The Problem of Apologetics

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Students often find challenging the confrontation between Jewish tradition and their college studies. They are sometimes frustrated by their attempts to explain Judaism based on their newly acquired knowledge from the halls of academia. This encounter, when unsatisfying, has led many wonderful and thoughtful people to abandon Jewish tradition. However, the challenge is really a false dilemma, based on a mistaken premise. It is the problem of apologetics.

R. Reuven Ziegler writes in his Majesty and Humility: The Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (pp. 178-179):

Apologetics (from the Greek word apologia, meaning defense) results when a person accepts an external frame of reference as authoritative and tries to reconcile tradition with that external doctrine. When viewed this way, tradition becomes “problematic.” By forcing tradition to fit into a preconceived and alien framework, one effectively places it into the proverbial mitat Sedom, or Procrustean bed. This inevitably leads to distortion of the tradition, either by assigning it unlikely meanings or by ignoring that which does not cohere with one’s theory.

Rav Soloveitchik did not engage in apologetics. He had utter confidence in Jewish tradition and asserted its conceptual autonomy. He did not seek to “synthesize” or “harmonize” it with any other system of thought. Rather, he accepted Jewish tradition itself as his frame of reference, mining his vast erudition in fields of general knowledge for ideas which could shed new light on Judaism or enhance his understanding of man.

This non-apologetic approach characterizes the Rav’s entire relationship to secular knowledge.1 Imbued with strong faith and a secure sense of self, he was unafraid to expose himself to new ideas, nor did he place limits on his children’s reading. The fact of divine revelation, entailing both belief in God and a system of norms, could not be changed by whatever he studied. But his understanding of tradition and his ability to communicate it could be enhanced through the study of “the best that had been thought and said in the world.”2

Thus, the Rav’s acceptance of Jewish tradition as his conceptual frame of reference justifies his selective use of concepts derived from Western thought. There are also internal philosophical reasons, as elaborated in The Halakhic Mind, which justify this selectivity. Unlike the “theories of everything” propounded by philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel, contemporary philosophy no longer trusts overarching and all-encompassing systems. As a good student of twentieth-century philosophy, Rav Soloveitchik realized that – philosophically speaking! – he was not beholden to any one school of thought. Therefore, he had the freedom to utilize insights from different philosophical schools without being enslaved to any one of them. This freedom afforded him much greater room for creativity than if the parameters and assumptions of a particular system had confined him.3

This consideration led Prof. Yitzhak (Isadore) Twersky to conclude that “to quibble whether [the Rav’s] premises are medieval or modern, rationalistic or pietistic, to argue whether his thought should be described as existentialist or neo-Kantian, is not very edifying.”4 Rav Soloveitchik was far from being an orthodox Aristotelian or Kantian who struggled to justify Judaism in light of his externally-conceived philosophy. Rather, he was a man of the masorah who creatively and critically utilized the most appropriate ideas he could find in order to understand and explain the Jewish tradition and the human condition.

The challenge of linguistics, history or any other subject to Judaism assumes that Judaism must be explained within these external frameworks. Rav Soloveitchik disputed this indignity. Judaism is conceptually independent and is not subject to judgment under any external framework of thought.
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  1. While the Rav’s thought is non-apologetic in the sense that “there is no attempt to demonstrate that traditional Judaism is completely congruent with philosophy (or any part of it)” (R. Yitzhak (Isadore) Twersky, “The Rov,” in Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik: Man of Halacha, Man of Faith, ed. R. Menachem Genack (Hoboken, NJ, 1998), 29), he does set out in his earliest major work “to defend the honor of the Halakhah and halakhic men” (Halakhic Man (Philadelphia: JPS, 1983), 137).
  2. Matthew Arnold, Preface to Culture and Anarchy (1869), xiii.
  3. Interestingly, the Rav made the same point when comparing the Rambam to the Ramban (R. Twersky, ibid., 43-44, n. 17). While the former was somewhat straitjacketed by an Aristotelian philosophical framework and had to express his ideas in its narrow jargon, the latter was freer to exercise creativity in his religious thought.
  4. Op. cit., p. 34.

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 of New Jersey, 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 recently served on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and 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.

4 comments

  1. I never understood this approach as a fix-all for challenges to Judaism. Traditional Judaism makes claims (be they unequivocal or not) about phenomena: the age of the universe, the provenance of the Torah, the history of the Levant. Other fields of knowledge/study also make claims about these things, which may differ from those of Judaism. It’s not a question of “external frameworks” in these cases – it’s an epistemic question of how we choose the way we know things about a given phenomena.

  2. 1) Both the Rambam and the Ramban famously answered questions from sciences/philosophies.

    2) RYBS in EEM also talks about and sanctions reconciling evolution with the Torah.

    How are the above different than apologetics?

    Additionally, R. Gil, haven’t you written a great deal of quality essays at aishdas.org/toratemet, did you change your position on doing that type of thing?

    Also how would you explain the Mishnah that says דע מה שתשיב לאפיקורס (or acc. to Girsa of Rambam, Ra”Ch, Rabenu Yehudah Halevi, Chovos Halevavos and Yad Ramah הוי שקוד ללמוד מה שתשיב לאפיקורס).

  3. When a student learns about the age of earth, the age of humans on earth, history and linguistics, are you really going to answer him: “Judaism is conceptually independent and is not subject to judgment under any external framework of thought.”? A person wants to know if X happened or didn’t happen. Replying the way the Rav would, is sort of a slap in a face to someone’s intellectual integrity. What it also says, is that everything the academy says is true, BUT, we just chose to ignore it and play by a different set of rules. How far do you think this line of reasoning is going to work in this world?

  4. No worse apologetics than the attempt to explain the exemption of women from positive time bound commandments by saying that women are on a higher level than men. You hear this everywhere, yet there’s no support for it in the classic sources.

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