5. The Community Part 2

  • Rav Reuven Ziegler
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion



by Rav Ronnie Ziegler

 LECTURE #4: The Community

Part 2 of 2





After depicting several poignant examples of the inescapable reality of loneliness even within the closest human relationships (the sick spouse; the alienation of the young mother overwhelmed in the middle of the night by a crying child and a sleeping husband), the Rav explains the necessity of creating man as both a solitary and a social being. There are two reasons why lonely man had to be created:

"1. The originality and creativity in man are rooted in his loneliness-experience, not in his social awareness ... Social man is superficial: he imitates, he emulates. Lonely man is profound: he creates, he is original.

"2. Lonely man is free; social man is bound by many rules and ordinances. God willed man to be free. Man is required, from time to time, to defy the world ... Only lonely man is capable of casting off the harness of bondage to society... The 'levado'-awareness (the awareness of standing alone) is the root of heroic defiance. Heroism is the central category in practical Judaism. The Torah wanted the Jew to live heroically, to rebuke, reproach, condemn, whenever society is wrong and unfair. The 'levado' gives the Jew the heroic arrogance which makes it possible for him to be different... Lonely man is a courageous man; he is a protester; he fears nobody; whereas social man is a compromiser, a peacemaker, and at times a coward. At first man had to be created 'levado,' alone; for otherwise he would have lacked the courage or the heroic quality to stand up and to protest, to act like Abraham, who took the axe and shattered the idols which his own father had manufactured." (pp. 13-14)


However, God also willed that man become a social being. Why?

"Man is not only a protester; he is an affirmer too. He is not only an iconoclast, but a builder, as well. If man always felt remote from everybody and everything, then the very purpose of creation could not be achieved." (p. 14)


To the Rav, Moshe Rabbeinu is the epitome of one who combined both aspects of human identity. On the one hand, he was "the greatest loner, who pitched his tent 'far outside the camp.'" On the other hand, he was "the great leader, father and teacher to whom the community clung."


This example is problematic. Moshe lived alone outside the camp, separated himself from his wife, and covered his face with a veil! He was INVOLVED with the community as their leader, but was he really PART of the community? On the other hand, recall that he was the "faithful shepherd" who identified with the community to such an extent that he wished to be destroyed along with them if God would not forgive their sin. We will once again encounter this paradox of being part of the community while being outside it in "The Lonely Man of Faith," where the Rav describes God Himself as being a member of the "covenantal faith community," albeit the senior member.


[If we look to history, it would seem that the Rambam, for example, viewed himself somewhat along the lines of Moshe Rabbeinu, communing solitarily with God and at the same time guiding the community as a teacher and leader. Perhaps we can speculate that the Rav also saw himself in this light, identifying strongly with the community while also feeling separate from it in his singularity and uniqueness.]




At this point, the Rav focuses on how the community is formed. The first step is the recognition of the other, the thou. By realizing that he is not the only significant being in the universe, solitary man "contracts" his "infinite" existence and makes room for the other. In this, man emulates God's primordial act of "tzimtzum" (contraction), whereby He "made room" for an existence other than His own, i.e. the universe. (We shall explore the concept of tzimtzum in the next lecture. Note merely at this point that the Rav raises the issue of imitatio Dei, emulation of God, which, as we shall see, is central to his thought.) Thus, Rav Soloveitchik comes up with the equation: "creation [of a community or of the world] = recognition = withdrawal = an act of sacrifice" (p. 15).


This insight is reflected in many aspects of the Halakha. For example, the Halakha assigns great significance to greetings exchanged between people, because recognition implies affirmation of the other person's value, and draws the two people together into a community. Thus, we are commanded to return greetings and sometimes to extend them even when reciting the Shema; recognition of one's fellow, relieving him of his loneliness, does not contradict the act of kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim (acceptance of the yoke of Heaven). Similarly, the Halakha is exceedingly strict in prohibiting one from causing even the slightest distress to a widow or orphan, since these individuals are extremely sensitive and prone to losing their sense of dignity and worth. (Note the striking aggadic passage [Semachot 8:4] quoted by the Rav, which attributes Rav Shimon ben Gamliel's death to inadvertently causing slight distress to a poor widow.) Although it is not always clear whether the Rav is deriving his philosophical ideas from the Halakha or whether he is explaining the Halakha by means of his ideas, such insights are common in his writings, giving his thought firm grounding in Jewish sources.




By recognizing the thou and forming a community with him, one automatically assumes responsibility for him; recognition = commitment. This, again, is emulation of God, who not only created the world but also continually provides for it. On a human level, this leads to the formation of the prayer community, which is explained thus by the Rav:

"It means a community of common pain, of common suffering. The Halakha has taught the individual to include his fellow man in his prayer... Halakha has [thus] formulated prayer in the plural...

"The individual prayer usually revolves about physical pain, mental anguish, or suffering which man cannot bear anymore. At the level of individual prayer, prayer does not represent the singularly human need. Even the mute creature in the field reacts to physical pain with a shriek or outcry... However, prayer in the plural is a unique human performance... I am aware, not only of my pain, but of the pain of the many, because I share in the suffering of the many. Again, it is not psychological; it is rather existential awareness of pain." (pp. 19, 21)


Due to this awareness, the prayer community must also be a charity community. And indeed, the Jews have, over the generations, developed a trait of sensitivity to pain and compulsive kindness (rachmanut), as well as a glorious tradition of charity.




