Rav Soloveitchik and social issues series: Who gets the kingship
Rav Soloveitchik and social issues series: Who gets the kingship

Joseph and Judah: two types of righteousness

Joseph was perfectly righteous. Seemingly, he was born with a personality that could not sin. G-d gave him the ability to flawlessly combine brilliant administrative management of a materialistic society (Egypt) as it really is, with near prophetic spiritual sensitivities and understanding. Yet his descendants received neither the kingship nor the priesthood.

Judah and Levi received both. But they achieved such stature and greatness only after a life long struggle with failure, misdeeds, and self transformation. Nevertheless, into their struggled- stained hands G-d decided to trust the covenantal history of the Jewish people. In this article, Rav Sloveitchik helps us understand G-d’s choice, and its significance for decisions that we have to make today.

Joseph: A seamless interweaving of material and spiritual greatness

Joseph had an intermediary status between the spiritual greatness of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the more human, spiritual attributes of the other eleven sons. For example, his dreams, and his interpretations of the dreams, had near prophetic status, as was shown by the fact that G-d brought about the fulfillment of the dreams.

For twenty two years, every day of his life was a series of divine tests, all of which he superbly passed: he was betrayed by his brothers, served as a servant to the Chief Executioner of Egypt, was seduced by a powerful Egyptian mistress, spent 12 years in prison, and then became the senior political ruler and administrator of a technologically advanced, centralized, highly hedonistic and materialistic society.

And through all of these tests, he remained completely righteous without sin. And most significantly, he perceived G-d’s presence, wisdom and providence in all that occurred. He never expressed a lack of faith.  Rav Soloveitchik writes, “The greatness of Joseph expressed itself in that strange merger of two exclusive powers….the power to be in contact with (material) reality no matter how uncomfortable, and another one of questing and reaching out for something beyond reality (G-d’s presence).”

Rav Soloveithchik adds that Joseph completely succeeded in the mission that G-d gave him: to create the religious, societal infrastructure in Eygpt, through his teaching and role modeling, that would enable the Jewish people to preserve their unique, spiritual greatness while living, and being enslaved, for 210 years in the hostile, hedonistic society of Egypt.

The Rav writes, “ Before the children of Abraham became involved in the adventure of exile and servitude a basic truth had to be established, whether the covenantal community can spend so many years in a land that is not theirs, and not lose its identity.” The life and deeds of Joseph established this truth.

Judah and David: Kings who grew into greatness though inner, spiritual conflict

Joseph ruled the material-physical world with perfect spiritual acumen. Colloquially speaking, ‘he never missed a step’. He (and his progeny) would thus seem to be the ideal candidates for kingship. What more could the People of Israel ask for?

But G-d, in his providential wisdom, preferred that the Jewish people be led by another type of spiritual role model: that of the repentant, that of a person who has made mistakes, fallen and has developed himself through internal spiritual conflict.

Rav Soloveitchik explicitly writes. “The Jewish king must demonstrate that he has the attributes of self creation and self transcendence. A king who has never had to fight his own internal battle could never understand the trials of his brethren….The difference is that Joseph received his ethical sensitivity as a gift, while Judah attained it through struggle.”

Judah seriously failed twice: once, by not acting to prevent the selling of Joseph (and afterwards became estranged from his brothers), and second, at his crossroad’s encounter with Tamar. With the latter, he openly, publicly confessed his misdeeds, and acted to correct them. With regard to his brothers, he grew in leadership by taking responsibility for Benjamin, and by arguing the regretful, repentful case of his brothers before Joseph.

The spiritual struggles of his descendant, King David, were similar. King David seriously sinned twice, once with Bathsheba, and a second time, when he mistakenly conducted a civil census in order to determine the material resources and power of his kingdom. In both cases, when confronted by a prophet, David immediately and fully took responsibility for his misdeed and confessed.

Similarly, the Book of Psalms details on almost every page the intense, personal, spiritual conflicts and struggles of King David. David was born with a rapacious personality similar to that of Esau, but he was also born with ‘beautiful eyes’ ie. he learned to see G-d’s presence and wisdom in this physical world, and to refine, elevate and use his baser instincts so as to more fully serve G-d and his Torah.

Similarly, Levi attained the priesthood because he learned to channel and elevate the aggressive drives that he and Simon demonstrated in the battle of Shechem. When the People of Israel sinned with the golden calf after receiving the Torah, Levi transformed his aggression into spiritual heroism, defending the Torah’s truth, and Moses’ prophecy.

