The Virtuoso of Judaism

By Yehudah Mirsky
Thursday, March 3, 2011

Religious virtuosity comes in many forms. One of them is the ability to reconcile seeming irreconcilables, like faith and freedom, piety and intellect, revelation and science. The dream of synthesis has lured many in the past two centuries. One who seemed to live it was Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the spiritual leader of modern Orthodoxy in America and one of the 20th century's greatest Jewish thinkers.

Soloveitchik was born in 1903 in Belarus, the scion of a distinguished rabbinical dynasty steeped in the fierce intellectuality of Lithuanian talmudism. His grandfather, Chaim Soloveitchik, had introduced a controversial method of study known as "the Brisker derekh," or the method of Brisk/Brest-Litovsk (where he was rabbi), which refracted free-flowing talmudic discussions into an elegant latticework of abstract concepts. After a traditional education supervised both by his father, a scholar of Talmud, and his worldlier and literarily-inclined mother, he moved to Berlin where in 1932 he received a doctorate in philosophy. Outside the university walls, he witnessed a great society and culture descending into chaos and nationalist delirium.

Meanwhile, his father had moved to the U.S. and become the premier talmudist at Yeshiva University's rabbinical school in New York. Following him, the younger Soloveitchik and his wife arrived in 1932 and settled in Boston. There he founded the Maimonides school, one of the first Hebrew day schools in the country and later the first to teach Talmud to both girls and boys. In 1941, he assumed his now-deceased father's position at Yeshiva and for the next four decades commuted back and forth between New York and Boston.

In 1953 Soloveitchik assumed a leadership role in the Rabbinical Council of America and in the coming decades became an increasingly public figure within American Orthodoxy, his intellectual authority coexisting alongside the institutional authority of Samuel Belkin, the long-serving president of Yeshiva University. So great would the Soloveitchik authority become that he was known simply and reverently as "The Rov," the rabbi. Though he lectured endlessly, he published little in his lifetime, but always with outsized impact. A number of original works, as well as compilations of his students' notes, have been appearing since his death in 1993.

In 2003, marking the tenth anniversary of his passing and the centennial of his birth, a conference was held in Jerusalem to assess Soloveitchik's thought and influence. The resulting articles have at long last appeared in a Hebrew-language volume, Rabbi in the New World. The book brims with excellent studies of the man as talmudist, halakhist (decisor of religious law), philosopher, theologian, and communal leader, exploring along the way the implications of his ideas for politics, culture, and education and reporting on the ongoing battles over the ownership and proper interpretation of his legacy.  

Two of Soloveitchik's own published essays are the focus of suitably close attention. In Halakhic Man (1944), he sought to define the concept of the halakhist—meaning, for this purpose, one who truly lives by and engages with the halakhic system in both study and deed. Considering and rejecting two opposing definitions—on the one hand the unquestioning traditionalist, on the other hand the otherworldly spiritualist—Soloveitchik instead proposed and defended a third ideal type of the halakhist: that of the intellectual hero, imposing the categories of the divine mind onto the world of nature and experience.

In The Lonely Man of Faith, a successor essay published in 1965, Soloveitchik revisited the sharp dichotomies of his earlier attempt. In his later view, intellectual and/or technological mastery of the world is but one of two fundamental dimensions of human existence.  The second, complementary dimension is embodied in the human type now re-envisioned as the "lonely man of faith," the struggling existentialist whose yearning quest for relief from radical solitude gives birth to covenant, faith, and the possibility of redemption.

As with so many modern Jewish thinkers, Soloveitchik's theology is less doctrinal than experiential, less a matter of abstract dogmas than a sustained reflection on religious life, from which theology is built upward and outward. Though his essay on halakhic man proceeds in terms that no halakhist before him would have imagined, the sheer power of his conception shaped in turn the self-understanding of several generations of halakhists after him. Similarly, his conception of the lonely man of faith powerfully reconfigured modern Orthodoxy's mix of worldly engagement and halakhic commitment as the enactment of a universal drama first adumbrated in the book of Genesis: humanity's struggle to reconcile its extraordinary capacities with its crushing frailty. Indeed, following Karl Barth, whom he didn't cite by name, Soloveitchik labeled his two human types Adam I and Adam II.

