ON THE LONELINESS OF FAITH

by Randi Rashkover

In his essay “The Lonely Man of Faith,” the revered Rav Joseph Soloveitchik eloquently and passionately wrote,

It is not the plan of this essay to discuss the millennium old problem of faith and reason. . .I want instead to focus attention on a human-life situation in which the man of faith as an individual concrete being, with his cares and hopes, concerns and needs, joys and sad moments, is entangled. . . .Instead of talking theology. . .I would like hesitantly and  haltingly, to confide in you, and to share with you some concerns which weigh heavily on my mind and which frequently assume the proportions of an awareness of crisis.1

Soloveitchik’s own caricature of the essay aside, “The Lonely Man of Faith” remains one of the most theologically intoxicating essays of the twentieth century. Sadly, the essay has been neglected in recent years. Despite its well-meaning concern to recognize the needs of the neglected other and remedy suffering, much postmodern theology has lost the sense of urgent and personal crisis so eloquently and painfully testified to in Soloveitchik’s essay. The 1980s and the 1990s afforded American theologians a newfound security and comfort. General wealth and prosperity cushioned us in our jobs, in our homes, in our society. Plagued less by the pressure to assimilate, Jews felt comfortable enough in their surrounding world to return to the study of their ancient texts. And, as past issues of this journal have shown, the end of the twentieth century marked similar movements within Christian and Muslim theology.

We are very fortunate to have inherited the fruits of these earlier times. Now, however, we are not as secure, not as comfortable. Relentless talk and threat of war, increased unemployment, ailing social programs shatter any remaining illusion we may have of theological leisure. Like Soloveitchik, we are no longer in a position to engage in casual theological and scriptural inquiry. Our work must take on the challenge of our times. As the beneficiaries of the textual renaissance of the late twentieth century, we must wed this return to our texts with the sense of urgency and passion that stirred Soloveitchik in his own work.

Soloveitchik’s most pressing spiritual crisis was loneliness. An immigrant from Eastern Europe, Soloveitchik came to America in 1932 to find a new home. Like the “Lonely Man of Faith” he describes in his essay, Soloveitchik sought a community of friends. . .not as a social surface relation but as an existential in-depth-relation between two individuals. . .realizable only within the framework of the covenantal community where in depth personalities relate themselves to each other ontologically and total commitment to God and fellow man is the order of the day.

On one level, finding home for Soloveitchik meant creating a rich and enduring American, Orthodox Jewish community. The list of his contributions to the American Jewish community attests to his success.2 Still, Soloveitchik’s religious life could not fully alleviate his sense of estrangement from the larger, national, even human community. Comfort in one’s religious family is no guarantee of comfort and meaning within the larger community. The different goals and methods of the religious community and the secular order in which it exists seem to guarantee their antagonism and mutual exclusion.

By Soloveitchik’s own account the primary goal of any political community is to secure and develop humankind’s place in nature. Nature offers resources and obstacles and individuals are stronger and better equipped to confront both when they work together. Relationships within political communities are never ends in themselves as they are in religious communities, but always tools employed for the sake of a common purpose. The religious believer is destined to feel alone and lonely within this context. Neither her goals, her needs, nor the benefits she accrues from her covenantal community appear relevant to the political community. According to Soloveitchik, this is the spiritual condition of humankind.

The loneliness of the man of faith is an integral part of his destiny from which he can never be completely liberated. . . .The man of faith is prevented from totally immersing in the immediate covenantal awareness of the redeeming presence knowability and involvement of God in the community of man.3

Still, both worlds, Soloveitchik says, are willed by God. It is therefore our destiny—and more importantly, our responsibility—to recognize our loneliness, to recognize the distance between the two worlds. Only when we recognize our inability to create and secure our own home can we recognize and proclaim faith in God’s unique redeeming power. The real crisis then is not our loneliness but our failure to recognize it.

Our current situation demands that we take up Soloveitchik’s challenge and import his passion and struggle with loneliness into our theological work. We must engage our sacred texts and traditions with the urgency of our loneliness. We must remember the gaping divide that distances our religious community and its goals from our national community and its goals and by recognizing the tragedy in this divide, seek out and pray for God’s healing redemption. As believers, to neglect or deny our loneliness results in either the dissolution of our religious communities into the political or national community, its goals and values, or the isolation and parochialism of religious communities divorced from the public arena altogether. Both scenarios lead to the nullification of the rightful and prophetic voice of religious community in today’s political environment. The goal of this issue is to honor the urgency and relevance of Soloveitchik’s cry of loneliness in our current time and thereby weave together the spirit of religious responsibility with the passion of human need.

Notes

1. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” (New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1965), p. 1–2.

2. Soloveitchik was chief rabbi of Boston and founded the Maimonides school. Rav Soloveitchik also taught at Yeshiva University and became the leading authority on Jewish law and the leading intellectual figure in the Modern American Orthodoxy of his time.

3. Soloveitchik, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” p. 79–80.

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Source: Cross Currents, Wiinter 2003, Vol. 52,  No 4.