6. "Majesty and Humility"

  • Rav Reuven Ziegler
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion



 by Rav Ronnie Ziegler

 LECTURE #5: "Majesty and Humility"

Part 1 of 2


The essay "Majesty and Humility," despite its brevity, presents a number of the most important ideas in Rav Soloveitchik's philosophy. It can serve as a key to understanding many of his more complex essays, notably "The Lonely Man of Faith." When read in conjunction with "Catharsis," it is a powerful statement of some of the most basic principles of Judaism, yet formulated in a fresh and surprising way.

 This essay's very title indicates two critical points which the Rav wishes to emphasize:

1) The title refers to characteristics of both God and man. Human morality must imitate God's qualities or actions; thus, since God displays the above-mentioned characteristics (as the Rav will explain), so too must man.

2) The nature of human morality, like the nature of man himself, is dialectical; it is composed of two opposing movements which must both be maintained in a tense balance. In other words, the title teaches us that BOTH majesty AND humility are necessary.


Before examining the essay itself, let us discuss the concepts of imitation of God and of dialectic, which are two of the pillars upon which the Rav's philosophy rests.




The principle of imitating God is known in philosophic parlance by the Latin term "imitatio Dei," and in halakhic terms by the phrase "Ve-halakhta bi-derakhav" ("You shall walk in His ways"). This concept appears explicitly in the Bible, is expanded upon by Chazal (the talmudic sages), and receives its fullest treatment in the works of the Rambam. The phrase "Ve-halakhta bi-derakhav" is taken from the verse, "The Lord will establish you as His holy people, as He swore to you, if you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God and if you shall walk in His ways" (Devarim 28:9). (Similar formulations are found in Devarim 8:6, 10:12, 11:22, 13:5, 26:17, and 30:16.)


There are several problems with interpreting this verse as a commandment to emulate God: 1) it is phrased as a conditional statement, not a command; 2) the phrase "to walk in His ways" is open to several interpretations; and 3) it seems like a general guideline and not a specific commandment. The Rambam's son, Rav Avraham, deals with these problems in his responsa (#63, printed at the end of many editions of the Mishneh Torah). In order not to go too far afield, we will leave his answers aside; but let us just note that the Bible commands emulation of God in a more unequivocal fashion in several other places: "You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy" (Vayikra 19:2); "For the Lord your God ... loves the stranger, providing him with food and clothing; and you too must love the stranger, for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Devarim 10:17-19); "... I am the Lord who exercises loving-kindness, judgment and righteousness in the earth; for these things I desire, says the Lord" (Yirmiyahu 9:22).


The Sages develop imitatio Dei into a more general principle. At times, they interpret it as a mandate to emulate certain characteristics attributed to God:

"Just as He is called 'merciful,' so should you be merciful; just as He is called 'gracious,' so should you be gracious ... just as He is called 'righteous,' so should you be righteous ... just as He is called 'pious,' so should you be pious." (Sifri, Devarim 11:22; also Shabbat 133b)

As we shall see, Rav Soloveitchik (in "Halakhic Man" and elsewhere) expands the list of divine qualities which man should emulate to include, above all, creativity.

At other times, Chazal interpret imitatio Dei in terms of actions, not character traits:

"Rabbi Chama the son of Rabbi Chanina said: What does it mean, 'After the Lord your God you shall walk' (Devarim 13:5)? Can a person indeed walk after the Divine Presence? Does it not say, 'For the Lord your God is a consuming fire' (Devarim 4:24)? Rather, walk after [i.e. emulate] His qualities. Just as He clothes the naked ... visits the sick ... comforts the mourners ... and buries the dead ... so should you." (Sota 14a)

Sometimes the actions recommended are at first glance surprising:

"Rabbi Yehuda the son of Rabbi Simon said: 'After the Lord your God you shall walk' ... At the beginning of the world's creation, the Holy One occupied Himself first with planting, as it says, 'And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden' (Bereishit 2:8); so too, when you enter the Land [of Israel], occupy yourselves first with planting - and thus it says, 'When you enter the land and plant all fruit-bearing trees...' (Vayikra 19:23)." (Vayikra Rabba 25:3)


[Of course, there are some characteristics ascribed by the Bible to God which we should presumably not imitate, e.g. "a jealous and vengeful God" (Nachum 1:2). There are several answers to this question; see, for example, Rambam's Guide for the Perplexed I:54.]


