The Philosophy of Joseph B. Soloveitchik

About the book

Providing a concise but comprehensive overview of Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s larger philosophical program, this book studies one of the most important modern Orthodox Jewish thinkers. It incorporates much relevant biographical, philosophical, religious, legal, and historical background so that the content and difficult philosophical concepts are easily accessible.

The volume describes his view of Jewish law (Halakhah) and how he takes the view to answer the fundamental question of Jewish philosophy, the question of the “reasons” for the commandments. It shows how numerous of his disparate books, essays, and lectures on law, specific commandments, and Jewish religious phenomenology, can be woven together to form an elegant philosophical program. It also provides an analysis and summary of Soloveitchik’s views on Zionism and on interreligious dialogue and the contexts for Soloveitchik’s respective stances on two issues that were pressing in his role as a leader of a major branch of post-war Orthodox Judaism.

The book provides a synoptic overview of the philosophical works of Joseph B. Soloveitchik. It will be of interest to historians and scholars studying neo-Kantian philosophy, Jewish thought and philosophy of religion.

Table Of Contents

The Philosophy of Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Acknowledgments

Notes to the Reader

Foreword

1. Overview

2. Biography

3. Background

4. Soloveitchik’s Main Philosophical Writings

5. Zionism

6. Interfaith Dialogue

7. Soloveitchik’s Philosophical Legacy

8. Bibliography

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Highlights from the book

From the Overview

“Joseph B. Soloveitchik has a clear and coherent philosophical project that extends throughout many of his numerous lectures and essays, and much of his work has an intellectual pedigree that winds its way through the history of philosophy, a subject he studied at the University of Berlin. This book spells out Soloveitchik’s most significant philosophical preoccupations. 

“In the 1940s Soloveitchik wrote three important and related essays, whose subsequent publication history has done much to impede understanding of his project. The most famous essay, Halakhic Man, was published in Hebrew in 1948 as ‘Ish ha-Halakhah.’ And From There You Shall Seek was also published first in Hebrew, in 1978, as ‘U-Vikkashtem mi-Sham.’ Finally, in 1986 at the twilight of his career, after the manuscript had been set aside for about four decades—The Halakhic Mind was published.

“When read together, and only when read together, these three works comprise a three-part structure which jointly articulate Soloveitchik’s philosophy of Judaism.”

The Ta‘amei Ha-Mitzvot Problem

“Soloveitchik … reformulated the ta‘amei ha-mitzvot question. Instead of asking for the reason something is commanded, or for what purpose, he tells us to ask instead what effect the commandment has upon the person performing it. The Hebrew word ‘ta‘am’ here means ‘taste’ rather than ‘reason.’ In Soloveitchik’s philosophical program, the ta‘amei ha-mitzvot problem asks how a specific commandment ‘tastes’ to the one who performs it. More precisely, if slightly less literally: what is the experience of fulfilling a commandment? To understand the totality of what it is to be a Halakhic Man, one thus needs to study and define that which shapes his world, the facts of his religion, its objective data—the Halakhah, in its broadest sense.”

The Subjective and Objective

The Halakhic Mind spells out a new program for Jewish philosophy. The program requires taking Halakhah as the objective data of the real world of lived Judaism. This data serves as the basis for reconstructing an idealized subjective consciousness of an authentic Halakhic Mind.” 

Halakhic Man is a rich and complex book with layers of nuance, texture, and detail. On its surface, its primary interest is to describe an idealized version of a person whose worldview is shaped by the ontology of the Halakhah. His personality is a unique concatenation of two incompatible personalities, both of which are individually criticized and even scorned. One personality is the ‘Cognitive Man’ type, and the other the ‘Religious Man’ type. Cognitive Man is characterized by an attitude that drives him to understand the empirical quantifiable universe. This is his overwhelming feature. Religious Man, on the other hand, strives to appreciate and connect with the transcendent mystery of the universe. Both of these personality types are deficient in important ways. Halakhic Man is a special kind of hybrid who is both meticulously quantitative about the law and simultaneously qualitative about how he relates to the mysterious Unknown. The personalities of Cognitive Man and Religious Man are not naturally compatible… Nevertheless, the ‘hybrid’ creative personality of Halakhic Man represents an ideal Jewish person.” 

