Covenantal individualism versus anarchic individualism

The web has a deleterious effect on society. As Jews, we must identify the problem and prevent its taking over traditional social order. Rabbi Soloveitchik's writings seem eerily predictive.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

The problem of cyber-induced anarchic individualism

There is a growing sense of uneasiness that we are losing control over the social changes that are rampaging in our midst. The examples abound: the current wave of semi-anarchic terror attacking Israel.; the disintegration into 'failed statehood' of our Arab neighbors; the inability of Europe to control the wave of illegal immigration charging over its borders; and the 35,000 Islamic State volunteers from Western countries who are throwing off their Western education and life style due to social web messages that successfully addresses their sense of social alienation.

The unprecedented rate and scope of these social disorders is the result of  individuals trying to find self meaning and fulfillment in the social ideals promoted and inculcated by the social internet web. The web is a relativistic, a-moral vacuum, 'anarchistic' source of social motivation. Like beach surfing, web surfing is all stimulation, incurring no reciprocal obligations. Our cyber world has become an anarchic form of individualism, significantly weakening traditional social orders in the process.

Rav Soloveitchik, Sefer Bereshit, and covenantal individualism

The Torah based social philosophy of Ha Rav Joseph Soloveitchik can help us put into perspective this cyber induced anarchic individualism. He teaches us that the fatal sin of the Generation of the Flood was anarchistic individualism. He teaches us that the only true response to social loneliness and alienation  is a   covenantal individualism, one composed a of triangular,  reciprocal obligations between 1) G-d, 2) the individual, and 3)his family and community. According to R. Soloveitchik, G-d's teaching and creation of covenantal individualism is the main theme of the beginning of Sefer Bereshit (Genesis).

The religious, social philosophy of R. Soloveitchik

R. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) was one of the greatest Torah giants of the 20th century. He was a giant Talmudic scholar, the fitting descendent of Rav Chaim and Rav Moshe Soloveitchik of Brisk. He was a giant communal leader, almost single handedly establishing halakhic Modern Orthodoxy in America. He was the greatest, the most original, Jewish religious philosopher of the 20th century. This column will use R. Solovietchik's religious-social philosophy to better understand important social issues of our times.

As the Rambam used Greek philosophy to strengthen the theological faith of his students, R. Soloveitchik used modern philosophy to teach Torah to the modern Jew. As with the Rambam, R. Soloveitchik' religious philosophy derives its legitimacy from the breadth and depth of his Talmudic scholarship and communal leadership.

We can summarize the Rav's religious social philosophy by saying that he uses psychology, sociology and (primarily) existential philosophy , rather than traditional, rabbinic-hassidic metaphysics (kabbala) to make the inner religious experience, and the teachings of the Torah, accessible and relevant to the Jew actively participating in modern, secular society. In the hands of almost any other religious scholar, the use of secular sciences for theological purposes would mean a 'cheapening', a diluting, of religious faith. In the hands of the Rav, however, it constitutes a strengthening of Torah faith.

Two types of creation: ethical or hedonistic

The Rav teaches that G-d wants man to be a creator, to 'finish' the Creation that G-d purposefully left in a partial state of primal chaos. In Genesis Chap. One, G-d creates man (Adam the first) with the personality drives that bring  him to 'conquer and rule' the natural order. This means that G-d placed in man (Adam the first) the inner drive and ability to learn and know how the natural order functions (math, physics and the natural sciences), to create objects that bring pleasure and aesthetic beauty (literature and the arts), and to legislate and build well ordered , just civil societies (political, judicial and the social sciences).

In Genesis Chap. Two, G-d creates man (Adam the second) with the personality drives that bring him 'to guard and work (G-d's)  garden'. This drives include the inner drives to seek to 1)understand the meaningfulness of Being and life, and  2) to possess the need and ability to develop deep, authentic interpersonal relationships, 3) which together will become   a process that culminates in finding personal redemption through the building of a reciprocal, triangular (I,Thou, G-d,) relationship with G-d. In this regard, the Rav writes, "The community-fashioning gesture of Adam the first is purely utilitarian.

