The Lonely Man of Faith at 40
New Insights and Reflections

Rabbi Zvi Grumet

There are certain moments which are so seminal that those living after the moment cannot begin to comprehend what it was like before. In history, for example, the rise of the State of Israel or the Six-Day war. Or in music, Bach's merging of mathematics and tone, and in Jewish music, the watershed of Shlomo Carlebach. In modern Jewish thought, I suspect that the theological and religious language of the Jewish people has changed as a result of the publication of The Lonely Man of Faith, and that it would be hard to imagine what the world of modern Jewish thought would look like had it not been written.
It was more than twenty-five years ago that I first encountered The Lonely Man of Faith. Like many of my friends in yeshiva, I tried to convince myself that I understood it, in all its finer points. To be sure, there were many elements within it which planted the seeds of the religious identity I would eventually forge, but I must confess that I still do not grasp how all its parts coalesce into a unified and integrated coherent whole. As a non-philosopher, it captivated me then and continues to challenge me now. As a non-philosopher, it captivated me then and continues to challenge me now.
As someone who was preparing to devote his life to Jewish education, it meant that I had to help each student discover his or her own unique aspect of that tzelem Elokim. What was it that caught my attention? First, while the idea that every human was created with tzelem Elokim appears in the creation story and is highlighted in the Mishnah, the Rav brought it to life. Now, tzelem Elokim meant that every individual had the responsibility to express his or her uniqueness, and had the right to be treated by all others as a spark of Divine inspiration. As someone who was preparing to devote his life to Jewish education, it meant that I had to help each student discover his or her own unique aspect of that tzelem Elokim, and that to fail to accomplish this was not only to deny the individual's expression, but to deny God a facet of expression in the world.
As I was beginning to explore my educational philosophy, I found the Rav's articulation of the empowering of humanity in the command of vekhivshuha (Gen. 1:28) particularly compelling. For the first time it became clear that God was seeking partners on this earth, and that our covenantal relationship with God was part of that partnership. But it was more than that, because as a teacher, as a shaliah of God, I was empowered and enjoined to emulate God's ways. Specifically, if God had built into Creation the empowerment of humanity, then built into any educational approach had to be the empowerment of students. For the first time it became clear that God was seeking partners on this earth, and that our covenantal relationship with God was part of that partnership.
When I began to imagine beyond the individual students to the classroom, and then to the school as a whole, the idea of school as a community -- a covenantal community -- became compelling. Schools needed to become models of what communities could be, with their interactions and institutions, shared fates and destinies, and commitments to common cause. The sense of mutual responsibility would lead to a sense of camaraderie and companionship, with the forging of bonds not only in the battles against, but also in the struggles for.

Just as important as the guidance the Rav provided for me as a professional Jew was the message he carried for me as a private Jew. As a young person inspired both by the wonders of the natural world and the depth of Torah, I found myself struggling with those two worlds, torn between satisfying the rational-scientific on the one hand and spiritual longings on the other. Most of what I had experienced and had been taught till then, whether explicitly or implicitly demanded sacrificing one for the other. The Lonely Man of Faith redeemed me by redirecting the search from one which would seek resolution to one in which the dialectic itself took on meaning as the will of God and the fulfillment of the essential nature of Man.

In the opening words of his essay, "I am lonely," the Rav made it clear that regardless of how philosophical the writing, we were being privileged to overhear the kol demamah dakah, the quiet inner voice of the Rav speaking with himself. Most important, though, was that The Lonely Man of Faith was an intensely personal account--it felt as though the Rav was affording us a window into his soul. In the opening words of his essay, "I am lonely," the Rav made it clear that regardless of how philosophical the writing, we were being privileged to overhear the kol demamah dakah, the quiet inner voice of the Rav speaking with himself. He presented meaning in loneliness, and meaning in reaching beyond that loneliness. His loneliness spoke to the loneliness of every yeshiva bachur when the din of the shakla ve-tarya in the beit midrash and the dynamic of the hevruta gave way to the silence of the empty room and the wandering thoughts while waiting for sleep to carry him into the next day. In reading the Rav we were experiencing his struggles and were invited to listen in on his most private thoughts.
On a personal level, I felt parts of the essay resonated deep within me. That identification, that recognition of my own thoughts articulated in ways could never have formulated for myself, that identification with his writing, made me feel like I was touching greatness. And the Rav's writing not only legitimized my own thoughts, but made me feel as if there was greatness in me, too. From the silence of the page, the Rav reaffirmed my own tzelem Elokim. And the Rav's writing not only legitimized my own thoughts, but made me feel as if there was greatness in me, too.
Rabbi Zvi Grumet is a teacher, lecturer, author and educational consultant. Fulfilling a lifelong dream, he currently resides in Jerusalem.

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