Selections from Tradition in an Untraditional Age
Halakhah as the Starting Point of Jewish Philosophy
. . . I met the Rav in the summer of 1967. I was then a student with one year of philosophy behind me. He was the culturally impossible made real. A Renaissance man who compassed the intellectual world within four cubits of the halakhah. He was a living embodiment of Hamlet’s paradox: ‘I could be bounded in a nut-shell, and count myself king of infinite space.’ After several fruitless at tempts to track him down, I eventually encountered him at the beginning of a new year in his Talmud shiur at Yeshiva University. He was a strangely forbidding figure, slight, gaunt, dressed in a conventional business suit, with cold abstracted eyes turned in upon some private vision. It was his custom, he told me, to sit with his students in silence for an hour or two before the class, preparing the passage they would study that morning. If I cared to come the next morning, he would sit outside the class and talk to me. Next morning, I was there, and we sat together on a bench in the corridor. Instantly, the austerity was gone. In the unique kinship that is lernen, he put his hand on my shoulder and started to sway backwards and forwards, expounding his philosophical thesis as if it were a difficult Tosafot. His question was fundamental: What is authentic, autonomous—what is Jewish—about Jewish philosophy?
Judaism, he maintained, had one unique heritage from which every authentic expression must flow and in reference to which every proposition must be validated: the Halakhah. A philosophy not rooted in the halakhah would fail to capture what it sought to describe.
For instance, he said—in reference to A.J. Heschel—it was possible to construct a philosophy of Shabbat as a “sanctuary in time.” This might be a beautiful idea; but it was a misleading one. Shabbat for the halakhah was the thirty-nine avot melakhot (parent categories of forbidden work) and their derivatives. Any philosophizing must begin and end with this point.
A philosophy of the individual, his freedom and grandeur, must take as its starting point some concrete halakhic application. This was to be found in the Laws of Repentance in Maimonides’ Code. He was, he said, expounding just such a philosophy in his lectures on Teshuvah.
Although halakhah seemed an inauspicious reservoir of ideas—it was, on the face of it, no more than a system of concrete laws for particular applications, lacking wider references to the mysteries of existence—those ideas could be found by patient uncovering of the conceptual world they presupposed. Halakhah was the visible surface of a philosophy: the only philosophy that could legitimately claim to being Jewish.
That still seems, in retrospect, to be the best summary of his work.
The Man of Faith and Modern Religion
The dilemma of modernity is that “majestic man” (man as a creative and conquering being seeking dignity) has achieved unparalleled success in his attempts to explain and control nature. He has been intoxicated into hubris, the over reaching sin of seeing the creative, assertive side of his being as the entire reality of man. He has expelled “covenantal man” (who seeks redemption through control over himself) from his inner psyche, as out of keeping with the stance of victory over a hostile environment. . .
But Rav Soloveitchik does not proceed to set up a new dichotomy between religious and secular, belief and unbelief. His target is not “vulgar and illiterate atheism” at all; but something closer to home: the phenomenon of modem religion itself. Just as he had earlier argued that Judaism extends into the secular, scientific domain, now he argues that the secular has subtly entered into the religious domain and appropriated and distorted its institutions and teachings.
Who is the contemporary “man of religion”? He is a man of the world, a pragmatist engaged in the pursuit of success, who is nevertheless a member of an organized religion and a supporter of its causes. He creates religious communities, but these are not convenantal faith communities, but instead communities of interest and political action.
Rav Soloveitchik’s insight is that secular man does not exclude religion from his universe. He needs an ethical Absolute to give his norms permanence and stability . . . However, the translation is only partially successful. It is true that the classic texts of Judaism occasionally speak in pragmatic terms: obedience to the commandments leads to worldly happiness and a pleasant life. But there is another, disturbing, irreducible voice in which faith speaks: “The act of faith is aboriginal, exploding with elemental force as an all-consuming experience.” It resists every attempt to reduce it to cognitive or functional terms. And it directly challenges those terms in their aspiration to represent the whole of reality.
