Defusing the Rav’s Bomb
R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik was the dominant intellectual force in mid-twentieth century American Orthodoxy. In reviewing The Emergence of Ethical Man in the latest issue of Commentary, Yoram Hazony claims to discover un-Orthodox ideas in R. Soloveitchik’s posthumously published book that breach, or expand, the bounds of Orthodox Judaism. I believe that this “bombshell” is all a misunderstanding, as I will attempt to show below.
Hazony is a serious thinker and I am merely an amateur enthusiast. While this all seems to me to be a straightforward matter of Hazony’s misreading and overreading, I wonder whether I have misunderstood his claims. I therefore offer this tentatively and encourage readers to see his article in the original rather than judging it based on my summary and response. That said, my inexpert reading of Emergence finds many original ideas but nothing remotely un-Orthodox, particularly when seen in conjunction with R. Soloveitchik’s other writings.
In the following response, I have divided Hazony’s challenges into two comments about the book in general and four fundamental beliefs that he claims R. Soloveitchik rejects in this book (the existence of a soul, the afterlife, prophecy and miracles). I contend that all six are incorrect.
I. Should the Book Have Been Published?
Hazony writes that the posthumous publication of books like this, based on recorded lectures, notes and unfinished manuscripts, is “problematic, morally and intellectually” (p. 48). His initial concerns are absolutely valid. However, his subsequent discussion seems to acknowledge that refraining from publication is also problematic because it condemns to oblivion a great man’s lifework, denying him the privilege of teaching from the grave and preventing many students from learning his original thoughts. R. Soloveitchik’s disciples grapple with this and reach different conclusions.
In my experience, the Toras HoRav foundation puts in more effort than anyone else to edit the material as R. Soloveitchik would have wanted and carefully consider the pros and cons of publication, enlisting R. Soloveitchik’s family, confidantes and leading students. From my discussion with people involved, I see the agonizing debate and soul-searching that enters these decisions. They make no claims to perfection and attempt to be clear about the sources of material and editorial process. Every decision can be challenged, and I don’t necessarily agree with every one they have made, but they are hardly acting irresponsibly.
After reading Emergence the first time, I reached the conclusion that this book is among the most original and important of the Toras HoRav series. While I have been challenged on that, nothing has been able to change my mind. This book breaks new ground and offers many surprising textual and philosophical interpretations. I have since seen notes from one of R. Soloveitchik’s graduate courses in the 1950′s where he taught similar ideas. To my mind, this book had to be published.
II. Halakhic Philosophy
Hazony points out that R. Soloveitchik concludes his Halakhic Mind with a call for a new kind of Jewish philosophy, one that emerges from halakhah: “Out of the sources of halakha a new worldview awaits formulation” (p. 102). Yet, Emergence is based largely on the narratives in Genesis and Exodus rather than halakhah. What, Hazony asks, is up with that?
Hazony is correct but overstates his case. You would not know from this review that, in Emergence, R. Soloveitchik analyzes the complex laws of zera’im and tumah. More importantly, this same challenge can be posed to many of R. Soloveitchik’s other writings. Isn’t The Lonely Man of Faith based on the two Creation narratives and Kol Dodi Dofek on Shir Ha-Shirim? We can similarly point to Confrontation and And From There You Shall Seek. Where is this proposed new worldview that supposedly emerges from halakhah?
Scholars debate whether R. Soloveitchik fully succeeded in realizing his ambitious call at the end of Halakhic Mind. Prof. Shubert Spero, in chapter 4 of his recent Aspects of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Philosophy of Judaism: An Analytic Approach, argues, against Prof. Marvin Fox, that he did not. Be that as it may, my point is that Emergence fits right in with R. Soloveitchik’s other writings.
III. Body and Soul
Hazony rightly emphasizes R. Soloveitchik’s bold claim that he is rejecting the view of Christian and Medieval Jewish scholars on body and soul (Emergence, p. 6). However, Hazony misreads this as a rejection of the concept of a soul. Rather, R. Soloveitchik rejected the dualism of separating the soul from the body and instead posited an inherent connection between the two.
Consider the following from Family Redeemed (p. 73):
The sanctity of the soul, of the spiritual personality, can be realized only via the sanctification of the body. The Romans knew of the interdependence between mental sanity and physical health. Judaism added a new dimension to the body-soul relationship. There is not only functional but metaphysical unity as well. A sacred soul can only reside in a sacred body. Or, to be more exact, sacredness of the personality is born of the naturalness of man, not of his transcendence. Only the body’s participation in and commitment to sacrificial action sanctifies the personality.
