The Rav

The Rav’s Philosophical Legacy

Courtesy of Yeshiva University Archives, Public Relations People Photograph Collection

For his thousands of talmidim, the most vivid and faithful characterization of the Rav zt”l will always be that of a of a gadol ha-dor. His main vehicle communication was the shiur; his natural idiom the shakla ve-tarya of a sugya and the complexities of a Rambam or Milchamos; his dominant intellectual pedigree, Brisk and not Berlin. Efforts to portray the Rav as a philosopher first and foremost, or as wavering between two allegiances and two worlds, will inevita­bly ring false to those who experienced him directly. Certainly in terms of sheer impact, the number of musmakhim and lamdanim whom the Rav produced ut­terly dwarfs the number of students who sought to mine and expand his thought along more straightforwardly philosophi­cal lines.

Even so, while the need to keep this perspective is essential, no tribute to the Rav can ignore his place as a ba’al machshavah and as—in a perfectly pure sense of the term—a major Jewish phi­losopher. That one person was both a towering gadol and a preeminent thinker who commanded respect far outside the yeshivah’s walls is remarkable.1 Most, theologians, after all, belong to academic departments. They dedicate their full pro­fessional lives to philosophizing, and so productivity and high quality are entirely expected of them. By contrast, the Rav seemed to do it all as an avocation, to be pursued in scant leftover time. Moreover, it is not just that we fail to appreciate his genius if we blind ourselves to its full scope; no less unfairly, we miss the breadth of his spirituality and sensitivity. Only by seeing the Rav as a whole can we fully grasp the implications of our loss.

Two questions are therefore apt: what has the Rav bequeathed to Orthodox Jewish philosophy in the modern world? And what can Orthodox thinkers do to carry on his legacy?

Time and again in his writings, the Rav highlights conflict, tension, discord, dialectic and paradox.2 Yet beyond the puzzles and anomalies that he himself so brilliantly delineates, we ourselves con­front anomalies when we reflect upon his pursuit of philosophy and when we assess the impact of his ideas on Jewish life.

First, as to his pursuit of philosophy. The Rav sets out a wide array of person­ality types: Adam the First and Adam the Second, Ish ha-da’at and Ish ha-Dat, Ish ha-Halakhah, Ish Rosh Chodesh, and more. Yet it is a challenge to locate in this panoply the exact fusion of geonut in Talmud with genius in philosophy that he—and he alone—embodied.3 Halakhic man, for example, would not have written the essay “Ish ha-Halakhah.” The whole point of that essay, after all, is that halakhic man finds the world of Halakhah entirely sufficient for his spirituality, discovering therein his freedom and his creativity. An ish ha-Halakhah, so described, would see no point indulging in a psychological or philosophical reconstruction of a halakhic personality, let alone one cast in neoKantian categories. But that is exactly what the essay is.4

Turning next to “The Lonely Man of Faith,” (Tradition 7 [1965]) the catego­ries of Adam the First and Adam the Second fall short of representing the Rav with precision. The “man of faith” does not combine philosophical and literary reflection with Talmudic greatness, but rather scientific and technological activity with covenantal existence. As Profes­sor Gerald Blidstein frames the paradox:

“‘Majestic’ first Adam realizes his potential and fulfills a godly mandate by subduing the physical world and perfect­ing it. But the positive appropriation of this major characteristic of Western civi­lization is not accompanied by a corresponding imperative to appropriate Western culture, its philosophical or lit­erary achievements. This assertion seems improbable, or at least paradoxical, with regard to the Rav, whose major writings are suffused with modern Western phi­losophy and literature, and whose very intellectual world is constructed, in part at least, with materials provided by mod­ern culture. Yet the paradox is fact: The Rav is a paradigm of the synthesis of Jewish and Western culture, but he no­where prescribes this move or urges its legitimacy. The Rav constructs his thought within the categories of Western culture, but nowhere explicitly assigns a specific role to this culture.”5

Not only do we fail to grasp how one individual could have so integrated the worlds of Halakhah and Aggadah on the one hand with the world of general cul­ture on the other, but the why eludes us as well.