However, according to the Rav, the highest form of interpersonal communion is attained through the teaching community. The true teacher must merge his total experience with that of the student, and they thereby attain a closeness which exceeds the sympathy and mutual aid of the prayer/charity community. A teacher not only trains the mind, but fashions the personality of the student; he shares not only information, but experiences, visions, dreams - in short, his very essence. As the Rav explains in "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham" (pp. 228-229), the personality of the master teacher, like that of the prophet, spontaneously overflows toward the student in an act of self-revelation. This leaves an indelible impression upon the student's soul and binds the two together intimately.


In fact, the entire enterprise of the Massora (passing on the tradition) is based on the unity of teacher and disciple:

"In this principle [i.e. unity of teacher and student] is enfolded the secret of the Torah She-be'al Peh (Oral Law), which by its very nature has never been objectified, even after being committed to writing. The meaof Torah She-be'al Peh is: a Torah which merges with one's personal uniqueness and turns into an inseparable part of him. When it is passed on, part of one's essence is transmitted along with it."

("U-vikkashtem Mi-sham," p. 229)


[A word of explanation about the previous quote: Unlike the Written Torah, which is crystallized in a clearly defined text, the Oral Torah is by its very nature amorphous. It is borne not by parchment, but by the human being, who both shapes it with his own unique contribution and understanding, and who is in turn shaped by it. The Rav elaborated on this theme on several occasions, among them in a Memorial lecture for his wife in 1971, which is summarized as "Torah and Humility" on our website (see the address at the end of this lecture):

"Can the Oral Torah pass on kedusha (holiness) ... in the sense that the Written Torah sanctifies tefillin, mezuza, the Torah parchment, etc.? ... It would be folly to conclude that the Oral Torah is inferior in this respect. The answer is that the Oral Torah operates in a more subtle manner, transmitting sanctity through study and its relation to the mind of the student... The parchment of talmud Torah is the human mind, the human heart and personality... The old halakhic equation that every Jew is a sefer Torah (Torah scroll) is, in this light, fully understandable. The living Jew is the sefer Torah of the Torah she-be'al peh."]


By bringing the student into the living chain of tradition, the teacher inducts him into a community which transcends the bounds of uni-directional time, uniting both the glorious past and the eschatological future with the present into one great experience. Events from the past, far from being dead, are constantly re-experienced (e.g. the exodus, the revelation at Sinai, the destruction of the Temple); teachers and heroes of the past are living presences who address their words to us and whom we even can engage in dialogue (through Torah study). At the other extreme, we eagerly anticipate the future redemption of the world and actively attempt to bring some of its perfection into the present. Our experience transcends clock time, giving us a sense of eternity within the temporal, and sensitizing us to the opportunities and challenges of the present.


In our essay, the Rav portrays the community in both horizontal and vertical terms: horizontal communion with one's contemporaries via prayer and charity, and, superior even to this, vertical communion with generations past and future via the medium of talmud Torah. The same progression can be found in the Rav's discussions of community in "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham" and "On Repentance." In the latter, as mentioned previously, Rav Soloveitchik details the need to link up to Knesset Yisrael in order to participate in the atonement granted on a communal level. (This does not detract from the need to attain personal atonement for one's individual sins.) How does one connect to Knesset Yisrael? By having faith in it. How is this faith expressed? In the twofold manner we have just discussed:

"The Jew who believes in Knesset Israel is the Jew who lives as part of it wherever it is and is willing to give his life for it, feels its pain, rejoices with it, fights in its wars, groans at its defeats and celebrates its victories. The Jew who believes in Knesset Israel is a Jew who binds himself with inseverable bonds not only to the People of Israel of his own generation, but to the community of Israel throughout the ages. How so? Through the Torah, which embodies the spirit and the destiny of Israel from generation to generation unto eternity." (On Repentance, p. 137)


As noted before, what is implicit in the above quote from "On Repentance" is explicit in "The Community:" the highest form of community is that which unites you with the community of all generations, not just with that of your own. In a sense, connection to one's source and destiny has greater axiological value than connection to one's fellow. This is not to minimize the importance of bonding with one's contemporaries; the Rav repeatedly emphasizes throughout his writings the necessity of both dimensions of community. In "Kol Dodi Dofek," he has very harsh words for those who forsake the "covenant of fate" (which unites us with fellow Jews in suffering and sympathy) while adhering to the "covenant of destiny" (whereby we pursue our spiritual goals of becoming a kingdom of priests and a holy nation). Both aspects are crucial, and one's Judaism is deficient if he maintains only one aspect.


What the Rav does mean to say is that, in terms of ultimate values, the eternal is of greater significance than the temporal; spiritual goals, coming closer to God and spreading His word, have greater axiological value than sympathy between finite individuals. We must surely be compassionate; but our mission, perhaps the very reason we were created, is to bring holiness into the world, a piece of the infinite into finite being, a sense of the eternal into temporal existence. In order to realize this goal, which means realizing our true selves and maximizing ourselves as individuals, we must join a covenantal community, as described in this essay. Thus, the Rav concludes on a note stressing the timeless:

"It is a privilege and a pleasure to belong to such a prayerful, charitable, teaching community, which feels the breath of eternity." (p. 24)




1. Prayer: see "Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah" (Tradition 1978), which we will study later in the year (along with several other essays dealing with prayer).

2. The unity of teacher and student: see "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham," chapter 19.

3. The merging of past, present and future: see "Sacred and Profane" [reprinted in "Shiurei Harav"] and "On Repentance."


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