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Majesty and Humility: The Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
by Reuven Ziegler
Urim, 424 pages, $34.95

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik gave a staggeringly extensive and wide-ranging number of lectures in his life, in addition to teaching his daily Talmud classes at Yeshiva University. His annual public lectures, one in commemoration of his father and another a “repentance homily” delivered in the week preceding Yom Kippur, were intricately crafted, four-hour affairs with audiences upwards of one thousand, and served for several decades as cornerstones of the Jewish intellectual calendar.

Yet though he left behind an abundance of manuscripts in various states of completion, relatively few were published in his lifetime, and those that were hardly constitute a complete, comprehensive system. Explanations vary: His vigorous perfectionism likely made publication prohibitive, and his extensive commitments in communal leadership certainly competed for his time and attention.

But more fundamentally, Soloveitchik had something of a principled aversion to the written word: Genuine learning is a living, dynamic, interactive process, with teacher and student engaged in ongoing, open-ended dialogue, a reality wherein Soloveitchik located the Jew’s primary avenue for communion with the divine. A text, in contrast, is by nature fixed and static, necessarily sacrificing the freedom and vitality of oral communication. Writing finds success as communication but falls short as communion.

He characterized the human mind’s imposing scientific structure on full-blooded, dynamic reality as an imperial act of violence, the “elimination of the object.” There is, therefore, a certain irony, and perhaps even infidelity, in the attempt to pen a systematic, comprehensive presentation of Soloveitchik’s thought, as Reuven Ziegler, director of research for the Toras HoRav Foundation, which holds Soloveitchik’s manuscripts, does in Majesty and Humility.

On the other hand, of course, the diffuse, unwieldy character of Soloveitchik’s teaching is precisely what makes such a project a desideratum. And so, acknowledging the necessary sacrifices involved, we can welcome Ziegler’s well-structured, integrated introduction to Soltoveitchik’s thought—the first of its kind—as a long-awaited contribution.

Ziegler is sure to insist that his book is no substitute for reading Soloveitchik, and the message is reflected in the book’s study-guide style. The clear aim is to facilitate the beginner’s first foray into the field. While the full power and resonance of Soloveitchik’s teaching is of necessity absent, Ziegler’s unflagging, winsome enthusiasm succeeds in conveying a substantial tribute to the real thing.

Throughout his presentation, Ziegler stresses Soloveitchik’s insistence that an authentic religious philosophy will always feature powerful dialectical tension, that genuine religious life is ineluctably pervaded with dynamic inner conflict. Soloveitchik vigorously championed a robust humanistic vision of man’s autonomy and virtuous self-assertion, yet he no less emphasized the apparently conflicting necessity of man’s unconditional submission and sacrifice before God. Man, for Soloveitchik, is ideally a self-sufficient, unique individual, yet no less organically bound to a self-transcending community and tradition; a majestic hero and yet the most humble of servants.

“Dialectic, complexity, plurality of demands—these are the fundamental difficulties in studying the Rav; but they also represent his greatness,” writes Ziegler. (“The Rav,” meaning simply “the rabbi,” is an honorific in common use among Soloveitchik’s many students.) Where so many resort to “simple, monochromatic answers to the great questions of life,” Soloveitchik’s characteristic virtue was to courageously embrace complexity, nuance, and tension, because “in his eyes, man contains conflicting tendencies, God sets forth multiple demands, and the world must be perceived under differing aspects.”

There is, I worry, something of a tendency among Soloveitchik’s followers toward excess on this point. They often speak as if bravely weathering the agony of dialectical conflict were the sole end and purpose of true religious experience, with harmony and simplicity left to the spiritual amateur and featherweight.

But while a wholly harmonious and tranquil worldview may be rightly suspected of shallowness and artificiality, it is also true that a philosophy refusing any hope of clear resolution and straightforward answers is liable to be both intellectually and spiritually impoverished. Rejecting unsatisfactory answers to important questions is indeed worthy and a mark of courage, but so is the willingness to let go of one’s questions when genuine solutions do come within reach.

More concretely, the glorification of dialectical tension in Soloveitchik’s case can obscure the extent to which his thinking, with all its nuance and complexity, does in fact exhibit exceptional coherence, harmony, and integration. Man’s call to majesty on the one hand and to humility on the other, to take Ziegler’s title example, do certainly conflict, and a religious personality loyal to both will experience considerable tension in his struggle to achieve balance between the two values.

