Friday, April 14, 2006

On Rav Soloveitchik (for Hol ha-Moed Pesah)

The Lonely Man of Halakhah: Soloveitchik Centennial (2003)

Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik was born in Khaslovich, White Russia, on 12th Adar, 5663—exactly one hundred years ago this Sunday. What can one say about such a towering figure, about whom so much has been written? He was one of the great figures of our age; one who made contemporary Orthodoxy, or at least the modernist wing, what it is today. First, on the most basic level: it is quite possible that, over a period of forty years when he was the senior rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, he may have trained and ordained more pulpit rabbis (certainly, Orthodox ones) than any other figure in history. His impact is thus felt in hundreds, if not thousands, of synagogues across the United States and even around the world. Second, he was a tremendous talmid hakham in the traditional sense, the gadol hador, known both for his overwhelming knowledge of all areas of Torah, and his great creativity and originality is his interpretations and analysis of Talmudic sugyot, taking the Brisker methodology of conceptual analysis several steps beyond his forebears. Third, he was a great teacher and fascinating darshan; whether dealing with the area of Talmud and halakha, or that of philosophy, midrash, and Bible exegesis, he was a riveting speaker. Fourth, and perhaps most significant, as a philosopher he wrote about the deepest and most central religious and human issues, in a manner that interrelated between Torah with Western thought, based on his profound erudition in both areas. In this respect—that is, as a thinker and scholar of the first rank in both disciplines—he was unique, and can be properly compared only to his beloved Maimonides.

Like many great figures, already during his lifetime, and certainly thereafter (he died in 1993), his legacy was subject to a variety of interpretations. Just as in general philosophy there are “Right Hegelians” and “Left Hegelians”; so in Jewish thought there are what might be called “Right Maimonideans” and “Left Maimonideans” (i.e., those who see the halakhic and those who see the philosophical side of his life endeavor as central; see on this Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest, where David Hartman argues for an integrative view of these two aspects). Similarly, one might say, there are “Right Soloveitchikians”--those who see him as essentially a traditional Lithuanian talmid hakham, with great knowledge and creativity harnassed to those areas, who wrote philosophy and gave talks with a Western veneer to keep more peripheral Jews within the fold; and “Left Soloveitchikians”—who see him as a model of integration of philosophy and Torah, who was fully aware of the difficult intellectual challenges of the modern world and attempted to confront them.

In truth, he was a profoundly multi-faceted figure; I find that, each time I think about him, I see him a little differently. At times, it seems to that scholars have chewed over the Soloveitchik corpus ad nauseum, analyzing, organizing, comparing themes and archetypes in Halakhic Man, Lonely Man of Faith, and all the rest. Thus, rather than present yet another summary of his ideas or attempt to present my own twist on one or another item in his oeuvre, I would like to honor him on this occasion by presenting some personal, first-hand anecdotal material. I first encountered the Rav on Motzaei Shabbat Shuvah, 1968 (5729), when I attended the weekly shiur he gave every Saturday night at the Maimonides School. What struck me most about his presentation was his intensely personal tone. He spoke of the concept of teshuvah as beginning with hirhurei teshuva, “inklings of repentance,” which he explained using a highly personal analogy: his inner denial of his beloved wife’s death, and his struggle to accept the terrible knowledge that she was in fact gone forever.

On two occasions during the years I spent in Boston, I was privileged to have personal audiences with the Rav. The first time, in the winter of 1972, we spoke for over an hour. Two points in this conversation particularly stand out. I asked what he would recommend that I study to build an authentic hashkafa (Jewish world-view); in response, he advised that I study the aggadot of the Sages and Ramban’s Commentary on the Torah—and, of course, learn as much Talmud as possible. What I find interesting, in retrospect, is that he did not recommend studying a systematic philosophic work, such as Maimonides’ Guide; nor, on the other hand, some Rabbinic “handbook,” such as Mesillat Yesharim. Rather, he seemed to tell me to create my own synthetic picture from classical Rabbinic sources and rishonim (medieval authorities). The emphasis on aggadah is interesting, not withstanding that it is often seen as less “serious” by the yeshivish crowd; fit for women and unlearned, “Eyn Yaakov” Jews. The comment, I think, reveals some important things about the man and his world.

