Family Redeemed

By Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Ktav Publishing House, 2000, 207 pages


This is one of about a half dozen volumes published after Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik death (1903-1993) based on writings he never published. This one, the first of the posthumous volumes, contains six essays that focus on family relationships. It is the second of his posthumous book that I read – see my review of The Emergence of Ethical Man, which is the most recently published volume. In both, contrary to the current thinking of many religious Jews, the rabbi frequently uses biblical sources that show that Judaism expects its adherents to live a full, enjoyable, and natural life. These ideas, although opposed by many in Judaism’s right wing, are not contrary to the halakhah. However, as we will see, his views about women, based on halakhah, do not reflect this open spirit.


In his essay “Adam and Eve,” he states that “man is part of nature” and must act according to its laws. “Indeed, the naturalistic formula of man – the conception of the human being as a part of nature – was a truism among Hazal (the ancient sages).” Both humans and animals “belong to nature; both sprang forth from the soil.” The difference is that humans are created in “the image of God.” This is “not a gratuitous grant…but rather a challenge.” Man “is encouraged (to use his distinctiveness) to build, to plant, to beautify his life, to enjoy his life as much as he can (within reason).” His earthly role is to create “change, improvement and progress.”


Man, Rabbi Soloveitchik writes, needs a wife. He describes a woman as “a totally different existential image, her companionship helps man to liberate himself from his loneliness.” Some will see this depiction as patronizing, a view reinforced by his other comments. He compares the ideal woman to the matriarch Sarah who is “modest, humble, self-effacing. She enters the stage when she is called upon, acts her part with love and devotion in a dim corner of the stage, and then leaves by a side door without applause and without the enthusiastic response of the audience which is hardly aware of her. She returns to her tent, to anonymity and retreat.” What is the female nature? “The spiritual essence of man differs from that of a woman.” “The woman is both a demonic and Divine crisis personality.” “The eye of the father is focused upon the objective expression of faith, the eye of the mother upon affection and love.” What are male and female roles? “Men and women are different personae, endowed with singular qualities and assigned different missions in life.” Fathers and mothers must teach their children. A father’s “teaching is basically of an intellectual nature. Judaism is to a great extent an intellectual discipline, a method, a system of thought, a hierarchy of values.” Where do women fit in this intellectual hierarchy? “The mother creates the mood (in the family home); she is the artist who is responsible for the magnificence, solemnity and beauty”


Rabbi Soloveitchik identifies six characteristics of a good marriage in his essay “Marriage,” focusing on sex, emotions, and the education of children: (1) To marry means commitment to one’s sexual partner. (2) “Marriage without carnal enjoyment and erotic love is contrary to human nature… The ethic of marriage is hedonistic, not monastic.” (3) Each should support the other “to fulfill his or her desire for a child.” (4) The couple is “bound by mutual civil and economic duties.” (5) Each must have and show “affection and appreciation” to the other. (6) They have a duty to teach their children.


In “Redemption of Sexual Life,” he teaches that holiness is not bestowed by God as a gift nor is it inherent in something. Holiness is created by people by their actions, and people have a duty to act. In “Parenthood,” Rabbi Soloveitchik repeats his teaching that “Judaism has always opposed an unnatural life.” So, too, in the conclusion of “Honor and Fear of Parents,” he states “the encounter of man and God can only occur if man, in his quest for the ultimate and eternal root, is also concerned with the little, conditioned and transient this-worldly roots.” Many Jews, especially those with a mystical bend, understand the concept of Shekhinah, the divine presence, in a polytheistic manner, as a divine being separate from God. In “Torah and Shekhinah,” the rabbi rejects this view and understands Shekhinah as a human feeling of the divine.


In summary, this posthumous book by Rabbi Soloveitchik shows him reflecting the views of many modern Jews that Judaism requires them to live a non-monastic, full, healthy, vigorous, and enjoyable life, within reasonable restraints. However, it also shows that his views on women, while based on halakhah, are, arguably, outdated.