Rav Soloveitchik- Religious Definitions of Man and his Social Institutions part 1of 7 (1958)

I checked my stats the other day and my post from six months ago on “Rav Soloveitchik to Mental Health Professionals 1978” has unbeknownst to me slowly turned into my most read post, with a score of readers every day. So, I decided to do a few more. Let me know in the comments, what is the attraction?

The lecture “Religious Definitions of Man and his Social Institutions part 1of 7 (1958),” was the start of Rav Soloveitchik’s working out his Existential thoughts. His early writings from the 1940s consisted of epistemology, a comparison of Torah to science, the creation of a Halakhic intellectualism, and ways to be this worldly. In 1958, Rav Soloveitchik started working out his response to existentialism, psychology, and the role of the individual. He did this by taking notes on books which he thought were important and offered his comments. The books he used will reveal themselves in the course of these lectures. These seven lectures were refined into the single lecture of Lonely Man of Faith (1966) and some of the material was used in other lectures from 1967-1974. For any future articles on Rav Soloveitchik and Lonley Man of Faith, these seven lectures are essential tools to show what motivated his thinking: they elaborate his thought, they explicate his sources, and by contrast they show what his final resolution in 1966 rejected.

This time, the year was 1958. Camus won the Nobel Prize in 1957; Existentialism was reaching the U.S. and the existentialism of film noir just ended. Existentialism grappled with many aspects of human condition including: anxiety, anguish, dread, despair, boredom, guilt, loneliness, forlornness, lack of meaning, self-deception, suicide, death, suffering, and finitude.
During this time, WSSW – YU’s social work school had just opened. Tradition, the Orthodox journal was just founded and sought to offer theological Orthodoxy to compete with the journals- Conservative Judaism, Commentary, and Judaism. Will Herberg together with Niebuhr started a rice of theology in America, a half dozen years prior to the Orthodox taking up the banner. Modernity as a problem of alienation and loneliness was already in the curriculum. The 1950 classic, The Lonely Crowd by David Reisman et al., was accepted and in it included its wisdom that society dominated by the outer-directed social oriented people leads to profound deficiencies in leadership, individual self-knowledge, and human potential. But Rav Soloveitchik is more literary. Albert Camus thought “it is in solitude and loneliness that we find the threads that bind us together in community.” For Kierkegaard, loneliness gave his soul depth. If we are willing to be present to ourselves in loneliness, then we will learn who we are. Lecture II in this series is entirely about loneliness. (If anyone know the exact details of to whom the lecture was given, please let me know).

We have to thank David Etengoff for transferring the lectures to mp3 and uploading them. Here is the lecture.

Don’t take my word for what the Rav says, listen to it yourself. If you have never heard a full shiur from Rav Soloveitchik then this lecture will show you what the Rav was. No Gadol in 1958 (or even now) would have spent his time grappling with the high culture and existential thought of the era. Notice how non-halakhic the lecture is and how he turns instead to theology. This lecture will remind you why people were attracted to Rav Soloveitchik. Please correct me if I heard anything incorrectly. I do not intend to mediate your direct encounter with his lecture so I have left many of his statements as first person and placed my commentary in brackets.

Part I- This talk is subjective. There is no truth or objectivity in Jewish thought and theology.
Part II-Every Religion needs a doctrine of man
Part III-God for us is both the hidden God and the God of closeness and dialogue.
Part IV-Need to bring this to the masses, too elite for most. Discussion of the Trinity

Part I- Subjectivity
Rav Soloveitchik opens with the drama of his role as a humble teacher. He requests to be interrupted and liked it when students had questions.

He states that he is not trained in theology or religious philosophy. But the questions of Heidegger – and religious philosophy were all around the university. He says that there are many theological problems but very few answers. Rav Soloveitchik admits that he is eclectic. He says, “I am not laying claim to any theological validity” and “I don’t know if it is true or not.” For theology, we cannot be right or wrong since we have no laboratory to test what we say or even any objective tests. He offers only his subjective thoughts, his subjective experience and his subjective understanding of modern man.

“I am not trying to convince anyone – I lack missionary zeal.” Whatever I do it is as a lack of confidence on my part. I am confessing and sharing. If it is not commensurate with your experience or incongruent with them. I will not feel hurt.

Whoever makes an authoritative statement about Jewish philosophy is wrong . We have no method to determine which Jewish philosopher is correct. It is all a matter of interpretation.

