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Religion and Public Life in the Thought of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 13:3-4 (Fall 2001)

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik views religion as a private affair, which occurs in the intimate relations between the I, the Thou, and the Eternal Thou. He consistently denies or de-emphasizes the public or coercive role of Judaism and halakhah. Yet Soloveitchik has trouble justifying his private religion with Jewish tradition and with the relatively expansive self-understanding of halakhah. This trouble is reflected in a number of contradictions about the nature and function of Judaism and halakhah, both in general and in the State of Israel.

The Torah was given [both] for realization in the simple society…of the ghetto where…the environment was saturated with Judaism, the street being the extension of the home; and in modern, developed society…in which the Jew is an integral part of his environment, which has no connection with his private domain….The Torah is given for realization both in galuth, where it relates to the private life of the individual, and in the Jewish State, where it must deal with new problems and embrace forms of public life.1

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

The social function of religion and Judaism has changed over the past 250 years. To adopt a somewhat oversimplified but still useful model, the transition to modernity pushed religion in general and Judaism in particular out of the public sphere, confining it to much more private concerns. Pre-modern European Jewish communities were, to a great degree, socially isolated from their gentile neighbors, and were somewhat geographically isolated as well. The autonomous Jewish kehillah governed Jewish communal life, and the Jew’s social identity relative to the gentile context depended almost entirely on his religious identity. Judaism, religion, and halakhah were integrated into the public and private fabric of Jewish society.

Emancipation, the acceptance of the Jew as an individual into the body politic of developing nation states, brought about vast changes in the social function of Judaism, paralleled to a great degree by similar processes in the function of Christianity in the Western world. In the diverse and pluralistic public square of liberal democracies, religion lost much of its pre-modern ability to create and regulate public culture. Instead, the public square became increasingly secularized, and religion tended toward privatization. Religion was involved in the individual’s subjective search for meaning, and was institutionally limited to the confines of the church or synagogue. It did not have nearly the public influence that it once had. Modern Jews made their way out of the medieval Jewish community into the “naked public square” of modern social environments. Those Jews who did not assimilate or convert eagerly developed new, and often ambiguous, hyphenated identities – Yisroel-Mensch, Frenchman of Mosaic religion, American-Jew – which expressed their comfort in the general Western public culture and their commitment to a Jewish religious tradition less encompassing than the Judaism of the past.

Modern Jewish thinkers, from Spinoza and Mendelssohn onward, struggled to explain and justify these changes. In trying to define a Judaism compatible with contemporary social reality, or with a hoped for future reality, they often absorbed modern conceptions of the function of religion. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, despite his obvious traditionalism, is anything but traditional in dealing with the public function of religion. Soloveitchik views religion as a private affair. It occurs in the intimate relations between the I, the Thou, and the Eternal Thou. He consistently denies or deemphasizes the public or coercive role of Judaism and halakhah. Yet, Soloveitchik has trouble justifying his private religion with Jewish tradition and with the relatively expansive self-understanding of halakhah. This trouble is reflected in a number of contradictions about the nature and function of Judaism and halakhah, both in general and in the State of Israel.

Religion and Public Life in The Lonely Man of Faith

In Soloveitchik’s most important English language essay, The Lonely Man of Faith, he plays on the tensions between the two creation stories in the first two chapters of Genesis. He develops images of two typological Adams, Adam the first and Adam the second. Adam the first strives for majesty and dignity, which he,2 and his majestic community, achieve through technological and epistemological control over the environment. Adam the second, in contrast, struggles with his individuality and loneliness, finding intimate companionship in his covenantal relationship with Eve and with God. Every concrete individual contains both Adams, and the individual wrestles with these two competing personalities. The “Lonely Man of Faith” remains lonely due to a constant dialectical movement between two opposing states of mind, the two typological figures who reside within him. In presenting the two Adams, Soloveitchik struggles with the relationship of Adam the second’s private religion with Adam the first’s public culture. A close examination of the two Adams indicates that Adam the first represents the legitimization of secularized public space, while Adam the second represents a privatized religion.

Adam the first strives to create and control. His conquest of nature transforms him from a natural and miserable being to a dignified and majestic one. His epistemology is technologically oriented, and his personality is “overwhelmed by one quest, namely, to harness and dominate the elemental natural forces and to put them at his disposal….He is completely utilitarian as far as motivation, teleology, design, and methodology are concerned.”3 In addition to technology, Adam the first also develops an aesthetic and an ethic. He “fashions…beauty in his heart,”4 basking in his ability to conquer nature by making it attractive. His ethics is grounded not in a concern for right conduct as such, but in the aesthetic sense of the balanced and beautiful. Right conduct is orderly and beautiful, appropriate for Adam the first’s majestic and dignified tasks.5 Dignity depends on “an awareness of responsibility,” and Adam the first’s ability to “discharg[e]… responsibility cannot be realized as long as he has not gained mastery over the environment.”6 Hence, Adam the first needs laws and norms to further his majestic goals. Rules of proper conduct prevent the social and aesthetic chaos that might come without law and norm, and which would make Adam the first’s conquering task impossible.

Adam the first finds a social outlet for his dignified task in the functional “majestic community,” which comes together because “it is not good for man to work…alone.”7 There are pragmatic tasks which mankind can accomplish only through the cooperation of the many, so Adam the first recruits the assistance of his compatriots in furthering their shared “purely utilitarian and intrinsically egotistic”8 goals. In this context, Adam the first communicates with others, but his communication remains at the level of the “surface personality.”9 In fact, the entire experience of dignity is not inherent in the root personality, but is rather a shallow endeavor. Adam the first, together with his compatriots, forms a social and political society bent on the furthering of dignity and majesty, but unconcerned with intimate communication.

Thus far, there is nothing religious about Adam the first’s activities, and Soloveitchik even uses the term “secular” in one place to describe him.10 Yet, there are three areas in which Adam the first retains a relationship with God and religion: 1) the divine command to “fill the earth and subdue it,” 2) Adam the first’s cosmic confrontation with God, and 3) Adam the first’s relationship to organized religion in the “religious community.” In each case, Adam the first’s religion is voluntary and not integrated with his other conquering gestures.

First, God created man as a conquering being, and Adam the first’s conquest of nature fulfills the God-given task to “fill the earth and subdue it.”11 Yet, Adam the first need not be aware that he is fulfilling this command. The “atheist cosmonaut circling the earth” is also “replete with dignity.”12 Fulfillment of commandments, to borrow an expression of the Sages, does not require intention to do so
(????? ?????? ??? ????),13 and the secular majestic community can fulfill the divine command of “world conquest” without an awareness that it does so. Put differently, the divine command to behave as Adam the first transforms world conquest into religious activity at the axiological level, but not the sociological one. World conquest fulfills the divine command whether the perpetrator believes in God or not, whether it is done in the context of a religious tradition or not, whether the perpetrator retains any relationship to revelation or not. Furthermore, Adam the first’s method remains exclusively pragmatic, empirical, and rational, and there is no provision – at least in the main thrust of the essay – for a revealed religious law within Adam the first’s frame of reference.

Second, Adam the first is capable of direct religious experience. His interest in science and technology can lead to a “cosmic confrontation with God.”14 Adam the first may find God within the majesty of nature, but he finds only an impersonal God who “speaks” indirectly, “through his works.”15 Yet, Adam the first may just as easily do without this religious experience. “Majestic man, even when he belongs to the group of homines religiosi and feels a need for transcendental experiences, is gratified by his encounter with God within the framework of the cosmic drama.”16 Apparently, some majestic men do not have this experience. Further, this cosmic relationship to God cannot lead to revelation, as prophecy is an experience confined to the intimate religious experience of Adam the second’s covenantal community. Soloveitchik does not, therefore, describe any mechanism through which Adam the first’s religious experience will have any effect on his personal or social behavior. Majestic man’s social ethics derives from the need for order and the necessity for a strong society that will further the goal of dignified conquest. God is not necessary for this social ethics.

Third, majestic man may participate in an organized religious tradition, which occurs within the “religious community.”