At one point in the conversation, I mentioned that I was doing a graduate degree in Judaic Studies at Brandeis, and that Alexander Altmann was among my teachers. He praised Altmann highly, saying that I could profit immensely from studying with him. “Of course,” he added, with a kind of twinkle in his eye, “his hashkafa is not our hashkafa,” and immediately corrected himself, “or at least not my hashkafa,” but he concluded that he was one of the most erudite and finest people I could choose as a mentor.

This remark was interesting in two respects. Altmann, who was personally observant, and had even been ordained by the Berlin Rabbinershul and served during the war as rabbi in Leeds, England, was a Central European scholar cut in the classical Wissenschaft des Judentums mold: that is, with a critical historical and comparative approach to Jewish sources, which might well be anathema to a traditional figure such as Soloveitchik. The Rav’s warm and heartfelt praise of Altmann, and especially his recommendation that I learn from him as much as I could notwithstanding his different hashkafa, revealed a broad tolerance of other views and approaches to the study of Judaism, so different from the parochial, censorious attitude I had until then encountered in so many Orthodox circles.

Second, his correcting himself: “our hashkafa… that is, at least, my hashkafa,” betrayed a keen awareness of the plurality of views even within his own Orthodox community—and an acceptance of it. The comment showed great respect for the autonomous views of his interlocutor—even, as I was then, for a student in his early 20’s.

I will conclude, as our main subject this year is Hasidism, with a few words about the Rav’s attitude to Hasidism. On the one hand, he shared in the traditional Litvishe valuation of learning and intellect above all. On the other hand, he was far from beginning a Mitnagged, in the sense of one who denigrated Hasidism. At times, he conveyed the clear feeling that the Hasidim had something valuable—piety, God consciousness, a certain inner fire—that his own school lacked.

That first winter I spent in Boston (1968-69), he was the guest speaker at the Lubavitcher Day School dinner. He introduced himself, rather wryly, as “the scion of a family which have been among the leading and outspoken opponents of Hasidism in general, and Habad Hasidism in particular, for generations.” He then told a story, passed down in his family, about how at one point, during the height of the anti-Hasidic polemics of the 1780’s, R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady and R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev went to Vilna in an attempt to meet with the Gaon and make peace. The Gaon peeked through the keyhole and saw the radiant, holy faces of these two men—and sneaked out the window, to avoid being overwhelmed, against his better judgment, by their aura of kedusha.

The Rav often spoke of his childhood melamed (teacher), a Habad Hasid from his small town in White Russia, telling how he would surreptitiously teach the children Tanya when they were supposedly learning Gemara. He said that it was from him that he learned what religious emotion was all about.

Somehow, the Rav often associated the Hasidic with the feminine, both of them representing for him the emotional, inner side of Judaism. This is expressed in his eulogies for the Talner Rebbe and Rebbitzen (Rabbi Meshullam and Rebbetzin Rivkah Twersky), which appear among his published lectures. The two eulogies, taken together, paint a picture of his emotional roots; of, if you wish, his sense of the eternal feminine. One might describe the Rav’s thought as almost consistently marked by a major chord and minor chord. The major tone: that of the halakha, with an emphasis on the objective, the normative, the clear and exoteric. But there was also always an undertone: the subjective, the emotional, the spiritual element, or what he sometimes called the “flavor” of the mitzvah.

Were these two chords in harmony or discord? It seems to me that the Rav constantly strove for harmony, but that perhaps one of great disappointments of his life was that among his disciples these two elements were discordant. Returning to that same conversation mentioned earlier: at one point he expressed disappointment with the way Modern Orthodoxy had turned out. He described how, the previous winter, he had tried to study a bit of Hasidut with his students—for a brief period, 15 or 20 minutes—at the end of his long, central Talmud shiur; to his chagrin, people were openly bored, rude and disinterested. “They serve God with their minds and their hands, but not with their hearts,” he concluded.

May the memory of our revered teacher, who served God with mind, hands, and heart together, be for a blessing.

The Rambam of Our Age

This Shabbat, the second (in Diaspora: first) day of Hol Hamoed Pesah, will mark the thirteenth anniversary of the passing of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. It seems to me that, probably more than any other individual of our era, the Rav may justifiably be described as a Maimonidean figure, in at least three ways.

First, as a scion of the Brisker tradition, he focused strongly upon Rambam in his learning and teaching of Torah, both in his Talmud shiurim at Yeshiva University ad elsewhere, and in his famous ”teshuvah” lectures, which were invariably based upon Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuvah.

