Photo Credit: The Jewish Publication Society

Title: Halakhic Man – 40th Anniversary Edition
By: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
With a new preface, introduction, annotations, and glossary by Lawrence J. Kaplan
The Jewish Publication Society




Possibly the most important Jewish theological work ever produced in America, Halakhic Man has long held high esteem, especially among those who value both halacha and engaging the world philosophically. Authored in 1944 in Hebrew by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and translated into English in 1983 by Professor Lawrence Kaplan, the study has drawn attention over the past eighty years from scholars of halacha and Jewish thought, philosophers of religion more broadly, and devotees of Modern Orthodoxy and its values.

If forty years is considered a generation (Tehillim 95:10, Sanhedrin 99a), the first generation of Halakhic Man was one of relative obscurity, with study of the text limited to those who could read rabbinic Hebrew and had a sense of the philosophical issues at stake; while its second generation has been one of increased attention to a broader audience. With the recent publication of this new edition (2023) that boasts of “a new preface, introduction, annotations and glossary,” might we be entering a third generation of the study of Halakhic Man, one of increased accessibility?

This new edition includes the original translated text of Halakhic Man and its footnotes by Rabbi Soloveitchik as well as the original preface by the translator, Prof. Lawrence Kaplan of McGill University, running about 175 pages in total. The new materials in this latest edition add approximately 225 pages. The immediate aesthetic impact of this addition is that, rather than a flimsy softcover holding the contents of a short monograph (originally published as a single article in the defunct journal Talpiot), one now holds a hardcover, 400-page book, a veritable chasicha ha’reuyah lehiskabbed.

The translator’s preface runs about fifty pages, a good thirty of which present the reception history of Halakhic Man over its first forty years (its first generation), when it existed only in Hebrew. A veritable who’s who of mid-20th century Jewish thinkers weighed in on the work, either directly or indirectly, including AJ Heschel, Nahum Glatzer, Eliezer Goldman, Jacob Taubes, and a young Rabbi Norman Lamm and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. This survey constitutes an excellent contribution to the scholarship on Halakhic Man and its impact, although it might work better as a stand-alone article than as a preface to the volume. The reception of the work in its second generation is less discussed, although Kaplan makes the argument that the translation of Halakhic Man into English served as “a watershed” for the work’s accessibility and broader readership, and that the English edition has become something akin to the canonical version of the work. This accurate, if somewhat self-directed, account points to the impact of this excellent translation.

Following the preface is an introduction which more directly discusses the contents of Halakhic Man. This section helpfully outlines some of the themes in Halakhic Man, while also placing it in conversation with several of the neo-Kantian and other thinkers who likely influenced Rabbi Soloveitchik in writing this work. With a number of introductory essays to Halakhic Man and Rabbi Soloveitchik’s thought already “out there” (including a short one by this reviewer), this contribution seems less than novel, although it is helpful to have in the same volume as the text.

The annotations offer further analysis of particular passages that are often helpful to the reader. Some explicate the intertexts being cited or paraphrased; others refer to places in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s broader writing where he discusses a particular theme, or bring to bear scholarly debates over how to interpret a particular text; yet other passages indicate the philosophical sources or bases underlying the arguments being made. In some cases, we are made privy to discussion about the parallel Hebrew text and the reason why a particular translation was chosen, including accounts of conversations between the translator and author. Overall these annotations are expertly prepared and seem quite helpful to the reader, although I have only undertaken a cursory analysis of this section.

The glossary, running only fourteen pages, offers clear definitions of philosophical terms and their significance for the Rav’s writing. While some definitions are not as extensive as they might be (“neo-Kantianism,” for example), this is a major contribution for readers without prior philosophical experience who are undertaking the task of reading Halakhic Man. The new index, built upon the original one by Rabbi Jeffrey Saks, is well done but somewhat less useful today than it was in years past given the option of digital searchability. A short list of errata, fitting on a single page, are appended immediately after the original version.

One minor complaint about the layout and style of the volume: The original ~175 pages of Halakhic Man are preserved exactly as in the original, with the same layout, page numbers, etc., while the new materials appear in a fresh layout and different font, with the ~125 pages at the beginning of the book appearing in Roman numerals and the final hundred pages in Arabic numerals and continuing the page number of the original. While this helpfully retains the page numbers and layout of the original, it yields an unaesthetic divide between the “new” and “old” materials, while also forcing one to keep track of two distinct numbering systems. Moreover, instead of re-typing and laying out the original pages once again, this edition merely inserts a photocopy, meaning that the errors couldn’t be fixed and had to be noted in the aforementioned errata pages. That being said, it can be challenging to integrate the old with the new, as Rabbi Soloveitchik knew very well, va-Hashem ha-Tov yechapper be’ad.

Thinking about this possible third generation of Halakhic Man studies, with these new annotations and glossary and a robust index included with the volume, we might say that the renewed access constitutes a mechayyeiv, an obligating factor, as people can no longer hide behind the excuse of the work’s impenetrability. But in order for this increased access to actually lead to a flourishing of study of this work, there is also need for da’as mischayyeiv (a term dear to Rabbi Soloveitchik and other Briskers), or the willingness of readers to commit themselves to the project of reading and explicating the Rav.

If we are to consider what the future will bring, we must take account of the reception history of this work not only in its early decades but also in more recent years. This is clearly impressionistic, but my sense is that there has been a decline within the Orthodox community in the study and discussion of Halakhic Man, of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s other writing, and of other Jewish philosophical works more broadly. While articles still appear with some regularity on the Rav’s theology in Tradition and Hakirah (and it is notable that parts of the yeshivish community now study this work more intensively than the modern Orthodox community), it does not seem to have the same communal resonance that it once did. Moreover, fewer laypeople are studying these works, as they are often delegated, and therefore relegated, to the reading stands of elite philosophers and theologians. And in Israel, where the field of Jewish thought is much more alive in general, the increased access of the English edition is less relevant.

As Halakhic Man enters its third generation, supported by this excellent new edition, is it poised for increased growth and influence or is it declining as it heads towards me’ah ve-esrim? Only time will tell. But we all should appreciate Lawrence Kaplan for his latest iteration of this work and to JPS for publishing it.


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Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Zuckier is a Research Associate at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and a Maggid Shiur at Stern College.