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Judaism is not even a religion.” This striking line appears in Immanuel Kant’s Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, a book devoted to winnowing down the articles of Christian faith to what is strictly demanded by rational morality. Kant considered himself a sincere friend of religion, and he posed a question that reflected his Protestant background. How can human beings, conflicted by sinful inclinations and tempted by worldly comforts, become pleasing to God? His answer swept aside religious doctrines that required the submission of human reason to an authority outside itself. We can honor and please God only by following our own moral reason.

Kant set his ideas in opposition to Judaism, whose confrontation with modern European culture he would shape. Judaism entailed “absolutely no religious faith,” he alleged, because it imposed its laws without a proper regard for moral intentions, regulating behavior through the fear of punishment and the hope of reward. What then is Judaism, if not a religion? Kant claimed, with consequences he did not fully foresee, that Judaism was a body of legal statutes of a defunct political state. No longer regulating a real political community, its laws promoted the archaic ritualism, voluntary slavery, and social separatism that made Jewish life a fossil. Kant was wrong about Judaism—the Talmud evaluates moral intentions closely—but his vision of Jewish law as repugnant to human freedom was essential to his wider theological agenda.

For not all Jews are Jews—some, in fact, are Christians. Though Kant acknowledged that Christ embodied human moral perfection (Christ, it seems, was a perfect Kantian), he worried that Christianity offered too many opportunities to backslide into the faith it rightly superseded. What he called the “religion of the priests” had the same effect on Christians as the Mosaic law had on Jews. Its submission to scriptural and clerical authority, its traditions of prayer and ritual, and its veneration of exemplars of biblical piety—all of this, Kant charged, amounted to a “counterfeit worship” that encouraged a servile mindset that was nearly indistinguishable from Judaism. Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason concluded with an attack on the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist, whose celebration, he wrote, “cannot but work counter to the spirit of true religion.”

Kant sought to pry Judaism and Christianity apart, but instead he joined their fates together. His vision of a Christianity cleansed of Jewish residues, but true to its liberating moral message, offered an uncanny preview of the revolutions that would convulse modern Christianity. It was not long before theologians would announce that “modernity” required the supersession of notions of religious obedience, Jewish or Christian, whose continuation was an offense against human enlightenment.

Whether Joseph Soloveitchik was thinking about German philosophers in 1965 is anyone’s guess. The year witnessed the first signs of the secular revolution that Kant’s most radical descendants had long awaited. Theologian Dorothee Sölle published her first book, which demanded the liberation of Christian morality from the legacy of “Christofascism.” Harvey Cox published The Secular City, which counseled Christians to welcome secularization, not resist it. Bernhard Häring released The Liberty of the Children of God, which announced the end of ecclesial authority over Christian consciences. Months later, Time magazine profiled the “Death of God” movement. At the cutting edge of Christian thought, it was no longer Christian to be Christian.

Soloveitchik had studied Kant at the University of Berlin, and his learning combined a mastery of Jewish texts with a command of modern philosophy. An intellectual leader of Orthodox Judaism in America, he was also a shrewd observer of the Gentile world. His interpretation of this strange theological moment became the basis for his bestselling and most popular work, The Lonely Man of Faith.

Though the book does not mention the fact, it originated as a series of lectures given to Catholic seminarians and faculty at Saint John’s Seminary in Boston. Soloveitchik’s passion was for teaching Torah—he once joked that he was a “drunkard” for Torah instruction—and over the course of his career he trained thousands of rabbis, to whom he was known affectionately as “the Rav,” a Hebrew honorific that means “master.” But his 1965 book addressed universal themes, made few references to Jewish sources outside of the footnotes, and offered thoughtful critiques of the faith of his audience. Soloveitchik was influenced by Christian thinkers. References to Pascal, Kierkegaard, Barth, and Emil Brunner appear frequently in his writing. Yet he was not a proponent of interfaith dialogue. He had, in fact, just published “Confrontation,” an article nearly as controversial today as it was in 1964. It vehemently denied the possibility of interfaith dialogue with Christians. Jews and Christians can cooperate on matters of shared social concern, he argued, and it was one of the blessings of American life to have made such cooperation possible. But the doctrinal teachings of the two faiths reflect incommensurable perspectives, and to suggest otherwise is both false and dangerous. The “community of the few,” he warned, stands in no theological relation to the “community of the many.”

