The title ‘Rav’ is probably the most common identifying description among Jews. The word means rabbi. Both are variations of the same Hebrew/Aramaic root for ‘master’, which eventually morphed into ‘teacher’. That is what a rabbi really is – a teacher of the Torah. But to be a teacher one must have already mastered the law and be able to direct those who haven’t. Without exaggeration, there have been tens of thousands of rabbis in Jewish history, some with the title Rav, some with Rabbi, some with Rabbenu (our teacher), some with Rabban (teacher of the entire Jewish people). Many synagogue rabbis are addressed as ‘the Rav’. But among all of them, there is only one who somehow stands alone as ‘The Rav’. Perhaps in the past there were others, but in the post-Holocaust period of Jewish transition, that title is reserved for Joseph (Yosef) Ber Soloveitchik.
Why he alone is known by this unique title is likely a whim of modern Jewish society. But why he was granted the title to begin with is anything but a whim. He was the Rav, the teacher, of more than a generation of highly advanced Talmudic students, many of whom became leading scholars and teachers in all walks of Jewish life. Almost 2,000 rabbis received their ordination under his direct or indirect guidance. The institution he taught at for over 40 years, Yeshiva University, remains the flagship of Modern Orthodox Judaism. His highly intellectual works on Jewish philosophy and his countless analyses of deep Talmudic problems are studied widely by his students, their students, and their students’ students. There may be other rabbis of the 20th century who have had as much influence on the contemporary Jewish world, but the list is not very long.
He was born in 1905 into a family about as steeped in rabbinic tradition as could be found. His education was broad, including both thorough Talmudic training and high-level academic study. His secular studies focused on philosophy and always had a direct influence on his religious outlook. Indeed, Rav Soloveitchik became the champion of combining the highest ideals of secular studies with the highest ideals of Torah. His written works display an astounding grasp of the profundities of many areas of philosophy, so much so that it makes them almost impossible to understand for those who aren’t well versed in these arcane studies. There is a long-standing debate on whether he truly valued secular study as the equal of Torah study or simply tolerated it as a means to make a living and fit into the world at large, or something in between.
He is best known as the long-standing Rosh Yeshiva (head teacher) of Yeshiva University. While there, he assumed the role of guiding Modern Orthodox American Jews along the precarious path between ultra-Orthodox on the right and Conservative on the left. He frequently had to steer a difficult middle course between these two forces and almost invariably received criticism for going too far to the left or to the right. American Modern Orthodoxy today is largely the result of his outlook of the American Jewish scene and that of the students he produced.
The frequently uncomfortable synthesis of Torah and secular knowledge was the subject of his two major works. The earlier one, called Halachic Man, was written in 1944. In it, he describes the conflict between the ‘cognitive man’ whose goal is to understand the world and to improve it for his own purposes, and ‘homo religiosus’ – the religious man who forever seeks mysteries rather than answers. The Rav’s resolution between these conflicting goals is ‘Halachic Man’, an idealized individual whose goal is to recreate the world and himself in the perfect image of the Torah and Halacha. The later work, an essay published in 1965 with the provocative title of ‘The Lonely Man of Faith’ examines a parallel conflict between the ‘majestic man’ who seems to be the same as the cognitive man, and the ‘covenantal man’ who seeks union with God. Somewhat strangely, Rav Soloveitchik brings no ‘Halachic’ resolution for this conflict, declaring at the outset of the essay that it has no resolution. The ‘Lonely Man of Faith’ is the glorious and tragic fate of anyone who attempts to live in both worlds.
On page 101 of Halachic Man, the Rav states man’s purpose in creation explicitly: ‘Man’s task is to “fashion, engrave, attach, and create” (a phrase taken from the Sefer ha-Yetzira), and transform the emptiness in being into a perfect and holy existence, bearing the imprint of the divine name.’ He repeats and expands this purpose on page 105: ‘When man, the crowning glory of the cosmos, approaches the world, he finds his task at hand – the task of creation…Man the creature, is commanded to become a partner with the Creator in the renewal of the cosmos; complete and ultimate creation – this is the deepest desire of the Jewish people.’
The Rav is deep. Nobody, even his strongest opponents in Jewish thought, could ever say otherwise. This entire book is deep. There isn’t a single paragraph that can be skimmed, and hardly any that don’t have to be read more than once. The most common reaction to the book is to give up with the feeling that it is just too profound for the likes of me. But it is penetrable if one is willing to go slow and methodical, and maybe ask a few well-chosen questions of one of the many rabbinic scholars who know this book intimately. Barring that luxury, what are we to make of these statements?
