Part 2 of 7: Rav Soloveitchik- Religious Definitions of Man and his Social Institutions (1958)

Continued from part one here.

This lecture is probably the most important in the series, in that it explores paths and ideas not continued in later versions.  This one has the core of his presentation of existential loneliness. Existentialism says that humans experience isolation, meaninglessness, and death. These absolute given elements in the human experience cause all of us to suffer in our lives. Whether you believe in a divine power or not, we do exist, and in our existence, we all experience pain and suffering. Existentialism offers us a way to discover our true, authentic selves through the pain and suffering.

The goal of Rav Soloveitchik’s project is to take legal norms and construct from them moral norms and religious experience.  Rav Soloveitchik arms himself with Emil Brunner’s Divine Imperative and Max Scheler’s On Sympathy, a pair of source books that are not on the shelves of his readers. From Brunner he receives the ideal that we need to reject Enlightenment individualism, but still keep the modern scientific dignity of man.  From Scheler, he took turning to God in our loneliness. He also takes his knowledge of Freud and critique of Freud.

Many years ago before I started a lecture,  I asked: What do Soloveitchik, Heschel, and John Paul  II have in common? Someone called out “They  were all born in Poland” which completely derailed my intended opening discussion of the fact that they all extensively used Max Scheler. In this lecture, we see Rav Soloveitchik considering positions closer to Heschel, such as the concept that the lonely God is in search of man and that there is a bond of sympathy. The difference between the two remains that for the latter the moment of sympathy is a prophetic peak, and for the former it reveals the depth of out suffering.  Here we have God as emotional and lonely; His very being is his aloneness. Humans reach out to the one being that can understand their loneliness. The later draft of Lonely Man of Faith does not entertain these ideas.

He developed his ideas on prayer in a series given the prior year of 1957 and in this talk we occasionally see the ideas from that earlier series breaking through. In my write up,  I collected these comments into a single section. There is a decent transcription of the prayer lectures floating around.

In this version, Rav Soloveitchik clearly cites his sources, albeit under his breath at times, and probably had full quotations with citation in his notebooks. However, there are unattributed citations in Lonley Man of Faith that are almost word for word. The question is where in the editing process did the text lose the quotation marks and then lose the citation?

To continue to drive home the sense of the era,  Thomas Clayton Wolfe (1900 – 1938) author of Look Homeward, Angel wrote an essay God’s Lonely Man (undated as an essay) Excerpt:

“The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. When we examine the moments, acts, and statements of all kinds of people — not only the grief and ecstasy of the greatest poets, but also the huge unhappiness of the average soul…we find, I think, that they are all suffering from the same thing. The final cause of their complaint is loneliness.”

Once again, listen to it yourself here. Please post in the comments any useful observations on the Rav’s thought, the editing process, or explication. My notes are just tentative guides. First person here is Rav Soloveitchik. My comments have my initials.

Lecture #2

Part 1 The tension of the individual and community

Part 2 – The distinctive element of Judaism is our loneliness even in community.  Also anti medieval tangent

Part 3 – God is lonely

Part 4 Turning to God in our loneliness and suffering, Freud via Scheler

Part 5 Prayer

Part 6 Other psychologies

Part I The individual and the Community

The question that opens this lecture is the relationship of individual and community. Soloveitchik claims that In the classical period, they did not have community but only a universal philosophic sense. The Greeks were not about a state but rather the abstract principles of government.  His goal will be to try to interpret the Greek philosophy and classical influence asking translates into modern categories? And by modern I do not mean contemporary.

There are two doctrines of the relationship of the individual and community with which Judaism disagrees violently with both

The first is the Individualistic. For the Individualist, conceived by the Enlightenment, being is its own entity, the goal is freedom, and a person is not indebted to anything. (We hear an echo in the Declaration of independence.  In the beginning are the individual and people retain autonomy even after they join a community. The model is Robinson Crusoe alone on his island. Dilthey and Brunner have similar ideas and compare this approach to atomized matter and particles.

The opposite approach that we disagree with is idealism, a supra-individual.  Here the individual is subsumed as part of a bigger group-, class, mankind, or objective spirit of Hegel and Marx.

I developed last time that Judaism is not individualistic even if accepts logic of age of reason

[AB- Where is his characterization of the Greek polis from? Most books on Judaism in the 1960’s cite this critique of individualism in the name of Heschel. This explicit piece of Brunner is unattributed in Lonely Man of Faith.]

Part 2 – The Distinctive element of Judaism as loneliness in community & anti medieval

Judaism is a new idea. What are the distinctive elements in man?

