Rav Soloveitchik and social issues: The blessing of family conflict

From family dysfunction to redemption.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

From family dysfunction to redemptionRav Soloveitchik consistently teaches that G-d primarily reveals himself in moments of suffering, defeat, loneliness and absurdity. He adds, G-d earnestly seeks to help us transform these ‘dysfunctional’ experiences of our lives into a covenantal process of repentance and redemption. This article describes how G-d helps the families of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob transform their painful dysfunctional family conflicts into a redemptive process that will eventually create the chosen people of G-d, who will in turn be worthy of receiving His Torah at Mt. Sinai. The article will then apply these teaching to the current intra-family, ‘tribal conflicts’ of our Jewish people in Israel.

Was Abraham’s family a ‘dysfunctional’ family?

A surface reading of Genesis shows the family life of our patriarchs’ families to be one of conflict, culminating in the ‘almost’ murder of Joseph. The list of intra-family conflicts is long: The conflict between Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, the twice expulsion of Ishmael, the rivalry between Jacob and Esau, Rivkah’s behind the scenes plotting, Jacob’s deception of his father, Esau’s plot to murder his brother, the painful jealousy and rivalry over childbirth between Leah and Rachel, the near murder of Joseph by his ten brothers, and the extended period of deception and lying of the brothers to their father. This story on the surface seems to be that of a soap opera, and the characters seem all too human, and all too much like us.

While G-d is weaving the tapestry of redemption

However what we perceive is not what G-d understands. Our ‘newspaper-internet site’ reality is not the same as G-d’s historical, covenantal reality. Joseph dramatically teaches this understanding to his brothers, after they have shown repentant regret on their near murder of their brother. He says, “But now do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that G-d sent me before you….And   G-d sent me before you….to preserve  you for a great deliverance.” Joseph’s greatness was that he could simultaneously see both the everyday human narrative (evolution of events) with one eye, and also understand the ‘divine-covenantal’ meta- narrative with the other eye. Joseph possessed the prophetic genius to read and grasp the divine, subtitle translation of our human drama.

The Rabbis conveyed the same idea of a underlying divine-covenantal meta narrative to human events when they wrote, “the tribes were occupied with the sale of Joseph, Joseph, Reuben and Jacob were fasting and mourning (engaging in acts of repentance), Judah was taking a wife (Tamar), and G-d was busy in creating the light of the Messiah (establishing the House of David through the ‘unusual’ union of Judah and Tamar).

1) A divine, covenantal meta-narrative: Joseph leads his brothers down the path of repentance

I will now relate three (of many) examples of meta- narratives (understandings of divine providential design) that our Rabbis ‘read’ into the Joseph story. One meta- narrative is that of repentance. Under the guise of being Pharaohs’ viceroy, Joseph directs the events (for example, disguising his identity, not informing his father of his whereabouts, the bringing down to Egypt of his brother Benjamin, hiding the cup, inviting his brothers to take responsibility for Benjamin’s well being) so that  brothers will undergo the process of repentance (which means, being in a similar situation, recognizing their guilt, regretting the deed, and confessing).

Thus Judah says to Joseph, “What can we say to my lord…how can we justify ourselves. G-d has uncovered the sin of your servants.” G-d in partnership with Joseph had the brothers undergo a process of repentance, in order to forge a true sense of brotherhood amongst them. This brotherhood will become the necessary social infrastructure that will allow Jacob’s extended family of seventy souls to become the chosen people capable of receiving the Torah. Under divine providence, dysfunctional family conflict was transformed into a divine historical blessing.

2) A divine, covenantal meta-narrative: Preparing the People of Israel for the Egyptian exile

Each of the twelve sons (tribes in the making) were bestowed with spiritual personality traits unique to each one. In order for the People of Israel to fulfill and act out its spiritual destiny, each son (tribe) had to learn how to develop its particular spiritual gifts, and together the twelve sons had to learn how to function as functional, organic collective. Each of the twelve differing personalities had to learn how to complement and help each other. By means of the events of the Joseph story, G-d acts as a ‘group therapist’ and teaches the twelve sons how to positively function as a collective whole.