First off, the purpose of man is clear – to create. But what exactly is creation. Isn’t creation something reserved for God and God alone? The Rav steps out into deep waters in stating the opposite. Our task is not to be submissive recipients of God’s goodness, no matter how wonderful that may be. Nor is it to be perpetually amazed at the wonder of creation, forever in awe of the great mystery of it all. Halachic Man’s purpose is to become an active partner with God in this great project of creation, not a passive spectator. It is his task to perfect the world, through his intellectual faculties and technological skills, and through his unique ability to bring holiness into the world.
Holiness is the arena in which Halachic Man’s creativity attains its greatest fruition. On page 108, we find the statement, ‘Holiness is the descent of divinity into the midst of our concrete world…the “contraction” of infinity within a finitude bound by laws, measures, and standards, the appearance of transcendence within empirical reality…’ Holiness is not sitting on a mountain top contemplating one’s navel. Nor is it necessarily reciting the Psalms or chanting prayers. It is creating a world, either individual or community, in which the great majesty of God is intertwined within all aspects of life. He drives this point home later on the same page: ‘If a man wishes to attain the rank of holiness, he must become a creator of worlds. If a man never creates, never brings into being anything new, anything original, then he cannot be holy unto his God. That passive type who is derelict in fulfilling his task of creation cannot become holy. Creation is the lowering of transcendence into the midst of our turbid, course, material world, and this lowering can take place only through the implementation of the ideal Halacha in the core of reality.’
In one specific domain man’s task of creating can truly attain its intended potential. This is in the creation of his own self. In this arena is ‘embodied the entire task of creation and the obligation to participate in the renewal of the cosmos. The most fundamental principle of all is that man must create himself. It is this idea that Judaism introduced into the world’ (p.109). It is in the purely religious obligation of repentance that our potential as creators is revealed. The Rav calls repentance self-creation. It is ‘the severing of one’s psychic identity with one’s previous “I”, and the creation of a new “I”, possessor of a new consciousness, a new heart and spirit, different desires, longings, goals…’ (p.110). We may have major issues with the contention that we can recreate an idealized Halachic World inhabited by idealized Halachic Man, but we cannot deny that we have the ability and the task to recreate ourselves.
It is in this domain of ‘self creation’ that we truly become partners with God. God created us as human beings in the divine image. God created a world for us to live in and to perfect to whatever degree we can. But God also gave us the absolutely free choice to do what we wish with ourselves. That perpetual choice that hovers over us at all moments of our lives, haunting us with its repercussions if we fail, and tantalizing us with its rewards if we succeed, is our primary arena of creation. Repentance, perhaps more than any other commandment in the Torah, illustrates our ability to alter our course via our ability to choose.
‘The main principle of repentance is that the future dominate the past and there reign over it in unbounded fashion’ (p.115). We are perpetually creating or own present and future, but the norm is for them to be completely determined by the past in an almost mechanical manner. In other words, we usually aren’t really creating anything at all. Repentance allows us to use our free choice to overcome that deterministic relationship and enable the future to reign over the past. Free choice is our faculty to create ourselves, which in turn, is our purpose in life.
Like many profound Jewish thinkers, the Rav frequently seems to be somewhere up in the clouds. Is there any way to bring this down to our level? To make matters worse, the book ends with a brief description of prophecy, which ‘is man’s ultimate goal, the end point of all his desires’ (p.129). This section, however, may be the key to putting Halachic Man to practice. On the very last page of the book, the Rav describes the prophetic state as one of ‘freedom of the spirit’. The prophet is described not as some miracle-working seer of the future, but as a person who is able to gain full control of his or her freedom of choice and who uses it to rise above natural human limitations. Through this power the prophet ‘transforms himself into a man of God’, since this is the very power that God used to create all of existence. This spiritual freedom gained by unshackling the will is something that we rarely if ever taste even though it is available to us at all times. Prophecy may sound like an unreachable goal, but the freedom of the will is well within our reach.
It is amazing how little we make use of the remarkable powers of the will. It is our only source of true freedom and is our ticket to spiritual greatness. We sell ourselves short by using this God-given gift only in fits and flashes, and even then, the goal is rarely to ascend spiritually. We almost never make the effort to become consciously aware of the existence of the will, taking it for granted like the pancreas or a zipper on clothing. Yet, it is the essence of who we are and the potential of who we could become. Why don’t we use it more? Why are we so reluctant to put this great power to the use it was designed for? It is only with the unfettered use of the will that our task and purpose as creators of ourselves can be fulfilled. What holds us back?
Food for Thought
The will is truly a remarkable faculty. It enables us to create ourselves however we choose. Why are we content to let it lie dormant most of the time when it costs us nothing to use it all we want?
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