“The Rav is honest enough to admit that there is not always a happy ending,” Ziegler explains. “Man must know how to live with the tension between victory and defeat, advance and retreat, with no assurance of how it will ultimately end.”

But acknowledging this reality should not obscure the fact that, to borrow Soloveitchik’s language from another context, what we have in these opposing forces is not some illegitimate, unstable hybrid, but a radiant, integrated, and nuanced account of man’s self-realization before God. A person fixated exclusively on the self-assertive pursuit of majesty is as a person deficient, while a wholly submissive, servile person fails to realize his full potential as a human individual.

We ought to strive for our own glory and we ought to kneel before the glory of God, because humility redeems the quest for majesty, and the drive toward self-assertive victory lends meaning to obedience and surrender. Together, and only together, the dialectic’s two poles underlie the formation of a well-rounded, soundly integrated, and fully realized religious personality.

The dialectic, difficult as its real-life realization may be, ultimately makes sense. Against what he diagnosed as the prevailing ideology among liberal Jewish and Protestant groups, Soloveitchik insisted that religion is no escape from tension and anxiety, no “enchanted stream for embittered souls.” Real religion makes real demands that may require real conflict and real sacrifice—and it doesn’t wait around for us to find all the answers.

But equally far from the subjectivism of the romantic or the “I believe because it is absurd” of the mystic, that sacrifice is called for precisely in the name of objective truth comprehended through the “clear, logical cognition” exemplified by the modern scientist. We can’t always resolve the dialectical demands of authentic religion, and we’re prepared to live with that. But we understand that God doesn’t contradict himself, and we shouldn’t make a virtue out of thinking he does.

Ironically, though, it is in maintaining the integrity of Soloveitchik’s dialectical pairs that Ziegler’s presentation at times falters. After felicitously noting that for Soloveitchik “victory and defeat are of equal value,” he succumbs to the natural pull of a more one-sided, hierarchical position, writing that the motion of submissive retreat “is inherently endowed with holiness,” while “the act of advance is not in itself holy,” and so must be “imbued with this quality through the willingness to accept defeat.”

This is at best misleading: Writing in the cultural context of the liberal West, Soloveitchik often devoted more words to emphasizing the necessity of humility and surrender for a genuine religious life, but he had no more esteem for a purely submissive religious posture than for an exclusively assertive one—a point made clear by his frequent condemnations of mystical self-abnegation. It is only through the complementary presence of the other that both victory and defeat contribute to the formation of a wholesome religious personality. Neither is holy on its own, and both are holy together.

In an essay addressing the “ancient controversy between individualism and collectivism,” Soloveitchik emphatically rejected both alternatives, insisting that for Judaism “both experiences, that of aloneness, and that of togetherness, are inseparable basic elements of the I-awareness.” Harping on this formulation of the question in terms of what constitutes the “I,” where man finds his “true self,” Ziegler claims that this “reveals Soloveitchik’s true orientation,” which he asserts is essentially individualistic.

Soloveitchik “is treating the entire question of community vs. individual from the individual’s point of view—where does the individual find his fulfillment, by himself or as part of a group? Thus, true collectivism . . . is not even an option.”

But if the answer to the “question of community vs. individual” is that man can find fulfillment only as part of a group, then we would indeed have a “collectivism” as true as any. Methodologically, I think it would be best to take Soloveitchik at his word when he says that “neither theory, per se, is true,” because each always requires the other. The individual and the community are both essential components of an irreducible dialectic, and maintaining the integrity of such dialectics, as Ziegler so faithfully communicates, is for Soloveitchik a fundamental necessity for genuine religious experience.

Soloveitchik’s writing is more poetry than structured scholarship, less abstract discourse than personal confession. As he wrote in the introduction to one of his most accessible and popular works, The Lonely Man of Faith, “Instead of talking theology, in the didactic sense, eloquently and in balanced sentences, I would like, hesitantly and haltingly, to confide in you, and to share with you some concerns which weigh heavily on my mind.”

Soloveitchik aimed to provide his students with a window into the soul of the genuinely religious individual, to open their hearts to the depth and breadth of a full-blooded experience of faith. For modern man in search of authentic religion, both the intellectual brilliance and the spiritual resonance of Soloveitchik’s thought can, with due investment of energy and care, provide invaluable direction, illumination, and inspiration. Reuven Ziegler’s Majesty and Humility is a good place to start.

Alex Ozar, a former junior fellow at First Things, is a fellow at the Tikvah Fund.