Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 104 (June/July 2000): 68-71.
The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. By Aaron Rakeffet–Rothkoff. Ktav. Vol. 1: 296 pp. Vol. 2: 300 pp. $35 per volume.
Reviewed by Shalom Carmy
For most of his fifty years as Orthodoxy’s premier thinker, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik was known simply as "the Rav." Born in 1903 in Russia, trained by his father in the Brisk (Brest–Litovsk) school of Talmud study (which his grandfather invented), he took the then unusual step of studying philosophy at the University of Berlin. He later moved to the United States, where as an indefatigable lecturer in Boston and New York he made his primary mark as a Talmud teacher of legendary creativity and expository powers. Equally sovereign at public lectures and in the pressure cooker of his advanced classroom, he taught and captivated thousands, including many a traditionalist who fidgeted uncomfortably at the occasional allusion to Plato, Kierkegaard, or Rudolf Otto. The Rav was especially noted for applying to "theological" topics, like repentance and prayer, the rigorous analysis usually associated with more conventionally juridic areas like Jewish tort law.
Even before his death in 1993, Soloveitchik’s legacy had become a subject of controversy. One would have expected some of this to happen because of his unique stature, but he exacerbated the situation because he rarely published authoritative rulings on disputed questions. One school of would–be heirs claims that he is a traditional Eastern European rabbi, indifferent to the world outside the proverbial "four cubits" of the Talmudic study hall. They deny or downplay the significance of his ventures beyond the world into which he was born. Another group interprets his intellectual openness as a covert approval of theological liberalism or halakhic leniency. Both sides lament the lack of a more explicit record, even as they seem oddly reluctant to grapple with the available texts.
Aaron Rakeffet–Rothkoff, in his two–volume biography, tries to stay above the battle, and for the most part he succeeds in doing so. He avoids the fray by relying heavily on excerpts from Soloveitchik’s published writings, transcriptions of tapes, and, to a limited degree, second–hand reports. This reliance on primary sources allows him also to avoid the dangers of trivialization, gossip, and sentimental hagiography that so often beset the disciple’s depiction of an admired master. Of course, this strategy runs into problems of its own: to select is to exclude, and to choose passages artlessly is to conceal conscious or unconscious principles of exclusion. Excerpting material often suppresses the larger context of a discussion.
Rakeffet–Rothkoff offers detailed documentation of Rabbi Soloveit chik’s university studies, and insists that his interest in philosophy remained significant throughout his career. He explicitly counters those who would dismiss this aspect of his personality as inconsequential or merely instrumental. Despite this admirable position, he is not able to communicate effectively much of an idea of what the Rav did with the neo–Kantians and existentialists, nor, for that matter, really explain the exact nature of Brisk analysis to any reader not trained in the method. Nonetheless, much of the Rav’s intellectual life does shine through.
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s theological outlook is distinguished by a consistent focus on halakah, i.e., the fulfillment and study of the divine law. His major non–Talmudic publications, which altered the landscape of Jewish theology, almost all stress the normative and intellectual centrality of the halakhic corpus. Halakhic Man, his earliest book, argues that typical Jewish piety does not fit familiar models of Western religiosity. The essay presents a phenomenology of this unconventional religious type. In the Rav’s telling, halakhic man, as a result of his study of Torah and his observance of the commandments, develops a set of coherent attitudes towards, inter alia, intellectual activity, asceticism, death, otherworldliness, esotericism, mysticism, creativity, repentance, and providence.
Halakhic man displays more than a passing resemblance to the Soloveitchik family with its Lithuanian Talmudic legacy. This model seems more intellectual, personally more reticent, and spiritually more austere than the emotionally exuberant Hasidic masters featured by Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and their successors. Halakhic man appears less exotic to the secular academic mind, but for that very reason more exasperating. It is the Rav’s achievement that he compels the outsider to confront a puzzling world, even as he offers the initiated a new self–awareness.
Among Rabbi Soloveitchik’s long er essays, The Lonely Man of Faith is the best known, and most accessible, to the non–Jewish reader. Indeed, the Rav presented an early version of it to a Christian audience. The point of departure in this work is the religious individual’s sense of estrangement from Western culture. Contrasting "majestic man," the Adam of Genesis 1, with the "man of faith" depicted in Genesis 2, the Rav insists that both are fulfilling the will of the Creator. Adam 1, created in the image of God, does so by conquering the universe, imposing his knowledge, technology, and cultural institutions upon the world: religion affirms this apparently "secular" mandate. Yet the enlargement of human majesty and dignity is insufficient: the heavens may tell the glory of God, but it is an impersonal glory.