I am speaking of Western man who belongs and extends help to some religious establishment….He belongs not to a covenantal faith community but to a religious community. The two communities are as far apart as the two Adams. While the covenantal faith community is governed…by a desire for a redeemed existence, the religious community is dedicated to the attainment of dignity and success and is – along with the whole gamut of communities such as the political, the scientific, the artistic – a creation of Adam the first….The religious community consist[s] of two grammatical personae not including the Third Person. [Majestic] man values religion in terms of its usefulness to him and considers the religious act a medium through which he may increase his happiness.17

The category of the “religious community” would present an opportunity for Soloveitchik to integrate some aspects of religion with pragmatic life in public society. He passes up this opportunity.

To begin with, Soloveitchik is ambiguous about the very legitimacy of the religious community. In one place he indicates that majestic man’s eudamonic approach to religion “is not completely wrong, if only…he would recognize also the non-pragmatic aspects of religion.”18 In another place, however, Soloveitchik explains that, “The Biblical account of the original sin is the story of a man of faith who realizes suddenly that faith can be utilized for an acquisition of majesty and glory and who, instead of fostering a covenantal community, prefers to organize a political utilitarian community….The history of organized religion is replete with instances of desecration of the covenant.”19 I will attempt to contextualize this contradiction shortly. For the moment, the suggestion that religion becomes illegitimate whenever it is integrated with human attempts to control the environment makes it almost impossible to elaborate on religion’s function as a social regulator.

Soloveitchik describes this marginally legitimate religious community as a fairly narrow affair. A member of the religious community “comes to places of worship. He attends lectures on religion and appreciates the ceremonial.”20 Soloveitchik also indicates that certain moments in the public prayer services involve the religious community.21 This may not be an exhaustive list of the activities available to members of the religious community, but Soloveitchik’s silence about issues of religious civil law, the commandment to appoint a king, the function of the Sanhedrin, and the like, commands attention. Soloveitchik does not deny that a religious community may also be involved in agriculture, economics, government, or the military. But Soloveitchik seems more concerned with a perceived insipidness of contemporary American congregational life than he is about an integrated religious culture. Soloveitchik passes up the opportunity to integrate the religious community with Adam the first’s broader concerns.

Adam the first, then, develops a full social and political life bent on conquest. Religious concerns exist, but are peripheral to society’s primary goals of conquest and majesty. Adam the second, in contrast, develops a very narrow social context, in which religious concerns are central, but are effectively confined to moments of intimate communication and compassion. Adam the second intuitively grasps and lives in close contact with God. His fascination with God leads him to desire not dignity but redemption: a sense of ontological validity and worth, founded on self-control in fulfillment of the divine will. Redemption, however, is not a state of the outward personality, as Adam the first’s dignity is. Rather, redemption is “experienced in the privacy of one’s in-depth personality,”22 and is not dependent on the presence or awareness of others. Adam the second emerges alone. His lone attempt to achieve a secure redemption “brings its own antithesis to the fore: the awareness of his exclusiveness and ontological incompatibility with any other being.”23 Adam the second develops an almost unbearable sense of loneliness, which he can only alleviate in the sacrifice he offers when God creates Adam’s helpmate, Eve. Adam the second alleviates his loneliness through in-depth intimate communication between himself, Eve, and God. These three figures make up the covenantal faith community, where “one lonely soul finds another soul tormented by loneliness and solitude yet unqualifiedly committed.”24 Man “meets God at a personal…level where he can be near Him and feel free in His presence.”25 The emphasis on the loneliness of the individual in the covenantal community and the intimate nature of the communication indicates that the covenantal faith community is quite small and limited. Adam the second’s social life is confined to narrow and private moments: prayer, prophecy, and intimate interpersonal communication. Adam the second represents a private and personal religious experience.

What, then, is the relationship between the two Adams who reside in man, between private religion and public culture? In the main thrust of the essay, Soloveitchik emphasizes the mutual incompatibility of the two figures. The “views” of Adam the first and Adam the second “are not commensurate; their methods are different, their modes of thinking, distinct, the categories in which they interpret themselves and their environment, incongruous.”26 Hence, the individual remains permanently lonely because of an either/or dichotomy, in which he is thrust from one typological mode of being to the other, with no apparent middle ground between the two experiences. The individual can never completely overcome his loneliness. He can relieve his loneliness in the intimacy of the covenantal community for short times, but he cannot remain permanently within the comforting confines of religious intimacy. The God who reveals Himself as friend, confidant, and comforter in the faith community regularly turns His back on man, thrusting man violently back into the majestic community, where man concerns himself with surface material needs. The individual remains ever lonely, unable to find permanent comfort and tranquility in either of the two communities.

Man, then, exists in one or the other community at any given moment. Soloveitchik uses language like, “steady oscillating between the majestic natural community and the covenantal faith community”; “continuous movement between the pole of natural majesty and that of covenantal humility”; “man is thrown” from one community to the other, “suddenly find[ing] himself” in the other community.27

God, in His inscrutable wisdom, has decreed [that] man discovers his loneliness in the covenantal community, and before he is given a chance to climb up to the high level of a complete covenantal revealed existence…man of faith is pushed into a new community where he is told to lead an expanded surface existence….Because of this onward movement from center to center, man does not feel at home in any community. He is commanded to move on before he manages to strike roots in either of these communities.28

Soloveitchik describes a concrete individual who remains permanently lonely because he is unable to integrate his private religious experience with his life in public irreligious culture.

Soloveitchik’s description of the relationship between the majestic and covenantal experiences bears the imprint of a modern reality in which public a-religious society confines religion to relatively narrow spheres of concern. Soloveitchik, however, considers the dialectical movement between the two Adams as a universal phenomenon, dominating the entire history of mankind’s struggle with God, loneliness, and faith. Contemporary secular culture, according to Soloveitchik, creates an additional loneliness, above and beyond the universal human loneliness. The “functional, utilitarian society, which is saeculum-oriented,”29 defies the divine will by expending all of its resources on majesty and conquest, refusing to acknowledge the legitimate place of religious intimacy. In the past, Adam the first at least admitted the existence of the transcendent redeemed experience, though he could not fully understand it. Today, secular man adopts a “demonic image.”30 “Contemporary Adam the first…tries to deny the undeniable, that another Adam exists beside or, rather, in him.”31 The modern man of faith is lonelier than the universal man of faith because he cannot find a place for himself in the contemporary culture which denies the validity of the dialectical religious life.

The claim that private religion and public society are universally separate raises a series of difficulties, particularly in the second half of Lonely Man. In part, problems inevitably ensue whenever ideal types are applied to concrete situations. Ideal types are designed to illuminate and clarify certain aspects of a more complex reality, without hoping to exhaustively explain any individual contingency. Yet, Soloveitchik confounds the problem, because he speaks of the relationship between the typologies only in further typological terms. He does not try to relate the typologies to the complexities and ambiguities of changing reality. Still, it remains necessary to think Soloveitchik’s typologies through to the end, and to examine the problems that are created when these ideal types are brought to bear on ambiguous reality. Soloveitchik works to justify his compartmentalized man with (at least) two considerations: The first involves traditional Jewish sources which assume a fair measure of integration between religion and culture. This problem is aggravated by Soloveitchik’s Brisker Talmud tradition, which assumes that halakhah is capable of relating to every element of reality and every conceivable state of affairs. The second consideration relates to the concrete lives of individuals and societies, both now and even more so in the past, for whom private religion and public society were more integrated than the implications of his typological models. There are certain human behaviors that simply do not fit neatly into either of the two typological modes of being, activities that lie in between the two poles or combine aspects of both.

