His Mentor's Protege

"Love and Terror in the God Encounter - The Theological Legacy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Volume I," by David Hartman, Jewish Lights Publishing, 276 pages, $17.50.

Eliot Sacks
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Eliot Sacks

"Love and Terror in the God Encounter - The Theological Legacy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Volume I," by David Hartman, Jewish Lights Publishing, 276 pages, $17.50

A conference was held late last year in Jerusalem to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Shalom Hartman Institute of Advanced Judaic Studies and the 70th birthday of its founder, David Hartman. The conference happily coincided with the publication of Hartman's latest book, "Love and Terror in the God Encounter." The book is the first of a projected two-volume study of the theological legacy of Hartman's former teacher at Yeshiva University in New York, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

Hartman has been for some decades now one of the more thoughtful and outspoken voices in Jewish theology, first in the United States and Canada, and later in Israel. He trained as an Orthodox rabbi and studied under Rabbi Soloveitchik for a decade. At the same time, he obtained his doctorate in philosophy at the Jesuit Fordham University and taught Jewish philosophy, first at McGill University in Canada and later at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he is now emeritus professor.

Hartman is known for the passion and conviction with which he engages Jewish philosophers of the past and present, and for his insistence on bringing those philosophers' works into confrontation with the most pressing existential and moral concerns of contemporary Jewish life. One of the speakers at the conference held in his honor, a professor at Hebrew University, recounted how he succeeded Hartman as lecturer in medieval Jewish philosophy at McGill. The professor began by introducing the class to the arcane topic of medieval philology only to be met by a barrage of questions from his disgruntled students wanting to know what relevance this had to the existential predicament of modern man. The professor quickly understood what it meant to teach philosophy the Hartman way.

The present book is a critical examination of the theological world view of Rabbi Soloveitchik. Hartman's own theological views take a back seat. His presentation is generous and sympathetic throughout. Even when being critical, Hartman is never dismissive but invariably attempts to provide Soloveitchik with as cogent a defense as he can muster. In this respect, the book is an object lesson in how to present a thinker's views in a tone which, though at times critical, is always respectful.

This is not to say, however, that the book is uncontroversial. In fact, the book has a clear polemical intent. Part of Hartman's purpose in writing the book, as he indicates in his introduction, is to rescue his teacher's intellectual legacy from what Hartman calls the "revisionist interpretation" which has emerged with respect to it in recent years.

Soloveitchik, through his work at Yeshiva University, was a seminal influence on a generation of rabbis and teachers who forged a religious outlook which became known as "modern Orthodoxy" - an outlook which, while remaining scrupulously loyal to tradition, was also open to the influence of Western culture and society. Soloveitchik himself was the scion of a distinguished line of Lithuanian roshei yeshiva, and at the same time was steeped in Western philosophy. His theological writings make reference to Plato, Aristotle, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as frequently as they do to Rashi and Maimonides.

Soloveitchik dazzled and inspired a generation of thinkers who saw in him a model of the contemporary Jewish scholar, deeply learned in and committed to the traditional Jewish texts while at the same time not frightened to engage with the profoundest thinkers of Western intellectual history.

In recent years, however, there has been a move within Orthodox circles to play down Soloveitchik's originality and to portray him as a traditional Lithuanian rosh yeshiva in the classical mold. According to this view, Soloveitchik's engagement with the Western philosophical tradition was apologetic in intent, a ruse, if you like, to draw college-educated Jews back to the paths of traditional Judaism. For the Revisionists, Judaism is an intellectually self-sufficient system. The decades in which Soloveitchik was intellectually active were a period of Western intellectual self-confidence and Jewish insecurity. At that time, apologetics and accommodationism were in order.

Today, the scales have tipped: The triumphalism of Western culture has been called into question while traditional Judaism is enjoying an unprecedented renaissance. In the present climate, Jewish learning can afford to drop its dissimulation and proudly return to its intellectual isolationism.

