Nathan Lopes Cardozo
Nathan Lopes Cardozo

The Genius and Limitations of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik z”l

I never had the privilege of meeting Rav Soloveitchik z”l or learning under him. But I believe I have read all of his books on Jewish philosophy and Halacha, and even some of his Talmudic novellae and halachic decisions. I have also spoken with many of his students.

Here are my impressions.

No doubt Rav Soloveitchik was a Gadol Ha-dor (a great sage of his generation). He was a supreme Talmudist and certainly one of the greatest religious thinkers of our time.

His literary output is incredible.

Still, I believe that he was not a mechadesh – a man whose novel ideas really moved the Jewish tradition forward, especially regarding Halacha. He did not solve major halachic problems.

This may sound strange, because almost no one has written as many novel ideas about Halacha as Rav Soloveitchik.[1] His masterpiece, Halakhic Man, is perhaps the prime example.

Before Rav Soloveitchik appeared on the scene, nobody – surely not in mainstream Orthodoxy – had seriously dealt with the ideology and philosophy of Halacha.[2]

In fact, the reverse is true. While many were writing about Jewish philosophy, the Bible, the prophets, and universalism, no one touched the topic of Halacha and its weltanschauung.

Halacha was ignored as an ideology, and the impression is that most Orthodox scholars were embarrassed by the strange and incomprehensible world of halachic thought and argument, and chose to disregard it. Its highly unusual way of thinking, its emphasis on the most subtle details – often comprised of farfetched arguments, hairsplitting dialectics and casuistry – made it something that no one wanted to approach and it was consequently a non-starter.

I once argued that Halacha is the art of making a problem out of every solution. Its obsessive need to create obstacles where no difficulties exist is well known to all Talmudists. Its constant fixation with creating life-and-death situations out of the grossest trivialities is typical.

Rav Soloveitchik, however, saw the need to deal with this problem head-on and undertook the extremely difficult task. For him, Halacha was the supreme will of God, and behind its strange disposition lay a fascinating and highly original world that needed to be revealed in a society that increasingly tried to undo it. As far as he was concerned, there was nothing to be embarrassed about. In fact, there was no greater and more sophisticated ideology than the world of Halacha.

Single-handedly, he turned the tide and made Halacha the center of philosophical discussion. Not even Rambam, the greatest of all halachists, had done anything like that.

His classic work, Halakhic Man, is highly sophisticated and full of deep insights using general philosophy, psychology and epistemology, which place the philosophy and theology of Halacha not only on the map but at the center of all discussion concerning Judaism. No doubt it took time before this essay had any impact. It was first published in Hebrew in 1944, as Ish ha-Halakhah, in the journal Talpiot.[3] When it appeared in English in 1983, as Lawrence Kaplan’s translation Halakhic Man,[4] it slowly became the object of serious debate and contemplation.

It may be argued that Halakhic Man forced the Conservative, Reform, and even Reconstructionist movements to give much more attention to Halacha, which grew to be the norm to the extent that general Jewish philosophy almost became of secondary importance. For Rav Soloveitchik, Jewish theology had to be an outgrowth and expression of the normative halachic system. A great example of this would be his teshuva drashot (sermons) where the laws of teshuva and the lamdanut (Talmudic analytic learning) of tzvei dinim become the basis of two dinim and concepts in Jewish philosophy.[5]

* * *

And here 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.[6]

This is true about issues such as the status of women in Jewish law (with the exception of women learning Talmud);[7] 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.

He did, however, stand out as a highly gifted exponent of the ideology of Judaism and Halacha. He had no equal – perhaps with the exception of the renowned Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. In his work God in Search of Man, Rabbi Heschel laid out a theology of Judaism and Halacha, which, while dramatically different from Rav Soloveitchik’s, was also a tour de force explaining what Halacha is really all about.[8]

* * *

When it came to Talmudic learning, Rav Soloveitchik was an old-fashioned Rosh Yeshiva (in Yeshiva University), whose brilliance was not different from that of my own Roshei Yeshiva in Gateshead, England, and later in Yerushalayim’s Mirrer Yeshiva. He was the proponent of the Brisker method of Talmudic learning, which is widespread in many of today’s yeshivot, and from which I personally have greatly benefited, although I doubt its real value.