The most important for Maimonides is the intellect. In Maimonides’ Moreh Nevukhin it is first and foremost the intellect. However, Medieval philosophy of religion- Maimonides, Saadyah, Halevi, Bahye, they were children of their time and their thought was colored by Neoplatonism. Maimonides was a mystic and Neoplatonist. “Sometimes you are dealing with Maimonides as a Jewish scholar and he vanishes and you have Maimonides the student of Aristotle.”

Therefore the sources are not reliable as a guide of Judaism, halakhah is the  only source that is reliable Extraneous influences did not reach it “as much.” But it is preserved as laws, and we need to construct religious experience and personality from it. From halkahic sources we need to create philosophy and religious experience beyond legal norms.

We have to be modest – Judaism has not given much to [Western] culture and not given much to world.

What we have given to the world and we should take credit for it is that man is a lonely being, humans are lonely, and this is what sets us apart from nature. In contrast, the Enlightenment Individual theory of being is atomistic and has no differentiation and does not differentiate experiences.

To be dignified, we need to be specific as people and differentiated into difference (Brunner). According to Thomas Jefferson, we are all equal. But this is false, Judaism greatness is the uniqueness of each person.

Image of god is that man is lonely

We have estrangement from creation and the natural order in general. Even on the social level- even in midst of crowded Time Square, there is a huge gulf of the individual and the community

[AB  Emil Bruner says many of the same points about moving beyond enlightenment reason to loneliness and community on pages 211, 487, 509, 703. Brunner concludes that individual reason is opposed to the lonely life of faith which joins with others on community.

Part III – God is Lonely

Judaism is monotheistic therefore the Shema means that God is not just a numerical one but that He is only one, unique and solidary. But the real meaning is that Shema Yisrael – The Lord is lonely

Medieval commentaries- understood it to mean unique, even moderns like Leopold Zunz- also translated it this way.  The “one” for Maimonides when translated into modern terms is best done as Rudolf Otto’s numinous, negative theology is the numinous. We cannot saw anything about God, it is called negative theology- see Maimonides’ Guide I: 60 – page 88 and I:61

The attributes of God are mostly not the same as ours.  If he is not like us, then he is alone and lonely.

Yahid means “only one,” In Deut 32:12 it means by God alone. God is the lonely one. He is a cloud-in Psalm 97 “Clouds and thick darkness surround him.”

[AB –Rav Soloveitchik translates Neoplatonism into Rudolf Otto’s- incommunicable. There was a parable written by Arthur Waskow, Before There Was A Before (with David Waskow, and Shoshana Waskow, Adama Books, 1984) about God’s loniliness, which he overcame through his chesed. Soloveitchik did not make any use of the rest of the verse in Psalm 97 “righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.”]

Part IV Max Scheler on Sympathy- Freud, Heschel’s God in Search for Man

Freud and other psychologists seek to cure suffering. But there is no cure.  Loneliness is not just negative, it expresses the depth of human dignity and greatness. Loneliness is part of human greatness. In Psalm 8,  “what are mere mortals, that you concern yourself with them humans, that you watch over them with such care? Leads to “You made him but little lower than the angels, you crowned him with glory and honor,

Suffering, the inner depth type bases on human loneliness, leads to religious experience, there is a need for suffering for religion.

If God is not hidden from humanity then there can be no social development for humanity. Therefore God must be hidden and remain alone and hidden. God is lonely.God reaches out to man and man reaches out to God. God searches for man. It is God’s search for man.

Drama of greatness of human experience requires suffering. Man is lonely. We have our disgust with life and everything the good life offers man. We respond in lonely silence and quietude in offering ourselves up to God.

Freud claims that religion is infantilizing  Freud is right that the experience is as a child toward a father – that is the one who takes care of you when you are helpless. But he is wrong about the underlying sorrow, the insecurity and the need to cast ourselves to God when we are downcast. It is not childish but the correct response, see Psalm 55:23.

Freud is wrong because turning to God is the correct way for dealing with suffering and crushing defeat. I find shelter in God. Man cannot turn to another person because a person is also lonely. He can only turn to God who reaches out to him. [AB- Max Scheler’s Catholic students used this point to justify the suffering and love of Jesus.]

[AB- In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930)delves into how religion is one of many modes of being that arise out of the need for the individual to distance and soothe itself in the face of the suffering that exists within the world. Freud claims that the ‘purpose of life is simply the programme of the pleasure principle but the”displacement of the libido” – instead of satisfying our libidinal desires, we channel them into creative endeavors.

