The Rav on Numinous vs. Kerygmatic Man

jackie-danick-moon-hawaii

Photo of the moon, taken by me in Hawaii with the help of a telescope, which reminds me of the themes of being seen and being hidden.

It is difficult for me to put down anything written by R. Soloveitchik. His articulations resonate with a frightening, thrilling familiarity. You know you are reading an essential truth, and more frequently a collection of them.

I find it extraordinary that in all of his brilliant essays compiled in Family Redeemed, I did not notice the i-word used even once. But these are all, at their core, essays about intimacy.

There is a dialectical character to the human personality: the numinous and the kerygmatic. [“Numinous” refers to that which is apart from the world of ordinary observations and is inexpressible; hence the numinous personality is aloof or apart. In Rudolf Otto’s philosophy, the term is used to characterize the experience of the holy, but here we apply it to the secluded and lonely human personality. “Kerygmatic” means bearing a message, so the kerygmatic personality is social man.]

The numinous is the lonely, mysterious Adam who never met Eve and who can never commit himself to the other self since he does not step out of his unique seclusion. He does not care to become acquainted with the thou; he is inner-directed and his existence expresses itself in a continuous movement of recoil and withdrawal. The kerygmatic personality, in contrast, is lovesick and communion-questing; he is eager to deliver a message to the other self; he tries to abandon all barriers separating him from the person who stands alongside of him. He wants to engage in a dialogue and communicate with Eve. Numinous Adam is mute; kerygmatic Adam finds the speech is a great means of attaining a communal existence. All human institutions which necessarily embrace two or more people are the outgrowth of the creative activity of the kerygmatic Adam. Numinous, lonely man is not involved in any social commitments that kerygmatic Adam takes on. The former always remains aloof, for himself, lonely and free…

…Shame is a dichotomous experience. In the form of shyness, it affords the individual protection from the unjust infringement by others on his privacy. It is born in the realm of numinous man who lives for himself and protests vigorously against any encroachment by outsiders upon his secluded existential sectors. However, the feeling of shame in the exact sense of the word kelimah is rooted in one’s social awareness. Disapproval by others spells doom for one’s community existence, while approval signifies togetherness and interrelationships. Numinous man feels embarrassed when society tries to desecrate his uniqueness and aloneness, kerygmatic man when society expels him. It is paradoxical, yet true. I guard my exclusiveness and aloneness as long as society is willing to accept me. The moment I feel that society is ready to reject or disapprove of me, I experience spiritual ruin as if the bottom of my existence were knocked out, and I yearn for communion.

It is typical of the spiritual personality that it wants to remain in seclusion, alone, even though that loneliness is painful. Man is involved in an ambivalent feeling. On the one hand, he searches for the thou and is eager to find companionship; on the other hand, he wants to retain his spiritual aloneness and meticulously watches out against the inquisitive eye which tries to disturb his privacy.

-Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Family Redeemed

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Shirat HaYam / Song of the Sea

Beshalach is such an eventful parsha, and I love its soundtrack: The song sung upon crossing the Sea of Reeds.

Shira HaYam is itself eventful, and this is my favorite part: “Ozi v’zimrat Yah, vay’hi li lishuah.”

עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה

I don’t dislike the militaristic verses of the song, but these particular lines are hypnotic, calming, and elevating. If you’re not moved, you’re not paying attention.

I have no recordings of my favorite rendition, as that happens every Shabbat at a certain shul I love. But Mishkan Chicago Davening Team‘s rendition, above, is a close second. (I love all of their music and you will not be disappointed if you choose to listen to them, whether you share their hashkafa or not.)

And I Awake: Adon Olam

While I always think I could never possibly like any newfangled versions of prayers and hymns, occasionally I am proven wrong. This is special.

I recently learned the reason we sit as we sing Adon Olam at the end of services: to signal that we are not eager to leave, and would gladly start davening all over again. I can’t help but be moved when I juxtapose this detail with the fact that a tuneless Adon Olam is recited over the dying.

(Thank you to one of my favorite rabbis for making sure this found its way to me. I have listened to it more than 100 times over the past several months.)

One People, Two Worlds

One of my favorite things in the world – and I really mean that – is to observe learned people debating topics I know only somewhat. It’s very enlightening, and I gain insights into why they believe what they do. I find these exchanges most interesting and useful when presented without any attempts at narrative-shaping. This is why the oral history format is my favorite for non-fiction.

So this book seems like it was made just for me. I stumbled upon it in West Side Judaica a few months ago while looking for all the bargains I imagined I’d find there, in light of the store’s supposedly imminent closure. (Spoiler alert: There were no bargains. But it looks like customers are doing their part to keep them open.)

In it, a Reform rabbi and an Orthodox rabbi exchange a series of messages in which they debate everything about Judaism on which they disagree. I’m not going to list every topic they argue about, because people who know Jewish in-fighting will know exactly what they are.

I would have been happy if this book had been 3,000 pages long. Alas, it clocks in at just over 300. So I forced myself to read it as slowly as possible, because it’s really hard for me to find books I find this engaging and difficult to put down. It helps that I fall asleep no more than 20 minutes into my post-lunch Shabbos reading every week.

Even though I am definitely of an Orthodox hashkafa (within which there is a variety of opinion on almost everything), I was surprised to find myself often agreeing and disagreeing with each of these rabbis. Upon reflection, I think my disagreements with the Orthodox rabbi, Yosef Reinman, were more about his methods of coming to conclusions than the conclusions themselves. Even when I was aligned with his viewpoint, I found the route he took to get there very different from my own. Since he’s the Talmudic scholar, I am only stating this as a factual observation, not a commentary on his accuracy.

There’s something else that’s striking and disturbing about this 18 month conversation: Neither one of these men truly understand one another’s beliefs.

If you want to come out on top in a debate, you have to know your opponent’s assertions so well that you can argue them better than he can. It is clear from both the content and tone of the rabbis’ remarks that they lack empathy for one another’s positions, which means they can’t actually get anywhere in their discussion.

That said, because I love seeing what people think and how they frame their positions, I still loved this book. It was written in 2001 and I’d love an update, but considering how much of a beating Rabbi Reinman took for participating in it in the first place, that’s not going to happen. Neither Rabbi Reinman nor Rabbi Hirsch seem to be on Twitter, which shows they are at least basically sane people.