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The Feeling of Loneliness

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti

I write this article on February 21st 2016, twenty years after my conversion: for this reason I wish to address a central characteristic of the religious and psychological persona which I have become over the years. Solitude. While I have written about this various times here on this platform, this time I would like to give it some kind of theological justification, even though I do realize that it goes a lot deeper and is a very personal and intimate matter. And maybe exposing it to the few readers who take the time to go through my monthly blabber is something of a therapeutic engagement of this solitude. Because while I certainly do feel, very often, the pain and angst of solitude, there is also something purifying and uplifting in that state of consciousness, where nothing really has meaning.

In his Lonely Man of Faith Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik formulates what to me is one of the sharpest and precise definitions of solitude:

The nature of the dilemma can be stated in a three-word sentence. I am lonely. 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 at times I feel rejected and thrust away by everybody, not excluding my most intimate friends, and the words of the Psalmist “My father and my mother have forsaken me” ring quite often in my ears like the plaintive cooing of the turtledove. It is a strange, alas, absurd experience engendering sharp, enervating pain as well as a stimulating, cathartic feeling. I despair because I am lonely and, hence, feel frustrated. On the other hand, I also feel invigorated because this very experience of loneliness presses everything in me into the service of God. In my “desolate, howling solitude” I experience a growing awareness that, to paraphrase Plotinus’ apothegm about 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.

While the Rav’s dilemma is between despair and enthusiasm, between a pitch-black lack of faith and the uplifting feeling of religious connection to G-d, the working here is what I am interested in: the feeling of loneliness is something which accompanies the individual at all times, and it is not a chance that he chooses verse 10 from Psalm 27 – ” When my father and my mother forsake me, then the LORD will take me up.” The feeling of having been abandoned, uprooted from a familiar context, leaves the individual with a sense of confusion, a lack of connection to a cultural context – the Psalmist, of course, cures this feeling with the immediate understanding that God is the one who fills the void. But I would like to propose another interpretation of this verse – it is only when one reaches the blackest and most dangerous feeling of solitude that God can be perceived, not as presence, but as absence, as nothingness. This is what the Rav calls God’s “transcendental loneliness and numinous solitude.” Family, friends, society, work, routine – all these give the individual the (illusory) feeling that there is meaning, the sense of pregnant causes, the understanding that God is Presence and Being and Answers. But the truth is quite different – God is Absence, Nothingness, Solitude and Silence, and unless one is ready to be despoliated of everything (family, friends, routine, belongings…), all he does is live an illusion of fullness and meaning.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz develops this understanding of solitude through a midrashic interpretation of Numbers 5:6-8, within the context of a beautiful short article on Megillat Ruth and the inexplicable act of conversion of King David’s Moabite great-grandmother:

(6) Speak unto the children of Israel, When a man or woman shall commit any sin that men commit, to do a trespass against the LORD, and that person be guilty; (7) Then they shall confess their sin which they have done: and he shall recompense his trespass with the principal thereof, and add unto it the fifth part thereof, and give it unto him against whom he hath trespassed.(8) But if the man have no kinsman to recompense the trespass unto, let the trespass be recompensed unto the LORD, even to the priest; beside the ram of the atonement, whereby an atonement shall be made for him.

The man who has no kinsman is the person who has no “house” to which he belongs, no familial connection to a network of people within the People of Israel, pays his dues directly to God – for this individual, although he or she has no kin within the people, is informed, theologically and psychologically, by the state of uniqueness of God, and thus is obliged to pay directly to God. There is, in a sense, a clear distinction between a somewhat realist definition of Jewishness, which comes from the inherited connection to a family and to the social network, and the unnervingly nominalist state of being of the converts Jewishness. There is no family, there is no inherent core defining the connection to the people – what this lonely man of faith must do is define, every single instant of his life, the relationship between himself and the surrounding social system, the bonds with family, friends, people. And as Leibowitz expands on the midrashic use of Psalm 135, this category of individuals is, in a paradoxical way, composed of sui-generis Jews who fashion their connection to God and the People constantly, and thus re-iterate, every moment of their lives, the irrational acceptance of a Divine yoke:
(19) Bless the LORD, O house of Israel: bless the LORD, O house of Aaron: (20) Bless the LORD, O house of Levi: ye that fear the LORD, bless the LORD. (21) Blessed be the LORD out of Zion, which dwelleth at Jerusalem. Praise ye the LORD. (Psalm 135:19-21)

Those who fear the Lord are the converts, those who do not belong to a “house,” and yet can define their connection to the Divine on the basis of an (exhausting and inexplicable) act of love.

So – my first twenty years as a Jew have been years characterized by an extreme engagement with the sources, with a painstaking work of understanding, of despair, of confusion, in which I have very often wanted out, in which I have lost contact with the meaningless act of Love that motivated (and still motivates) my Jewishness. I have come out of the waters of the Mikveh on that Rosh Hodesh Adar as Yaakov Akiva ben Avraham, alone. And that solitude, that loneliness, is a state of being in which Land, nationhood, house, are never inherently meaningful, but must always be scrutinized, undermined, and redefined – in times like these, within and beyond Israel, I wish I could convey the terrifying and difficult beauty of this meta-position, in which nothing is inherently meaningful and everything is always the result of a human construction. It’s exhausting, yes, but it is also the source of a solid sense of humility.