Torah Sociology: Fundamentalist Belief, Pluralistic Dialogue

An interpretation of Rabbi Soloveitchik's thoughts on the culture of dialogue with seekers of truth.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

This article was conceived and written before Rabbi Riskin called upon us to treat Reform and conservative rabbis as partners and not adversaries. He was subsequently strongly criticized for supporting Jewish leaders/rabbis who encourage intermarriage and denigrate halakha. This article touches on these issues from a more theological and social philosophical viewpoint.

I.The culture of religious dialogue with mistaken truth seekers

This article presents some of Rav Soloveitchik’s teachings on the relationship between orthodox Jewish religious faith and liberal, secular society by putting them in the framework a personal dilemma. I am basically conservative in my religious beliefs. The rabbis whose Torah I want to learn, and whose halakhic decisions I want to follow, are found on the more conservative side of the national religious camp. For example, I strongly agree with them that the social values and institutions of liberal, secular social culture are in great tension, if not frequently in opposition, with the social values and institutions of orthodox Torah wisdom.

I strongly believe that we must teach our national religious public about the limitations of liberal social culture. I believe that we must work hard to develop alternative social, academic and artistic bodies of knowledge and frameworks so as to create a Torah-based social culture and community.

However, I find myself grasped by a painful dilemma because of the culture of dialogue frequently used  when disagreeing with exceedingly liberal opponents in the national religious camp, and with secular Jews who want to learn Torah, but do not (yet) accept the authority of the halakha. Over the last year I have heard a culture of dialogue which, to me, is too often overly ideological and combative. This adversarial culture of dialogue reminds me of the intra Jewish religious conflicts of pre-1939 Eastern Europe, and the vitriolic culture of debate used by ultra-orthodox rabbis against all national religious rabbis. 

I truly believe that our partners in religious dialogue (even those who do not yet accept the authority of the halacha) are not our adversaries, but rather are our brothers who are sincere, but mistaken, truth seekers. Our culture of dialogue should be one that respects their truth seeking, and at the same time, tries to earnestly educate them to the eternal truth of rabbinic wisdom without changing our views.

We now turn to the teachings of the Rav, concerning the alienation and estrangement experienced by a man of religious faith in modern liberal society. From both the tone and content of the Rav’s analysis we can extract important lessons concerning the appropriate culture of educational-religious discourse with our Jewish brothers who may be mistaken truth seekers.

II.  Rav Soloveitchik: Religious faith is very personal, inner struggle. We should develop a culture of dialogue that respects this struggle.

We will now briefly present highlights of the Rav’s teachings concerning the nature of religious faith in liberal society. I believe that these teachings can give legitimacy to a more pluralistic culture of dialogue.  

Overview: Building a relationship with G-d is a personal struggle full of paradox and contradiction, how much the more so in modern, liberal society

Our thesis can receive support from the Rav’s teachings concerning the nature of man’s innate, deep desire, and search, to build a relationship with G-d. He teaches that the truth and the authority of G-d’s Torah are eternal and absolute. However, our efforts to make this truth an existentially meaningful part of our life is an intensely individual effort, full of struggle, contradiction, tragedy and paradox. This is the way G-d “programmed’ the human-G-d relationship. G-d designed  the building of our relationship with Him to be a process of constant self sacrifice; a process that is innately one of strain, inner struggle, deep disappointments and detours, and then sudden, unexpected revelations of his Being.  Most of the time, the Rav emphasizes, G-d is distant and hidden from man. And this difficult, trying G-d-man relationship has been made much more difficult in modern, liberal, society. Secular society inherently makes G-d seem more distant and hidden, and thus makes the religious man of faith feel more lonely and alienated.

If this description of the man of faith’s existential position in liberal, secular society is true, then it becomes morally incumbent upon us to empathetically and pluralistically accept, as a fellow truth seeker, every Jew who sincerely seeks to add significant Torah content to his life. This means sympathetically respecting his personal, existential search for truth. Such acceptance  may then serve as platform for an educational dialogue that may enable him to discover, at his own pace,  the absolute truth of G-‘s Torah.

