Picture yourself on a mountaintop, surrounded only by a gentle breeze and the brilliant blue sky above. Not a sound can you hear; neither a voice calling your name nor a car screeching in the background, nobody and nothing distracting you from introspection. Up here you can contemplate the majesty of God’s world and truly let your spirit soar past the clouds drifting by. Here you can reach God. Yet, as R. Soloveitchik quotes in his discussion of mysticism, “This is not the way.”[ii],[iii] Judaism does not command us to seclude ourselves, to forsake the bonds and bounds of human interaction. Quite the contrary – there are many mitsvot that we cannot perform without other people. Thus we begin to understand the significance of the “other” in Judaism. A religion centered on practice, Judaism requires that individuals form relationships with others. Commandments like honoring one’s parents,[iv] having children,[v] and loving one’s neighbor[vi] force the individual to connect to others in order to properly fulfill his religious obligations. As discussed by two philosophers, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Emmanuel Levinas, this encounter with the “other” accomplishes two goals: It fulfills the individual, making him into a being that is capable of connecting to God, and it primes the individual to connect to God, the Ultimate Other, the Being as distinct from us as it is possible to be.
Drawing on Martin Buber’s famous classification of interpersonal relationships as “I-Thou,”[vii] R. Soloveitchik explains the requirement for a Jew to form relationships. Beginning with the relationship between two individuals, the Rav explores the connection between the fulfillment of Man and the individual’s relationships with others.[viii] When Man is first created, he possesses no characteristics that truly distinguish him from animal; he does not yet have a reasoning mind or a personality of any sort.[ix] The first interaction that takes place between Man and any “other” occurs with God, the Ultimate Other, and it is this interaction that catalyzes the beginning of Man’s self-discovery.[x] He encounters the first being that is “other” to him and from this encounter, he begins to define himself. Man’s journey to self-awareness begins in the biological realm, where all humans are equally governed by nature’s laws. “Be fruitful and multiply” are the first words ever spoken to Man.[xi] By issuing this statement, God transforms the basic biological drive into a “conscious, deliberate, anticipated act,” thus lending Man the quality of motivation.[xii] Motivation and deliberation lead the way to a kind of self-awareness. With a divine Other to lend Man’s actions the quality of purpose, Man comes to “possess biological awareness of himself.”[xiii] Indeed, I believe that the fact that God is not merely an “other,” but The Other, plays a central role in this defining moment. No being less than the most distinct Being from Man could have begun the monumental process of Man’s self-awareness.
To be clear, the simple act of encountering God does not in itself create an ideal relationship between Man and the Divine. Man is still an infant with regard to his selfhood. It is only through relationships with others that Man can continue to realize himself and thus connect to God in the fullest capacity. Indeed, even prophets, who descend from Adam and therefore possess the ontic uniqueness that Adam discovers, do not achieve the ideal stage of connection with the Divine based on their prophecy alone. Prophetic encounters, in which God pursues man and, in some sense, forces the interaction upon him, are a subset of what the Rav calls the “revelational consciousness.”[xiv] This consciousness is only part of the relationship with the Divine.[xv] Just as isolated mystical introspection is not conducive to the ideal relationship, prophecy alone does not connect one to God in the fullest sense. To achieve a complete relationship with God, Man also needs to approach God as a fulfilled individual, a “partner in the act of creation.”[xvi] In this aspect of religious experience, Man approaches God with his creative, human spirit searching for freedom, in a movement of the “natural consciousness.”[xvii] The combination of opposing approaches, freedom to seek God versus compulsory encounters with Him, plays out in many ways in Halakhah and is the only true way to connect to the Divine.[xviii] Only with both aspects of the religious experience can the individual truly reach God.
This brings us back to relationships with other humans. Just as the first step in Man’s evolution into a being distinct from animals, with reason and personality, began with the Thou, God, so, too, the final step in the formation of Man’s identity involves the “thou,” Woman. God observes, “It is not good for man to be alone.”[xix] The sort of loneliness to which God refers is not the loneliness due to missing a companion, for that emotion requires Man to be a fully-formed individual with a complete personality and self-awareness. At this stage in his development, Man is not yet capable of noting such an absence. Rather, this loneliness “[d]enotes a state of neutrality and indifference… a non-personalistic life…”[xx] Until Eve enters the story, Man’s personality remains incomplete. Then God creates Man’s “thou,” Woman. Upon seeing Woman for the first time, upon facing his “thou,” Man becomes an “I.” Suddenly, Man can refer to himself: “Bone from my bone, flesh from my flesh…”[xxi] The “other” completes the individual in a way he could not on his own. Though the Rav does not explicitly state which qualities of a relationship promote self-understanding, I believe that interactions with other people accomplish two goals in the development of personal identity: First, other people serve to highlight the individual’s uniqueness through contrast. By noticing the other’s distinct characteristics, man reflects on the variance between himself and his fellow, which furthers his self-understanding. Second, others often observe qualities or trends in ourselves that we have difficulty facing on our own. Given these realities, one should seek out relationships with people different than one’s self, so as to maximize self-awareness through diversity of experience. Additionally, the individual must remind himself to be receptive to constructive criticism, in order to receive this great service that a relationship provides. Relationships lend us self-awareness and self-understanding that would be impossible to acquire otherwise.
