Due to the ongoing relevance of the topic of mesorah, Jewish Action is pleased to present two important perspectives on this critical issue.
Below is a synopsis by Rabbi Steven Weil of a brilliant and influential speech delivered in 1975 by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik where he outlined the role of creativity and conservation in Torah. Following this is a profound essay by Rabbi Dr. Michael Rosensweig on the relationship between the Oral and Written Law and the challenges of “halachically navigating the ambiguities of modern life.”
More than three decades ago, in response to a controversial proposal to annul troubled marriages, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explained at length its problematic aspects in a lecture to Yeshiva University rabbinical alumni. The Rav’s powerful description of mesorah, of the tradition that undergirds our religious framework, remains instructive to this day and deserves review.
Torah Study As Revelation
Torah study, the Rav tells us, entails more than just learning sacred material. It is not merely a dry intellectual experience but is a religious experience, a recreation of the Sinai Revelation, a reaching out to God through His word. It is, the Rav said, “a total, all-encompassing and all-embracing involvement, . . . an ecstatic experience in which one meets God.” The Rav described how, when he would sit down and open a Gemara, he felt as if someone were sitting beside him looking over his shoulder. This wondrous experience is the presence of the Almighty who never deserted the Torah and accompanies it whenever someone studies it.
Torah study is an “ecstatic, metaphysical performance”; it is a personal revelation. We therefore must approach learning Torah the way our ancestors approached the receipt of the Torah at Mount Sinai—with fear, awe, tremor and trembling (see Berachot 22a). Torah study must include deep humility, a recognition that one is standing before the Almighty, which itself leads to surrender to the Torah’s, meaning God’s, demands. If a Jew is impure and incapable of experiencing the presence of the Almighty, he is forbidden to study Torah because he lacks this crucial attitude.
Why do we consistently refer to the act of accepting God’s sovereignty as “kabbalat ol malchut Shamayim, accepting the yoke of God’s kingship”? Of what significance is this yoke, this harness reining us in? The Rav explained that submission to God can be uncomfortable, even a burden. People instinctively struggle for freedom, for complete independence of thought and action. Judaism, however, rejects this, demanding that its adherents exercise control over their natural desire for autonomy. We must surrender to Torah rather than allowing our limited intellects to depart from it or our fanciful imaginations to distort it. This surrender is two-fold: we must forfeit our everyday logic and our everyday will.
The Almighty summons us to live halachically, and we have no other choice. This is Torah; this is surrender; this is kabbalat ol malchut Shamayim.
Torah’s Internal Logic
Torah study requires an absolute commitment to seeking truth and only truth. However, that truth-seeking must be in its proper context. Every discipline has an internal logic and halachah must be studied only through its own lens. One cannot apply what the Rav called “mercantile logic,” the everyday reasoning of a businessman, to the paths of Torah. Rather, one must use singular halachic Torah thinking and understanding. “The truth,” the Rav said, “is attained from within, in accord with the methodology given to Moses and passed on from generation to generation.”
One must become a part of the conversation of the ages, interacting with the classical commentators on their own terms and continuing this ongoing study within the halachic framework. Mixing in other intellectual disciplines—for example, historicizing or psychologizing debates—is an act of distortion, an insertion of a foreign construct into the native Torah environment, that undermines Torah’s very foundations.
It is ridiculous, the Rav averred, to say that one has discovered something that the Rashba, Ketzot or Vilna Gaon did not know. One must join the ranks of chachmei hamesorah, the sages of our tradition, and not try to rationalize the sacred based on secular concepts. Just like one cannot change a mathematical postulate with an interesting psychological interpretation, neither can one alter halachah through other disciplines. Such a non-halachic approach is actually anti-halachic; it inevitably and tragically leads to assimilationism and nihilism as the sacred is rendered mundane and malleable.
Confidence in Torah
We must also surrender our everyday will, the desire to survive and succeed, and instead embrace the Divine will. We cannot yield to social or scholarly critiques regardless of the apparent price. We must not only stand strong physically, refusing to act against the Torah in any way no matter how unpopular that insistence may be, but we must also resist emotionally. We dare not feel any inferiority due to our principled stance. Halachah stands on its own, and we are neither intellectually nor morally negligent for refusing to cooperate with modern intellectual trends that undermine it.