The Rambam was the first to formulate "Ve-halakhta bi-derakhav" as a specific biblical commandment to develop a virtuous personality. (The Behag preceded him in counting it as one of the 613 biblical mitzvot, but the Behag interpreted it in terms of performing specific altruistic actions, not in terms of striving for the ideal of ethical perfection.) In fact, the Rambam bases his entire system of ethics on this principle. According to his reading, the "way" in which we are supposed to walk is the middle path:

"The right way is the mean in each disposition ... namely, that disposition which is equally distant from the two extremes ... This is the way of the wise ... We are bidden to walk in the middle paths, which are the right and proper ways, as it is written, 'And you shall walk in His ways' ... and this path is called 'the way of God' ..." (Hilkhot De'ot 1:4-7)


Rav Soloveitchik is reported once to have added an interesting twist to the Rambam (see "For Further Reference," #3). Is the middle path a tepid, middling position, a "pareve" form of mediocrity? If we are to draw an analogy to God, the Rav claimed, then what emerges is a dynamic middle. Just as God presents a constant dialectic between immanence and transcendence, or between mercy and strict justice, so must man walk down a dialectical median path, oscillating between two poles and incorporating both. Although it seems to me that this is meant more as a creative midrashic use of the Rambam, rather than a literal exposition of his position, it leads us to another important motif in the Rav's philosophy.




The pair of opposing concepts comprising a dialectic are known in philosophic terminology as the "thesis" and "antithesis" (i.e. the anti-thesis). When the tension between the two eventually leads to a third hybrid position, it is labeled the "synthesis." A dialectic consisting of only two sides, which never reaches a harmonious resolution, is known as a Kierkegaardian dialectic (after the 19th-century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard). If it consists of three positions, ending in synthesis (which in turn can become the thesis of a new dialectic), it is termed a Hegelian dialectic (after the 19th-century German philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel).


The Rav takes a firmly Kierkegaardian stance in "Majesty and Humility":

"Judaic dialectic, unlike the Hegelian, is irreconcilable and hence interminable... To Hegel, man and his history were just abstract ideas; in the world of abstractions, synthesis is conceivable. To Judaism, man has always been and still is a living reality... In the world of realities, the harmony of opposites is an impossibility." (p. 25)


This kind of approach is rare in Jewish philosophy, which often tends to be more harmonistic. It has roots, however, not just in modern philosophy, but in the Rav's methodology of Talmud study. A "chakira," as we have pointed out, is also an irreconcilable dialectic.


The Rav's staunchly Kierkegaardian approach here raises the question of whether it ia motif in all of his philosophical writings. While "Majesty and " and "The Lonely Man of Faith" present irreconcilable dialectics, it seems that some of the Rav's other writings, such as "Halakhic Man" and "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham," present more harmonious portraits of personalities who have found a synthesis. (It is true that halakhic man is first described as the product of a dialectic between scientific and religious man; but the personality of the emergent halakhic man is an entirely harmonious and tranquil one.) We will bear this question in mind when examining the Rav's other writings, and return to consider it then.




"Man is a dialectical being; an inner schism runs through his personality at every level ... [T]he schism is willed by God as the source of man's greatness and his election as a singular charismatic being. Man is a great and creative being because he is torn by conflict and is always in a state of ontological tenseness and perplexity. The fact that the creative gesture is associated with agony is a result of this contradiction, which pervades the whole personality of man." (p. 25)


Thus Rav Soloveitchik begins "Majesty and Humility." He does not yet tell us what the dialectic is, nor does he begin by stating that it is a reflection of a divine dialectic. Logically, it might have made more sense to begin by stating, "God is a dialectical being, and so too must man be," or, "God relates to man dialectically, because man is dialectical." However, as always, the Rav proceeds from the human perspective; he begins all his investigations with what is known to man through his own experience.


