The Rav excels at pinpointing and illuminating archetypal and universal human experiences. In particular, the Rav expresses the individual’s experience of himself as a singular being, yearning for meaning, and searching for the path to an in-depth understanding of himself. In addition, man seeks an authentic, in-depth meeting with the other (his fellow human being), and ultimately, a genuine, all-encompassing relationship with his Creator. If one definition of existentialism is that it is the expression of man’s personal experience vis-à-vis himself, the Other, and God, then the Rav is the ultimate religious existentialist philosopher.
I watch my students as the Rav's ideas reflect, validate, and sometimes reveal, their innermost thoughts as they begin to wonder about the nature of life and human experience. For some, it is the Rav’s insistence that the path to faith and the religious life is complex, fraught with conflicts and inner struggle, and that a life of spiritual depth can only be achieved through intense reflection and commitment. For many, in their quest for self-definition, it is the Rav’s emphasis on the uniqueness of each individual, and the experience of both exhilaration and solitude that comes with that revelation. They identify with the sense of frustration at our inability to express our deepest ideas and experiences in a way that can ever be fully understood by another. They appreciate the proposal that relationships are only possible if one is willing to sacrifice for the other, as well as the idea that one cannot ultimately truly connect with another person unless the two share a mutual commitment to something outside of themselves.
They respond to the description of prayer as the pure experience of standing before God, and to the idea of the mesorah community, which transcends time and anchors our fleeting lives in meaningfulness. Of course, as young students on the brink of maturity, about to begin the process of defining their life on their own terms, they relate to the majestic desire of Adam I to actualize his talents and impact on the world. At the same time, they are concerned with the superficiality inherent in an externally-focused life, and long with Adam II for depth in their relationships with man and God.
As to whether the work is still relevant today: The Lonely Man of Faith will be relevant as long as Modern Orthodoxy continues to exist. It defines, and answers, the classic question that lies at the root of Centrist Orthodox belief: How does one fulfill the God-given mission to actualize one’s ability to act upon, participate in, and shape the world around him? On the other hand, how do we live a life completely and utterly in the shadow of God, engaged in pursuit of a relationship with Him and in an attempt to fulfill his will? The Rav’s answer lies in his account of the covenantal community, and the approach to halakhah described therein.
The Rav, with his vigorous denial of the bifurcation of reality into two realms, sacred and profane, delineates a life in which one fully engages in the world, and yet remains unequivocally committed to, and subjugated to, God. The halakhah bridges the two worlds, establishing the proper prism through which to view all of reality, hallowing, sanctifying, and redeeming all our endeavors. In the words of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, “The Torah is neither world-accepting nor world-rejecting. It is world-redeeming" (Leaves of Faith I, p. 103). Halakhah rescues us from the dangers of self-glorification inherent in the world of majesty, on the one hand, and the rarified atmosphere of the world of Adam II on the other. “The [ethico-moral halakhic] norm…is the tentacle by which the covenant, like ivy, attaches itself to and spreads over the world of majesty" (p. 84). Whether or not the harmonious reconciliation of these two worlds is ultimately achievable is beside the point; it is the striving to meet this challenge that gives life its meaning.
Unfortunately, I find the Rav’s description of the crisis of the “modern” man of faith no less relevant forty years later. The Rav insists on the importance of one’s willingness to sacrifice for God, to subjugate one’s will for His. The Rav emphasizes man’s greatness, but he also insists that man live a life that is theo-centric, rather than self-centered. He describes his despair as he observes people willing to engage in the faith-gesture, but not willing to let go of the s elf-oriented, Adam I elements of their personality as they do so. They transform religion into yet another aspect of their lives, and thus into a gesture which is ultimately self-serving, rather than God serving. Religion is useful so long as it grants to man that which he desires within the context of a certain lifestyle. But when faith demands sacrifice for man, when it asks him to assess his life choices in the light of God’s will, we are too often unwilling to do so. Too many of us do not define worship of God as the fundamental driving force in our lives--to do so would be, as the Rav writes, “absurd”--and so the true man of faith remains lonely.
On the fortieth anniversary of the publication of The Lonely Man of Faith let us renew our commitment to live up to the lofty standards the Rav set for us. Let us continue to teach our students, and remind ourselves, that while the standards and ideals he set for us are difficult, they are invaluable. There are easier, simpler paths, which reject the complexity and constant vigilance demanded by the Rav’s approach. But for those who believe, like the Rav, that this is the path willed by God, there is no other way.
Mali Brofsky, a graduate of the ATID Fellows, teaches Jewish philosophy and Tanakh at Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim. She holds a Masters degree in Jewish Philosophy from Bernard Revel Graduate School.