Chiddush, innovation, creative interpretation, is the very heart of halachah. But chiddushim must be within the discipline, internal to the system of halachah and not originating from the outside.
We stand proud of our mesorah, without apology or compromise. In the Rav’s opinion, Judaism “does not have to apologize either to the modern woman or to the modern representatives of religious subjectivism.” Despite the pressure we may feel, we cannot event attempt to nudge halachic norms toward what the Rav calls “the transient ways of a neurotic society.” We must recognize the fleeting nature of modern political and ideological trends as compared to the eternality of the Torah.
We must recognize the fleeting nature of modern political and ideological trends as compared to the eternality of the Torah.
The Sages of the Tradition
When the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:8) describes a denier of the Torah, a heretic who rejects a fundamental principle of Judaism, he includes not only one who denies the Oral Torah but also “hamachish magidehah, one who rejects its transmitters.” This startling phrase is a powerful expression of the nature of the Torah Shebe’al Peh, the Oral Torah. The sages throughout the ages serve as God’s conduits for transmitting the Torah.
These great scholars, the living Torah scrolls, the chachmei hamesorah, stand for more than their own physical existence. They are links in the chain of Torah, participants in the ongoing dialogue that began at Sinai. Whoever criticizes them, whoever finds fault in their character or personality, their behavior or conduct, whoever suggests that they are biased or untruthful, rejects not only them but the Torah they transmit. The Rav clearly stated, “Even those who admit the truthfulness of the Torah Shebe’al Peh but who are critical of chachmei Chazal as personalities, who find fault with chachmei Chazal, fault in their character, their behavior, or their conduct, who say that chachmei Chazal were prejudiced, which actually has no impact upon the Halacha; nevertheless, he is to be considered as a kofer [denier].” The chachmei hamesorah, the greatest talmidei chachamim of all times whose personalities and outlooks were formed by the sacred texts they wholly embraced, represent Torah and one who rejects them denies all.
The Rav discussed the proposal of the time—to annul a marriage when a husband refuses to terminate it with a get (religious divorce). He expressed his opposition by, among other things, posing a thought experiment. Imagine a world in which this proposal is accepted. The Talmudic tractates of Kiddushin and Gittin which discuss how a marriage is effected and ended would become irrelevant, as would Yevamot which discusses levirate marriage. Fundamental halachic principles that have guided the Jewish community throughout the ages would be set aside, rendered irrelevant by activist rabbis.
How do members of his audience, rabbinic alumni of Yeshiva University, expect to survive as Orthodox rabbis if specific halachic concepts are revised wholesale? Where would the tradition be, the continuity from past generations? How can they claim to carry on the mesorah? Entertaining the possibility of revising Talmudic halachah at a rabbinical conference is as nonsensical as discussing the adoption of communism at the Republican National Convention. It is a conversation about suicide for the Orthodox community, the self-destruction of halachic Judaism.
The Rav knew very well the problems facing pulpit rabbis, the social, political, cultural and economic pressures. He saw the challenge of intermarriage and the tragedy of mamzerut (illegitimate children), often in questions passed on to him by his students. Yet the answer, he declared, does not lie in reformist philosophy or convenient misinterpretations of halachah. The problem of mamzerut is unsolvable; it is an explicit Biblical verse that we cannot set aside. It is tragic, but it is a religious reality. We cannot abandon our halachic heritage, our timeless Biblical and Talmudic mandates, for any reason. We cannot allow a married woman to remarry without a get no matter how tragic the situation. Nor can we allow a kohen to marry a convert. We dare not attempt to cover up halachic realities, however heartbreaking, with extraneous and deviationist interpretations.
If we remain firm in our principles, we may appear inflexible and therefore lose popularity. However, people will respect us for our consistent stand. If we start bending halachah with external schemes, we will garner neither love nor respect. The Almighty summons us to live halachically, and we have no other choice. This is Torah; this is surrender; this is kabbalat ol malchut Shamayim.
