Being Lonely

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People often mistake the frequent description of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik as lonely to mean that he was a sad figure, lacking friends and companionship. This is entirely incorrect; he had a wife he very much loved, family, friends, students and confidantes. The new edition of his The Lonely Man of Faith (Koren and OU Press) is graced with an introduction by R. Reuven Ziegler in which he explains what is meant by a “lonely” man of faith (p. xi):

[W]e must distinguish between being alone and being lonely. Aloneness means lacking love and friendship; this is an entirely destructive feeling. Loneliness, on the other hand, is an awareness of one’s uniqueness, and to be unique often means to be misunderstood. A lonely person, while surrounded by friends, feels that his unique and incommunicable experiences separate him from them. This fills him with a gnawing sense of the seemingly insurmountable gap that prevents true communion between individuals. While painful, this experience can also be “stimulating” and “cathartic,” since it “presses everything in me into the service of God,” the Lonely One, who truly understands the lonely individual.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student recently served on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

57 comments

  1. “People often mistake the frequent description of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik as lonely to mean that he was a sad figure, lacking friends and companionship.”

    This is very telling, if accurate. I know it is heresy for some, but I have doubts that RYBS’s existensionalist philosophy has staying power. It’s just so 20th century…

  2. No link to the book?

  3. The original version is (at present still) available online at http://www.traditiononline.org/news/converted/Volume%207/No.%202/The%20Lonely%20Man.pdf.

    Aside from the new introduction, are there any substantive changes?

  4. IH: Heschel’s existentialism also or just R. Soloveitchik’s? This edition has full transliteration and translation as well as complete sources.

    Anonymous: The link will come in the morning when I get to a computer. It’s too hard on a BB.

  5. Gil — Yes, Heschel’s existentialism also.

  6. orthodox feminist

    u r such a square

  7. Interestingly, I checked on Amazon and:

    The paperback of God in Search of Man is #77,625 in Books and #14 in Books > Religion & Spirituality > Judaism > Theology

    The paperback of the previous edition of Lonely Man is #204,747 in Books and #61 in Books > Religion & Spirituality > Judaism > Theology

  8. The paperback of Buber’s I & Thou is #21,517 in Books, but is segmented differently as #29 in Books > Religion & Spirituality > Judaism.

  9. >I have doubts that RYBS’s existensionalist philosophy has staying power. It’s just so 20th century…

    Time will tell, so no reason to sweat it. But history has generally shown that dated theories, ones most rooted in the time period will have the greatest staying power. Theories that are written to be “timeless” often end up sounding diffuse and later generations will find it boring. Counter to what one expects but that’s the way it is. Of course I am sweeping some delicate issues under the rugs.

  10. IH, so which philosophies WILL have staying power?

  11. Moshe Shoshan

    “This is entirely incorrect; he had a wife he very much loved, family, friends, students and confidantes.”

    Outside of the Rav’s existential thought,this dichotomy between alone and lonely isn’t terribly useful. Based on the Rav’s own testimony it is accurate to say he often felt “alone” in the common use of the word.

  12. Anonymous: If “People often mistake the frequent description of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik as lonely to mean that he was a sad figure, lacking friends and companionship.”, do you think his existensionalist philosophy is understood by modern Orthodox readers?

  13. All — It is worth re-reading RYBS’s own introductory words in section 1A — from the bottom third of page 6 to the top third of page 10 in http://www.traditiononline.org/news/converted/Volume%207/No.%202/The%20Lonely%20Man.pdf

  14. Reuven Spolter

    “People often mistake the frequent description of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik as lonely to mean that he was a sad figure, lacking friends and companionship. This is entirely incorrect; he had a wife he very much loved, family, friends, students and confidantes.”

    Are you really sure about that? This past week, my uncle, visiting from Yerushalayim told me that his mother, who was a rebbetzin in Winthrop, Mass, and often attended functions at which the Rav was present, would always make a point to go over to the Rav and make conversation. She explained that she did this, “Because no one goes to talk to him. He’s a very lonely man.”
    She said this, my uncle told me, before he published the book.
    I am convinced that the Rav was indeed lonely, very much so. Someone of that stature and intellect by definition intimidates others, who shy away from them. Loneliness stems from a sense of isolation from others, which the adoration of students cannot alleviate.

  15. Gil, is this a complete and accurate excerpt of what R’ Ziegler wrote? If it is, I am reminded on the immortal words of Reb Montoya: ” You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    This post makes me feel I have to come to the defense of the actual English language. This is an apologetic and over a common English word at that. Words have meanings and they don’t change just because one book used it in one sense. Contracts using a term in one sense should have that as a defined term; the meaning applies there and no where else.

