Rosh HaShana reading: Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “The Lonely Man Of Faith”

Rabbi Dr. Joseph Ber Soloveitchik (below, JBS) was the acknowledged intellectual leader of American modern Orthodox Judaism. To his many disciples he was known simply as “The Rav” [the teacher, “the” rabbi] — but his influence reached beyond Orthodoxy (and indeed beyond Judaism) as well as beyond the USA.

A scion of an old and venerable dynasty of rabbis from “Brisk” — the Yiddish name for Brest-Litovsk — JBS remained a scrupulously Orthodox Jew all his life, but made the for his family unprecedented decision to pursue a doctorate in secular philosophy at [presently named the Humboldt-]University of Berlin, whence he graduated in 1932 with a thesis on the neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen. Interestingly, his Ph.D. co-advisor, Prof. Eugen Mittwoch, was himself an ordained rabbi as well as a secular professor and orientalist.

JBS then emigrated to the USA together with his father R’ Moshe Soloveitchik, who became rosh yeshiva (freely: dean of the rabbinical seminary) at Yeshiva College (presently Yeshiva University) in New York. In 1941 he succeeded his father, but would commute to teach while continuing to live in Boston. (He would also guest-lecture at Harvard.)

Halakhic Man (original title in Hebrew: Ish ha-Halakha) is probably his most famous work of religious philosophy translated into English. But another, shorter, work that left a deep impression on readers is The Lonely Man Of Faith, first published in the Jewish religious journal Tradition in 1965.[*] The full text in PDF format can be read and downloaded here.

The following passage from the introduction looks like it could be written today:

He starts off with the observation that the book of Bereishit/Genesis tells two, not one, creation stories for the first human.

In the first, with G-d referred to as “El-him” [the name associated in rabbinical tradition with the Divine attribute of justice] Adam is created “in the image of G-d”, and is mandated to “be fruitful and multiply, populate and conquer the Earth”. In the second, with G-d referred to by the pairing of El-him with the Ineffable Name YHVH [the name associated with the Divine attribute of mercy], Adam is created “from the dust of the Earth” and is placed in the Garden of Eden, “to serve it and to preserve it”.

The Rav reconciles these two seemingly divergent accounts as referring to two essential aspects of being human — both of them created and willed by G-d.

“Adam The First” (Adam I) is the majestic, material[istic], secular aspect, concerned with “how does the Universe function” and “how can I tame it?”. Adam I lives very much in the present, material world, builds utilitarian communities, and is not at all alone in society.

screencap from video by R’ Dr. Chaim Poupko

“Adam The Second” (Adam II) is the humble, spiritual, covenantal man: in JBS’s own words:

The relations that Adam II develops with G-d and with fellow humans are deep, emotional, spiritual.

These two together are what makes us human — each on its own could not. “To reject either would be tantamount to an act of disapproval of the Divine scheme of Creation.” (R’ Jonathan Sacks zt”l).

Below are two lectures further summarizing the ideas in the essay, one by Rabbi Dr. Chaim Poupko, the other by “the Rav”‘s own grandnephew (grandson of his brother), Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik.

Or go read the whole original essay — the Rav was an excellent writer as well as a brilliant Jewish scholar.

In conclusion, I cannot help thinking of these lines from my favorite poem in the English language:

Let knowledge grow from more to more
But more of reverence in us dwell
That mind and soul, according well
May make one music as before…
… but vaster.

(from: Alfred Tennyson, “IN MEMORIAM A.H.H.”)

Shana tova u-ktiva ve-chatima tova.

Have a wonderful year, and may you be sealed and signed in the Book of Life.


[*] A recent documentary about the Rav’s life calls him “The Lonely Man Of Faith” — as he clearly always went the Orthodox, yet intellectually fiercely independent road his mind dictated, in complete disregard of what was popular or fashionable. Amusingly, in the days he commuted from Boston to New York by plane, and knowing how difficult his last name would be for airline employees to deal with, he flew under the pseudonym “Joe Solo”.

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