The Rav told the story of a young man and woman who sought his assistance. She was a convert who later fell in love with this young man, whose increased interest in Judaism she sparked. The two became engaged and he visited his grandfather’s grave, where he discovered that he is a kohen. What could the Rav do? A kohen may not marry a convert and therefore, tragically, this couple could not wed. However, we must unhesitatingly surrender to the will of the Almighty. With sadness in his heart, the Rav shared in the suffering of this woman who had to lose the beloved man she helped bring back into the fold. She valiantly walked away from him, surrendering to the Almighty’s will.
Responding within Limits
Judaism has historically been and continues to be responsive to the needs of both the community and the individual. But, the Rav taught, it has its own orbit and its own speed, it responds to a challenge with its own criteria and principles. The Rav followed the rabbinic traditions of his grandfather, Rav Chaim, who believed in striving for leniency based on the personal needs of the inquirer. However, even Rav Chaim’s skills had limits. When you reach the boundary of halachah beyond which you dare not pass, you must say: “I surrender to the will of the Almighty.”
Torah study is a yoke because we lack the authority to change its laws. Shinuy, change, is unacceptable. Chiddush, innovation, creative interpretation, is the very heart of halachah. It is the engine of halachic continuity throughout the ages. But these chiddushim must be within the discipline, internal to the system of halachah and not originating from the outside. They must soberly represent the humble and fearful surrender to the Torah we have learned from the Sages. They must respect the past and continue the mesorah whose responsibility of transmission rests on our shoulders.
This influential speech was a watershed event in recent rabbinic history. With it, the Rav offered a brief but remarkable philosophy of creativity in Torah study and a guide for halachic change and conservation. We would do well to incorporate the Rav’s Torah philosophy into our own worldviews and allow his sage guidance to steer our way through the difficult situations we face.
Rabbi Steven Weil is Senior Managing Director of the OU.
This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2011.
In recent years, sociologists, historians, and cultural theorists have documented the struggle over the identity of American Orthodox Judaism. Specifically, they have concentrated on the faction that refers to itself as Modern Orthodoxy. Modern Orthodoxy has argued that a Jew can simultaneously be a committed religious person and be engaged in American culture, politics, and academic life. Since the death of its intellectual and spiritual leader, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903“1993), the Modern Orthodox world has been divided over the value and religious permissibility of advocating such a position. Modern Orthodox elites are now asking whether Modern Orthodoxy should remain a bridge for religious observance in the American public sphere, or, in the face of what some see as an increasingly hostile American society, retreat into the separatist mentality indicative of the more insular Haredi (fervently Orthodox) world. This debate can be seen most clearly in the fight over the identity and theological legacy of Rabbi Soloveitchik.
Born into an illustrious Lithuanian rabbinic family, Soloveitchik distinguished himself early on as a gifted student of Talmud. However, what separated him from the rest of his peers was that he coupled his rabbinic studies with a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Berlin. For many, even to some in his own family, such a mixture was considered heresy.
In the early 1930s, Soloveitchik came to the United States to be a rabbi in the Boston Jewish community, and by the 1940s he was teaching at Yeshiva University. As both a University Professor and Talmud teacher, Soloveitchik was forced to speak with and engage diverse types of students with different needs and interests. Because he was fluent in traditional Jewish religious discourse, he conversed with and influenced students and colleagues with more fundamentalist leanings. In speaking multiple languages to diverse audiences, Soloveitchik sowed the seeds for an all“consuming debate over his legacy and its role in defining the future of American Modern Orthodoxy.
For almost all of Soloveitchiks students, the debate over his legacy and the future direction of Modern Orthodoxy revolves around public policy or halakhic (Jewish legal) issues. Modern Orthodox elites have looked to Soloveitchiks essays for answers in their attempt to struggle with issues such as feminism, pluralism, and Israeli territorial concessions. Ironically, however, his writings very rarely, if ever, dealt with these issues. Rather, they were theologically oriented.
