Rabbi Soloveitchik

A teacher, writer, and community leader who helped to shape modern Orthodoxy in America.

Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik was the outstanding figure of modern Orthodox Judaism in 20th century America. Yet his precise recipe for synthesizing Orthodoxy and modernity remains a matter of controversy. His brother, Aharon Soloveitchik, among others, argued that the Rav (as Joseph Soloveitchik was known) was a traditionalist Rosh Yeshiva in the Eastern European mold who utilized modern philosophical language purely to enable his words of Torah to reach a wider, more sophisticated audience.

On the other hand, figures at the liberal end of modern Orthodoxy — such as Yitz Greenberg and David Hartman — have understood Soloveitchik’s thought as an attempt to explicate Judaism in terms of universal philosophical and religious ideas.

Noteworthy Lineage

Soloveitchik’s biography lends itself to either of these interpretations. He was born in 1903 in Pruzhan, Poland, into an illustrious rabbinical family. From his paternal grandfather, Rabbi Haim Soloveitchik of Brisk (Brest-Litovsk), innovator of the analytical “Brisker” method of Talmud study, he inherited a rigorously intellectual approach to Judaism, uncompromising in its devotion to Torah.

Soloveitchik’s mother, Rebbetzin Pesia, was a Feinstein (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the greatest halachic authorities of the 20th century, was her first cousin). His mother’s family exposed Soloveitchik to a warmer, more tolerant version of Judaism, no less committed to Torah but open to science and non-Jewish culture. Soloveitchik himself wrote that whereas his father bequeathed to him an intellectual-moral tradition of discipline and authority, his mother exposed him to the living experience of God’s presence.

Soloveitchik’s Jewish learning (acquired not at a yeshiva but through intensive Talmudic studies with his father, Rabbi Moshe) was matched by a systematic secular education. Soloveitchik received his doctorate in 1931 from the University of Berlin.

Soloveitchik chose to write his dissertation on an unlikely topic for an Orthodox Jew: the epistemology and metaphysics of Hermann Cohen, the leading neo-Kantian philosopher of the Marburg school, and later the chief exponent of a decidedly non-Orthodox (and non-halakhic) conception of Judaism as a religious articulation of universal rationalist ethics.

Influential Leader

Upon immigrating to the United States in 1932, Soloveitchik became Chief Rabbi of the Orthodox community of Boston. There he established the Maimonides School, the first Jewish day school in New England and one of the first institutions in which girls studied Talmud.

In 1941 he was appointed the head of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in New York, where he trained an entire generation of Orthodox rabbis. Soloveitchik chaired the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Council of America and served as honorary president of the Religious Zionists of America (Mizrachi).

The tension between modernity and Orthodoxy manifested itself in every area of Soloveitchik’s public life. He staunchly defended the authority of the rabbinate, fought against unwarranted halakhic change (for example, he led the campaign against mixed seating in synagogues), and opposed theological dialogue with Reform and Conservative rabbis and with the Church.

Yet he pioneered Talmudic education for girls, abandoned the Brisker family tradition by supporting Zionism, and advocated cooperation with the non-Orthodox — and even with Christians — in the pursuit of social justice and security for the Jewish people.

Soloveitchik, then, cannot be exclusively categorized as a modern philosopher or a traditionalist rabbi. Yet reconciling these radically different worldviews is a difficult, if not impossible, balancing act. Did either take priority in Soloveitchik’s mind?

Halakhic Man

The most obvious way to explore this question is to read Soloveitchik’s writings, particularly two of his most important books: Halakhic Man (1944) and Lonely Man of Faith (1965). In both works Soloveitchik paints a picture of the inner life of the religious Jew by comparing and contrasting between various religious and philosophical “types.”

In Halakhic Man, Soloveitchik analyzes the ideal religious Jew (“Halakhic Man”) in comparison with two other human types: Cognitive Man and Homo Religiosus–Religious Man. Cognitive Man’s approach to life is that of a scientist, in particular a theoretical physicist or mathematician, exploring reality by constructing ideal intellectual models and analyzing the imperfect, concrete world in their terms.

Homo Religiosus, on the other hand, seeks what Abraham Joshua Heschel termed “radical amazement,” the capacity for spiritual experience, transcending physical reality by experiencing God’s presence in the world.

One might assume that the ideal religious Jew is similar to Homo Religiosus, but Soloveitchik relates him (or her) to Cognitive Man: Just as Cognitive Man approaches reality armed with a pre-prepared intellectual model, so too Halachic Man comes to the world armed with the Torah, revealed by God at Mount Sinai. If scientists initially understand reality in mathematical terms, Halachic Man understands it in Jewish legal categories.