Religious man feels very alienated in liberal society. The Rav writes in The Lonely Man of Faith:

He (religious man) looks upon himself as a stranger in modern (liberal) society, which is technically minded, self centered, and self loving, almost in a sickly narcissistic fashion….and seeing in the here-and-now sensible world the only manifestation of being….what can such a man (of religious faith) say to a functional, utilitarian society which is secular oriented…”.

The man of faith ,the Rav teaches, feels alienated because, unlike  liberal individualism, the man of faith “speaks of defeat instead of success, of accepting a higher will instead of commanding, of retreating instead of advancing, of acting ‘irrationally ‘instead of being always reasonable….He experiences not only ontological loneliness, but also social isolation, whenever he dares to deliver the genuine message of faith.”

Faith is not a creed or an Idea, but an inner dynamic of very personal struggle.

 The Rav teaches us that faith is not allegiance to a creed, or an all encompassing Idea explaining life. It is a dynamic relationship with G-d composed of contradictions, paradoxes and inner struggle.  At the beginning of the ‘Lonely Man of Faith’ the Rav writes,

 “The role of the man of faith , whose religious experience is fraught with inner conflicts and incongruities, who oscillates between ecstasy in G-d’s companionship and despair when he feels abandoned by G-d, and who is torn asunder by the heightened contrast between self-appreciation and abnegation, has been a difficult one since the times of Abraham and Moses.”

The Rav explains religious faith in a similar fashion when he paraphrases Psalm 130 by writing,

“From the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord. Out of the straits of contradiction and internal turmoil, spiritual doubts and perplexities; from the depths of the soul riven with antinomianism and negation, from the furthest recesses of the spirit, perplexed and suffering, I called unto G-d.”

Given this reality, religious faith, in its basic essence, is  a very solitary experience. In these terms the Rav describes the process of a repentant relationship with G-d. He writes,

“(The repentant’s path to G-d)  is a narrow and mysterious route which meanders and twists between hills….climbs and descends…proceeds backwards and forwards…The way to reach the goal (of returning to an intimate presence with our King) is not by the public highway. But along the solitary route-and each man has a route of his own.”

If the essence of religious faith is a lonely, conflicted relationship with G-d, the ‘answer’ (the redeeming response) is to build a covenantal (Torah based) relationship with G-d and a Thou (family and community).

The Rav beautifully describes the building of such a covenantal relationship when he writes,     “(It) is a community of commitments born in distress and defeat and comprises three participants : I, thou, and He (G-d), the He in whom all being is rooted and in whom everything finds its rehabilitation and , consequently, redemption…..(G-d) summoned Adam to join Eve in an existential community molded by sacrificial and suffering, and who Himself (G-d) became a partner in this community…He (G-d) joins man and shares in his covenantal existence. Finitude and infinity, temporality and eternity, creature and creator become involved in the same community…They bind themselves together…. in a unitive existence.”

Our conclusion is that these teachings imply a moral legitimacy for establishing a culture of religious dialogue.

With regard to halakha the Rav was a strict, orthodox ‘fundamentalist’. He emphatically instructed his students that it was utterly forbidden to perform mitzvah based religious activity in a Reform or Conservative synagogue or in conjunction with a Reform or Conservative rabbi. He also forbade religious dialogue with Christian theologians. He, however, permitted (in contrast to the ultra-orthodox –Agudat Yisrael) cooperation with Reform and Conservative rabbis in communal matters such as supporting Israel, the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, and providing expanded social services to Jewish needy. He taught the connection between Torah and mental health to Christian theologians.  These were the Rav’s halakhic decisions.

However, I believe that the Rav would regard the average Reform or Conservative laymen (highly assimilated, and Jewishly illiterate) as a mistaken truth seeker, with whom we should empathetically and respectfully enter into an educational, religious dialogue. The same would be true with the secular Israeli who wants to add Jewish content to his life, but cannot (yet) accept the authority of the halakha. In the passages cited above, the  Rav  taught us  that the path to building a faithful relationship with G_d is a solitary, tortuous path full of obstacles. We should greet all who are willing to walk down that path with respect and empathy.       

