This article originally appeared in Tradition 29:1, 1994
Even during the lifetime of Rabbi Soloveitchik, a debate arose amongst his interpreters and closest disciples as to just how modern a figure he was. This debate has only intensified following his death. Was Rabbi Soloveitchik essentially a traditional rosh yeshiva who dabbled in philosophy and whose affirmation of certain “modern” positions are exceptions which only prove the rule? Or was R. Soloveitchik essentially a modem figure in outlook and conviction, although anchored in the sea of Talmud and the Brisker tradition?
My thesis in this essay is that Rabbi Soloveitchik was a paradigmatically modern figure for the Jews of his era, and that his enduring contribution to Jewish history derives precisely from that modernity. Nevertheless, I hope to show that the traditionalist reading of R. Soloveitchik gets something profoundly important about him right, namely, that in many fundamental ways he remained a traditional rosh yeshiva. However, I shall argue that the choices he made to retain that past were themselves highly personalized expressions of his own special brand of modernity.
There is of course a sense in which all contemporary Orthodoxy, from the extreme left to the extreme right, is a modern phenomenon, as the historian Jacob Katz and others have noted.1 The Hungarian Haredi heirs of Hatam Sofer represent a distinctive response to modernity no less than the followers of Torah im Derekh Eretz; each group is therefore a modern phenomenon. In this respect, R. Soloveitchik is of course no different. Nevertheless, R. Soloveitchik’s response to modernity differs from that of the Hungarian heirs of Hatam Sofer and many of their ideological foes in that, first, he chose not to deny all of modernity’s values, a point I shall return to later; and, second, his response to modernity’s challenges was, as I shall try to show, quite distinctive.
We can begin by contrasting R. Soloveitchik with Rabbi S. R. Hirsch. Whatever one thinks of the Torah im Derekh Eretz intellectual program, there is a certain comprehensiveness to it, a univocal world-view which surfaces in just about all of R. Hirsch’s writings. R. Hirsch, after the fashion of the 19th century, believed he had a comprehensive solution to the challenges of modernity, and the ideational initials of that solution are embedded to one degree or another in his entire ouvre.
The same cannot be said of R. Soloveitchik. However one judges the success of the varying attempts to reconcile the underlying contradictions in R. Soloveitchik’s writings, and I am a bit skeptical about some of them, there can be very little doubt that there are serious differences amongst the writings, even if they do not in the end amount to actual contradictions. The existentialist soul of “Lonely Man of Faith” is altogether different from the neo-Kantian structures of Ish haHalakha and both diverge from the phenomenology of uBikashtem miSham. This is so even if the audiences for each of the essays are different, the languages are different, or whether R. Soloveitchik is addressing himself to the human condition generally, or to the Jewish condition specifically.2
As I shall argue throughout this essay, I believe that in each of R. Soloveitchik’s major essays he takes up a problem in Jewish religious life and thought with which he is struggling at a particular period in his life and which he feels himself equipped to illuminate, and seeks to solve it using the approach which he judges to be most appropriate to the problem (in the context, perhaps, of the intended audience), or the approach to which he is then most attached. The sometimes wholly unrestrained (and sometimes restrained but always present) passionate and personal tone of his essays reflects not purely abstract intellectual inquiry, but rather fierce intellectual and spiritual struggle. Indeed, it is precisely for this reason that the essays are so powerful. In effect, then, we have multiple installments of the intellectual and spiritual autobiography of one of the most creative and fertile Jewish religious minds of the century. And this characterization remains true even if the underlying contradictions can be solved one way or another.
The key point I wish to stress now is that this essential approach makes him even more characteristically 20th century a figure, more current than the 19th century “modernists.” For amongst the hallmarks of the twentieth century intellectual are the eschewal of comprehensive systems, the dissatisfaction with easy solutions, the readiness to try yet again, with different approaches, and by focusing on different issues. In many ways, then, he is the paradigm of the contemporary thinker in segmented search of a satisfactory stance towards modernity, self and tradition.
