23. "The Lonely Man of Faith" (Continuation) Part 6a - The Autonomy of Faith

  • Rav Reuven Ziegler
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion


by Rav Ronnie Ziegler

 LECTURE #20a: "The Lonely Man of Faith" (Continuation)

Part 6a - The Autonomy of Faith


Why is the contemporary man of faith "lonely in a special way" (p.6)? Let us briefly recapitulate the Rav's argument thus far. Although faith (Adam II) and culture (Adam I) represent two independent sides of a dialectic eternally implanted within man, modern man identifies only with the latter. Intoxicated by his success in the scientific-technological realm, he has constricted his inner world to include only those values and emotional responses which reflect and enhance his majesty. The humility and the gnawing sense of incompleteness which characterize Adam II are completely foreign to him. However, this does not mean that modern man discards religion entirely. He adopts some of its outer forms, but empties them of their covenantal-redemptive content, substituting majestic values instead.


Thus, the contemporary man of faith confronts a bold and assertive secularity which has infiltrated even into the religious realm. Speaking the "foreign" language of redemption, which frequently entails sacrifice and surrender, the man of faith seems to have lost the ability to communicate with his surrounding society. He experiences not an invigorating sense of uniqueness and a fruitful dialogue between the disparate forces within himself, but rather social isolation and agonizing loneliness. He is misunderstood and ridiculed, regarded by society as "superfluous and obsolete."


In lecture #19, we explored one aspect of this problem: the religious posture adopted by Adam I. Today, we shall deal with the second component: the autonomy of Adam II's faith. After setting forth the theoretical foundations of this issue in the first half of today's lecture (#20a), we will examine some of its consequences, both in the intellectual realm (#20b) and in the practical realm (#21). Thus, the second half of today's lecture will analyze Rav Soloveitchik's response to various intellectual attacks on Orthodoxy, and the following lecture will consider, in light of ideas presented today, a number of the Rav's influential halakhic responsa and public policy decisions.




What is the process by which religion becomes secularized? In the previous lecture, we saw that although Adam I and Adam II speak different languages and hold different values, Adam I needs to borrow numerous concepts from Adam II in order to support his own cultural edifice. This translation of some of Adam II's redemptive categories into Adam I's cultural terms is entirely legitimate. However, modern man is not satisfied with PARTIAL translation; rather, he evaluates religion ENTIRELY in terms of its compatibility with his majestic goals. He thereby makes religion subservient to his own majestic-cultural ends, not acknowledging that the religious domain of Adam II has its own independent demands of man. In truth, the faith experience issues a call to man which far exceeds his limited comprehension and his pragmatic goals. It is, as cited previously, "meta-logical and non-hedonic" (p.98), i.e. beyond reason and not designed to bring about simple pleasure.


Why is this so? Faith is rooted not just in reason but in one's whole personality, affecting every level of his being (such as the aesthetic, emotional and moral dimensions, as we saw in the essay "Catharsis"). Therefore, the faith commitment cannot ultimately have a pragmatic or utilitarian basis, since these are only functional categories, stemming from one narrow (albeit significant) component of man's being, namely, the intellectual. In Rav Soloveitchik's powerful words:


"There are simply no cognitive categories in which the total commitment of the man of faith could be spelled out. This commitment is rooted not in one dimension, such as the rational one, but in the whole personality of the man of faith. The whole of the human being, the rational as well as the non-rational aspects, is committed to God. Hence, the magnitude of the commitment is beyond the comprehension of the logos and the ethos. The act of faith is aboriginal, exploding with elemental force... The intellect does not chart the course of the man of faith; its role is an a posteriori one. It attempts, ex post facto, to retrace the footsteps of the man of faith, and even in this modest attempt the intellect is not completely successful... The man of faith animated by his great experience is able to reach the point at which not only his logic of the mind but even his logic of the heart ... has to give in to an 'absurd' commitment. The man of faith is 'insanely' committed to and 'madly' in love with God." (pp.99-100)

When applied to the man of faith's commitment, the epithets "absurd," "insane" and "mad" denote merely that it is not based on considerations of cold logic or practical benefit. His commitment is non-rational or meta-rational, but not irrational; in other words, it is unrelated to reason or above reason, but it is not opposed to reason. (For elaboration of this important point, see the footnote on pp.107-108.)


Here we encounter in full force the Rav's radical break with the medieval rationalist tradition of Jewish philosophy (which we shall examine further when studying "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham," especially chapter 2). According to the Rav, the man of faith's God-awareness, or his God-experience, lies at the core of his perception of the world and his sense of self. This means that he cannot conceive of either himself or the world without sensing the presence of God. For him, faith is a basic awareness, an a priori axiom, and not a conclusion which can be explained on the basis of certain premises. This leads precisely to the problem of communicating faith to others, which we shall explore in lecture #21. What is crucial for us at this stage of the argument is to recognize that faith is not a function or an outgrowth of man's other pursuits, but rather an "aboriginal" force, a basic calling in its own right. Therefore, it is not subservient to other goals or values, and, in the modern era especially, it must fiercely guard its independence.




The Rav's assertion of the autonomy of the religious realm, and of Halakha in particular, is central to his thought.   Before examining its ramifications as regards "The Lonely Man of Faith," let us explore some other contexts in which this issue arises. (In future lectures, we will examine all the works mentioned below; therefore I will treat them here only briefly.)


