Rabbi Soloveitchik and his Paradoxical Influence: An Answer to a Friend is the second recent article by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo to critique and attempt to partially negate the legacy of Rav Yosef B. Soloveitchik, of blessed memory. I do not know Rabbi Cardozo’s motivation for this article and his previous article about Rav Soloveitchik, but I do know that Rabbi Cardozo is mistaken in his criticism.

Rabbi Cardozo writes:

[H]ere is where we encounter one of the greatest and most tragic paradoxes in Rav Soloveitchik’s legacy. In complete contradiction to his philosophy of Halacha, Rav Soloveitchik did not move Halacha forward in areas that most urgently needed it. He did not innovate a new, practical halachic approach to major problems confronting the larger Jewish community. While brilliantly explaining what Halacha essentially is, he made no practical breakthroughs. This is true about issues such as the status of women in Jewish law (with the exception of women learning Talmud); the aguna; the mamzer problem; the application of Halacha in the State of Israel; and similar crucial halachic issues. In that sense he was not at all a mechadesh but rather a conservative halachist…

It seems that he did not realize, or did not want to accept, that Halacha had become defensive and was waiting to be liberated from its exile and confinement.

In many ways, this is an extraordinary tragedy. With his exceptional standing in the Modern Orthodox halachic community, Rav Soloveitchik could have made breakthroughs that would have given Orthodoxy – especially Modern Orthodoxy – much more exposure and influence in the Jewish world and would probably have been a major force against the growth of Reform and Conservative Judaism, of which he was so afraid. In many ways, Modern Orthodoxy was unable to develop naturally, because it had become too dependent on Rav Soloveitchik’s conservative halachic approach.

Rabbi David Hartman, in his book The God who Hates Lies, rightly criticizes Rav Soloveitchik for his refusal to find a way to allow a kohein to marry a giyoret (convert)…

Exactly where Rav Soloveitchik put Halacha on the map, in all its grandeur (without denying its possible shortcomings), and transformed it into the most dominant topic of discussion on Judaism, there is where he seems to have been afraid of his own thoughts and withdrew behind its conventional walls.

What Modern Orthodoxy did not realize is that Rav Soloveitchik himself was a Haredi, who combined that ideology with religious Zionism and tried very hard to give it a place in the world of philosophy and modernity. He therefore wavered and showed signs of a troubled man who was unable to overcome the enormous tension between these two worlds and turned into a “lonely man of faith,” with no disciples but with many students, each one of whom claimed their own Rav Soloveitchik. The truth is that the real Rav Soloveitchik was more than the sum total of all of them – a man of supreme greatness who was a tragic figure.

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…

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 – 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…

I will not address Rabbi Cardozo’s sense that he can pass judgment on Rav Soloveitchik and disparage him, but it is eminently clear that Rabbi Cardozo does not view Halacha as holistic, conceptual and highly sophisticated (in an abstract and categorical manner), and that he instead views Halacha as practical guidelines which need to be fit into the needs of the times. Such an attitude toward Halacha is pedestrian and unripe, and it overlooks the depth, profundity and true authoritativeness of the halachic system and its masters throughout the generations.

I am compelled to invoke the words of Rav Soloveitchik regarding the proper interpretation of Halacha:

Korach rebelled against authority. All Jews are equal. Hence, everyone is entitled to interpret the law… The study of the law, Korach argued, is an exoteric act, a democratic act, in which every intelligent person may engage. Moshe’s claim to being the exclusive legal authority, and the exclusive interpreter of the law, Korach argued, was unfounded and unwarranted.

The consequence of such a democratic philosophy is obvious. What Korach wanted, and what many want even now – and I’m not only speaking of dissident groups, I’m speaking of the Orthodox community – whether they speak it clearly or they use political terms and dubious language to cover it up, is that the instrument of the Torah be commonsensical for the everyday empirical intelligence, not the esoteric conceptual ideal logos, which can only be obtained through painstaking study and hard training…

The Oral Law (Halacha) has its own epistemological approach, which can be understood only by a lamdan (advanced Torah scholar) who has mastered its methodology and its abundant material. Just as mathematics is more than a group of equations, and physics is more than a collection of natural laws, so, too, the Halacha is more than a compilation of religious laws. It has its own logos and method of thinking and is an autonomous self-integrated system. The Halacha need not make common sense any more than mathematics and scientific conceptualized systems need to accommodate themselves to common sense.

When people talk of a meaningful Halacha, of unfreezing the Halacha or of an empirical Halacha, they are basically proposing Korach’s approach. Lacking a knowledge of halachic methodology, which can only be achieved through extensive study, they instead apply common-sense reasoning which is replete with platitudes and clichés. As in Aristotelean physics, they judge phenomena solely from surface appearances and note only the subjective sensations of worshippers. This da’as (simplistic) approach is not tolerated in science, and it should not receive serious credence in Halacha. Such judgments are pseudo-statements, lacking sophistication about depth relationships and meanings. (1973 shiur (lecture) at Rabbinical Council of America convention; The Rav: Thinking Aloud – Sefer Bamidbar, pp. 127-148. And see here.)