Second, more than any other Jewish thinker in 20th century, he followed the Maimonidean pattern, not only in living within a certain tension between the world of halakhah and that of philosophy, but in that, like Maimonides, he was a giant in both fields. There have been other modern Jewish philosophers equal to him in philosophic erudition, and there have been other great talmidei hakhamim, but no other figure equals him in belonging to the first rank in both areas.

For that reason, quite independent of the contents of his thought, he was of great symbolic importance for modern Orthodoxy—even among those who didn’t bother to read him, or found him too abstruse and difficult to understand—representing as he did a model for bold confrontation with modern thought from a position steeped in profound knowledge, both of the tradition and Western thought.

Third, as a result of this, the central question that needs to be asked in evaluating his life and thought is the same as that which must be asked about Rambam: namely, what is the relation within his thought between philosophy and Torah? To understand such a thinker, one must ask: what was the relation between the two sources of truth: the Divinely-given revelation of religious tradition, and that truth accessible, in principle, by every human being through his reason? Which did he regard as the ultimate? (These issues of course present themselves to any intelligent, reasonably well-read modern person, but not with the same intensity or profundity as they do to these intellectual giants.)

Some weeks ago we mentioned David Hartman’s analysis of Maimonides thought, in which he analyzes this problematic and enumerates four logical possibilities for dealing with it (I paraphrase his presentation very loosely): 1) that primacy is given to religion, and that philosophical writings are seen as mere “handmaidens” to Torah, as a form of apologetics or as a language needed to convey Torah to the uncommitted; 2) that philosophy enjoys primacy of place and conventional religion is of value primarily as a means of ensuring social order and decent, civilized behavior among the masses, who are unable to comprehend philosophical truths; 3) that the two areas of endeavor exist in isolation from one another, and no serious attempt at synthesis is made (compartmentalization); 4) finally, that the thinker creates a harmonious synthesis of the two.

The same range of options that exists regarding Rambam exists as well regarding Rav Soloveitchik—and among his exegetes one can probably find examples of the same four possibilities. Thus, there are many who see him primarily as a Torah thinker, his other writings being apologetic, in some sense less serious, intended to communicate to the more assimilated element of the Jewish public: thus, Aryeh Strikovsky speaks of “the translated message” and “the direct message” within the Rav’s thought. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are those who treat Soloveitchik primarily within the context of general philosophy. At least two non-Jewish philosophers have written about his work in terms of the issues engaging modern philosophy. Thus, Reiner Munk has discussed the Rav as an exegete of Hermann Cohen and Kantianism, while Christian M. Rutishauser, of the Center for Spirituality, Interreligious Dialogue and Social Thought in Schonbrünn, Switzerland, recently published a book in German, entitled Josef Dov Soloveitchik: Einführung in sein Denken (Stuttgart: Kolhlammer, 2004), in which he describes the Rav as promulgating a “free, creative personhood as a vision for Orthodoxy in the modern age.” Similarly, Haggai Dagan, a young secular Israeli philosopher, has suggested a comparison between the thought of the Rav and that of Karl Jaspers. Finally, there are those who see the Rav as struggling for integration (thus Hartman, who often gives the impression that he sees his own life struggle as patterned after or parallel to that of both Rambam and Soloveitchik).

A case can be made for each of these positions, and it is not my intention here to resolve these issues. I tend to see Torah as uppermost in the Rav’s thought (as it is indeed in Rambam’s, as I read him). It is important to note that the Rav’s philosophical writings are rooted in the method of phenomenology, a school in modern philosophy more concerned with the description and analysis of phenomena than with issues of truth. Similarly, in the opening passages of Lonely Man of Faith the Rav states that he was never seriously disturbed by challenges to his faith from such objective sources as bible criticism, evolutionary theory, historical empiricism, etc. His own commitment is a given, rooted in profound faith experience and a sense of belonging to what he calls the Masorah community, going back to childhood. (This may explain the otherwise bizarre conclusion of his Hebrew monographic essay, And You Shall Seek from There, in a scene of early childhood memories of listening to his father and grandfathers debating points in Rambam.)

I would like to address today another conflict within his thought, possibly more significant, and to my mind far more interesting. David Singer and Moshe Sokol, in an important study, pose the question, ”What kind of an Orthodox Jew is Soloveitchik?” By this, they allude to the profound tension in Rav Soloveitchik’s thought between the world of intellect and that of the emotions. (Again, this poses an interesting parallel to Rambam. A noted rabbi-graphologist, examining a specimen of Maimonides’ handwriting, commented that it revealed “a man of intense emotion held under control by an even more powerful will.”) This conflict is epitomized in what are generally considered the Rav’s two most important works: Halakhic Man (1944) and Lonely Man of Faith (1965).