    R’ Ziegler’s quote makes it seem that English usage generally is wrong so that the usage in the “Lonely Man” is right. This is why I believe you must have not included the part of R’ Ziegler’s words where he confines what he is saying to the book itself and it alone.

    If you want to say R’ Soloveitchik either used the word “lonely” in a particular, unusual or “technical” sense then fine. But the definition of lonely includes “unhappy because you are alone or because you have no friends,” [Macmillan]”sad from being alone” [Miriam Webster], and “feeling sad because you are alone, or (of something) causing this feeling” [Cambridge Dictionary of American English].

    The words here have exactly the opposite meaning of what R’ Ziegler is saying. Perhaps the word being searched for is “solitary,” and it is the conventional word that R’ Ziegler believes is meant by the book’s specialized use of the word “lonely”?

  16. “If you want to say R’ Soloveitchik either used the word “lonely” in a particular, unusual or “technical” sense then fine. ”

    Even if the Rav thought he was lonely by any objective measure he was far from lonely-most of us should dream about having friends and loyal students that he had. He certainly had a quite few who he knew for more than 40 years and some close for 50 years.

  17. “Let me emphasize, however, that by stating “I am lonely” I do not intend to convey to you the impression that I am alone. I, thank God, do enjoy the love and friendship of many. I meet people, talk, preach, argue, reason; I am surrounded by comrades and acquaintances. And yet, companionship and friendship do not alleviate the passional experience of loneliness which trails me constantly. I am lonely because […]”

  18. Joseph Kaplan

    It seems, from IH’s posting from the actual article, that the Rav was very clear about what he meant by “lonely,” and that R. Ziegler’s comment was no chiddush and was simply a reiteration of what the Rav wrote. Anyone who reads tha article, rather than simply the title, would/should understand this. Which also responds HAGTBG’s comment.

  19. shaul shapira

    Don’t know much about RYBS philosophy. I stumbled thruogh halachik man, and got lost on the first page of halchik mind. I think R N Lamm has something to say about RYBS’s loneliness in his heped in tradition

  20. Joseph,

    I can’t agree. True, it seems to me that the Rav was saying he felt the sadness of loneliness even though he wasn’t truly alone.

    But R’ Ziegler was not parroting the Rav. R’ Ziegler constructs some new definitions whereby alone means the destructive feeling that comes from having no loved ones and lonely is the hard feelings that come from the struggling to bridge the gap between individuals and the frustration of others not connecting with your uniqueness.

    The thing is that is not what “lonely” generally means and it does not appear to be how the Rav meant it either. Sounds like the Rav meant what he said and said what he meant.

  21. What I mean to say is that the Rav was saying you could have the feeling of loneliness without being alone … but its the same feeling.

  22. I am sure that R. Ziegler is adding content, but the text Gil chose to excerpt is a paraphrase from the essay.

    In any case, the real question is whether the Rav’s “very experience of loneliness” speaks to modern Orthodox Jews as to him it “presses everything in me in to the service of God. In my “desolate, howling solitude” I experience a growing awareness that, to paraphrase Plotinus’ apothegmabout prayer, this service to which I, a lonely and solitary individual, am committed is wanted and gracefully accepted by God in His transcendental loneliness and numinous solitude.”?

  23. Does the new version of the book explain the greek and the context of the greek words, or do they just leave it for the reader to investigate?

    @HAGTBG
    It just so happens that Wikipedia has an article on Loneliness.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loneliness

    If you read the article you will see that the description of loneliness here is not uncommon, and not an obscure meaning of the word. You can be emotionally lonely while in a crowded room, nobody disputes this.

    “In any case, the real question is whether the Rav’s “very experience of loneliness” speaks to modern Orthodox Jews”

    As long as there are Modern Orthodox Jews who suffer from a sort of religious depression, the Rav will speak to Modern Orthodoxy. I have no doubt that he will continue to speak to generations of Jewish people, no matter where they live or which communities they grow up in. (assuming they are given access to his writing)

  24. You can be emotionally lonely while in a crowded room, nobody disputes this.

    Agreed. I just do not see why to accept the distinction here between the “feeling of loneliness” and the “feeling of aloneness.” Or to put it another way, Wikipedia says loneliness is caused by some sense of social deprivation and R’ Ziegler says its caused by our uniqueness.

  25. but the text Gil chose to excerpt is a paraphrase from the essay.

    If its adding content then its not paraphrasing. Or its paraphrasing incorrectly.