Rabbi Cardozo has written that he did not fully observe Tisha B’Av this year, and he has called for dispensing with the Codes of Jewish Law and the abolition of parts of Halacha which strike him as regressive. Please also see here. Furthermore, Rabbi Cardozo is on the advisory board of a co-ed rabbinical program. With all due respect, Rabbi Cardozo is not in a position to argue, much less denigrate, Rav Soloveitchik’s appreciation and deference to Halacha according to its traditional understanding. (Please also see here.) While some may not appreciate my candid remarks, one’s personal (and very public) attitude toward Halacha cannot be ignored and is quite relevant and justifiably considered when evaluating his criticism of someone else’s attitude toward Halacha.

Although this brief article is not the place for elaboration on issues of belief in God and Torah Min Ha-Shamayim (Divine authorship of the Torah), Rabbi Cardozo states that Rav Soloveitchik failed to address these issues, and that if the reason for this was one of principle, “then the Rav was out of touch with reality”. Again, I will not comment on Rabbi Cardozo’s tone, but it would be wrong not to address these issues in at least a very condensed manner.

Although Rav Soloveitchik’s belief in God, as described in U’vikashtem Mi’sham, was one of gripping intuition and spellbinding perception, such that he was struck by the palpable Presence of God through the very existence of the universe and its creatures and happenings, Rav Soloveitchik explained that faith by definition means trust in the Word of God and submission to His Will, specifically when one does not have answers to the mysteries and perplexities that lie beyond human understanding.

In a 1968 address to RIETS Rabbinic Alumni (published here on pp. 113-119), noting that the Torah records that the Patriarchs erected altars, but usually omits mention of sacrifice thereon, Rav Soloveitchik explained:

Apparently, the mizbe’ach (altar) of the Avos (Patriarchs) was not for the purpose of offering a live sacrifice. The mizbe’ach symbolized submission, their own surrender. Because the highest sacrifice is not when you offer an animal. It’s very easy when you offer an animal. The highest sacrifice is when man offers himself.

What do I mean “offers himself”? The Torah hated, condemned, human sacrifices… It’s one of the most reprehensible abominations. Yes, physical human sacrifice was rejected, but spiritual human sacrifice – submission and surrender, acceptance of God’s will, to abide by His will even if His will sometimes runs contrary to our aspirations, His will sometimes makes no sense to us – [that was valued and required]. We can’t understand it, it’s incomprehensible. We are full with questions, we can point out so many contradictions. [But] if we surrender and submit ourselves, actually this is the highest.

And that’s what Avrohom (Abraham) taught himself, and he taught others. This means “vayiven sham mizbe’ach” (“he erected an altar there”) actually. Whom did he sacrifice? His own independence, his own pride, his own comfort, his own desires, his own logic, his own reason. He believed. If one believes, it is an act of surrender, sacrifice…

Although some important insights were written regarding Rav Soloveitchik’s dismissive view of biblical criticism — for he stated that he was not bothered by it in the least — the message which emerges most clearly from the context of Rav Soloveitchik’s writings and public addresses is that Bible critics and those who believe in the Torah as absolute divine truth operate with radically different assumptions that prevent and obviate any challenge of the former to the latter. If one does not accept the existence of prophecy, of miracles, of God creating a universe ex nihilo, and so forth, his challenges to someone who does accept these principles are irrelevant and fall by the wayside. Stated otherwise, the Torah has its own internal system and axioms, and systems and axioms from other, external systems make no impact and simply do not register. Similarly, in terms of scientific denial of Creation Ex Nihilo — which is a foundational Torah concept — Rav Soloveitchik remarked:

Science has no right to say anything on this topic; it is a metaphysical topic. (from 1971 address to RIETS Rabbinic Alumni, published here on pp. 7-25)

The Torah, which addresses the metaphysical realm, is not impacted by that which is limited to the physical realm. (Please also see Rav Soloveitchik’s enthralling description of the Techeles color, which represents spheres that are beyond the reach of science and worldly quantification.)

Rabbi Cardozo further writes:

Coming back to my main argument, here are a few quotations by the Rav [in Halachic Man]:

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 and 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?

Rabbi Cardozo misinterprets the words of Rav Soloveitchik. The notion of a master Torah scholar, Halachic Man, being a partner with God in Creation via the provision of new and creative insights into Torah, and by gaining jurisdiction over Halacha, does not mean that Halacha can be manipulated or reformed by man. Rather, it means that human beings are entrusted with the interpretation of Halacha and are charged to provide penetrating insights — yet such interpretation and insights must be true to the system’s integrity and internal mechanisms, and are of course ultimately part of human submission to Halacha as the Will of God.

Let us study and revere Halacha according to its tradition. This has been the key to Jewish survival over the millennia, and it is the basis of our connection to God and His Torah.