Torah Sociology: Rav Soloveitchik & Religious Comeback

What makes people self sacrifice for the advancement of a particular social culture or religion in the 21st century?

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

After nearly 300 years of being on the defensive, religion is making an impressive political and social 'comeback'.  It is surging forth in both positive and negative ways: positively, its spiritual messages acts as a renewed source of community and self identity; and negatively, religion has become a tense source of international conflict.

Religion's comeback is best illustrated by comparing today's headlines with those of the 1930's concerning international military volunteers.
Rav Soloveitchik's commentary on Genesis helps us to both theologically and sociologically better understand this 'comeback ' of religion. Covenantal religion, he argues, is the truest answer to the social alienation and existential loneliness created by secular, liberal Western society.

This article briefly describes religion's comeback, and then presents Rav Soloveitchik's penchant analysis of social alienation and loneliness in the modern world.

Religion's comeback is best illustrated by comparing today's headlines with those of the 1930's concerning international military volunteers. If you asked the average liberal American Jew in the mid 1950's what was the classic 20th century example of international volunteers streaming across borders in order to idealistically fight the 'just cause', they would immediately answer, "of course the International-Abraham Lincoln Brigade that fought on the Republican  side of the Spanish Civil War fighting against fascism and for economic equality and justice".

And, in contrast, what is the most glaring 21st century example of international volunteers streaming across borders to fight an idealistic cause? Our media tells us it’s the Islamic recruits from Western Europe fighting for global jihad in Syria and Iraq.

The obvious question that arises from a comparison of these 20th and 21st century headlines is why have  social culture  and religion replaced questions of economic justice as the main cause of both self sacrificing idealism and international conflict?

The answer is that in the 20th century economic poverty and deprivation were the most oppressive cause of discontent. For most of the 20th century liberal-capitalism, socialism-communism and fascism were in conflict over competing answers to this economic discontent.  However, post World War Two social welfare legislation and increasing affluence succeeded in alleviating the most glaring disparities of economic inequality, and have provided a modest degree of material security. Questions of economic justice thus are no longer the primary reason for international conflict. Rather, international conflict now focuses on competition between religions and social cultures, the most prominent being the current clash between liberal, secular Western social culture and a resurging Islam.

Our next question, thus, is what makes people self sacrifice for the advancement of a particular social culture or religion in the 21st century? The answer seems to be that many people feel alienated, isolated, ignored and rejected by the modern secular society that surrounds them. Secular Western society successfully 'feeds them', but does not provide their lives with sufficient existential meaning. They fell atomized and isolated, lacking proper family and community support. They do not succeed in building their sense of self understanding and self definition by identifying with the social cultural values and messages of Western, liberal secularism. They thus turn to religion in order to seek an alternative source of meaning, self definition, family and community. This analysis helps explain the baal teshuva movement, and the renewed interest in the Jewish religious heritage among non-observant Jews in Israel, and the resurgence of religious observance among Moslems in Western E urope and Arab countries.

Global jihad is the extreme perversion of a widespread human need to find in religion an answer to the alienation and existential loneliness of modern secularism.

This is my personal story. I grew up in a liberal, secular, middle class American Jewish home. The student anti-war and civil rights struggle of the 60's, and the study of political philosophy, encouraged me to seek an alternative social culture. Three years studying to be a Reform rabbi did not satisfy my spiritual longings. I finally committed myself to Orthodox observance after a lonely, five year search, and made aliyah with my family in 1978. I have fortunately found that living a religious life in Israel provides my life with much more existential and spiritual meaning than did secular, liberal American society.

Rav Soloveitchik wrote his classic "The Lonely man of Faith", based on his theological and existential analysis of Genesis, during the very period I was searching for an alternative to liberal, secular America. Based on an existential reading of Genesis chapters one and two, Rav Soloveitchik posits that man is composed of two competing personality types. One, termed Adam One, is expressed in man's drive to understand our physical existence in a rational, utilitarian manner, and to use that knowledge to construct a materially comfortable, aesthetic, and orderly civil society. The second personality type, Adam Two, is expressed in man's drive to understand the meaning and purpose of existence, and to construct a life redeemed with meaning that transcends the transient, material here and now.

Modern secular society, the Rav argues, is dominated by the drives and accomplishments of Adam One. A spiritually sensitive person feels alienated and lonely in such a society, as the Rav testifies about himself. The Rav teaches that the response to such existential loneliness and alienation must be to transcend modern secular society by accepting and fulfilling the mutual obligations of a covenantal commitment to G-d and Torah, one that will be actualized in our family and community life, and consecrated in our everyday physical and social existence.

Modern secular society, thus, can provide man with a comfortable, aesthetic, material existence, but cannot bestow transcendent, redeeming meaning to his life. Rav Soloveitchik, in conclusion, teaches that building the ideal Jewish society requires the actualization in tandem of both our Adam One and Two personality types.

Religion is making a comeback because man cannot live by bread alone. Rav Soloveitchik teaches that the covenantal meanings and relationships of religion allow man to cope with the social alienation and existential loneliness that seem to be an inherent part of modern, liberal secular society.