A personal introduction: Although the following essay reads as an abstract sociological study, it is also a sincere attempt to understand two very personal questions: First, why do I find so much meaning in Rabbi Soloveitchik's writings, while all three of my sons have rather turned to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and become Habad hassidim? Second, why do my religious Israeli college students find it so hard to find their lives in the Rav's writings?
Since the Rav composed The Lonely Man of Faith in 1965, has the religious Jew become more or less "lonely"? I would like to argue that we have probably become more lonely. On one hand, we have experienced a religious renaissance in both Israel and America, a tremendous growth in religious communal life, in Torah learning and Torah institutions, and in a more exacting degree of religious observance. On the other hand, despite a very significant increase in religious vitality, our souls have been penetrated by the "virus" of post-modern social culture. Specifically, even within the religious community, post-modern social life has made our family life more diffuse and dispersed, our communities more transient, our learning and observance more utilitarian, and our drive for self expression and fulfillment more pronounced.
Thus, despite a glorious religious counter-revolution we find ourselves spiritually lonelier, groping to integrate our majestic and covenantal selves in a redemptive manner that will allow us to more accurately hear what God demands of us.
How does the Rav understand religious man's loneliness? Religious man is commanded to redeem his life by engaging in two types of mitzvah experiences: the Adam I mitzvah of creatively and majestically working to improve the natural-physical (social, economic, cultural) quality of our societal lives; the Adam II mitzvah of engaging in Torah, prayer and mitzvot bein adam la-Makom, with all of one's in-depth spiritual personality, so as to create a covenantal community and covenantal dialogue with God. God has thus commanded the religious Jew to oscillate between, and to integrate, the majestic and covenantal dimensions of his existence. We may deduce from these understandings that religious man will be most lonely and unredeemed when his energies and personality are almost exclusively devoted to the Adam I mitzvah of man-made conquest, building, and creation. But religious man will also feel "lonely and unredeemed" if he devotes himself almost exclusively to the Adam II mitzvah of prayer and Torah study, if such activity is done with insignificant involvement in the emotional and social needs of the Jewish community.
Finally, religious man will feel most redeemed and least lonely when the majestic and covenantal dimensions of his existence, not only complement each other, but are integrated and nurture each other.
How have the social developments of the last forty years thus affected religious man's ability to integrate in a redeeming manner these two mitzvah dimensions of the self? Forty years ago, when comparing the spirituality of religious life in America to that of his childhood home in Europe, the Rav already found the American religious experience to be that of Adam I--a religion of culture, ethics and aesthetics, rather than one of Adam II: an integrated in-depth personality, covenantal encounter with God. Has the situation since improved or worsened?
It is important to remember that the Rav formulated the ideas in Lonely Man of Faith in the early 1960s, before the onset of the post-modern social revolution, before the upheaval of the Vietnam war, before the student movement and counter-culture revolution, before the widespread social use of drugs, before the establishment of the feminist, gay and single parent movements, before pre-marital sex and cohabitation became the norm, before a 40% divorce rate and 30% illegitimate birth rate became imaginable, before multi-cultural education and ethical relativism took hold, before market globalization and before the Internet promoted a plethora of "virtual" self identities.
The cumulative affect of this post-modern social revolution is to convince man to find existential meaning almost exclusively within himself, through the self creations of his own thoughts, behavior and feelings, and not through obligatory relationships with a covenantal or a transcendent God. Post-modern man is an almost exclusively an Adam I, majestic, conquering man.
In an almost dialectic reaction to the post-modern social revolution, the religious community has created a counter-revolution of religious renaissance in Israel and America. Torah learning, institutions, communities and publications have increased four fold. Religious observance has become more observant, and kashrut has become more kosher. Hassidut and kabbalah have been reborn. There is a growing ba'al teshuvah movement. Observant Jews are successful professionals in all areas of greater society. Religious music and art forms are growing. All of these accomplishments, in one sense, constitute an unconscious effort to counteract and ward off the threat of post-modern, social culture.
While this renaissance has succeeded in allowing religious life to flourish in a hostile, post-modern social environment, it has not succeeded in making the religious Jew less lonely. The bottom line is that the prevailing social reality compels him to live his two mitzvah dimensions, in a parallel, non-integrated, non-nurturing, and non-redemptive manner. For example, the life of the religious professional (in business, culture, or academic life) is schizophrenic and dichotomous. Market forces hyperactivate his ego drive to succeed. There is no Torah content in his professional work. At the work place, his religious life is a private, well kept secret. He is lonely because his majestic and covenantal selves live at odds with each other.
At the other extreme, the religious Jew who learns full time or lives in a religious community and leads a lifestyle radically isolated from that of general society, is also lonely. The Rav teaches that a covenantal religious life that does not creatively participate in the improvement of general society is inherently an unredeemed, lonely life.
Similarly, religious family life is lonely because it is diffused. On one hand our birth rates are dramatically higher and our divorce and single parent rates are dramatically lower than those of general society. However, our extended families, driven by the demands of economic and professional life, live in geographical, autonomous dispersion, and do not attain the mutual closeness and cooperation of the extended family of traditional, pre-modern society.
Similarly our religious congregational and communal lives are lonely because they are very transient. Few religious Jews live a whole life in a single place. Again, the realities of economic and professional life, prevent our religious communities from attaining the multi-generational permanence of cohesive, traditional society.
My somber sociological conclusion is that in post-modern society, religious Jews have found a way to survive, and even flourish, but we are still painfully lonely, for we are still groping to find a way that will allow our majestic and covenantal existences to truly nurture and redeem each other.
In answer to my two introductory personal questions, my sons' seemingly became Habad hassidim in a continuation of their father's search for existential meaning, and as a way of coping with the shallowness and loneliness of the general society's post-modern culture. Similarly, my Israeli college students are very group and communally oriented (also as a counter-reaction to the loneliness of the general society) and are thus hesitant to take a leap into the existential depths of the Rav's religious individualism.
Dr. Chaim Cohen: born a 1947 baby boomer; raised in an American Reform home; attended college during student counter-culture years; became Orthodox; made aliyah in 1978; settled in Judea and Samaria in 1982; today practices and teaches social work and sociology at Hebrew University and Efrata College.