In recent years, sociologists, historians, and cultural theorists have documented the struggle over the identity of American Orthodox Judaism. Specifically, they have concentrated on the faction that refers to itself as “Modern Orthodoxy.” Modern Orthodoxy has argued that a Jew can simultaneously be a committed religious person and be engaged in American culture, politics, and academic life. Since the death of its intellectual and spiritual leader, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903–1993), the Modern Orthodox world has been divided over the value and religious permissibility of advocating such a position. Modern Orthodox elites are now asking whether Modern Orthodoxy should remain a bridge for religious observance in the American public sphere, or, in the face of what some see as an increasingly hostile American society, retreat into the separatist mentality indicative of the more insular Haredi (fervently Orthodox) world. This debate can be seen most clearly in the fight over the identity and theological legacy of Rabbi Soloveitchik.
Born into an illustrious Lithuanian rabbinic family, Soloveitchik distinguished himself early on as a gifted student of Talmud. However, what separated him from the rest of his peers was that he coupled his rabbinic studies with a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Berlin. For many, even to some in his own family, such a mixture was considered heresy.
In the early 1930s, Soloveitchik came to the United States to be a rabbi in the Boston Jewish community, and by the 1940s he was teaching at Yeshiva University. As both a University Professor and Talmud teacher, Soloveitchik was forced to speak with and engage diverse types of students with different needs and interests. Because he was fluent in traditional Jewish religious discourse, he conversed with and influenced students and colleagues with more fundamentalist leanings. In speaking multiple languages to diverse audiences, Soloveitchik sowed the seeds for an all–consuming debate over his legacy and its role in defining the future of American Modern Orthodoxy.
For almost all of Soloveitchik’s students, the debate over his legacy and the future direction of Modern Orthodoxy revolves around public policy or halakhic (Jewish legal) issues. Modern Orthodox elites have looked to Soloveitchik’s essays for answers in their attempt to struggle with issues such as feminism, pluralism, and Israeli territorial concessions. Ironically, however, his writings very rarely, if ever, dealt with these issues. Rather, they were theologically oriented.
In his book Love and Terror in the God Encounter: The Theological Legacy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Rabbi David Hartman, a student of Soloveitchik and the founder of the Jerusalem–based Shalom Hartman Institute, attempts to offer a picture of Soloveitchik’s theological vision. In part one of what is planned to be a two–volume work, Hartman emphasizes that Soloveitchik’s religious significance “cannot be measured by his rulings on contemporary halakhic . . . issues.” Rather, “R. Soloveitchik’s . . . religious phenomenology must be given serious weight in any evaluation of his stance on the relationship between the Judaic tradition and modernity.” In changing the debate from the halakhic positions Solo veitchik promoted to the vision of Judaism he embodied, Hartman forces the Modern Orthodox world to confront Soloveitchik as a theologian.
Hartman’s work must be read as a cultural critique of those, such as Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, who wish to cast Soloveitchik in the mold of a typical isolated Haredi rabbinic figure. At the same time, Hartman’s book is important in terms of its ability to explicate Soloveitchik’s theological insights. Because many see Solo veitchik’s words as, philosophically speaking, nothing more than wise homilies, one may be tempted to question the philosophic weight Hartman grants to Soloveitchik. However, such a reading of Soloveit chik betrays a lack of understanding of him as a cultural icon. Soloveit chik’s ideas were not so much groundbreaking as they were meaningful to a community living the tension between the values of modernity and those of the Jewish tradition. In analyzing his writings, Hartman is not so much presenting new philosophic ideas as helping us to understand the complex words of a powerful religious figure whose intellectual legacy carries with it great social significance.
These messages and themes are clearest in Hartman’s reading of Solo veitchik’s seminal work, Halakhic Man. Written in the 1940s (though not translated into English until 1983), the book offered students of religion a phenomenological analysis of Jewish law and its ability to serve as a mode of religious expression. In his introduction to the essay, Soloveit chik sketches the philosophic underpinnings of the Jewish legal system. His employment of modern philosophic, scientific, and theological sources to explain the particularity of Jewish law imparted a rigor and structure to the Jewish legal system never before seen. Soloveitchik’s halakhic man sees all of nature and being through the prism of specific legal Jewish categories. These categories are arrived at only after in–depth study of rabbinic texts..
Before the book’s publication, American Jewish circles were familiar with the concept of worshiping God through the heart or through action, but few had encountered or understood a notion of divine worship rooted in study. At the same time, as much of a shock as Halakhic Man was to more general audiences, few in the Orthodox world ever thought a Christian theologian such as Kierkegaard could be used—as he was by Soloveitchik—to explain the workings of their ancient legal tradition.
In a chapter entitled “Halakhic Hero,” Hartman takes issue with those “revisionists” who, he claims, see Soloveitchik’s use of philosophical terminology merely as an apology and a sophisticated cover–up for his strict traditionalism. For example, in Halakhic Man, Soloveitchik compares halakha to the discipline of mathematics. By this, he means that the same rules, logic, and exactitude that enter into mathematics can be seen in the halakhic system. Hartman claims: “Halakhic man’s . . . primary concern [like the mathematician’s] is to create a coherent conceptual framework that encompasses the halakhic data and not necessarily to apply his intellect to practical affairs.” Specifically, Hartman denies that this comparison was intended as an apologetic attempt to justify the epistemology of halakha to a Western world that admires the objectivity of mathematics. Instead, for Hartman, Soloveit chik’s use of philosophic concepts and his comparison between halakha and mathematics was a means for him to highlight theoretical, creative inquiry in a system that was seen by most people as at once rigid and pragmatic.
