Did Rabbi Soloveitchik understand Judaism?

Love and Terror in the God Encounter

The Theological Legacy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

By David Hartman

Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001, 219 pages

 

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) was and still is the leading rabbinical
figure of Modern Orthodox Judaism. He was the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva
University, the senior lecturer on Talmud. He was the advisor to the Rabbinical
Council of America, the organization of about 1,000 Orthodox rabbis. Since many
of today’s Modern Orthodox rabbis graduated from Yeshiva University and belong
to the Rabbinical Council of America, his influence upon the rabbis and, hence,
upon their congregations has been great. Who was this man? David Hartman, one
of today’s leading thinkers, a rabbi and Ph.D., evaluates the thinking of Rabbi
Soloveitchik in this interesting and revealing book.

 

This volume was first published in 2001 and reissued in 2004. It was the winner of
two National Jewish Book Awards. In his more recent book about Rabbi
Soloveitchik, The God Who Hates Lies, Confronting & Rethinking Jewish
Tradition, published in 2011, Dr. Hartman points out that Modern Orthodox
Judaism has in many respects been frozen in suspended animation, refusing to
budge and grow despite moral imperatives and logic, resulting in many people
being harmed.

 

A prime example of this  phenomenon is the failure of Modern Orthodox leaders to address the problem of
the aguna, the “chained one,” the wife whose husband refuses to give her a Jewish
divorce and who is unable to remarry. This situation exists because of an
interpretation of the Torah that only a man can give a divorce. It exists today
because of the ruling issued by Rabbi Soloveitchik, Dr. Hartman points out,
that the age-old interpretation and practice should not be changed despite the
harm that it inflicts upon many women. I described this issue in my review of
this book and in an article about what Dr. Hartman considers “Rabbi
Soloveitchik’s Mistake,” which can be found, among other sites, in my website
at www.booksnthoughts.com. The
problem, in short, is that despite his profound learning, Rabbi Soloveitchik
was very conservative in his thinking and practices and insisted that even when
matters do not seem to make sense Jews must, as the Protestant theologian Soren
Kierkegaard stated, take a leap of faith.

In this earlier book, Dr. Hartman analyses
several of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writings. According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, the Halakhic
Man, the title he gave one of his most influential writings, is a Jew who
follows the teachings of the Torah as interpreted by the ancient rabbis. A Jew,
in his view, “studies halakhah (Jewish law) simply because it is an extension
of God’s word.” Not because, as the great sage Moses Maimonides (1138-1204)
wrote, to acquire true ideas and to improve oneself and society.

 

Dr. Hartman explains that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man “is surrounded by clear
normative principles. His perception of the world is firmly anchored.” He “is
controlled by the normative halakhic framework…. Halakhah defines not only what
halakhic man will see, but also the emotions with which he responds to
prosperity and tragedy,” even to the terrible tragedy of the “chained woman.”

 

Rabbi Soloveitchik
gives as his model the story of Rabbi Elijah Pruznu whose beloved daughter was
dying, who asked her doctor how many minutes his daughter had until she would
die. When he received the doctor’s reply, he returned to his room to put on the
tefillin, which Orthodox Jews wear for the morning service, because once his
daughter died he would, by the halakha, be unable to wear them until she was
buried. Then he took them off and went to his daughter’s room just in time to
see her die.

 

Hartman comments,
“There is something abnormal – one might even say inhuman – about R. Elijah’s
behavior. One would normally expect a father to want to be with his daughter in
her final moments. When a child is dying, one would not expect a father to
worry about such a question as, What mitzvot (biblical commands) will I be unable
to perform when my status changes to a mourner?” This is the kind of
indifference that prompted Rabbi Soloveitchik to rule that the chained woman
must stay shackled.

 

Rabbi Soloveitchik sees the Halakhic Man as not “the harmonious individual…but the torn soul and
the shattered spirit…involved in an irresolvable contradiction.”  The Jew, according to his view of Judaism
acknowledges “total dependency and helplessness before God, that only God is
mighty and not they, that God is holy and they are but dust and ashes.”

 

These are the views of Rabbi Soloveitchik and he has
many followers. But they are not the teachings of many others,
such as Maimonides. Soloveitchik’s critics, who are mentioned in this book, say that he
misunderstood Judaism.

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