It must also be stressed that whatever the position ultimately taken, each of the major essays deals with religious Judaism in light of modernity. Whether it is to explain the halakhic life and mind, the religious significance of technology and activism, or the role of creativity, science, nature, and the aesthetic in religious experience, what we find is a consistent struggle to make peculiarly modern theological sense of these themes which recur in his writings, many themselves characteristic of modernity. The varying installments of R. Soloveitchik’s intellectual autobiography, then, are themselves varying attempts to come to terms with different aspects of modernity in different ways. It is as if R. Soloveitchik keeps on gnawing away afresh at different dimensions of the problem, and sometimes even the same dimension without even bothering to footnote his own relevant writings, and without ever being fully satisfied that at last he’s got it, fully solved the problem of modernity for the halakhic Jew.
This characterization is further reinforced by R. Soloveitchik’s use of typology as a philosophical method. For example, Adam I and Adam II in “Lonely Man of Faith” make opposing claims upon the individual, as do lsh Dat and Ish Da’at in Halakhic Man and the natural and revelational experiences in uBikashtem miSham. The openness to antithetical experiences so essential to R. Soloveitchik’s understanding of religious life leads necessarily to a segmented vision and to intellectual and spiritual struggle, which in some instances can in principle never be resolved (Adam I/Adam II in “Lonely Man of Faith”) and in others can be resolved if at all, only at the end of a long and difficult quest (Ish Dat/lsh Da’at in Halakhic Man and the natural experience/revelational experience in uBikashtem miSham).
Yet another point must be made regarding R. Soloveitchik’s modernity: his simultaneous and passionate affirmation of many values of both Brisk and Berlin should not be taken for granted. To use the language of Peter Berger, R. Soloveitchik, “herctically” affirmed Brisk while in Berlin, and “heretically” affirmed many values of Berlin while leading the life of a Brisker rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University.
The typical modern religious person, in Berger’s analytic framework, is acculturated to modernity yet nevertheless “relativizes the relativizers” and “heretically” chooses religious faith.3 By virtue of his family heritage, then “heretic” departure to Berlin (for many members of his family, of course, the quotation marks should here be deleted), then return to the life of the rosh yeshiva, R. Soloveitchik made not one but two “heretic” choices, two self-conscious commitments — he chose not only Berlin while in Brisk, but also Brisk while in Berlin. In R. Soloveitchik, then, we have the distinctive religious faith of modernity squared.
It must be stressed that this is far more difficult and existentially resonant than the choice of so many others who are heir to a path already taken, who may learn daf yomi but also dabble with the impact of Dostoyevsky or Kant for their understanding of the dafs latest aggada. R. Soloveitchik, who embarked alone on the long, long journey to Berlin, took his Kant and Dostoyevsky with infinite seriousness: he fully internalized Berlin, as he had fully internalized Brisk. This makes him as well a powerful paradigm of the peculiarly modern religious quest for a theological vision commensurate with the problematics of constructing an identity which simultaneously affirms both past and present. It is hardly surprising, then, that the theological and existential end product for R. Soloveitchik is a highly personalized quest and world-view. The radical embrace of Berlin and radical re-embrace of Brisk would mean, as we shall see, that R. Soloveitchik can never be fully at home in either, that he must be a “ger ve-toshav” in both.
I have argued up to this point that R. Soloveitchik must be seen as a thoroughly modern figure. However, this does not imply that the choices he made as a thoroughly modern figure are all that might usually be called modern. A thoroughly modern figure can, in his quest for theological and existential self-definition, make some very traditionalist choices, and that R. Soloveitchik most assuredly did.
Perhaps the best way to see this is by reflecting on Walter Wurzburger’s paper in this issue. While Dr. Wurzburger identifies numerous instances in which R. Soloveitchik takes a conservative position in halakhic matters as evidence of his traditionalism, conservative halakha itself is not ipso facto traditionalist. Why shouldn’t the modernist too be mahmir where his reading of the sources or even his reading of the times leads to humra? Instead, I should like to focus on those three areas that R. Wurzburger itemizes as evidence of his modernity: (1) R. Soloveitchik’s endorsement of secular studies and the study of philosophy; (2) his espousal of Religious Zionism; (3) and his advocacy of intensive Jewish education for women.
There can be very little doubt, as R. Wurzburger maintains, that each of these areas reflects R. Soloveitchik’s modernity. Nevertheless, there are strong traditionalist elements in R. Soloveitchik”s views on each of these issues.
