25. "The Lonely Man of Faith" (Conclusion) Part 7 - The Autonomy of Faith: Practical Consequences

  • Rav Reuven Ziegler
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash


Yeshivat Har Etzion








By Rav Ronnie Ziegler


Lecture #21: The Lonely Man of Faith (Conclusion)

Part 7 – The Autonomy of Faith: Practical Consequences



The Rav as Community Leader and Halakhic Decisor


            In lecture #19, we saw that Adam I uses religion for his own majestic purposes; in lecture #20, we saw that Adam II insists upon maintaining his own independent approach to religion, one based upon covenantal values.  Yet contemporary Adam I is not content to live alongside Adam II; he seeks conquest, self-expansion, and absolute hegemony over the whole of man's personality.  In the modern era, Adam I attempts to usurp even the religious realm, recasting it from covenantal terms into his own majestic terms: 


He, of course, comes to a place of worship.  He attends lectures on religion and appreciates the ceremonial, yet he is searching not for a faith in all its singularity and otherness, but for religious culture.  He seeks not the greatness found in sacrificial action but the convenience one discovers in a comfortable, serene state of mind.  He is desirous of an aesthetic experience rather than a covenantal one, of a social ethos rather than a divine imperative.  In a word, he wants to find in faith that which he cannot find in his laboratory, or in the privacy of his luxurious home.  His efforts are noble, yet he is not ready for a genuine faith experience which requires the giving of one's self unreservedly to God, who demands unconditional commitment, sacrificial action, and retreat.  Western man diabolically insists on being successful. Alas, he wants to be successful even in his adventure with God.  If he gives of himself to God, he expects reciprocity... Therefore, modern man puts up demands that faith adapt itself to the mood and temper of modern times (pp. 103-104).


            It is precisely modern man's demand "that faith adapt itself to the mood and temper of modern times" – which are the mood and temper of Adam I – that most threatens the independence and legitimacy of Adam II's covenantal religiosity.  As a leader of the Orthodox Jewish community, the Rav was sensitive to this threat and, on a number of fronts, he directed practical efforts at countering it.    A unifying theme of many of the Rav's halakhic decisions and public activities is the need to preserve the autonomy of Judaism and of Halakhah in the face of external pressures for accommodation, watering down, and foregoing their singular approach.  Let us examine a number of instances where the Rav gave concrete expression to the concern for religious autonomy, which has occupied our attention for the past several chapters.


1. Ritual Changes:

            The Rav took especially strong public stands against changes in synagogue practice.  The integrity of Halakhah was not a matter subject to public approval, he wrote: "It is ludicrous to argue against a religious law on the ground that the latter is not popular with the crowd."[1]  In mid-twentieth-century America, Orthodox Judaism was perceived as being in retreat, and the Rav's resolute yet sensitive stand on issues such as the mehitzah, the barrier preventing intermingling between the sexes in the synagogue, helped turn the tide.[2]

            The Rav objected to these proposed ritual changes because they were not consonant with the legal principles of Halakhah.  However, he also pointed out that, in their desire to make the synagogue service more "pleasing" or "acceptable," the changes reflected a lack of understanding of the Jewish philosophy of prayer (as derived from the sources of Halakhah).  For example, regarding innovation of having the cantor face the congregation during prayer, the Rav wrote:


The departure corrupts every idea of prayer which calls for complete forgetfulness of man as a worthless and wretched being on the one hand, and unqualified surrender to God on the other.  Watching the audience during recital of the prayers by the cantor is tantamount to a demonstration of the opposite sort – arrogance and haughtiness on the part of the congregation and its representative in giving preference to a social get-together over man's encounter with God.[3]


When dealing with the halakhic realm, it was imperative to be guided by Halakhah's internal logic and values, and not by other considerations.[4]


2. New Rituals and Rabbinic Autonomy:

            The Rav was consulted on a number of occasions about the propriety of creating new rituals, such as commemorating the Holocaust at the Passover Seder, instituting a formal prayer service for Yom ha-Atzma'ut, and conducting a religious service to mark the 300th anniversary of Jewish life in America.[5]  The Rav felt that each of these events should be marked, but in time-honored and halakhically approved forms.  He objected to the creation of new and hybrid pseudo-religious ceremonies, which did not respect the autonomy of the halakhic process and the integrity of religious rituals.[6]  The Rav had harsh words about the newfangled ceremonies; for example, regarding the last example cited above, he wrote:


[T]he whole service concocted by some rabbi of the Synagogue Council should not and cannot be accepted by the RCA.[7]  The service suggests to me both religious infantilism and Christian-Methodist sentimentalism which exhausts itself in hymn singing and responsive reading. As a matter of fact, an order of service by the Methodist church is by far superior to the approach employed by the Synagogue Council. I am not as much disturbed by the problem you raised as by the whole character and structure of the service, which contains very few Jewish themes and a lot of high school commencement nonsense.[8]


            As an extension of his desire to preserve the autonomy of Halakhah, the Rav also wanted to preserve autonomy of rabbinate, and not have laypeople dictate to it.  This was another reason for his objection to the newly proposed ceremonies, such as that prepared by the Religious Zionist political organization Mizrahi for Israel's Independence Day:


I do not feel that the RCA ought to mail out to its members the program prepared by the Mizrahi. My feelings on this matter were prompted by a twofold reason. First, the order of the service was arranged in a non-halakhic and non-scholarly fashion and breathes meaningless ceremonialism, which is not only alien but also contrary to our halakhic tradition…

Second, I do not believe that a rabbinical body like the RCA should disseminate any kind of material dealing with a religious subject which was prepared by a different organization, especially a lay group. The first prerogative of the rabbinate is full and unlimited sovereignty in all matters pertaining to Halakhah and observance. It is below our dignity to serve in the capacity of a mailing agency for any group, regardless of the latter’s distinct merits and accomplishments.[9]


3. Interfaith Dialogue:

            The principle of the autonomy of faith applies not only in the confrontation of covenant with majesty, but also in the relationships of different religions with each other.  Historically, each faith community has developed its own unique way of relating to God, and each must respect the other's integrity.  While we can and should work together with other faiths on matters pertaining to "the general welfare and progress of mankind, [such as] combatting disease... alleviating human suffering... protecting man's rights... helping the needy, et cetera,"[10] it is pointless (at best) to engage in dialogue on matters of creed.  Each faith speaks its own language, and it would be illegitimate for one to request of the other to interpret itself in alien categories.


[T]he mere appraisal of the worth of one community in terms of the service it has rendered to another community ... constitutes an infringement of the sovereignty and dignity of even the smallest of faith communities.[11]


            At the core of this position lies the idea that, as we have seen explicated in Lonely Man, faith is a basic awareness and not a conclusion that can be explained on the basis of certain premises.  This fact prevents the possibility of communication at the level of faith, since the religious experience of each community is specific to it and "does not lend itself to standardization or universalization" (ibid.).  In short, the Rav believed in cooperation and dialogue on the level of Adam I, but not on the level of Adam II.


4. Interfaith Services:

            For similar reasons, the Rav strongly objected to holding interfaith services.


As to interfaith celebrations, we are ready and willing to encourage such projects as long as they will be held within the confine of secular activities.  No joint worship, however, can be encouraged.  We are loyal citizens of our great country and we are committed to all its institutions, political, economic and educational, without any reservation or qualification, as are all other Americans.  Hence, joint action and common effort are commendable in all areas of mundane endeavor.  Yet one’s relationship to, worship of and dialogue with God is an inner experience most intimate, most personal, most unique.  Each community worships God in its singular way.  Gleichschaltung[i.e., making equivalent] distorts the very essence of the religious experience.[12]


The Rav explained the last point elsewhere:


I am fully aware of the great American heritage of religious tolerance and I cherish this ideal with all my heart and soul.  However, true tolerance expresses itself not in Gleichschaltung, as in equating two incommensurate systems of values and principles, as Judaism and Christianity present, but in granting opportunity to all faiths to promote their world views and practices within unique historic and theological dimensions and to thrive in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and respect.  Yet while practicing this great virtue, we must be constantly mindful that the very essence of religion expresses itself in individual character and singularity which can not be obliterated if religion is not to be stripped of its soul.[13]


5. Jewish Interdenominational Activities:

            In an analogous sense (but clearly with a far greater awareness of fraternity and mutual responsibility), the Rav recommended cooperation with Reform and Conservative organizations in matters relating to Jewish welfare and survival, but not in matters related to creed and observance:


The principle of [Jewish] unity expresses itself in two ways.  First, the unity of Jews as members of a spiritual community, as a congregation which was established through the conclusion of the covenant at Mt. Sinai...