Furthermore, he is not yet interested in presenting to us the specific dialectic upon which the essay will focus. He wishes first to establish the fundamental fact that human nature is not tidy and harmonious, but rather is conflicted at its very core. (This is the major theme of "The Lonely Man of Faith.") However, although often perplexing and discomfiting, this characteristic is the source of man's greatness - his creative power. The harmonious person stagnates; the restless and conflicted person innovates.


Of course, some people may not be able to handle the tension successfully. They will either abdicate responsibility by abandoning their commitment to one side of the dialectic, or their personality may disintegrate altogether under the pressure of the unavoidable tension. One of the roles of Halakha, then, is to aid man in negotiating the dialectic by providing him with practical guidelines for action. Let us now elaborate on this idea.




If the human personality is indeed dialectical, then it wishes to pursue two different, perhaps incompatible, goals. Sensitive to this conflict, the Halakha has thus formulated "a dialectical morality" - an ethic of majesty and an ethic of humility. Halakha "did not discover the synthesis, since the latter does not exist. It did, however, find a way to enable man to respond to both calls" (p. 26). This response is developed in the last pages of this essay, and is the focus of the essay "Catharsis." [In the next several shiurim, we will analyze this issue in detail.]


The Rav's characterization of Halakha here carries through many of his writings. For example, in "Kol Dodi Dofek," Rav Soloveitchik states that philosophic solutions to the problem of evil and suffering are inadequate at both an intellectual level (because of man's finite intellect) and at an emotional level (because they deny the legitimacy of man's experience of suffering). The Halakha, on the other hand, provides a practical response to this insoluble intellectual and experiential question, through the mandate of repentance in response to suffering.


Repentance enables man to take cathartic, therapeutic action in response to adversity, thereby turning a potentially destructive experience into a redemptive one. By responding in a constructive manner, one maintains his dignity in the face of absurdity; instead of being buffeted by blind forces, he "takes control" of the situation by creating (i.e. self-creation, which is the essence of repentance).


Just as Halakha provides a practical response to suffering without "solving" the problem of evil, in "The Lonely Man of Faith" the Rav portrays Halakha as providing a practical means of mediating the unavoidable tension between the positions of Adam I and Adam II, without reaching a philosophical synthesis of these two approaches. (We will examine both "Kol Dodi Dofek" and "The Lonely Man of Faith" in later installments in this series.)

 Thus, Halakha responds to man's most urgent and deep-seated dilemmas; instead of being paralyzed by dichotomies and intractable problems, man is provided a means to respond to them practically and creatively. Halakha does not deny man's desires and internal paradoxes. Rather, it confronts reality unblinkingly, providing man a framework to help him negotiate his internal conflicts and to sanctify his natural urges (instead of delegitimizing or denying them).

 It now remains for us to delineate the human dialectic between majesty and humility and how Halakha responds to this duality. This will be the subject of the next lecture.



 1. Imitatio Dei: R. David Shapiro, "The Doctrine of the Image of God and Imitatio Dei," in Contemporary Jewish Ethics, ed. M. Kellner [NY, 1978], pp. 127-151; Shalom Rosenberg, "Ve-halakhta Bi-derakhav" (Hebrew), in Pilosophia Yisraelit, ed. M. Halamish [Tel Aviv, 1982], pp. 72-91.

2. Rambam's Ethics: This subject is very complex and has been subject to many conflicting interpretations. Some of the issues in dispute are the relationship between the Rambam's "Middle Path" and Aristotle's "Golden Mean;" the relationship between the chakham and chasid (sage and saint) in Rambam's writings; the Rambam's different accounts of his ethical system in his various works (Shemoneh Perakim, Mishneh Torah, Moreh Nevukhim); and the Rambam's ideal of human perfection. For a presentation of the various opinions on the last issue, and a treatment of the previous issues, see Menachem Kellner, Maimonides on Human Perfection [Atlanta, 1990].

3. The Dialectical Nature of the "Middle Road": The interpretation proposed by Rav Soloveitchik is recorded by Rav Walter Wurzburger in his article, "Alienation and Exile," Tradition 6:2 (1964), reprinted in A Treasury of Tradition, eds. R. N. Lamm and R. W. Wurzburger [NY, 1967], pp. 93-103. It can also be found in Rav Wurzburger's book, Ethics of Responsibility [Philadelphia, 1994], pp. 100-101.


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