The Rav on Numinous vs. Kerygmatic Man

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