Halakhic Man is essentially a phenomenology of the classical Lithuanian Talmudist. This religious type, as he notes, is utterly unfamiliar and strange to Western religious thought—an individual for whom the study of legal texts, the overwhelming majority of which have nothing to do directly with “theological” or “spiritual” experience, but with such mundane subjects as family law, torts, damages, details of realia, etc., is the highest form of Divine worship. He counterpoises two ideal types: homo religious and scientific man. To briefly summarize his long and intricate argument: the religious ideal of Judaism, of halakhic man, is focused upon an objective, worldly-oriented form of experience, based upon the acceptance of the halakhah as a kind of a priori set of standards and norms imposed upon the universe—which, because it is Divinely revealed, contains within itself a spiritual content, and whose implementation is the central religious imperative.

The essay thus implies a sharp critique of romantic religion and the world of subjective feeling that seems to typify Protestant religion (and much of liberal Judaism) in the early twentieth century. He likewise polemicizes with movements in Judaism that pay excessive attention to the subjective and/or transcendent realm, including bith Hasidism and Mussar. His ideal is objective, normative, and this-worldly, rejecting all mysticism and metaphysical speculation in favor of the dedication to realizing the halakhah in the real world: an ideal almost majestic in its objectivity and inner power.

At times, this ideal of self-discipline can be chilling, even inhuman: thus, he brings several examples of confrontations with death, in which halakhic man is expected to completely subjugate his own feelings of sadness and mourning to the demand of the halakhah, as when it conflicts with Shabbat or Yom Tov. In brief, he seems to celebrate the mind and the will alone. The mind, which masters the halakhah, analyzes it, and engages in intellectual creativity therein; and the will, which overcomes the subjective inclinations of the heart.

In Lonely Man of Faith, written more than two decades later, we find ourselves in a completely different mode. He begins by noting the sense of loneliness or alienation felt by the religious person, both as part of the nature of religious consciousness, but particularly in the modern world as a result of the material, achievement-oriented civilization. In this civilization religion is not rejected, but perhaps worse than that: it is confined to a minor cultural niche, treated as a harmless, irrelevant “Sunday pastime.”

The central part of the essay is devoted to a midrash on the two accounts of the creation of man in the opening chapters of Genesis. Here, there is once again a dichotomy, a typology of two opposing human types: this time, both are portrayed as elements existing within Everyman. He designates these as “Adam One” and “Adam Two,” or “Majestic Man” and “covenantal man.” The former is essentially interested in mastering the objective, physical world, in technological. scientific and economic achievement; the latter is preoccupied with the pursuit of meaning, and overcoming the existential loneliness which he knows to be the ultimate fate of every human being: first through depth community, and then, from within the covenantal community, through a relationship with God. (Does he here anticipate the thirst for spirituality that was to mark the closing decades of the twentieth century, among people one, two or even three generations younger than himself?)

In any event, what strikes the reader here is the almost compete turnabout from the celebration of the cold, analytic, mind-centered world of halakhic man, to the passionate, emotional yearning of Adam the Second. The counterpart to “scientific man,” who in the earlier essay seems to serve as the model for halakhic man, is here “majestic man,” who is here portrayed as shallow and superficial, while the counterpart of homo religios, played down in the former essay, here assumes the form of Adam the Second. Interestingly, too: whereas in the earlier essay Torah study is the quintessential religious act (he tells the story of how, as a child, his father once “caught” him reading Psalms on a Rosh Hashana afternoon, placed a volume of gemara Rosh Hashana on his lap, and said, “If you wish to serve God now, go learn!”), here prayer (and prophecy) are at the center—if you like, much as they are in Hasidism.

How are we to understand these almost polar oppositions in the Rav’s thought? There are those who try to reconcile the two conceptually. David Hartman, in his recent book on Soloveitchik (Love and Terror in the Divine Encounter) makes great efforts to reconcile these opposing images into one system. But Hartman, notwithstanding his many years of personal contact with the Rav, here seems to fall into one of the traps of academic philosophy: through intense engagement with ideas, and the attempt to create a consistent, harmonious system out of works written over a period of many decades, one forgets that thinkers are first and foremost human beings, who live and experience various events and, like all of us, move from youth to middle life to old age, with all that implies.

