24. "The Lonely Man of Faith" (Continuation) Part 6b - The True Challenge Facing the Modern Believer

  • Rav Reuven Ziegler
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion


by Rav Ronnie Ziegler

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

Part 6b - The True Challenge Facing the Modern Believer




Having arrived at this stage of our analysis, we are now in a position to return to a striking statement at the beginning of "The Lonely Man of Faith" which has puzzled many readers.


"It would be worthwhile to add the following in order to place the dilemma in the proper focus. I have never been seriously troubled by the problem of the Biblical doctrine of creation vis-a-vis the scientific story of evolution at both the cosmic and the organic levels, nor have I been perturbed by the confrontation of the mechanistic interpretation of the human mind with the Biblical spiritual concept of man. I have not been perplexed by the impossibility of fitting the mystery of revelation into the framework of historical empiricism. Moreover, I have not even been troubled by the theories of Biblical criticism which contradict the very foundations upon which the sanctity and integrity of the Scriptures rest. However, while theoretical oppositions and dichotomies have never tormented my thoughts, I could not shake off the disquieting feeling that the practical role of the man of faith within modern society is a very difficult, indeed, a paradoxical one." (p.7)


How is it possible that these issues did not trouble the Rav? Surely it is not due to ignorance or obscurantism on his part. Anyone who attended the Rav's lectures, especially his philosophy classes, can testify to the Rav's familiarity with all these issues. Why, then, did they not disturb him?


The answer flows directly from our discussion of the autonomy of faith. Halakha possesses its own frame of reference and its own methodological integrity. Therefore, it has no need to justify itself before challengers approaching it with outside assumptions. Additionally, since faith is a basic awareness and not a reasoned conclusion, it cannot fundamentally be shaken by cognitive dilemmas. This does not mean that the challenges mentioned above should not be addressed at all. But it does mean, I believe, that these questions should be kept in perspective - true faith will not rise or fall on them. The living sense of the divine is primary; matters of criticism are secondary.


In Rav Soloveitchik's words, the man of faith is "animated by his great experience" (p.100), and only subsequently does his intellectual faculty come into play. This point is closely related to two issues touched upon briefly in previous lectures, which we can now comprehend within a broader perspective.



In lecture #16, we saw that the cosmic experience of God renders the cosmological proof of God superfluous. There are two reasons for this. First, faith based on rational proof leads at best to intellectual assent to the existence of an abstraction termed "God." Faith stemming from experience, on the other hand, can lead to an intimate personal relationship with the Creator. (This resembles the distinction posited by Rav Yehuda Halevi between the God of Aristotle and the God of Abraham - the First Cause vs. the God of the Covenant. Rihal, however, bases his faith more on the fact of historical revelation than on personal experience.)


Second, if a person experiences God in a direct and unmediated manner, what need does he have for abstract proofs? Both in "The Lonely Man of Faith" (p.52) and "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham" (p.133), the Rav approvingly quotes Kierkegaard's pointed remark on this subject:


"Does the loving bride in the embrace of her beloved ask for proof that he is alive and real? Must the prayerful soul clinging in passionate love and ecstasy to her Beloved demonstrate that He exists? So asked Soren Kierkegaard sarcastically when told that Anselm of Canterbury, the father of the very abstract and complex ontological proof, spent many days in prayer and supplication that he be presented with rational evidence of the existence of God."



In lecture #10, we discussed the dialectic of gadlut ha-mochin and katnut ha-mochin which characterizes gedolei Yisrael (and, in a more moderate form, all Jews). Beside their "depth, scope and sharpness" of thought, beside their bold creative powers and intellectual maturity, the truly great scholars also possess the playfulness and innocence of a child, full of curiosity, enthusiasm and limitless faith. In his eulogy for Rav Chayyim Heller, the Rav painted a very evocative portrait of the "halakhic man-child," which can also describe the Rav himself:


