Sunday, December 09, 2007

Private Emotions

The following excerpt is from The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Volume 2 by Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, found on pages 167-169.


Related by the Rav in his lecture on "The Abridged Havinenu Prayer," at the RCA Midwinter Conference, February 7, 1968

Jews do confess, but confession is a private matter between the individual and the Almighty. In my opinion, this is because of the Jew's typical modesty and shyness. The noblest and most exalted feelings that the Jew experiences must remain like the Ark of the Covenant, concealed behind the curtain. "And the curtain shall separate for you between the Holy and the Holy of Holies" [Exodus 26: 33]. The sanctuary of the human person is his emotional life, not his logical life. The Ark is with us in each person's emotional life, concealed behind the curtain. This aspect of the human being is protected from the eye of the cynic, the glance of the skeptic, the ridicule of the so-called practical and realistic man.

The Jew, as a father, never spoke of his love for his children. Never! I want to tell you something. My relationship with my father was very close. He was my rebbe. I had no other rebbe. Whatever I am intellectually is due to him. There was an existential unity between us. Nevertheless, he never told me that he liked me. He never kissed me, and I never kissed him. I remember that on one occasion I was departing, and it was doubtful whether I would ever see him again. We just shook hands and he said: "Go in peace, and let God be with you." As a matter of fact, someone watching this cold, chilly scene of father and son parting said: "That's the Brisker lomdus!" [Laughter.] The truth is that we did not spell out our love for our children in objective terms. Neither did Jews as husband or as wife spell out their love for each other. No matter how much devotion, dedication, mutual trust, and love bound them to each other, they could not speak about it. This love was nurtured in privacy. "It is there that I will set my Meetings with you and I shall speak with you atop the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on the Ark of the Testimonial-Tablets' [Exodus 25:22]. [Only in the privacy of the Holy of Holies is such a rendezvous possible.]

Apparently, the same method was applied in our relationship with the Almighty. We never told anybody and never wrote about our love and dedication for the Almighty. We have not told anybody about our great romance with the Almight and His with us. There is no literature about this. The only book we have on this topic is Shir ha-Shirim [Song of Songs], and it is couched in symbols. Only through such symbolism could our romance with the Almighty be presented.

However, I do not believe that we can afford to be as reluctant, modest and shy today as we were in the past about describing our relationship with the Almighty. Why? The reason is simple. In the past, this great experience of the tradition was not handed down from generation to generation through the medium of words. It was absorbed through osmosis; somehow, through silence.

This emotion was passed on from generation to generation simply through observance and viewing. Today in America, however, and in the Western world, this is completely lost. The father cannot pass it on to his son. The father does not possess these emotions, because he never observed and experienced them. He cannot expect his son to receive something he himself does not possess.
Therefore it is up to the Yeshiva and the teacher to open up the emotional world of Judaism to the students. I do not know how one can do so. Believe me, I have told you many times that before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I can teach my students the laws and the philosophy of these Holy Days. I am not a bad teacher. However, I cannot transmit my recollections to them. If I want to transmit my experiences, I have to transmit myself, my own heart. How can I merge my soul and personality with my students? It is very difficult. Yet it is exactly what is lacking on the American scene.


Ben Greenfield said...

Last Shabbat Zachor, the Shana Bet Guys at Gush won the auction for an hour with R. Lichtenstein. We asked him to speak to us about raising a family and - as expected - it was excellent.

Because I just read your post on privacy I won't share any of his very moving stories about his relationship with his children, but suffice it to say that the Rav's grandchildren had a very different father-son dynamic than the Rav and R. Moshe.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, but I'm not sure how Jewish the cognition/emotion division is. I saw it argued recently that 'lev' in Hebrew refers to both cognition and emotion, to 'heart' and 'head' in the English idiom. I haven't checked every example in Tanakh, but it certainly makes some problematic passages easier to understand.

Elie Wiesel once said that Judaism has its silences, we just don't talk about them.