The Rav’s son, Prof. Haym Soloveitchik, in a eulogy for the Rav delivered not long after his death, spoke of a certain change in the Rav. During much of his teaching career at YU, the Rav was notorious for the strict and demanding atmosphere in his classroom; it would be no exaggeration to say that many of his students found reciting in his shiur a daunting and even frightening experience. Haym reported that at a certain point, in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, after having been in Israel for some years, he returning to New York and visited his father’s classroom. He found him surprisingly mellow and even gentle with dull and poorly prepared students.

In Haym’s view, this change was the result of certain experiences undergone by the Rav during this period. In 1958, he was hospitalized with cancer, and after a lengthy illness recovered. During the following decade, his wife, whom he deeply loved, and with whom he was exceptionally close, was in and out of hospital with cancer, until her death in 1968. (Lonely Man was written in the midst of this period). Somewhere along the line, said Haym, the Rav realized that, contrary to the approach with which he and his forebears in his family had been raised for generations, the mind cannot solve all problems.

This change spilled over into his writing: in the 1930’s, when he wrote Halakhic Man, the Rav was a young man in the prime of life, filled with a sense of self-confidence and the power of the mind to conquer all obstacles. Later, confronting some of the problems and difficulties and tragedies of life—tragedies of a kind that almost every person confronts sooner or later during the course of life, simply as a result of aging and advancing in life—he gained a certain humility, and found the existential philosophers speaking to him more.

This is not to say that the Rav underwent a radical transformation from one extreme to another; it was more a matter of emphasis and nuance. Some years ago, I wrote about the antinomies within the Rav: the existence of an emotional, subjective, impressionistic, “Hasidishe,” “poetic,” feminine side alongside the more orderly, disciplined, analytic, sober, rational, systematic, “system-building,” “Litvishe” “masculine” side. Singer and Sokol interpret this as an unresolved inner conflict—but conclude that this as a prime source of his rich creativity. In general, I tend to agree with their view; I would only add, that it seems to me that these polarities only came to the surface in his later years, in wake of the events and life changes mentioned earlier.

On another level, Halakhic Man may be read as expressing the overwhelming need of Orthodox Jewry in the ‘40s and ‘50s to assert the central role of halakhah in Jewish life on the new soil of America; this was a polemical tack needed to counteract the subjectivism and rather vague, amorphous spirituality of the liberal schools of Judaism (for example, the “peace of mind” school, mentioned earlier re Christianity, had its Jewish counterpart in a popular author of the time named Joshua Loth Leibman). One of the Rav’s noteworthy halakhic rulings from this period was his statement (ca. 1952) that it was forbidden to enter a synagogue with mixed seating, even in order to hear shofar being blown on Rosh Hashana: a ruling of landmark importance in drawing a sharp and clear line between Orthodoxy and the other movements. During the later period, when both “modern” or “centrist” Orthodoxy and “right-wing,” Agudist Orthodoxy had become firmly established, the Rav also criticized the failings of Orthodoxy. During the 1970’s he was heard to express, at least within closed circles, his disappointment in the “pan-halakhism” of many of his students. “They serve God with their minds and hands, but not with their hearts.” It would seem that his ideal—the intellectual acumen and erudition of the Litvak combined with the inner fervor and feeling of the Hasid (possibly hinted at in his famous halakhic formulation, “acts performed with the hands, combined with fulfillment [of the mitzvah] by the heart”)—as yet remains to be realized.

On the Rav and the Eternal Feminine

The second day of Hol Hamoed Pesah (in the Diaspora, the first day), i.e., the 18th of Nissan, marks the anniversary of the passing (in 5753/1993) of the great teacher of our generation, “Ha-Gaon He-Hassid” Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zekher tzaddik livraka. So much has been written about “The Rav” that it would seem that there was nothing new left to say. Nevertheless, I will try to convey some personal and highly subjective insights gained from what I felt and sensed about him, during those few years that I was privileged to spend a modicum of time in his presence.

One of the salient characteristics of Rav Soloveitchik’s personality, one that distinguished him from almost any other talmidei hakhamim of whom I know, was the highly developed aspect of the feminine side of his personality. He was connected to what the Jungians call the “anima,” and also deeply longed for the feminine, which was for him embodied in the persons of his mother and of his wife. The death of both these women (as well as of his brother Dr. Samuel Soloveitchik) during the course of a few short months in the Winter of 1967-68, was a central, traumatic event in his life, of which he never ceased to speak thereafter. By “connection to the feminine,” I refer to the emotional, subjective, impressionistic, poetic side of his nature which existed alongside—whether in harmony, or in (unacknowledged?) tension or even open conflict—with the more orderly, disciplined, analytic, sober, rational, systematic, system-building, “Litvishe,” masculine side of his persona.

