8. "Catharsis," Part 1

  • Rav Reuven Ziegler

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion



by Rav Ronnie Ziegler


LECTURE #7: "Catharsis," Part 1



I believe that "Catharsis" is one of Rav Soloveitchik's most important English essays, and it is likely that he also considered it as such. He packed so many ideas into such a small space that it is hard to do justice to this essay without simply quoting it in full. (Due to copyright laws, of course, this cannot be done; but I urge you once again to try to read in full all of the Rav's essays which I discuss in this series.)


Rav Soloveitchik presents a striking formulation of the Halakha's central demand of man: live heroically. Only by living heroically can man endow his life with transcendent meaning. However, in the Rav's reading, heroism (or gevura) is not what we usually understand it to be. It consists primarily of the capacity to withdraw, to overcome oneself, to purge or to purify one's existence. In the familiar words of the Mishna (Avot 4:1): "Who is a hero? He who conquers his desire."




The Rav draws a sharp contrast between the Biblical (Jewish) and the classical (Greek) understandings of heroism. Classical heroism is an aesthetic category; it is a grand gesture designed to impress an audience, to attain renown and thus immortality. By identifying with the image of the hero, "who dared to do the impossible and to achieve the grandiose," disenchanted and frustrated man could satisfy his vanity and imagine that he too shared in the reflected glory of the hero. "The mere myth of the hero gave the aesthete endless comfort ... hero worship is basically self-worship" (p. 42).


In contrast, Biblical heroism is neither the product of an ephemeral mood nor is it theatrical in nature.

"It is perhaps the central motif in our existential experience. It pervades the human mind steadily, and imparts to man a strange feeling of tranquility. The heroic person, according to our view, does not succumb to frenzy or excitement. Biblical heroism is not ecstatic but rather contemplative; not loud but hushed; not dramatic or spectacular but mute. The individual, instead of undertaking heroic action sporadically, lives constantly as a hero." (p. 42)

In practical terms, infusing all of one's life with heroism means living in accordance with Halakha, with its perpetual dialectic of bold advance and humble retreat (as explained both here and in "Majesty and Humility").


To take an example which I shall expand upon next week, the Rav portrays the heroism of a bride and groom who recoil from each other when the bride sees a speck of menstrual blood:

"Bride and bridegroom are young, physically strong and passionately in love with each other. Both have patiently waited for this rendezvous to take place. Just one more step and their love would have been fulfilled, a vision realized. Suddenly the bride and groom make a movement of recoil. He, gallantly, like a chivalrous knight, exhibits paradoxical heroism. He takes his own defeat. There is no glamor attached to his withdrawal. The latter is not a spectacular gesture, since there are no witnesses to admire and laud him. The heroic act did not take place in the presence of jubilating crowds; no bards will sing of these two modest, humble young people. It happened in the sheltered privacy of their home, in the stillness of the night. The young man, like Jacob of old, makes an about-face; he retreats at the moment when fulfilment seems assured." (pp. 45-46)




One of the prerequisites for halakhic heroism is the ability occasionally to overcome one's pragmatic, utilitarian, success-oriented judgment. This is what, borrowing a phrase from Kierkegaard, the Rav refers to as the "leap into the absurd." By "absurd" he does not mean ridiculous or irrational, but rather non-rational or meta-rational. As we noted in "Majesty and Humility," part of the ethic of humility is recognizing the limitations of one's intellect and accepting the dictates of a higher authority which we cannot always understand. (The Rav stresses in "The Lonely Man of Faith" that the fact that we cannot understand all of God's dictates does not mean that they lack reasons or that they are not beneficial to us.)


Our commitment to religion is total, embracing all aspects of our existence (of which the intellectual is but one). It is based not on rational assent to various propositions, but rather on a basic, pre-rational and super-rational experience of God. It is this that gives us the courage to confront daunting opposition, as Ya'akov did in his nocturnal struggle with a mysterious foe, and as the Jewish People have throughout our existence. It also gives us the strength to recoil at the very edge of victory, just as Ya'akov paradoxically freed his foe after having overcome him.




We are now in a position to appreciate the irony implicit in the Rav's choice of a title for this essay. "Catharsis" is a Greek term denoting purifying or purging (as when one purges gold of its impurities in a crucible). In his "Poetics," Aristotle defined the function of tragedy as catharsis of the emotions of terror and pity. Man is often troubled; he is full of anxieties which interfere with his social success. When he watches a tragic drama at the theater, he releases these emotions in a controlled and safe environment, emerging from the experience cleansed.