One might argue that these para­doxes are mitigated by the essay, “U-Bikashtem mi-Sham”;6 for there the Rav portrays the religious odyssey of a personality that seems closer to his own, thereby also perhaps providing a justifi­cation for his own pursuits.7 Even if this is so, our sense of paradox grows when we look next at the influence and impact of the Rav’s philosophy.

The Rav was most revered by the community of “Modern Orthodoxy,” a community that he built and for over half a century has ceaselessly inspired. Yet his philosophical thought is curiously re­moved from some of the chief concerns and positions of that constituency. For instance, as we have already seen, the protagonist of “Ish ha-Halakhah” is not a “modern” Jew, albeit he finds (in Halakhah) the freedom and creativity which the “modern” Jew craves. More significantly, the early pages of “Lonely Man of Faith” make the boundaries of the Rav’s inquiry there sharp and clear:

“I have never been seriously troubled by the problem of the Biblical doctrine of creation vis-a-vis the scientific story of evolution . . . nor have I been perturbed by the confrontation of the mechanistic interpretation of the human mind with the Biblical spiritual concept of man. I have not been perplexed by the impossibility of fitting the mystery of revelation into the framework of historical empiricism. More­over, I have not even been troubled by the theories of Biblical criticism. However, while theoretical oppositions and dichoto­mies have never tormented my thoughts, I could not shake off the disquieting feel­ing that the practical role of the man of faith within modern society is a very difficult, indeed, a paradoxical one.” (“Lonely Man of Faith,” 9.)

What has the Rav bequeathed to Orthodox Jewish philosophy in the modern world? And what can Orthodox thinkers do to carry on his legacy?

Almost consistently in his writings, the great cognitive conflicts of our day—evolution and creation, history and Bible, history and halakhah, philosophy and religion—are dismissed entirely.8 In fact, the Rav maintains that “[faith] does not lend itself completely to the act of cultural translation. There are simply no cognitive categories in which the total commitment of the man of faith could be spelled out.” (“Lonely Man of Faith,” 60.)9 This emphasis on the unrationalized dimension of faith gives rise to another paradox. The Rav is often seen as a contemporary exemplar of the Rambam’s orientation. Yet the synthesis of faith and reason so avidly sought by the Rambam is no part of the Rav’s objectives. “It is not the plan of this paper,” reads the opening line of “Lonely Man,” “to discuss the millennium-old problem of faith and rea­son.” What Rambam and Saadya labored strenuously to produce—a set of cogni­tive claims about the nature of God and the world that would stand up to scientific and philosophical scrutiny—is given short shrift in his analysis. In fact, the closing pages of The Halakhic Mind constitute a frontal assault on the entire program of medieval Jewish philosophy. And yet what is the most popular model for Mod­ern Orthodox thought if not the Maimonidean synthesis?10

The Rav’s justification for involve­ment in the secular world is also crucially different from both the Rambam’s and those commonly championed today. He does not contend that such involvement will generate a richer, more accurate body of philosophical, historical and scientific claims and hence a more sophisticated and durable faith. Nor does he base his position on the idea that exposure to secular disciplines produces a refinement of spiritual sensibilities. Rather, his en­dorsement of culture is founded on a principle rooted in Sefer Bereshit, one we might describe as moral. Human beings fulfill their divine charge and actualize their divinely ordained nature only by aggressively striving to improve human existence in concrete, material ways. They must “harness the elemental forces of nature” to conquer disease and to subdue the threats that nature poses to human life and security. Only by doing so do they imitate God’s creativity, fulfill the re­sponsibilities imposed by the mandate “mil-u et ha-aretz ve-kivshuha,” and at­tain dignity. Remarkably, this powerful and visceral argument, that secular disci­plines make yishuv olam possible, has relatively little resonance in Orthodox writing on the subject of secular studies.11

Likewise, the Rav offered a tren­chant critique of Western culture, but one finds little of that in recent “modern” Jewish theology. His repeated claim that the only authentic source of Jewish philo­sophical teaching is the Halakhah is much in need of explication,12 but this vision of a halakhah-based Jewish philosophy has not been significantly extended by others beyond paradigm cases like teshuvah and tefillah—much less elevated to a method­ological principle.