            Secondly, unity manifests itself also in our unique political-historical lot as a nation… The enigma of our existence is primarily revealed through our loneliness and our affliction in all times, the current era included… No Jew can renounce his part of the unity, which is based upon a fate of loneliness of the Jewish people as a nation…

         The conclusion above is very simple. When we are faced with a problem for Jews and Jewish interests toward the world without, regarding the defense of Jewish rights in the non-Jewish world, then all groups and movements must be united. In this area, there may not be any division, because any friction in the Jewish camp may disastrous for the entire people…

         With regard to our problem within [the Jewish community], however, – our spiritual-religious interests such as Jewish education, synagogues, councils of rabbis – whereby unity is expressed through spiritual-ideological collectivism as a Torah community, it is my opinion that Orthodoxy cannot and should not unite with such groups which deny the fundamentals of our weltanschauung.[14]  


            To use terms developed in the above-cited interview (from 1954) and later in Kol Dodi Dofek (1956), Orthodoxy must act together with other Jewish denominations on the level of fate, but it cannot cooperate on matters of destiny; Jewish denominations function together as an am (nation), but not as an edah (congregation).


6. Religion and State in Israel:

            In Israel, there was an even greater danger of the encroachment of the state into religious affairs.  This subject greatly vexed the Rav, and he brought it up frequently in his addresses to the Mizrahi.[15]  In fact, one of the reasons he did not take the job of Chief Rabbi of Israel when it was offered to him was that he had concluded that the Chief Rabbinate was not autonomous, but rather subject to political pressures.[16]



Modern Orthodoxy in Theory and Practice


            As a leader of Orthodox Judaism, the Rav defended it not just from external encroachments on the uniqueness and irreducibility of its faith commitment, but also from tendencies from within to smooth over or discount elements conflicting with integration into the broader majestic society.  In order to understand this, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider where The Lonely Man of Faith has taken us so far.  First, it posits that covenantal man must bring his unique message to majestic man, leading, we hope, to an oscillation between these modes of living that will prove fruitful and even complementary.  However, such is not the case in the contemporary age:


In a word, the message of translated religion is not the only one which the man of faith must address to majestic man of culture.  Besides this message, man of faith must bring to the attention of man of culture the kerygma of original faith in all its singularity and pristine purity, in spite of the incompatibility of this message with the fundamental credo of a utilitarian society.  How staggering this incompatibility is!  This unique message speaks of defeat instead of success, of accepting a higher will instead of commanding, of giving instead of conquering, of retreating instead of advancing, of acting "irrationally" instead of being always reasonable.  Here the tragic event occurs.  Contemporary majestic man rejects his dialectical assignment and, with it, the man of faith (pp. 101-02).


            In fact, the man of faith confronts something even more alarming: the secularization of religion itself.  In the parts of the world that have undergone modernization, the predominant forms of organized religion are those geared towards the attainment of success and dignity, not redemption.  Modern man adopts only those elements of religion that are useful to him in his pursuit of majesty, without recognizing the autonomous and absolute claims of faith. 

            In this sense, The Lonely Man of Faith can be read as a powerful social and religious critique not only of modern organized religion in general, but specifically of tendencies within Rav Soloveitchik’s own American Modern Orthodox community.  In other works, Rav Soloveitchik makes this critique explicit.[17]  For example, the Rav bitingly characterizes the world of Modern Orthodoxy, when compared with earlier exemplars of Adam II religiosity, as "shorn of wings to soar and bereft of roots to penetrate the depth of religious experience."[18]  Instead of soaring to the heights and penetrating the depths of religiosity, instead of experiencing the dialectic of The Lonely Man of Faith in all its rigor and grandeur, Modern Orthodoxy could tend towards religious complacency, focusing on the here-and-now and preoccupied with material and cultural self-enhancement.  Did one seek in its synagogues a covenantal encounter with the Almighty, entailing both a profound sense of dependence and a commitment to accepting the yoke of the commandments, or did one seek a social-aesthetic experience of comfortable community? 

