Tag Archives: Joseph B. Soloveitchik

The One Side of the Coin

As a matter of fact, at the level of his cosmic confrontation with God, man is faced with an exasperating paradox. On the one hand, he beholds God in every nook and corner of creation, in the flowering plant, in the rushing of the tide, and in the movement of his own muscle, as if God were at hand, close to and beside man, engaging him in a friendly dialogue. And yet the very moment man turns his face to God, he finds Him remote, un-approachable, enveloped in transcendence and mystery. Did not Isaiah behold God, exalted and enthroned above creation, and at the same time, the train of his skirts filling the Temple, the great universe, from the flying nebulae to one’s most intimate heartbeat? Did not the angels sing holy, holy, holy, transcendent, transcendent, transcendent, yet He is the Lord of hosts, who resides in every infinitesimal particle of creation and the whole universe is replete with His glory?

-Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
from Chapter VI of his book
The Lonely Man of Faith

Fusing the existential acuity of Kierkegaard with the wisdom of the Old Testament, Boston Orthodox rabbi Soloveitchik has produced a timeless spiritual guide for men and women of all religions. In this soaring, eloquent essay, first published in Tradition magazine in 1965, “The Rav,” as he is known to his followers worldwide, investigates the essential aloneness of the person of faith, whom he deems a misfit in our narcissistic, technologically oriented, utilitarian society. Using the story of Adam and Eve as a springboard, Soloveitchik explains prayer as “the harbinger of moral reformation” and probes the despair and exasperation of individuals who seek to redeem existence through direct knowledge of a God who seems remote and unapproachable. Although the faithful may become members of a “convenantal community,” their true home, he writes, is “the abode of loneliness” as they shuttle between the transcendent and the mundane. Sudden shafts of illumination confront the reader at every turn in this inspirational personal testament.

-from Publishers Weekly, 1992

Rabbi Soloveitchik uses the two descriptions of the creation of man from the first two chapters of Genesis to illustrate the two natures of humanity: the physical nature and the spiritual nature. I’m being very simplistic in this explanation, but as I read Soloveitchik, the basic conflict of any person of faith is in the dichotomy of the natural and supernatural human being. The first seeks significance and even triumph in domination over the created world, while the second sees transcendence beyond the world, to peek, as it were, under the hood, and to touch the very garment of the Creator.

Christianity’s response to this dilemma is to completely separate the physical and the spiritual, giving the latter ascendance and (ideally) priority over the former (it doesn’t often work out this way). This creates a barrier between the “two Adams” who, living in one flesh, travel in two apparently opposite directions. However, maybe Judaism has another approach:

Yula is an enlightened being. He spends his life in the wilderness, far from humanity, focusing his mind on the higher realms.

Harriet Goldberg is a schoolteacher. She spends her life cultivating small minds, hoping to give them a sense of wonder for the world they live in.

Who is closer to G-d?

That depends. Where is G-d?

If G‑d emanated a world spontaneously, dispassionately—just as the sun provides us light and warmth without any investment on its part—then G-d is found beyond this world, and Yula is closer.

But if G-d created a world deliberately, because that is what He desires and cares for, and so He invested Himself within that creation, so that His very essence and being can be found here, then Harriet is closer.

You choose.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“How to be Spiritual”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Then again, maybe not. But do we really have to make a choice between Yula and Harriet? Why must one be closer to God than the other? Isn’t there room in God’s throne room or His heart for both?

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok of Lubavitch wrote:

When my grandmother, the Rebbetzin Rivkah, was eighteen years old she fell ill and the doctor ordered that she eat immediately upon waking. But grandmother, who did not wish to eat before prayer, would pray at an early hour and only afterwards eat her breakfast.

When her father-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, heard of this, he said to her: “A Jew must be healthy and strong. Concerning the precepts of the Torah it is written “live in them”- one is to infuse life into the mitzvos; and in order to infuse life into the mitzvos, one must be fit and joyful.”