As we have just been discussing Shir ha-Shirim, it bears mentioning that this aspect was also expressed in the essay containing the footnote I mentioned earlier. Indeed, the essay begins with a lyrical description of the relationship between God and Israel as a kind of lovers’ “hide and seek” between the dod and the ra’ya, the lover and his beloved. The Song of Songs motif also figures prominently in his other writings, most prominently in the essay “Kol Dodi Dofek”—“The Voice of my Beloved Knocks,” much quoted by his stauncher religious Zionist followers, which is structured around the “knocks” of the beloved.

I believe that this may be the key to the dichotomies and antinomies, the tensions and polarities, which one so constantly encounters in nearly all his philosophical or “theoretical” writing. Of course, there are also intellectual roots to this dialectical pattern of thought: both from his Brisker heritage, with its constant “tzvei dinim” (the differentiation between “two principles” underlying any Talmudic or halakhic contradictions), and from the Hegelianism he no doubt absorbed during the years spent in Berlin (although he was more of a Kantian, writing his doctoral dissertation on the Marburg school of Hermann Cohen). But it seems to me that there is a deeper, more emotional root to this dichotomistic way of thinking.

A few examples: The first time I ever heard the Rav speak was at a public lecture he gave on Motza’ei Shabbat Teshuvah 1968, when I first moved to Boston. In the course of a discussion of hirhurei teshuvah, “thoughts of repentance,” he mentioned the only partial incorporation into his consciousness of the fact of his wife’s death. He spoke of how his grandchildren, prattling in the house, would almost casually mention the fact of their grandmother’s death—while he would be shocked anew each time. On another occasion, he spoke of “fixing times for Torah,” not only as a “rendezvous with the Shekhinah” (as he wrote several times), but as providing “the unique privilege of being able to unite with the figure of ones departed mother.” This was one of the underlying motifs in his pull toward Hasidism, in which he saw the emotionally expressive, “feminine” side of Judaism (thus in his 1972 eulogy for his mehutan, the Talner Rebbe, in which he spoke of the duality of Kedusha and Malkhut: the Hasidic leader embodying sanctity, while the more intellectual Lithuanian type symbolized kingship”). What, ultimately, are cognitive man vs. homo religious (in Halakhic Man), or Majestic Man vs. Man of Faith (in Lonely Man of Faith) if not these selfsame polarities?

If I may descend for a moment to popular culture: It is interesting to note that a widely-quoted pop psychology book, John Gray’s Men are From Mars, Women Are from Venus, describes the basic dichotomy between the mentality of man and woman in terms that could have been lifted directly from Lonely Man of Faith: “Martians [i.e., men] value power, competency... success and accomplishment... They are more interested in ‘objects’ and ‘things’ rather than people and feelings... Venusians have different values. They value love, communication, beauty and relationships... their sense of self is defined through their feelings and the quality of their relationships...” (pp. 16, 18). The Rav, of course, as a religionist, saw the spiritual quest for God/meaning, rather than human relationship alone, as the pinnacle of the second, more emotive /existential type—but the essential typology is strikingly similar.

Or perhaps we may even speak of a certain parallelism: man/woman || Mitnaggedism/Hasidim || German Idealistic philosophy / existentialist philosophy. That is, the move during the Rav’s life was from a philosophy which more exacerbates the rational, system-building mentality, as celebrated in Halakhic Man, to the later, more emotive message of Lonely Man of Faith.

Confrontation Revisited: On the Old and New Popes and Rav Soloveitchik’s Yahrzeit (2005)

Over the past month or so world media, including the Israeli and Jewish press, have devoted extensive coverage to the death and funeral of Pope John Paul II, and to the conclave at which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected as his successor, Pope Benedict XVI. There has been much discussion of the theological and practical positions of these two individuals, with evaluation of the legacy of the one and the significance of the election of the other, both in terms of the relationship of the Church to Jews and Judaism, and more general issues.

