A Contrarian’s Guide to Rav Soloveitchik’s Philosophy

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I expected R. Dr. Shubert Spero‘s new book, Aspects of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Philosophy of Judaism: An Analytic Approach to be a much needed guide to the complex world of R. Soloveitchik’s philosophy. I thought it would be a comprehensive analysis of his ever-growing philosophic ouevre, perhaps with the style of an analytic philosopher rather than a metaphysician. Prof. Spero is one of the few yeshiva-trained academic philosophers who is not a student of R. Soloveitchik. This distance should, possibly, add extra interest to his analysis.

You can imagine my surprise when I found less of an explication than a critique. It turns out that “analytic approach” is a polite way of saying “critical approach.” Dr. Spero addresses multiple aspects of R. Soloveitchik’s philosophy and argues on them.

Click here to read moreYou can imagine my surprise when I found less of an explication than a critique. It turns out that “analytic approach” is a polite way of saying “critical approach.” Dr. Spero addresses multiple aspects of R. Soloveitchik’s philosophy and argues on them. This is particularly surprising because the beginning of the introduction is devoted to arguing that R. Soloveitchik was merely articulating traditional Judaism in a philosophical framework. R. Spero writes:

It would seem, therefore, that the Rav arrived in Berlin with his view of the conflicted nature of the religious personality already in hand. (p. 8)

It was not an adoption by the Rav of “modern packaging” for ancient doctrines, but rather an awakening and recovery by postwar man of the wisdom of biblical categories [i.e. existentialist philosophy came to religion and not vice versa]. (p. 10)

Yet, this does not stop Prof. Spero from critiquing aspects of R. Soloveitchik’s philosophy.

Chapters 1 and 2 are not about R. Soloveitchik. Chapter 3 is about how R. Soloveitchik never managed to put together a complete philosophy of ethics. Chapters 4 and 5 critique R. Soloveitchik’s notion that a true philosophy of Judaism has to emerge from halakhah. Chapter 6 turns a statement by R. Soloveitchik against proofs for God’s existence on its head, and reinterprets it as actually being a proof for God’s existence (see this post: link).

Chapter 7 contains a critique, or perhaps exlplanation, of R. Soloveitchik’s failure to cite the fulfillment of prophecy in regards to the State of Israel. Chapter 8 (based on this article: link) is a critique of R. Soloveitchik’s claim regarding the aesthetic experience as a method for approaching God, going so far as to suggest in an endnote that the entire Toras Horav project is improper (surprisingly, this chapter originally appeared in the journal Tradition and R. Shalom Carmy, the journal’s editor, allowed this endnote to appear even though it is a criticism of a book that R. Carmy personally edited — kudos to him for the humility to allow that!).* Chapter 9 has little to do with R. Soloveitchik.

In the end, I think it’s good that a philosopher should feel sufficiently independent to critique R. Soloveitchik. If he’s right, then he’s right. But is he? I don’t know. I lack the background to properly evaluate his claims of what R. Soloveitchik said and his arguments against it.

  • Here are Prof. Spero’s words: In light of the difficulties inherent in the Rav’s treatment of the aesthetic in this work, I am inclined to question the propriety of publishing material found in “notebooks” (as is the case of the material found in Chapters 1-5 which we are told was composed by the Rav in 1956-57 as the basis of a course at Yeshiva University (see the Introduction, p. xxviii)) and presented as part of the Rav’s philosophical canon.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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