Consider first his programmatic advocacy of intensive Jewish education for women, including the study of Talmud. What theoretical framework does R. Soloveitchik use to justify this position, either halakhic or theological? We have no teshuva or theological essay from R. Soloveitchik which lays the conceptual groundwork for egalitarianism on this or related issues. Quite to the contrary. Theologically, R. Soloveitchik insists on role differentiation rather than egalitarianism. In his “A Tribute to the Rebbitzen of Talne,”4 R. Soloveitchik maintains that it is the father’s task to instill in his child “discipline of thought as well as . . . discipline of action”, whereas it is the mother’s task to reach the child emotionally and spiritually, to help him “feel the presence of God . . . to appreciate mitzvot and spiritual values, to enjoy the warmth of a dedicated life”5. Talmud study for women hardly emerges naturally from this conception of the female role.
A similar observation must be made concerning the second area Wurzburger cites as evidence of R. Soloveitchik’s modernity: his Religious Zionism. Without question, R. Soloveitchik here has made a radical break with Traditionalist Orthodoxy and with his own family, a point he makes with great poignancy in Hamesh Derarhot.6 Nevertheless, R. Soloveitchik’s zionism is of a clearly traditionalist stripe. As Wurzburger himself correctly notes, R. Soloveitchik justifies the State of Israel by conservative religious categories, and these include the amelioration of Jewish suffering after the Holocaust, the biblical command to conquer and settle the Land of Israel, and the promotion of Jewish pride7. We have none of the potent eschatology implicit in R. Kook’s writings or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the reconceived religious challenges central to the thinking of David Hartman.
Finally, and I think most importantly, we come to the first area Wurzburger delineates: R. Soloveitchik’s openness to secular culture and philosophy. The significance of his position in this area, especially in light of his family heritage and the prevailing values of Traditionalist Orthodoxy, cannot be overstated. As I noted above, R. Soloveitchik does not simply appropriate a nifty bit of philosophical lore to explain the random midrash: his entire world-view was shaped by his encounter with secular culture, as his theological essays make readily apparent. Even where he specifically asserts that he is making use of philosophical ideas “le-saber et ha-ozen,” toexplain halakhic man to the uninitiated reader,8 which of course is a thoroughly conservative aim, his systematic use of neo-Kantianism reflects more than a mere casual intellectual parlor trick. The ideas themselves re-orient the conception of halakhic man, and it seems likely that R. Soloveitchik himself intellectually identified to at least some extent with the doctrines he used.9 This is surely the case with “Lonely Man of Faith” and many of his other major essays. While R. Soloveitchik may have harnessed his secular learning in some instances to traditionalist aims, that learning itself fashioned his own theological world-view to a significant degree.
This said, the picture which emerges is still not altogether straightforward. While R. Soloveitchik assimilated secular culture to a remarkable degree, he did so in a highly selective manner. Perhaps the most striking lacuna in this regard is the almost complete absence of historical sensibility in his picture of Judaism. To confront secular culture but to ignore the findings of Wissenschaft scholarship, especially with respect to the influence of historical factors in both the development of texts and in the development of halakha, is nothing short of remarkable.
To assert, as Wurzburger does, that for R. Soloveitchik halakha follows its own logic and a priori categories, hardly solves the problem. No doubt R. Soloveitchik did believe that halakha follows its own logic and a priori categories. But even if this is true, what the halakhic text actually says — understood of course within the parameters of its own logic — surely depends upon getting the text right. And critical scholarship has much to say about precisely this question. This is not a matter of applying alien scientific categories to halakhic reasoning, but rather, in the case of lower criticism, following common sense in making sure the text one reads is correct, a methodological principle for when there is ample classic Jewish precedent, as is well known.
Moreover, by Wurzburger’s own testimony, R. Soloveitchik’s halakhic decisions were profoundly, and often apparently even self-consciously, influenced by his perception of the needs of the times, e.g., his opposition to announcing pages during hazarat hashatz; his advocacy of Talmud study for women; his approach to membership in the Synagogue Council of America; and his attitude towards celebrating Thanksgiving, to cite just several examples. As Wurzburger himself notes, “A posek is not a computer”, and subjective elements necessarily play a role in the halakhic decision-making process.
