Review by Israel Drazin
And From There You Shall Seek
By Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
Ktav Publishing House, 2008, 230 pages
This is the tenth volume published after Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s death (1903-1993). Most of these posthumous books are based on writings he did not publish; however this volume is an English translation of the rabbi’s Hebrew 1978 classic “U-Vikkashtem Mi Sham.” The authors of its introduction say that one cannot understand his worldview “without taking account and grappling with this rich and complex work.”
The book has twenty chapters and is 150 pages long. It also has fifty pages of notes, some of which are small essays. It is not a psychological study of people, but a homiletical treatise, a series of sermons, expositions on biblical verses. If Jewish philosophy starts with certain ideas, such as the teachings of Aristotle, as Maimonides did, and then using biblical verses to support them, while theology begins with biblical verses and tries to deduce ideas from them, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s books are theology.
He uses the Bible’s Song of Songs to describe people’s search for God. People retreat from God at the moment of a potential encounter. They experience a to-and-fro with God, sometimes almost feeling an encounter and then losing it. Thus “man” – and by man, the rabbi includes non-Jews throughout this book, except when he specifically speaks of Jews – cannot know God, only the world God created.
He agrees with Maimonides who taught that people have an obligation to “know God by knowing His works – the works of creation” (page 41). But he insists that this is not enough. Man must “fulfill God’s will unconditionally.”
People have two forms of knowledge, the “natural” and “revelation.” They can find God through what they see, hear, smell, taste, and feel; this is the natural way. Revelation is the insight people gain when they understand nature. Religion – indeed life generally – requires both.
Revelation did not end. It gives rabbis the freedom to create new interpretations. Revelation’s purpose is “not in order to take (humans) out of this world, but to reform and elevate it” (123). “The goal of halakhic inquiry is to hew out new ideas and fresh, surprising conceptions” from ancient laws (109). “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, gave the Torah to Israel and commanded us to innovate and create” (110). “Intellect is the final arbiter in all matters of law and judgment (107).”
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s idea of revelation leads him to his concept of religion. Humans begin their search for God with a thirst for freedom, a desire for liberation from tyrannical nature and the travail of life. But “revelational religion lusts for unrestricted control.” God is a stern and terrifying judge, a punisher who demands the sacrifice of self. The goal of religion is “utter subordination,” submitting entirely to God, abandoning one’s will, “unlimited discipline”; a religious person “accepts the (divine) commandments against his will.” He chooses to obey God out of recognition of his greatness. His subjugation is his freedom; “he feels the complete tranquility of the slave who does his master’s bidding” (150). The willingness of Isaac to be bound and sacrificed to God by his father Abraham is the religious paradigm for Rabbi Soloveitchik.
But this does not mean that people should abandon from social life. The prophet Jeremiah taught in 9:23, God wants a person who “exercises loving-kindness, justice, and righteousness on the earth.” The Torah does not forbid people from indulging in pleasure as long as they do so in moderation. It criticizes those who avoid pleasure. Judaism’s this-worldly emphasis is seen in its teaching that miracles occur only when it is absolutely necessary, for Judaism extols the natural order (133). “Man worships his Creator with his body, his eating, and his sexual activity, and this worship is preferable to worship through prayer” (115).
Agree or not with Rabbi Soloveitchik’s teachings that knowledge is important but subordinate to revelation, revelation still exists in the insights people achieve when they study nature, the scarcity of miracles, humanity’s obligation to enjoy life, and enslavement to God and his laws, this book introduces readers to the thinking of a prominent rabbi and prompts them to think about these subjects and use their conclusions to improve themselves and society.