"The adult is too clever. Utility is his guiding light. The experience of God is unavailable to those approaching it with a businesslike attitude. Only the child can breach the boundaries that segregate the finite from the infinite. Only the child with his simple faith and fiery enthusiasm can make the miraculous leap into the bosom of God... When it came to faith, the giants of Torah, the geniuses of Israel, became little children, with all their ingenuousness, gracefulness, simplicity, their tremors of fear, their vivid experiences and their devotion to them... Whenever [Moshe] fell before God, he cried like a child. Who can fall before his father, raise his eyes to him alone, to seek consolation and salvation, if not the child! ... The mature, the adult, are not capable of the all-embracing and all-penetrating outpouring of the soul. The most sublime crown we can give a great man sparkles with the gems of childhood." (Divrei Hagut Ve-ha'arakha, pp.159-160; in English: Shiurei Harav, pp.63-64)




In short, Rav Soloveitchik was not perturbed by the intellectual assaults on Judaism because of a) the intensity of his faith experience, and b) the methodological autonomy of Halakha. This can account partially for why Rav Soloveitchik, despite his being the intellectual leader of Modern Orthodoxy, did not directly address in print these conceptual assaults on faith. "He wrote," according to Dr. Moshe Sokol, "about matters (a) that touched to the core of his own personal struggles with Jewish self-definition in the modern era; and (b) about which he believed that with his unique blend of Brisk and Berlin he had much to contribute" (Exploring the Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, p.133).


It is undoubtedly true that the Rav wrote out of a sense of deep intellectual and emotional engagement with a topic. This is what lends his writings a great deal of their power. However, I believe that several additional factors may account for why he wrote about certain issues and not about others. [See also Reference #3.]


Let us take, for example, the question of biblical criticism. True, the Rav did not write a treatise on this topic because it held no great interest for him personally and because he felt that others, like Rav Chayyim Heller, had more specialized knowledge on the subject. However, he also makes a significant observation in "The Lonely Man of Faith" (p.10) which would suggest that biblical criticism does not pose as great a challenge as one initially would assume. The critics make their case for multiple authorship based on certain anomalies in the biblical text. Rav Soloveitchik points out in response that the Sages and the Rishonim were also sensitive to these textual anomalies, but they offered different explanations for these phenomena because they were working with different assumptions than the critics. In other words, taking note of textual phenomena is one thing, but interpreting the phenomena is something else entirely.


For example, the fact that different names of God are recorded in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of Bereishit does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that these chapters were penned by different authors. This fact can also indicate that the two chapters discuss distinct typologies of man (as Rav Soloveitchibelieves), or different asof God (as the Kabbalists interpret), or a host of other explanations. The textual phenomena in themselves do not "prove" anything; they acquire significance only in light of one's preconceived notions about what the text can or should say.


Furthermore, Rav Shalom Carmy points out that two approaches are possible when confronting critics:

A) One can respond to them point-by-point, but then one is playing in their arena and is constantly on the defensive.

B) One can offer a compelling alternate understanding. This is precisely what the Rav does in "The Lonely Man of Faith." Instead of undertaking a detailed critique of the critics' interpretation of the first two chapters of Bereishit, he undercuts their arguments entirely by presenting a cogent alternative. Thus, he DOES actually confront the critics - in an indirect yet constructive manner, rather than in a direct but defensive manner.




Related to this last claim is the oft-repeated assertion that the Rav never engaged in apologetics. Apologetics results when a person accepts an external frame of reference and explains tradition in its light. When viewed this way, tradition becomes "problematic." By forcing tradition to fit into a preconceived and alien framework, one effectively places it into the proverbial "mitat Sedom" (Procrustean bed). This inevitably leads to distortion of the tradition, either by assigning it unlikely meanings or by ignoring that which does not cohere with one's theory.


In contrast, Rav Soloveitchik had utter confidence in Jewish tradition and asserted its conceptual autonomy. He did not seek to "synthesize" or "harmonize" it with any other system of thought. Rather, he accepted Jewish tradition itself as his frame of reference, mining his vast erudition in fields of general knowledge for ideas which could shed new light on Judaism or enhance his understanding of man. This non-apologetic approach characterizes the Rav's entire relationship to secular knowledge. Imbued with strong faith and a secure sense of self, he was unafraid to expose himself to new ideas, nor did he place limits on his children's reading. The fact of divine revelation, entailing both belief in God and a system of norms, could not be changed by whatever he studied. But his understanding of tradition and his ability to communicate it could be enhanced through the study of "the best that had been thought and said in the world."