Today: We can look at Rav Soloveitchik and the last Chabad Rebbe, two different formulas for spiritually coping with modernity

On the surface, our modernity provides us with greater security and stability than in previous generations. We live longer, and materially we live better. But underneath the surface, modern society can be quite threatening and uncertain. We tend to live lonelier lives, have to fall back more on our own personal resources, and it is becoming increasingly complicated, as individuals, to define who we really are, and who we want to be.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s Rav Soloveitchik and a close peer and friend, the last Chabad rebbe (Menachem Mendel)  consciously placed themselves in the heart of modernity (Weimer Republic, Berlin, and Paris) in order to prepare themselves for teaching modern, assimilating   Jews how to build a true relationship with G-d and his Torah amidst the challenges of secular modernity.

They developed two different formulas. These formulas recall the different spiritual characteristic of Joseph and Judah described above. Both the Rav and the Rebbe agree that modern man finds himself engaged in intense, inner spiritual struggle as he attempts to keep G-d’s Torah in the modern world. However they propose two different ‘formulas-recipes-frames of reference’ for coping with modernity’s challenges

Chabad/Chasidut: Coping with modernity aided by a Joseph-like kabalistic clarity

The Tanya of Chabad maps out a clear-cut, challenging, recipe for spiritually coping. It provides clear-cut guidelines based on the absolute, metaphysical truths of the kabala. We can summarize these guidelines as following. 1) Our inner spiritual struggle is understood as struggle between a clearly defined absolute Good and Bad, that is the good and evil inclinations within us, each of which (respectively) is an agent of the Divine Presence, or the Other Side. 2) The common Jew is aided and guided by the rebbe -Tzadik (or in yeshiva circles, the generation’s Torah Giant, the posek hador) who are both presented as being free from sin (as understood in everyday, human terms). 3)The absolute-objective frame of reference for identifying truth is the metaphysical certainties of the kabala (hassidjism), or the scholarly, religious legacies of our rabbinic forefathers (chazal) .4) Observant Jews are encouraged to live in ideologically closed communities, virtually cut off from the social influences of a profane, hostile secular world.

This formula for coping with modernity has worked well for hundreds of thousands of Jews. I see this as a  ‘Joseph-like formula’ in the sense that Joseph was like the Chasidic rebbee, or Torah posek hador, who is presented as  being a totally righteous personality, who understands the plight of the common Jew with perfect clarity, and is untouched by the corruption of modern society. Similarly, Joseph guided the common Jew in corrupt Egyptian society, but was spiritually untainted, and above it. Like the hassidic Rebbe, and the Torah posek hador, Joseph did not suffer from the spiritual conflicts of the common Jew.

Rav Soloveitchik: coping with modernity through a Judah-like struggle of repentance and self creation

Rav Soloveitchik , in most (but not all) of his writings presents a contrasting understanding of  modern man’s spiritual struggles. If the Chabad rebbe’s formula is one of kabalistic clarity, the Rav’s frame of reference is one of existential bewilderment. He teaches that man’s internal struggle is not between a metaphysical good and evil inclination, but rather as a struggle to self create a spiritual personality, and to build a meaningful life, amidst the existential finitude, fleetingness, chaos and absurdity of our daily existence.

Our existential state demands that we transcend our drives for hedonistic pleasure or social power, and that we use the truths of the Torah to engage in an ongoing pattern of self transformation and self creation. Faith means searching for G-d, even when he remains distant and silent. This formula recalls the spiritual struggles of self change, and self growth, of Judah and Levi that were described above.

The Rav writes, “Our historical destiny finds its fulfillment in the faith experience. The latter….(is) a search for G-d …when to seek G-d requires a superhuman effort. At a time of hester panim, when G-d is hidden…at a time when the human search becomes a very frustrating and fatiguing experience, G-d wills man to search…while historical reality scoffs at the G-d searcher….You will search…out of existential narrowness…surrounded by human vulgarity and brutality, in a world that knows nothing besides hard matter and mechanical (modern secularity)..in spite of His silence…and not a single hint from heaven will be noticeable…”. Salvation from this existential abyss of modernity, the Rav teaches, will only come from the daily, spiritual struggle to build a life- sustaining relationship with G-d, his Torah, and our families, and our religious community.

Summary: Kingship must be based on experiencing spiritual conflict and self creation

The above description of the Rav and the last Chabad Rebbe is admittedly overly simplified. The basic point is that Joseph and Judah had very different spiritual struggles. Judah and Levi received the kingship and priesthood because they personally experienced sin, and consequently engaged in   self change and self transcendence. The contrasting experiences of Joseph and Judah somewhat parallel the differing formulas for spiritually coping with modernity of the Rav and the last Chabad Rebbe.

On a personal note, I have three sons who have chosen the formula of Chabad, and they, and their families, are very happy. I, however, grew up in the secular world before I became observant, and maintain a proactive engagement with the secular world after I became observant. I find much more meaning and solace in the teachings of  Rav Soloveitchik.     


Chabad Rebbes
Chabad RebbesINN:Chabad