And from There You Shall Seek
by Joseph Soloveitchik
Ktav, 230 pages, $29.50
Near the end of Courage to Be, Paul Tillich writes: “God as a subject makes me into an object which is nothing more than an object. He deprives me of my subjectivity because he is all-powerful and all-knowing. I revolt and try to make him into an object, but the revolt fails and becomes desperate. God appears as the invincible tyrant, the being in contrast with whom all other beings are without freedom and subjectivity. . . . This is the deepest root of atheism.” In the next decade theologians influenced by him proclaimed the reality of Good Friday—without an Easter
Why, contemplating this desperate revolt a few years later as a college student, was I not much impressed? Joseph Soloveitchik’s And from There You Shall Seek provides part of the explanation. Though the Hebrew edition was not published until 1978, the first draft had been composed thirty years before. As a student of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s, popularly called “the Rav,” I was familiar in the 1970s with many of the ideas in this book, which he regarded as his most important theological contribution.
By that time, though he had published relatively little, Soloveitchik was known as the dominant intellectual and rabbinic authority for university-educated Orthodoxy, a prolific, demanding, and eloquent teacher of Talmud and Jewish philosophy, and the author of the Hebrew Halakhic Man (1944) and the English Lonely Man of Faith (1965)
Now translated into English for the first time, And from There You Shall Seek should be seen as a continuation of Halakhic Man. In that earlier book, Soloveitchik describes what he regards as a distinctive religious type characteristic of Judaism, most easily discerned in the Lithuanian Talmudic elite to which he was born. Unlike the type delineated as homo religiosus, halakhic man is resolutely this-worldly, both practically, insofar as his vocation is the realization of the divine law on earth, and intellectually, in his preoccupation with understanding the world as categorized by Halakha, revealed Jewish law. And the phenomenology of halakhic man includes the celebration of human creativity
If Halakhic Man explores a defined personality type, And from There You Shall Seek is devoted to the relation between man and God. Soloveitchik starts from the fundamental opposition between “natural consciousness” and “revelational consciousness,” which is presented through a powerful and dramatic representation of the dialogical relationship of lover and beloved in Song of Songs.
“Natural consciousness” expresses the human quest for God in all its variety. It includes the search for God, with philosophical reflection on the cosmos, human existence, ontology, and religious experience as a human phenomenon. It does not exclude self-centered yearning: the love that
is a desire for satisfaction from the beloved; the fear of punishment and abandonment. Revelation occurs when God seeks out our world, often when we are unprepared and reluctant to receive him. The Torah was not given to a school of philosophers or mystics but to a nation of escaped slaves who may not have especially wanted it.
Revelation is thus manifested through commandments, and the only appropriate response to commandment is obedience. Soloveitchik argues that both the natural quest for God and the confrontation with divine commandment are necessary. The former allows for the full expression of human personality in all its cultural variety and creative individuality. Without the latter, however, it is inevitable that we will not encounter God but only some projection of our wishes and fears
The conflict between man’s quest for God and God’s quest for man engenders a divided consciousness. Soloveitchik does not downplay the profound frustration that ensues when a person seeking personal connection with the Almighty must make do with commandments imposed without consent or participation. Tillich’s vision of an unbridgeable conflict between omnipotent god and despairing man is a potential outcome of this infinite gulf. Although, for the more developed religious consciousness, primal selfish love and fear may be sublimated into an inherent attraction to and reverence before the holy, the sense of alienation is an undeniable feature of real religious experience
But this is not the entire story. According to Soloveitchik, halakhic Judaism provides two supplementary paths that attempt to bridge the gulf between the desire for autonomy and the reality of theonomy. One is the imitatio Dei, where the human being not only obeys God but also seeks to become like him. The second is devekut, cleaving unto God. Imitation, for Soloveitchik, does not fully transcend the estrangement of heteronomous religious commandment. Devekut, however, does succeed in doing so
A hallmark of Soloveitchik’s method is that he does theology with halakhic material. Both imitation and devekut are halakhic norms, commanded in Deuteronomy. His analysis of these experiences is thus legal: He defines them not as mystical gestures but as part of a phenomenology of moral and religious action.
This approach to devekut is exceptionally intricate. Stated simply, the Rav’s thesis is that devekut may be defined as identification with God’s will. As medieval philosophy posited the identity of God’s thought, will, and action, so the individual cleaving unto God aims at integration of thought, will, and action. As medieval philosophy spoke of identification through participation in the divine intellect, so devekut consists in the human being’s identification through participation
The resulting ideal differs markedly from the conventional mystical conception of devekut in Kabbalistic and Hasidic sources. Halakha’s imperative mood and this-worldly orientation marginalizes the mystical in Judaism, as does the standard yeshiva curriculum that stresses legal texts. This ideal of devekut sustains individual creativity rather than dissolving it. It is focused on the fulfillment of concrete mundane norms rather than on the otherworldly, which tends to antinomianism. Engaged in the world, it is social rather than solitary. Because it is both intellectual and engaged, the thought that man shares with God is the study of God’s law for the world rather than the mystical contemplation of the godhead
The final chapters of And from There You Shall Seek describe three manifestations of Soloveitchik’s idea of devekut: the rule of reason, sanctification of the body, and perpetuation of prophecy. These transform devekut into an experiential and practical reality. The first guarantees that religious life fully involves the intellect, through the study of Torah. The second does the same for the full range of bodily functions and activities, from bedroom to bathroom, through commitment to halakhic practice.