The reactions have run the gamut from near adulation to intensely negative criticism. On the one hand, the late pope was perceived as a great friend of the Jewish people: the first pope to visit Israel as the country of the Jews, not only as the Holy Land (including visits to Yad Vashem and to the Western Wall); establishing diplomatic relations of the Vatican with the State of Israel; acknowledging a certain guilt of the Church in the Holocaust and asking forgiveness from the Jewish people. On the other hand, in his visit to Auschwitz early on in his papacy there was a certain hedging in the language used about the Shoah, stating that “6 million Poles” were killed there, with no mention that most of these were Jews (not to mention the Jews brought in from Galicia, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, etc. to be murdered there). A more serious blemish, in my eyes, was the canonization of Pope Pius XII, who as pope during the Holocaust displayed singular apathy to the horrendous crimes being committed on European soil, in ostensibly Christian countries. There is something obscene, even perverted, in declaring a saint a man who, had he chosen to speak out, could surely have saved many lives—but did not. Such apathy or worse is hardly the model for emulation that one would think accompanies saintliness.

Beyond that, Pope John Paul was lauded by some, and attacked by others, for his conservative position on a whole gamut of issues. Many of these relate to sexuality: abortion, birth control, homosexuality, the role of women in religious leadership and in society generally. Many liberals criticized him for these positions; one writer in the Guardian went so far as to state that, by prohibiting the use of condoms and counselling abstinence alone, he displayed a total lack of realism coupled with insensitivity, and in effect had “blood on his hands” for the Church’s blocking efforts to stem the AIDS epidemic in Africa and elsewhere—as well as ignoring issues of poverty and overpopulation, supporting repressive regimes, etc.

John Paul II’s rigid, uncompromising approach to issues of morality clearly reflected a reaction to the liberal spirit that has been predominant in Europe and America throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, with its permissiveness, emphasis on individual autonomy, and flexible ethical norms. The world-view of the new pope is similar to that of his predecessor; if anything, more conservative. In fact, as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Ratzinger played a central role in formulating Church positions during John Paul II’s papacy, and exerted a great deal of personal influence on Wojtyla. Ratzinger seems to have played a crucial role in central role in reining in more liberal, open forces in the Church, and in muzzling the voices of “liberation theology” that called for the Church to support social revolution and/or more equitable distribution of wealth in the poor countries of the world, particularly in Latin America, which have been the main areas of growth of the Church in recent decades. He also silenced those theologians, such as Hans Küng, who called for radical rethinking of certain doctrines and practices. It seems clear that, under Benedict XVI, there will be a call for greater orthodoxy, and quite possibly a less “catholic” (i.e., inclusive), smaller but more intensely committed, “purer” Church. In his writings over the years he has identified secularism and moral relativism as the great enemy, and called for direct ideological combat with it. In short, he is a deeply conservative voice, in the particular mold of a certain Catholic intellectual tradition, reminiscent perhaps of the Jesuites and other groups of the Counter-Reformation.

All of this raises the question: how ought Jews to react to all this? Some Jewish voices have expressed their deep dismay at all this. Michel Lerner of Tikkun Magazine has seen in the war on secularism a thinly veiled attack upon Jews, who have always been at the forefront of liberal thinking in the US and elsewhere; he has even invoked in this connection the shade of Father Coughlin, the notoriously anti-Semitic radio priest of the 1930’s. But one wonders to what extent this reaction is, at least in part, rooted in a feeling that a certain type of liberalism has in itself become tantamount to a religion for many Jews, any other position being automatically being seen as ipso facto invalid or unacceptable. A traditional Jew might well ask: How do we relate to a religious critique of secularism? Some of us may even feel a certain agreement with Ratzinger’s battle against certain intellectual forces in our world. “Post-modernity,” as a kind of epistemological scepticism in which nothing is known for certain, may provide tolerance for every group to “do their thing,” including, say, immersing oneself in Hasidism or Kabbalah, but it is ultimately hostile to the idea of religious truth. The problem is that religious conservatives, who perceive the destructive results of secularism, moral relativism, sexual libertinism, etc., also tend to support the established political and economic world order, with its concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few, and to be indifferent to issues of social justice and equality, which is no less a part of the Jewish ethical sensibility.

But we need to ask a logically prior question, often forgotten in the hullabaloo of “real-time” journalism: namely, ought we, as Jews, involve ourselves at all in this type of discussion? (For example, during the period of the conclave favoring the election of one candidate for pope over another—beyond, perhaps, breathing a sigh of relief that one of “our own,” namely, Jean-Marie Lustiger, the “Ashkenazic archbishop of Paris,” wasn’t elected).

