Rabbi Soloveitchik and his Paradoxical Influence: An Answer to a Friend
Dear Mrs. White,
Thank you for your very balanced reaction to my essay on Rav Soloveitchik z”l. I apologize for responding only now.
To begin with, it seems that you agree with most of what I wrote. However, I admit that perhaps I didn’t give enough attention to some remarkable works such as The Lonely Man of Faith. They are no doubt major breakthroughs in the world of religious philosophy, and that is no small accomplishment.
However, this only underscores my critique on Rav Soloveitchik’s Ish ha-Halakhah, (in English, Halakhic Man) and some of his piskei din. In fact, it makes it more complicated.
People reading Ish ha-Halakhah can sometimes get the impression that they are reading Emanuel Kant in a Jewish religious framework. I agree that there are major differences, especially with regard to the great Kantian thinker Herman Cohen who was the subject of the Rav’s Ph.D. dissertation (1); and without denying that writing Ish ha-Halakhah is itself a major accomplishment, I still doubt the originality of this work. Genius, yes; original, I’m not sure!
More important, though, is the fact that, as you and many others claim, it was in his later years that the Rav moved away from this almost stony life as expressed in Ish ha-Halakhah. This begs the question: Why didn’t the Rav take the time to write another work on Halacha, stating that his original one no longer reflects his ideas on the subject, and giving us a new perspective and interpretation? This was never done, and that’s why Halakhic Man is still seen as the authoritative interpretation of Halacha by the Rav. It could be argued that “U’bikashtem Mi-Sham” (2) was an attempt to soften the earlier harsh approach, but it still did not take the place of Halachic Man. Doesn’t this mean that the Rav did not change his mind, at least as far as the major premise of this work is concerned? While I, as well as other Orthodox thinkers, still greatly admire this work – even with all its problems – Halakhic Man has done much harm outside the Orthodox community and has pushed many people away from Halacha. I know this from my personal interactions with non-Orthodox and even Orthodox readers.
A man of the Rav’s caliber could easily have written another major book on Halacha – warmer and reflecting his new ideas, which he so beautifully expressed in his hesped (eulogy) for the Talner Rebbetzin, when he also spoke about his mother’s Shabbat (3). While the Rav did bring some emotional dimension in Halakhic Man, it is minor compared to the stony “Brisker approach.” And I’m not even sure whether it’s fair to hold Brisk responsible for all of this.
When another of his essays, The Halakhic Mind – even more complex than Ish ha-Halakhah and originally written in 1944 – was republished in 1986, it was not even updated and clearly gave the impression that the Rav had not changed his mind. I say this with full recognition that it contains beautiful new insights!
Concerning Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits’ approach to Halacha, I don’t see any evidence that it was influenced by Rav Soloveitchik’s writings. In fact, I believe the opposite is true. These two great men fundamentally clashed and disagreed on the nature and workings of Halacha.
You are right about Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, and Rabbi David Hartman. They were indeed deeply influenced by him. But the latter two moved away from the Rav in striking ways. It is true that these giants did not idolize the Rav, but the vast majority of Modern Orthodox leaders were and are under the spell of Rav Soloveitchik in ways that I believe are unhealthy and that he would have strongly opposed. Rabbi Greenberg wrote me that this idolization began in his later years, but my impression is that during these later years the idolization only increased, for reasons I have explained in my original essay.
Your claim that the Rav’s halachic conservatism, caused by his Brisker background, paved the way for his students to go beyond him and find new ways that he encouraged, sounds untrue. Here is Rabbi Greenberg’s response to my essay: You are right about his halachic conservatism. This was compounded by his own lack in encouraging students to go beyond him. He cut them down (as he did Rackman when Rackman went beyond him). Where, then, did he pave the way for those after him? The reverse is true. He blocked such developments.
You state that “perhaps he felt it was too early to depart from or radically reinterpret…halachic stringencies and inertia.” I wonder when, in your opinion, would the time have been ripe to do so, if not in the days of the Rav? He lived during a time of radical shifts in the Jewish world and a growing crisis in religious belief and halachic commitment. There was no better time than those very days to make these changes, and there was no greater man than he to embark on these departures. Do not forget that he was seen as the leader, symbol and figure head of Modern Orthodoxy and not just as another posek or Talmudist. As such, there were high expectations of him to move Halacha forward.