Halakhic Man (e.g. pp.17-29) and "Ma Dodekh Mi-Dod" (pp.70-85) deal specifically with the autonomy of the halakhic system. Rav Soloveitchik asserts that Halakha constitutes an independent cognitive realm, and should be studied and applied according to the tenets of its own internal logic, not according to the foreign categories of historical, economic, or sociological causation. For the Rav, of course, the Brisker method best reveals the "internal logic" of Halakha. In his sharp and succinct formulation:


"Kant, in his day, proclaimed the autonomy of pure reason, of scientific-mathematic cognition. [Similarly, my grandfather] Rav Chayyim fought a war of independence on behalf of halakhic reason and demanded for it complete autonomy. Any psychologization or sociologization of the Halakha strangles its soul, as such an attempt must also destroy mathematical thinking. If halakhic thought is dependent on emotional factors, it loses all its objectivity and degenerates to the level of subjectivity with no substance..." ("Ma Dodekh Mi-dod," p.78)


While Rav Chayyim and the Rav had their own reasons for developing this "a priori" and autonomous conception of Halakha, it can also serve as a response to the relativizing historicist orientation espoused by both non-Orthodox moveand the academe. [See also Reference #1 below.]




Rav Soloveitchik's book, The Halakhic Mind, establishes the philosophical basis for his assertion of the cognitive and methodological autonomy of Halakha. Actually, like "The Lonely Man of Faith," The Halakhic Mind focuses not just on Halakha, but more broadly, on the religious realm in general. (The Rav did not choose the book's misleadingly particularistic title.) In this very technical work, the Rav claims that the "epistemological pluralism" of twentieth-century science allows us for the first time to develop a genuine and autonomous philosophy of religion. (Epistemology is the science of knowledge, dealing with the question of how we know things.) Just as contemporary science, especially quantum physics (as opposed to Aristotelian and Newtonian physics), admits a variety of ways of viewing the world and a variety of sources of knowledge, so too must philosophy. Therefore, the elements of religion - in our terms, the details of Halakha - can serve as the basis for formulating a worldview which is no less valid (but also no more valid!) than any other. Since science and philosophy no longer claim to describe everything knowable, there is now room to turn to religion as a source of knowledge - and religion is now free to explain itself in its own terms. [For more on the idea of epistemological pluralism, see Reference #2 below.]


      "The Lonely Man of Faith" is based upon the same assumption of a plurality of worldviews (Adam I and Adam II), and upon the same assertion of the autonomy of religion. However, instead of treating the cognitive facet of this issue - religion as a source of knowledge - it addresses instead the existential and experiential dimensions. While recognition of the autonomy of religion opens up exciting theoretical possibilities, it can also lead to a sense of alienation from those who do not share this recognition (treating religion instead as just another facet of culture). Thus, in place of the optimism characterizing The Halakhic Mind, which looks forward to a new era in religious philosophy, our essay adopts a more sober and ultimately tragic tone in depicting the man of faith's isolation and his frustrating inability to break through the communication barrier separating him from his contemporaries. In an eloquent analysis, Rav Jonathan Sacks draws a connection between the two essays, written twenty years apart (Halakhic Mind in 1945 and "Lonely Man" in 1965):


"The pluralism of contemporary culture, which [Rav Soloveitchik] was the first to recognize, was both a liberation and a privation. It liberated tradition from having to vindicate itself in alien terms. But it prised tradition from its moorings in the collective order and made it seem as just one system among many, either consciously chosen (the ba'al teshuva phenomenon) or validated by an act of faith which is 'aboriginal, exploding with elemental force' and eluding cognitive analysis. Soloveitchik's genius and the poignancy of his intellectual development are both evidenced in this: that he was the first to explore the positive possibilities of the liberation [in The Halakhic Mind], and the first to chart the tragic dimensions of the privation [in 'The Lonely Man of Faith']." (Tradition in an Untraditional Age, p.299)


(Continued in Lecture #20b.)



 1) INNER LOGIC OF HALAKHA: See also Rav Abraham Besdin's adaptation of a lecture by the Rav, "The Common-Sense Rebellion Against Torah Authority," in Reflections of the Rav, vol. 1 (Ktav, 1993), pp.139-149.


2) THE HALAKHIC MIND: For centuries, science and philosophy had walked hand-in-hand, with philosophy following science's lead in adopting a single way of viewing the world. Medieval and early modern philosophy had been beholden to Aristotelian and Newtonian science, respectively, in determining the questions to be asked and the methods of answering them. This forced religious philosophy either to justify religion in rationalist-instrumentalist terms or to reject rationality altogether.


However, twentieth-century science (particularly quantum physics) no longer posits a unified or intuitive view of the world. For example, light is regarded as both a wave and a particle, which would seem to countervene the tenets of Aristotelian logic. Since science has adopted a stance of epistemological pluralism, admitting a multiplicity of models and sources of knowledge, philosophy must follow suit. The quantitative scientific model must no longer be regarded as the sole cognitive method of viewing the universe. This opens the way for establishing religion as an autonomous domain of knowledge and truth. Because the philosophy of religion has now been liberated from naturalistic presuppositions, Rav Soloveitchik opens his book with the bold and optimistic claim, "It would be difficult to distinguish any epoch in the history of philosophy more amenable to the meditating homo religiosus than that of today."


For clarification of the major arguments of The Halakhic Mind, see Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, "Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's Early Epistemology," in his book Tradition in an Untraditional Age (London, 1990), pp.287-301, and William Kolbrener, "Towards a Genuine Jewish Philosophy," Tradition 30:3 (Spring 1996), pp.21-43. Both of these essays also appear in the collection, Exploring the Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ed. Rabbi Marc Angel (Ktav, 1997).


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