Arts & Culture

Lonely Man of Faith: Soloveitchik

Modern Orthodoxy: to many non-Orthodox Jews, this phrase is simply a contradiction in terms. How, after all, could the belief in divine authorship of the Tanakh be compatible with "modern" ways of looking at the world, "modern theoretical" frameworks through … Read More

By / September 4, 2009

Modern Orthodoxy: to many non-Orthodox Jews, this phrase is simply a contradiction in terms. How, after all, could the belief in divine authorship of the Tanakh be compatible with "modern" ways of looking at the world, "modern theoretical" frameworks through which truth is found, and "modern" life in general? The new film, "The Lonely Man of Faith: The Life and Times of Joseph B. Soloveitchik," reminds us that we have a guide in answering this question. The Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik–the pre-eminient modern Orthodox scholar of the past century–helped lead the modern Orthodox over this interpretive divide. The film, produced by Ethan Isenberg, takes the Rav’s most famous philosophical treatise for its title, and gives us an impetus to look at the thought of the Rav once again. 1. Doublets and DH When examining the Tanakh, contemporary religious studies scholars–contemporary being perhaps a less loaded term than "modern"–and some progressive clergy, subscribe to the Documentary Hypothesis (DH), which states that there are at least four writers of the Torah, all of whom wrote separate works that were later pieced together by a redactor. Such scholars often cite "doublets" in which two different versions of the same story appear. By thorough linguistic analysis possible only for those with an extremely intimate knowledge of ancient Hebrew, believers in DH cite turns of phrases, syntactic patterns, and units of grammar to distinguish between sections they believe were written by different authors. To the non-Hebrew speaker, and even to Hebrew speakers who only know modern Hebrew, it’s all a bit too specialized and confusing to follow; however scholar Richard Elliot Friedman in Who Wrote The Bible argues the case compellingly by italicizing the verses written by one proposed author while leaving the other verses in their regular form. When one reads the italicized verses on their own, followed by the non-italicized, the result is what appears to be two disparate and smoothly executed pieces of writing combined into one that is comparably confusing.   Some non-Orthodox Jews love Torah despite its inconsistences; for other non-orthodox, DH can explain away the inconsistencies. For Orthodox Jews, however, Torah is the divine word of God. Inconsistencies cannot be explained away as the result of multiple authors. Their teaching is that there was ultimately only one Divine author and that the work, no matter how confusing, coheres into something comprehensible and profound. This being said, it would be dangerously wrong to assume that Jews who acknowledge the divine provenance of the Tanakh are, or ever have been, passive in their approach to Torah study.  Historically, and still today, "doublets" give rise to midrash, interpretation. In the words of Dr. Jacob Neusner, professor of Jewish theology at Bard College: Midrash minimizes the authority of the wording of the text as communication, normal language. It places the focus on the reader and the personal struggle of the reader to reach an acceptable moral application of the text. While it is always governed by the wording of the text, it allows for the reader to project his or her inner struggle into the text. This allows for some very powerful and moving interpretations which, to the ordinary user of language, seem to have very little connection with the text. The great weakness of this method is that it always threatens to replace the text with an outpouring of personal reflection. At its best it requires the presence of mystical insight not given to all readers. It is through this lens that a Non-Orthodox Jew can begin to understand Joseph B. Solovetichik, author of The Lonely Man of Faith, a foundational text of modern Orthodox Jewish philosophy. 2. Becoming The Rav Born in 1903 in the town of Pruzhany, whose governing state at the time was Russia, and today Belarus, Joseph S. Solovetichik was primarily educated as a child by his father Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik, a highly respected Talmudic scholar of the time, but deeply influenced by his mother, Pesha, who impressed on her young son a taste for secular literature in multiple languages.  A scion of a rabbinic line on both sides of his family, the young Joseph Soloveitchik was also heavily influenced by his grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, who developed a revolutionary form of Talmudic learning. The "Brisker Method," as it came to be known, required Talmud students to divide copious tracts of Talmudic datum into clusters. Afterwards, these clusters would be examined and analyzed for precise definition, concept by concept. Before this point, contradiction and ambiguities were discussed and discussed and discussed until reconciliations could be found–or not found as the case might. Today, there are debates in the Orthodox world as to whether the Brisker method should be the sole method through which Talmud study should be undertaken. Its influence, however, is undeniable. Forced to leave Russia, by foot, with his parents and siblings duing the Bolshevik revolution, the young Joseph would eventually land in Poland, where his mother, Pesha, prevailed upon her husband to allow their son to undertake a secular education. Later on, the Rav–an honorific recognizing brilliance amongst Orthodox Jews– would study political science at the Free University of Warsaw, followed by philosophy at the University of Berlin. By this point, an ordained Rabbi, in Germany he come into contact with the works of Christian thinkers such as Søren Kierkegaard, Rudolph Otto, and Karl Bardt who followed the Neo-Kantian school of thought that stressed "the dialectical approach to reality." In laymen’s terms, "the dialectical approach to reality" means that opposing and contradictory ideas are not to be feared but rather need to be confronted head-on in order to find meaning, thus enriching religious life, not stifling it. Coming from a background of Talmudic studies, in which differing ideas and interpretations of Jewish law are central, it wasn’t difficult for The Rav to apply neo-Kantian thought to Judaism. 3. Lonely Man of Faith The Rav’s most famous work, The Lonely Man of Faith, explores the meaning behind what Orthodox Jews might term the "seeming" contradictions in the two Adam stories in the book of Genesis, or what believers in DH would call "a doublet." The Rav alludes to DH early on when he writes: We all know that the Bible offers two accounts of the creation of man. We are also aware of the theory suggested by Bible critics attributing these accounts to two different traditions and sources… we reject this hypothesis which is based, like much biblical criticism, on literal categories created by modern man. Adam the first, writes The Rav, is commanded by God "to fill the earth and subdue it" while Adam the second is "charged with the duty to cultivate the garden and keep it." Adam the first represents "the natural work community," a collective of people whose goals can be measured through quantifiable standards, while Adam the second represents the "covenantal community" whose concern is to stave off "loneliness."  In simplistic terms that truly do not capture the depth of The Rav’s thought, Adam the first is pragmatic, and his interest and fascination in the cosmos is largely caught up in this-worldly activities that can be anything from running a successful business to developing cures for illnesses to exploring space. He looks to the religious community for comfort, and through the mercurial lens that treats religious faith like a transaction: what can Judaism do for me?  Adam the first is interested in just a single aspect of reality and asks one question only-"How does the cosmos function? He is not fascinated by the question "Why does the cosmos function at all?’ nor is he interested in the question, "What is its essence?"  He is only curious to know how it works…. He is complete utilitarian as far as motivation, teleology, design and methodology are concerned…. In contrast, Adam the second is arguably more child-like, more innocent. He is fascinated by the cosmos for its own sake. His longing for answers does not come from any desire to use them to any other end but to be close with God. [Adam the second] wants to know: "Why is it? What is it? Who is it? He Wonders: "Why did the world in its totality come into existence ? Why is man confronted by this stupdendous and indifferent order of things and events?’ He asks: "What is the purpose of all this? What is the message that is embedded in organic and  inorganic matter and what does the great challenge reaching me from beyond he fringes of he universe as well as from the depths of tormented soul mean? Soloveitchik does not favor either Adam; he merely believes that humans in the modern era are overly concerned with the utilitarianism of Adam the first to the detriment of Adam the second, and that the fullness of religious life comes from balancing both.  As such, Jews who do not subscribe to Orthodoxy and who are more likely to ascribe the Adam doublet to DH can still enjoy, and in fact, be inspired by Soloveitchik’s examination of the Adams as powerful archetypes.  Does the Rav ever–to borrow a phase from Jacob Neusner–"replace the text with an outpouring of personal reflection"? The beauty of his work is that he doesn’t.  His personal reflections do not amount to more than a single page in this extended book-length essay, and when they do they are honest and succinct, without being maudlin or saccharine , and are used only to create a solid base upon which to build a philosophy out of loneliness. I am lonely because in my humble, inadequate way, I am a man of faith for whom to be means to believe and who substituted "credo" for "cogito" in the time- honoured Cartesian maxim. [italics added]