Courage along the halakhic path

For Hartman, the revisionist's picture is a travesty of the real Soloveitchik. (Indeed, it might occur to the reader at this point that the revisionist's isolationism is as much a product of historical circumstance and as little an eternal truth about Judaism as the position it opposes.) For Hartman, Soloveitchik was a bold and original thinker who, like his medieval hero Maimonides, defied neat categorization. Such figures invariably pose problems for Orthodox establishments. Where the figure is, for whatever reason, too important and influential to be marginalized, he must be trimmed at the edges to fit in. Memory must bow to ideology, albeit that the price of such homage is a certain staleness and conformity.

For post-modernists, there may be no way of getting beyond ideology to the "historical truth." For those of us who are still happy to stick with modernism, what is called for is a meticulous and balanced study of what Soloveitchik actually wrote. This is what Hartman aims to give us in this volume.

What, then, is the intellectual legacy of Rabbi Soloveitchik? For Hartman, Soloveitchik represented a Judaism committed to intellectual courage, integrity and openness. And yet the matter is not quite so straightforward. For no sooner does Hartman tell us of Soloveitchik's intellectual openness than he also reminds us that in matters of practical halakha, he was a staunch conservative. In all of Soloveitchik's vast corpus, Hartman tells us, there are no significantly new halakhic guidelines and no major responsa which disclose a susceptibility to modern concerns and sensibilities. It appears that the discomfort with radical innovation is not just a concern of the revisionists; it lived within Soloveitchik himself. This sense of an unresolved tension lurking within Soloveitchik himself resurfaces throughout Hartman's book.

Hartman begins with a study of Soloveitchik's first published work in Jewish philosophy, "Halakhic Man" (originally published in Hebrew in 1944 as "Ish Hahalakhah"). The work is a phenomenological and anthropological account of halakhic man (to be more precise, a particular kind of halakhic man, namely the talmid hakham of the Lithuanian yeshiva world). That is to say, what Soloveitchik attempts is not a defense of halakhic man's belief system, but rather an account of how halakhic man experiences the world and what kind of life halakhic man constructs for himself.

At a time when many Jewish theologians looked disparagingly upon halakha and saw the true vitality of Jewish tradition as lying elsewhere, Soloveitchik sought to reassert the centrality of halakha in authentic Jewish experience. For him the halakhic path was not to be identified with blind obedience and intellectual timidity. Nor did authentic religious experience require breaking the chains of physical existence in order to ascend to some other-worldly transcendent realm.

Soloveitchik's halakhic man is neither the homo religiosus of Western theology, the man for whom this world is but a pale image of another, nor is he the caricature of the servile, intellectually timid shomer mitzvot.

Halakhic man's sensibility is rooted in the physical world; the holiness he seeks out is "the holiness of the concrete." He is rooted in time: He has a keen sense of the past - of the tradition which he has inherited - and of the future - of the moral perfection of the world which is the telos of his thought and action. Halakhic man lives inside his body. Not for him, the tortured split of body and spirit which characterizes homo religiosus: Halakhic man experiences bodily existence as a source of joy, not suffering. Halakhic man is also rooted in community. For him, moral activism is not the antithesis of holiness but the very essence of its expression: Halakhic man hears the cry of the oppressed and seeks to correct the injustices of the world. Above all, halakhic man is a creator. Like a mathematician, halakhic man creates an ideal world through his Talmud study (the essence of Lithuanian talmudic study is to produce hiddush - innovation, novel interpretation). Through halakhic practice, halakhic man creates himself. This is exemplified in the process of teshuvah (repentance), through which halakhic man fashions within himself a new "I." Halakhic man is thus a creator of worlds and a self-creator. Through his study and his practice, he rises above faceless mediocrity and attains true inner freedom.

The two Adams

Soloveitchik's portrait of halakhic man is passionate and profound, bold and distinctive. It offers a powerful alternative to romanticized conceptions of the religious life prevalent not only in Western thought, but within the Jewish tradition itself. It offers a conception of the ordered, disciplined and intellectual life of the Lithuanian Talmud scholar as a life of nobility and creativity.

