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Joseph Soloveitchik’s “Lonely Man of Faith” revised edition

November 29, 2011

lonelyIn their ongoing relationship with the Orthodox Union Press, Koren Publisher’s new English imprint “Maggid Books” has reprinted a new edition of arguably Joseph Soloveitchik’s most important work, The Lonely Man of Faith.  (The other work often grouped together with The Lonely Man of Faith is Halakhic Manboth are philosophical works.)

This is one of Soloveitchik’s “difficult” works – here is a typical sentence (the final sentence of the first paragraph of section 1A):

In my “desolate, howling solitude” (Deut. 32:10) I experience a growing awareness that, to paraphrase Plotinus’s apothegm about prayer, this service to which I, a lonely and solitary individual, am committed is wanted and gracefully accepted by God in His transcendental loneliness and numinous solitude.

Indeed, this work seems to have been structured in part to show Soloveitchik’s chops as an important intellectual not only within Jewish circles but to a broader audience.  and Soloveitchik feels free to draw on a wide variety of sources.

The work originally appeared as an extended essay in Tradition in 1965; but it is worth reading in the second edition because of the improvements, which are advertised as “transliterations and translations of the Hebrew; fully sourced references; restoration of the original chapter divisions; and a new introduction by Reuven Ziegler.”

The introduction by Ziegler is particularly useful.  In a few paragraphs, Ziegler summarizes Soloveitchik’s argument.

… Soloveitchik proposes that two accounts of the creation of man (in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis) portray two types of man, two human ideals.  One type, termed Adam the first (or Adam I), is guided by the quest for dignity, which is an external social quality attained by control over one’s environment.  He is a creative and majestic personality who espouses a practical-utilitarian approach to the world.  Adam II, on the other other hand, is guided by the quest for redemption, which is a quality of the inner personality that one attains by control over oneself.  He is humble and submissive, and yearns for an intimate relationship with God and his fellow man in order to overcome his sense of incompleteness and inadequacy.  these differences carry over to the type of community each one creates:  the “natural work community” (Adam I) and the “covenantal faith community” (Adam II).

God not only desires the existence of each of these personality types and each of these communities, but actually bids each and every person to attempt to embody both of these seemingly irreconcilable types.  One must attempt to pursue both dignity and redemption.  This analysis of the two basic tasks of man leads to two important conclusions.  First, Adam I’s existence is willed by God and therefore his majestic and creative actions have religious value.  Rabbi Soloveitchik, accordingly, has a positive attitude towards the extension of human dominion through general scientific and technological progress, the spreading of culture and the development of civilization.  However, one must also give Adam II his due, which leads to the second conclusion:  Adam II and his quest for redemption have independent value, regardless of whether they aid Adam I’s quest for majesty.  Faith (the realm of Adam II) is not subservient to culture (the creation of Adam I); it is a primordial force that has no need to legitimize itself in other terms.

The demand to be both Adam I and Adam II leads to a built-in tension in the life of each person responsive to this dual call; and because one lives with a constant dialectic, a continual oscillation between two modes of existence, one can never fully realize fully the goals of either Adam I or Adam II.  Unable to feel totally at home in either community, man is burdened by loneliness.  Since this type of loneliness is inherent in one’s very being as a religious individual, Rabbi Soloveitchik terms it “ontological loneliness” (“ontological” relating to being or existence).  In a sense, this kind of loneliness is tragic; but since it is willed by God, it helps man realize his destiny and therefore is ultimately a positive and constructive experience.

The contemporary man of faith, however, experiences a particular kind of loneliness, one which is not a built-in aspect of human existence but rather the product of specific historical circumstances; this “historical loneliness” is purely negative phenomenon.  Modern man, pursuant to his great success in the realm of majesty-dignity, recognizes only the Adam I side of existence, and refuses to acknowledge the inherent duality of his being.  Contemporary society speaks the language of Adam I, of cultural achievement, and is unable or unwilling to understand the language of Adam II, of the uniqueness and autonomy of faith.  Worse, contemporary Adam I has infiltrated and appropriated the realm of Adam II, the world of religion; he presents himself as Adam II, while actually distorting covenantal man’s entire message.

From this abstract, it is apparent that Soloveitchik is not merely addressing Jews; this is a work for readers in general.  Ziegler comments

… It is evident that the essay’s message is universal.  The Lonely Man of Faith refers to any religious faith, not just Judaism; the dilemma of faith in the modern world applies to all religions (or at least to Western religions, which were Rabbi Soloveitchik’s concern)…. References to Judaism and Jewish sources appear [almost always] in the footnotes [only]….  The Lonely Man of Faith originated in a lecture to Catholic seminarians and in a series of lectures, sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health, delivered to Jewish social workers of all denominations.

Next comes Ziegler’s obligatory apology for Soloveitchik’s 1965 language conventions

The Lonely Man of Faith addresses men and women equally; nowhere in the book does Rabbi Soloveitchik distinguish between them.  The word “man” in the title, and indeed throughout the work, should therefore be understood as “person.”

I hope that this publication, which is clearly annotated to be maximally informative to a broad group (not just Orthodox Jews who form the primary readership of Tradition.) 

And there is a possible aid in understanding the book in the form of a recent movie, now out on DVD, also called The Lonely Man of Faith.  (I hope to address the movie in a forthcoming review.)  The movie has substantial biographical material, but then Soloveitchik’s essay is also somewhat auto-biographical, if only because it is written in such a personal manner and because of the constant descriptions of the human condition as being lonely and melancholy.

For now, it seems to me that this book (and in particular this more accessible edition of this book) deserves a large readership. 

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