Modern Orthodoxy & the Chosen People

The requirements and transcendent possibilities of Jewish law are the bases of Jewish distinctness.

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"The Man of Halakhah" (1944) captures the psychology of Orthodox self‑conscious commitment brilliantly. Soloveitchik distinguishes his archetype from the non‑Jewish "man of religion" as well as the nonreligious "man of knowledge." Unlike the latter, the "man of halakhah" stands before the mystery of God's universe in a wonder only deepened by his knowledge; unlike the former he is commanded to transform his world rather than to escape from it, to pull the ideal world of halakhah down to earth rather than to ascend from the earth to an ideal realm beyond it.

No phenomenon in the natural and social worlds can be strange to the "man of halakhah," for all has been accounted for in the law and becomes known to him in the relation which the law has commanded. Like the "man of knowledge," he must know the world, the better to help God create it with the reason given him for just that purpose. Soloveitchik denounces liberal religion for its distinction between moral and ritual holiness, both orderings of creation commanded by God. He is especially critical of liberal Judaism, which he accuses of banishing God's presence from the house of Israel, "and setting aside a place for it in a palace (Temple)."

He rather holds fast to the traditional paradox that transformation of the world is to take place in the world and yet never leave the confines ("the four ells") of the halakhah.

Chosen To Be Partners In Creation

This religiosity‑cum‑creation distinguishes Judaism from other faiths, and that particularity in turn guarantees the reality and ultimate importance of the finite human individual in the face of arguments that only the eternal, the infinite, and the universal can be real.

Man's special status in the order of creation, the special attention given him by God, and the life awaiting him (and no other creature) after death are all bound to the unique and particular function which man performs on earth as partner to the Creator. Only because he has been singled out from the rest of creation can man hope for eternal life, and only because the Jew has been singled out from the rest of mankind can he (or anyone) know what to do during earthly life.

In fact, the "man of halakhah" clings passionately to this life and does not wish for life eternal, because only in this world can he serve God through performance of the commandments.

If any but the Jew, singled out at Sinai, can join in the partnership of creation, we are not told of it in Soloveitchik's essay. Rather, humanity is free to create only if it stands under the authority of halakhah, where the Jew of course stands alone.

Jewish Law As A Means Toward Perfecting The World

In another essay, Soloveitchik writes that two covenants distinguish Israel from other nations and bind it to God: a covenant of fate and a covenant of destiny. The former consists of shared history, shared suffering, mutual responsibility, and cooperation, all imposed on the Jew by the world. The covenant of destiny and purpose, by contrast, is a way of life voluntarily assumed and directed by halakhah, through which Jews are to realize the full potentiality of their existence.

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Dr. Arnold M. Eisen

Arnold M. Eisen, Ph.D. is Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Prior to this appointment, he served as the Koshland Professor of Jewish Culture and Religion and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University. Prior to joining the Stanford faculty in 1986, he taught at Tel Aviv University and Columbia University.