4. The Community

  • Rav Reuven Ziegler

Yeshivat Har Etzion



by Rav Ronnie Ziegler

LECTURE #3: The Community

Part 1 of 2


Before delving into Rav Soloveitchik's difficult (but rewarding!) major treatises, we will first examine three of his shorter and more readily comprehensible essays. These three essays - "The Community," "Majesty and Humility" and "Catharsis" - were published in the journal of the Rabbincal Council of America, Tradition, vol. 17:2 (Spring 1978). [They are currently available only in back issues of Tradition, but will hopefully be republished as part of a book in the near future.] Although written at different times (1976, 1973 and 1962, respectively), the arrangement of the essays in Tradition 1978 is intentional, and they are meant to be read together. I believe that these essays serve as a good introduction to Rav Soloveitchik's religious thought in general. We will commence this week with "The Community."




Even a glance at the titles of Rav Soloveitchik's works - "Halakhic Man," "The Man of God" (the original title of "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham"), "The Lonely Man of Faith," etc. - suffices to reveal that the Rav focuses his thought primarily on the individual, on his struggles and redemption. The Rav is less concerned with grand movements in history, or with questions of nationalism and collective groupings. Rather, he deals mainly with the lonely man or woman, searching for meaning and self-transcendence, seeking an anchor in a seemingly cold and indifferent world.


However, this should not lead us to think that the Rav ignores the communal side of man's existence. Such a perspective would be almost impossible for someone as rooted as Rav Soloveitchik in halakhic existence. One cannot understand man as a lone being; he must also be seen as part of a community. Existence in community is one of man's basic needs, and therefore if one wants to understand a type of person, one must also examine the type of community he forms. Indeed, this is what the Rav repeatedly does in his writings. For example, in "The Lonely Man of Faith," after describing the two types of man (Adam I and Adam II) delineated by the Bible's two accounts of creation, the Rav then proceeds to explore the communities each one of them forms.


A word about the Rav's methodology is in order here. Much of Rav Soloveitchik's philosophy can be described as "philosophic anthropology" - the description of different ideal types of personalities. (They are ideal in the sense of being pure abstract types, not in the sense of being the best types.) Any specific real person can contain within him a conglomeration of various types. But the point of separating an individual into his component parts is to demonstrate the internal coherence of each position, and thus to better understand the nature of the complex hybrid produced by the coexistence of the various types. For example, every person is expected to embody the positions of both Adam I and Adam II, but in order to negotiate this dialectic successfully, he must understand each component by itself. We will discuss this methodology (and its philosophic underpinnings in the study of the humanities) more extensively when we examine "Halakhic Man," where it is more pronounced than in "The Community."




The Rav begins "The Community" with the philosophical and political debate between collectivism and individualism, represented in his day by the conflict between the communist East and the liberal West. He then posits that:

"Judaism rejects both alternatives ... Both experiences, that of aloneness, as well as that of togetherness, are inseparable basic elements of the I-awareness." (p. 7)

However, as he himself indicates later, this answer does not exactly respond to the question. The Rav does not wish to deal with a political or socio-economic question, but rather with an "existential-metaphysical" one:

"In retreat or in togetherness - where does man find his true self?" (p. 9)


The latter formulation of the essay's central question reveals Rav Soloveitchik's true orientation. He is treating the entire question of community vs. individual from the individual's point of view - where does the INDIVIDUAL find his fulfillment, by himself or as part of a group? Thus, true collectivism, an ideology which regards the individual as subservient to the whole and deriving his rights and identity from the collective, is not even an option for the Rav.




As the Rav so often does when seeking to determine the fundamental nature of mankind, he turns here to the biblical account of the creation of man for an answer. (For other examples, see "Confrontation," "The Lonely Man of Faith," and "Majesty and Humility.") Bear in mind, of course, that the creation story is of universal import; Adam and Eve are the progenitors of all mankind, not just of the Jewish People. Thus, what the Rav has to say here, as well as in the above-mentioned essays about Eden, is of significance not only for Jews, but for all human beings. However, as a rabbi, his primary interest is in spelling out the implications of this narrative for the Jewish People and in finding expressions of these universal themes within Jewish Law.


On the one hand, the Bible describes God creating man as a solitary individual ("Then the Lord God formed man..." - Bereishit 2:7); on the other hand, God declares, "It is not good that the man should be alone" (ibid. 2:18), and therefore He creates the woman and brings the two together. Since God creates man and woman as solitary beings but also unites them into a community, it follows that Judaism affirms the need for both positions, the community-related individual and the lonely individual.

"The answer to the problem is rather a dialectical one, namely, man is both... In fact, the greatness of man manifests itself in his inner contradiction, in his dialectical nature, in his being single and unrelated to anyone, as well as in his being thou-related and belonging to a community structure." (p. 8)


The Rav's choice of biblical verses to support the two positions is an interesting one. He makes reference to two verses from Bereishit (Genesis) chapter 2, one describing man's creation and the other his "marriage." It would seem that a more likely source for the doctrines of aloneness and togetherness would be to contrast Bereishit chapter 1 with chapter 2. In chapter 1, man and woman are created together ("...male and female He created them," 1:27), while in chapter 2 man is created alone and woman appears only later.


