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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Rav, Eric Fromm, and Egel haZahav: A philosophic reading

Appropriately, at the apex of our history as a religion, Moshe, our greatest teacher, also rose to the zenith of the mountain top – Sinai. There we waited hopefully and expectantly. Yet, as time passed, we grew despondent. Where had our leader gone? Where was the iconoclast who fought against the doubts of Pharaoh and of his own people, who raised them from the dirges of slavery into the fullness of Freedom – where had he gone? Yet, rather then cry, rather then bemoan their fate, the people celebrate ecstatically with the creation of idols. What could possibly have motivated this polarization between extremes?

Erich Fromm, a Jewish psychoanalyst and philosopher of the early 20th century, describes an unceasing aspect of the human condition:


“Man – of all ages and cultures – is confronted with the solution of one and the same question: the question of how to overcome separateness, how to achieve union, how to transcend one's own individual life and find at-onement.” [1]


Fromm discusses the various ways in which Man over the ages has tried to deal with this dilemma:

“One way of achieving this aim lies in all kinds of Orgiastic States . . . As long as these orgiastic states are a matter of common practice in a tribe, they do not produce anxiety or guilt. To act in this way is right, and even virtuous, because it is a way shared by all . . .”
“Also in contemporary Western Society the union with the groups is the prevalent way of overcoming separateness. It is a union in which the individual self disappears to a large extent and where the aim is to belong to the herd.”

Rav Soloveitchik echoes similar sentiments:

“Pragmatic expositions of the essence of the religious act . . . behold in religion a refuge of repose for man, who is shattered b the numerous, discordant forces of the secular world; religion offers happiness and comfort. In such a spirit William James speaks of the religion of the happy-minded” that serves him as a model of the religious attitude.” [2]

Man turns to religion to avoid the “discordant forces” and to be comforted instead.

Bnei Yisrael became reliant on Moshe not for the sake of his message, but for the comfort he provided them. His absence allowed the discordant forces to rise up from where they were concealed. Thus, the people immediately turned to any other source to fill this void.

Yet this is an egregious outlook of the religious orientation. As Rabbi Soloveitchik says:
“The religious experience, however, is beyond granting man a hedonic status or spiritual complacency. To the contrary, the religious experience is fraught with pitfalls and continual challenges. God, if man finds Him, does not relieve the God-seeker of his imperatives but imposes new ones.”

Man strives not for comfort, but for following the true course. The people who had such a utilitarian approach to religion could not be given the law, the Luchot, under such auspices, as it would be a complete misrepresentation of the Law. The Law is followed for its own sake, for the righteous way of life it provides, and not for a hedonic utilitarian purpose. Moshe now climbs to the peak of the mountain again, this time to retrieve the Law with the proper mindset.

[1] The Art of Loving, pp. 8-12
[2] Shiurei HaRav, pp. 4-5

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