III. Defining a culture of dialogue that is  fundamentalistic in belief, and pluralistic in mutual understanding

I would like to relate to our partner in our religious, educational dialogue as a brother who is a fellow, but mistaken, truth seeker. This includes open orthodox rabbis, and Jews attempting to build their lives with the Torah, but not (yet) ready to accept the authority of the halakha in their personal lives.

We must earnestly teach the eternal truth of the Torah, of 2000 years of rabbinic wisdom and the absolute authority of the halakha. These principles are our existential anchor,( point of orientation) in a world of post modern moral relativism. We must teach these fundamental, orthodox truths   a) Through personal behavior of modesty, humility, fear of  G-d, and empathetic openness to the difference and subjective conflicts of our fellow Jew.   b) Through accurate, truthful and socially meaningful halakhic decisions   c) Decisions which are substantiated by sociological and psychological arguments that show that a Torah way of life to be the socially and emotionally healthiest way to live in post modern, liberal secular society.

Our educational efforts must focus on coherently explaining (‘marketing’) the paradox of Torah individualism. Just as the Torah teaches the ‘paradox’  that the man who is ‘most free’ is the one who accepts the yoke (authority)  of the halakha, so today we must teach that the truest, most human form of self fulfillment and self creativity  is existentially living one’s life through the halakha, and through a relationship with a covenantal G-d. We must show that a liberal individualism focused on serial explorations of self identity and self expression frequently leads to a lonely, depressing nihilistic existential dead end.

IV.The counter arguments of my rabbinic teachers

My rabbinic teachers, among them renowned Torah luminaries, basically reject this line of argument. Thus is born my personal dilemma. Their rejection seems to be based on the following argument:

It  is important to maintain ideological clarity. Accepting Jews who want a non-halakhic  Torah  as ‘fellow truth seekers’ creates dangerous, misleading ideological confusion. It is more important to focus on the perspective and role of the People (the metaphysical Clal Yisrael), our History, and the Land of Eretz Yisrael, in our service of G-d,   and to focus less on the perspective of existential, religious individualism. Respectfully and empathetically dialoguing with non-halakhic Jewish truth seekers can grant them a dangerous, normative legitimacy, and might imply that there are several, equally legitimate,  competing definitions of Torah (and not only rabbinic, halakhic Torah). The legitimacy implied by dialoguing with non-halakhic Jews as ‘fellow truth seekers’ eases their way into being granted legal status and governmental funding (in matters of conversion, marriage, the Kotel) and thus more firmly establishing their foothold in Israeli society.

V. Rav Soloveitchik and the teaching of religious, Torah individualism

The above arguments, although substantive, are becoming increasingly less relevant and meaningful for today’s’ younger, national religious public. What I see and hear is that 70-80% of national and religious, and secular, Jews do not make decisions concerning how they will incorporate Torah-halakha in their personal lives on the basis of the normative legitimacy, and the governmental status, of halakhic Torah. Rather they ask themselves to what extent can halakhic Torah and rabbinic wisdom make my personal and family life more emotionally-socially meaningful, fulfilling and stable.

And here we return to the very special religious faith and wisdom of Rav Soloveitchik. More than any other rabbinic teacher he defines (in non-kabbalistic terms) a Torah true definition of religious individualism. He intimately and expertly shows how the halakha is the basis for developing a Torah-religious individualism that is the truest way to cope with the inner confusion and loneliness created by secular, liberal society. He shows how the halakha is the truest way to elevate our contradictory psychological drives (that are so exacerbated in liberal society). He shows how the halakha is the surest way to build a stable, committed,  deeply mutual and sharing, marital and family life (that is so endangered by liberal society).

Rav Soloveitchik anticipated and personally experienced all of the existential chaos, loneliness and confusion created by liberal society, and gave us a Torah wisdom with which we can build an alternative, more self meaningful, Torah social culture.