But to concede this is surely to concede too much, for if this is all true, then historical factors do indeed play a role in halakhic decision-making. The “needs of the times” from the perspective of 1965 amount to historical influences from the perspective of 2010.
Of course, it isn’t that R. Soloveitchik was ignorant of the positions of the biblical critics and Wissenschaft scholars. He was surely exposed to them during his student days in Berlin, while at the yeshiva headed by R. Hayyim Heller, and later at Yeshiva University. At least in the case of biblical criticism, he simply asserts that he was never troubled by it.10 His lengthy discussion of the a priori nature of halakha is at very best an argument by indirection only. He never in his published writings confronts head-on the challenges posed by history and Wissenschaft. The problem becomes even more striking when one considers that Wissenschaft spawned the major denominational and intellectual competitor to Orthodoxy, Conservative Judaism, and of course did much as well to nourish its other major competitor, Reform Judaism. Here surely we have challenges to Orthodoxy which cry out for a response.
Several factors may have played a role in R. Soloveitchik’s avoidance of the problem. First, there is his overwhelmingly philosophical orientation in which abstract ideas and logical categories rather than history and text criticism predominate. Second, he may have understood the grave dangers to the tradition which these disciplines posed, and without any clear-cut solution to the problems, which in any case would have fallen outside his personal and professional expertise, he may have felt it would be best simply not to take the problem on.
But according to this second explanation, what might R. Soloveitchik’s own rationale have been for denying the problem? This leads me to the third, and I think central, consideration. R. Soloveitchik portrays the simple man of faith, the “man-child” to use his felicitous formulation, as a religious ideal:
The great man whose intellect has been raised to a superior level through the study of Torah, gifted with well-developed, overflowing powers — depth, scope, sharpness — should not be viewed as totally adult… he remains the young and playful child, naive curiosity, natural enthusiasm, eagerness and spiritual restfulness have not abandoned him. Only the child with his simple faith and fiery enthusiasm can make the miraculous leap into the bosom of God.11
In this depiction of the religious life, R. Soloveitchik was capturing his own faith with stunning accuracy. R. Soloveitchik secured for himself at least one tranquil island of faith amidst the torrent of existential and theological issues with which he mightily struggled and which occasioned his most creative and brilliant theological works. Halakhic Mind12 is a far more sophisticated statement with much the same thesis: that the life of religious faith is epistemically justifiable.
It must be stressed that R. Soloveitchik’s affirmation of the faith of the “man-child” is distinctively modern. It represents a “heretic,” autonomous and even creative choice in the face of intellectual pressure from those precincts of Berlin which he was unprepared to confront with the philosophical weapons he had at his disposal. Surely this should not be surprising. It seems altogether likely that most Modern Orthodox Jewish intellectuals have said to themselves at some point in their intellectual odyssey: “In the end, after all is said and done, with a solution or without, I just believe” Or, in the pungent Yiddish variant, “Fun a kashe shtarbt min nisht (One doesn’t die from a question.)” Given all the penetrating intellectual honesty of the Brisker dynasty to which R. Soloveitchik was heir, we find in his writings no lame excuses, no half-hearted attempts to white-wash a truly serious problem. We find instead a fideistic affirmation of faith, out of the secure corner of the man-child’s soul. How self-conscious was R. Soloveitchik in this regard? Did he choose to make a “heretic” faith affirmation in self-conscious response to the challenges of Wissenschaft? Unfortunately, this question is difficult to answer with any certainty. Either way, however, I wish to stress that his stance is in many ways a prototypic strategy in the Orthodox struggle with modernity. This in turn helps make R. Soloveitchik into a prototypic Modern Orthodox Jewish intellectual whose personal struggle with modernity became paradigmatic for the Modern Orthodox of his generation.
But here we may run into an objection. Isn’t R. Soloveitchik the Maimonidean figure of twentieth century Judaism, courageously rising to confront the full set of challenges that modernity poses, working out comprehensive solutions to the nevukhim, the perplexed of the generation?