However, the portrait has its shortcomings. As Hartman well observes, there is little, if any, room in Soloveitchik's account for vulnerability or spontaneity as qualities which may enrich the human personality. Soloveitchik tells the story of Rabbi Elijah Pruzna who, upon hearing that his beloved daughter had only moments left to live, inquired of the doctor whether he had enough time to remove his Rashi's tefillin and put on his Rabeinu Tam tefillin, since immediately upon his daughter's death, he would be exempt from performing the commandments. For Soloveitchik, this is an example of halakhic heroism.

Hartman, who until now has maintained an admirably objective tone, cannot hold his calm in the face of such a story. "Such stories evoke an eerie, even repugnant, feeling in me for Rabbi Elijah," he writes. The best defense Hartman can offer for these stories is that they "reflect Rabbi Soloveitchik's deep concern not to identify halakhic man with the bourgeois religious personality who joins the church or synagogue to find some tranquillity." One is tempted to retort that if these stories are anything to go by there is something to be said for the bourgeois religious personality.

The other problem with Soloveitchik's account of halakhic man's creativity and freedom is encapsulated in the following passage: "He [halakhic man] recognizes no authority other than the authority of the intellect (obviously, in accordance with the principles of the tradition)." The rub is in that casually parenthetical closing remark. The passage raises with particular clarity the conflict inherent in Soloveitchik's thought. Soloveitchik's attempt to construct an ideal personality type who is both utterly loyal to tradition and at the same time engaged in the heroic task of self-realization, is fraught with tension. Hartman closes his discussion of Halakhic man by asking whether Soloveitchik is trying to square the circle. Wisely, he does not attempt to answer.

"The Lonely Man of Faith," Soloveitchik's most famous theological essay, offers a more complex phenomenology. The essay is an extended midrashic reflection on the two versions of the creation of man at the beginning of the book of Genesis. For Soloveitchik, these stories represent two types, or aspects, of man, whom Soloveitchik labels "Adam the first" and "Adam the second." Adam the first, the subject of the first chapter of Genesis who is commanded to subdue the earth and have dominion over its inhabitants, is majestic man. The characteristic feature of Adam the first is his sense of dignity, achieved through mastery and control of his environment. The scientific and technological achievements of modern man represent the apotheosis of Adam the first. Yet, there is an aspect of human existence which remains elusive to Adam the first. Man seeks to overcome his deep inner loneliness, a loneliness born of self-awareness. Conscious of his transient existence, he yearns for redemption through in-depth relationship and communication, and this cannot be achieved through mastery.

On the contrary, the path to redemption, to true companionship with both God and man, is through sacrificial gesture and defeat. These are the hallmarks of Adam the second. According to Soloveitchik, the contemporary man of faith suffers this loneliness in a particularly acute form, being cast adrift in a world which seemingly finds virtue only in the comfortable self-assertion of Adam the first.

Like halakhic man, but with greater depth and nuance, the lonely man of faith explores the inner yearnings and conflicts of the man of faith. As such, the essay is intended as a challenge to the superficial complacency and avoidance of spiritual struggle which characterizes not only Western secular society, but also much of contemporary religious practice.

Jewish-Christian dialogue

Hartman, in his account of the essay, brings to the fore an element not usually, or not sufficiently, emphasized by other commentators, namely its universality. The faith experience described by Soloveitchik in the essay is not unique to the Jewish religion. In describing the inner world of the man of faith, Soloveitchik adopts a language which both draws on non-Jewish sources and is capable of speaking to a non-Jewish audience. This facet of his thought renders all the more puzzling the position adopted by Soloveitchik in perhaps his most influential essay, "Confrontation." Published in 1964, the essay's conclusions were adopted by the Rabbinical Council of America in the form of a halakhically binding ruling. The essay addresses the question of Jewish-Christian dialogue, its legitimacy and limits.

Soloveitchik's position is that while Jews and Christians may meet to discuss shared social and ethical concerns, discussion of theological matters is out of bounds. "The great encounter between God and man is a wholly personal private affair incomprehensible to the outsider - even to a brother of the same faith community." But if this is so, asks Hartman, how can Soloveitchik avail himself of the writings of Kierkegaard, Barth and Otto in order to deepen his own religious self-understanding? Indeed, if religious experience is incommunicable even to "a brother of the same faith community," why bother writing theology at all? Hartman's answer is that "Confrontation" is a "political responsum that addresses the issue of public and politically charged discussions between Judaism and Christianity as institutions."