  26. Lawrence Kaplan

    What has not been discused is the loneliness of the lonely man of faith caused by his belonging to two communities, the majestic and the covenantal communities, and therfore not being able to put down roots in either one. This would seem to fit the Rav to a “t.”

  27. “Wikipedia says loneliness is caused by some sense of social deprivation and R’ Ziegler says its caused by our uniqueness.”

    Being unique is a form of social deprivation. There is no Stira here.

    Point is, I can not be alone in a room full of people but I can be lonely. Being lonely is the feeling of being alone regardless of if you are actually alone or not. Nobody can tell you if you feel lonely, but other people can surely tell you if you are alone.

  28. avi,

    You are saying that being unique is a form of being alone and being alone is one of the primary triggers of loneliness. Fine but its not the same thing either as loneliness in the Wikipedia article, which is a psychological state possibly triggered in reaction to that status of aloneness, or to R’ Zeigler who says the feeling of loneliness is a different sort of animal to the feeling of being alone. My point is that the feeling of aloneness and the feeling of loneliness appear to be one and the same.

  29. This intro (at least the part that you quoted) confirms, rather than refutes, the position that the Rav was “lonely.”

    I hopre the new edition fixes the horrible Hebrew mistakes of the first edition.

  30. Let’s compare RYBS with other Hashkafic giants of the 19th and 20th Century-whose works still provoke the most discussion, explanation and responses?

  31. Look at it this way-if neither the simplistic catechisms of the Charedi world nor MO lite or apologetics to the Zeigeists of the times strike you as where you are comfortable hashkafically speaking, the Hashkafa and Halachic POV of RYBS will always have relevance.

  32. R. Reuven Spolter:

    “I am convinced that the Rav was indeed lonely, very much so. Someone of that stature and intellect by definition intimidates others, who shy away from them. Loneliness stems from a sense of isolation from others, which the adoration of students cannot alleviate.”

    There is a saying that “it is lonely at the top.”

    CEO’s and other leaders face that too. Rabbis in general should have it as well, in various degrees.

    And the more the leader is above and beyond and ahead of the leadees, licheora, the more it is so.

  33. Which version? Most of the “discussion, explanation and responses”, as far as I can tell, is about different talmidim claiming the other talmidim understood him incorrectly and their version is what RYBS really meant.

  34. IH-whether in Halacha or Hashkafa, the views of RYBS and how they are understood or misconstrued , have invited discussions, explanation and responses. That IMO has been a constant in MO for decades. One fact is eminently clear-no one ever claimed to be a talmid of RYBS in any sense of the word ever developed a rationale for allowing a Kohen to marry a Giyueres based on her prior spiritual upbringing in another faith community.

  35. orthodox feminist

    who gives a darn about the rav’s loneliness or aloneness? nearly all human beings are neither lonely nor alone. the rav’s literary expressions are neither sociological, nor are they psychological, nor are they theological. they are uniquely idiosyncratic, and the proof is that nobody of stature or lack of stature cites the rav’s ideas in any constructive theology in Judaism, Christianity or any other religion. His ideas are dead ends. They have no meaning or afterlife beyond the 12 people who read this blog, and even those folks do not have any idea what they mean. oops, delete this post, why don’t you? and really, do you understand the rav’s strange claims? honestly?

  36. This is the time and place, Gil, where you can rightfully employ the epithet troll.

  37. “One fact is eminently clear-no one ever claimed to be a talmid of RYBS in any sense of the word ever developed a rationale for allowing a Kohen to marry a Giyueres based on her prior spiritual upbringing in another faith community.”

    I see that story really bugs you, Steve. But, its tough to make the case you’d like given the timing of the early 1960s when it occurred.

  38. “You are saying that being unique is a form of being alone and being alone is one of the primary triggers of loneliness.”

    No, that is not what I am saying at all.

    Being unique is a form of feeling lonely. It is not at all a form of being alone. The only thing that can make you be alone is a lack of contact with other people.

    Loneliness however can be caused by many things. Medical depression, feelings of superiority, feelings of “not belonging”, feelings of just being different than everyone else, and of course, actually being alone. All these feelings which can lead to a feeling of loneliness are not the same, nor is the end result the same.

    I don’t think you read enough of the wiki article, so I’ll quote it:


    One of the most popular typologies of loneliness was developed by Robert S. Weiss. He categorized loneliness into two types: Loneliness of Emotional Isolation (also known as emotional loneliness) and Loneliness of Social Isolation (also known as social loneliness).[5]”

    The other important typology of loneliness focuses on the time perspective.[7] In this respect, loneliness can be viewed as either transient or chronic. It has also been referred to as state and trait loneliness.

