If I could tell my college-aged self to read just one book, it would be The Lonely Man of Faith by Joseph B. Soloveitchik.1 I’ve read it three times since I discovered it in 2012, and I wish I’d found it earlier.
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Florida, I wouldn’t have been brave enough to carry around a book that would advertise my loneliness. At first glance, I didn’t look lonely. I dove into the opportunities available to me, a self-consciously conscientious student proud of all the different things I was doing, like taking classes toward a double major in two different schools (Chemistry and Journalism), joining film club and speech and debate, and teaching Sunday School at my church.
But this activity was piled on top of a basic sense of loneliness. There was a distance between what I thought college was about and what I experienced. I made a close friend who is still close today, something far more enduring than the grades I was so worried about. I fell in and out of love, but everything oscillated and nothing lasted. Distance had the last word. A big university is a big place and I could walk across campus all day without meeting anyone I knew.
Only in my senior year did I begin to find value in my solitude, and I think The Lonely Man of Faith would have helped me see, ironically, that I was not alone. That year I lived next to a rarely-used sports field. I started walking around and through it and then found myself talking to God.
Walking in that field didn’t fit on my resume. It was the opposite of the experiences and grades I had gathered like so many trading cards. I told myself it was useless, but I just kept doing it. And that was the year I decided to go to grad school, an option that hadn’t even entered my mind before. Maybe it wasn’t so useless after all.
At the time, I told no one about these walks. I was embarrassed about being alone, like I was broken somehow.2 Soloveitchik wrote that each person who believes is indeed broken — broken in two, with “a sense of loneliness which is of a compound nature” (p. 7). He wrote that this compound nature extends back to Adam himself, with an interpretation of Genesis that I certainly had never heard from my college Southern Baptist church.
In the university classroom, I was learning how scientific evidence points to an old, dynamic earth. Outside of it, I was learning about my need for God’s healing. I experienced a health crisis in the middle of my college career as well as pervasive loneliness. I felt as if mind and soul were diverging, being pulled apart by my understanding of nature on the one hand, and my need for salvation, physically and socially, on the other. Through these years, I read Genesis 1 and 2 as a single account told twice but struggled with how it all worked.
Soloveitchik would speak to this from the very center of the Orthodox Jewish community. He was perhaps the most prominent Orthodox rabbi in 20th-century America, simply called “The Rav.” As dean at Yeshiva University, he taught and ordained almost 2,000 rabbis. He spoke the language of Genesis and dedicated his life to teaching it. Soloveitchik insisted that the accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 were one text, but he refused to weld them together or wave their differences away. He put them side by side, intact, as written, and let them speak to each other on their own terms:
It is, of course, true that the two accounts of the creation of man differ considerably. … However, the answer lies not in an alleged dual tradition but in dual man, not in an imaginary contradiction between two versions but in a real contradiction in the nature of man. The two accounts deal with two Adams, two men, two fathers of mankind, two types, two representatives of humanity, and it is no wonder that they are not identical. (P.10)
The Biblical dialectic stems from the fact that Adam the first, majestic man of dominion and success, and Adam the second, the lonely man of faith, obedience and defeat, are not two different people locked in an external confrontation as an “I” opposite a “thou,” but one person who is involved in self-confrontation. (P.54)
This internal juxtaposition would (and does) blow me away. Soloveitchik’s two Adams tell of two communities from the beginning, with the gap between them reflected in every heart (although often ignored). The first Adam founded a majestic community of accomplishment, exactly what the university encultures; meanwhile the second Adam founded a covenantal community with Eve, which I could not find in my secular curriculum. The two Adams face each other inside each person of faith.
The stories I learned in my chemistry classes of progress and science, and in my journalism classes of rights and self-expression, those were all good things but would never be enough: “God summoned Adam the first to advance steadily, Adam the second to retreat.” (p.24) So of course my retreat into walking prayer wouldn’t be understood by the majestic communities around me: “In the natural community which knows no prayer, majestic Adam can offer only his accomplishments, not himself.” (P.44)
Soloveitchik would say that the mighty yet humble, ever-present yet elusive God works through that prayer (to which all four adjectives also apply). “Faith is experienced not as a product of some emergent evolutionary process, or as something which has been brought into existence by man’s creative cultural gesture, but as something which was given to man when the latter was overpowered by God” (p.66). As I wrestled with God in the darkness, my grad school decision was being worked out step by step, but I couldn’t see it at the time. I only knew I had to walk and receive.