The companionship which Adam the second is seeking is not to be found in the automatic coordination of the assembly line. His quest is for a new kind of fellowship which one finds only in the existential community (together with G-d). There, not only hands are joined, but experiences as well; there one hears….the rhythmic beating of hearts starved for existential companionship. …Adam the second was introduced to Eve by G-d, who summoned Adam to join Eve in an existential community."

The generation of Noah, and the deterioration into anarchic individualism

Man's spiritual life is an ongoing inner struggle between these two (Adam the first, and Adam the second) creative personality drives. G-d wants man to create both utilitarian beauty in the objective, natural, sensuous world, and to create G-d driven beauty in our interpersonal relationships and inner spiritual selves. The tragedy of modern, Western secular man is that he has abandoned his relationship with G-d, and has concentrated all his energies on developing technological, civil and aesthetic beauty. However, without a parallel, covenantal relationship with G-d, man's natural drives deteriorate primarily into drives for pleasure seeking (hedonism), and power aggrandizement.

Now, in the age of the social internet, these drives can easily be transformed into a self-centered, socially anarchistic individualism - one which we now see can even be used to incite our enemies and instruct them on how to kill us effectively.

This is the story of Sefer Bereshit. This is the story of the modern secular world, according to R. Soloveitchik. Initially man had a relationship with G-d. For example, Adam and Cain did repentance with G-d's help. But by the time of Hanoch, man began to forget G-d. The Rav writes, "Maimonides enumerates a triple estrangement from G-d: G-d's name vanishes from man's lips. G-d disappeared from his awareness, and (then) man forfeits his ability to recognize G-d….When Maimonides says that G-d vanished from the minds of the idolaters, this means that they lost the awareness of His steady presence, which led to their vulgarization. Dismissing G-d from one's mind (inevitably) leads to the loss of the moral code."

The absence of covenantal relationship with G-d in turn, fashioned the moral anarchy of the Generation of the Flood, and the totalitarian collectiveness of the generation of the Tower of Babel. Referring to the Generation of the Flood, the Rav writes, "They maintained that no authority, worldly or transcendental, may legislate how man should live….This hedonistic society is essentially the same as a democratic Western society in the pursuit of pleasure and happiness. Such a society pursues pleasure,….resents controls…and hates discipline imposed from above."

Referring to the generation of the Tower of Babel, the Rav writes, "The construction of the tower represented industrialization. The society enslaved the individual, not to other individuals, but to the state, to the collective, to the group. The ideology of Marxism, as interpreted by Lenin and Mao Tse Tung, could not have found a better portrayal than in these verses (Gen. 11).

Thus the redemption of G-d's Creation began only when G-d and Abraham formed together  a covenantal relationship, based reciprocal relationships and obligations.

A Lonely G-d, abandoned by his Creation, met a lonely, nomadic seeker of G-d, and they formed a redeeming fellowship.

The Rav writes, " Abraham….searched and discovered G-d in the starlit heavens….Yet, he felt an intense loneliness….Only when he met G-d on earth as Father, Brother, and Friend….did he feel redeemed."


The modern religious Jew is surrounded by a society descending into the ethical chaos of a cyber-promoted anarchic individualism. The ethical relativism and moral vacuum of the internet is seriously eroding the traditional social norms, and mutual obligations and bonds,  of family and communal life.  In order to orient himself in this ethical chaos, the religious Jew must steadfastly, with all his might,  cling to G-d in a covenantal relationship.

G-d is eager that we take part in his Creation and be creative in the natural sciences, the arts, and in promoting justice in civil society. However, our individual creativity will have the best chance of being ethical and lasting (and not self serving and stylish) if it is conducted in the context of an obligating, reciprocal relationship with G-d and his Torah.