We have just seen that the Rav's acceptance of Jewish tradition as his conceptual frame of reference justifies his selective use of concepts derived from Western thought. There are also, in fact, internal philosophical reasons (elaborated in The Halakhic Mind) which justify this selectivity. Unlike the "theories of everything" propounded by philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel, contemporary philosophy no longer trusts overarching and all-encompassing systems. As a good student of twentieth-century philosophy, Rav Soloveitchik realized that - philosophically speaking! - he was not beholden to any one school of thought. Therefore, he had the freedom to utilize insights from different philosophical schools without being enslaved to any one system. This freedom afforded him much greater room for creativity than if the parameters and assumptions of a particular system had confined him.


[Interestingly, the Rav made the same point when comparing the Rambam to the Ramban (see Reference #4). While the former was largely beholden to a somewhat stifling Aristotelian framework, and had to express his ideas in its limiting jargon, the latter was more free to exercise creativity.]


This consideration somewhat renders moot all the discussions about whether the Rav's thought is existentialist or neo-Kantian, etc. He was far from being an orthodox Aristotelian or Kantian who struggled to justify Judaism in light of his externally-conceived philosophy. Rather, he was a man of the Massora who creatively and critically utilized the most appropriate ideas he could find in order to understand and explain the Jewish tradition (as well as the human condition).




Let us return to the question of why the Rav did not set out to address biblical criticism (and a host of other "burning" topics). We saw that a) these issues did not trouble him personally; b) Rishonim had already addressed the "troublesome" phenomena, thereby demonstrating that the force of a question depends largely on one's presuppositions; and c) by proposing a compelling alternative, he addressed the critics in a roundabout way.


Beyond all this, I believe that the Rav's primary reason for not writing about these subjects was that he simply did not regard them as the most important issues or the main problems facing Judaism in the modern world. The main arena of combat, in his opinion, was the soul, not the mind. We saw that the Rav believed that the God-experience lies at the core of faith, and the role of the intellect is only a posteriori - it is both ancillary and subsequent to the faith-experience. Therefore, there is no point in addressing questions of the intellect before one establishes within himself an experiential basis of faith. Conversely, once one has established this basis, then questions of the intellect become less urgent.


Thus, the Rav chose to address primarily issues related to the human existential situation: the possibility of experiencing faith within contemporary society, the relationship between the fundamental attitudes of modernity and religiosity, and the experiential crisis of the contemporary believer. [See also Reference #5.] He states clearly at the outset of "The Lonely Man of Faith" that he does not want to deal with the abstract, intellectual side of the problem of faith and reason, but rather with its existential dimension:


"Theory is not my concern at the moment. I want instead to focus attention on a human life situation in which the man of faith as an individual concrete being, with his cares and hopes, concerns and needs, joys and sad moments, is entangled." (p.1)


I wish to stress that when the Rav says that he is "not troubled" by the phalanx of problems mentioned previously, this is not equivalent to saying that he is uninterested in them. He took science and philosophy far too seriously to be able to adopt such an approach. Rather, saying that these questions do not trouble him means that they do not shake his faith. Nevertheless, they are worthy of serious consideration. The epistemic autonomy of religion provides an avenue in which to search for answers to these cognitive problems (without recourse to apologetics); and even if this avenue of inquiry fails to provide an adequate solution, the experiential foundation of faith provides us with the assurance that the questions need not be immediately answerable. If one has fundamental faith in the Halakhic system and an inner experience of the truth of Torah, then he will relate differently to intellectual challenges and will even be able to live more comfortably with unanswered questions.