Personal relationship is born when Adam 2 responds to the divine command: he does not subdue the garden, but rather tills it and preserves it. If the human community depicted in Genesis 1 is a utilitarian one, where man and woman join together, like the male and female of other animals, to further the ends of their species, the community of Genesis 2 emerges from a crisis of existential loneliness. This covenantal community can be sealed only by the participation of the Divine. In Lonely Man and similar essays the singularity of the religious encounter, be it the individual’s or the Jewish people’s, is often linked with an essential incommunicable loneliness.
U–Vikkashtem mi–Sham ("And Ye Shall Seek"), the untranslated sequel to Halakhic Man, is the Rav’s most ambitious treatise. Here he seeks to map the vicissitudes of the human relationship with God. The primary stage posits two religious situations: the human search for God, or "natural consciousness," which experiences the divine as a response to our cultural values and needs; and the "revelational consciousness," in which God initiates the encounter, irrupting into the human world over the infinite abyss as a commanding presence. Natural consciousness aims at satisfaction; revelational consciousness demands obedience. We are bearers of both types of consciousness, which interact to engender several distinct manifestations of the love and fear of God. The dialectic eventually leads beyond both the alienation of mere obedience and the immanence of the natural quest to the commandment of imitatio Dei: man is required not only to obey God but to follow Him. The highest stage is one in which the individual and the community engage in the commandment of devekut, cleaving unto God, which is defined (in decidedly nonmystical terms) as an act of identification or partnership with Him.
Drafted in 1944, The Halakhic Mind (originally given the Kantian title "Is the Philosophy of Halakha Possible?") is an attempt to determine the epistemological autonomy of religious knowledge in the light of contemporary philosophy and science. The world is much richer than any one system of concepts can hold, Soloveitchik argued, an observation that provided the basis for respecting a plurality of religious thought systems. The principle of complementarity in quantum physics further prompted Soloveitchik to consider such pluralism seriously. The result was a phenomenology of the religious experience that began with the objective data of religion (in the Rav’s case halakah), which the believer must appropriate for himself. Once he interiorizes the objective religious rituals and practices and submits to them, he can carry out his religious practices in an integrated fashion, subjectively as well as objectively oriented to God.
For those who remember Rabbi Soloveitchik, and, I hope, for the many who did not have the privilege of hearing him, the verbatim excerpts in this book bring his voice alive. Rakeffet–Rothkoff’s selections include many deep Jewish and human insights, personal glimpses, and Soloveitchik family lore. Rakeffet–Rothkoff makes available for the first time some rather interesting remarks by the Rav on the psychology of mourning, the sociology of American prayer, and on a halakhic ruling from the early 1950s that one has a duty not to inform on an ex–Communist colleague unless the subject of investigation presents a genuine present threat.
Yet these volumes are neither a full biography nor an introductory anthology. In some respects, this text is very much a fan’s album. One does not learn, in any systematic fashion, what distinctive doctrine Rabbi Soloveitchik formulated, or why the content and manner of his teaching continue to arouse controversy. We get not so much the public account of a very private man as an account of how that man was perceived by the rank–and–file membership of the Rabbinical Council of America, to which Rabbi Soloveitchik devoted so much of his time and energy. This orientation explains the emphasis on the Rav as a storyteller, as well as the large number of photographs.
Anyone interested in the twentieth–century story of traditional Judaism and its arrival in the United States or who desires to know more about non–Hasidic Jewish religiosity will enjoy and appreciate these books. In fact, Rakeffet–Rothkoff’s stories may satisfy such a reader better than the original source, for in his writings Rabbi Soloveitchik invariably em ploys the telling anecdote in the service of a larger thesis. Whoever wishes to wrestle with the Rav as a major theologian, or for that matter as a master Talmudist, will only have his appetite whetted. For such a reader there is no alternative to picking up Rabbi Soloveitchik’s books and experiencing his mind and spirit first–hand.
Shalom Carmy teaches Philosophy and Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University and is editor of Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought, published by the Rabbinical Council of America.