Though, in the beginning, the process of Man’s self-definition started with God and continued through relationships with individual humans, in post-Adam Man, the process is reversed. We, as individuals, are born into a framework in which we encounter others from the moment we enter the world. Presently we need to use the personalities that others help us develop to encounter God in a mature relationship. According to Emmanuel Levinas, an individual’s relationship to an “other” serves as a kind of microcosm for his relationship to God. Levinas explains that there are few characteristic qualities present in any relationship to an ‘”other”. A true relationship between two individuals is a thing both mysterious and familiar.[xxii] Though people may seem similar to each other, and though, since the time of Adam and Eve, there is nothing more natural than a connection between two people, from the perspective of the individual, “I” can never completely understand “you.” This truth is a result of the fact of each individual’s uniqueness. However, despite this inability to truly know the other, the relationship nonetheless compels the participation of the specific individual. In a true relationship between two individuals, “I” cannot be substituted for anyone else. In the same manner, the individual connects to God despite His being, “not simply the first other, the other par excellence, or the ‘absolutely other,’ but other than the other… transcendent to the point of absence.”[xxiii] The individual cannot ever understand God, to the extent that Maimonides posits that we can only say what God is not, rather than what He is.[xxiv] Yet, despite this inability to know the Ultimate Other, the individual is supposed to use his uniqueness to connect to God and no person can substitute another in this connection.
It is not enough for Man to find one other; rather he must form bonds with many others, the bonds of a community. One of the main tenets of the Rav’s thought is the idea that the more complete a person is, fulfilled in as many ways as possible, the better his connection to God can be. Individuals are supposed to take their unique gifts, realize them, and use their entire beings to connect to God: “It is the broadening rather than the narrowing of the spirit that provides the opening to cleave to God metaphysically.”[xxv] The mystic, who claims that connecting to God necessitates the abandonment of all distractions, including society, negates an essential part of man. An individual’s history is an integral dimension of his personality. By forming the bonds of community, a person connects to his “living history,” the “production of man’s spirit.”[xxvi] The community redeems Man in that it connects him to both the past and the future. When an individual connects to a community, he is intertwining himself in the chain, the mesorah, which reaches far back in history and continues on into the future. Man becomes “rooted in everlasting time, in eternity itself.”[xxvii] In this way, man fulfills “his essence through activities directed at both the self and the other.”[xxviii]
Practically applied, this idea of the necessity of the other and others in our development as self-aware, fulfilled human beings capable of a rich relationship with God, compels us to accept and cherish our relationships with other individuals and our communities. These relationships do not serve as distractions but enable our self-awareness, afford us differing worldviews, and allow us to define ourselves by contrast. It is only through these crucial interactions that we can truly approach God.
Chumie Yagod is a Junior at SCW majoring in Biology and Philosophy, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] This article was inspired, in part, by Alex Ozar’s as yet unpublished essay, “Yeridah L’Tsorekh Aliyah.”
[ii] Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, And From There You Shall Seek, transl. by Naomi Goldblum (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Pub. House, 2008), 87.
[iii] This is discussed by Eliezer Berkovits as well, in the chapter, “The Encounter with the Divine,” in his book, Essential Essays on Judaism.
[iv] Shemot 20:11.
[v] Bereshit 9:7.
[vi] Va-yikra 19:18.
[vii] Martin Buber sets up a conception of all interpersonal relationships from the perspective of the individual. From the perspective of the “I” anyone else is a “thou.” See Martin Buber, I and Thou, transl. by Walter Kaufman (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970)
[viii] Joseph Dov Soloveitchik and Michael S. Berger, The Emergence of Ethical Man (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Pub. House, 2005).
[ix] Ibid. 86.
[x] Ibid. 75.
[xi] Bereshit 1:28. All translations of biblical texts in this essay are my own.
[xii] Soloveitchik, Emergence of Ethical Man, 74
[xiii] Ibid. 75
[xiv] This definition of prophecy is contrary to that of Maimonides, who says in Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 7:1 that prophecy only occurs to the person of very specific qualifications. I am here adopting The Rav’s view of prophecy that can be found in And From There You Shall Seek.
[xv] Soloveitchik, And From There You Shall Seek, 40.
[xvi] Ibid. 42
[xvii] Ibid. 43
[xviii] Ibid. 56
[xix] Bereshit 2:18.
[xx] Soloveitchik, Emergence of Ethical Man, 89.
[xxi] Bereshit 2:23.
[xxii] Emmanuel Levinas and Sean Hand, “God and Philosophy” in The Levinas Reader (Oxford, UK: B. Blackwell, 1989)
[xxiii] Ibid. 179.
[xxiv] Moreh Nevukhim 1:58.
[xxv] Ibid. 89.
[xxvi] Soloveitchik, And From There You Shall Seek, 88.
[xxvii] Soloveitchik, Joseph Dov. The Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 73.
[xxviii] Ibid. 89.