Rav Soloveitchik saw his task mainly as helping the modern Jew to understand his tradition, grasp its relevance and appreciate its desired effect upon his attitudes and lifestyle. The Rav's concern, thus, was far more with the crucial question of inner commitment to God rather than the secondary issues of intellectual critique. He had absolute intellectual confidence in Judaism, and was convinced that it could ward off all challengers. However, he had less confidence in man's soul, in his depth and strength of character, in his ability to transcend himself and his willingness to sacrifice. In Rav Sacks' penetrating formulation (p.49),


"It was not secular KNOWLEDGE, encountered in the University of Berlin, that caused Soloveitchik such searing distress, but secular MAN, encountered in suburban-Jewish America."


In the next (and final) lecture on "The Lonely Man of Faith," we will confront the results of the Rav's encounter with secular man.




3) BIBLIOGRAPHICAL ISSUES: At this point, it is worth mseveral bibliographical points which are crucial tgaining a comprehensive understanding of Rav Soloveitchik's literary output. First, he had no preconceived publication plan. His major medium was the spoken word, and only occasionally would he consent to render in print one of his lectures. Many of his lectures/writings were connected to particular occasions and were not part of an aforethought project: eulogies, holiday sermons, kinus teshuva lectures, addresses to various organizations, etc. Additionally, chance occurrences often determined which of his lectures were published and which not; sometimes he would publish a lecture in response to someone's repeated entreaties, or working off a draft someone else prepared for him. If there was no one to prod him, a particular lecture might never be printed.


Furthermore, he was a thematic writer, not a system-builder. He wrote about individual topics which interested him, and would often return to and rethink these issues. In contrast to thinkers such as Aristotle or Kant, who set out systematically to address all the major philosophic issues of their generations, Rav Soloveitchik was neither systematic in his approach nor comprehensive in his scope. Partially, this was due to the aversion of twentieth-century philosophy to all-inclusive systems (as indicated in the lecture above). For other reasons, see the continuation of this lecture. I will have more to say on the problems of systematizing the Rav's thought when we examine the relationship between Halakhic Man and "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham."


4) RAMBAM VS. RAMBAN: I heard this point in a tape of a 1968 lecture by the Rav on the Ramban's comments on Parashat Lekh Lekha. Subsequently, I saw it mentioned in Prof. Twersky's masterful portrait of Rav Soloveitchik, "The Rov," Tradition 30:4 (Summer 1996), p.43, footnote 17; reprinted in Rav M. Genack, ed., Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik: Man of Halacha, Man of Faith (Ktav, 1998). (See also sections 13 and 14 of Prof. Twersky's article regarding the Rav's attitude towards secular studies.)


Acceptance of a preconceived philosophical system affects not only creativity but also authenticity. In the taped lecture mentioned above, the Rav humorously calls the Rambam "overeducated;" therefore, the Rambam was prone to speak in philosophical cliches instead of letting the sources speak for themselves. The Ramban, on the other hand, was not beholden to Aristotelian categories and therefore could formulate a more authentic Jewish philosophy.


5) FAITH AND REASON: We stated above that faith is prior to reason, and therefore the Rav felt that it was more crucial to address the former than the latter. Another way to view this issue is from within the perspective of reason itself. All reasoning must be conducted within a certain framework of presuppositions, or what in mathematics are called axioms. As we saw, the admissibility of a question depends on the validity of the assumptions behind it. The Rav, instead of dealing with the details of the questions, is addressing instead the far more crucial issue of what your governing assumptions are. As he puts it in "The Lonely Man of Faith," one must choose the framework from within which he will ask questions:


"Before beginning the analysis, we must determine within which frame of reference, psychological and empirical or theological and Biblical, our dilemma should be described. I believe you will agree with me that we do not have much choice in the matter; for, to the man of faith, self-knowledge has one connotation only - to understand one's place and role within the scheme of events and things willed and approved by God..." (p.8)


If one questions belief or tradition from the outside, using an alien set of assumptions, then this leads an unsatisfying, apologetical answer. If one asks from the inside - "I believe, but how am I to understand the following..." - then we can address the question. The Rav therefore devotes himself to elaborating the fundamental assumptions of the Halakha - its views of God, man and the world, and the interaction between them.


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