Why was the author of “Confrontation” addressing a Christian seminary? Perhaps he had been moved by the example of Boston’s Richard Cardinal Cushing, who had built warm relations with the local Jewish community (Cushing’s brother-in-law was Jewish) and played a major role in drafting Nostra Aetate, Vatican II’s statement on non-Christian religions. Soloveitchik had immigrated to Boston in 1932, and his personal correspondence reveals an abiding distrust of the Catholic hierarchy. His letters also disclose his passionate opposition to the attendance of Jewish observers at the Council, which he worried would send a misleading message to Jewish youth. But Cushing’s profile in American religious life was near its peak—he had delivered the invocation at Kennedy’s presidential inauguration—and the Council had given him a global platform. When the final draft of Nostra Aetate expressed respect and love for Jews and remorse for past injustices committed by Christians, and denied Jewish collective guilt, it was widely credited to the efforts of Boston’s cardinal.

But perhaps there is another, more immediate and compelling reason why Soloveitchik chose to “confide” in the seminarians, sharing with them a “tale of a personal dilemma.” It is that the Rav had important things to say about Christianity and its supersession by the modern religions of expressive autonomy. If his writings reward Christian study, offering insights provided by no other recent author, it is not because he engaged Christian doctrine or Scripture. Rather, it is because he observed Christian practice from a perspective that owed nothing to secular or liberal visions of human life. Soloveitchik drew from a theological critique as old as Christianity itself. He charged that in rejecting the special authority of the revealed law of the Hebrew Bible, Christianity had sown the seeds of religious and moral anarchy—and perhaps of its own destruction.

To the older Catholics in his Boston audience, trained in the synthesizing framework of neo-Thomism, the arrival of modernity had meant the dismantling of traditional societies by the combined forces of skepticism, materialism, and pluralism. In The Lonely Man of Faith, Soloveitchik challenged this story of modernity. Why does the person of faith feel so alienated in contemporary culture? And why do experiences of estrangement and dislocation reach so deeply into his personal identity? As he often did, Soloveitchik spoke from personal experience, observing that though all human beings experience a degree of loneliness, the man of faith now experiences a compounded solitude. He not only struggles to maintain relationships of mutual trust and understanding in his personal life. He also feels like a stranger in public life, speaking an alien “language” that is dismissed as unintelligible or obsolete. According to Soloveitchik, his chief difficulty is not the intellectual challenge posed by secular knowledge. It is the daily trial of living in a society that does not understand him and does not care to.

To explain this experience of alienation, Soloveitchik turned to the first two chapters of Genesis. Its two creation stories, he argued, were the key to understanding the fractured nature of human experience. In the creation of “Adam the First,” Soloveitchik found an explanation of the human drive for mastery, control, and conquest. This Adam, animated by God’s breath and created at the same time as his partner and thus not “lonely,” strives to expand the dominion God has given him. He endeavors to explore the world, to control his environment, and to enlarge the bounds of human empire. Adam the First is practically minded. He seeks knowledge about how things work and builds communities to satisfy his material needs. He cures diseases, builds dams, and explores outer space. In the creation story of “Adam the Second,” however, Soloveitchik found a fundamentally different way of being human. This Adam, created with a female partner and commanded to cultivate a garden, seeks redemption, meaning, and covenantal community. His mind is speculative. He asks what things mean and wonders why anything exists at all. Adam the Second prays, obeys, and seeks wisdom through self-sacrifice.

These two Adams exist in every human being. “Man is a dialectical being,” Soloveitchik explained, “an inner schism runs through his personality at every level.” His point was not that human beings possess two natures. As a graduate student, Soloveitchik had studied phenomenology, and his core insight concerned what its philosophers call “intentionality.” He argued that human beings have the unique capacity (and need) to approach the world with two different cognitive attitudes, which determine what we can perceive and know. One attitude examines “parts” in their relationship to the human drive for survival and power. The other seeks knowledge of the “whole” in relation to the human quest for salvation and communion. Soloveitchik argued that both Adams are willed by God and essential to our humanity. But he also insisted that the two attitudes are incommensurable and can never be integrated in this life. In fact, the irresolvable tension between them is what makes human freedom, creativity, and greatness possible. Yet this same tension, he noted, brings with it an awareness of our own incompleteness, an anxiety that modernity is desperate to eliminate.