In my judgment this is the myth of R. Soloveitchik, a myth which for good sociological reasons found enormous currency amongst many Modern Orthodox Jews, who required an authority figure to make sense of and to some degree justify their participation in modernity. Who better could serve this role than the Rav, brilliant talmid hakham, bearer of the august Soloveitchik name, devoted Brisker interpreter of the Rambam, and philosopher par excellence? I shall have more to say about R. Soloveitchik’s success in fulfilling this role shortly, but for now I want to stress that this Maimonidean image of R. Soloveitchik is a mistaken one. To see this, it would be instructive to start by comparing Maimonides’ response to the most serious challenge he faced in his world-view with R. Soloveitchik’s response to the challenge of history and Wissenschaft. I refer of course to the problem creation ex nihilo posed for Maimonides.
However one reads Maimonides’ true position on this subject, a question of continuing debate amongst Maimonides scholars, there can be very little doubt that he met the challenge head-on. Some thirty chapters of the Moreh focus in one way or another on this question, and Maimonides submits the dilemma to the must rigorous philosophical analysis. The absence of a similar discussion in R. Soloveitchik’s writings on a central divide between Orthodoxy and its rebellious children is altogether telling. And this is indicative of a much more fundamental difference. Maimonides took up the full range of challenges posed by the philosophy of his day, and wrote a comprehensive, if somewhat veiled treatise to serve as a guide to the perplexed of his day. S. R. Hirsch undertook much the same task for his own generation, although he carried out the project in a very anti-Maimonidean way. The key point I wish to make, however, is that we get no such comprehensive treatment of the challenges posed by modernity in the writings of R. Soloveitchik.
Quite apart from the really critical problem of Wissenschaft, we have no published essay by R. Soloveitchik on the question of whether engaging in secular studies is legitimate, on the very doctrine of synthesis so central to the self-understanding of Modern Orthodoxy, as his son-in-law R. Aharon Lichtenstein produced thirty years ago13, and as Dr. Norman Lamm published more recently.14 We do not have full-fledged studies on the nature of authority and ta’amei ha-mitzvot, nor do we even have a fully-worked out philosophy of halakha.15 In addition, as I noted above, we have no full-fledged theological or halakhic study of the role of women and egalitarianism, as we don’t have a study in political philosophy on the role and function of the State of Israel, to cite just several more examples of issues which press hard in the self-understanding of Modern Orthodoxy.
The probable reason for these lacunae, I believe, is that R. Soloveitchik simply wasn’t interested in producing a comprehensive guide to the perplexed of his era. This is either because some of the issues weren’t dilemmas he was struggling with when he chose to pick up his pen and write, or because he may have believed he hadn’t anything “Soloveitchikean” to add to the discussion. By and large, I believe he wrote about matters (a) that touched to the core of his own personal struggles with Jewish self-definition in the modern era; and (b) about which he believed that with his unique blend of Brisk and Berlin he had much to contribute. As he explains in the beginning of the “Lonely Man of Faith,” he wrote in personal confession; if others benefit, then of course all the better.16 While there may be an element of coyness here, beneath the coyness lies a profound truth.
My argument so far has been that while R. Soloveitchik is a thoroughly modern figure, his modern stance towards modernity, so-to-speak, is selective, reflecting his own highly personal faith commitments. I have also argued that the engine which drove his extraordinarily rich theological output is itself selective, reflecting his own intellectual dilemmas and his own capacity to contribute. Now I want to focus on the question of R. Soloveitchik’s role as authority figure for the Modern Orthodox Jews of his era. The point I wish to emphasize is that my analysis should not lead to the mistaken conclusion that R. Soloveitchik was somehow flawed as an authority figure for Modern Orthodoxy, that he didn’t or couldn’t serve as a posek or intellectual role model for a non-traditionalist stance to modernity.
Compelling testimony to R. Soloveitchik’s great success in these spheres may be found in Walter Wurzburger’s essay cited above. On issue after issue, R. Soloveitchik’s pesak served as the basis for the behavior and choices of countless Orthodox rabbis and their congregants. By Wurzburger’s extensive account, R. Soloveitchik, with acute sensitivity to the needs of the time and to his own values, formulated numerous piskei halakha which help define the stance of Modern Orthodox Jews to the halakhic and policy issues of the day.17
It should not be thought that the traditionalist dimension of R. Soloveitchik’s response to modernity impeded his ability to serve as an effective posek and powerful role model for Modern Orthodoxy. Indeed, I would argue that it was precisely his highly personal blend of traditionalist and modern elements which contributed to his success.