For example, Soloveitchik describes communication between Adam the second and Adam the first. A careful analysis indicates that the communication itself begins to break down the distinction between covenant and majesty. It implies the presence of a real human being who exists neither in the mode of Adam the first nor Adam the second. Majestic man, in his untiring effort to conquer the universe through understanding it, creates for himself a secular epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics. Yet, his secular philosophy is ultimately inadequate on its own; he requires the assistance of Adam the second. “Certain aspects of the doctrinal and normative covenantal kerygma of faith [of Adam the second] are of utmost importance to majestic man, and are, in a paradoxical way, translatable into the latter’s vernacular.”32 Adam the second has been “endowed” by God with the “skill of converting some of his apocalyptic experience – which are meta-logical and nonhedonic – into a system of values and verities comprehensible to majestic man.”33 This translation grounds Adam the first’s philosophical categories in the Absolute, granting permanence and stability to Adam the first’s epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics.34

Yet, a typologically pure Adam the first and Adam the second could never participate in such a translation. We have already noted that the ability to communicate functional information was defined entirely within the purview of Adam the first.35 In contrast, Adam the second’s communication was described as intimate communion, often wordless.36 The very attempt at translation into the functional categories of Adam the first contradicts Adam the second’s typological mode of communication. How could Adam the second verbally formulate his intimate experience into functional language without thrusting himself out of an intimate covenantal mode of being? In order to make sense of communication between the two Adams we must posit a concrete individual, who follows neither a majestic nor a covenantal pattern, but stands above the two Adams and can recall and reflect on the experiences of both. The essay itself makes no provision for this concrete individual.

Soloveitchik also struggles to explain halakhah, the origin of which is prophetic and covenantal, but which also deals with “laws of kings and political administration, with sociological questions, like the state, [and] society.”37 This tension drives Soloveitchik into an inconsistent attempt to modify the either/or relationship between Adam the first and Adam the second. Revelation and prophecy are covenantal experiences. Yet, the prophet is commanded to communicate God’s command to the people. “In short, God’s word is ipso facto God’s law and norm.”38 Yet, once Soloveitchik has raised these normative, ethical, and legal-halakhic aspects of Adam the second’s private prophecy, he must deal with the way in which law affects the public, political, and communal life of the entire people. The content of the revealed norms, i.e., halakhah, as understood by Soloveitchik, relates to every aspect of social and communal life, blurring the sharp boundaries between Adam the first and Adam the second. In his attempt to deal with this tension, Soloveitchik contradicts himself in two consecutive passages.

In the first passage, halakhah enters both the majestic and the covenantal communities, while those communities remain separate.

When man gives himself to the covenantal community the halakhah reminds him that he is also wanted and needed in another community, the cosmic majestic, and when it comes across man while he is involved in the creative enterprise of the majestic community, it does not let him forget that he is a covenantal being who will never find fulfillment outside of the covenant and that God awaits his return to the covenantal community.39

According to this passage, halakhah serves to maintain the balance between Adam the first and Adam the second. An individual cannot lose himself entirely in the experience of one or the other Adam, as modern Adam the first has done, for halakhah will not allow it. God reveals halakhah to man in the covenantal community of prophecy. Yet, the self-same halakhah “commands him to return to the majestic community, which…builds, plants, harvests, regulates rivers, heals the sick, [and] participates in state affairs.”40 When man leaves to tackle these endeavors, he cannot ignore the call of the covenant, which insists that he later return to the intimate community of prayer. halakhah eases the otherwise jarring shock of being pushed away from the covenantal community by preparing for it beforehand. Here, halakhah serves as a reminder to one Adam that the other Adam exists.

This passage maintains the sharply drawn boundaries between the two communities, complimenting Soloveitchik’s either/or description of the relationship between majesty and covenant. It suggests a means for understanding the role halakhah plays within a society bifurcated into a secular public realm and an intimate religious one. Soloveitchik makes no attempt here to integrate halakhah into the worldview of either Adam the first or Adam the second, nor to integrate the two communities. Halakhah responds to modern man’s tendency to deny the reality of the covenantal religious experience, by reminding the committed Jew of his covenantal obligations.

Yet, in the very next paragraph, Soloveitchik undermines the distinction between Adam the first and Adam the second.

The Halakhah considered the steady oscillating of the man of faith between majesty and covenant not as a dialectical, but rather as a complementary movement….The Halakhah has a monistic approach to reality and has unreservedly rejected any kind of dualism. The Halakhah believes that there is only one world – not devisable into secular and hallowed sectors….Accordingly, the task of covenantal man is to be engaged not in dialectical surging forward and retreating, but in uniting the two communities into one community where man is both the creating free agent, and the obedient servant of God.41

This unification of the two Adams contradicts the main body of the essay, where the oscillation between the two figures is an indispensable part of the universal human condition. The contradiction derives from Soloveitchik’s discomfort with the notion of private religion distinct from and unrelated to larger society. Traditional Judaism and the halakhic system, which strives to sanctify broad aspects of life, do not distinguish neatly between private religion and public society. On its own terms, halakhah cannot accept the radical differentiation of society represented by the distinction between Adam the first and Adam the second, which Soloveitchik had presented as universal. Soloveitchik’s first passage does not do justice to halakhah on its own terms, which forces him to include the second passage, despite the contradiction with the rest of the essay.42

The contradiction about the nature of halakhah helps contextualize the contradiction regarding the legitimacy of the religious community. On the one hand, the use of God to satisfy human needs violates the mutuality of the relationship between Adam the second and the Eternal Thou. That violation must be illegitimate. On the other hand, religion has always been intertwined with human attempts to live adequate material and social lives, and halakhah mandates participation in religious acts which serve human needs. The overwhelming majority of the religious behavior performed by self-declared religious people in the context of historical religious institutions simply does not qualify as adequately religious by the strict standards of the covenantal community.

Put differently, the notion that religion either involves the presence of God or merely satisfies human needs does not do justice to the complexities of concrete religious behavior. Organized religion may belong to both the covenantal community and the majestic one at the same time. Just because organized religion includes human attempts to improve life does not mean that that is its exclusive concern. Take the example of a Jewish farmer who chooses to work his fields in the Land of Israel, in order to obligate himself in the laws unique to the land. He harvests his field, but leaves for the poor the stalks of wheat that he drops, as the law demands. Is he Adam the first or Adam the second? He is clearly behaving as Adam the first, harvesting his field in order to be able to eat, live, and thrive. Yet, he does not match the typological Adam the first, because the Land of Israel is not necessarily the most fertile land, limiting his world conquest. Further, leaving his wheat in the field is hardly the selfish and utilitarian act we would expect from Adam the first. Nor is it an act of majestic ethics, one grounded in Adam the first’s need to live in a pleasant, stable, and balanced society, because the source of the command is not an abstract philosophical ethics but the prophetically revealed command of God. Nor is this farmer a typologically pure Adam the second, for he is primarily concerned with earning his bread and working his land. Reaping the wheat and leaving stalks on the ground are not the kind of activities that allow for intimate communication between the individual and God. In truth, our farmer is neither Adam the first nor Adam the second, but aspects of both at the same time.

Similar problems arise in the discussion of prayer in Lonely Man. Prayer, defined by Soloveitchik as “an awareness of man finding himself in the presence of and addressing himself to his Maker,”43 is exclusively an activity of Adam the second. Only covenantal man searches out the intimate presence of God, and only he is capable of finding, and being comforted by, that Presence. Hence, prayer “transcends the bounds of liturgical worship.” One may recite the words in the prayer book without genuinely praying, either because the person does not sense God’s immediate presence, or because the prescribed texts do not address God in the second person. For example, a “song of praise and thanksgiving [and] ecstatic adoration, even if expressed in a hymn,”44 and even if demanded by halakhah, are relegated to the pragmatic realm of Adam the first. “Prayer…may appeal to majestic man as the most uplifting, integrating, and purifying act, arousing the finest and noblest emotions. Yet these characteristics, however essential to Adam the first, are of marginal interest to Adam the second who experiences prayer as the awesome confrontation of God and man.”45

Soloveitchik is so concerned with maintaining the purity of Adam the second’s encounter with God that he insists that all prayer which does not address God in the second person, or which is recited without the proper psychological awareness of God’s presence, is not genuine prayer. This, however, does not allow for the possibility that the same prayer experience may serve both functions at the same time. When concrete people pray there may be some mixture between the social or psychological need which prayer serves and the intimate presence of God (even if we assume that a significant portion of praying people ever experience God’s presence). The Shemonah ‘Esreh prayer, which addresses God as the second person Thou, may also contribute to the individual’s sense of social belonging and may “arouse” some of the same majestic “noble…emotions.” The strict boundaries between Adam the first and Adam the second seem difficult to maintain for real people in their concrete socio-religious lives.