Historically, public encounters between Judaism and Christianity have been tainted, often unintentionally, by a long Christian tradition of supersession. For Soloveitchik, a faith community represents a unique and exclusive path toward the service of God. The faith community must not betray its uniqueness by seeking in a servile manner to justify its existence in terms dictated by another faith community. However, none of this takes away from the fact that for Soloveitchik, the Jew has a dual identity - as a member of the human race and as a member of a unique covenantal community. As Hartman puts it, "Rabbi Soloveitchik and Maimonides are examples of the way in which intense particularity and appreciation for the universal can live in the soul of the same individual."

In the final chapter of his book, Hartman turns to a subject which preoccupied Soloveitchik in many of his writings: prayer. Prayer, for Soloveitchik, encapsulates many of the central motifs and tensions of the life of faith. In prayer, man experiences the contradictions of "affirmation and negation, self-abnegation and self-appreciation." Prayer is a sacrificial gesture of total commitment to God. At the same time, the attitude of the man of prayer is not one of quietism and passivity. The covenantal encounter with God goes hand in hand with the covenantal encounter with one's fellow man; prayer is not a separate activity, but "the sublime prologue to halakhic action."

Once again, however, in the case of prayer, we encounter the tensions which for Soloveitchik, as Orthodox rabbi, are inescapable. As Hartman informs us, Soloveitchik was vehemently opposed to even the slightest change in the traditional forms of prayer. According to Soloveitchik, contemporary man is unworthy to stand before God in prayer and only dares to do so by dint of the precedent established by our forefathers. It is therefore presumptuous to tamper with the forms of prayer established by those forefathers. This position is surprising, to say the least. Where is the bold, innovative creator of halakhic man?

Hartman is openly critical of Soloveitchik's approach to prayer. However, it is a mark of his respect for his teacher that Hartman attempts an elaborate defense of Soloveitchik's position. For Hartman, Soloveitchik offers two modes of standing before God: one, exemplified by the halakha, emphasizes man's bold, creative self-affirmation; the other, exemplified by prayer, emphasizes the deep contradictions of love and terror inherent in the encounter with God. The latter type of encounter cannot be fully captured or expressed within the halakhic tradition.

I am not persuaded by Hartman's valiant defense of his teacher. Nevertheless, it highlights once again the essential tension which has been present throughout Hartman's presentation of Soloveitchik's thought. Soloveitchik was a sober and conservative man of halakha par excellence. At the same time, his theological writings are suffused with an intense passion to understand and express the experience of the man of faith - a passion which drew him to engage with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as well as Maimonides and Rashi. It remains an open question to what extent these two forces can live together without tearing each other apart.

The tensions inherent in Soloveitchik's work reveal an intellect that is not frightened to take risks. Emerging from a religious milieu which looked upon the outside world with deep suspicion, Soloveitchik was a singular and bold thinker. He was, without doubt, one of the most significant thinkers in the history of Orthodox Judaism. Today more than ever, it is essential that his legacy is not forgotten or, worse still, sanitized.

In Hartman, Soloveitchik has found a worthy interpreter. Respectful yet critical, Hartman offers a scrupulous reading of Soloveitchik's works which does full justice to their complexity and depth. We look forward to Volume 2.

Hartman's own work is subject to searching analysis and appreciation in a splendid two-volume collection of essays produced in honor of his 70th birthday. "Renewing Jewish Commitment - The Work and Thought of David Hartman" (in Hebrew, published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad in conjunction with the Shalom Hartman Institute, 2001) is edited by Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar of Bar-Ilan University and brings together original essays by many of the leading scholars working in the field of Jewish studies in Israel today. A further volume of essays in English is in the pipelines. The collection is a fitting tribute to a man who, through his writing and practical work, has enriched the religious-cultural debate in Israel and who will, we hope, continue to do so for many years to come.

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