For Halachic Man, seeing the first light of dawn breaking over the horizon is not an aesthetic experience. Rather, his first thought is, “it’s time to recite the Shema.” Similarly, when encountering a natural spring of water, Halachic Man’s concern is whether the spring fits the legal requirements for various rituals of purification.

Halachic Man intuitively experiences the world in Jewish categories, as if he were wearing a pair of “halakha-tinted” glasses. As such, observing the mitzvot (plural of mitzvah) is no effort for him–an observant lifestyle is a natural outcome of his basic orientation to reality.

Nonetheless, for Soloveitchik, observing the mitzvot is of secondary importance compared with what he sees as the supreme religious duty: formulating the framework of theoretical halachic norms through the process of creative Talmudic scholarship.

Kantian Influences

Soloveitchik’s philosophy of halakhah draws, perhaps surprisingly, on the work of 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant argued that we can never know reality as it is, but only as apprehended through the prism of human reason. The world seems to be structured in certain basic ways (for example, everything exists in three dimensional space and linear time) not because that’s the way things actually are but because space and time are rational categories hardwired into our brains. In the same way, permitted and forbidden, holy and profane are not objective properties of the material world, but are theoretical categories through which Halachic Man perceives reality.

In the area of ethics, Kant claimed that moral deeds must always be the products of free decision-making, not imposed on us from the outside. Accordingly, the fact that Soloveitchik’s Halachic Man has assimilated the Torah’s categories into the deepest recesses of his soul enables him to observe the commandments without surrendering his autonomy.

The Lonely Man of Faith

In The Lonely Man of Faith, Soloveitchik continues his attempt to elucidate the inner life of the religious Jew by constructing two ideal types, based on the creation stories related in the first two chapters of the Bible. Genesis chapter one describes the creation of what Soloveitchik calls Adam I or “Majestic Man.” This human type is driven by God’s commandment to subdue the earth and to have dominion over all other creatures: he or she relates to the world as an arena for creativity and as a means to human progress. Adam I was created in the plural: “male and female [God] created him.” From the outset, human beings exist as part of a community of interconnected individuals, dedicated to cooperating in an effort to achieve their common goals.

The second chapter of Genesis’ depicts Adam II or “Covenantal Man.” Created on his own, he suffers from existential loneliness, overcome only when God provides him with a companion in return for a sacrificial act–the surrender of his rib or a part of his flesh. For Soloveitchik, the loneliness of the person of faith can only be overcome in the context of a covenantal community, one based on a relationship with God and expressed in terms of sacrificial behavior–the performance of mitzvot, especially prayer.

Yet because God created Adam as both majestic and covenantal, fundamental human loneliness can never be totally overcome. We discover our loneliness in the covenantal community, but the solution–building relationships of faith with God and other people–requires us to be not only sacrificial but creative. Hence it pushes us from the covenantal community back into the majestic one, where the answer to our loneliness cannot be found.

Traditionalist or Modern?

Although Soloveitchik’s absolute commitment to Jewish law and Talmud scholarship in Halakhic Man would seem to place him firmly in the traditionalist camp, his articulation of this commitment in Kantian terms indicates modern philosophy’s hold over him. The Lonely Man of Faith feels more traditionally religious: it sets out from the biblical text, asks questions about faith and comes to faith-based answers.

But here too Soloveitchik is operating within the framework of modern philosophy. The idea that faith is inherently paradoxical and loneliness inevitable, together with obvious parallels with thinkers such as Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, give the work a clear flavor of 20th century existentialism. If Halakhic Man supplies traditionalist answers to modern, rationalist questions, The Lonely Man of Faith begins from the point of view of faith, but reaches far more ambivalent conclusions.

So was Soloveitchik primarily a traditionalist rabbi or a modern philosopher? The question is not only academic. The Rav’s legacy continues to be an important influence as modern Orthodox Jews debate the future of their movement. Should modern Orthodoxy’ use up-to-date language and concepts to make traditional Judaism more appealing, or should the movement grapple with the real challenges that modernity poses to the tradition?

Eulogizing Soloveitchik shortly after his death in 1993, Rabbi Norman Lamm, President of Yeshiva University, warned against one-sided approaches to this question, arguing that “the Rav was not a lamdan [a learned Jew] who happened to have and use a smattering of general culture, and he was certainly not a philosopher who happened to be a talmid hakham, a Torah scholar?. We must accept him on his terms as a highly complicated, profound, and broadminded personality.”

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