If on some issues, the Rav’s posi­tions were more restrained and “conservative” than those of his constitu­ency, in other respects, some of his constituency seems narrow and parochial by comparison to him. In “Confronta­tion,” the Rav put forth an eloquent, philosophically-based opposition to theological dialogue. His stance exerted tremendous impact. Yet in that same essay he spoke of the need for Jews to join and cooperate with non-Jews in redressing social ills and creating a better society: “we stand with civilized society shoulder to shoulder against an order which defies us all.”13 Few have expanded on that theme, and it has not found a translation into our communal life. Often the univer­sal thrust of the Rav’s writing is lost or underappreciated. When Doubleday Press chose to issue “Lonely Man of Faith” as a book, it did so because the essay was perceived as what it in fact is: a profound characterization of the place of religion in the modern world, an articulation of a predicament felt universally, a portrait of a condition belonging to what the Rav persistently calls “man.” Thus it is not a work of import to Jews alone.14 Yet strangely, even some of the Rav’s admir­ers are uncomfortable with the suggestion that “religion” is here an operative cat­egory. It is as if we adulterate his message to us if we concede that it speaks to others as well.15

The Rav’s philosophy, then, as dis­tinct from “the Rav’s Torah,” is less in evidence on the Orthodox landscape than one would expect. Why is this so?

Several explanations suggest themselves. Surely in some cases we are dealing with respectful, reasoned and informed disagreement (though not neces­sarily made explicit). After all, disciples may emulate the Rav without submis­sively accepting all that he says on haskhkafic matters. They emulate him by replicating the process of creative thought—this in consonance with the Rav’s well known mandate to talmidim to think for themselves.16

There is another reason that people might invoke for not following the Rav’s philosophy, namely, uncertainty about exactly what views to attribute to him. The Rav’s ideas diverge from work to work; based on this, one might contend that his philosophical disquisitions were tailored to specific audiences, social con­texts, and personal circumstances. Because of the acutely personal and highly contextual character of the philosophical writings, readers—however greatly in­spired and affected—may yet hesitate to build a definite, abiding outlook upon what the Rav says in particular places.17

While in some cases reasoned dis­agreement and methodological caution may account for why the Rav’s philo­sophical work has not had more influence, we need to consider another hypothesis: neglect.

This should not necessarily be said with a critical edge. Whereas a yeshivah training makes halakhic discourse famil­iar (if never easy!), philosophical writings are daunting and difficult in the absence of a comparable educational background. The Rav in particular utilizes a vocabu­lary and thought structure which have to be explained in terms of a vast cultural context and which, at many points, show a dated quality. For talmidim there is a real question whether the time investment needed to gain the background is worth the potential loss of growth in lomdus. Aggravating the problem of comprehension, the Rav’s extraordinary powers of oral pedagogy and hasbarah, which navigated the talmidim through the most demanding of sugyos, were not of­ten available as a means of clarifying and disseminating his philosophical ideas publicly. Also, because the Rav seldom referred to the philosophic writings in shiur, and it was plain that they occupied a relatively small portion of his time, it became easy to assume that they were not essential to his outlook and spiritual quest. As more and more of the Rav’s chiddushei Torah appear in written form, the philo­sophic works will face a still stiffer competition for attention, and some people may quite legitimately argue that they ought to be made secondary in the hierar­chy. Our lives are not long enough, nor our minds capacious and quick enough, to absorb even a significant fraction of what the Rav’s mind had both absorbed and created by early middle age; so we must make choices.

To these more understandable rea­sons for neglect of the philosophical writings I feel compelled to add a less honorable one. Some people perhaps har­bored a fear that the concerns, contents and methods of those writings were sen­sitive—and should therefore be shut out.

Whatever the reasons for neglect, whether benign or otherwise, in all like­lihood the Rav would have been driven to ever greater levels of philosophical ex­pression had he found a regular forum for discussing theology with others of a simi­lar bent and expertise. Question and criticism in the context of a larger com­munity inevitably force a thinker, particularly a great one, to sharpen his formulations, fill in lacunae, and expand his agenda. It is striking that a classic like “Lonely Man of Faith” was invited by a group other than the Rav’s base constitu­ency.

