It is now forty years since the readers of Tradition were shaken by the often poignant reflections of one “lonely man of faith.” The believer’s experience was depicted as one of inevitable loneliness. He “has no companion with whom to communicate and is therefore existentially insecure” (p. 38). This painful sense is somewhat mitigated by participation in the “covenantal community” which “draws God into the society of men of faith” (p. 45) and the life of halakhah which insists “that experience be acted out” far removed from “silence and passivity” (p. 108). Today, given “the greatest triumphs of majestic man” (p. 102) and the inability of the “covenantal commitment” to reduce itself to “cognitive analysis” and thus “lend itself completely to the act of cultural translation” (p. 99), the man of faith experiences a “special kind of loneliness…due to a manmade historical situation” (p. 91). However, no matter how receptive general society may be, the man of faith is left isolated because “the act of faith is unique and cannot be fully translated” (p. 101).
Today, in a world very different from that of the mid-sixties, we are asked to reflect yet again on this essay, hopefully, with the added wisdom and experience of four decades. Perhaps, I am an ill-chosen participant for this symposium. Rav Soloveichik’s literary method of typologizing has, at times, left me confused. Were the types simply descriptive or somehow pre- or proscriptive? Were they universal, particularly Jewish or, the inner psyche or a spiritual elite of all faiths? In addition, the free flowing, poetic hermeneutic, used to anchor the discourse, struck me as drush, enjoyable, perhaps, for those who find meaning in the creative positing of remazim, but vague as to the whether truth claims of a theological/dogmatic or, even, sociological/psychological nature are made. In the end, though, we may assume that the reflections contained in the essay contain much that is, at very least, autobiographical. Thus, this typology of faith in the contemporary era was, and may yet be, pursued by other believers to discover if the sentiments penned therein relate to their own faith odysseys.
First, let us reflect on how the world is much changed since the heady days of triumphant secularism of the sixties. First, the “majestic” confidence of Occidental peoples is much tempered today by a sobering record of wars, failed political utopias, ecological and demographic irresponsibility and the unexpected perseverance of men of faith in the secular city. Second, the loneliness of the man of faith is lessened as he realizes that philosophical and scholarly challenges to belief have much abated due to the general post-modernist hopelessness that has enveloped thought and language among European man’s reflective elites. Third, international communications and awareness lend credence to the analysis that the West’s two century flirtation with Godlessness did not capture the fancy of the vast majority of mankind. Hence, faith remains, as always, the paradigmatic model for most peoples outside the limited confines of Western Europe and North America. Fourth, even in America, despite decades of media and judicial onslaughts, the most traditional faith communities, conservative Protestant and, in lesser number, the Eastern Orthodox, have proved remarkably resilient and even the Catholic Church shows some signs of having survived the post-Vatican II collapse. Lastly, Jewish Orthodoxy is in a vastly different situation than it was in the sixties in terms of growth, knowledge, practice and confidence. Accordingly, today’s man of faith may not be as lonely as in the recent past.
A gnawing doubt, though, lingers. The Jewish man of faith may experience a different loneliness then his predecessor. Jewish Orthodoxy today is a far more robust affair than it was in the early sixties. Yet, one fears that in the midst of our increased learning, halakhic practice and fierce tribal loyalties of the present, the sense that it is all a means to approach the Divine may often be forgotten. Similarly, in the minutiae of learning and halakhah there is always the trap of neglecting the essential message of Divine love and our calling to emulate it.
One other passing observation that felt painful in my current reading of The Lonely Man of Faith: The author seems to overstate his depiction of the emptiness of non-faith communities. He denies their ability to experience true friendship which is seen as “the exclusive experience awarded by God to covenantal man” (p. 69). Neither “army,” work, nor political community provide a true meeting of “companionship” and “sympathy” since they are without the “grandeur of the faith commitment.” Of course, we have come to expect this type of dismissive rhetoric from Orthodox apologetics. Unfortunately, its tone of disdain does seem to strip non-believers of a degree of their Divinely imbued humanity and Orthodoxy of its theoretical credibility.
What of the faith experience itself, not related to time and place? Does the “lonely man” speak to the faith experience of others?
The faith depicted in the essay is surely not that of the classical Jewish or Christian thinkers assured of their ability to “prove” God and Revelation. It is born of our total cognition, combining logic with the existential power of the human condition. As such, it is particularly suited for us moderns. Many men of faith today, if they be thoughtful and sensitive, endure dark nights of the soul or mohin de-katnut as the Hassidic works name it. We may, with God’s mercy also have moments of hope, clarity and faith. But we will inevitably return, at times, to spiritual dryness and despair.
This is, I think, the unique consolation and advice of all lonely men of faith, be they Rebbe Nachman or Kierkegaard, the Rav or Marcal, Reb Arele or Dostoevsky.
They urge us to grasp the moments of clarity and carry them into the times of loneliness. Thus armed, the lonely man of faith may yet know the sweetness of Divine closeness and, if this Hassidic heart be allowed a hopeful footnote to “the covenantal confrontation of solitary man and God who abides in the recesses of transcendental solitude” (p. 112) with which the “lonely man” concluded his work, we may yet experience that about which the Rav remains silent, so sadly silent -- we may know, in this vale of tears, the comforting embrace of Joy.
Rabbi Mayer Schiller is a maggid shiur at Yeshiva University High School for Boys.