[Notice that right at the start he is not claiming his lecture is the truth, nor is he claiming it is a Torah intuition, or even any expertise. He says it is subjective and just his personal understanding. As you listen to the lecture, note that he is not introducing halakhah to the gentile world, nor is he introducing philosophy to Jews. His goal, as it was in many other lectures, was to raise Judaism to the highest levels of culture and to answer the intellectual problems of the age. In 2012, it would be Habermas, Taylor, and Levinas, globalization and the immanent frame of religion- not to teach 18th century science or fight segulot and other gedolim. To turn Jewish thought into halakah or as having a pesak or coming from the theologically untrained is not Rav Soloveitchik. see the writings of Walter Wurzburer for more details.]

Part II-Doctrine of Man
I will deal with the doctrine of man. Every civilized religion has a philosophy of religion, by this I mean Christianity and Islam.

Cognition is main motif that shapes religious experience. Homo Religious is a form of Homo theoretical
Homo Religious needs curiosity, needs to know how to save world. Many think religion is not a cognitive gesture- like Schleiermacher thought it was emotion, Kant- thought it was volitional-ethical

The Homo Theoretical is bound by finitude and formal equation whereas theHomo Religious is not about discovery, and not interested in the useful or knowledge of reality. Rather, he seeks to order to the universe. If the universe is not knowable then we have resignation. For the Homo Religious every aspect of reality and being – act of resignation
Religion is not to be equated with ignorance or uneducated. There is no ignorant religion since ignorance and elegance do not go together. However, Skeptic questioning against knowledge comes from arrogance and ignorance.

Existence that transcends the boundaries of finality must be in confines of temporality- this is Jewish. We meet find God in confines of time and space – unlike medieval Christianity

In the Mechanical order, Homo Religious still need to meet his creator and still falls into bottomless abyss. He struggles with absurdity with the unknown called existence.

Man rebels against god and his authority, then returns too God, who receives him like a child, and to whom his rebellion was like child.

Religious knowledge is not other-worldly, a leap into the unknown or anti-scientific. The cognitive gesture of Homo Religious is mainly concerned with the order of personal existence. He looks into – himself

The Greeks were theoreticians and lacked practicality. But when it came to what is man? They became practical. They tried to answer: how to be happy? They not did with struggle with self. They became practical and pragmatic.
But modern Homo Religious asks the theoretical question: Who is man? What is his Existential condition? His self awareness?

Different religions differ in their conceptions of the above described Homo Religious. “I have very little knowledge of Eastern religion, not even to mention it.”

Most religious systems were metaphysical and developed theosophy doctrines not anthropology. Aquinas had social philosophy and natural law, but no question of man for himself. Only lately Christianity began to develop – as religious existentialism started producing many books.

Judaism is a very unique position; it is intellectual and also focused on man. In Judaism, anthropology replaced man. Judaism is about the essence of man never the essence of God. Judaism is theocentric but anthropological oriented.

God is beginning and end of everything; – if we are not focused on God, then why spend so much money on our institutions?

[In Halakhic Man, the religious man and the cognitive man were separate. Here we have an assumption that religious man is a version of cognitive man. Notice the use of the term “theoretical man” which reflects his own view of Judaism.]
[His category formation is still early twentieth century, with its post-Hegelian concern for the triad of God, man, and world. If you want to know more, see the Baden Neo-Kantian, Richard Kroner, Speculation and Revelation In Modern Philosophy (1961). Similarity, pre-WWI is his wanted to definitely decide between thought, volition, and emotion. Works like Joachim Wach’s The Comparative Study of Religions dedicate their first chapter to stating that the phenomena of religion have all three, even if religious thinkers want to choose one over another.] [Notice how far this intellectualism is from Centrist emotionalism and volitionalism or skepticism toward theology.]

[ I was glad to see that in these tapes, the Rav distinguishes between medieval and modern Christianity. In contrast, his writings almost always use the phrase Christianity when he only means the medieval variety. This always bothered me since the very Christian books on his desk were rejecting and disassociating themselves from the medieval versions. I wonder where the editorial change came in?]

[After the existential revolt, Rav Soloveitchik does not envision anything Sisyphus or Promethean as one would expect from the Camus language. Rather, the Rav offers reconciliation with God like a parent accepts his child who went away. There are echoes of Christian reconciliation in that description.]

Part III- Rav Soloveitchik’s God
In Judaism, God himself is the hidden God, Jal Mistatar – unknowable and unknown. The Jewish experience of God (shared by other religions is antithetic, a polarity. it has both remoteness and intimate closeness. How is that possible? Judaism does not use Aristotelian logic of excluded middle. Unlike classic physic, modern physics uses both waves and particles; modern physics does not use Aristotle. God is both remote and close- in our encounter we are bewildered and comforted. Since Creation is also revelation, the every tree also incomprehensible strange.