4. Isenberg’s Film Film is not the best medium for philosophy; those wanting to get a sense of his philosophy are much better off reading his books, preferably about four or five times since each additional reading will undoubtedly yield something new. The aim of the film instead is the impact of the man. What works so well is the combination of audiovisual sources, of sound and imagery. The footage of Bolsheviks on galloping horseback on their way to wreak destruction; the photos of the young Rav as a bold and dark-eyed, handsome clean-shaven student, minus the yarmulke and his beautiful wife to be, Tonya,  in round spectacles who, at the time he met her, was earning her doctorate in education; the narration by multiple-award-winning actress Tovah Feldshuh; the jazz score in combination with photographic cityscapes of Berlin. In the midst of all this, the audience learns about the debates his father had with his students about the Maimonides, debated the Rav overheard as a child; his years as a philosophy student in Berlin; his move with his wife and daughter to New York City where his father was teaching; his clashes with ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders who opposed Zionism on the religious grounds that the messiah had not yet comes; the kashrut scandal in Boston in which he exposed for the world to see both the exploitation of factory workers and the reality that kashrut standards were not followed; his fights with the Boston Jewish to create a Jewish day school at a time of rife anti-Semitism; and his insistence on girl’s and women’s education in the Orthodox community.  The details covered, that might have well been dizzying in the hands of an inferior filmmaker, could not have been more smoothly employed under Isenberg’s direction. In simple terms, regardless of religion or religious orientation, the film is a joy to watch. In terms of his philosophy, can it have an impact outside the Modern Orthodox Jewish community?  Yes, if one is willing to suspend religious skepticism long enough treat Adam the first and Adam the second as archetypes. Should the modern reader subscribe to the Documentary Hypothesis, the very theory Solovetichik rejected, he or she can gain a greater appreciation through Solveitchik for the beauty and artistry in which "the redactor," the mysterious person who compiled these disparate Adam stories together, knit them into a single text. The redactor, acting in the capacity as a modern editor, allowed for the full nuances of ambiguity to be explored, culminating into Solveitchik’s brilliant and poetic casuistry that can enrich Jews of all intellectual and spiritual orientations, so long as the said reader can let go of the idea of there needing to be a completely consistent text.