Max Scheler responds in On the Nature of Sympathy of the the capacity to apprehend the pain, suffering, or signs of negative emotions and to respond to these with appropriate negative feelings. What the non-suffering person does for the sufferer isn’t as important as the fact that they do it with as much love as possible.]

V Prayer – Tangents from the audience after the mention of loneliness and prayer.

What is prayer?  Without loneliness we have no prayer. Plotinus described the “alone to the alone,” the  loneliness of prayer.

The Greeks only have aesthetic hymns and odes, not prayer. There are hymns in Judaism but they are not the main form of prayer. Jewish prayer concerns the suffering of man.We have distress therefore  we call out to God. Prayer is selfish, it is for our needs We need depth distress for prayer [AB- Rav Soloveitchik speeds up and talks animated about prayer. There is a gap in tape in this section.)

Prayer is dialogue with the lonely man- only two people are present man and God. Liberal Judaism did away with silent prayer because they think no one is lonely  I don’t want to preach Orthodoxy but this is what’s wrong with the family pew. Why is family pew wrong? The modern man wants to be confortable. He does not want crushing defeat; he does not acknowledge that he is a lonely individual, that ultimately he is isolated and alone without family. Therefore, we never let a child and father sit next to each other in shul. (He was asked for the source for this.) He answered that it is the Ram”a , “that one should not embrace or kiss his child in synagogue is the source. We all sit as lonely and defeated in shul. The Synagogue is not family time and is not community time. We need a place to prayer but not in a community sense.

We have knelling and bowing  in prayer to show that we fall in complete defeat before God. [Another gap in the tape.]

Prayer can be recited in every language-, but should be in Hebrew since translation is hard

[AB-notice how not kissing children is used as the philosophic equivalent of not siting together.]

VI- Other Psychologies

The psychological idea of “peace of mind” is wrong. It requires that I am successful and can avoid suffering. [AB- Joshua Liebman, a Reform rabbi wrote a 1950’s bestseller Peace of Mind – claiming religion as a peace of mind and a good family life is the goal of religion- it was used extensively for the explanation of the commandments by both Maurice and Norman Lamm.]

We Jews believe two types of crisis: environmental and being. –The former is famine/war/pestilence and the latter is the permanent distress of being.

When someone dies there is distress of grieving – we don’t share with the mourner the pain and suffering, we are not real in our grief. One can be a rabbi and pay a shiva call and not share the pain at all. One can, however, have a smooth tongue and be a big liar. Every must personally experience loneliness by themselves.

“I am beginning to become a bore” but only humans have a depth reality. A stone only exists in relations to others. But man exists for himself. (AB- cf Levinas where man exists for others, and Heschel where we exist in sympathy with God.)

Behaviorism , is a school of psychology that defines man just as his activities. It equates man and chimps There is more to man than his behavior. There is depth existence, selfhood, personal experience,

Read Henrik Ibsen – man is weak, women stronger. They have the depth of self.

Man is not captured by externally watching his actions. One cannot communicate the inner self. This teaching of the self is Judaism. One never overcome loneliness

AB-From the poet Carl Sandburg during the same years

When God scooped up a handful of dust, And spit on it, and molded the shape of man, And blew a breath into it and told it to walk, that was a great day. And did God do this because He was lonely? Did God say to Himself he must have company And therefore He would make man to walk the earth And set apart churches for speech and song with God? These are questions. They are scrawled in old caves. They are painted in tall cathedrals. There are men and women so lonely they believe God, too, is lonely. *** Carl Sandburg

4 responses to “Part 2 of 7: Rav Soloveitchik- Religious Definitions of Man and his Social Institutions (1958)

  1. Lawrence Kaplan

    Alan: I started listening to the lecture, and have only heard the beginning. You misheard one key sentence. The Rav said “by modern philosophy I do NOT mean contemporary philosophy, but modern philosophy in terms of the enlightenment or age of reason.”

    • thanks. Please let me know any others. If you have any answers to my questions, then please let me know. Also do you know anything about the setting in which these talks were given or how the notebooks became the essay Lonely Man of Faith?

  2. Lawrence Kaplan

    Unfortunately, I do not know the answers to the questions in your last sentence. I hope to comment more fully once I have had the chance to hear the whole lecture.

  3. As a side note to all this, the auction house Kestenbaum and Company is auctioning this Wednesday a copy of Heschel’s Torah min HaShamayim autographed by Heschel as a gift to Soloveitchik.

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