natural consciousness" with his "revelatory consciousness."

6) HALAKHA AS A RESPONSE, NOT A SOLUTION, TO INSOLUBLE PROBLEMS (quoted from lecture #5): For example, in "Kol Dodi Dofek," Rav Soloveitchik states that philosophic solutions to the problem of evil and suffering are inadequate at both an intellectual level (because of man's finite intellect) and at an emotional level (because they deny the legitimacy of man's experience of suffering). The Halakha, on the other hand, provides a practical response to this insoluble intellectual and experiential question, through the mandate of repentance in response to suffering. Repentance enables man to take cathartic, therapeutic action in response to adversity, thereby turning a potentially destructive experience into a redemptive one. By responding in a constructive manner, one maintains his dignity in the face of absurdity; instead of being buffeted by blind forces, he "takes control" of the situation by creating (i.e. self-creation, which is the essence of repentance).


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