Concluded Rabbi Menachem Mendel: “Better to eat in order to pray, than to pray in order to eat.”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
Commentary on Torah Portion Acharei
Leviticus 21:1-24:23

Here we see that the physical is ascendant over the spiritual, but only so the former can serve the latter’s purpose. However, Rabbi Freeman has another way of looking at the human condition:

There are crossroads where you choose not only your future, but your past as well.

Take one path, and your past becomes but a silly, useless dream that might as well never have happened.

Take another road, and your past becomes a magnificent frame for a glorious moment of life. The moment now. The moment for which your soul was formed.

—Padah B’shalom, 5738

Future and past, humanity and Divinity, secular and spiritual, each human being, perhaps even those who refuse to acknowledge the possibility of God, stands at the center of a room with two doors, each leading into two directions that are impossible to fuse into a single path.

But each of us is only a single being. While Rabbi Soloveitchik uses the two different descriptions of the creation of Adam to illustrate these separate paths, in fact, Adam was one man who was created into two worlds. He was commanded to dominate and rule over a physical Creation, but he was also directed to transcendently guard Creation for the sake of Heaven. When man fell, it did not destroy the “second Adam,” it just made it harder for the two paths to unite into a single journey.

Since the day when Adam and Eve were rejected by Eden, we have been trying to walk both east and west in search of God. Where might He be found; in the Heavens above, or in the earth below?

Ironically, we find Him at once in both, which is just plain confusing to most people. To solve the confusion, some men turn only to Heaven while others choose to observe Him only in how He manifests in nature. One extreme imprisons God in the realm of spirituality while the other traps Him on earth or worse, leads man to worship only the observable.

At the end of the book of Exodus, God dwelt among His people in the “form” of the Shekhinah, which indeed seemed to possess a heaviness and “substance” within the material world. But God did not cease to exist as the infinite and unknowable Ein Sof in His highest Heavens.

Is God found in the human heart and in the unattainable mystic domains beyond man’s ability to conceive? Most certainly. But where does that leave man? How can we find God when He exists in two impossibly incompatible realms?

I don’t know. I only know that the reason both “Adams” are lonely is not just because of their great difficulty in attaching to God, but because of the near impossibility in talking to each other. Two essences are trapped in one flesh, the first being completely at home there and the second being a complete foreigner.

But we can’t live, one without the other. The material man without the spiritual man, is just a machine who perceives only the world around him and is unable, by default, to understand anything else. God is lost to him or man himself becomes his own “god.” The spiritual man without the material man is at best, indifferent to the physical world and obsessed with ephemeral mysticism. At worst, he is just plain dead. In this extreme, if we refuse to eat and drink in order to “better” pray to God, we starve our bodies and deny our lives.

But God made us as both and for the length of our earthly existence, this is who we are. Man struggles to make his peace with God but in reality, we cannot be at peace with our Creator until we find peace within ourselves. The Adams must learn to live with each other and to appreciate and embrace both sets of priorities, not as incompatible opposites, but as two fused sides to a single coin.

God cannot be anything but the unique and radical One. We human beings, created in His image, are two, but as two we are incomplete. We must also be One, as He is One. That is the destination to which we are striving all our lives to attain.

Perhaps that’s the answer to how we must be holy as God is holy and how we must be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect. We must be One, as God is One.

In the end, the coin will only have one side.


The Chaotic Serene Garden

I have no problem-solving thoughts. I do not intend to suggest a new method of remedying the human situation which I am about to describe; neither do I believe that it can be remedied at all. The role of the man of faith, whose religious experience is fraught with inner conflicts and incongruities, who oscillates between ecstasy in God’s companionship and despair when he feels abandoned by God, and who is torn asunder by the heightened contrast between self-appreciation and abnegation, has been a difficult one since the times of Abraham and Moses. It would be presumptuous of me to attempt to convert the passional, antinomic faith-experience into a eudaemonic, harmonious one, while the Biblical knights of faith lived heroically with this very tragic and paradoxical experience.

