Dialectics

As developed in the past, I believe that man’s dialectic nature is inherent in the purpose for which we were created.

“It is the nature of good to have someone to whom to be good.” With these words the Ramchal explains Hashem’s purpose for creating man (Derech Hashem 1:2:1, see also Rav Saadia Ga’on, Emunos veDei’os). The human being can be defined as a keli for shefa, a receptacle for emanations of Divine Good and sustenance. Simply and personally put, you and I exist so that G-d would have a recipient of His Good.

And yet, there is much unhappiness in this world. Hashem could have insured that receiving shefa would make us happy, but He didn’t. While it is important to note the difference between bestowing good and making happy, that isn’t enough to explain why this would be true. Suffering, even if it is in some cosmic sense “good”, is a lack of goodness in how that cosmos was created. After all, we are speaking of the Bestower who defined the emotion of happiness, and created within us the mechanisms that generate it. He could have chosen to make the two identical, that true good and only true good would make us happy. Man is therefore lacking in two ways: we are not receiving His full goodness, and amongst that Divine Good that we lack is that very union between what we want and what is good for us.

We are left with a dilemma. We would conclude that Hashem created imperfect keilim, and that is why we are not receiving the full shefa. However, we would need to explain why a Perfect Creator would make beings that don’t perfectly fulfill His purpose for them.

In the Torah, Hashem introduces the idea of creating people with the words “let Us make man in Our Image, like our Semblance” (Bereishis 1:26). The ultimate good the Creator has to share with us is His own “nature”, the gift of being free-willed, having the capacity to make meaningful decisions, and to create.

This is the root of the ideas in Rav Dessler’s Qunterus haChesed (a section of Michtev meiEliyahu vol. I). Man’s higher calling is giving, not taking — which is distinguished from receiving. Love is based on this interplay of giving and receiving.

We therefore find that even gevurah, Divine Restraint, is actually a manifestation of chessed. The Malbim understands a prophecy of Daniel to include this lesson. When Daniel sees the angel Gavri’el, the messenger of gevurah, its arrival is described by the phrase “mu’af biy’af” – its flight is described as “flying in flight”, a double language. Chazal explain that Micha’el can span the world in a single wing stroke, however Gavri’el requires two. Rav Saadia Gaon understands the doubled language in Daniel to refer to this two-part flight. The Malbim explains the reason for the difference between the angels. Gavri’el must first fly to Micha’el before proceeding on his journey, because he takes instruction and orders from Micha’el.

We say in the prayers with the bedtime Shema, “On my right is Micha’el, on my left is Gavri’el.” Micha’el is the messenger of chessed, which is a sefirah on the right side of the Eitz Chaim. Gavri’el, gevurah, is on the left. Giving is on the stronger side. But also, gevurah must report to chessed because Hashem shows restraint only when it’s the greater gift than doing for the person. “Olam chessed yibaneh – the world is built on chessed.”
This fundamental paradox, that the ultimate chessed must include gevurah, restraint in one’s giving yields a dialectic inherent in man. On the one hand, man exists to receive good. On the other, he exists to be G-d-like, and create it himself, to be mashpia’ others. Man the creature, receiver of G-d’s Good vs. man the creator who lives in His Image.
If we view the issue from the perspective of imitation Dei, emulating Hashem, we gain a second perspective on the paradox.

If you were called upon to decide which student of a Rebbe is the better student, how would you judge? Intuitively, one would choose the one who remembers the most of the Rebbe’s teachings, who includes them most thoroughly in his own thoughts, and whose words of Torah are closest to the mentor’s style. But what if a key idea of the Rebbe’s thought was the importance of individuality, and of personal creativity? The one who is most loyal to the Rebbe’s words or even his style is less loyal to this overall idea of the importance of finding one’s own contribution.

Following our Ultimate Teacher presents us with a similar paradox. On the one hand, we are “to walk in his ways” . On the other, those ways include free will, choice, and creativity. Man the student, receiving Divine Truth, can only receive it by giving it his own perspective. For both archetypes to co-exist, a must be given the opportunity to participate in creating the ability or opportunity to receive, to earn his reward. The most suitable keli for shefa is one that is created imperfect, and then is charged to perfect him- or herself. Thus, we are created lacking in the second manner we identified above, with an imperfect identification of what ought to make us happy, as well as a need for many painful lessons.
But gevurah is rooted in chessed; challenges and unhappiness exist to enable the greater gift.