In his book Love and Terror in the God Encounter: The Theological Legacy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik , Rabbi David Hartman, a student of Soloveitchik and the founder of the Jerusalem“based Shalom Hartman Institute, attempts to offer a picture of Soloveitchiks theological vision. In part one of what is planned to be a two“volume work, Hartman emphasizes that Soloveitchiks religious significance cannot be measured by his rulings on contemporary halakhic . . . issues. Rather, R. Soloveitchiks . . . religious phenomenology must be given serious weight in any evaluation of his stance on the relationship between the Judaic tradition and modernity. In changing the debate from the halakhic positions Solo veitchik promoted to the vision of Judaism he embodied, Hartman forces the Modern Orthodox world to confront Soloveitchik as a theologian.
Hartmans work must be read as a cultural critique of those, such as Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, who wish to cast Soloveitchik in the mold of a typical isolated Haredi rabbinic figure. At the same time, Hartmans book is important in terms of its ability to explicate Soloveitchiks theological insights. Because many see Solo veitchiks words as, philosophically speaking, nothing more than wise homilies, one may be tempted to question the philosophic weight Hartman grants to Soloveitchik. However, such a reading of Soloveit chik betrays a lack of understanding of him as a cultural icon. Soloveit chiks ideas were not so much groundbreaking as they were meaningful to a community living the tension between the values of modernity and those of the Jewish tradition. In analyzing his writings, Hartman is not so much presenting new philosophic ideas as helping us to understand the complex words of a powerful religious figure whose intellectual legacy carries with it great social significance.
These messages and themes are clearest in Hartmans reading of Solo veitchiks seminal work, Halakhic Man . Written in the 1940s (though not translated into English until 1983), the book offered students of religion a phenomenological analysis of Jewish law and its ability to serve as a mode of religious expression. In his introduction to the essay, Soloveit chik sketches the philosophic underpinnings of the Jewish legal system. His employment of modern philosophic, scientific, and theological sources to explain the particularity of Jewish law imparted a rigor and structure to the Jewish legal system never before seen. Soloveitchiks halakhic man sees all of nature and being through the prism of specific legal Jewish categories. These categories are arrived at only after in“depth study of rabbinic texts..
Before the books publication, American Jewish circles were familiar with the concept of worshiping God through the heart or through action, but few had encountered or understood a notion of divine worship rooted in study. At the same time, as much of a shock as Halakhic Man was to more general audiences, few in the Orthodox world ever thought a Christian theologian such as Kierkegaard could be used”as he was by Soloveitchik”to explain the workings of their ancient legal tradition.
In a chapter entitled Halakhic Hero, Hartman takes issue with those revisionists who, he claims, see Soloveitchiks use of philosophical terminology merely as an apology and a sophisticated cover“up for his strict traditionalism. For example, in Halakhic Man , Soloveitchik compares halakha to the discipline of mathematics. By this, he means that the same rules, logic, and exactitude that enter into mathematics can be seen in the halakhic system. Hartman claims: Halakhic mans . . . primary concern [like the mathematicians] is to create a coherent conceptual framework that encompasses the halakhic data and not necessarily to apply his intellect to practical affairs. Specifically, Hartman denies that this comparison was intended as an apologetic attempt to justify the epistemology of halakha to a Western world that admires the objectivity of mathematics. Instead, for Hartman, Soloveit chiks use of philosophic concepts and his comparison between halakha and mathematics was a means for him to highlight theoretical, creative inquiry in a system that was seen by most people as at once rigid and pragmatic.
In Hartmans view, Soloveitchiks comparison between halakha and mathematics allowed him to propose an antidote to the dangers posed by modern existentialists, who claimed that subjective passion is the hallmark of religious authenticity. The demands that a set system such as halakha place on the individual prevent one from becoming overly infatuated with the self. At the same time, Hartman claims Soloveitchik could not help but hear contemporary liberal America asking him if this seemingly stale and inflexible system leaves any room for difference, creativity, and ingenuity. According to Hartman, Soloveitchiks concept of halakhic man is highly original in that it brings the individual back into a process that many see as robotic and mechanical. The intellectual creativity, spontaneity, and freedom promoted by Jewish study challenges the individual to be innovative and original in his thinking. For Hartman, halakhic mans ability to breed individuality through study is proof of Soloveit chiks success at constructing a phenomenology of, rather than an apology for, halakha.