This is so for two reasons, one more superficial and the other deeper. At the more superficial (although no less important) level, R. Soloveitchik’s undeniable traditionalism and — although this is a different matter — his capacity for humra, contributed to the perceived legitimacy of his pesak. His day-in-and-day-out engagement in classic talmud Tora, his rosh yeshiva-like bearing, and, on occasion. Brisker humrot, his faithful denial of some aspects of modernity, his elegiac and potent portrayals of the faith, life and values of the Brisk of his youth and the gedolim of another, lost era, quite apart from his truly vast, classical halakhic erudition, all contributed mightily to the legitimacy crucial for Orthodox Jews to accept him as a posek. Indeed, were R. Soloveitchik to have bought fully into modern methods and values, he probably would have failed as a posek for Modern Orthodoxy at that stage in the history of its development in the United States.
The same is true for his equally important role as a model for countless students and nascent intellectuals struggling with the claims of modernity and tradition. His exacting, even stellar, standards in both Talmud and philosophy made him a kind of hero for the modern Orthodox Jew in much the same way as, say, Hazon Ish was a hero and role model for yet a different kind of Orthodox Jew. The importance of this point cannot be overstated.
This leads me to the second and deeper way in which R. Soloveitchik’s highly personal blend of modernity and traditionalism made him the paradigmatic authority for the Modern Orthodox Jew of his generation. Here again the contrast with Maimonides is instructive. Both, of course, were thinkers of the first rank in their respective generations. Yet each functioned differently in his confrontation with the intellectual challenges of the time. To borrow (and abuse) Plato’s concept of tile philosopher-as-king. By this I mean that Maimonides regally confronted the full set of intellectual and religious challenges to the Jews of his era, and produced systematic intellectual and legal guidance on every facet of Jewish life for his needy people. Thus we have his comprehensive Mishne Torah on the one hand and his comprehensive Moreh on the other. I have argued above (in effect) that to understand R. Soloveitchik as Jewish-philosopher-as-king is to embrace the myth of R. Soloveitchik.
But that is not the only model for Jewish intellectual and religious leadership. I would argue that R. Soloveitchik embodied what I shall call the Jewish-philosopher-as-hero.18 By this I mean that R. Soloveitchik’s own passionate intellectual and spiritual life made him a full-fledged heroic figure to the legions of students and intellectuals he touched. Surely the ingredients for heroism are there: his struggle to find philosophically illuminating solutions to the dilemmas he confronted in the deepest reaches of his own mind and soul; his desire as a great teacher to share these personal struggles and powerful insights with his students; his uncompromising intellectual rigor and mastery in Talmud and in philosophy; his drive to contribute his special blend of Brisk and Berlin to the ongoing quest of Jewish philosophy, an achievement, it should be added, which would justify his own adventures in Berlin; and finally, of special importance, his “heretic” affirmation in the face of critical challenges of a very traditionalist spirituality, faith, and love and method of learning.
The Jewish philosopher-as-hero need not solve intellectually every problem that comes his way, nor must he project a univocal world-view in solving the problems he does tackle, nor must teach all there is to teach, in order to achieve success. The “heretic” faith affirmation can be as heroic, as important for the student and follower as the comprehensive regal disquisition. Indeed, it is precisely the selectivity of the intellectual enterprise, the sense that the project is not yet complete, that there is yet more work to be done, that sometimes it may be necessary to start over once again, which makes the philosophical task more alive, more engaging. As in Greek tragedy, the agon itself is heroic. Moreover, as I have argued above, it is precisely tills segmented quest, in which sweeping and perhaps too easy solutions are eschewed, which is so characteristic of the 20th century.19
This approach would surely be most appropriate for the Modern Orthodox Jew who must struggle with his own problematic identity, with the need to make sense of the claims of modernity in the context of his attachment to the past. Who could be more suitable as a hero than R. Soloveitchik, himself struggling in lecture after brilliant lecture and, later, essay after brilliant essay, with precisely these problems, with the themes of modernity and the dilemmas they raise for the Orthodox Jew? And to top it all off, who could simultaneously serve as a world class rosh yeshiva and posek on the one hand, and a legitimizer of such desirable values as Zionism and secular studies on the other. In this very special sense, R. Soloveitchik was the perfect authority figure and role model for the Modern Orthodox of his generation.