All I want is to follow the advice given by Elihu, the son of Berachel of old, who said, “I will speak that I may find relief”; for there is a redemptive quality for an agitated mind in the spoken word, and a tormented soul finds peace in confessing.

-Joseph B. Soloveitchik
from the Foreword of his book
The Lonely Man of Faith

In many ways, reading the first part of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s book is like looking in a mirror. Well, not exactly. He was born over half a century before I was and after all, I’m not Jewish, let alone a Rabbi. Yet everything he says about his own experience and the experience of a man of faith completely reflects my own thoughts, feelings, and uneasy journey with God.

I’ve talked before about trying to find a storyteller who speaks in metaphors I can understand, and so far Rabbi Soloveitchik is one of those storytellers. I don’t think I’ll ever know why men like Rabbi Tzvi Freeman and even the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of righteous memory, use “my metaphors” so much more clearly than any Christian author I’ve ever read. It is true that Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk, spoke very well and clearly to some parts of me in his book The Seven Storey Mountain, but that’s something of a rarity.

I’m not going to presume a Jewish soul, and in so many ways, I’m such a Goy (at least according to my Jewish wife), so I really don’t have an answer. But at least as far as my reading up to the end of Chapter 1 is concerned, Rabbi Soloveitchik is speaking in a language that could apply to people of many different faiths, not just to the Jew.

And he’s talking about exactly what I experience.

I have a confession to make. There were times when I thought I was going crazy. There were times when I thought I was just a bad Christian, a person with a bad or weak faith, someone who just didn’t “get” what it was to walk on a path that leads to God. And yet just look at how Rabbi Soloveitchik starts the first chapter of his book:

The nature of the dilemma can be stated in a three-word sentence. I am lonely. Let me emphasize, however, that by stating “I am lonely” I do not intend to convey to you that impression that I am alone. I, thank God, do enjoy the love and friendship of many. I meet people, talk, preach, argue, reason; I am surrounded by comrades and acquaintances. And yet, companionship and friendship do not alleviate the passional experience of loneliness which trails me constantly. I am lonely because at times I feel rejected and thrust away by everybody, not excluding my own intimate friends, and the words of the Psalmist, “My father and my mother have forsaken me,” ring quite often in my ears like the plaintive cooing of the turtledove. It is a strange, alas, absurd experience engendering sharp, enervating pain as well as stimulating, cathartic feeling. I despair because I am lonely and, hence feel frustrated. On the other hand, I also feel invigorated because this very experience of loneliness presses everything in me into the service of God.

While Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writing style is very different from mine, what he’s actually saying is just what I’ve been trying to say for a long as I have been blogging. Actually, it’s been a lot longer than that, but blogging has provided me with a unique outlet for my frustration and my need to “follow the advice given by Elihu, the son of Berachel of old” and to “speak that I may find relief.”

Joseph Ber Soloeitchik was born over a century ago, was an American Orthodox rabbi, Talmudist and modern Jewish philosopher, and a descendant of the Lithuanian Jewish Soloveitchik rabbinic dynasty. The words of his book first appeared in print over fifty years ago, when I was still in elementary school. He died at the age of 90 nearly twenty years ago and a continent away from where I was living at the moment his soul ascended to God. I don’t imagine that we would have had a lot in common had we ever met.

Except for how we experience our faith.

Maybe I’m not crazy after all. Maybe faith is designed to be lonely, inconsistent, and chaotic, like riding a roller coaster that alternately travels through a beautiful and serene Japanese garden and the fresh hell of a radioactive Chernobyl.

If I can take the beginning words of the Rav’s book at face value, I guess my journey of faith will never get any easier, and my only solace is in “confessing” my “tortured soul” (in my case, as a blogger on the web). And yet, it’s nice to find out that I’m not alone in feeling alone in my faith.

I’ll let you know how the rest of the book turns out.