The Rav – Creation ‎ ‎ ‎

What is the Meaning and Purpose of Life? | Total Comments: 0 | Total Topics: 10

			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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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.’ ‎
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Analysis ‎
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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? ‎
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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. ‎
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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.’ ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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‎‘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. ‎
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Practical ‎
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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. ‎
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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? ‎
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Food for Thought ‎
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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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