However, I believe the Rav's choice of verses is deliberate. In "The Lonely Man of Faith," Rav Soloveitchik describes the community formed by man of chapter 1 as a functional-utilitarian one, where people merely work together for mutual benefit. Man of chapter 2, on the other hand, feels incomplete without companionship; existentially, it is not good for him to be alone. He is not satisfied with merely entering into a working relationship with someone else - he must form a depth connection; he builds a "community of commitment." This community is not merely a pragmatic device, but rather is part of his definition as a person.


"The Community" which the Rav discusses in our essay is clearly of the latter kind; as a "prayerful, charitable, teaching community," it is obviously far more than a functional collective. Therefore, it is eminently sensible for the Rav to examchapter 2 here, not chapter 1. His point is that, within the depth-dimension of human existence, we must realize the value of both aloneness and togetherness.


[Methodological aside: The Rav would frequently draw different conclusions from the same story each time he studied it, just as he would examine a Talmudic passage afresh and explain it differently each time he encountered it; therefore, we do not always have to read his essays in light of each other. In this case, however, I belit is clear that we should correlate the two essays. "The Community" of our title is, in the terms of "The Lonely Man of Faith," an Adam II community, a "covenantal faith community."]


Thus, rather than being a national-political grouping, the community here is a series of interconnecting personal relationships. Although the Rav extols the value of community, he takes care to emphasize that this should not come at the expense of one's individuality; no one should submerge his identity into that of the collective. In fact, ultimately, the community which Rav Soloveitchik values so highly is itself based on the individuality of each member. Each person adds something unique to the community, and each therefore complements the rest of the community and hence is irreplaceable. In this sense, the larger community, in our case Knesset Yisrael (the Congregation of Israel), is like the smaller marriage community:

"Woman and man complement each other existentially; together they form, not a partnership, but an individuality, a persona. The marriage community is like the general community; its strength lies, not in that which is common to the participants, but in their singularity and singleness." (p. 11)




As indicated in the previous quote, the conglomerate of unique individuals unites somewhat paradoxically to form a single entity. In contemporary secular law, a corporation constitutes an autonomous legal personality; a company's assets are owned not by its president nor even by its shareholders, but by the "corporation" itself. Similarly, Knesset Yisrael is a legal personality which, for example, lays claim to the Land of Israel and is invested with the power to control the Jewish calendar.


However, Knesset Yisrael is more than just the subject of legal rights; it is a timeless metaphysical entity which has entered into a covenant with God and which, to an extent, mediates each Jew's relationship with God. For example, on Yom Kippur every Jew must strive to attain atonement both on an individual level and as part of the People of Israel. This is reflected, among other places, in the dual viddui (confession) which we recite - first as individuals, during the silent Amida, and then as a congregation, during the repetition of the Amida. In the first, man is judged purely on his individual merits; therefore, without prologue, he immediately launches into a recitation of his sins, and ends by begging for forgiveness. As an individual, one has no right to demand that God grant atonement, and therefore, as the Rav puts it, the mood of this confession is one of insecurity.


However, communal viddui is of an entirely different nature. Because God has made an eternal covenant with Knesset Yisrael (expressed in the "Thirteen Attributes of Mercy" - see Shemot 33-34), the Jews are guaranteed forgiveness as a people; God will never entirely destroy us, nor will He exchange us for another nation. We preface the viddui by reminding God of the covenant (through reciting the Thirteen Attributes) and of the love between Him and His people (as expressed in such piyyutim as "Ki Anu Amekha" - "We are Your people and You are our God; we are Your children and You are our father ... We are Your faithful and You are our beloved; we are Your chosen, and You are our friend"). After confessing our sins, we request and even demand atonement for Knesset Yisrael, to whom forgiveness has been promised. The entire mood of this confession is one of security and even joy.


[We will return to the theme of communal atonement at the end of the next lecture. For those who are interested in pursuing the theme of individual vs. communal atonement, which the Rav discusses in the context of the ancient ritual of the scapegoat, the prayers of Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur, and the laws of shofar blowing, sources are provided below.]


The Rav does not ignore the national-political side of Jewish identity; we shall further explore his concept of Jewish nationhood when we study "Kol Dodi Dofek" ("The Voice of My Beloved which Knocketh"), an address on Israeli Independence Day. It is particularly interesting to contrast the Rav's view to Rav Kook's; as we will see, their differences lead to different assessments of the past, present, and future of the Jewish People. But since we are just beginning our study of Rav Soloveitchik, we will leave comparisons aside until we are more familiar with his philosophy. Next week, we will study the conclusion of "The Community," where the Rav explains why both aloneness and togetherness are necessary, and how a community is formed.




1. Knesset Yisrael in Halakha -

a) Kiddush Ha-chodesh: see Kovetz Chiddushei Torah, "Kevi'at Mo'adim al Pi Ha-re'iya ve-al Pi Ha-cheshbon," pp. 47-65;

b) Yom Kippur and the Scapegoat: see "On Repentance," section entitled "The Individual and the Community," pp. 107-137;

c) Shofar: see Messorah, vols. 1, 2 and 7, and B.D. Schreiber, "Nora'ot Ha-rav," vol. 1, 1996.


2. For a composite portrait of the Rav's writings on Jewish nationhood, see G. Blidstein, "On the Jewish People in the Writings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik," Tradition 24:3, Spring 1989, pp. 21-43; reprinted in M. Angel, ed., Exploring the Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik [Hoboken, 1997].


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