- And From There you Shall Seek
This translation of Joseph Soloveitchik's 1978 Hebrew-language publication will further add to his reputation as one of the past century's leading Orthodox thinkers capable of drawing both on deep knowledge of Judaism and the philosophical musings of thinkers such as Descartes, Kiekegaard, Bergson, and Husserl. The title of the short but rich book comes from the possuk [phrase] in Devarim [Deuteronomy] 4:29, "And from there you shall seek the Lord your G-d," on which the Midrash haGadol states "Ultimately, Israel will do teshuva [returning] and return to G-d." While the Midrash envisions man as eventually re-connecting to the Almighty through what sounds like a direct relationship, typical religious experiences are far more multifaceted.
Rabbi Soloveitchik, commonly referred to as the "Rav" in Modern Orthodox circles, builds on the give-and-take between lovers in Shir haShirim [Song of Songs] as a metaphor for the complex and often mystifying interaction between man and G-d. Of the Song of Songs Rabbi Akiva said, "All of scriptures are holy, but Shir haShirim is the holiest of all scriptures" [Mishna Yadayim 3:5]. In the story, the Shunamite women and her chosen one oscillate between breathless anticipation of their next meeting and a "lunatic indifference" (p. 3) to each other, and the Rav builds on this tension in his work. In the same way that the individuals of this metaphorical couple seem attracted to and repulsed from each other, so too man constantly and honestly claims to seek G-d, but at the last moment, turns away.
The word "dialectic" is often overused within academic circles, especially in the overwrought prose of humanities and literature, but in discussing Shir haShirim, it may finally be appropriate. The Rav describes this ancient song as a metaphor for Man's dialectic which involves both a love and yearning for G-d and an awe of Him (p. 53). The Sages have rendered this give-and-take as ratzo va-shov (p. 69), literally running and returning, and the Rav identifies the two poles which drive this relationship. On one hand, human beings seek to generate empirical knowledge through natural, scientific methodology, one that is grounded in the measurable universe around us. This knowledge, however, is limited and contingent by definition (p. 15). At the same time, Judaism makes it clear that we are desirous of revelation, that is to say, transcendental knowledge which cannot be created by limited man. Man strives upward (p. 16) in his desire to taste an "experience of the absolute infinite" (p. 15), but in the end, "sin . . . separates him from his Creator." Not only do man's negative actions block a direct connection with the Almighty, but the nature of revelation [End Page 199] creates an uncomfortable relationship. Friction is inevitable because the transcendental side of our universe is not content to merely interact with man. Rather, "the revelational approach aspires to encompass all of man's being" (p. 43). We therefore retreat at the precipice of contact with the Almighty because of our own personal failings and because we fear losing our supposedly independent existence from G-d (p. 175).
The tension and dialectic illuminated by Rabbi Soloveitchik are further evident in his broader conception of Yahadut [Judaism] and Torah learning. The Rav demonstrates that unadulterated Judaism is not for the faint of heart or for those who prefer to seek G-d among "roses and grace" (p. 39). In this paradigm, abstract faith which involves "[c]ontemplation without deeds and action" (p. 89) does not suffice to bring man into direct contact with his Creator. Rather, man must "take part in the act of creation" (p. 56) through intellectual and revelational activity (p. 119) as envisioned in the battlefields of the batei midrashos [study halls] where participants discuss supra-rational topics in a rational manner. Furthermore, abstract contemplation or passive longing alone will not bring man closer to the Creator. Rather, "G-d reveals himself when man...