            This insight can serve as a corrective to a prevalent misreading, or partial reading, of the message of The Lonely Man of Faith.  True, in its advocacy of a life lived on the planes of both dignity and covenant, the book constitutes a defense or articulation of the theory of Modern Orthodoxy.  But in pointing out that modern organized religion falls far short of the ideal whereby Adam I and Adam II live in dialectical counterpoise – or, even better, Adam II guides the endeavors of Adam I – the book is also a critique of Modern Orthodoxy in practice.  When lived to its fullest, the Adam I-Adam II dialectic can produce a vision of sublime beauty.  Yet in the contemporary world, exemplars of such beauty, whether on an individual or a communal level, are hard to find, and this results in Rav Soloveitchik’s loneliness.



Engaging the World, Upholding the Covenant


            The Rav's activities as "defender of the faith" – or, more accurately, as defender of the uniqueness of covenantal religiosity – should not overshadow the fact that he advocated active engagement with society and recognized the religious worth of Adam I's attainments.  Both sides of the Adam I-Adam II dialectic had to be maintained, without one being allowed to eradicate or overwhelm the other.  Just as he urged moderns, and perhaps especially the Modern Orthodox, to remember the covenant, so too did he emphasize that covenantal life need not fear majesty.  The role of covenantal religion is not to retreat into a corner, on the one hand, nor simply to provide Adam I with the validation he seeks, on the other hand.  Rather, it is to bring sanctity into all realms of existence, including those of Adam I.  For example, regarding the founding of a medical school under the auspices of Yeshiva University, the Rav wrote:


The Orthodox community can win the respect of others by focusing on and excelling in three areas: (1) living their personal lives on a higher ethical-religious level; (2) defending their principles and ideals in a forthright and uncompromising manner; (3) demonstrating to the world that the Torah Jew need not cower in a corner and gaze with sadness and resignation as life and the world pass him by. The Orthodox Jew must demonstrate that he navigates with pride the flow and currents of the modern world and participate in a life that is racing ever more rapidly towards new horizons and great accomplishments in the domains of science of technology.  We must demonstrate that in all cultural, social and scientific situations a Jew can study Torah and live as a faithful Torah Jew. We must show the world that not only doesn’t the Halakhah restrain the intellectual and emotional capacities and worldly knowledge of the Jew, [but] on the contrary, it deepens and broadens them greatly. Once and for all we must demonstrate the falsehood of the complaints of all the non-religious and pseudo-religious movements and organizations that proclaim that Halakhah limits the individual and estranges him from the world around him. We should not respond to their claims with theoretical arguments. Instead we should present practical examples and deeds. If the Yeshiva will endeavor to produce a first class medical school, and thereby enable students to combine a Torah lifestyle with the medical profession, it will have accomplished a great deal to enhance the honor of Torah and the prestige of Orthodoxy.[19]


            Similarly, he expressed his affinity with Religious Zionism in broad and sweeping terms:


For me, Mizrahi is not only a political organization to whom we must gratefully acknowledge its contribution to the building of the Land of Israel, but also an ideological movement with an all-embracing philosophy that is no less relevant for Jewish life in the Diaspora, outside of Eretz Yisrael. This ideology that is an expression of our belief in the eternity of Judaism, affirms our staunch position within the modern world, with all of its attendant beauty and ugliness, greatness, power and cruelty, the torrential currents of life within it, the desire and conquering might, its great scientific and technological prowess, along with the audacity and haughtiness, moral corruption and spiritual contamination of modern man.

      We have not removed ourselves from such a world, nor have we withdrawn into a secluded corner. We are unwilling to become a religious sect that forfeits the general public for the benefit of individuals. We will not build a Noah’s Ark – our prayers are for everyone. It is our desire to purify and sanctify the modern world by means of the eternal vision, constant in its purity and grandeur, expressing the transcendental perspective and Divine calm within the stormy seas of change and metamorphosis that is known as progress. It is our belief that Judaism has the means to give meaning and significance, value and refinement, to the multi-faceted existence of modern life. We do not fear progress in any area of life, since it is our firm conviction that we have the ability to cope with and redeem it. I personally subscribe to this outlook with every fiber of my being.[20]