Rav Soloveitchik’s critique of contemporary secularized religion is devastating:
Western man comes to a place of worship. He attends lectures on religion and appreciates the ceremonial, yet he is searching not for a faith in all its singularity and otherness, but for religious culture. He is desirous of an aesthetic experience, rather than a convenantal one, of a social ethos, rather than a divine imperative . . . He also reaches a covenant with God, but this covenant is a mercantile one . . . Therefore, modem man puts up demands that faith adapt itself to the mood and temper of modern times. He does not discriminate between translated religion formulated in cultural categories . . . and the pure faith commitment which is unchangeable as eternity itself. . .
He finds the same phenomenon in modem religion’s claim to represent tranquility and peace of mind as against the chaos of the secular world, in the desire for men and women to pray together, which he sees as turning prayer from loneliness to a desire for security and comfort, in the demand that halakhah be “meaningful” or that it be submitted to historical or intellectual categories; and in the belief that there can be genuinely interfaith dialogue. . .
The closing pages of The Lonely Man of Faith end on a defiant note, with evocations of the prophetic figures—Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah—who endured social loneliness but could not contain the word of faith that burned like fire in their hearts. “Is the modem man of faith entitled to a more privileged position and a less exacting and sacrificial role?” Could there be a more tragic analysis of faith and modernity than this?
The Secularization of Faith
. . . There are times when the man of faith must withdraw from the world. When the sage finds his religious life systematically undermined by all available social encounters, he has no alternative but to retreat into temporary seclusion . . . It is clear that Rav Soloveitchik had pessimism thrust upon him. His earliest work bears an altogether different tone. The
Halakhic Mind, written in 1944, begins with the sentence: “It would be difficult to distinguish any epoch in the history of philosophy more amenable to the mediating homo religiosus than that of today.”
It was not secular knowledge, encountered in the University of Berlin, that caused Rav Soloveitchik such searing distress, but secular man, encountered in suburban–Jewish America. Recent sociological studies of both American and Israeli Judaism have identified a powerful return to Jewish values and symbols, but subtly transposed into a language devoid of transcendence. Particularly in America, the new mood is associated with philanthropy and activism and exactly mirrors the portrait of the religion of the majestic man which Rav Soloveitchik had so sharply diagnosed. His suspicion that the secular would enter and possess the sanctuary has been made doubly poignant by the fact that his own thought has been appropriated by younger thinkers and used to legitimate highly secular readings of Judaism.
Soloveitchik’s drama, then, is a heroic-tragic one . . . He may be in, but not of, the modem world. Most Jews, he admits, are not prepared for this inner dialectic . . . Orthodoxy and modernity are both friends and strangers to one another. In this uncomfortable paradox, the man of faith must live.
Tragedy and Kaddish
Ish Ha-Halakhah originally appeared in 1944. The date reverberates with tragedy. The world of the Lithuanian yeshivot, to which it is a tribute, was at that moment being reduced to ashes. In retrospect, the work is a hesped, a funeral oration; or more precisely a mourner’s Kaddish to a shattered universe.
Rav Soloveitchik has defined the saying of Kaddish as “courageous and heroic mourning” in which grief is transcended and we affirm that “However terrifying the grave is, however nonsensical and absurd everything appears . . . we declare and profess publicly and solemnly that we are not giving up, that we are not surrendering, that we will carry on the work of our ancestors as if nothing had happened, that we will not be satisfied with less than the full realization of the ultimate goal.”
Kaddish is a response to death but it does not mention death. Halakhic Man does not mention the events that were happening as it was being written. But it reads as a response to them, even in—precisely in—its silence.
How so? It is as if, by constructing in the ideal world of the halakhic system, a world peopled with architects—Hillel, Akiva, Rav, Shmuel, Rashi, Maimonides, Rav Chaim of Brisk—who never die, the real world and death itself can be defied. Halakhah in a moment of crisis takes on the role of therapy and consolation. Here are letters of fire that cannot be destroyed by fire. . .
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was a global religious leader, philosopher, author of over forty books and renowned speaker. He served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. He passed away in 2020.
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Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik: Biographical Highlights by Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff and Edited by Rabbi Joseph Epstein