While I agree that the Rav’s encouragement for women to begin learning Talmud was a breakthrough (4), I can’t see it as a major accomplishment in the way that you do. (I wonder how much of a say his wife, Mrs. Tonya Soloveitchik – a strong personality with a Ph.D. – had in this matter.) Yes, by doing so he may have revolutionized Jewish learning for women; but feminism was on the rise, and it would have come anyway. The Jewish world was ripe for it and, as has often been the case, it would have been halachically justified after the fact. Women were already learning Talmud before the Rav’s days. More important, they could decide this on their own. No one could stop them from doing so in their private lives; nobody needed to know.
But in cases such as the agunah, the mamzer, and the kohein/giyoret, there was no way to decide these matters on their own. They were and still are completely dependent on the poskim, if they wish to remain within the Orthodox community.
I can’t see any justification for the Rav openly rejecting Rabbi Rackman’s argument, which claims that there is historical contextualization in the world of Halacha. Acceptance of that fact could have helped many Jewish women in his days and today. To this day, women still pay the price for this rejection. Yes, some may argue that these matters are very complex and far beyond the scope of an essay like mine, but a total dismissal is unjustified. True, the Rav was concerned that halachic tradition not be undermined, but he could have achieved that without completely rejecting approaches such as that of Rabbi Rackman. It would not have been seen as surrendering to nontraditional forces but rather as a victory of halachic strength.
Even more astonishing is the fact that, as I mentioned in my original article, the Rav admitted to Rabbi Rackman that he may have been right. Surely the Rav knew that historical contextualization had often been applied throughout halachic history (5). Again, I wonder whether the Rav ever discussed this with his beloved wife, who must have had her own ideas about this, especially when it came to women’s issues.
As some of his students told me, and as is my impression as well, the Rav felt isolated because his own world of the old-fashioned yeshivot had rejected him once he took a different stand on some matters, such as Zionism; secular studies; and trying to establish a joint beit din, together with the famous Rabbi Saul Lieberman of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, to deal with all matters related to marriage and divorce – an attempt that unfortunately never succeeded (6).
We must no doubt admire him for this, but he was never able to overcome his fear of isolation and remained stuck. Compare this to Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, who was much more radical and much more isolated but never gave in to this situation, and he didn’t have a major rabbinical institution like Yeshiva University behind him. He simply moved on and fought a lonely, difficult battle that must have been extremely painful.
One more observation: While I greatly admire Rabbi Soloveitchik’s essays such as The Lonely Man of Faith, I wonder why he never dealt with some extremely important issues that keep many people away from Orthodoxy. Two examples suffice: 1) The issue of Torah Min HaShamayim and Bible criticism; and 2) the matter of belief in God (especially after the Holocaust) and the conflict between science and belief. It may be true – as Rabbi Walter Wurzburger suggests (7) – that the Rav avoided the issue of Bible criticism out of principle. But if it is true, then the Rav was out of touch with reality. At the time, Bible criticism was a major topic of discussion, as it still is. This subject is of utmost importance, and if anyone could have dealt with it head-on it was the Rav. Early in The Lonely Man of Faith, Rav Soloveitchik mentions that he wasn’t seriously bothered by this issue. But his readership certainly was!
The same is true about belief in God, and the conflict between science and belief. Sure, the Rav mentioned and discussed these matters, but never directly.
These issues, Bible Criticism and belief in God, are fully discussed in the prodigious works by former British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Crisis and Covenant (8) and The Great Partnership (9). I remember how my friends and I, who were not religious at the time, waited for the Rav to discuss these matters. But there was total silence. True, in The Halakhic Mind, he does deal with science and faith/philosophy – and in the last chapter with Halacha – but it is far from satisfactory for many searching, secular people. This book, like some of the others, was written in an Orthodox religious context, which a priori was accepted but was not convincing to those of us who did not share this point of view.
It is my belief that these topics are more important than the Rav’s masterpiece The Lonely Man of Faith. I’m not arguing that he should not have written the book. I am only contending that he should have also written major essays or books on these two critical subjects.