When Jacob was wresting with God, just the night before he spoke to Him with intimacy. That is the dichotomy of greatness and magnificence followed by struggle and darkness. The Individual Homo Religious has a life of paradox. Judaism has the greatest book of the religious experience- and everyone agrees that the author of Psalms was a religious genius. We see the contrast in that in Psalm 23 God is comfort and security and then in Psalm 24. We are searching for God and cannot find Him.

[Rav Soloveitckik removes all kavod theories, therefore no kisse hakavod or shekhinah, no emanation or kabbalah. There is also no relationship based on the metaphors of king-subject, master-slave, or father-son. Nor is there any direct providence or life with God. Like the Kalam and Kant, we have lost our Chain of Being. Much of this sounds like Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans- the telltale sign was the literary importance of Psalms 23 and 24 used by Barth. Notice that the theology is entirely Biblical. (Wait until the next tape where he explicitly mentions his sources.)]

Part IV-But this is only for the Few! Let’s Look at the Trinity

Institutional religion can only be organized on a single idea of God without having a sense of polarity. There is no polarity on communal level. The religion of the few is not the religion of the many. It is Incompressible to the many. Some religions emphasize one side of the polarity over the other.

Christianity solved this issue with the Trinity. They have the distant Father and the closeness of the Son. The scheme of the Father-Son and Trinity was created by the Fathers of the Desert and then later by Augustine. This captures the closeness and distance of God. Son is on earth as mediator, prayer cannot reach God as Father.
In England, in the Anglican Church, everyone is part of the ecclesia, even if run by the few. Religion is not just for the few. Religion not just for philosopher

Means and ways must found to simplify it for everyone—this dichotomy is for the few.

[Wow, I would have never expected an explicit discussion of the Trinity and the comparisons to Judaism. Yet, it makes sense if he has Christian theologians open in front of him and is grappling with the material. We also have an explicit acknowledgement that his thought is for the elite few and he needs to solve it. ]

Go Listen to the Lecture

9 responses to “Rav Soloveitchik- Religious Definitions of Man and his Social Institutions part 1of 7 (1958)

  1. ‘Intellectual’ is a modern (i.e. enlightenment) mistranslation, which renders a false understanding of the entire process here. ‘Sichli’ means spiritual, nefesh hasichlis is the spiritual soul, the one that perceives the spiritual. Man is not just an intellectual being, but a spiritual one, and his task is to regain that spirituality, lost after the chet of odom harishon (More Nevuchim 1 1,2).
    The church, in its bid to assert itself over the existing religions, asserted that Jesus had no hypostasis, no nefesh, so that he is (sic) divine in the flesh. This is the real meaning of the trinity, 1.the greater divine, 2.the divine presence, and the 3.divine inside the body. There is no fourth part, the soul, that would mark him as a man.

  2. I listened to part of Lecture two. If I did not know when this lecture was delivered, I would have thought it to be a direct attack on today’s Republican party/Tea Party. The Rav’s rejection of the concept of the individual remaining with his rights even after joining in society would seem to put his interpretation of Judaism at odds with the philosophical foundations of the American Republic.

  3. yossi-
    In my time, the Rav directly made fun of Ronald Reagan. For more on the politics of lecture two, based on Brunner, – see http://www.acton.org/pub/religion-liberty/volume-1-number-1/emil-brunner

    • I think Ronald Reagan made himself an easy target. I am amazed by the way people (read: conservatives) make Reagan out to be nothing short of another Lincoln.

  4. Lawrence Kaplan

    I just listened to the lecture. Vintage Rav. The part about the cognitive gesture of homo religiosus is taken from Halhkic Mind. It would be worthwhile to examine the similarities and differences between the two presentations.

  5. Larry, I will post the second lecture next week. I might turn these lectures into an article on the editing process from these lectures to Lonely Man of Faith.
    The question is how do we get the people who quote tertiary versions of the Rav to listen to classic Rav?

  6. I was listening to Lecture 3. The Rav spoke about his concern over the way the State of Israel will conduct itself. He said that for 2000 years, the Jews were a persecuted people who had no way to be tyrants. Now, with the creation of Israel, how will the Jews conduct themselves? Will they be no better than the Non-Jewish governments, or will they act in accordance with Judaic ethics? I thought I heard echoes of Yeshayahu Leibowitz in the Rav’s remarks. Now that 60 years have passed, do you think Israel has passed the Rav’s test?

  7. “In Halakhic Man, the religious man and the cognitive man were separate. Here we have an assumption that religious man is a version of cognitive man.”

    Interesting that in HM “Halakhic Man” is more a version of cognitive man than “religious man.”

  8. Good to see this as am writing PhD on Rav. A few years ago I made a complete transcript of lecture one. It is pretty accurate (there are only a few little gaps). Please me know if you want to post it.

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