Other key Soloveitchik essays receiving their share of attention in the new volume display different if related directions of his thought, often encapsulated in his biblically-inflected titles. Uvikashtem Misham ("And from there shall you seek," Deuteronomy 4:29) tracks human responses to the equally unbearable challenges of living with and without God's presence. Kol Dodi Dofek ("The voice of my beloved knocks," Song of Songs 5:2) articulates a philosophy of Jewish peoplehood in the wake of the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel, a peoplehood oscillating between, as he saw it, a willed "covenant of destiny" and a larger, tragic "covenant of fate."

A number of contributors to the new collection are also drawn to one of his lesser-known works, The Halakhic Mind, written (like Halakhic Man) in 1944 but unpublished until 1986. In it Soloveitchik contends that doing justice to the way real people live their lives requires a richer understanding of experience, truth, and the universe than anything afforded by the increasingly specialized and abstract theories of modern natural and social sciences.

As these brief summaries may suggest, Soloveitchik's mind moved in categories, and it is no accident that the problem of integrating those categories stalked him all his life—and afterward. In an astringent article, Yehoyada Amir (who among the authors in Rabbi in the New World qualifies as the lonely man of criticism) points out that Adam II's implicit critique of the hollowness of much of Adam I, and thus of modernity, is indebted to non-Orthodox thinkers of whom Soloveitchik would presumably have disapproved, including Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and A.D. Gordon—and, more problematically, that Soloveitchik seems willing to let his two human types stand without the possibility of real dialogue or interaction between them.

Since his death, a number of Soloveitchik's disciples have been similarly divided on whether he should be seen as a Western religious intellectual or as a nearly-unreconstructed Lithuanian talmudist. Clearly he was deeply engrossed in Western thought. Though he famously ruled out Jewish-Christian theological dialogue, his theological writings were one long, largely implicit dialogue with modern Christian thought. At the same time, the very backbone of his life's work was the study and teaching of Talmud and halakhah in the family tradition; his dazzling talmudic lectures were untouched by the findings of academic scholarship. Nor did the strong ethical sensibility running through his philosophical writings ever turn toward an ethical critique of halakhic tradition itself.

If he was sufficiently ambiguous about the relation between his philosophical and talmudic enterprises to leave his students and community guessing, he left them guessing on another matter, too. Serving for decades as the honorary chairman of Religious Zionists of America, he never, aside from a brief trip in 1935, visited the land of Israel, and with some exceptions kept a studied silence on the meaning and significance of Zionism.

Nor, as Kalman Neuman observes in Rabbi in the New World, did Soloveitchik's eminence in the U.S. translate into any comparable stature in Israel. If, to American Orthodox rabbis, he seemed successfully to have mastered the great challenge of reconciling Orthodox Judaism with Western philosophy and science, the challenge facing Israelis was altogether different: reconciling Orthodox Judaism and Zionism. Their rabbinic culture hero was Abraham Isaac Kook, whose oceanic mysticism and embrace of romantic nationalism are almost a photo negative of Soloveitchik's restrained rationalism and recoil from romantic politics.

As Neuman also notes, Soloveitchik's religious existentialism, rooted in a form of individualism (remember the loneliness of his "man of faith"), was deeply at odds with the collectivist tenor of Israeli life, religious and secular alike. Finally, his stated willingness in the fall of 1967 to consider territorial compromise in Judea and Samaria if it would avoid future wars hardly helped endear him to the majority of Israel's religious Zionists.

And so, what sort of leader was he?  In Boston, as Seth Farber shows here, he was a real leader, creating innovative institutions and willing to engage with non-Orthodox Jews, while in New York his leadership was of a more ideological and in a sense more abstract nature. Both by temperament and by philosophical inclination, it seems to me, Soloveitchik was not cut out for popular leadership of the kind exercised by ultra-Orthodox rabbis and the more dogmatic among religious Zionists. Modern Orthodoxy itself, like its moderate Israeli cousin, eschews ex cathedra dicta in favor of a principled embrace of complexity: an attractive but non-authoritarian stance for which it has paid a heavy price. 

"Western man," Soloveitchik wrote, "diabolically insists on being successful. Alas, he wants to be successful even in his adventure with God."  He was right: complacency and self-gratulation are as treacherous in a religious establishment as in any other human institution—perhaps, when it comes to the devil's temptations, even more treacherous. His own dream of synthesis, gesturing toward the integration of tragedy and dignity, humility and joy, went much deeper and cut more universally than the project of fusing biochemistry with Talmud or Maimonides with Immanuel Kant. But there is no magic formula for plumbing, let alone solving, the ultimate mysteries of religion; God bids us find the way ourselves. 


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