Coming back to my main argument, here are a few quotations by the Rav (10):
Halakhic man received the Torah from Sinai not as a simple recipient but as a creator of worlds, as a partner with the Almighty in the act of creation. The power of creative interpretation (hiddush) is the very foundation of the received tradition.(p. 81)
He [halakhic man] takes up his stand in the midst of the concrete world, his feet planted firmly on the ground of reality, and he looks about and sees, listens and hears, and publicly protests against the oppression of the helpless, the defrauding of the poor, the plight of the orphan….The actualization of the ideals of justice and righteousness is the pillar of fire which halakhic man follows, when he, as a rabbi and teacher in Israel, serves his community….The anguish of the poor, the despair of the helpless and humiliated outweigh many many commandments. (p. 91)
Even the Holy One, blessed be He, has, as it were, handed over His imprimatur, His official seal in Torah matters, to man; it is as if the Creator of the world Himself abides by man’s decision ad instruction.(p. 80)
If so, why was it impossible to accept Rabbi Rackman’s opinion that one has to see certain rulings by our Sages, especially those concerning women, in the context of historical developments? If the Rav would have done so, then, in his own words, the Holy One, Blessed be He, would have abided by his decision and instruction. The obligation to shape and perfect Halacha increases over history, as human beings become more mature. That is the very foundation of Torah Sheba’al Peh. Why not make use of it and carry that responsibility with pride?
I cannot believe that any agunah or mamzer will find comfort in The Lonely Man of Faith when they are forced to live unbearable lives. What is more important? To write beautifully about Halacha’s deep concern for the poor, the helpless, and the humiliated, which outweighs “many many commandments,” but not to act on it? Or, to actually solve the problem of the agunah, the mamzer, and the kohein who can’t marry his loved one because she happens to be a convert?
As Eliezer Berkovits writes, “…the deed is the stuff of which history is made” (11). Deeds, not beautiful abstract ideas!
Due to lack of time, I must now conclude my response to you. The literature and opinions on Rav Soloveitchik’s halachic stand and philosophy are so numerous that one could write many more books on the subject. But I believe that it has already been overdone.
I close with the following. You are indeed misinformed about my personal involvement in practical Halacha. To mention only a few examples: Twice, I have personally married a kohein with a giyoret. In one case, the giyoret was also a gerusha. In these instances, on my own initiative but together with halachic authorities much greater then I, we proved that the kohein was actually not a kohein, and that even after a get was obtained by that specific woman, it became clear that in fact she was not a gerusha, because she was never halachically married. I never openly published our conclusions, because we didn’t want the couples involved to get hurt. I have had major clashes about these cases with European rabbinates that refused to marry these people.
I have done several conversions with a private beit din, when other batei din refused to do so. I have suggested (12) that we allow people to drive bicycles on Shabbat, based on a psak of the Ben Ish Chai, and have advocated a halachically permitted “Shabbat tram” in Yerushalayim, to enable people to see their parents who live far away. I have argued (13) in favor of opening restaurants on Shabbat for those Israelis who have nowhere to go, where they wouldn’t have to pay and where all the laws of Shabbat could be easily observed. An attempt to open such restaurants was blocked by the Rabbanut’s threats to remove its hechsher (certificate of kashrut) from these restaurants!
I have also advocated for relaxing the “chumra of Rabbi Zeira” (14) concerning the duration of abstinence, which prevents couples from having relations more frequently, and which also often leads to difficulty in conceiving. This would no doubt encourage many more couples to observe the laws of family purity (15).
I have suggested (16) that we build “Jewish” cemeteries for children from mixed marriages who are not halachically Jewish, so that they too can have a Jewish burial if they so wish. After all, they are of Zera Yisrael (of Jewish seed, that is, patrilineal descent). For all of these issues I have strong halachic arguments.
Together with Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm of Yeshiva University, I have refused to listen to a psak by the London Beit Din prohibiting participation in the famous Limmud Conference in England – which hosts close to 3000 attendants – because Reform and Conservative rabbis also teach there. I told the Beit Din that I believed this was a major mistake, since it gives the impression that we Orthodox rabbis are afraid of the Reform and Conservative movements; and that by not contributing we are actively handing over all Limmud participants to these denominations (17).
In my new book that will be published in June, “Jewish law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage“, I suggest many practical solutions, including for agunot and mamzerim.
I don’t see myself as a posek, although I know a lot about practical Halacha and believe that I’m well informed on the latest developments in the halachic world. I’m not a member of any official rabbinate, but I am very busy suggesting new possibilities, and I have acted and will continue to act on them, even if the rabbinical establishment does not agree with me. It is time to move forward and not be afraid…
Thanks again for you letter.
Nathan Lopes Cardozo
With thanks to Channa Shapiro and Yehuda DovBer Zirkind.