In real life, human social interactions often fall between these two poles, between functional, impersonal, bureaucratic conquest and small, mutual, intimate covenant. People go to work, where they may develop genuine and intimate friendships with their co-workers, relationships that integrate their work lives with their personal lives. The intimate communication between husband and wife, even in families where God’s presence is palpably felt, also inevitably contains elements of distrust, inequality, and the using of the partner as a means.46 Where would small town life fall in the open space between Adam the first and Adam the second? How would we evaluate a fund-raising dinner held by a synagogue honoring its cherished and beloved rabbi? Concrete social experience combines aspects of teleological pragmatism with people’s genuine concern for one another and for God.

In contrast to Soloveitchik’s typological style, examine the approach of Protestant realism, typified by Soloveitchik’s contemporaries, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, and Judaized by Abraham Joshua Heschel.47 These realists emphasize that religion is not an either/or proposition, either wholly concerned with selfish power, or genuinely concerned with God and spirit. Instead, proper religion balances legitimate concern for individual and institutional well-being with ultimate concerns of faith and godliness. Concrete religious people and institutions contain aspects of both covenant and majesty at the same time. They fall somewhere between the two poles, and, with greater or lesser success, try to balance the contradictory concerns of pragmatics and faith. Soloveitchik, with his sharp distinction between covenant and majesty, cannot as easily describe things in this light.

Consequently, Soloveitchik says almost nothing in his writings about concrete Jewish communal life, issues so central to American Jews (particularly Orthodox ones), and to the American religious thought of Mordecai Kaplan, for example. In an essay entitled “The Community,” where we might expect reflection on the public sociological function of religion, Soloveitchik deals almost exclusively with small intimate relations: man and wife, student and rebbe, intimate friendship. In this essay, and throughout his writings, Soloveitchik says almost nothing about the institutional structure or political organization of the community, or about human interaction that lies in between intimate communication and impersonal bureaucracy.48 For Soloveitchik, communities are created by “the word,” when the “lonely man…recognize[s] another existence.”49 By “recognition” Soloveitchik does not mean a simple awareness of the presence of other people, but rather an acknowledgment of the other as an autonomous subject. The community described here is intimate, “a community of common pain, of common suffering,” in which the individual moves from “existential exclusiveness to existential all-inclusiveness.”50 There is little or no room in this community for dishonesty, selfishness, or simple indifference, even though they exist in every living community and every human relationship. Soloveitchik does acknowledge that real human interactions are sometimes not as intimate and mutual as his ideal vision. “Alienation” is inevitable, even in the most emotionally satisfying relationships.51 Yet, he sees these moments of existential alienation not as inescapable weaknesses in established communities, but rather as temporary destructions of the community. When the loving but exhausted mother gets angry at her husband who does not wake at 2 a.m. to comfort their crying baby, Soloveitchik considers this a temporary “rebellion against the institution of [the] marriage” community. (It is the wife, not the husband, who is rebelling!)52 Further, when he does deal with larger collectives, like “the Jewish community” as a whole, he idealizes and spiritualizes it. “Kenesset Yisrael” is not a “conglomerate” of individual Jews who live historical lives, but rather “an autonomous entity, endowed with a life of its own…a distinct juridic metaphysical person.”53

The Intellectualization of Halakhah in Halakhic Man

Soloveitchik also struggles with the privatization of halakhah in Halakhic Man, a work which deals more explicitly with the philosophy of halakhah.54 In this work, Soloveitchik develops a theory which incorporates the distinction between the public secular world and the private religious one, while arguing for halakhah‘s theoretical relevance to all areas of society. In Halakhic Man, Soloveitchik distinguishes between two typological figures, cognitive man and homo religiosus. Cognitive man, the scientist, sets out to unravel the secrets of the universe by comprehending it in terms of predictable laws. He operates like a mathematician, first creating an ideal, a priori mathematical model, and only then determining whether empirical reality matches that model. His world contains no mysteries and no secrets, and he is not at all interested in the realm of the transcendent, the world of noumena, which is not subject to his perception and understanding. In contrast, the mystic homo religiosus longs for the transcendent. For homo religiosus, the lawful order which cognitive man describes points to greater mysteries, and intimates a world beyond perception. Homo religious‘s greatest desire is to escape from the bonds of concrete reality into the world of the transcendent.55 Soloveitchik models halakhic man, the hero of the essay, after cognitive man. Halakhic man uses a mathematical scientific model, and is uninterested in a transcendent world he cannot perceive. Halakhah, like mathematics, is an a priori, ideal, interrelated system of concepts which halakhic man studies.56 Halakhic man then examines reality to determine if his halakhic categories correlate to concrete existence.

Halakhah, by the definition in Halakhic Man, is not primarily concerned with behavioral norms in the regular sense of the term “law.” Rather, halakhah is defined as a cognitive and epistemological system, a structure of categories which may or may not conceptually correspond to material reality. “When many halakhic concepts do not correspond with the phenomena of the real world, halakhic man is not at all distressed. His deepest desire is not the realization of the Halakhah but rather the ideal construction…and this construction exists forever.”57 Implementation of halakhah is secondary to the cognitive act. “The norm is, at the outset, ideal, not real. Halakhic man is not particularly concerned about the possibly of actualizing the norm in the concrete world.”58 Once these halakhic categories have been defined, then halakhah can relate to any worldly occurrence. “There is no real phenomenon to which halakhic man does not possess a fixed relationship….Halakhah has a fixed a priori relationship to the whole of reality.”59 He begins to solve the problem that he could not solve in Lonely Man by insisting that halakhah really does relate, at least theoretically, to every possible phenomenon.

At the same time, Soloveitchik is not imposing religion on public life. Epistemologically, halakhah does not claim to be the only way of cognizing reality. In The Halakhic Mind, a book that in many ways describes the epistemological foundations of Halakhic Man, Soloveitchik argues for epistemological pluralism, claiming that there may be numerous methods of understanding the universe, all of them acceptable. Cognitive man’s mathematical sciences and halakhah are both valid, but they are certainly not the only means of acquiring knowledge.60 This allows the possibility that public life will be understood and regulated in categories vastly different from those of halakhah. Furthermore, Soloveitchik precludes the possibility of concrete conflict between halakhic norms and other norms. Halakhic man is not the activist type. He does not “reflect at all concerning the clash of the real and the ideal, the opposition which exists between the theoretical Halakhah and the actual deed, between law and life. He goes his own way and does not kick against his lot and fate.”61 He will not expend his energies attempting to build the Temple, reinstitute sacrificial service, or impose Jewish civil law on disinterested secular legal systems, for these tangible contingencies concern him considerably less than his theoretical cognitive constructs. By defining halakhah in terms of a cognitive structure, Soloveitchik effectively confines halakhah to the private sphere of the beit midrash, the study hall.62

Furthermore, Soloveitchik generally denies to halakhah any coercive power to enforce itself. The only power halakhah has exists due to the intimate rebbe-talmid (teacher-student) relationship, which involves no coercion on either side, and maintains the student’s autonomy. The student may choose to allow the rebbe unbounded authority, but this remains the student’s decision, and the rebbe may never enforce his decision. Despite the dominant Jewish tradition, which viewed Moses, at least in part, as a formal political leader, Soloveitchik grounds Moses’ authority in Israel’s collective acceptance of his charismatic authority.63

In short, in Halakhic Man, Soloveitchik presents halakhah in terms much different from those associated with a normative and functioning legal system. The parallel between the mathematician and the halakhist allows Soloveitchik to present the halakhist as a figure whose intellectual refinement and cognitive achievements are as valid and sophisticated as the most advanced of contemporary scientists. This parallel also forces him to draw conclusions which deemphasize the obvious ethical and non-mathematical elements in halakhah, aspects of halakhah which are concerned with the legal function of Jewish ritual and society. Obviously, however, Soloveitchik cannot do away entirely with these legal aspects of halakhah, which, as in Lonely Man, lead to tensions later in the essay. While discussing halakhic man’s concern with social justice, Soloveitchik contradicts passages from earlier in the essay. Previously he had stated, “His deepest desire is not the realization of the Halakhah, but rather the ideal [cognitive] construction.”64 Later, however, Soloveitchik changes tone. “Halakhic man’s most fervent desire is…the realization of the a priori, ideal creation in concrete life.”65 The “implementation is his ultimate desire, his fondest dream.”66 Early in the essay, the religious hero is effectively confined to the study hall. Late in the essay we are told that, “The synagogue does not occupy a central place in Judaism.” Rather, “[t]he marketplace, the street, the factory, the house, the meeting place, the banquet hall, all constitute the backdrop for the religious life.”67