Soloveitchik did not accuse modernity of dividing what had once been integrated. He charged it with doing precisely the opposite. He argued, in effect, that modernity’s most powerful ideologies and institutions are trying to unify human nature—not by harmonizing its two discordant aspects, but by abolishing one of them. Put in Soloveitchik’s terms, Adam the First is repressing Adam the Second, seeking “to identify himself with the total of human personality.” Adam the First is puzzled by questions about transcendence, impatient for material progress, and dismissive of other ways of perceiving. Seeking hegemony over every human experience, he claims that the world can be understood only through quantitative measurement, technological control, and utilitarian self-interest. Soloveitchik warned that this ambition was “diabolical” and promised to “inflict untold harm.” It blinded human beings to entire dimensions of reality and impaired their ability to recognize their self-mutilation. His most disquieting suggestion was that the attitude of Adam the First had come to dominate not only secular institutions. It had spread also into Jewish and Christian communities, turning their faiths into projects aiming at worldly success.

For his Jewish readers, Soloveitchik’s idea that God intended human beings to see the world through dual perspectives amounted to a creative defense of Modern Orthodoxy. Since its birth in nineteenth-century Germany, the movement has sought to combine traditional Torah observance with immersion in the worlds of secular learning and work. “The Torah Jew need not cower in a corner and gaze with sadness and resignation as life and the world pass him by,” he wrote. “We must demonstrate that in all cultural, social, and scientific situations a Jew can study Torah and live as a faithful Torah Jew.” An opponent of Jewish isolationism, which he judged harmful to the cause of transmitting Jewish tradition, Soloveitchik worked to build schools and universities that could prepare Orthodox Jews for careers outside the Jewish community. His defense of secular learning, in both the humanities and the sciences, was controversial among Haredi and Reform Jews alike, who denied, for opposing reasons, the possibility of combining secular studies and traditional Jewish observance.

But Soloveitchik’s anthropology of the two Adams served as more than an apology for Modern Orthodoxy. For if “modernity” names an age in which beliefs are consciously held in a context of intense pluralism, then something interesting follows. It means that the Orthodox Jew has always been modernor, at the very least, has experienced modernity more intensely, more self-consciously, and for far longer than critics like Kant imagined. To say this is not to characterize his theological beliefs, which are emphatically premodern. Rather, it is to describe the nature of his personal experience, rooted in life as a religious minority, in which his deepest identity is mediated through the views of people who are fundamentally different from him. Against the charge that Judaism had no place in modernity, The Lonely Man of Faith offered a bracing response: Judaism understands, in a unique way, the tensions and trials of modern life.

It also represents the only certain way of sustaining biblical faith within modern life. Though much of Soloveitchik’s lecturing focused on the Hebrew Bible and Jewish law (halakhah), it is as a philosopher that he made his most original contributions to contemporary thought. In a 1955 memorandum to his colleagues at Yeshiva University, he criticized the existing curriculum of Orthodox seminaries. He worried that they replicated the “cloistered mentality” and “quasi-monastic” practices of old-world yeshivas, many of which had stressed the self-sufficiency of Torah study. If students were to defend Jewish life in American society, he argued, they needed to devote greater time to the study of philosophy. Soloveitchik exhorted his colleagues to consider the examples of Catholic universities and Protestant divinity schools, whose embrace of philosophy had enabled them to engage modern forms of thought with greater effectiveness. “If the perplexed cry out for a guide,” he wrote, “we must satisfy their needs and offer them philosophical counsel and leadership.” 

Soloveitchik’s own philosophical awakening had occurred during his student years in Weimar Germany, an experience that he later compared to Joseph’s time in Egypt. When he arrived in Berlin, he encountered a scientific revolution in the making. Though his doctorate was in philosophy (he wrote a dissertation on the Jewish neo-Kantian Hermann Cohen), he also took courses in the sciences, closely following the overthrow of classical physics by quantum mechanics. For him, the new science opened a “path to a new religious perspective,” which he called “epistemological pluralism.” Inspired by Pascal and William James, as well as by the new physics, this pluralism held that “things are true or false according to the aspect in which we regard them.” Soloveitchik’s writings often examine complex issues in mathematics, biology, and physics, and he was in no way a relativist about knowledge. But he argued that religion offers a distinct way of knowing, employing standards of logic, reason, and evidence that are no less rigorous than those of the natural sciences. Rather than “translate” Jewish faith into secular categories, as Hermann Cohen and others had attempted, Soloveitchik began to imagine the opposite: a philosophy arising from the distinctive commitments of Orthodox Judaism. “Out of the sources of halakha,” he announced, “a new world view awaits formation.”

