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Review by Israel Drazin
Days of Deliverance
By Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
Ktav Publishing House, 2007, 224 pages
About a dozen volumes were published after Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s death (1903-1993) based on writings he did not publish. This one contains five essays on Purim, four on Hanukkah, and one that discusses both. The editors’ introduction states that the essays focus on “Rabbi Soloveitchik’s classic search for religious meaning in a seemingly cold and arbitrary universe.” The essays do not attempt to reveal the plain meaning of the Purim Megillah, the biblical book narrating the Purim events, or the factual history of the two holidays. They are homiletics, sermons, expressing his view of Judaism.
Rabbi Soloveitchik finds homiletical lessons in details of the Purim Megillah story such as the king becoming drunk on the seventh day, which he says was the Sabbath, although this is not mentioned in the book. He differentiates the pagan bacchanal with the Jewish meal, the se’udah. He accepts Midrashic notions such as Esther being “not attractive by conventional standards. But she found hen, favor, in the eyes of those who saw her.” Even after her seventy-two hour fast, she still had charm, inner strength, and a divine charisma.
He describes Hanukkah as not celebrating a military and political victory, but a spiritual triumph. It is a holiday of the smashing of evil political might that “appeals to all, Jews and non-Jews.”
Rabbi Soloveitchik sees the message of Purim – its sudden and repeated reversals – as exemplifications of “the inherent fragility of the human condition,” a problem that existed during the days of Mordechai and Esther as well as today. He reads into the Megillah “two stories: the story of human happiness and fulfillment, as well as the story of human misery and distress.” He writes that the Megillah teaches “the vulnerability of man in general and specifically of the vulnerability of the Jew.” Since “vulnerability leads to humility,” it teaches that: “Man must practice humility.” What is the source for the vulnerability, pain, problems, and the like? It is not fate or accident. It belongs “to a higher Divine Logos order (wisdom) into which man has not been initiated.” How do problems get resolved? “Man is always the implementer or the executor of God’s will in times of redemption.” People have the ability to resolve many problems and have a duty to do so. People must work. “If man wants to achieve dignity, greatness, and depth, there is only one means that he can employ – work.”
God, according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, is involved in human affairs but God wants man to “take the initiative. Man plans the struggle, engages in action, fights for freedom (as in the battles leading to the Purim and Hanukkah victories). God wants man to play his part seriously, as if the final outcome depended on him exclusively. God, the rabbi writes, helps, “determines the destiny, whether man will suffer defeat or emerge victorious. But the struggle cannot be won without total human involvement.”
As in other of these posthumous books, Rabbi Soloveitchik differentiates male and female roles. Both Mordecai and Esther had significant tasks in saving the Jews from Haman. “The assignments were equal in importance but by no means identical. The assignments differed because there is a basic differentiation of the sexes, not only physiologically, but psychically and spiritually as well. A historical masculine role cannot be assigned to woman, and vice versa, a feminine task must not be imposed upon man.” By “historical role,” Rabbi Soloveitchik seems to be referring to and justifying the need to continue to exclude women from many Orthodox Jewish religious services and practices.
He describes the differences between the sexes: “The man is a teacher; the woman is a disciple. He initiates action; she finishes what he started. He is the theoretician, she the implementer. He thinks in the abstract, she in concrete terms. He is naïve at times; she is practical. She knows the art of cunning, the secret of crafty and dexterous action…. The first intellectual judgment, the first intuitive flash, the primordial revelation of truth belongs to man. However, when it comes to implementation, the woman is the master.”
Whether one agrees with this famous rabbi or not, his views are interesting, and more significantly, many Jews think he is correct. But is he?