The Lonely Man of Faith at 40
New Insights and Reflections
"The Continuum of Time and Responsibility"
Rabbi Shalom Carmy
||Of most of the friends who changed my life I retain indelible first impressions. The same with books: my initial
encounter with the Rabbi Soloveitchik's U-Vikkashtem mi-Sham and The Halakhic Mind
is as alive to me today as the first shiurim I heard from the Rav. I have no such image of first looking into
Lonely Man of Faith. Perhaps that is because I did not so much read the essay as inhale it. I came to the
Rav's later writings as a mature student, even an insider, familiar with the terrain, yet ready to be seized with a
wild surmise, testing my anticipation of his thought against what he actually said. I studied Halakhic Man,
probably soon after swallowing Lonely Man, seeking a framework for thought. But Lonely Man
did not swim into my ken like a new and unexpected planet, as it did for many other readers.
I opened the journal knowing what I wanted to find, and I found it.
|I didn't need the Rav to tell me that Judaism affirmed the quest for dignity and worldly mastery: by then everyone took
that for granted, with only the diehard theological liberals insisting on the canard that Orthodoxy was hostile to
technology. It was equally evident that such mastery does not assure that existence is worthwhile. I didn't need the Rav
to tell me that the individual, the in-depth personality, mattered: I had decided that on my own. I wanted the Rav to vindicate
this truth to a community that seemed to have forgotten the individual and his loneliness in the iron collectivism of Zionist
ideology or the stuffy conformism of bourgeois spirituality. I wanted the Rav to proclaim what was for me the obvious truth:
that human culture, even a culture influenced by religion, is not the same thing as religion: "Faith is experienced not as a
product of some emergent evolutionary process, or as something that has been brought into existence by man's creative
cultural gesture, but as something which was given to man when the latter was overpowered by God" (p. 105).
||I have no such image of first looking into Lonely Man of Faith.
Perhaps that is because I did not so much read the essay as inhale it.
|I wanted the Rav to proclaim what was for me the obvious truth: that human culture, even a culture influenced by religion, is not the same thing as religion.
||These dominant features of the Rav's worldview remain axiomatic to my own thinking and experience.
Yet these are not the only salient themes of Lonely Man. Much space is devoted to the manner in which majestic
man and the man of faith construct their respective communities. These ideas, alas, seemed hopelessly beyond me:
"the community of the committed became, ipso facto, a community of friends--not of neighbors or acquaintances" (p. 68).
Friendship, in those days, I could aspire to, but a "community" of friendship, deriving from shared commitment, struck me
as a metaphysical myth. Relations between individuals were real to me, as was, of course, the relationship to God. But the
community, in the abstract, seemed too remote an entity to support real assent. Though I had no trouble embracing what
others found appalling--namely, the Rav's brutal recognition of loneliness that is not assuaged by social belonging--
his positive social vision of fulfillment within the covenantal community sounded like an impossible ideal, reminiscent of the
rarefied standards of the Buberian I-Thou.
| What was intangible and therefore inconceivable to my teen-aged self later became essential to my adult philosophy.
My conversion to belief in the organic aspects of social existence in general, and Keneset Yisrael in particular,
was intellectual before it corresponded to my experience. Surely the Rav's teaching, both in Lonely Man and in his
essay "The Community" (the first of the Rav's writings which I had the privilege of editing) played a role in this development.
However, my theological maturation in this area, as in others, probably owed more to life than it did to books.
And here I cannot forget how the Rav's life mirrored his writings. The more one observed him first hand, the more palpable
was his full identification with the vocation of the masorah community, dedicated to the transmission of Torah,
a living link between the past and the future. It was evident in the public passion of the classroom and the lecture podium;
it was revealed privately in the deliberate way he extracted every ounce of energy from his by then fragile body, and not least in
his lack of preoccupation with the prerogatives due his stature and his status.
||I cannot forget how the Rav's life mirrored his writings. The more one observed him
first hand, the more palpable was his full identification with the vocation of the masorah community,
dedicated to the transmission of Torah, a living link between the past and the future.
|In the fullness of our days, the abiding community, committed to the ongoing
transmission of Torah, is as vivid as the faces that have meant so much to me as individuals.
|| Gradually this identification came to resonate in my own life as well. Precisely because I now look back, as I could not in my
youth, at a life remarkably blessed with many valued friends and loyal colleagues, I nevertheless know that loneliness can
accompany a variety of otherwise satisfying social relations. I am no longer sure of the Rav's dictum that confession provides
relief for the agitated soul. For individual attachments, however intense, may fade with the passage of time. Death, distance,
disappointments divide us; sometimes we outgrow others; often they outgrow us. In the fullness of our days, the abiding
community, committed to the ongoing transmission of Torah, is as vivid as the faces that have meant so much to me as
|When I return to Lonely Man today, I recognize myself as much in the passages that were once alien to me
as in the words that inflamed me almost four decades ago: "the individual member of the covenantal faith community feels
rooted in the past and related to the future… He is not a hitchhiker suddenly invited to get into a swiftly traveling vehicle
which emerged from nowhere and from which he will be dropped into the abyss of timelessness… Covenantal man begins
to find redemption from insecurity and to feel at home in the continuum of time and responsibility which is experienced by
him in its endless totality" (p. 72).
||Thus a great work, like a great teacher, is measured by its power to reward
Thus a great work, like a great teacher, is measured by its power to reward repeated study with new insight and to
stretch the reader--you and me--beyond our initial intellectual and spiritual limitations.
Rabbi Shalom Carmy teaches Bible, Jewish thought, and philosophy at Yeshiva University and was recently named Editor of Tradition.
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