THE EMERGENCE OF ETHICAL MAN
By Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik
Ktav Publishing House, 2005
RABBI JOSEPH B SOLOVEITCHIK ON PESACH, SEFIRAT HA-OMER AND SHAVU’OT
By David Shapiro
Urim Publications, 2005
COMMUNITY, COVENANT AND COMMITMENT: SELECTED LETTERS AND COMMUNICATIONS
By Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik
Edited by Nathaniel Helfgot
Ktav Publishing House, 2005
Reviewed by Rabbi Raymond Apple
These books are part of the growing posthumous library of the works of Rabbi Soloveitchik. He was one of a triumvirate of great rabbinic figures who changed the face and fate of American orthodoxy in the late 20th century. Each had his niche; each had his nickname. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the dynamic leader of Chabad Chassidism, was the Rebbe. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the encyclopaedic halachic decisor, was Reb Moshe. Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik, philosopher and mentor of modern orthodoxy, was the Rav. Between them they created a traditionalist climate to which the Rav’s own words aptly apply; in reply to a questioner, the Rav showed what a confident force traditionalism was becoming and said, “People don’t laugh at us any more.”
Rav Soloveitchik’s personal and religious lineage was the Brisker Derech which stood for rigorous analysis and philosophical credibility. His own great strength, expressed throughout his many years in American Jewry, was the capacity to be an orthodox rabbi and a ranking philosopher at the same time. What seemed to be a shiur, for example when he looked at the Creation story, developed into a tightly argued exposition on the nature of man. His shiurim inspired generations of Yeshiva University students, some of whom later served in the Australian rabbinate. His public lectures attracted huge crowds who came not to be entertained but to have their minds stretched.
He was a great teacher but he shared the family reluctance to put ideas into writing. He himself produced few books, though his extended essays about The Lonely Man of Faith and Halakhic Man became classics. Since his death others have created books for him out of tape recordings, the notes they took at his lectures, and his own manuscripts. Some are works of intellectual genius, especially the first of the three books reviewed here. Others, such as the second of these three works, have flashes of the Master. The third book, a volume of his letters and communications, opens a window into his intervention in practical issues of Jewish and national policy, reveals the extent to which Jews and non-Jews valued his advice, but it is not the Rav at his sparkling best.
There is debate about whether he saw himself as Rabbi Soloveitchik or Dr Soloveitchik. He himself called philosophy “a dialogue with the serpent”; the metaphor reflects his constant focus on the early chapters of B’reshit. Professor David Hartman, in the introduction to Love and Terror in the God Encounter: The Theological Legacy of Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik (2001), argues against seeing the Rav’s philosophical work as a mere apologetic: halachah and philosophy were not being merged but synthesised. The Rav, however, might have put it differently. He frequently introduced polarities into his thinking and teaching, allowing apparently contradictory ideas to confront and make room for each other. Can the two accounts of Creation at the beginning of the Torah be reconciled? Can man be both Adam I, the man of technology, and Adam 2, the man of faith? The polarities both have their validity and they live together.
Of the three books noted here, the first, as I have suggested above, is the deepest.
The Rav traces the emergence of man not only as a personality but as an ethical personality. Man, part of the Divinely-given world of nature, begins to separate from the natural realm and become aware of his subjective capacity. He splits into an “ethico-natural” and an “orgiastic-demonic” personality, who at first attempts to deceive his genuine identity. He becomes a free but lonely personality until he discovers the numinous God and the moral law. He becomes part of history, tied by a bond of solidarity with the God of the Covenant, and assumes a role as a co-partner in the work of redemption. God and man have not only a spiritual covenant but a socio-political bond, whereby man dedicates himself to developing a society which will be a Divine kingdom.
Here we have a religious anthropology that depicts the nature of man, built on the language and people of the Biblical text. This is the Rav as philosopher – and as Rabbi.
The second book presents ideas grounded in the seven-week period from Pesach to Shavu’ot. It is far more than conventional d’rashot. Here, for example, we find a remarkable explanation of the two main Divine names, Elokim and HaShem. The usual approach is to see Elokim in His middat ha-din (attribute of justice) and HaShem as middat ha-rachamim (His attribute of mercy). The Rav, however, sees Elokim as immanence and HaShem as transcendence. “Elokim manifests Himself through regularity in nature, through orderliness and causality rather than through miracles. Elokim means God who controls the cosmic dynamics.” On the other hand, HaShem (Havayah, existence) is beyond our ken; we meet Him “through the apocalypse rather than through the repetitiousness of nature”. HaShem is the God who reaches out to us in defiance of our rational faculty. Both names are found in the giving of the mitzvot; when Elokim is used, the legislation addresses “natural man”; when it is HaShem, it is “meta-physical man”. The concepts appear distinctive but in reality they are indivisible – polarities again.
The third book shows us a Rav who is not only at home in the realm of thought but in the affairs of the world. As the editor puts it, he is “a passionate and articulate spokesman for an activist and engaged intellectual orthodoxy”. Concerns presented range from communal and public policy issues (including the implications of rabbis serving as military chaplains) to educational problems, aspects of religious Zionism and the State of Israel (including the question of why he declined nomination as Chief Rabbi of Israel) and inter-religious questions, including his opposition to religious dialogue.
In all, these are three major works that need to be read by anyone who seeks to understand Jewish life and thought in our times.