    One way of thinking about loneliness is as a discrepancy between one’s desired and achieved levels of social interaction,[1] while solitude is simply the lack of contact with people

    Solitude can have positive effects on individuals. One study found that although time spent alone tended to depress a person’s mood and increase feelings of loneliness, it also helped to improve their cognitive state, such as improving concentration. Furthermore, once the alone time was over, people’s moods tended to increase significantly.[10]

    There are 4 types of loneliness described here, and the distinction between loneliness, and being alone (solitude)

    R. Ziegler is saying that the Rav felt lonely, but never felt alone. Which is completely in line with what the Wiki article says is possible.

  39. We will have to disagree on whether being unique is a feeling or the status of being unable to be categorized by any other person.

    Concerning the rest, not one of the constructs provided is similar to the distinction provided by R’ Ziegler. So I have no idea why you are saying that what R’Ziegler said is in line with the data in Wikipedia?

    R’ Ziegler defined feeling alone as a “destructive feeling.” Solitude, or being alone, is – as the article stated – simply a lack of people. It is not a feeling but a state of being and a loner might even prefer it. And it is not described as anything that could appear to be a “destructive feeling.”

    Emotional loneliness is defined as the feeling equivalent to the feeling of lacking your romantic partner/significant other. Social loneliness is a feeling your social network is not sufficient and therefore thinking no one will help you in your time of need. Which of those is the “destructive feeling” of being alone as described by R’ Ziegler? And R’ Ziegler defined feeling alone as lacking “love and friendship” – i.e. it would overlap with both social and emotional loneliness. Loneliness, to R’ Ziegler, is caused by the misunderstanding created by your uniqueness. It has nothing to do with social or emotional loneliness as defined.

    And then there is transient loneliness (triggered mostly by environmental factors) versus chronic loneliness (triggered mostly by internal factors). If being unique is a cause of loneliness, it would have to be the later … an internal factor… as it would only change externally if you found you were-not unique. I have a hard time seeing that transient loneliness is equivalent to the “destructive feeling” of feeling alone as described by R’ Ziegler.

    The article notes that loneliness can lead to or be a factor in depression. Perhaps R’ Ziegler refers to that depression as the destructive feeling of being alone? That the Rav felt lonely but was able to be never depressed by that? But even that doesn’t go so smoothly. The depression is caused by the loneliness … it is not independent of the loneliness (at least here). And depression can be caused by many other factors then a feeling of lacking love and friendship. For example, losing a source of income or illness can trigger depression. Again, it doesn’t fit neatly to R’ Ziegler’s model though its the one that could be read in the best of all the above.

  40. I don’t mean to make light of the interesting discussion that has been occurring between Avi and HAGTBG, but it is depressing (pardon the pun) to see Existentialism morph into Utilitarianism. That too says something about the meaning of RYBS’s (dated) philosophy in the 21st century.

  41. Lawrence Kaplan

    Gil: It seems to me to be very misleading for the title page to refer to this edition as “Revised.” “Annotated” would be more accurate.

  42. “Which of those is the “destructive feeling” of being alone as described by R’ Ziegler? ”

    You still seem to be conflating feelings of being alone, with feelings of loneliness… which is what R’ Ziegler is trying to distinguish between.

    There are debates about whether being isolated is inherently destructive or not, and R’ Ziegler obviously holds the opinion that it is.

    Of the four possible ways of talking about Loneliness, R’ Ziegler is only talking about one of them. This leads me to not understand most of what you are trying to say with the majority of your other paragraphs. I agree with you that some of the terms don’t apply (because only one of them does.) Emotional, and Chronic.

    But Loneliness is not destructive, only feeling alone is.

    ” but it is depressing (pardon the pun) to see Existentialism morph into Utilitarianism. ”

    Unfortunately, Utilitarinism is the only way to hold a conversation with people who have different outlooks than you do. To discuss Existenailism, everyone has to be starting from the same page.

  43. You still seem to be conflating feelings of being alone, with feelings of loneliness… which is what R’ Ziegler is trying to distinguish between.

    I was trying to set out that if one type of loneliness as set out in Wikipedia was loneliness as defined by R’ Zeigler, then presumably the other would correspond to whatever he means by feeling of aloneness. But you are right that I don’t now think there is any such actual distinction in the writings of the Rav or elsewhere.

    You say that loneliness referred to by R’ Zeigler is chronic, i.e. based on the person and indefinite and caused by separation from a partner or a feeling of loss without an object. The article notes that chronic loneliness is a serious, life threatening condition. According to R’ Ziegler loneliness is positive. So the most destructive form of loneliness is the positive one? Then what is feeling alone?