The context helps clarify the contradiction. Soloveitchik stresses realization of halakhah when discussing halakhic man’s uncompromising care “to redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor.” “He looks about and sees, listens and hears, and publicly protests against the oppression of the helpless, the defrauding of the poor, the plight of the orphan.”68 In this passage, Soloveitchik explains that by applying the principles of halakhic civil law equally to the poor and the rich, the weak and the powerful, halakhic man guarantees social justice and equality. In this context, Soloveitchik attacks liberal Judaism for what he perceives as its tendency to confine religion to the temple, and to exclude it from the “broad arena of Jewish life,” by which he apparently means civil and communal affairs.69

As in Lonely Man, Soloveitchik is caught between the private implications of his presentation of halakhah, and his argument that halakhah addresses every aspect of public and private life. Additionally, Soloveitchik is uncomfortable with a potential ethical critique of halakhic man. Soloveitchik had criticized homo religiosus for degenerating into a-ethical, or anti-ethical, selfishness. He censures any religion which confines itself to the elite. “Any religion that confines itself to some remote corner of society, to an elite sect or fashion, will give rise to destructive consequences that far outweigh any punitive gains.”70 However, halakhic man, when confined to the beit midrash, could be accused of the same isolationism. The only true halakhic men must be members of the intellectual elite. They must have acquired vast and deep knowledge of the Talmud and its traditional commentaries, particularly when understood using the abstract Brisker method of analysis, of which Soloveitchik was perhaps the world’s leading expert. As Soloveitchik indicates in another context, “The realization of halakhah through the depth and breath of Torah study is given only to the elite.”71 In the later sections of the essay, Soloveitchik defends himself from an ethical critique of his theory by emphasizing its public ethical role and its concern for everybody.

Ta’amei HaMitzvot and Halakhic Mind

Soloveitchik’s discussion of ta’amei hamitzvot in The Halakhic Mind continues the tendency to deemphasize the pragmatic function of halakhah as a legal system. Halakhic Mind develops at length the notion of epistemological pluralism, in which different disciplines are concerned with different aspects of reality, ask different questions, and make radically different assumptions about how the universe functions and how knowledge works. At the same time, each discipline is legitimate, using its own carefully defined method to arrive at its conclusions. This argument sets the stage for differentiation of religion from other concerns. Religion is but one of the numerous legitimate methods of examining the cosmos, and, almost by definition, is no longer related directly to the material or social sciences, or even other humanistic disciplines.

Religion, according to Halakhic Mind, involves the subjective and unquantifiable religious experience, and cannot be understood by anybody except the experiencing subject. Yet, subjective experiences are inevitably objectified in the actions, speech, and writings of religious men and communities. Echoing Dilthey, Soloveitchik argues that the philosopher of religion examines the external objectifications of a subjective consciousness, and attempts to reconstruct from them what the subjective experience must be. Works of religious philosophy, ethical norms, dogmatic statements, and ritual behavior all serve as the raw material for the philosopher of religion in his reconstructive cognitive act. Based on this analysis, halakhah becomes the ideal objectification of the Jew’s subjective religious experience. By reconstructing the subjective experience based on its halakhic-correlated objectification, the student of halakhah can determine the ideal, genuine content of Jewish religion. Soloveitchik implies strongly that the observant Jew should attempt to experience that subjectivity in the act of performing the mitzvot.

This becomes a self-conscious departure from the long-standing medieval tradition, which views ta’amei hamitzvot as a search for the “final cause” of the commandments: the educational, personal, social, economic, political, or historical goals which observance can help further.72 If, as Soloveitchik argues, halakhah is an autonomous, a priori cognitive system, categorically distinct from other disciplines, it can only be explored through the matrix of its own categories. Any attempt to identify a function of halakhah beyond halakhah itself violates the autonomy of the halakhic system, and enters the realm of history, politics, or education. Soloveitchik sees the essence of halakhic not in what halakhah leads to, but in what within the individual leads to halakhah. In a more popular essay Soloveitchik rejects the attempt to ask “how” questions about halakhah, i.e., “how they [mitzvot] function effectively.”73 When we ask questions of the wrong kind, “Religion no longer operates with unique autonomous norms, but with technical rules, the employment of which would culminate in the attainment of some extraneous maximum bonum.”74 Soloveitchik’s method places the individual’s subjective experience at the center of religion, an attitude appropriate to a private religion. Consequently, Soloveitchik disallows any method which tries to identify the function of the mitzvah, like the medieval tradition in explaining mitzvot or Mordecai Kaplan’s concern with “functional equivalency.”75

Maimonides’ discussion of mitzvot in the Guide is subject to Soloveitchik’s most biting criticism, though Soloveitchik may be using Maimonides as a way of criticizing broader trends in medieval Jewish approaches to the commandments. He accuses Maimonides of a “religious ‘instrumentalism,'” because of his teleological emphasis on Aristotle’s “final cause” in explaining the commandments. “Jewish religion,” according to Soloveitchik, “was converted into technical wisdom, [which] explains” religion “through the existence of an alien factor.” For example, if we explain the prohibition of perjury, “because it is contrary to the norm of truth,” we make “religion the handmaiden of ethics,” and leave the autonomous methodology of religious philosophy. Similarly, “if the Sabbath is to be seen only against the background of mundane social justice and similar ideals, the intrinsic quality of the Sabbath is transformed into something alien.”76 Presumably, we can say the same thing about public law as well. If, for example, we explain the prohibition of perjury as necessary to maintain an effective judicial system, then we have also left the realm of religion and entered the realm of politics. If we explain the laws relating to government as a strategy for keeping a stable society, we have made the same error. Soloveitchik rejects the medieval tradition of ta’amei hamitzvot, which sees commandments as contributing, at least in part, to the public order.77

Soloveitchik has not published the necessary sequel to The Halakhic Mind, namely, a work which will describe the subjective correlates of questionable laws. Even if he has done so in areas relating to teshuvah, prayer, mourning, and the like, a systematic study of other, less apparent, mitzvot would make the task of understanding the subjective correlate of public-sphere mitzvot considerably easier. This leaves us with more questions than answers. What is the subjective correlate of Maimonides’ “Laws of Kings and Their Wars”? Might the subjective correlate involve halakhic man’s longing for social justice and righteousness, associated with metaphysical ideas like imatatio Dei ? Or does this lean too far into concepts external to religion itself ? An analysis of these questions may run Soloveitchik into some of the same kinds of tensions and contradictions that characterize Lonely Man‘s and Halakhic Man‘s attempts to address those aspects of halakhah which work as a functioning legal system.

Private Religion in the Pluralistic Societies of America and Israel

Lonely Man, Halakhic Man, and Halakhic Mind are abstract and theoretical works. Soloveitchik’s writings about more concrete social situations also reflect a similar tension between his commitment to private religion and his commitment to universal human values in the public sphere. Following the Second Vatican Council and a wave of American interest in interfaith dialogue, Soloveitchik was asked about the permissibility and desirability of conversation and cooperation between Orthodox Jews and other religious groups. The result was the essay “Confrontation,” and a policy statement on the issue of interfaith dialogue, written by Soloveitchik and adopted by the Rabbinical Council of America.78 This essay addresses the issue of interfaith dialogue within the context of a more programmatic statement on the relationship of religion to public social issues.

He begins “Confrontation” with a three-part typological analysis of the first chapters of Genesis. The unconfronted man lives a hedonistic aesthetic life, unselfconsciously dedicated to the satisfaction of his immediate wants and needs. The single confrontation man becomes self-consciously aware of the gap which separates him from the natural world. He is confronted with the cosmos as an object, and is able to conquer nature through technology and knowledge. His ability to manipulate and make use of nature allows him to fulfill the ethical tasks which God and his conscience impose on him. Finally, there is the dually confronted man, who is involved not only in the technological and ethical confrontation with the universe, but is also confronted with other individuals as subjects, with whom he is capable of intimate, albeit imperfect, communication.