I am not in a position to say how deeply the Rav sensed that his broader concerns were not being widely discussed and assimilated, nor to comment directly on whether, if so, that disappointed him. Anecdotal evidence from reliable sources suggests he did know it and was disap­pointed.18 Be that as it may, we must beware the potential cost of perpetuating such neglect. The Rav’s thought would be appropriated, analyzed and disseminated by individuals who may not be in a posi­tion to place the philosophical dimension of the Rav in the context of his total persona. Admirers of the Rav need to preserve and protect that total persona, and accordingly ought to construct their own informed representations of his phi­losophy and its context.

In closing, I would suggest one final hypothesis to account for the phenom­enon I have dealt with. The explanation, basically, is that to accept the Rav’s phi­losophy requires a breadth and depth of spirit and commitment that lies far be­yond the reach of most people. Let me elaborate.19

When I was first exposed to “Lonely Man of Faith” as a college student, I, with others, was deeply disappointed by the paragraph quoted earlier in which the Rav dismissed the problem of synthesiz­ing secular disciplines and religion. Isn’t he sidestepping the real problem, we asked? Yet over the years, I, like many who spend their careers in academia, have come to realize the immaturity of that criticism. The more I studied phi­losophy—and others will say much the same thing—the more I came to realize the limits of the contemporary stress on “rigor,” the poverty of intellectual gymnastics. Philosophical problems are first and foremost human problems. The ones that really matter are those that engage the soul in its entirety, and the solutions that really last in the minds of people are those that anchor themselves in emotion. As Yehudah Halevi would have asked, how often does an elaborate proof of God’s existence create religious fervor?20 How often does an “intellectual” solution to the problem of evil really do anything for humans who confront evil’s stark reality? Significantly, the problem that the Rav chose to deal with in “Lonely Man”—the sense of loneliness and alien­ation—is psychological; it issues from the whole being and not from cognition alone. Correspondingly, he opted for visceral resolutions, those that could take hold in the deepest recesses of personality, while eschewing philosophical pilpul.21 But to hold on to the visceral resolutions is extraordinarily hard—even for those who, soured on “rationalist” approaches, realize that this is where the true resolu­tion is to be found. The Rav had the needed spiritual depth. We as a rule do not.22

Why hasn’t the Rav’s philosophy taken full hold? We must appreciate the gulf be­tween the Rav’s personal spiritual powers and our own.

Thus it is that in “Kol Dodi Dofek” the Rav denigrates the value of theoretical solutions to the problems of evil, supplanting the quest for understanding God’s ways with an emphasis on concrete empathy and initiative, a response that calls for powers of spirit and not mind alone. In this connection we should recall the unusually intimate bond between au­tobiography and philosophy in the Rav’s thought, which further testifies to the remarkable interaction between person­ality and intellect. This nexus is plain as day in Ish ha-Halakhah—in the prefatory citation about Yosef seeing his father’s visage, in the explicit reminiscences, in the overall subject and purpose. We meet it as well in the intensely personal state­ment that opens “Lonely Man of Faith”: “What I am going to say here has been derived not from philosophical dialec­tics, abstract speculation, or detached impersonal reflections, but from actual situations and experiences with which I have been confronted. [The lecture] is a tale of a personal dilemma.” Personal elements are also detectable in the rous­ing, often poetic drama of “U-Bikashtem mi-Sham,” the galvanizing Zionist pas­sion of “Kol Dodi Dofek” and much more.

The Rav, then, placed his intellec­tual quest in an emotional frame and his emotional existence in an intellectual one. If we will never fully understand how he integrated the worlds of Halakhah and philosophy, still less will we under­stand how he was able to deal with the deepest and most affecting feelings of human life, both private feelings and universal ones, in intellectual categories; categories which, for all their rigor and high level of abstraction, never robbed the emotions of their richness and authenticity.

Some of the Rav’s most stunning intellectual explorations were conceived as hespedim. Hespedim can go to two extremes—cold, dry intellectualism on the one hand; gushes of inchoate, unstruc­tured, and hence ultimately uncommunicated feeling on the other. Armed with a perfect makor and a breath­ taking conceptual apparatus, the Rav took hold of emotions, shaped them, ordered them, structured them; thereby he made them shareable, communicable, comprehensible.23 Recall, too, that much of the Rav’s halakhah and hashkafah were pre­pared to mark occasions, from yahrtzeits to siyumim. For the community, the intel­lectual rhythm of the year was set by personal occasions in the Rav’s life. Likewise, much was delivered at especially evocative times such as Aseres Yemei Teshuvah and Tish’ah be-Av. Halakhah objectifies emotions according to the Rav, and so too can a halakhic or philosophical discourse enable Jews to deal with highly charged moments. The act of learning produces a “kiyyum ha-mitzvahof re­membering, of mourning, of rejoicing, or whatever the occasion called for.