His book Halakhic Man developed such a worldview. Written in Hebrew in the 1940s, it was published in English only in 1983, ten years before his death. From one perspective, the book was deeply personal. It was inspired by Soloveitchik’s memories of his grandfather and father, both of whom were rabbis, as well the great Jewish sages of Lithuania and his native Belarus. From a young age, Soloveitchik had been groomed for intellectual leadership, and Halakhic Man brought vividly to life a world of Jewish learning that was being annihilated as the book was being written. It holds up the halakhic scholar, immersed in Jewish legal texts and adept at discerning their logic and application, as pursuing the highest and noblest human way of life. Interweaving family history, Talmudic commentary, and philosophical reflection, it extols Torah study as the unique fulfillment of the age-old philosophical quest for wisdom. As Soloveitchik saw it, those who properly commit themselves to the study of Jewish law attain a freedom, holiness, and wisdom surpassed only by the prophets. Halakhic men live “heroically,” becoming in reality what ancient philosophers glimpsed as an ideal.

Halakhic Man is much more than a celebration of Jewish sages as philosophical giants. It also expresses a vision of Jewish life. Soloveitchik was trained in a tradition of Jewish legal thought called the “Brisker” school (named after the city of Brisk, where its methods were originally developed). The school emphasized precise definitions and rigorous argument, seeking to construct ideal categories through which Jewish law could be systematically interpreted and applied. To the casual observer, the 613 commandments in Hebrew scripture might appear a welter of disparate rules and obligations—prescribing in bewildering detail how one must eat, pray, mourn, fast, and worship, as well as how family, sex, business, and politics are to be conducted. Halakhic Man offers an insight into the deep coherence of this body of revealed law. When one has discerned its “a priori principles,” as Soloveitchik called them, a transformative vision comes into view. It is an image of the ideal world as God intends it to be, which the faithful Jew brings into being through obedient performance of divine commandments.

When he approaches the world, he is armed with his weapons—i.e., his laws—and the consciousness of lawfulness and order that is implanted within him serves to ward off the fear that springs upon him. Halakhic man does not enter a strange, alien, mysterious world, but a world with which he is already familiar through the a priori which he carries within his consciousness. He enters into the real world via the ideal creation which in the end will be actualized.

For the man of faith, the Torah is therefore not only the revelation of God’s will. It also allows him to perceive the ideal order of creation and join himself to God’s creative purposes.

According to Soloveitchik, the Jewish understanding of law marks a fundamental difference from Christianity. In our present condition, human nature is fractured by a schism, divided between the “majesty” of Adam the First and the “humility” of Adam the Second. Soloveitchik’s central theological claim is that the Mosaic law enables the man of faith to be sanctified and redeemed through this very tension. This is the “miracle” of Torah observance. A faithful Jew achieves what is otherwise humanly impossible. In properly obeying God’s law, he succeeds in being faithful to both aspects of human nature, performing a “paradoxical movement” in two opposing directions. As Adam the First, he moves boldly forward in raising his mind and life to the divine order of the created universe, becoming the master of his passions and his moral environment. As Adam the Second, he retreats humbly before God, knowing his utter dependence on God for his life and redemption.

In performing this double movement, the man of faith undergoes purification. Soloveitchik calls this process “catharsis,” drawing a stark division between Jewish and Greek understandings of purgation. By submitting to God’s law, struggling to meet its requirements, and aspiring to understand its perfect wisdom, the halakhic man is transformed inwardly and sanctified bodily. His mind is purified of irreverent thoughts and unworthy desires, and his bodily functions are elevated into acts of worship. He becomes a partner of God, bringing holiness down from heaven and into this world. He therefore unites with God not by turning spiritually inward or transcending his creaturely nature, but by building a domain of sanctity within creation, constructing through his loving obedience an image of a healed world. Soloveitchik likened this struggle to a form of heroism, in which the triumph of the Jewish “warrior” results not in the peace of military victory but in the tranquility of personal holiness. “Halakhic man does not long for a transcendent world,” Soloveitchik explains. “It is here, in this world, that halakhic man acquires eternal life!”