In a certain sense, the current discussion is reminiscent of the period around Vatican Council II, forty years ago, when Pope John XXIII (who was in many ways the antithesis of both John Paul and Benedict) injected a new spirit into Jewish-Christian relations. At that time Rav Soloveitchik (whose eleventh Yahrzeit fell just a few days ago, on the second day of Hol Hamoed Pesah), wrote an essay, “Confrontation” (Tradition 6:2 [1964], 5-29) which related to these issues. Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leading Jewish thinker associated with the Conservative movement, went to Rome as a kind of spokesman or lobbyist on behalf of the Jewish people. The Rav felt that this move was incorrect, both lacking in dignity and self-respect, as well as dangerous theologically; the essay, and the policy statement of the Rabbinic Assembly of America published with it, were largely a reaction to Heschel’s action.

The first half of the essay is a typology of different kinds of human experience of confronting the world, the other human being, and God. As such, it is a kind of harbinger or forerunner of Lonely Man of Faith, which he published one year later: both in the derivation of basic typologies from the opening chapters of Genesis, and in the typologies themselves, which bear a certain similarity to the latter essay. In addition, of course, it serves as kind of hermeneutical super-structure for what he has to say about inter-religious relations.

Quite simply, Soloveitchik’s conclusion was that religious experience is a private, even intimate matter—whether of the individual or of the faith community—which is almost impossible to communicate, coming as it does from the depth personality. Mutual respect of other religions in fact necessitates respecting the privacy, wholeness, and integrity of the other’s religious experience. Offhand, the essay is thus strongly opposed to “dialogue.” And yet, the Rav himself engaged in “dialogue,” in the sense that he read and took seriously theologians from other traditions—particularly Christians—relating both to their thought and to universal problems of philosophy of religion, the phenomenology of religious experience, etc., in his writings. David Hartman has suggested that “Confrontation” relates specifically to the concrete situation during that period. On the one hand, dialogue as practiced in the American scene of the 1950s and ‘60s involved a great deal of superficiality, shallowness, vague generalities, and avoidance of hard issues or frank admission of differences; on the other hand, in the case of Vatican II, there was a strong sense that non-Christian delegations were coming to this very powerful, sovereign church body almost as petitioners or lobbyists, possibly even to engage in a kind of theological “bargaining”—a situation involving a grave sacrifice of own dignity, which the Rav was unwilling to accept. Hartman then suggests that Soloveitchik’s position does not rule out the possibility of serious conversation between theologians and other learned representatives of both traditions, conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect and frankness, involving perhaps common study of texts from both traditions.

The Rav leaves open the possibility for inter-faith cooperation on human issues of common concern: the whole gamut of societal issues, human welfare, social justice, working together for world peace, etc. (In a similar fashion, lehavdil, the Rosh Yeshiva’s missal in the early ‘50s opposing Orthodox participation in communal-wide rabbinic boards does allow for cooperation with Reform and Conservative rabbis on concrete secular issues impacting on the Jewish community or people as a whole.)

Last week, I had the opportunity to discuss Rav Soloveitchik’s position on these issues with a retired Orthodox rabbi from the western United States who was intensely involved in interfaith work during the 1960s and ‘70s. He stated that “ecumenism” or “inter-faith” activities were important at that time in terms of the practical, concrete interests of American Jewry. It was important for Jews to be considered, not merely as another ethnic group in the tapestry of American ethnicity, and as such subject to the “melting pot” effect, but as one of the three major faiths in the country (a position involving, perhaps, a certain element of fiction: what about the Greek Orthodox and, more recently, the Muslims in the US, who are at least as numerous?). Indeed, some years earlier sociologist Will Herberg had written a book, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (1955), in which he propounded the theory that America had become a “triple-melting pot” in which religion, but not ethnicity, is a “permissible” criteria for separation among groups. (Incidentally, we see here the inherent duality of Jewish identity: both religious and ethnic—or, if you prefer, based upon nationhood, peoplehood, familial, etc.)

But be that as it may, there is perhaps another objection to be raised to Soloveitchik’s thesis: can such ethical, societal, etc. concerns be separated from their theological underpinnings? If, as in the case of the Catholic Church, a certain doctrine concerning sexuality—surely one of the most intimate areas of human life—has clear consequences regarding practical sexual behavior, with implications in the areas of disease control, teenage pregnancies and birth, population growth, which in turn impact upon poverty, famine, etc.—are we to be barred from open and frank dialogue with adherents of other religions about these issues? Is not human welfare a universal concern? I have no pat answers, but the questions must be asked.


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