No discussion of this subject can be complete without considering some of these questions, if only briefly, sub specie aeternitatis, or, a bit more shortsightedly, from the perspective of 2094 rather than 1994. What will be the enduring legacy of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik?
Unfortunately, we will then no longer have the anecdotal evidence, the rich lore of Torah shebe-al peh which has been so critical (and it must be added, problematic, since there are often conflicting accounts, with concomitant revisionism) to conveying his piskei halakha and his positions on various and sundry issues. Some of these already have been, and undoubtedly will continue to be recorded in various books, but they may well lack the halakhically authoritative status necessary to persuade some future rabbi, since they will not be conveyed with the full halakhic apparatus.
Certainly some halakhic traditions and public policy positions will be passed down from student to student, but how many of these will be passed down, how accurately, and with what authority in the face of whole new generations of poskim and gedolim it is very hard to predict. On the other hand, perhaps in the future some talmid of a talmid of R. Soloveitchik will himself succeed in becoming a world class posek, and will do so despite (because of?) his sensitivity to historical influences and textual criticism. Does this strain credulity? But if it does occur, it too in its own odd way will be a legacy of R. Soloveitchik, even if R. Soloveitchik himself would have disapproved.
We will, it is to be hoped, have more and more of the hiddushei Torah produced by R. Soloveitchik, either by his own pen or by his students. These, again it is to be hoped, will be studied by generations of talmidei hakhamim and considered on their own merits, along with the hiddushim of R. Borukh Ber Leibowitz, R. Yitzhak Z. Soloveitchik, R. Shimon Szkop and numerous other future and past world class roshei yeshiva.
Jewish life in the mid-late 20th century will have been shaped by R. Soloveitchik’s impact as Jewish philosopher-as-hero on several generations of students and students of students, and by his role in the creation and nurturing of the whole Jewish culture we have been calling Modern Orthodoxy, at least in its American guise, with its affirmation of Zionism and secular learning. What this amounts to in the long sweep of Jewish history, however, I leave to others to judge.
And of course, we will have the philosophical writings. Perhaps in the future, in some post-post-post modern era, the problems of modernity will reassert themselves once again, and the essays will be as anguishingly pressing then in exactly the same way that they have been for so many today. But whether or not that is so, I am convinced that future generations will look to R. Soloveitchik’s essays for rich insight into a host of issues raised by his encounter with modernity. There is R. Soloveitchik’s resonant account of the theological significance of technological advancement and human initiative. There are his powerful, multiple portrayals of the quest for God and the life of faith; his sensitive exploration of the religious significance of loneliness and community and of the nature of prayer; and his discussions of the role of science, reason and the aesthetic in the journey towards religious enlightenment. There are his highly complex treatments of human creativity and this-worldliness, themes which run through a number of his essays, and there is his illuminating articulation of the world-view of the Litvak talmid hakham, the nature of halakha and its functions in Jewish life.
Surely he has left us a rich intellectual legacy. Scholars of the future have much work ahead of them, studying his writings and reconstructing his theological views on a wide variety of subjects, some just mentioned above. Constructive theologians will start where R. Soloveitchik left off, carrying forward their own theological programs by reinterpreting, for better or worse (that is the way of theological programs) his essays. Indeed work has already begun in many of these areas, although much remains undone.
And finally, some 100 years from now a student or class at Hebrew University or Harvard, a yeshiva bahur at Gush Etzion or even Mir, and a class at Yeshiva University, will pick up “Lonely Man of Faith” or Ish Ha-Halakha, read it, and stand back in awe and illumination, just as so many did, all those years ago.
1“Orthodoxy in Historical Perspective”, in Peter Medding, ed., Studies in Contemporary Jewry II (Bloomington, 1986), pp 3-17.