Jews, according to Soloveitchik, are involved in this dual confrontation, yet they can share only the single confrontation with gentile humanity. They can join others in the shared confrontation with the world as object. “We cooperate with the members of other faith communities in all fields of constructive human endeavor.”79 But Jews cannot join other faith communities as equal subjects in intimate communication.

The word in which the multifarious religious experience is expressed does not lend itself to standardization or universalization. The word of faith reflects the intimate, the private, the paradoxically inexpressible cravings of the individual for and his linking up with his Maker….The numinous character and the strangeness of the act of faith of a particular community…is totally incomprehensible to the man of a different faith community. Hence, it is important that religious or theological logos should not be employed as the medium of communication between two faith communities.80

Soloveitchik draws the practical policy consequences from this theory. “The relationship between two [religious] communities must be outer-directed and related to the secular orders….In the secular sphere, we may discuss positions to be taken, ideas to be evolved and plans to be formulated.”81 Hence, Jews should cooperate with gentile religious groups on issues such as “War and Peace, Poverty, Freedom, Man’s Moral Values, The Threat of Secularism, Technology and Human Values, Civil Rights, etc.”82 Still, areas of religious experience, dogmatic commitment, and eschatological expectation are incommunicable, and must be left out of the debate. Soloveitchik concludes that, “We would deem it improper to enter into dialogues on such topics as: Judaic monotheism and the Christian idea of Trinity; the Messianic idea in Judaism and Christianity; the Jewish attitude on Jesus; the concept of Covenant in Judaism and Christianity,”83 as well as other issues which depend on the exclusivity of individual historical religious groups.

Typical of pluralistic environments, Soloveitchik’s public sphere includes references to categories, terms, and values only as long as they are shared by a consensus of all groups, allowing the participation of each and every group. This requires each particularistic religion to reduce itself to a shared common denominator. Jews, Christians, and Muslims may join hands about those issues in which consensus prevails, on condition that they disregard distinctive and particularistic religious commitments. Hence, the fight against poverty will be conducted on an a-religious level, even when it is religious groups and individuals that are involved. While the Orthodox Jew is exempt from the unpleasant need to compare his particularistic religious vision with that of his Christian compatriots, the Jew is also prohibited from introducing Jewish sources, halakhah, or Jewish dogma into the shared public square. The pluralistic contemporary reality pushes Soloveitchik to accept a secularization of the public square. Cooperation between the different groups eliminates the particularism of each group, at least in public.

This secularization of the public space is modified slightly in two passages: first, in a tension between the body of “Confrontation” and a footnote. In the body of the text, Soloveitchik explains that “Our [Jews’ and Christians’] common interests lie not in the realm of faith, but in that of the secular orders.”84 He qualifies the statement in a footnote. “The term ‘secular orders’ is used here in accordance with its popular semantics. For the man of faith, this term is a misnomer. God claims the whole, not a part of man.”85 In part, this claim is reminiscent of Lonely Man‘s argument that God requires man to behave as Adam the first. Just as God commands Adam the first to conquer the world without reference to any particularly religious tradition or dogma, similarly, the Jew involved in interfaith cooperation fulfils God’s will in working for the public good, despite the fact that he does so without reference to his particularistic Jewish beliefs. The public space is axiologically religious but sociologically secular.

Second, the last paragraph of the policy statement qualifies the secularization of the public space, although this particular sentiment is absent from the longer essay.86 The interfaith efforts in the public space are not entirely devoid of a religious tone. Speaking of both “Jewish rabbis and Christian clergymen,” Soloveitchik indicates that, “As men of God, our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and terminology bear the imprint of a religious world outlook…which quite often is incomprehensible to the secularist….Even our dialogue at a socio-humanitarian level must inevitably be grounded in universal religious categories and values.”87 The public space retains an atmosphere of abstract religion-in-general, an atmosphere deemed acceptable by respectable public discourse in mid-century America. Mainstream American culture placed a premium on denominational religious affiliation, but did not much care which of the mainstream denominations people were affiliated with. Soloveitchik’s public space, here, is only partially secularized.

This raises questions about the participation of self-declared secular groups in Soloveitchik’s public culture. What would happen if a secular humanist group, which feels committed to the “single confrontation” philosophy, would want to contribute its resources to the fight against poverty? Soloveitchik would certainly accept the offer of assistance. Would he then have to remove references even to “universal religious categories,” which would be incommunicable to members of that group?

This very situation arises in Soloveitchik’s discussion of Orthodox cooperation with secular groups in Israel, and with the state itself. Soloveitchik understands that there is no consensus in Israel about an abstract religion-in-general in the public space. The Israeli establishment is presented by Soloveitchik as “non-religious…secular sceptical [and] agnostic.”88 Still, even regarding secular Israel, Soloveitchik presents a very similar distinction between universal ethical concerns and personal incommunicable religious concerns. Orthodox Jews should participate fully with secular Israelis regarding the former, but must go their own way regarding the latter.

This tension is expressed, according to Soloveitchik’s homily, in Abraham’s statement to the children of Het, from whom Abraham purchased the Cave of Mahpelah:

“I am a stranger and a resident with you.” I am a resident, I am one of you….I take full part in your social-economic institutions. I even serve in the armed forces and am ready to defend the country should it be attacked by an enemy. I work with you in the laboratories, endeavor to overcome illness; I produce and develop the country, I am a resident in the fullest sense of the word. But at the same time I am also a stranger….I belong to a particular world, one that is completely foreign to you. It is a world in which I am one with the Creator. It is a world populated by characters unknown to you, with a tradition that you do not understand, with spiritual values that seem so impractical in your eyes….You live differently, pray differently. Your conception of charity is different from ours, your days of rest are so different from ours, and so on.89

Consequently, religious and secular Jews cannot properly communicate about issues of Judaism and religion, just as Jews in America are unable to communicate their religious experience to gentiles. “An endless distance separates the outlook of Chaim Weizman and secular leaders from my outlook. I cannot understand their viewpoint.”90

Yet, there remains a critical difference between Soloveitchik’s vision of a secular public life in his writings on Israel when compared to his more general writings. In “Confrontation” and in the main argument of Lonely Man, works without specific reference to the State of Israel, he is satisfied with the secularization of public life. In Five Addresses and “Qol Dodi Dofeq” he sees it as tragic that there exists a secular establishment, and that religious Jews must limit their religious vision to the private sphere. Soloveitchik would like to religionize the public space in Israel, and he has two methods for doing so.

First, he identifies implicitly religious motivations and accomplishments among self-proclaimed secular Israelis. In an argument common among religious Zionist thinkers, Soloveitchik explains that the accomplishments of secular Zionists are not as secular as they would believe. “The more the secular Jew proclaims that he has no relationship to sanctity, the more he feels in his innermost recesses of his heart that he has given false testimony about himself.”91 As the secular Zionist works to build up the physical Land of Israel, he “unwittingly” fulfills the “commandment of searching after God ‘with all your heart and with all your soul.'”92

This theme receives less emphasis than the more important second claim, that religious Zionism would like to bring more explicit religious themes into the Israeli public square, even to the point of implying a desire for a theocratic government.93 He proclaims a new fourteenth article of the Jewish faith: that Torah can and should relate to every aspect of life.94 “The Torah was given [both] for realization in the simple society…of the ghetto where…the environment was saturated with Judaism, the street being the extension of the home; and in modern, developed society…in which the Jew is an integral part of his environment, which has no connection with his private domain.”95 He understands that the Jewish response to the secularization of the public space in the diaspora will differ from the response in the State of Israel. “The Torah is given for realization both in galuth, where it relates to the private life of the individual, and in the Jewish State, where it must deal with new problems and embrace forms of public life.”96 Soloveitchik does not develop this into a concrete constitution for a halakhic state, nor a systematic theory of the interrelationship of religion with politics and public life. He did not publish any teshuvot, or other purely halakhic essays, about political behavior in the ideal Jewish state. Still, he struggles to explain in conceptual terms what kind of state he would like.

In “Qol Dodi Dofeq,” Soloveitchik distinguishes between two levels of Jewish national existence: the covenant of fate, and the covenant of destiny. The covenant of fate involves a passive nation, held together by joint fear of enemies, and a desire to survive and thrive despite the threats. The covenant of destiny involves an active national commitment to a shared spiritual vision, the vision of God and Torah. Soloveitchik criticizes contemporary secular Zionists, who, he claims, reduce Judaism to a covenant of fate, seeing the State of Israel only as a means of combating or eliminating anti-Semitism.