This gift of God was a peace that “majestic me” couldn’t find: “Likewise, majestic man is quite often in need of the redemptive and therapeutic powers inherent in the act of believing which, in times of crisis, may give aid and comfort to the distressed mind” (p. 58). Today’s majestic communities still need this healing.
But I wouldn’t find what I needed stated so clearly in this book for another fifteen years. My younger self didn’t find Soloveitchik because Christian bookstores in the ‘90s didn’t carry many Jewish authors. I learned how people from different religious communities can speak to each other, from faith to faith. Soloveitchik demonstrates this dialogue, incorporating Christian writers into his book, allowing conversation respectful of each other’s deep, lonely convictions.
From his place in the center of Orthodox Judaism, Soloveitchik reached out to Christian thought, never completely accepting nor completely dismissing, much like his model for the majestic/covenantal conversation. Soloveitchik even called Abraham a “knight of faith” (p. 32), a term coined by Soren Kierkegaard,3 and applied it to others like Moses (p. 6). But then Soloveitchik argued with Kierkegaard’s “leap into the absurd” (p. 61), pointing out that reason resonates with creation, and that God’s goodness is not absurd.
In this exchange with Kierkegaard, Soloveitchik demonstrated how to engage others with the same oscillating dialectic required for our interior self-confrontation. When you confront other traditions, you should treat others the way you want to be treated. It seems like I shouldn’t have to tell my younger self this, but believe me, I do.
Soloveitchik would teach me not only what to struggle with, but how to struggle with it, both intrapersonally and interpersonally. Let each struggling voice be itself, intact with integrity, but let them speak to each other. I would try to speak to my younger self this way.
Soloveitchik must have approached his teaching with this same dialectic because the list of his former students on Wikipedia is intellectually and dogmatically diverse, centered on Orthodox Judaism but including alumni with very different, even contradictory views and politics. Soloveitchik indoctrinated in the best sense of the word, forming students with doctrines that let them flourish individually. As I navigate my own teaching with students likewise on different points along different ideological or doctrinal spectra, I want to teach like Soloveitchik, rooted unwaveringly in faith while expecting and respecting disagreement.
Soloveitchik’s philosophy and theology speak to me as a professor trying to reach out from a covenantal, “second Adam” foundation to a diverse and clashing community of students and colleagues while meeting the majestic, “first Adam” standards of the scientific and political communities. All faith-based universities, from Yeshiva to Seattle Pacific, mingle the majestic with the covenantal, which is a source of conflict, confrontation, and truth. Unity does not require homogeneous agreement, any more than the unity of Genesis requires homogeneous accounts of creation. But it does require a covenant with God and each other, starting with a lonely, childlike faith that the majestic community doesn’t understand because it passes understanding.
The contradiction between the majestic and covenantal sides of human nature plays out differently in different places and times, ever ancient, ever new. This contradiction drives majestic Adam forward and brings the prodigal, covenantal Adam back home. I hope it can play out in the lives of my students as it played out in the lives of Soloveitchik’s.
In his writing and teaching, Soloveitchik let God work through the contradictions, believing that, beneath the daily tumult, at the deepest level of the soul, the eternal, transcendent Father is there, too, holding all things together with his Word. I hope both my selves can learn that more completely.
- It was published by Doubleday as a book in 2006, but its original form was an essay published in 1965 in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought 7:2 (Summer 1965). To minimize the time-travel disruption of interacting with the past, I should probably give myself the 1965 essay, but call it a book.
- The song “Table for One” in the 2011 movie The Muppets captures some of this feeling. It’s not that one cares too little what others think; it’s that one cares too much.
- Kalimi, Isaac. “Mitigating the Akedah.” TheTorah.com. 2015. https://www.thetorah.com/article/mitigating-the-akedah