            Perhaps the overarching message of the Rav's public activity, as set forth above, was the need for Orthodox Judaism to have the courage of its convictions.  The Rav felt Orthodoxy had no need to fear confronting the challenges and opportunities of the modern world, for he had absolute confidence in the Torah's ability to "cope with and redeem" all realms of human endeavor.  Nor, when confronted with majority groups holding a different viewpoint, did Orthodoxy have to try to ingratiate itself and compromise its principles in order to curry favor with them.  By setting forth its principles with dignity and humility, it would only gain respect.  Yet this engagement was valid only if Orthodoxy maintained sight of its covenantal foundations.  If engagement with the surrounding world could not be conducted while maintaining the integrity of Orthodox principles, then there was no need to be afraid of retreating into ourselves for a period of time, as he counseled the head of a rabbinic organization:


I noticed in your letter that you are a bit disturbed about the probability of being left out.  Let me tell you that this attitude of fear is responsible for many commissions and omissions, compromises and fallacies on our part which have contributed greatly to the prevailing confusion within the Jewish community and to the loss of our self-esteem, our experience of ourselves as independent entities committed to a unique philosophy and way of life.  Of course, sociability is a basic virtue and we all hate loneliness and dread the experience of being left alone. Yet at times there is no alternative and we must courageously face the test.  Maimonides of old was aware of such bitter experiences (vide Code, Hilkhot De‘ot 6:1).[21]



What is to be Done?


            This leads directly into the conclusion of The Lonely Man of Faith.  Due to Adam I’s rejection of Adam II, the man of faith confronts not just a breakdown in communication with his majestic counterpart, but Adam I’s hijacking of religion itself.  This poses not an intellectual challenge, but rather a spiritual and experiential one.  Rav Soloveitchik cannot overcome this problem by explaining how to become a man of faith, since (as noted in chapter 16) no cognitive categories can contain faith, nor can faith be fully translated into cultural terms.  Faith is a basic awareness, an a priori axiom, and not a reasoned conclusion.  Faced with this situation, which does not merely frustrate him but threatens his covenantal commitment, the man of faith may feel that he has no choice but to withdraw from such a society (or from the majestic component within himself!).


It is here that the dialogue between the man of faith and the man of culture comes to an end.  Modern Adam the second, as soon as he finishes translating religion into the cultural vernacular, and begins to talk the "foreign" language of faith, finds himself lonely, forsaken, misunderstood, at times even ridiculed by Adam the first, by himself.  When the hour of estrangement strikes, the ordeal of man of faith begins and he starts his withdrawal from society, from Adam the first – be he an outsider, be he himself … He experiences not only ontological loneliness but also social isolation, whenever he dares to deliver the genuine faith-kerygma.  This is both the destiny and the human historical situation of the man who keeps a rendezvous with eternity, and who, in spite of everything, continues tenaciously to bring the message of faith to majestic man (pp. 106-07).


            Actually, Rav Soloveitchik ends the essay in two ways.  Section 10 concludes with an air of finality, asserting that the man of faith must seemingly withdraw from society.  By contrast, Section 11 holds out the possibility that, after withdrawing and going to limits of religious achievement available to him, Adam II will eventually return as a leader of society, ultimately combining the worlds of the two Adams.  The Rav ends the book on a more positive note than one would expect at the end of Section 10; the man of faith succeeds, despite the attendant difficulties and frustrations, in engaging and influencing the world from within a theocentric context. 

            Since the entire essay focuses on both the individual and the community, it is important to stress the communal dimension of the conclusion.  Like the three patriarchs and Moses, the goal of the man of faith is to found or sustain a community that knows God.  In a passage where many themes of The Lonely Man of Faith resonate, the Rambam portrays this as a human ideal:


It also seems to me that the fact that these four [i.e., the patriarchs and Moses] were in a permanent state of extreme perfection in the eyes of God, …even while they were engaged in increasing their fortune [i.e., tending to the world of Adam I], …was necessarily brought about by the circumstance that in all these actions their end was to come near to Him [i.e., the goal of Adam II]…  For the end of their efforts during their life was to bring into being a religious community that would know and worship God, …to spread the doctrine of the unity of Name in the world and to guide people to love Him.[22]


            How does this translate into practice in our lives?  Now that several decades have passed since its writing, how relevant does The Lonely Man of Faith remain?  The analysis of God’s call to man to embody both Adam I and Adam II, or what we called ontological loneliness, should apply under all circumstances, since it describes something fundamental to the human condition.  However, the shunting aside of Adam II, or what we called historical loneliness, is a function of society and its mores, and may or may not be relevant in different times and places.[23]  What, then, is the correct path for the man of faith to follow today: withdrawal or engagement?  Like the Rav in his dual conclusion, I leave this to the reader to decide.