And the third, perpetuation of prophecy, means that the study of Torah continues to live in the community that engages in it. This is not a static transmission, like copying a book verbatim, but a dynamic discussion, like an oral debate. It is as if the entire chain of rabbinic tradition, from the Talmud down to the twentieth century, is present and participates in the give and take of conceptual refinement.
For Rabbi Soloveitchik this was, from childhood to old age, a vivid, almost hallucinatory experience; for many of his disciples, too, it is not mere hyperbole or romance. Learning, by binding together the millennia, creates a distinctive community that renders the individual contemporary with the unrepeatable events of Sinai
Here is a theology of God as wholly subject, experienced in his terrifying otherness, who does not turn man into “an object which is nothing more than an object.” If, as Tillich suggested, the fear of becoming an object is the deepest root of atheism, then in the work of Joseph Soloveitchik atheism has met a formidable adversary
And yet, there remains an urgent question, nowhere addressed in the literature by and about Soloveitchik, which is sometimes raised by non-Jewish and even by Jewish readers. Soloveitchik communicated Judaism, even when he discussed other religions and ideologies.
Halakhic Man is accessible to the outsider as a descriptive essay; Lonely Man employs universal existential language (and is based on lectures delivered at a Catholic seminary). And from There You Shall Seek, by contrast, speaks about our relation to the one God entirely within the framework of Jewish practice and institutions.
So what does this work offer to the reader who finds many features of its religious anthropology compelling but is not a participant in the revelational narrative of Orthodox Judaism?
In certain circles, Soloveitchik is notorious for the restrictions his essay “Confrontation” and his rulings for the Rabbinical Council of America placed on Orthodox participation in Jewish–Christian dialogue. He had enormous sensitivity to the intimacy of communal faith and its incommensurability with the experiences of others. And so he distinguished between dialogue about theological principles, such as the Trinity and the election of Israel, which he frowned on, and matters of common ethical and social concern, where he advocated solidarity.
Nonetheless, And from There You Shall Seek seems to me to offer an alternative, even for Christians, to Tillich’s stark dichotomy between unbridled human subjectivity and a divine subjectivity for which human beings are merely objects
Such resources are not absent from Christian thought and experience. Human imitation of the divine is an old Christian theme and one that has played an increasingly central role for modern Protestant theologians from Kierkegaard to Barth (whom Rabbi Soloveitchik studied with a degree of sympathy). Partnership with God in ethical action has been championed, though it is frequently linked to theological liberalism. Even the distinctiveness of “religious reading” and the role of study in religious life have been explored. The importance of absolute, divinely commanded norms as the anchor of moral and religious life has been widely recognized, as have been the dangers of mysticism divorced from ethical existence within social and historical communities
It is regarding the objective normative element in revelation that Soloveitchik presents his sharpest critique of Christianity: “Subjective faith, lacking commands and laws, faith of the sort that Saul of Tarsus spoke about—even if it dresses itself up as the love of God and man—cannot stand fast if it contains no explicit commands to do good deeds, to fulfill specific commandments not always approved by rationality and culture.”
Soloveitchik speaks of the Holocaust in this context. Christian commitment, able to reject Tillich’s scenario of revolt and negation, must be able to confront the dangers inherent in a faith insufficiently attentive to divinely commanded works that are not always approved by rationality and culture. For Soloveitchik, the Augustinian dictum to “love and do what you will” is insufficient to transcend human inclination. Conforming oneself to divine revelation requires more:
Pragmatically, fearing God precedes loving Him. Western metaphysical religious philosophy, born out of the union of the Greek eros and the Christian agape, says much about the plenitude of love for the spiritual and higher realms. But all its statements remain hollow utterances devoid of reality, because it has never understood fear in all its terrible essence. It therefore has often turned apostate and brought chaos to the world. From time to time, Satan has taken control over the realm of Western religiosity, and the forces of destruction have overcome the creative consciousness and defiled it.
A one-sided emphasis on agape prevented Christianity from standing in the way of the “forces of destruction” in twentieth-century neopaganism, among nominal and even among some practicing Christians.
The great problem is that themes do not exist in the abstract, which is why faith communities are incommensurate. Ideas are embedded in concrete practices and institutions, and their authority rests on belief in their divine source.
One may search for practices and institutions outside of Judaism that perform the same functions. Such attempts will fail if they construct ersatz, more or less secularized equivalents, or if they reproduce piecemeal what is only meaningful in complete context, or if they fail to duplicate the all-pervasive thickness of halakhic existence.
Nonetheless, in the difficult times ahead for traditional religion and the culture it sustains, one hopes that non-Jews will be able to learn from and respond to the provocation of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s vision of devekut.
Shalom Carmy is chair of Bible and Jewish Philosophy at Yeshiva College and editor of Tradition, the theological journal of the Rabbinical Council of America.