The error of secular Zionism is more serious than simply not understanding the true meaning of the covenant [of fate]…which takes the form of shared fate and involuntary isolation. Secular Zionism has sinned as well against the covenant [of destiny]….The mission of the State of Israel is neither the termination of the unique isolation of the Jewish people nor the abrogation of its unique fate – in this it will not succeed! – but the elevation of a camp-people [the covenant of fate] to the rank of a holy congregation-nation and the transformation of shared fate to shared destiny.97

Consequently, in his lectures at the national conventions of the Mizrahi religious Zionist political party, he calls on the religious parties in Israel to return religion to all areas of the public square. To cite just one example, he plays homiletically on the dispute between Jacob and Esau over Isaac’s blessing. Jacob, the “simple man, who sits in tents,” apparently modeled after the haredi establishment, represents the seclusion of religion and Torah in the private life of the individual. Esau, Isaac’s favorite, represents the “agnostic materialist, the coarse, the cynical denier”98 who controls the public life of the “field,” the world of work, production, and world conquest. In the end, Rebecca and Jacob convince Isaac that Jacob has the power to emerge from the tent and take part in life in the “field.” Furthermore, under Jacob’s tutelage the “field” itself is converted from a purely secular endeavor to an undertaking that receives “the blessing of God.” Jacob has the “qualities needed to transform the brutal, mechanical field into a place where the soul could find joy and repose.”99 In Israel, Soloveitchik dreams of integrating religion and public life.

Soloveitchik does not explain how he expects to accomplish this, given that the majority of Israelis are not interested in such a strong integration of religion with public and political culture. Soloveitchik prefers that the transformation from a secular public state to a religious one should occur gradually and non-coercively, with religion influencing people through ideology and education, employing the peaceful “power of the book.” Politics and coercion, the “power of the sword,” are inferior.100 Still, with some apprehension, he admits that, “Halakhah never denied that in certain circumstances, it is impossible not to employ the sword….In the practical world it is necessary to be organized, and, on occasion to impose the will of society upon the individual.”101 If it were not for the fact that the “secular parties” in Israel “strive to control Jewish life in all its aspects by the power of the sword,” then religious Zionists could also abandon their interest in power politics.102

Rabbi Soloveitchik wrestled with his dialectical commitments. His personality and religious thought were grounded in an intensely personal and private religious existentialism, at the same time as he accepted as legitimate and valuable human secular attempts to understand and control the environment. In each of the major works, Lonely Man of Faith, Halakhic Man, and Halakhic Mind, he attempted to link halakhah as divine law with his profoundly personal religion, without sacrificing the integrity of halakhah as a comprehensive legal system. The tension and even contradiction to which this led may not have bothered Soloveitchik, whose entire religious approach thrives on contradiction and dialectic. Even if this is comprehensible within the context of his literary and philosophical style, it is indicative of the conflict that ensues between Judaism’s traditional self-understanding as integrated with public culture and between the privatized function of religion in modern societies. If science, technology, and civilization are seen as independent from Judaism and halakhah, then Judaism and halakhah must carve out their own sphere, to which they are confined by non-Jewish public culture. This requires a creative redefinition of religion and halakhah, one which Soloveitchik struggles to provide, paying the price in contradictions and tensions.

*     *     *


* I greatly appreciate the suggestions of those who read or commented on earlier drafts of this essay: my parents, R. Dr. Eliezer and Marilyn Finkelman, R. Michael Cytrin, Prof. Arnold Eisen, Prof. David Ellenson, and Prof. Aviezer Ravitzky. Needless to say, all errors are my own.

1. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Five Addresses, ed. David Telsner (Jerusalem: Tal Orot, 1983), p. 174.

2. I will use the masculine in referring to Soloveitchik’s typological figures, both because this matches Soloveitchik’s own usage, and because it allows for grammatical simplicity. I intend no misogyny.

3. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 14. (The essay originally appeared in the Summer 1965 volume of Tradition.)

4. Ibid., p. 18.

5. Ibid., pp. 18-19.

6. Ibid., pp. 16-17.

7. Ibid., p. 31.

8. Ibid., p. 39.

9. Ibid., p. 26.

10. Ibid., p. 96.

11. Ibid., p. 19, citing Genesis, 1:28; also see Lonely Man, p. 12.

12. Ibid., p. 25.

13. See, for example, Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim, 114b.

14. Ibid., p. 48.

15. Ibid., p. 47.

16. Ibid., p. 50. Emphasis mine.

17. Ibid., pp. 92-93.

18. Ibid., p. 93.

19. Ibid., pp. 39-40, in the footnote.

20. Ibid., p. 103.

21. Ibid., p. 101.

22. Ibid., p. 35.

23. Ibid., p. 37.

24. Ibid., p. 42. Emphasis mine.

25. Ibid., p. 50.

26. Ibid., p. 85.

27. Ibid., p. 80. Similar language appears through the top of p. 83.

28. Ibid., pp. 86-87.

29. Ibid., pp. 6-7.

30. Ibid., p. 103.

31. Ibid., p. 91.

32. Ibid., p. 93.

33. Ibid., p. 98.

34. Ibid., pp. 95-98.

35. Ibid., p. 26.

36. Regarding wordlessness, see the implication of Ibid., p. 67.

37. Joseph Soloveitchik, “Pesahim,” in his Ish HaHalakhah – Galuy VeNistar (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1979), p. 217. Also see Lonely Man, pp. 88-89.

38. Lonely Man, p. 64.

39. Ibid., p. 82.

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid., pp. 83-84.

42. Soloveitchik seemed to sense the contradiction, and works to explain it in a footnote (Lonely Man, pp. 87-90). If the main thrust of the essay refers to a dialectical moving back and forth between the two communities, and the contradictory passage desires to unify the communities, the footnote argues that one may live in the two separate communities at the same time, even as the communities remain separate. Soloveitchik, following Maimonides in Guide 3:51, makes it clear that this solution to the tension between the two Adams is available only to a select few individuals who can involve themselves in worldly affairs while at the same time focusing their entire mental, moral, and axiological intent on God’s immediate presence.

43. Ibid., p. 56.

44. Ibid., p. 55.

45. Ibid., p. 101.

46. The tendency to prefer ideal types which do not match the experience of real people is particularly pronounced in a recently published collections of essays dealing with familial and sexual relationships. See Family Redeemed, David Shatz and Joel B. Wolowelsky, eds. (New York: Toras HoRav, 2000). In these essays, sexual relationships are either purely natural, biological, impersonal affairs, or they are intimate, personal, and wholly honest. Families are either economic, functional institutions, or they are intimate and mutually revealing. I suspect that real human relationships inevitably include aspects of both. Consequently, it would be extremely difficult to construct real families based on Soloveitchik’s vision.

47. For a discussion of the influence of Protestant realism on Heschel, see chapter 4 of my forthcoming doctoral dissertation at the Hebrew University, “Religion and Public Life in 20th Century American Jewish Thought.”

48. “The Community,” Tradition 17:2 (1978):7-24. Notice how little attention the synagogue as an institution gets in an essay which claims to be about the institution, “Beit Keneset: Mosad VeRa’ayon,” in Divrei Hagut VeHa’arakhah (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1982), pp. 99-116.

49. “The Community,” p. 15.

50. Ibid., pp. 15, 19.

51. Ibid., pp. 11-12.

52. Ibid., p. 12.

53. Ibid., p. 9. Also see Gerald Blidstein, “On the Jewish People in the Writings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik,” Tradition 24:3 (1989):21-43, in particular 22-27. Also see “Beit Kenesset – Mosad VeRa’ayon” in Divrei Hagut, p. 115.

54. The original Hebrew appears in Ish HaHalakhah, pp. 9-113. References will be to Lawrence Kaplan’s translation, Halakhic Man (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1983).