[1] Cited in R. Louis Bernstein, Challenge and Mission: The Emergence of the English Speaking Orthodox Rabbinate (NY, 1982), 48.

[2] Many of the Rav's letters are collected a volume entitled Community, Covenant and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications (henceforth: CCC), ed. Nathaniel Helfgot (Jersey City, 2005).  Re mehitzah, see letters 16-20.  For an outstanding example where the Rav forthrightly proclaims his principles while displaying both sensitivity and humility, see letter 16.  On the mehitzah controversy in general, see Baruch Litvin, The Sanctity of the Synagogue (NY, 1959; repr. 1987).  

[3] Cited in Bernstein, ibid.  For a related explanation regarding mehitzah, see CCC, 134-5.

[4] See the Rav's famous derashah, "The 'Common-Sense' Rebellion Against Torah Authority," in R. Abraham Besdin, Reflections of the Rav (Jerusalem, 1979), 139-149.

[5] CCC, letters 13-15.

[6] See the Rav's letters for the specifics of his objections to each of these proposals.

[7] The RCA is the Rabbinical Council of America, a major Orthodox rabbinic organization.  Rav Soloveitchik chaired its Halachah Commission.  The Synagogue Council of America was an interdenominational Jewish rabbinic group.

[8]  CCC, 115-6.

[9] CCC, 123-4.

[10] "Confrontation," Tradition 6:2 (1964), pp. 20-21.  See, however, CCC letter 51, which expands the range of subjects open to dialogue to include matters of universal religious concern, but not matters pertaining to "our private individual commitment."

[11] Ibid., 23.  See also CCC, letters 51 and 53.

[12] CCC, 114.

[13] >From a letter to R. Israel Klavan (May 23, 1954) on holding a joint telethon and appeal with Protestant and Catholic churches; appears in Bernstein, 61-2.  See also the Rav's objection to interfaith chapels in CCC, 8-10.

[14] CCC, 144-6.

[15] Some of these addresses are collected in Hamesh Derashot.

[16] See CCC, letters 27-34; see also Jeffrey Saks, "Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate: Biographical Notes (1959-60)," B.D.D. 17 (2006).

[17] See, e.g., Al Ha-Teshuva, ed. Pinchas Peli (Jerusalem, 1980), pp. 57, 64, 97, 198, 200.  This is not to say that he had no criticism of other groups.  However, as the leader of the Modern Orthodox camp, he saw his duty primarily as tending to the spiritual welfare of the votaries of his community, and not to point out to others their shortcomings.  

[18]  Pleitat Sofreihem,” in Divrei Hagut ve-Ha’arakha (Jerusalem, 1982), p. 148.

[19] CCC, 90-91.

[20] CCC, 203-4.

[21] CCC, 111.

[22] Guide of the Perplexed 3:51 (p. 624, Pines ed.).

[23] For reflections on the continuing relevance of The Lonely Man of Faith, see the symposium sponsored by ATID on the fortieth anniversary of its publication (http://www.atid.org/resources/lmof40.asp) and, briefly, in David Shatz's preface to Doubleday’s 2006 reprinting of the book.



To receive special holiday packages, write to:


[email protected]

With the message:


Subscribe yhe-about



This sis provided courtesy of the Virtual Beit Midrash, the premier source of online courses on Torah and Judaism - 14 different courses on all levels, for all backgrounds.

Make Jewish learning part of your week on a regular basis - enroll in the
Virtual Beit Midrash



(c) Yeshivat Har Etzion1997 All rights reserved to Yeshivat Har Etzion

Yeshivat Har Etzion
Alon Shvut, Israel, 90433
[email protected]