Book explores the intellect of Rav. Joseph Solveitchik

Society and Self: On the Writings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, by Gerald J.(Ya’akov) Blidstein. OU Press, 2012, 155 pages, ISBN-10: 1602802041, U.S. cover price: $25.00

By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California — Gerald J. Blidstein’s Society and Self: On the Writings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik is an excellent introduction to the thought-provoking ideas of Rav Soloveitchik.

The author presents a clear précis of Rav Soloveitchik’s views on a variety of topics such as: *Could Rav. Soloveitchik be considered as a “Religious Zionist”? (Ch. 1)  *Issues pertaining to Jewish/Gentile and Orthodox/non-Orthodox relationships (Ch. 2)  *Rav Soloveitchik’s thoughts on faith after the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel (Ch. 3)  *The theological and existential tension between the individual and the community (Ch. 4) *A theology of marriage and its broader implications (Ch. 5)  *A theology of Rav Soloveitchik’s view on human mortality and mourning (Ch.6)

In the interest of brevity, I will focus on some of the themes that impressed me as a reader.

The subject of relationships is especially relevant for our day. Here is a little bit of background to Rav Soloveitchik’s thought. In his famous theological essay, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” the author writes about the two creation stories found in Genesis 1-2. According to Soloveitchik’s typology, Adam in Genesis 1 is a majestic figure—a being capable of technologically mastering the world around him. However, for his knowledge and intellectual prowess, he is “ontologically incomplete” (p. 80). Although Adam and Eve appear in the first chapter, Adam, in Genesis 1, is self-sufficient. In Genesis 2, Adam emerges as a being that discovers the reality of loneliness within his soul. Through the discovery of Eve, Adam “forms the first covenantal community, a community in which God is the third partner.” Moreover, “This community bears an ontological character that is the pattern for the covenantal faith community of Israel.”

As a model for the Divine-human covenantal relationship, marriage demands total commitment and constancy; it is more than a contractual arrangement (p. 112). Soloveitchik argues that the theme of covenant “creates a personal experience that enriches and enhances the lives of two individuals” (p. 113).

(It is a pity neither Blidstein, Kolitz, D. Hartman, Norman Lamm, or others have ever written about Rav Soloveitchik’s attitude about biblical criticism, but that is another topic for a future article.)

Particularly interesting is Rav Soloveitchik’s view of Zionism. Rav Soloveitchik rejected a secular Jewish existence, which he regarded as a betrayal to Jewish destiny (p. 67). Yet, Blidstein also notes that the Rav was highly critical of the Haredi—who, incidentally, never forgave the Rav’s criticism of their movement and theology (p. 21). It is a pity Blidstein did not elaborate more on the Rav’s critique of Haredism.

Unlike the Hassidic Rabbis (Gerer, Chabad, Satmar, Belz) who viewed the founding of Israel as a spiritual catastrophe (for the Jews rejected the Messianic redemption foretold by the prophets and the Sages and opted instead for a secular redemption), Rav Soloveitchik celebrated the rebirth of Israel as “an almost supernatural occurrence” (p. 20). When one considers what the Jews went through with the Holocaust, I am perplexed at how Rav Soloveitchik could say that the founding of Israel is “an almost supernatural occurrence”? (Emphasis added.) When King Cyrus of Persia decided to let the Jews go back and resettle their homeland and rebuild their ancestral Temple, Isaiah minced no words about the amazing turn of events. He exclaims:

Who says to the deep,
“Be dry—I will dry up your rivers”;
Who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd,
And he shall carry out all my purpose”;
And who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be rebuilt,”
And of the temple, “Your foundation shall be laid.”

Isaiah 44:24-28

If Cyrus could serve as God’s “Moshiach” (‘Messiah”), why couldn’t President Truman also serve in that providential capacity? It seems to me that Rav Soloveitchik may have felt reticent to endorse Israel as a supernatural epiphany of God’s Presence in modern history. The logistics of creating a secular State that is also loyal to Jewish tradition are daunting. The thought of such a feasible reality probably made the Rav choose his words wisely.

Yet, who could deny that Israel is a supernatural miracle of our modern age–especially so soon after the Jewish people’s greatest tragedy–the Holocaust?

Notwithstanding the Rav’s great love for the modern State of Israel, he never visited the country. PM Menachem Begin even offered him the position of Chief Rabbi many times, but he refused to take the position.

What a pity!

In conclusion, on the back cover of the book, Blidstein presents a vital message that sums up Soloveitchik’s view of American Orthodoxy: “The Rav is very concerned that Orthodoxy has lost its dignity. He does not mean by this that it is insufficiently formal, nor is he referring to any lack of honor, of ceremonialism. On the contrary, he already discerned, in the early 1960s, that American Jewry had become disillusioned with the ceremonial sheen of organized religion, and that he saw the beginnings of the search for less-established religions. He was referring primarily to an absence of personal spiritual depth and to intellectual decline—tendencies that he saw in the public arena as well. One gets the sense that he regarded American Jewry, and Orthodox Jews in particular, as a spiritually and culturally enervated group, whether compared to the Jews of Western Europe or to those of Eastern Europe. His students were talented and well prepared, but he decried their lack of historical (and religious) rootedness, their personal roughness, and their limited spiritual development . . .”

Blidstein makes an excellent point. As I read this section several times, I found myself reminiscing over Simon and Garfunkel’s famous lyric, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

The same thing could just as easily be said about the Rav, “Where have you gone Rav Soloveitchik? A confused frum (religious) world turns its lonely eyes to you.”

Unfortunately, today’s religious world of Haredim resembles Franz Kafka’s famous short story, “The Metamorphosis,” a tale about a man who woke up and discovered he had become a cockroach. Today’s Orthodoxy likewise has changed much since the death of Rav Soloveitchik. Haredism has pushed the Modern Orthodox Jewish community more to the right. In Israel, the Haredi have negated the conversions of Modern Orthodox rabbis, much like they have done with other streams of Judaism.

I doubt whether he would be happy and proud seeing how many of today’s religious Jewish leaders (i.e., the “Gedolim”) lampoon the venerable forms of Jewish piety, painting themselves as fools, fanatics and charlatans for all to see, or read about their hypocrisies on the Internet. One is reminded of the famous Talmudic passage: “King Jannai said to his wife’, ‘Fear not the Pharisees and the non-Pharisees. Beware of the hypocrites who ape the Pharisees; because their deeds are as immoral as Zimri’s; yet, they expect a reward like Phineas” (BT Shabbat 16b).

We can only hope that new leaders from within the ranks of Orthodoxy will someday chart a new course based upon the ethical and theological teachings of Rav Soloveitchik.

I sincerely recommend Gerald J. Blidstein’s Society and Self: On the Writings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. In addition, another excellent introduction to Rav Soloveitchik’s writings is Zvi Kolitz’s Confrontation: The Existential Thought of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1993).


Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel, Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista is author of: Birth and Rebirth Through Genesis: A Timeless Theological Commentary Vol 1. Genesis 1-3 (Aeon, 2010)

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