55. Halakhic Man, pp. 1-19.

56. For the philosophical background which grounds this conception, see Lawrence Kaplan, “Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Philosophy of Halakhah,” Jewish Law Annual 7 (1988):139-197; and Almut Sh. Bruckstein, “Halakhic Epistemology in neo-Kantian Garb: J.B. Soloveitchik’s Philosophical Writings Revisited,” Jewish Studies Quarterly 5 (1998):346-368.

57. Halakhic Man, p. 23.

58. Ibid., p. 63.

59. Ibid., pp. 22-23.

60. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Halakhic Mind: An Essay on Jewish Tradition and Modern Thought (New York: Seth Press, 1986), pp. 3-32.

61. Ibid., p. 29.

62. This conception of halakhah may help explain some of Soloveitchik’s reluctance to publish authoritative halakhic decisions. Notice that his two most important statements on public policy issues – “Qol Dodi Dofeq” on the religious role in the State of Israel, and “Confrontation” regarding interfaith dialogue – are homilies, derashot, rather than definitive halakhic statements, teshuvot. “Qol Dodi Dofeq,” in Soloveitchik’s Ish HaEmunah (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook), pp. 65-106. References will be to Lawrence Kaplan’s translation in Theological and Halakhic Reflections on the Holocaust, B.H. Rosenberg and F. Heiman, eds. (New York: Ktav and RCA, 1992), pp. 51-117. “Confrontation,” Tradition 6:2 (1964):5-28. Even his halakhic statement regarding separation between sexes in the synagogue was published as an “open letter” rather than a responsum. See The Sanctity of the Synagogue, Baruch Litvin, ed. (Hoboken: Ktav, 1987), pp. 139-141. Soloveitchik would provide halakhic decisions for individuals and institutions when asked, but he did not publish these decisions.

David Hartman refers to “Confrontation” as “a theological responsum.” While theological issues certainly have some effect on halakhic decisions, I am not sure that it is possible to refer to something as a “responsum,” a teshuvah, if it cites no halakhic sources. Even if Hartman’s category was to be defined and deemed coherent, the fact that Soloveitchik chose not to write in the genre of a standard halakhic teshuvah is instructive. See Hartman’s Love and Terror in the God Encounter: The Theological Legacy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2001), p. 131ff.

One should not confuse Soloveitchik’s own position with his statement in his eulogy for R. Hayyim Ozer Grodzinski (“Nosei HaTzitz VeHahoshen,” in Divrei Hagut, pp. 187-194), that the individual qualified to decide technical legal questions should also have authority over public political and policy decisions. Soloveitchik is presenting R. Grodzinski’s position, not his own. He even emphasizes that other apologists have tried to dress up R. Grodzinski as more modern than he really was. Soloveitchik has no intention of following in their footsteps. In his eulogies in general, Soloveitchik consistently attempts to describe the deceased. It is a methodological error to assume that his eulogies describe Soloveitchik’s own positions. See Lawrence Kaplan, “Revisionism and the Rav: The Struggle for the Soul of Modern Orthodoxy,” Judaism 48:3 (1999):302ff.

63. “Who Is Fit to Lead the Jewish People,” in Reflections of the Rav: Lessons in Jewish Thought, Abraham R. Besdin, ed. (Hoboken: Ktav, 1979), pp. 127-138. This collection of essays, reconstructions of Soloveitchik’s lectures, lacks much of the depth, development, and powerful language of Soloveitchik’s own writings, and even of other transcribed lecture notes. I would hesitate to read too much into the nuances in these works, but I assume that they are accurate in broad terms. Soloveitchik’s reading of the source of Moses’ authority opposes a long tradition which insists that Moses had the halakhic status of a king. On that tradition, see Menahem Kasher, “Moshe Rabbeinu: Im Hayah Lo Din Melekh,” in Humash Torah Shelemah (New York), vol. 15, pp. 124-127.

64. Halakhic Man, p. 23.

65. Ibid., p. 94.

66. Ibid., p. 91.

67. Ibid., p. 94.

68. Ibid., p. 91.

69. Ibid., p. 94. My informal observation leads me to the opposite conclusion. Liberal streams of Judaism maintain a virtual monopoly on diaspora Jewish public life, while the Orthodox tend to limit their concern to their own increasingly insular community.

70. Ibid., p. 43.

71. “U’Viqqqashtem Misham,” p. 166.

72. Yitzchak Heinemann, Ta’amei HaMitzvot BeSifrut Yisrael (Jerusalem: Horev, 1993), vol. 1, p. 48. The first volume of this work summarizes medieval Jewish thinkers’ positions on the function of observance.

73. “May We Interpret Hukim?” in Man of Faith in the Modern World: Reflections of the Rav, Abraham R. Besdin, ed. (Hoboken: Ktav, 1989), pp. 91-99, quote from p. 92.

74. Halakhic Mind, p. 93.

75. Although published much later, Halakhic Mind was written in 1944, when Kaplan was particularly influential among American Jews. It seems reasonable that Kaplan was an unspoken object of Soloveitchik’s criticism. On Kaplan’s notion of functional equivalency, see Arnold Eisen, “Constructing a Useable Past: The Idea of Tradition in Twentieth-Century American Judaism,” in The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era, Jack Wertheimer, ed. (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1992), pp. 429-461.

76. Halakhic Mind., p. 93.

77. See, for example, Sa’adia Gaon, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, trans. Samuel Rosenblatt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948), 3:2; Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, trans. Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1963), 3:25-27, and his analysis of specific mitzvot, 3:28-49. Also see Yosef Albo’s Sefer Ha’iqrim (Jerusalem, 1987), 1:6 ff.

78. “On Interfaith Relationships” in A Treasury of Tradition, Norman Lamm and Walter S. Wurzburger, eds. (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1967), pp. 78-80.

79. “Confrontation,” p. 26.

80. Ibid., pp. 23-24. This is an odd statement for a man who draws so much of his reflections on the nature of the religious experience from avowedly Protestant thinkers, like Kierkegaard, Otto, and Barth.

81. Ibid., p. 24.

82. “On Interfaith Relationships,” p. 79.

83. Ibid., p. 79.

84. “Confrontation,” p. 24. Emphasis mine.

85. Ibid., p. 24, n. 8.

86. On the subtle differences between “Confrontation” and the policy statement, and the confusion that this caused, see Kaplan, “Revisionism,” pp. 305-306.

87. “On Interfaith Relationships,” pp. 79-80. Soloveitchik does not explain why notions like “Imitatio Dei” (p. 80) are communicable and other religious notions are not. Even the apparent Judeo-Christian agreement about “man as the bearer of God’s Likeness” (p. 80) should be incommunicable, given that the Jewish and Christian traditions differ radically over the very nature of God. Further, he does not account for the presence in the public sphere of non-biblical religious groups which may not accept what Soloveitchik considers “universal” religious values.

88. Five Addresses, pp. 20-21. Also see Qol Dodi Dofeq, p. 103.

89. Five Addresses, pp. 73-74, citing Genesis 23:4.

90. Five Addresses, pp. 35-36.

91. Ibid., p. 21. On the unacknowledged religious motivations of secular Jews in Soloveitchik and other religious Zionists, see Dov Schwartz, “Mishnato Shel HaRav Y.D. Soloveitchik BeRei HeHagut HaTzionit-HaDatit: HaHilun VehaMedinah,” in Emunah BeZemanim Mishtanim: ‘Al Mishnato Shel Ha Rav Y.D. Soloveitchik, Avi Sagi, ed. (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization and Ya’akov Herzog Center, 1996), pp. 123-145.

92. Five Addresses, p. 21, quoting Deuteronomy 4:29.

93. Ibid., 35. Schwartz, Mishnato Shel HaRav (p. 131), cites “Mah Dodekh Midod,” (p. 90) as evidence that Soloveitchik wanted a medinat halakhah, a halakhic legal system, to govern the State of Israel. This prooftext is problematic, as it is difficult to identify the differences between Soloveitchik’s own position and that of his uncle, which “Mah Dodekh” describes.

94. Five Addresses, p. 173ff.

95. Ibid., p. 174.

96. Ibid.

97. “Qol Dodi Dofeq,” p. 101.

98. Five Addresses, p. 177.

99. Ibid., pp. 176-179.

100. Ibid., p. 59ff.

101. Ibid., p. 65. Also see p. 87.

102. Ibid., p. 70.