To return now to our puzzle: why hasn’t the Rav’s philosophy taken full hold? We must appreciate the gulf be­tween the Rav’s personal spiritual powers and our own. His idea that faith is untranslatable and unrationalizable is not easily internalized. Resigning oneself to incessantly moving between opposing poles—from aggressiveness to submis­siveness and back—is an arduous task, and we also have trouble handling the “defeat” inherent in submissiveness, of which the Rav often speaks. We find it demanding to see ourselves as charged with responsibility as both “majestic” and “covenantal” beings, and we have difficulties integrating membership in a particular community with membership in the human community as a whole. A “man of faith” achieves these states; but he is lonely indeed.

I suggest that we think of the chal­lenge ahead, of appropriating the Rav’s philosophy, not as the intellectual mas­tery of ideas per se, but as the summoning of spiritual reserves; not as the task of learning from a text but rather that of being inspired by a model. The Rav taught us by example that it is no intellectual embarrassment to be a person of faith in the contemporary world, to affirm belief in the face ofpowerful cultural challenge. What we require to follow his lead is not more intellectual insight alone but more emotional and spiritual depth. To adapt the final words of “Lonely Man of Faith,” are we “entitled to a more privileged position and a less exacting and sacrifi­cial role”?


1. A prominent philosopher who several decades ago was in the Rav’s shiur made a remark to me that is impossible to forget. This philosopher had made controversial but truly original contributions to his field of specialization. Although at the time of our conversation he was only marginally involved in Orthodoxy, he explained to me why he had felt so free to pursue original and sure-to-be-contested paths. “It’s because I had Rav Soloveitchik,” he explained. “You see, after encountering him, I could not be intimidated by anyone else’s intellect. Everyone else fell short.”

2. As others have remarked, the stress he places on antitheses and dialectical swings is distinctive and represents a turn in Jewish thought. Cf. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s essay, “Alienation and Faith,” Tradition 13-14 (Spring-Summer 1973): 137-62.

3. As Matis Greenblatt noted to me, the force of this point depends on the familiar question of whether the ideal types which the Rav depicts have an instantiation in real life. If they are “pure” types only, and are not necessarily exemplified in reality, then in actual life particular individuals—like the Rav—might combine various types, but the union would not itself be represented as a separate type in the Rav’s panoply. In “Ish ha-Halakhah” the Rav on the one hand affirms that the types are abstractions but on the other hand refers to real-life “halakhic men,” leaving us unsure of his position. But in any case the Rav never in “Ish ha-Halakhah” explains why a phenomenological treatment of a halakhic personality, such as that he undertakes, might be of value; he refers only to other sorts of non-halakhic inquiries. In other words there is no type which engages in exactly the sort of investigation he undertakes in the essay, so the paradox stands. As I indicate below, “U- Bikashtem mi-Sham” might provide materials for a solution.

4. See also Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik’s Early Epistemology: A Review of The Halakhic Mind,” Tradition 23, 3 (Spring 1988): 86, note 10.

5. Gerald Blidstein, “On the Jewish People in the Writings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik,” Tradition 24, 3 (Spring 1989): 21-43, p. 24. A contrast to Rav Kook springs to mind. Rav Kook spoke in exalted terms of the value of general culture in a total religious life, and developed a broad framework within which to motivate such a warm embrace of culture. But Rav Kook was not himself an expert in any secular discipline. The Rav, on the other hand, mastered secular disciplines—science, literature and philosophy—but nowhere extolled their pursuit expressly.

6. Published in Hadorom 47 (5739): 1-83, but apparently first drafted in the 1940’s.

7. Other responses are possible. For example, the achievements of Adam the First might be read broadly, as including all cultural productivity (“Lonely Man of Faith,” 14); and Blidstein goes on to advance an interesting resolution of his own.

