Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Confrontation and other Essays

Maggid Books, 2015, 121 pages


This book contains five rather brief essays by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) who was and still is considered by many one of the leading rabbinical figure of Modern Orthodox Judaism. Many books are written about him and by him. I have an entire shelf of his books. 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. The main focus of all the essays is that people need to realize that it is good to be confronted with problems and even suffer because of them because this is the nature of people and helps them grow. People should not search for a peaceful life without any conflict and be, in my words, like grazing cattle.

In the first of the five essays, “The Community,” Rabbi Soloveitchik stresses that people need to be both individuals and members of a community. While these items are contradictory, this idea fits in with his view that “man is a dialectical being; an inner schism runs through his personality at every level,” meaning that humans live at all times with inner unresolvable opposing forces, a constant tension, and this is good, for “the greatness of man manifests itself in his inner contradiction.” He discusses this subject in more detail in his second essay. In the first, he points out that lonely man is free; social man is bound by many rules and ordinances. “Lonely man is a courageous man; he is a protester; he fears nobody; whereas social man is a compromiser, a peacemaker, and at times a coward.” He uses as an example a married couple where each spouse must be him- and herself, yet be a partnership. They must remain both. And this is good.

In his second essay, “Majesty and Humility,” the title expressing two end-points in a spectrum, he writes that the human inner schism that runs through every aspect of his personality is not due to “man’s revolt against His Maker, as Christian theology preached since the days of Augustine,” meaning human struggle is not a punishment for “original sin.” It is a gift; it helps people improve and their society, as in the married couple example. Also, unlike the philosopher Hegel who taught that when there is a struggle – a dialectic – between what he called “thesis” and “antithesis,” and who said the conflict must be resolved with a reconciliation, which removes the struggle, Rabbi Soloveitchik stresses that there should be no reconciliation, no resolution, for the conflict is good.

His third essay is “Catharsis” in which he discusses his view that the “Torah wants man, who is bold and adventurous in his quest for opportunities, to act heroically, and at the final moment, when it appears to him that victory is within reach, to stop short, turn around, and retreat.” This sounds counterintuitive, but the rabbi reminds readers of the statement in Avot 4:1, “Who is strong? He who conquers his drives.”

The fourth essay, “Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah,” focuses on how the rabbi understands these three things, three acts; what people are required to do and what these acts do for people. Among much else, he explains how a slave differs with a free man, and we must not act like a slave; how “prayer helps man discover himself; how pain and suffering are not synonymous, the first is often bad, although it can alert people to something being wrong in their body, the second, suffering, is usually good – it results from struggle; and the rabbi discusses his “dialectic” again.

In his fifth essay “On Interfaith Relationships,” he wrote that he opposes any public debate, dialogue, or symposium concerning the doctrines or rituals of Judaism with people of other religions. However, he did encourage dialogue on socio-humanitarian matters. He recognized that social behaviors are grounded in religion, but felt that the underlying values are not restricted to any religion; they are universal; and talking about them will not hurt either party or their religion. The Rabbinical Council of America accepted this decision.

The book, in short, is thought-provoking, but it is somewhat repetitive, which may be good, for if readers miss a point the first time, they may get it the second or third time. Additionally, the rabbi introduces both mystical and rational ideas to explain a single subject, which could confuse readers. He also uses, arguably overuses, hundred-dollar words. His favorites are “ontological,” “existential,” and “dialectic,” sometimes repeating the word two or three times in a single sentence. These issues aside, and whether a reader likes or dislikes Rabbi Soloveitchik, the man or the ideas, readers will find much to think about in this book, especially his idea about struggling and “dialectic,” and it may change readers, who will no longer worry that they are facing two conflicting ideas or two possible ways of acting; this is normal; this is good.