“We bridge the gap between the objective metaphysics of the Halakhah and the subjective epistemological mind. We describe the causal process going from Halakhah to personality, the relationship between the objective and the subjective, the former giving rise to the latter. We will see how Halakhah molds and creates the personality and consciousness of Halakhic Man. The resultant personality contains aspects of both Cognitive Man and Religious Man, as well as a full range of conflicting emotions and values including: joy and sadness; majesty and humility; a compulsion to both approach and retreat from God; and love and fear Him, among many other emotions. We will see how Halakhah creates Halakhic Men by setting their ontological categories of experience, by defining the objects of their world, and by mandating actions that evoke emotional and spiritual experiences. This process only happens in this way for those people for whom halakhic categories are meaningful. The halakhic personality that emerges is a rich and conflicted one. By grappling with the tensions of these opposing forces the greatness of Halakhic Man emerges.”

“Halakhic Man is pulled by opposing needs to know and to understand. He also experiences the gamut of dialectical tensions. He feels conflicted, and this is his greatest asset. He thrives on the inner turmoil constantly created by the opposing drives. Soloveitchik describes in great detail the two conflicting sides that make up each aspect of an ideal Jewish personality. He describes the nature of the tension itself and how the two elements interact to produce that novel personality that is the essence of Halakhic Man. Just as there are many aspects of Halakhah, so too is Halakhic Man multifaceted.”

Zionism

“Soloveitchik’s attachment to the state of Israel and its religious institutions was deep and visceral. His talks and publications on Zionism bear few marks of prior philosophical influence and connection to earlier political thinkers.”

“Although Soloveitchik’s Zionism is mostly non-Messianic he argues that if the State of Israel is a fulfillment of the prophetic vision, and a vehicle toward complete redemption, then religion must be an integral part of the state. From a pragmatic perspective, he argued that a state with religious legislation helps counter accusations of dual loyalty directed at diaspora Jews. Loyalty to Israel could then be interpreted as religious rather than nationalistic. Also, religious commonality strengthens ties between Jews in the diaspora and those in Israel. Soloveitchik also believed that state sanctioned cultural, educational, and spiritual projects would convince secular Jews that Judaism can add meaning to their lives.”

Interfaith Dialogue

“A faith community other than one’s own puts man in the position of being ‘doubly confronted.’ Jews bear a double load: to act as dignified individuals as part of the universal human experience and also to act as sanctified people as part of a covenantal community. These dual confrontations, the universal and the covenantal, allow for communication only if, unlike in the past, both parties enjoy equal rights and full religious freedom, and importantly, only if they are coordinating on matters of universal human concern and not particular theology. 

“Being uncertain of the outcome of the ecumenical council, Soloveitchik wrote wearily, ‘We are not ready for a meeting with another faith community in which we shall become an object of observation, judgment and evaluation, even though the community of the many may then condescendingly display a sense of compassion with the community of the few and advise the many not to harm or persecute the few.’ In a period in which Jews still had not yet fully recovered from the trauma of the Holocaust or appreciated the renewal that was the state of Israel, Soloveitchik did not seek or want Christian pity, however generous or well intentioned.”  

Biblical Criticism

“In a recurring theme…, in The Lonely Man of Faith Soloveitchik provides us with a novel model for how to not be bothered by biblical criticism. This at once provides a defense of his larger philosophical program by showcasing the biblical (i.e., halakhic) precedent for his approach. The Lonely Man of Faith is a poetic midrash (Bible exegesis), if you will, in which Soloveitchik shows that the two accounts of Adam in Genesis are not different versions of the same event, but rather descriptions of two aspects of man (or at least a certain kind of Man), which Soloveitchik refers to as Adam the First (Adam I) and Adam the Second (Adam II). What to critics is proof of multiple biblical authors are to Soloveitchik two condensed personality sketches reflecting two aspects of man, both of which are sanctioned and willed by God. What to bible critics demonstrate the human hand in biblical authorship is to Soloveitchik a meditation on the loneliness inherent in a life of faith. 

“Soloveitchik takes the two versions of the creation story to be telling us about two personality types which together make one an ideal man of faith. Soloveitchik unpacks each of the two versions of the creation of Adam and extracts a personality sketch from each.” 

… 

“Soloveitchik … failed to address in a comprehensive manner the challenges posed by Biblical criticism toward the integrity of the Pentateuch, Judaism’s most sacred text.” 

About the authors

Heshey Zelcer

Heshey Zelcer is a founder of akirah: The Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought, and a member of its editorial board. He has published books and articles on Jewish law, philosophy, history and liturgy. Contact Heshey at HZelcer@ReliableHealth.com.

Mark Zelcer

Mark Zelcer is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Queensborough Community College, City University of New York. He has published in various areas of philosophy including the philosophy of mathematics and ancient philosophy. He co-authored Politics and Philosophy in Plato’s Menexenus (Routledge, 2015). Contact Mark at Mark.Zelcer@gmail.com.

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