* * *

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).[9] While Rabbi Hartman uses purely ethical reasons to oppose the negative response of Rav Soloveitchik, it was Rabbi Moshe Feinstein z”l, the most important halachic authority in America in those days, who often found halachically permissible ways to allow these people to marry.[10] This no doubt must have been known to Rav Soloveitchik, and I am utterly astonished that he did not discuss it with or take advice from Rabbi Feinstein. It’s even more mind-boggling when one takes into account that Rav Soloveitchik did not see himself as a posek (halachic authority and decisor) but only as a melamed (teacher).

* * *

Rav Soloveitchik’s famous argument with Rabbi Emanuel Rackman – renowned Talmudic scholar and thinker, later to become Dean of Bar-Ilan University – is another example of the former’s sometimes extreme halachic conservatism. In several places, the Talmud introduces a rule that states: Tav Lemeitav tan du mi-lemeitav armeluIt is better to live as two than to live alone,[11] which refers to the fact that a woman would prefer to marry almost any man rather than remain alone.

Rav Soloveitchik sees this as a “permanent ontological principle,” which is beyond historical conditions, and that even in our day needs to be applied and cannot be changed. This principle operates under the assumption that even today’s women prefer to stay in a marriage, no matter how unfortunate the circumstances may be. To be alone is worse. This means that a woman cannot claim that had she known what kind of person her husband is, she never would have married him. If she could make this claim, her marriage would be a “mistaken marriage,” which would not even require a get (bill of divorce), since the marriage took place on a false premise and the woman would never have agreed to it had she known. In that case, she was never considered lawfully married and could leave her partner without receiving a get. Since this obviously has enormous repercussions for today’s society, it could help thousands of women.[12] Rav Soloveitchik was not prepared to take that approach and thus blocked the possibility for many of them to leave their partners without a get.

Rabbi Rackman,[13] who had the greatest respect for Rav Soloveitchik, strongly disagreed and claimed that a Talmudic presumption such as this depends on historical circumstances, as in the days of the Talmud when women had no option to live a normal life if they were not married. They were often abused and would suffer extreme poverty and other misfortunes. Understandably, women in those days would prefer to remain married; but none of this is true in modern times when women have great freedom and are able to take care of themselves, both financially and physically. If so, there would be good reason for a woman to claim that had she known her husband’s true nature, she would never have married him and she would be able to leave her husband without the need for a get.

There is little doubt that Rabbi Rackman was right in this matter. Interestingly, he noted that Rav Soloveitchik told him: “Rackman, you may be right and I may be wrong. You view the Halacha historically and I like to view it meta-historically.”[14] I have heard statements from other students that Rav Soloveitchik admitted this. Even stranger is the fact that, like all his predecessors, Rav Soloveitchik considered Rambam the ultimate halachic authority and defended him whenever possible. Professor Menachem Kellner points out that Rambam viewed Halacha in a historical context and clearly not in an ontological one![15] So one wonders why Rav Soloveitchik didn’t follow in Rambam’s footsteps and agree ab initio with Rabbi Rackman; unless one argues that Rav Soloveitchik didn’t follow Rambam’s philosophical approach to Halacha.

This observation is astonishing. If Rav Soloveichik was not even sure himself, and all evidence was against him, he could have single handedly liberated many women. No doubt he must have been worried that such a ruling might be misused. But this is an extremely weak justification for his conservatism, considering the immense suffering of so many women whose husbands refused to grant them a get. He could have made a major contribution in this field had he accepted Rabbi Rackman’s compelling argument.[16]

* * *

It is even more perplexing when we compare Rav Soloveitchik’s highly conservative stand with other great halachists of his day, such as Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, the most famous student of Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, author of the responsa Seridei Eish and one of the greatest halachic luminaries of the post-Holocaust era. Rabbi Berkovits was of the opinion that with the establishment of the State of Israel, and the radical changes that had taken place among modern-day Jewry, there was a need to liberate Halacha from its exile status. According to Rabbi Berkovits, the unfortunate conditions under which the Jews had lived for nearly 2,000 years created a “defensive halacha,” which now had to be liberated. It had been in waiting mode and now had to return to its natural habitat. In his important work HaHalacha: Kochah VeTafkidah, Rabbi Berkovitz shows how we can solve many serious problems related to the status of women, agunot, mamzerim, conversion, and even the shemitta year with its enormous burden on modern Israeli society and its often inconsistent and paradoxical application.[17]

In many ways he reminds us of Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn (1857-1935) who, as a first-class halachist, also realized these new conditions and, in his responsa Malki BaKodesh,[18] suggested new approaches that would solve many problems.

