The Virtuoso of Judaism
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.
JHW, *what* are you talking about? Neither did Moshe Rabbeinu, the Baal Shem Tov, Plato, or Gandhi. I would say that not "publish[ing] in a peer-review[ed] journal" tells us absolutely nothing about the "objective quality and value of [Soloveitchik's] thought"
Neither Moses, the ignorant faith-healer known as the Baal Shem Tov, Plato or Gandhi taught at a university in the latter half of the 20th century
where peer-reviewed publications are considered the true, objective hallmark of erudition and outstanding scholarship.
Contra his slavish followers (such as his grandson Meyer Twersky), the thought of J.B. Soloveitchik is NOT above scrutiny or critical review! Which is what peer-review provides.
There is also Soloveitchik's refusal to acknowledge his debt to Karl Barth- which the article noted. More important- and not mentioned- was the influence upon Soloveitchik's individualism by the Danish gentile existentialist Soren Kierkegaard.
As to inter-faith dialogue, Soloveitchik's more learned and equally frumm cousin (and the more expert Talmudist!), the great Saul Lieberman z"l, permitted it.
Yes, Lieberman taught at JTS. In a little known fact, to get the job there as Louis Ginzberg's successor, he beat out two other candidates: Samuel Belkin and J.B. Soloveitchik!
Also, Lieberman was at JTS before Ginzberg died, so your little "fact" is nothing of the sort.
You accuse me of lying when it is you who fib; therefore, you owe me an apology: Ginzberg himself interviewed the candidates to succeed him.
It is not uncommon in top universities for top professors to look to the future and hire/'groom' his successor, to be sure that things are left in the right hands.
Peer Review applies to the humanities as well as to the sciences.
The truth is what it is, not what ideologues would like it to be or wish it were; thus, Judaism speaks of Toras EMES. Do not confuse it with (in this case, Orthodox) apologetics.
Also, when did Ginzburg interview the candidates to succeed him? Accor. to Wikipedia, he passed away in 1953. By that time, Belkin had already been president of Yeshiva College/University for 10 years. And around that time, RJBS, in speeches and interviews, was openly critical of the Conservative Movement and their Halakhic approach, esp. with regards to the issue of the mechitzah.
However, I know that there was some dissatisfaction on the part of RJBS with Yeshiva College / RIETS in early 1945, and that he was reported to have considered leaving to take a position at Hebrew Theological Seminary (Skokie Yeshiva). Is that when you posit that he applied for the job at JTS?
Note, however, that he already seemed to take a critical approach to the Conservative Movement in the early '40s. In an interview with the Jewish Advocate of Boston in August 1940, he contrasts the type of "self-conscious Orthodoxy" he advocates with "reform and semi-reform" ideologies, the latter presumably referring to Conservatism.
For a more critical take on JS, consider the following.
Ideally, JS sought to synthezise the world of secular, technological culture (Adam 1), religion (Adam 2), and halacha (covenantal community).
But then JS turns to consider this dynamic in the modern, postwar world in chapters 9 and 10 of Lonely Man. These chapters represent a sharp swerve away from the ideal back-and-forth between worlds descbrided in the main body of the text.
JS considered the modern person uniquely "demonic." In contrast stood the world of genuine faith which was untranslateble into secular categories.
JS declared that the dialogue has now ended between the secular world and geuine faith (and by this, JS meant orthodoxy; he despised liberal religion, which he saw as fundamentally compromised with secular culture). Like Elisha the prophet, the modern "man" of faith must withdraw from society into a protected enclave of crystalized, uncompromising norms and commitments.
While JS looks forward to the return of faith into the secular world, one has to wonder on what basis. These two modes of consciousness would seem to share so little in common.
In this light, consider the essays by JS on Zionism (translated into English as _The Rav Speaks_). In one of these essays, he compares secular Zionists to the donkey that is left behind after having brought Abraham and Isaac to Mt. Moriah.
Is it any wonder that the modern orthodoxy, in which he was such a great influence, has tended to track more and more to the right in the last twenty or so years, both in Israel and the US?
Can you point us to some documentation of this "fact"?
Secondly, "Rabbinic authority" refers to the authority of the TEXT, not the person interpreting it. "Rebbe"-style Judaism - as practiced by Chabad and other haredim - mimics the magisterium of the Catholic Church, where an elite (such as Cardinals and a Pope) through privileged intuition claims to be able to read the mind of God, giving it the right to impose its authoritarian cultural ideology as binding. Sad to say, more often than not, many so-called 'gedolim' also fit this mold. Again: Authority is vested in the cheftza, NOT gavra.