2See, for example, A. Ravitzky, “Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on Human Knowledge: Between Maimonideanism and Neo-Kantian Philosophy” in Modern Judaism 6:2 (May, 1986); Eugene Borowitz, “A Theology of Modern Orthodoxy: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik” in Choices in Modern
Jewish Thought, New York, 1983, pp. 218-242; Lawrence Kaplan, “The Religious Philosophy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik”, Tradition, Fall, 1973, pp. 43-64.
3See, for example, A Rumor of Angels (N.Y., 1969), chapt. 2.
4 Tradition (Spring, 1978). While this appears in a eulogy for a hasidic rebbetzin, and the setting is surely relevant to the traditionalist formulation, it was published later as a formal essay in Tradition, and does, I believe reflect at least one aspect of his thinking about the subject.
5Ibid. pp 76, 78. I hasten to add that the point in characterizing R. Soloveitchik’s views here as traditionalist is not at all pejorative. The traditionalist perspective, it can be argued, may be entirely right on this question. But even to assert that it is correct is not to deny its traditionalism.
6Ed. D. Telsner (Jerusalem, 1974) p. 25
7See especially Kol Dodi Dofek (ed. P. Peli, BeSod haYahid vehaYahad, Jerusalem, 1976) and Hamesh Derashot, op. cit., passim.
8 Ish ha-Halakha, Be-Sod ha-Yahid ve-ha-Yahad, ed. P. Peli (Jerusalem, 1976), p. 63 n. 16
9Here I have altered somewhat my views on this issue in “Joseph B. Soloveitchik: Lonely Man of Faith”, D. Singer and M. Sokol, Modern Judaism (October, 1982), p. 237-238.
10“Lonely Man of Faith,” Tradition, Summer, 1965, p. 8-9
11“The Remnant of Scholars” in Epstein, ed. Shiurei ha-Rav (N.Y., 1974), p. 16
12New York, 1986
13“A Consideration of Synthesis from a Torah Point of View”, Gesher (June, 1963), p. 7-15
14 Torah U’Mada (Northvale, 1990) Gerald Blidstein, in his “On the Jewish People in the Writings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik” Tradition, 24:3 (Spring, 1989) makes a similar observation, p. 24
15I emphasize “fully-worked out,” since R. Soloveitchik does of course touch upon a number of these issues in various essays. With regard to a philosophy of halakha, a particularly surprising omission, as Lawrence Kaplan notes, even Halakhic Mind and lsh ha-Halakha are not full statements. See Kaplan’s essay, “Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Philosophy’ of Halakha” in Jewish Law Annual, B.S. Jackson, ed. (N.Y. 1988) p. l39- 197.
16Op. cit. p. 5-6. While “Lonely Man ofFaith” is the most personal of his major essays, I believe that this point nevertheless applies to much of his literary output.
17Here it should be noted that the position R. Wurzburger attributes to myself and David Singer, that because of R. Soloveitchik’s traditionalism he could not function as a posek for Modern Orthodoxy, is simply inaccurate, as a perusal of the article (op. cit., n. 9) will reveal.
18This distinction, minus the philosopher part, may also be useful in considering the roles of other rabbinic authority figures in modernity. I should add that the distinction is different from that drawn by R. Soloveitchik himself, between the “king teacher” and the “saint-teacher”, in his “A Eulogy for the Talner Rebbe” in Shiurei ha-Rav, op. cit. p. 24-26.
19Perhaps it should be added that this model for understanding R. Soloveitchik’s significance sheds light on another phenomenon as well. Even many of R. Soloveitchik’s closest personal disciples perceive him quite differently. The more Brisk-minded take him to be the great Brisker rosh yeshiva who of course dabbled in philosophy. The more Berlin-minded take him to be a great Jewish philosopher who of course was also a great rosh yeshiva. Absent the comprehensive articulation of a world-view, the critical essay on “synthesis”, he can be variously read by various disciples. Complex, multi-dimensional heroic figures, in the sense I’ve described, lend themselves to variant readings even by close disciples, to interpretations which reflect the interpreter as much as the individual interpreted. Such widely variant readings certainly occur in the case of the Jewish philosopher-as-king, and Maimonides is a striking example of this, but it is my impression that they take more time to evolve.