The most significant developments were the development of Judah as spiritual, king-like leader, and the development of Joseph as a teacher and role model. Joseph to his brothers how to  interact with an advanced technological society (Egypt) while maintaining a strong, pure relationship with G-d’s presence and His will.  It will be the leadership of these two tribes (and the tribe of Levi) that will enable the Jewish people to survive a 330 year Egyptian exile, and all subsequent exiles. Rav Soloveitchik writes concerning the brothers’ rejection of Joseph’s dreams, (the beginning of the intra-family conflict), “Joseph dreamt of new framework within which the unity of the family could be preserved even in far places (like the technologically advanced, materialistic Egypt)…the brothers did not understand him, for they looked upon the future as a continuation of their (present) life in (rural, nomadic) Canaan.” Again, the Joseph story showed how Divine Providence transformed family conflict into a covenantal blessing.

3) A divine, covenantal meta-narrative: Joseph as the ultimate role model for the ability to balance our conflicting, inner drives

Rav Soloveitchik’s unique contribution to modern Jewish theology is his use of the concept of ‘dialectic’. Man’s inner spiritual/psychological life can be best understood as a ‘mutual interaction/ a dialogue/a dance’ between conflicting inner drives. The tension inherent in this dialectic (mutual interaction) constitutes not only man’s bitter fate, but creates the opportunity for deeds of building and renewal. The pious, meaningful life requires that man learn to manage and balance his conflicting inner drives. He must learn to balance the drives for technological, material, aesthetic and civil advancements and acquisitions, with the drive to find deep, transcendent meaning in profound relationships with family, community, G-d and his Torah.

The Joseph story provides us with a role model (Joseph) who epitomizes man ability to balance both drives. The Rav writes, “The multi-colored coat….symbolized his (Joseph) multifaceted personality…his greatness manifested itself in contradiction…On one hand Joseph was a very practical man: he managed the Egyptian economy and ran the empire…and at the same time he was a dreamer of a world purged …from evil, a humanity…of moral ascent. The greatness of Joseph expressed itself in that strange merger of two mutually exclusive powers.” Again G-d uses the Joseph story to teach how conflict, correctly managed,  (in Joseph’s case, the conflict between his drive to dream meaningful, spiritual dreams, and the drive to rule and administer in everyday society) can transformed into  the blessing of Yosef Ha Tzadik, our covenantal role model of the truly righteous person.

Lessons for our times: two cheers for tribal conflict

Both as family, and as a people, we want to let each individual child, or sub group, to develop and express their unique potentials, and at the same time maintain an overall sense of family cohesion and group unity. The two goals exist in perpetual tension, as we saw in Jacob’s family, and with the Jewish people today in Israel. The return to our Land, and the establishment of our own state, has ‘unleashed’ both tremendous cultural and spiritual, Torah creativity and accomplishment, and also much inter group rivalry, competition and conflict.

As Rav Soloveitchik teaches us, creativity breeds competition and conflict, and conflict and competition breed creativity. Based on a three thousand year history of people hood, our instinctive response to intra-group conflict is to preach the priority of unity-togetherness-oneness over the particularity of creative group self expression, particularly when that creative group self expression causes conflict.

Current  examples of creative group self expression may range from more egalitarian synagogue practice to elitist, Zionist yeshiva high schools which have a minimal amount of secular studies.  I believe, however, that we should respectfully tolerate a wide range of creative group self expression, if halakhically acceptable, even at the risk of increasing inter group conflict. We should be hesitant to smother creative fires that give light. We should each push our creativity, and our particular understanding of G-d’s truth, with appropriate fervor, as long as ‘we play fair’. Playing fair means to tolerate give space and respect competing approaches to Torah and Zionism, (as long as they do not violate the halakha).

As we learned above, G-d’s historical perspective is not ours. Ultimately G-d will pull together all the disparate threads of our current inter group competition, and weave for us a quilt of redemption. This is the divine providence that he bestowed upon Jacob’s family, as they developed, through intra-family conflict, to become the eternal Jewish People.