    Again, I think the Rav was saying he felt lonely even though he wasn’t alone. But it was the same thing. I would have said that whether its positive or negative depends on how you channel the feelings but R’ Ziegler says these feelings(loneliness, aloneness) not the same feelings.

  44. In any case, the real question is whether the Rav’s “very experience of loneliness” speaks to modern Orthodox Jews as to him it “presses everything in me in to the service of God. In my “desolate, howling solitude”

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but this aspect of RYBS’s writings was instrumental in bringing me towards a firm Jewish commitment many years ago. I was perhaps 19 years old when I first came across a copy of “Halachic Man”. Having immersed myself in secular philosophy and thought for several years previously, I thought it fair to read at least one serious Jewish work as well. I emerged from the book deeply impressed by its ideal of religion, unlike any I had been exposed to before. I can’t tell you if RYBS believed people should be unhappy always, but I took from his thought the idea that religion can be valuable even if the religious person is unhappy sometimes. Much has passed since then, but the idea of a religion which strives to be more than an “opiate for the masses” has stayed near the base of my commitment.

  45. To me the most wonderful thing about Rabbi Soloveichik’s essay about the lonely man of faith is that he is so self-revealing. When I saw him occasionally at public events, and from what I heard from chaveirim, and what I read of memoirs of disciples, he was rarely that way. On the contrary, he liked painting varied ambivalent self-portraits. Sometimes he presented himself, as philosopher, as inspiration of adulating proteges, as classic rosh yeshiva, as halachic expert, or as renaissance man straddling different worlds. This talk is so descriptive of inner angst, it is reassuring, he was a real human being. It also partially guarantees that his memory will never descend to hagiographical artscrollian glorifications.

  46. who were rybs’ “confidantes”?

  47. IH wrote:

    ““One fact is eminently clear-no one ever claimed to be a talmid of RYBS in any sense of the word ever developed a rationale for allowing a Kohen to marry a Giyueres based on her prior spiritual upbringing in another faith community.”

    I see that story really bugs you, Steve. But, its tough to make the case you’d like given the timing of the early 1960s when it occurred”

    WADR, it is easy to claim that someone who would accept such a conversion was not acting in a halachic manner way back in the early 1960s.

  48. existentialist

    Just wondering where loneliness is found as a major theme in tanach, chazal or in the siddur. RYBS thinks that it is central to Jewish experience.

    Also wondering what Dr Kaplan means by, “…is the loneliness of the lonely man of faith caused by his belonging to two communities, the majestic and the covenantal communities, and therfore not being able to put down roots in either one.” Is that from the book? What is a majestic community, what is a covenantal community, and what does “put down roots” mean in this context?

  49. Steve — did RYBS ever denounce his talmid for accepting this conversion in the early 1960s? Do you honestly think he didn’t know either then, or for the rest of his life?

    Perhaps you ought to be be Dan le’Chaf Zchut instead of jumping to conclusions.

  50. Lawrence Kaplan

    existentialist: It’s my prety close paraphrase from the book. Why don’t you read it?

  51. existentialist

    Thanks Dr Kaplan for your reply. And no, I do not have the book, so can you answer my question?

  52. Lawrence Kaplan

    existentialist: Check the third post on this thread (IH, Dec.4, 10:52 PM) and you will find a link to LMF.

  53. existentialist

    OK. You don’t want to go out on a limb. I do understand.

  54. Lawrence Kaplan

    existentialist: I see no need to summarize what the Rav said in LMF when the essay is so easily available. I do not understand why you do not access it and read it. As for not going out on a limb, I have written about LMF many times. If you will email me with your real name, I will be happy to send you some of my articles.

  55. existentialist

    the download you point to is not good quality – much of the text is corrupted and unreadable, esp in the footnotes. my problem is that the ideal types the rav prsents are distant from my reality. also the feelings on which he bases his theology are not ones that i share. the two adams that the rav develops are not real to me. the first two chapters of genesis are a small portion of the torah. they do not represent the rest of what follows, so much drama and belief and practice. i don’t see how you can idolize a theology built on such a small and persoanl slice of text and experience and say that it represents a total jewish world view. i simply say no it does not include my experiences, or my feelings and it ignores 99% of the text of tanakh. how is it that i missed so much? why is it that you think this is such a profound statement? i am not lonely or forsaken. the small bits of text in genesis have nothing to do with all the rest of the torah, talmud, midrash. i don’t get it. how do you claim that this speaks to the core of jewish meaning?

  56. Lawrence Kaplan

    existentialist: Where do I say that LMF “represents a total Jewish world view”?

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