Although the Rav does not directly compare his notion of catharsis with that of Aristotle, the contrast is staggering (and certainly intentional). For the Rav, catharsis is not the passive response of a theatergoer but an active and demanding way of life. It is designed to attain not equanimity but redemption, to produce not an arrogant patrician but a sanctified personality balancing majesty and humility. While Greek tragedy teaches that man is an object acted upon by random forces and suffering an inexorable fate, Judaic catharsis is a means for man, as a subject, to connect himself actively to a higher destiny.




In contrast to the Rav's redefinition of catharsis, his redefinition of heroism is more subtle. He begins by presenting gevura as military victory, then gradually changes our understanding of it to include bold action taken contrary to pragmatic reasoning, and ends up by defining it as the paradoxical strength to withdraw, not to consummate victory.


This is a good example of a common phenomenon in Rav Soloveitchik's writings. He takes loaded terms which carry positive connotations in the ears of modern man - e.g. heroism, boldness, creativity, mastery, autonomy - and shows that they are really demanded by Judaism. These terms would seem to many to be the very antithesis of Jewish religiosity, which they perceive as being conservative to the point of ossification, and submissive to the point of slavishness. So what is the Rav doing when he applies these epithets to halakhic life? One of two things: either 1) informing us that these qualities, as we commonly understand them, are actually Jewish values; or 2) reinterpreting them (sometimes subtly) and showing us that the new understanding is part of Judaism. Clearly, we have here an instance of the second type. For the Rav, there is more heroism in humility than in majesty.


Why, then, does he use the term "heroic"? Again, there are two possibilities.

1) This could be a pedagogical device geared to make halakhic life more attractive to modern man - we have positive associations with the word "heroic," so we will be attracted to something described this way. Eventually, we will come to appreciate the values inherent in the new definition of heroism.

2) He is uncovering a deeper or more authentic meaning of the term. At the core of the concept of heroism (or creativity, autonomy, etc.), there is a powerful idea which, over the generations, has been covered with layers of dross. If we remove some of our preconceived noti, if we perceive things within a framework of kedusha and avodat Hashem, then we will behold the positive root of the idea in its pristine purity. Or, perhaps, in another formulation: the idea itself is neutral and can be turned in better or worse directions depending on the surrounding framework within which we see it.


I leave it to the reader to decide which possibility is most applicable here.


Another noteworthy aspect of Rav Soloveitchik's writing is his ability to reveal striking new meanings in familiar sources, often by simply placing them within a new frame of reference. For example, the Rav bases his thesis in this essay on Rabbinic maxims such as, "The commandments were given to purge mankind" (Bereishit Rabba, 44) and "Who is a hero? He who conquers his desire" (Avot 4:1). But we had never really understood these aphorisms in quite this way before. Sometimes, after hearing the Rav's explanation, it is hard to imagine how we had previously understood these sayings.


[Yet another innovative aspect of the Rav's writing is the way he reshapes our understanding of various mitzvot through his unforgettable descriptions of their emotional components. We will deal with this in lectures #9 and #10.]




Let us return briefly to a question we raised in the last shiur. Is the halakhic dialectic one of advance-retreat-advance, or one of advance ending in retreat? Once again, we find differing indications of the Rav's position. On page 43 he talks of a two-part dialectic, while on the very next page he discusses a three-stage dialectic. His statement that "[M]an is called, following the movement of withdrawal, to advance once again, toward full victory" (p. 46), stands in stark contrast to his statement in "Majesty and Humility" that "defeat is built into the very structure of victory ... there is, in fact, no total victory; man is finite, so is his victory" (p. 36).


Although "Catharsis" does, overall, stress the importance of the third stage of resuming the forward march, it nevertheless ends on a note highlighting retreat: "He hath showed thee, man, what is good, and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to move forward boldly, to triumph over and subdue thy environment, and to retreat humbly when victory is within thy grasp" (p. 54). As I stressed last week, this duality in the Rav's approach does not reflect confusion but rather a dialectic within his concept of defeat.




Dividing our "total existential experience" into four realms (the aesthetic-hedonic, emotional, intellectual and religious), Rav Soloveitchik shows how catharsis applies to each. This section of the essay is particularly fascinating not only because we can directly apply it to our daily lives, but because the Rav provides powerful examples of catharsis in each realm. The themes developed here recur throughout the Rav's writings, testifying to their importance in his mind. Therefore, we will devote the next several lectures to the catharsis of these four realms, and to important issues raised by this discussion.


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