Though Soloveitchik refrained from examining Christian doctrines directly, he did not disguise the fact that he had closely studied Christian thinkers. He was particularly influenced by Protestant neo-orthodoxy, a movement that sought to return theology to reflection on divine revelation, rather than on human experience. It was partly under Karl Barth’s inspiration that he had risen to defend the traditional sources of Jewish thought, and partly under Emil Brunner’s guidance that he had defended Jewish divine command ethics. But Soloveitchik’s criticisms of Christian life (often politely veiled as critiques of popular religion) were serious, insightful, and unique in substance. He often returns to this observation: Christianity does not solve the anthropological problem of the two Adams. Judaism solves it, because the Mosaic law “translates subjectivity into objectivity.” That is, it fuses inner faith with outward action, in a way that transforms the tension into a catharsis that purifies human thought and passions. Rather than leave the believer to discern how to express his faith, the Mosaic law requires specific mitzvot, bringing his mind, will, and even body into unity with God.

Soloveitchik’s book And From There You Shall Seek contains his strongest claims about the unity of our active, striving selves with our contemplative, covenantal selves, and about Christianity’s failure to effect the union. He worked on the manuscript for more than three decades, publishing it in a small journal in 1978. It contains some of his most personal confessions about the Oral Torah that shaped his teaching. Through a commentary on the Song of Songs, he describes the human search for God as natural, irrepressible, and tragic. Our experiences of wonder, uncertainty, and sorrow press us to seek the truth about God. But this search inevitably fails because “the world is a dead end which does not permit passage to the realm of the eternal.” Yet God is not bound to Kant’s strictures about the limits of human knowledge. Amid human distress, the God of Sinai entered history, revealing a “knowledge” that humanity had desperately sought but could not attain. What is unique about the knowledge of Torah, Soloveitchik claims, is not only that it unites soul with body and thinking with moral responsibility. It also transforms the halakhic man into likeness with God. Soloveitchik calls this the “secret” of Judaism. His remarkable claim, rooted in a reading of the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides, is that through obeying and studying the Torah, the man of faith imitates the divine nature in and through a unity of thought, will, and action. “The secret of cleaving to God,” Soloveitchik explains, “involves the principle of the identity of the knower and the known.” To think about one’s life and responsibilities in terms of divine commandments does not degrade human beings, as Kant feared. It divinizes them.

Whereas Judaism unites faith with action, the soul with the body, and the believer with God, Christianity threatens to sunder them. Soloveitchik traces this error to an apostate from Judaism, Saul of Tarsus. By his reading, St. Paul’s teaching that one cannot be justified through Torah observance shook the foundations of biblical faith, denigrating the very law through which human redemption is made possible. Under Paul’s influence, Christian belief turned increasingly inward—untethered from concrete commandments, suspicious of ritual observance, enamored of theological speculation, and vulnerable to hypocrisy and laxity. Soloveitchik identifies two errors in the Pauline revolution. First, Christian faith was understood as a path to speculative knowledge. What he calls “the curse of the why question” misled Christian theologians into thinking that faith offered privileged knowledge into divine causality, rather than firmly grounding moral responsibility in God’s will. Second, Christian faith became “esoteric,” a path to private spiritual experience, rather than a bond within a covenantal community. Whether faith is wrongly identified with metaphysics or with mysticism, speculatively upward or subjectively inward, Soloveitchik contends that the result is the same: Faith becomes otherworldly, seeking insight into a transcendent world above or within, rather than creating holiness in the world that God has created.

This spirituality of otherworldly striving can seem idealistic and noble, but it has also inflicted unintended harms. It has left Christianity unable to unite inner belief with outward form, or to integrate the highest acts of the soul with the basic needs of the body. Soloveitchik’s writings from the 1940s express his gravest concerns about Christianity’s responsibility for the spiritual and moral lawlessness of the culture it shaped. He describes, in anguished tones, how an emphasis on subjective faith and religious experience helped to usher in the civilizational suicide of the Second World War. As Soloveitchik understood it, the ambition of modern theologians to free Christianity of “Jewish legalism” (which in Protestant polemics was often fused with Catholicism) was a formula for “moral anarchy.” This Kantian project weakened the barriers of law and ritual that aim to “conquer the beast in man.” It made Christianity seem spectral, pallid, and uninspiring to those who wished for a demanding code of life. And it contributed to the dulling of Christian consciences, which often slumbered in the presence of grotesque injustices. For Soloveitchik, the Holocaust was a verdict on the theological legacy of Saul of Tarsus. “Subjective faith, lacking commands and laws, faith of the sort that Saul of Tarsus spoke about . . . cannot stand fast if it contains no explicit commands to do good deeds, to fulfill specific commandments not always approved by rationality and culture. The terrible Holocaust and World War II proves this. All who speak of love stood silent and did not protest.”

