The Rav’s midrashic acumen was phenomenal but he also maintained an acute sensitivity to peshat. In itself, this is not particularly unusual. Many great Torah scholars are capable of switching from one mode of study to another, in this case from peshat to midrash. The Rav, however, distinguished himself by basing important philosophical concepts on peshat. Peshat serves to uncover the simple meaning of the Bible but midrash is the traditional language of rabbinic wisdom. The Rav utilized both but he sometimes based critical philosophical ideas on the simple, albeit brilliant, peshat.
Some of the Rav’s most famous insights are based on Bereishis, making this volume of the series so rich. Perhaps most famous among the Rav’s commentaries is his distinction between Adam I and Adam II, which formed the basis of The Lonely Man of Faith. In the first chapter of Bereishis, Adam is described as emerging at the same time as Eve while in the second chapter, the story is told with more detail, explaining that Adam was created first and then Eve. The Rav explained (2:22, all citations are to commentaries in the Chumash):
Adam the first exists in society, in community with others. He is a social being, gregarious, communicative, emphasizing the artistic aspect in life and giving priority to form over content, to practical accomplishments over inner motivation…. Adam the second, on the other hand, is lonely, as he becomes aware of his uniqueness and exclusiveness. No external achievement, such as belonging to a natural work community, can reclaim Adam the second from this state. He is a citizen of a new world, but he has no companion with whom to communicate.
Noting other differences in the stories, the Rav builds two types of personalities. Adam I is social, creative, political, constructive. Adam II is contemplative, spiritual, personally connected to God. These two aspects of human nature are complementary. Rather than contradicting each other, as Bible critics claim, the two narratives of Creation provide insight into man’s multifaceted nature and mission.
In the landmark essay Confrontation, the Rav lay down his policy for interfaith dialogue in four points: 1) We are an independent faith community, not a satellite of Christianity nor part of a tradition of faiths. 2) We may not debate matters of faith but only discuss and act on a “human ethical level.” 3) We may not ask other religions to change their rituals or texts. 4) We may not even hint that we are prepared to change our historical attitudes. These policies, and the specific guidance the Rav provided the Rabbinical Council of America over the years, have served as guidelines for all responsible Orthodox interfaith dialogue. In contrast, we have seen over the past few decades how non-Orthodox representatives fell into the traps the Rav cautioned against.
The Rav based his essay in the text of Bereishis. He showed the multiple aspects of humanity as described in the progressive process of Creation, beginning with man as a part of nature and culminating in God’s norm, the Divine command (2:16):
With the birth of the norm, man becomes aware of his singularly human existence which expresses itself in the dichotomous experience of being unfree, restricted, imperfect and unredeemed. At the same time, man is potentially powerful, uniquely endowed and capable of rising far above his environment in response to the divine moral challenge. Man attains his unique identity when he grasps the incommensurability of what he is and what he is destined to be, after having been enlightened by God that he is not only a commanded person but also a free person, endowed with power to implement his commitment.
The Rav also ends Confrontation with an explanation of a passage in Bereishis, this time with a very different emphasis. When Jacob fearfully approached Esau after their long separation, he sent messengers to his brother and instructed them in detail. These instructions serve as an excellent guide to navigating the modern world as a faithful Jew. The Rav explains (32:14):
My brother Esau, Jacob told his agents, will ask you three questions. “To whom do you belong?” To whom do you as a metaphysical being, as a soul, as a spiritual being belong? “Where are you going?” To whom is your historical destiny committed? To whom have you consecrated your future? What is your ultimate goal, your final objective? Who is your God and what is your way of life? These two inquiries are related to your identity as members of a covenantal community.