It was especially in the Sephardic world that two outstanding halachic luminaries – Chacham Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel (1880-1953), Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine from 1939-1948, and of Israel from 1948-1953; and Rabbi Yosef Mashash (1892-1974), rabbi of the city of Tlemcen in Algeria and, later, Chief Rabbi of Haifa – demonstrated ways to overcome halachic problems. Their courage is mind-boggling and proves what can be done when one has an approach to Orthodox Halacha that in so many ways is completely at odds with that of Rav Soloveitchik and other traditional Ashkenazic halachists.[19]

* * *

Most remarkable are the observations of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel when he was asked to give his opinion about Rav Soloveitchik’s book Halakhic Man. According to his students, he said the following:

“Ish Ha-Halakha [Halakhic Man]? Lo hayah velo nivra ela mashal hayah [There never was such a Jew]! Soloveitchik’s study, though brilliant, is based on the false notion that Judaism is a cold, logical affair with no room for piety. After all, the Torah does say, ‘Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul and might.’ No, there never was such a typology in Judaism as the halakhic man. There was – and is – an Ish Torah [a Torah man], who combines Halakhah and Aggadah, but that is another matter altogether”.[20]

While I wonder if these are the exact words of Rabbi Heschel – since there are, after all, some emotional and not only logical dimensions to Halachic Man – it cannot be denied that this work depicts an image of an ideal halachic human being who in many ways lives a mathematical and almost stony life, although various parts of the book paint different if not contradictory images. The book is definitely poetic.

It is interesting to note Rav Soloveitchik’s observations concerning Heschel’s famous book The Sabbath.[21] After praising it, he said: “What does he [Heschel] call Shabbat? – A sanctuary in time. This is an idea of a poet. It’s a lovely idea. But what is Shabbat? Shabbat is lamed tet melachot, it is the thirty-nine categories of work and their toladot, and it is out of that Halacha and not of poetry that you have to construct a theory of Shabbat”.[22] These are remarkable words, because Rav Soloveichik was constantly trying to lift the “harsh” Halacha out of its own confines and give it a poetic, perhaps even romantic dimension.

* * *

The earlier-mentioned poskim thought out of the box when it came to Halacha, and introduced creative and new halachic approaches to major problems. With few exceptions, we see little of that in Rav Soloveitchik’s methodology.

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.

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. Had he taken the road of Rabbis Berkovits, Hirschensohn, Uziel, Mashash and others, Orthodoxy would have become a driving force in contemporary Judaism, able to show the way and lead all other denominations.

It seems to me that the above-mentioned rabbis were talmidei chachamim no less than Rav Soloveitchik was. Their disadvantages were that they didn’t occupy a central role in Modern Orthodox and Yeshiva University circles, and above all they didn’t belong to renowned Ashkenazic rabbinical families. Had they been called Soloveitchik, their Torah would have received far more attention and would probably have been much more effective.

* * *

Finally, I am deeply disturbed by the almost unhealthy obsession with Rav Soloveitchik within Modern Orthodox circles. It borders on avodah zarah and has almost transformed into a cult, something he would not have liked. In all my years in the Haredi Gateshead and Mirrer Yeshivot, I never saw such exaggerated admiration for our great Roshei Yeshiva.

There is, however, a very good reason for this. Modern Orthodoxy has always been insecure with its own philosophy and halachic approach. Over the years, it has looked over its shoulder to see what the Haredi community had to say. As a result, it hid behind Rav Soloveitchik, the only figure who equaled the Hareidi Talmudists in their level of Talmudic learning; and only he could protect them against the onslaught of the Haredi community.

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. May his memory be a blessing.

This essay is Based on an introduction to a discussion between Professor William Kolbrener and Professor Elliott Malamet in honor of the publication of Professor William Kolbrener’s new book “The Last Rabbi”, which took place in Jerusalem, on Feb. 1, 2017

With thanks to Yehuda DovBehr Zirkind and Channa Shapiro.

Dear Friends, Every week I receive hundreds of emails and important observations on my essays, via many channels. Unfortunately, the volume makes it impossible for me to respond to every comment. Please know that I deeply appreciate every comment, and learn from them all. Thank you for taking the time to share your comments. I hope you will continue to do so. — Nathan Lopes Cardozo

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem. A sought-after lecturer on the international stage for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Rabbi Cardozo is the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Rabbi Cardozo heads a Think Tank focused on finding new Halachic and philosophical approaches to dealing with the crisis of religion and identity amongst Jews and the Jewish State of Israel. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism. His ideas are widely debated on an international level on social media, blogs, books and other forums.
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