In his 1965 lectures at St. John’s Seminary, Soloveitchik spoke out of Jewish loneliness in a Gentile world—a loneliness, he implied, that faithful Christians would soon experience amid the onrushing secular revolution. His reading of Genesis offered subtle advice: Relinquish any dreams of building a Christian order that would restore the imagined harmonies of premodern life. Our divided natures, he insisted, and not only our disordered loves, make such a society an illusion. But unlike many Christian thinkers in that disruptive decade, Soloveitchik was no less worried about the demons of secularism, and he warned both Jews and Christians against internalizing the stunted perspective of Adam the First. For the ambition to overcome Adam the Second, and to replace the hope for redemption with the ideal of liberation, masked its own darkness. Americans may not pray to Odin and Zeus, Soloveitchik wrote in a letter, but “heathendom still rules our world.” And so long as we are lured by the worship of idols, men of faith must continue to pray that “the pagan gods will be utterly obliterated.” In the face of this challenge, he reminded a local Catholic priest that to God “man must offer everything he possesses. Nothing is to be spared and nothing is to be saved.”

Christians might be tempted to bridle at Soloveitchik’s criticisms, which often target distortions of the Christian faith, rather than its doctrines. He was misled, it would seem, by assuming that modern German theologians represented Christian teaching in its most intellectually mature form. But to dismiss his criticisms is to miss an opportunity to learn about the practice of our faith from those who refused to turn from Sinai to Golgotha. Soloveitchik was correct that one of the perverse achievements of modern Christianity is to have left the world open to the conquest of Adam the First. It did so, he maintained, through its insistence that individual beliefs about God—rather than the embodiment of those beliefs in the life of the covenantal community—defined the essence of biblical faith. Soloveitchik once joked that as a Torah Jew he could not even use the bathroom without being mindful of the halakhah. But there is profound wisdom in a tradition that resists secularizing even the most mundane necessities. Soloveitchik was right to see through the Kantian conceit that human beings can flourish while living exclusively under laws they have authored themselves. He understood, too, that a religious tradition that constructs theoretical systems but fails to consecrate everyday life is effectively empty. For him, it was a revealed truth, confirmed by experience and reason, that “a subjective religiosity cannot endure.” Faith without works is indeed dead.

The world dreamed up by Kant, and managed by his descendants, has not of course succeeded in ridding itself of divine commands or a ruling priesthood. It merely parodies both. Its first commandment is an antinomian imperative that demands acts of impiety and an attitude of irreverence toward those traditions and truths that bind us to a past we are supposed to have outgrown and whose mere continuation is an existential affront. If Christians have often joined this antinominan festival, or been powerless to resist it, it is because they have adopted a view of salvation history to which Kant gave disturbingly anti-Jewish expression. Pitting law against liberty, and the past against the present, Christians have been tempted to embrace a new morality centered on human conscience rather than on divine commands, on intentions rather than prescribed actions, and on self-determined authenticity rather than conformity to biblical demands. Too often they have suspected that what has been hallowed by custom and routinized by ritual is a barrier to moral maturity, rather than the grounds for its possibility. And too quickly they have assumed that the greatest sins of our culture occurred not because of disobedience to the law, but because believers had grown insensitive and docile through obeying it.

Soloveitchik was right to fear the mad power of Christian heresies. But he was mistaken to root his fear in Christian sources. What St. Paul called the spirit of “lawlessness” finds no inspiration in Christian teaching, only its incarnate repudiation. “Christ conformed his conduct in all things to the precepts of the law,” Aquinas observed. For the theological tradition rejected by Kant and the German theologians who followed him, there is no salvation apart from Christ’s fulfillment of the law, and no true worship apart from the community that embodies its promise. The law is never revoked, never abolished, and not even spiritualized. For Christians worship the one, they believe, who brings the Torah to its everlasting goal, meeting him in the feast that enacts the new exodus, the new Passover, and the new temple that Israel awaited. In the Eucharist, Christians are obedient to the Mosaic law in all its fulfilled dimensions, uniting with God in both body and soul. Whereas Kant saw in the law the relic of an archaic state, Aquinas saw in it “the beautiful ordering of a people” summoned to bear special witness to human redemption. Can Christians today see the supreme beauty of the law? And can they see that in being conformed to Christ, they are living in obedience to it? For there is no salvation apart from the law whose end is the Halakhic Man.

Matthew Rose is director of the Barry Center at the Morningside Institute.

Image by Claire Giuntini, filter added, cropped. Copy permission given by Yeshiva University. 

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