8. This point is also made by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in the excerpt from Tradition in an Untraditional Age reprinted in this issue. One should note (as Shalom Carmy has pointed out) that “Lonely Man of Faith” implicitly contains a powerful response to a problem seized upon by biblical criticism, viz., the ostensible conflict between the “two” accounts of creation. Of course, this “da’ma she-tashiv” is an incidental by product of the Rav’s theorizing; he is occupied with a whole other set of problems.

9. The Halakhic Mind offers a rather different perspective, however. Compare also “U- Bikashtem mi-Sham.”

10. See also David Singer and Moshe Sokol, “Joseph Soloveitchik: Lonely Man of Faith,” Modem Judaism 2 (1982): 227-72, p. 249.

11. Lest it be thought that the imperative of “ve-kivshuha” is a but a narrow one confined to the development of medicine and technology, we should note that economics and politics, for example, no less than science, can play a vital role in the transformation of human life. The Rav himself describes the achievements of Adam the First broadly (“Lonely Man of Faith,” 14).

12. On the importance and centrality of this claim, see Marvin Fox, “The Unity and Structure of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Thought,” Tradition 24, 2 (Winter 1989): 44-65.

13. “Confrontation,” Tradition 6, 2 (Spring- Summer 1964): 5-29, p. 17.

14. Note that, whereas the text of “Lonely Man of Faith” draws frequently on Bible, the Rav confines sources from halakhah, aggadah and parshanut almost totally to the footnotes, creating, to some degree, a separate track of discussion. The first eighty-one pages of The Halakhic Mind are also almost exclusively universal in thrust, but those universal reflections ultimately lead to a “particularist” conclusion in the final section.

15. For example, the argument which the Rav constructs against dialogue (in “Confronta­tion”)—viz., that the faith act is incommuni­cable and dialogue therefore impossible—logically should apply to all faiths.

16. Dr. Norman Lamm relates a story from his days in the Rav’s shiur. The Rav asked him to explain a Tosafos that had been covered the day before. Dr. Lamm replied obligingly by repeating exactly what the Rav had said in the previous day’s shiur. “Your problem is,” chided the Rav, “that you come in here with your yetzer ha-tov, and you leave your yetzer ha-ra at the door.”

17. Another, admittedly speculative explanation of divergences is the following. Just as in shiurim and derashot, the Rav on different occasions might construct varying ap­proaches to a single text, problem or position, so too in philosophy he furnished a multiplicity of perspectives on particular problems. In other words, the Rav may have approached each philosophical “assign­ment” as a self-contained unit; the inquiry would begin afresh.

18. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein touched on this question in an inspiring address to the OU at its 1992 convention; he noted both private and published remarks by the Rav.

19. With regard to the theme I will now broach, I also refer the reader to Shalom Carmy’s moving and perceptive essay, “Of Eagle’s Flight and Snail’s Pace,” written for the Orthodox Forum in March 1993 and forthcoming in Tradition.

20. Cf. “Lonely Man of Faith,” 32: “The trouble with all rational demonstrations of the existence of God consists in their being . . . abstract logical demonstrations divorced from the living primal experiences in which these demonstrations are rooted.”

21. “This commitment is rooted not in one dimension, such as the rational one, but in the whole personality of the man of faith.” (“Lonely Man of Faith,” 60).

22. Medieval Jewish thinkers undoubtedly had the same depth of spirit, but the religious character of their intellectual environment made it unnecessary for them to actualize that potential fully. The Rav, by contrast, lived in a climate that forced him to make the potential actual.

24. See the opening sections of his sheloshim eulogy for the Rebbetzin of Talne in Tradition 17, 2 (Spring 1978): 73-83.

I thank Matis Greenblatt for offering insightful observations throughout my preparation of this essay; and I also thank Rabbi Yosef Blau, Dr. David Berger, Rabbi Shalom Carmy and Dr. Charles Raffel for reviewing an earlier draft.


Rabbi Dr. David Shatz is the Ronald P. Stanton University Professor of Philosophy, Ethics, and Religious Thought, editor of The Torah u-Madda Journal and author or editor of many books and articles in both Jewish and general philosophy.


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