In Hartman’s view, Soloveitchik’s comparison between halakha and mathematics allowed him to propose “an antidote to the dangers posed by modern existentialists, who claimed that subjective passion is the hallmark of religious authenticity.” The demands that a set system such as halakha place on the individual prevent one from becoming overly infatuated with the self. At the same time, Hartman claims Soloveitchik could not help but hear contemporary liberal America asking him if “this seemingly stale and inflexible system leaves any room for difference, creativity, and ingenuity.” According to Hartman, Soloveitchik’s concept of halakhic man is highly original in that it brings the individual back into a process that many see as robotic and mechanical. The intellectual creativity, spontaneity, and freedom promoted by Jewish study challenges the individual to be innovative and original in his thinking. For Hartman, halakhic man’s ability to breed individuality through study is proof of Soloveit chik’s success at constructing a phenomenology of, rather than an apology for, halakha.
Unfortunately, however, Hartman’s interpretation is less convincing than he believes. Although Halakhic Man has great historical significance, many, even in the Orthodox community, have brushed it aside as a theologically meaningless text. Living in an age in which theologians such as George Lindbeck and Stanley Hauerwas have demonstrated the rootedness of religion in community and culture, Soloveitchik’s a–contextual and a–cultural notion of Jewish law can seem somewhat dated. Nowhere in Soloveitchik’s scientific, mathematical description of Jewish law does he explain the crucial role of culture, politics, and community in the fashioning of a Jewish legal system. In highlighting the phenomenological aspects of Soloveitchik’s project, Hartman manages to personalize and socialize the distant and somewhat dated scientific and mathematical categories employed by his teacher.
Hartman finds himself on firmer ground when he turns to a discussion of Soloveitchik’s essay “The Lonely Man of Faith.” Written in the 1960s, “The Lonely Man of Faith” is Soloveitchik’s attempt to offer a philosophical anthropology of mankind. It focuses on the question of what it means to be a man of faith in the modern world. However, what makes “The Lonely Man of Faith” an extraordinary text, according to Hartman, is its attempt “to create a discussion between the Jewish and non–Jewish traditions.” Thus, contrary to those who try to intellectually limit Soloveitchik by alleging that the essay is addressed only to the Jewish faith experience, Hartman demonstrates that Soloveit chik meant to address a universal audience. Hartman’s point is strengthened by the fact that “The Lonely Man of Faith” was originally delivered at St. Joseph’s Seminary, a Catholic institution in Boston, Massachusetts.
Likewise, for Hartman, Soloveit chik’s citing of non–Jewish thinkers such as Kant and Kierkegaard should not be seen as an example of apologetics. Instead, it should be appreciated as Soloveitchik’s attempt to enter into a discussion with the general world of faith on questions pertaining to the nature of the religious experience. As with his use of scientific sources in Halakhic Man, Soloveit chik’s employment of philosophical and theological sources in “The Lonely Man of Faith” served a specific theological purpose that could not be accomplished in any other way.
As universalistic as “The Lonely Man of Faith” appears to be, Hartman is right to dwell on yet another essay—“Confrontation”—that highlights the more particularistic side of Soloveitchik’s thought. First delivered in the 1960s to an Orthodox rabbinical group, “Confrontation” represents Soloveitchik’s attempt to deal with the growing ecumenical tide in American religious circles. Though it is written in the style of an informal meditation on the topic of interfaith dialogue, it proscriptively argues that, theologically speaking, it is impossible for Jews to find a common language in which to speak with other religions.
In his analysis of “Confrontation,” Hartman incisively points out that it is an oversimplification to say that in the essay Soloveitchik does away with any common language of faith. Rather, says Hartman, the essay shows itself to be primarily directed “at [preventing] a public confrontation that may lead to some form of compromise or accommodation.” For Soloveitchik, the notion of interfaith dialogue conjured up memories of medieval disputations and the immense and overwhelming power of the Church. However, according to Hartman,
R. Soloveitchik never repudiated intellectual study, mutual exchange of ideas, and the importance of making sense of Judaism within a larger intellectual frame of reference. . . . There is a difference between studying and being engaged as an individual with texts by Kierkegaard, Barth, Luther, or Augustine and being invited by others for a public confrontation that may lead to some form of accommodation and compromise.
For Hartman, even Rabbi Soloveit chik’s most insular and particularistic writings retained a strong sense of intellectual openness that separated them from the narrower positions staked out by his rabbinic predecessors. Hartman’s reading pulls Orthodoxy out of intellectual isolation and into the American religious public sphere without compromising its halakhic authenticity.
While, in the end, Hartman’s book fails to adequately explain how those on the “Orthodox Right,” whom he characterizes as “revisionists,” have managed to arrive at a more insular and less intellectually open portrait of Soloveitchik, his careful and precise reading of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writings is our most thorough interpretation to date. And with thousands of teachers, students, and academics from all denominations and faiths flocking to hear David Hartman at his Jerusalem–based Institute, it is only a matter of time until the Jewish world at large begins speaking about Rabbi Hartman’s theological vision in its own right.
Eliyahu E. Stern is a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University in New York City.