Unfortunately, however, Hartmans interpretation is less convincing than he believes. Although Halakhic Man has great historical significance, many, even in the Orthodox community, have brushed it aside as a theologically meaningless text. Living in an age in which theologians such as George Lindbeck and Stanley Hauerwas have demonstrated the rootedness of religion in community and culture, Soloveitchiks a“contextual and a“cultural notion of Jewish law can seem somewhat dated. Nowhere in Soloveitchiks scientific, mathematical description of Jewish law does he explain the crucial role of culture, politics, and community in the fashioning of a Jewish legal system. In highlighting the phenomenological aspects of Soloveitchiks project, Hartman manages to personalize and socialize the distant and somewhat dated scientific and mathematical categories employed by his teacher.
Hartman finds himself on firmer ground when he turns to a discussion of Soloveitchiks essay The Lonely Man of Faith. Written in the 1960s, The Lonely Man of Faith is Soloveitchiks attempt to offer a philosophical anthropology of mankind. It focuses on the question of what it means to be a man of faith in the modern world. However, what makes The Lonely Man of Faith an extraordinary text, according to Hartman, is its attempt to create a discussion between the Jewish and non“Jewish traditions. Thus, contrary to those who try to intellectually limit Soloveitchik by alleging that the essay is addressed only to the Jewish faith experience, Hartman demonstrates that Soloveit chik meant to address a universal audience. Hartmans point is strengthened by the fact that The Lonely Man of Faith was originally delivered at St. Josephs Seminary, a Catholic institution in Boston, Massachusetts.
Likewise, for Hartman, Soloveit chiks citing of non“Jewish thinkers such as Kant and Kierkegaard should not be seen as an example of apologetics. Instead, it should be appreciated as Soloveitchiks attempt to enter into a discussion with the general world of faith on questions pertaining to the nature of the religious experience. As with his use of scientific sources in Halakhic Man , Soloveit chiks employment of philosophical and theological sources in The Lonely Man of Faith served a specific theological purpose that could not be accomplished in any other way.
As universalistic as The Lonely Man of Faith appears to be, Hartman is right to dwell on yet another essay”Confrontation”that highlights the more particularistic side of Soloveitchiks thought. First delivered in the 1960s to an Orthodox rabbinical group, Confrontation represents Soloveitchiks attempt to deal with the growing ecumenical tide in American religious circles. Though it is written in the style of an informal meditation on the topic of interfaith dialogue, it proscriptively argues that, theologically speaking, it is impossible for Jews to find a common language in which to speak with other religions.
In his analysis of Confrontation, Hartman incisively points out that it is an oversimplification to say that in the essay Soloveitchik does away with any common language of faith. Rather, says Hartman, the essay shows itself to be primarily directed at [preventing] a public confrontation that may lead to some form of compromise or accommodation. For Soloveitchik, the notion of interfaith dialogue conjured up memories of medieval disputations and the immense and overwhelming power of the Church. However, according to Hartman,
R. Soloveitchik never repudiated intellectual study, mutual exchange of ideas, and the importance of making sense of Judaism within a larger intellectual frame of reference . . . . There is a difference between studying and being engaged as an individual with texts by Kierkegaard, Barth, Luther, or Augustine and being invited by others for a public confrontation that may lead to some form of accommodation and compromise.
For Hartman, even Rabbi Soloveit chiks most insular and particularistic writings retained a strong sense of intellectual openness that separated them from the narrower positions staked out by his rabbinic predecessors. Hartmans reading pulls Orthodoxy out of intellectual isolation and into the American religious public sphere without compromising its halakhic authenticity.
While, in the end, Hartmans book fails to adequately explain how those on the Orthodox Right, whom he characterizes as revisionists, have managed to arrive at a more insular and less intellectually open portrait of Soloveitchik, his careful and precise reading of Rabbi Soloveitchiks writings is our most thorough interpretation to date. And with thousands of teachers, students, and academics from all denominations and faiths flocking to hear David Hartman at his Jerusalem“based Institute, it is only a matter of time until the Jewish world at large begins speaking about Rabbi Hartmans theological vision in its own right.
Eliyahu E. Stern is a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University in New York City.