From spiritual alienation and existential loneliness to faith

Returning to the fold in the thought of Rav Soloveitchik and the messages of Bob Dylan's songs.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan was my first ‘love’ as a spiritual guide.  Rav Soloveitchik  was my second, and is my ongoing ‘love’ as a spiritual teacher. From the age of 17 to 27, Bob Dylan helped me articulate my inner sense of spiritual loneliness and alienation from the shallowness and conformity of middle class American culture. Then I was blessed and began to learn Torah and keep mitzvot, and Rav Soloveitchik helped me take the existential loneliness and searching I had been feeling for so long, and use it to bind myself to G-d and his Torah.

So the reader can imagine my enthrallment when, just as I was finishing this article on the Rav’s existential understanding of repentance, I learned that Bob Dylan, my first ‘love’, won international recognition and received the Nobel prize for literature. I literally started handing out candies in my synagogue.

Thus, at the end of this article on Rav Solovietchik, I will add a few words about the spiritual benefits that a Torah based soul can receive by acquainting himself with some of Bob Dylan’s’ works.   

How does Rav Soloveitchik define “repentance”?

The Rav defines repentance as a process of self creation.  The Rav constantly writes that since man is created in the image of G-d, and G-d is the creator, then it is imcumbent upon man to also be a co-creator with G-D.  And what is the most important object that man can create?  Man must create “himself”, his religious, Torah based personality.  (Here the Rav is using the concept of “self” in its philosophical, ‘existential-being’ sense, and not it its pop psychology, ego-centered definition)

How do we go about ‘repentance as a process of self creation’?

So how do we go about this process of ‘repentance as self creation’? We should be actively using two main tools: 1) our belief in a spiritual, transcendent G-d who created the Universe, and 2) our belief in the divinely given, authoritative Book of Wisdom, our Torah and Halakha.  We should then use these two tools, like the detailed house plans of an architect and engineer, to examine our personal and family ‘house’. After carefully studying the plans, we should then proceed to make decisions concerning what changes we can make in our “house” in order that our personal/family dwelling will be a more hospitable environment in which G-d and his Torah can dwell. 

Thus the primary metaphor used by the Rav in teaching repentance is that we are commanded to be G-d’s building sub contractors. The Rav uses this image of man as G-d’s co-creator in order to emphasis that repentance must be understood as  an act of self repair and self creation, and much less as a metaphysical process of sin, evil inclinations, and definitive divine judgment and punishment.  The Rav teaches, in most cases, repentance with reference to knowable psychological and sociological human experiences without reference to metaphysical beliefs (kabbala, evil inclinations)

The existential context of our task of ‘repentance as a process of self creation’

Man’s existential state is defined by two existential beacons (polar frames of reference).  At one pole is the tragic and paradoxical existential state into which G-d thrust man at man’s creation:  the lonely, finite, vulnerable, absurd abyss, of his divinely ordained day to day existence.  Man’s other, opposite; existential beacon (pole of reference) is our divine, benevolent G-d and his Torah. Simply stated, the Rav teaches that G-d gave us authoritative (divinely prescribed) mitzvot so that, in every hour of our day, we can ‘inject’ truth and meaning into our otherwise finite, absurd and tragic existential state. G-d expects man to use His Torah and mitzvot to daily redeem his personal life from its inherent existential dilemmas.

G-d and Torah, as the truest answer to man’s existential crisis, is the meaning of two prayers we say daily before reciting the passages recalling the daily sacrifices. This prayer reads, “Master of all worlds…What are we? What is our life? What is our goodness? What is our righteousness? What is our helpfulness? What is our strength? What can we say in thy presence?...Indeed our heroes are as nothing before thee, the men of renown as though they never existed, the wise as if they were without knowledge, the intelligent as though they lacked understanding; for most of their doings are worthless, and the days of their life are vain; man is not far above the beast, for all is vanity…Therefore it is our duty to give thanks to thee…Happy are we who…daily proclaim: Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One” G-d and his Torah are the primary source of permanent meaning in our rapidly changing daily existence.

A non metaphysical understanding of punishment and reward

The Rav similarly explained sin, divine punishment and reward in human, existential, rather than metaphysical, terms.  Sin and divine punishment are primarily understood as one’s being lost, alone and drowning in the  social loneliness, confusions, quandaries, depressions, schizophrenia, and barely  regulated human drives for power and sensualism that are an integral part of  modern, atheistic, secular society. Ultimately, this spiritual emptiness, loneliness, and fleetingness of secular life becomes the truest punishment for ignoring or abandoning G-d Torah.  

Divine Reward, in turn, is the ability to happily and faithfully build and live a personal, family and community (social and spiritual) life in accord with a sense of the stability, permanence and eternal truth of G-d’s Torah and Will. The truest reward for doing a mitzvah is the desire to do another mitzvah.   

Two examples of the Rav’s teachings on repentence

I will conclude with two Torah explanations from the Rav.  One, the Rav tells how a very prominent psychiatrist approached him on Yom Kippur and complained that he found it very hard to accept the prayer that calls for G-d to cast his dread and awe on human society in order that they will accept His Will. The psychiatrist said that his whole life he works to help people free themselves from their personal anxieties, fears and complexes. The Rav replied, A Jew should place himself  only in fear and awe of the Eternal One’s will, and that is the truest ‘psychological treatment’  for helping one deal with the smaller, more personal, anxieties and dilemmas of daily existence.

Second, the Rav explained that on the evening of Yom Kippur, when we pray “Kol Nidre” we should ask that G-d help free us to the ‘personal bondage’ of having felt compelled to conform to secular society’s norms that focused on materialism, and ego centered individualism, and thus prevented us from doing more mitzvoth. If G-d will free us from such ‘social bondage’, we will then be able to create a truer, Torah based self, and truly advance on the path of repentance.

A Bob Dylan Appendix

On a personal note,  I would like to suggest that those of us who have experienced G-d’s gift  of  a life of mitzvot after initially growing up in secular society should historically define themselves as “survivors of the Great Assimilation”  (as in 50% intermarriage). And just as it is incumbent on “survivors of the Holocaust” to document their lives for the sake of posterity, so do we, the “Survivors of the Great Assimilation” should document  for posterity the ‘little miracle’ of our belated  binding with the Torah.

It is thus, in this context, that I want to mention Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan’s songs, as the most forceful and artistic voice for the social and personal messages of the student-anti war-alternative culture movement of the late sixties and early seventies, actively freed me from my ‘bondage’ to middle class, conforming, secular American social life. Bob Dylan’s songs played a significant role in setting me on a nine year path of self searching and self creation (which the Rav would define as a path of ‘repentance’) which culminated in a blessed family life of Torah and mitzvot, and aliyah to Israel and to Judea and Samaria.

Invoking a little poetic license, we can say that Bob Dylan’s soul searching messages helped to bring me to the entrance of our King’s Palace, the teachings of Rav Shlomo Carlebach helped me enter and begin to walk in the corridors of the Palace, and then the teachings of Rav Soloveitchik helped me get much closer to the King’s chamber.

Even now,  certain of Bob Dylan’s songs help prepare my soul for praying, for attempting to converse meaningfully with our G-d.