The Emergence of Ethical Man

By Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Ktav Publishing House, 2012, 214 pages


Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) was and is still considered the leading rabbinical figure of Modern Orthodox Judaism. His writings stressed that Jews must obey Jewish law (halakhah) even though the rule seems anachronistic and harmful, such as only allowing men to secure divorces. He insisted that the mystical other-worldly views of Nachmanides (1194-1270) are correct and eschewed the rational this-worldly teachings of Maimonides (1138-1204).


This book published after his death seems to negate many teachings people thought the rabbi had. The fourth century BCE Greek philosopher Plato stressed that scholars need to hide their true understandings from the general public who would be unable to deal with them. Plato said that scholars may even make remarks that seem to agree with the popular view to appease them. He called this a “noble lie.” Even Maimonides wrote books with noble lies. This book leads readers to conclude that Rabbi Soloveitchik did so as well.


In this book the rabbi has many views that are similar if not the same as those of the rational Maimonides. God created or formed the world but is transcendental. God is not involved in worldly affairs. The world functions according to the laws of nature, which are good, and do not require constant divine interference and repair. Events that people considered miracles were natural occurrences that seemed unusual. Prophecy is not a communication with the transcendental God, but the use of a high level of intelligence. There is no promise of an after-life in the Hebrew Bible. The concept of reward and punishment simply means that people must live according to the laws of nature, and if they don’t the consequences of natural law will benefit or harm them. However, the rabbi also had ideas that Maimonides would eschew. The following are quotes from this book.



            Rabbi Soloveitchik’s book’s objective is to describe his view of an ethical man by analyzing the Bible’s opening chapters. An ethical person is he who lives according to the laws of nature; “the biological law and the ethical imperative are identical…this is the ideal of Judaism” (82).


God is transcendent

            God is transcendent (52). “God reveals Himself (in Genesis 2) on the one hand as a personality, transcendent and extraneous to the cosmos, and on the other hand as the highest principle of the natural occurrence” (85). People “can never reach a transcendent God…. Man discovers God…within man’s own realm” within himself and through nature (62).


The world functions according to the laws of nature

            The human duty “is to live in full harmony with his environment” (61). “When man frees himself from such natural bonds, he loses contact with his God” (62). “Sin is detachment from nature and non-compliance with her dicta…. Man becomes corrupt when he acts in an unnatural way, not fitting his natural existence” (57). “Christianity has been bent upon a transcendental adventure, namely, to free man from his bondage to the flesh and raise him to a spiritual level. Judaism, in contrast, proclaims the goodness of the whole of man, of the natural” (73). “Christianity viewed instinct as corrupt and sinful; man’s divine essence asserts itself in his spirit, which is always in a state of war with the flesh. Judaism rehabilitates the flesh…attaching the quality of divine image to the biological forces in man” (76).



            “The word ‘miracle’ in Hebrew does not possess the connotation of the supernatural….’Miracle’ describes only an outstanding event which causes amazement” (187).



There is no magical concept of holiness. Holiness is what people consider important. It “is man-made…. A soil (Israel, for example) is sanctified by historical deeds…never by any primordial superiority” (150).



            “God reveals Himself through the cosmos in the natural law” (190). “The demarcation line between revelation and nature is almost non-existent” (188). God never taught the patriarchs about proper living. “He let Abraham find the ethical law” (157). “God came to man after the latter had sought and found Him” (158).


Life after death

“The first concept of immortality as coined by Judaism is the continuation of a historical existence throughout the ages. It differs from transcendental immortality insofar as the deceased person does not lead an isolated, separate existence in a transcendental world” (176). “The historical Abraham as a historical personality attained immortality. Yet, Abraham did not conquer death in the metaphysical, transcendental sense. His immortality is through historical” (by the memory he leaves behind, 169, emphasis is in the book). There is no reward and punishment after death.  “In sum, the blessings and curses of Leviticus 26 do not constitute a promise of reward and punishment, but a statement of fact – man’s confluence with nature” (59). Good and evil are natural results of observing or violating natural law.


Unusual ideas

            Maimonides would not agree with some of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s ideas. For example, while the Bible speaks about the harm done to the country metaphorically, the rabbi follows the view of Nachmanides that all incidences mentioned in the Bible as well as those told in Midrash actually occurred, and writes: “Sin defiles not only human beings, but the earth as well. The earth becomes desecrated, polluted by crime, and needs absolution or atonement” (55).  The rabbi also notes that Christianity “considers man to be completely depraved and corrupt because of original sin” but goes on to accept the notion with a variation: man “split his primeval harmonious ego into two conflicting personalities” the drive to be good and the drive to be evil. Maimonides would not think that ancestors’ misdeeds affect their descendant and that humans have a natural drive to be evil.