The occasion of my first encounter with the theology of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik was a reading group at my wife’s synagogue. We were then living in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Elihu Milder, the rabbi then serving at Tifereth Israel, organized a group to discuss Soloveitchik’s spiritual classic, Halakhic Man.
Why did I sign up? I don’t know. My wife was raising our then small children as Jews, and perhaps I was anxious about living too far out on the periphery of my own family. Or maybe it was just the restlessness of a young theology professor with some free time on his hands. Whatever the first impetus, Halakhic Man captivated me. The book became one of my touchstones. I’ve recommended it widely to friends as one of the great spiritual classics of the twentieth century
R. Soloveitchik focuses the divine offer of covenantal fellowship. In the technical terminology of Christian theology, this offer is called “grace,” the unmerited gift of God’s condescension. For the Christian grace comes in the person of Christ, for the Jew in the gift of the Torah. Needless to say, this difference is a great difference. And yet, because both traditions put grace—the gift of covenant—at the center there are important similarities. If one simply reads “Christ” wherever Soloveitchik writes “Torah,” one can begin to see important ways in which Christian and Jewish thought operate according to the same logic.
For example, R. Soloveitchik draws attention to the dual character of grace. On the one hand it is unexpected; one the other hand it is fitting and fulfilling. What could be more arbitrary and “supernatural” in the technical sense of beyond the ken of nature than the legal regulations governing Jewish life? Yet, participation in the covenant satisfies and perfects rather than ignores or negates our reason and nature. The divine condescension on Mount Sinai brings fearful trembling, and yet invitation to the Torah is tender and intimate: “Let my beloved come into his garden” (Song 4:16). As St. Thomas Aquinas put it, grace does not destroy or oppose nature, but instead fulfills it.
The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth put the same insight in terms of covenant: Covenant is the inner basis of creation, and creation is the outer basis of covenant. R. Soloveitchik evokes a similar theology when he suggests that the Eternal God-the-author-of-the-Torah is prior to God-the-creator-and-governor-of-the-universe. In these high claims on behalf of the Torah, the rabbinic tradition is not just exalting the authority of Sinai, but also affirming its metaphysical priority in a way similar to the New Testament claims about the redemptive work of Christ that occurs “before the foundation of the world.”
The Christian theologian Robert W. Jenson has emphasized again and again that we tend to allow our spiritual imaginations to be governed by our natural metaphysical intuitions. Greek philosophers presumed an absolute divide between time and eternity, between the finite and infinite. It’s not possible for the timeless deity to exist within the changeable flux of temporal affairs. To think such a thought is foolishness, a judgment St. Paul evokes in his First Letter to the Corinthians. Yet Jenson asks an obvious question: Isn’t what is and is not possible up to God, not the supposed laws of metaphysics? The Gospel of John makes it clear that our natural metaphysical intuitions do not govern God: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The divine lowers himself and enters into the finite realm of human affairs.
R. Soloveitchik makes essentially the same point when he recounts a midrash about Moses’s encounter with God on Mount Sinai. Commanded to make for God a sanctuary, Moses finds himself perplexed. The Infinite and Eternal One cannot dwell in a house made by men. Immediately, God rebukes Moses. If the Almighty wishes to contract his presence down to one square cubit, then so be it! And why not? The Lord God is hardly bound by metaphysical principles, however natural and necessary they may seem.
With this midrash R. Soloveitchik makes one of the central points that Judaism shares with Christianity, a point that differentiates both from most philosophical and other religious outlooks. “I am who I am”—The identity of God as covenant-maker (Torah for Jews, Christ for Christians) is prior to any concept of divinity or eternity or infinity that our reason derives. If that makes a mess of our metaphysical intuitions, than so be it.
As I look back, it was this affirmation of a metaphysical scandal of particularity—“transcendence in the midst of our concrete world,” as R. Solovietchik puts it in one of his many formulations—that engaged my spiritual imagination when I first read Halakhic Man. It provides the existential drama. Shouldn’t we seek God at the top of the ladder of being in a supernal world beyond the limitations of everyday life? Doesn’t the spiritual life require rapturous reveries and sudden intuitions that burst the limits of finite cognition? Don’t we need to make a heroic leap from the temporal to the Eternal? No, says R. Soloveitchik, “Halahkic Man declares that the true home of the Divine Presence is in this world.” The same metaphysical scandal of particularity is central to Christianity: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16).
I dropped out of Rabbi Milder’s reading group after a couple of sessions that winter many years ago. It had become clear to me that I was burdening the discussions with my Christian enthusiasms, which kept bubbling to the surface of my comments, even as I tried to stay within the bounds of R. Soloveitchik’s terms and concepts. Perhaps my reactions were fitting—both my Christian enthusiasms, and my recognition of their intrusive weight. Jews and Christians share a great deal, so much in fact that we feel acutely the gravity of our differences.