R. Soloveitchik objects to the separation of soul from body, particularly by moralists who preach ascetism. Instead, he believes that the body must be sanctified in unification with the soul and the physical pleasures elevated rather than rejected. (Cf. And From There You Shall Seek, ch. 15, p. 110ff.)
Hazony quotes R. Soloveitchik saying that man “can never reach a transcendent God” (Emergence, p. 61). He combines this with R. Soloveitchik’s description of Avraham’s prophecy, which Avraham discovered within himself (Emergence, p. 154). Hazony contends that, taken together, these passages imply that R. Soloveitchik denies the concept of prophecy.
However, the idea that man can never fully comprehend God is unoriginal, serving as a basic concept in Maimonidean philosophy. And Hazony overreads the the passage on Avraham’s initial prophecy as a general description of the phenomenon rather than the specific case of the first great monotheistic discovery.
R. Soloveitchik explains this at greater length in his Abraham’s Journey (p. 41):
We have already established that there are two kinds of prophecy. There is external prophecy, when the prophet beholds a vision or hears a voice coming from the outside. The identity of the speaker is disclosed to the prophet. There is, however, another kind of revelation; it is anonymous. The prophet is unaware of speech coming from beyond; he is not conscious that he is being addressed. The revelation transpires in silence.
This kind of revelation occurred within the great personality of Abraham. God spoke from within. That is why Maimonides emphasizes the fact that Abraham was not instructed by anyone…
These are hardly the words of someone who denies the concept of prophecy and they fully explain the passage from which Hazony attempts to deduce R. Soloveitchik’s rejection of the concept of prophecy.
Hazony infers from a lengthy passage on the unity of a historical community (Emergence, pp. 174-177) that R. Soloveitchik denies the concept of the afterlife, metaphysical immortality. However, it seems to me that he simply misreads the passage. R. Soloveitchik states that historical immortality (e.g. being part of the Jewish people) is a prerequisite for metaphysical immortality. By positing the former, he is not denying the latter. Now read the passage that Hazony partially quotes (Emergence, p. 176):
The first concept of immortality as coined by Judaism is the continuation of a historical existence throughout the ages. It differs from transcendental immortality insofar as the deceased person does not lead an isolated, separate existence in a transcendental world. The identity persists on a level of concrete reality disguised as a people. It asserts itself in the consciousness of the many, who trace their roots to the one. Yet metaphysical immortality is based upon historical immortality. Whoever does not identify himself with the historical ego and remains on the natural level cannot attain immortality. The first conquest of death takes places in the realm of history.
I see this as evidence that R. Soloveitchik accepts the afterlife and not the opposite. It is a philosophical explanation of the ruling that one who separates from the community has no place in the World-to-Come (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Teshuvah 3:11). While R. Soloveitchik, as an Existentialist, tends to focus on this-worldly activities, he refers in passing to the World-to-Come in other works (e.g. And From There You Shall Seek, pp. 82, 178n14).
Hazony points to R. Soloveitchik’s naturalization of miracles, including the splitting of the Red Sea (Emergence, p. 187ff.). When I quoted this passage a few years ago to defend R. Natan Slifkin, a friend of mine from yeshiva also expressed astonishment at this position. Not long after, we both found ourselves in the company of R. Mayer Twersky (at a rally at the UN) and we asked him about these words published in the name of his illustrious grandfather. R. Twersky answered that he had not yet read Emergence but found the view entirely unsurprising.
Indeed, naturalizing miracles is an explicit Maimonidean goal and the claim that the splitting of the Red Sea was a miraculously timed strong wind is a possible interpretation of the Sefer Ha-Chinukh‘s words (no. 132). This is not a denial of miracles but an assertion that miracles occur within nature, a position with ample historical support within traditional Jewish sources. In R. Soloveitchik’s words, God either “planned that history adjust itself to natural catastrophes” or “commands nature to cooperate with the historical forces” (Emergence, p. 188). That is hardly a denial of miracles and entirely unremarkable.
As I understand R. Soloveitchik’s words, they provide no basis to suggest that he breached any theological boundaries in Emergence, certainly not any of the Rambam’s 13 Principles. He remains an innovative thinker within Orthodox Judaism as traditionally understood.
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