Alas, JS also fell into this trap, as noted by the jhw posting: "Soloveitchik often confused "policy" with halachah, reading his own personal preferences into the text. "
So, Ethan, jkaplan, Zad: JS had many faults and flaws and was anything but infallible. The 'policies' and practice of Orthodox culture championed by JS are NOT to be equated with the canonical statutes of authentic rabbinic Judaism.
How did my name get in here. I simply asked a question about a source. BTW, the answer given was insufficient; I'm still waiting for something more than a second (or third) hand "R. Dr. X investigated and this is what he found out."
The simple fact of the matter is that your ideology about the Rav does not fit the actual facts- and you have difficulty making the adjustment. A common "Orthodox" malady.
And I don't have to call R. Tendler; I have presented written documentation from R. Yuter's biography on his shul's website (which I assume he has seen) about his smicha. You have given us second (or third or fourth -- who knows) information about both the Rav and R. Yuter with nary a citation. A common malady of those, of any denomination, who comment anonymously.
Info about the competition for the JTS teaching job is to be found in Cyrus Adler's papers.
And the next time you have the presumption to impugn my integrity, I will see you in court.
The real issue is the allegation that the Rav and Dr. Belkin were candidates to succeed Prof. Ginzberg. First you tell us R. Yuter discovered this "fact"; now you tell us it's in Cyrus Adler's papers. Maybe it is, although Cyrus Adler died in 1940, 13 years before Prof. Ginzberg. So perhaps you can tell us which papers of Adler you're referring to and exactly what those papers say. I'd be very interested in some actual facts rather than mere anonymous allegations.
BTW, let me be clear. Maybe they were candidates for the job. I'd be surprised, but I've been surprised before. But because it would be surprising and because even you say it's "little known," asking for some specifics should not be unexpected and I would have thought that you'd be happy to give them to us.
As for seeing me in court;
(P.S. As a scholar, Shapiro's work has often been criticized and found wanting and deficient in thoroughness.)
Jacques wrote: Like Elisha the prophet, the modern "man" of faith must withdraw from society into a protected enclave of crystalized, uncompromising norms and commitments.
I assume you meant Eliyahu (Elijah), not Elisha.
As a researcher, Shapiro isn't worthy of carrying Hertzberg's tallis-bag.
If this entire matter so upsets you- as it apparently does- check out the Adler archives for yourself.
Happy is irrelevant; what I am, or rather what I'm not, is satisfied. I know who R. Hertzberg is, and I'm sure that he, and R. Yuter, are persons of impeccable integrity and scholarship. But we've neither seen nor heard anything from them. All we've seen so far in support of the alleged "little known fact" is lots of name dropping and hearsay upon hearsay from some anonymous poster, which, for any researcher, is simply not sufficient. So why don't you tell us what the document in the Adler archives is that supports your "fact," and what that document says. Or, why don't you point us to something that either Rabbis Hertzberg or Yuter wrote about this (as I've requested before). Otherwise, we still have zilch.
Don't be lazy!
If you think Hertzberg lied to Yuter, then prove it by scouring the Adler archives yourself.
BTW, as far as being anonymous goes, is "Joseph Kaplan" your real name? What is your background-
i.e., do you have a specific ax to grind in disputing the fact that: not so much that Lieberman beat out JS for a teaching job, but that JS would even apply for such a position at JTS?
It is clear that your worldview is shaken by such a possibility.
BTW, Joseph Kaplan is my real name. I have no ax to grind, nor was I disputing the fact in the sense that I'm asserting it didn't happen. I don't know whether it did or not, and if it did my worldview would be just fine, thank you. However, since the "fact" sounds strange based on what I do know about the Rav and Dr. Belkin and on the chronology of their careers and that of Prof. Ginzberg, I was interested to find out whether or not it really happened. Your continued refusal to back up what you say with any real evidence simply indicates to me that there is no such real evidence and that the supposed "fact" is more appropriate for snopes than for Jewish Ideas Daily.
This is my last post on this matter unless you post some real support.
In point of FACT, Rabbi Yuter has mentioned this matter at an RCA session. It was not challenged or dismissed by interlocutors. Rather, the response was: "you are not going to go public with this, are you?" - i.e., DADT.
The era of 'cover-up' which you seem to represent is over.
Have you read Dov Schwartz's analysis of JS (which I cited in my first post)?
Never heard that Belkin applied for the job.
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Also, Soloveitchik often confused "policy" with halachah, reading his own personal preferences into the text.
Soloveitchik NEVER published in a peer-review journal: what does that say about the objective quality and value of his thought?