This fundamental idea brings us to a dialectic inherent in man. On the one hand, man exists to receive good. On the other, he exists to create it.

The concept of dialectic is core to Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik zt”l’s philosophy. Human beings are fraught with tensions, opposing ideas that are each simultaneously true. Halachah’s role is not to resolve these dialectics; such resolution would be impossible as they’re inherent to human nature. It is through these tensions that force us to make choices that we become creative, growing, beings. Rather, halachah aims to bring us to unity by giving us the tools to navigate between the two sides.Many of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s dialectics are related, and can be seen as deriving from the same underlying principle. In Halachic Man, he speaks of the need to balance homo religiosus, the religious man who aspires to transcend the world, with cognitive man, who tries to comprehend and categorize the world. Homo religiosus relates to G d by seeking means to receive from G d. Cognitive man engages in science and technology, changing the world to supply his own needs. Halachah serves as a tool for navigating a life of both, with all the conflicting values that implies.

The notion of community is a also central to his thought; it not only refers to the greater society in which one lives, but the married couple are also a community of two, G d and Israel are viewed as a covenantal community, etc…. In short, Rav Soloveitchik uses the notion of community to refer to a wide range of constructive relationships. Community also involves the tension of giving and receiving. On the one hand, the role of a community is to provide resources and safety to its constituents. It exists to serve its members, and therefore the members expect to receive from the community. On the other hand, the most noble action a member of a community can do is one doesn’t just benefit himself but one that gives to the community as a whole. The relationship is a dialectic of both receiving and giving.

Another dialectic understanding of community that RJBS uses heavily is the community of fate vs the community of destiny. The community of fate is a group of people who are united in their shared history and their shared treatment by nature and others. This is am Yisrael, am from the word im (with), the community of all Jews, whether they adhere to Orthodoxy or not. The community of destiny is a group of people united in a shared mission. Adas Yisrael, the community of eidus, testimony to revelation. The Rav therefore permitted joining the SCA despite the participation of Conservative and Reform Rabbis, since its mission is to improve the Jewish fate, to work kelapei chutz, toward the external world. Kelapei fenim, work that is internal, must be limited to the religious community and participation in a joint organization is prohibited. Here to its a question of receiving one’s fate vs creating one’s destiny.

One last example. In The Lonely Man of Faith, the Rav presents the notions of Adam I vs. Adam II. In Genesis 1, G-d appears as “E-lohim”, a name that denotes Divine Justice. Creation builds from light, to land, onward until animals and finally people are created. Man is presented as the pinnacle of creation. He is charged to “be fruitful and multiply, to fill the world and subdue it.” Adam as presented in this chapter is man the technologist, the master of his domain. In our terms, man the creator.

In Genesis 2, we are introduced to the sheim Havayah, to the name that refers to G d the giver, the Source of mercy, Who provides all of its existence in all its detail. Adam is a needy being, searching for redemption through a covenantal relationship with G d. He seeks meaning, as is evidenced in his naming the animals. What we described as man the creature.

The marital relationship is also colored by this dialectic. In Genesis chapter 1, the time at which each gender was created is ignored. They are presented simultaneously. Marital intimacy is “to be fruitful and multiply”, for procreation. In chapter 2, Eve is created in response to Adam’s existential loneliness. “Therefore man will leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife, and they will be one flesh.” Relations are for the purpose of achieving unity. Not to create, but to gain for oneself a sense of unity and wholeness.

Free will is not only core the the creator/giver side of the dialectic, it arises from this dialectic nature. It provides the conflict of drives and desires from which to choose, the bechirah point which is the center of conscious thought.


This idea that we were created to create also means the world in which man lives is necessarily imperfect. First, because it contains other people who must be allowed their imperfections. Second, because the ability to create necessitates the existence of things that are still incomplete, opportunities for man to build and repair upon.

Yeshaiah tells Cyrus, a Zoroastrian king who believed in a good deity and an evil one, to compare the creation of evil with that of darkness. “Former of light and Creator of darkness; Maker of peace and Creator of evil.” (Yeshaiah 45:7, c.f. Birkhas Yotzeir Or in Shacharis) Both darkness and evil are described with “uvorei – and created” ex nihilo. Creating darkness entails creating empty space that contains no light. The implication is that evil is similarly a vacuum, a “place” where good was not yet performed. It is not an entity, but an opportunity for man to shine that light, to “repair the world”. To create.

One thought on “Dialectics

  1. Pingback: Aspaqlaria » Blog Archive » Synthesis and Dialectic

And your thoughts...?