In his lifetime, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) was the acknowledged leader of modern or “centrist” Orthodox Judaism in North America. Today, outside of haredi circles, almost all Orthodox leaders in North America (and a growing number in Israel) see themselves as his students or as the students of his students.
Among many of his rabbinical students, Rabbi Soloveitchik is best known for his accomplishments in the technical field of Talmud analysis. His philosophical thinking, though, attracted a wider audience. His essays on issues not related to Talmud, while few in number, continue to reverberate today. Five of his English-language essays from the 1960s and 1970s have recently been republished by Maggid Books, under the title Confrontation and Other Essays. (Neither the criteria for choosing these specific essays nor the identity of the person who made the choice is explained in the book.)
Confrontation, perhaps Rabbi Soloveitchik’s most controversial essay, was written in 1964 while the Second Vatican Council was in session, a year before the publication of Nostra Aetate, the Catholic document that began the process of redefining the Church’s attitude to Jews and Judaism. Some Jews at the time were trying to influence the outcome of the council. Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote explicitly that Jews should “refrain from suggesting to the community of the many [= Christians] … changes in its ritual or emendations of its texts.” He also spelled out what he saw as the appropriate limits to “dialogue” with Christians.
As the essay spoke only in general terms, in 1967 Rabbi Soloveitchik published an addendum (also reprinted in this book) to clarify that he opposed “any public debate, dialogue or symposium concerning the doctrinal, dogmatic or ritual aspects of our faith” with Christians. But, he wrote, “we are ready to enter into dialogue on such topics as war and peace [this during the worst of the war in Vietnam], poverty, freedom, man’s moral values, the threat of secularism, technology and human values, civil rights etc., which revolve about religious spiritual aspects of our civilization.”
Despite his attempt to make his position crystal clear, his disciples still argue today about what he meant, often offering careful exegesis of this essay, as if it were a passage from the Talmud. Although it is debatable whether the relationship between Jews and Christians today is comparable to the situation 50 years ago, students of Rabbi Soloveitchik still ask: Did he oppose only public dialogue about articles of faith? When he admits that rabbis and Christian clergy who legitimately discuss moral problems do not discuss them “as sociologists, historians or cultural ethicists in agnostic or secular categories” but bring their religious “thoughts, feelings, perceptions and terminology” to the discussion, was he thus opening the door to very wide forms of dialogue?
While Confrontation is important as a historic document, all of these essays illuminate the thought of one of the most brilliant rabbis of modern times. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s secular erudition (he earned a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Berlin just before moving to the United States in 1932) can be seen on almost every page.
As he was a keen student of the human condition, his words spoke even to Jews who lacked deep faith. He did not feel that the purpose of the Jewish religion was to make us feel more at ease. Judaism, in his understanding, forces us to confront the tensions or dialectic (a favourite word of his) involved in being a human being:
“Man is a dialectical being: an inner schism runs through his personality at every level. . . the Judaic view posits that this schism is willed by God as the source of man’s greatness and election as a singular charismatic being. Man is a great and creative being because he is torn by conflict. . . The fact that the creative gesture is associated with agony is a result of this contradiction, which pervades the whole personality of man.”
The essays explore a number of the tensions in the human condition, including whether we should identify as community members or as individuals and whether we are primarily citizens of the world or members of a particularistic people. Rabbi Soloveitchik contrasts the Jewish approach with that of Hegel, who also speaks in terms of opposites which he labels thesis and antithesis. While Hegel claims that thesis and antithesis have to be resolved in a synthesis, Rabbi Soloveitchik teaches that in Judaism, synthesis is neither desirable nor possible.
“Man is, quite often, a captive of two enchanting visions, summoning him to move in opposite directions. . . Man must decide which alternative to take . . . The clash is staggering . . . The Halachah is concerned with this dilemma and tries to help man in such critical moments. The Halachah, of course, did not discover the synthesis, since the latter does not exist. It did, however, find a way to enable man to respond to both calls.”
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s essays have an uplifting poetic quality. While they were written a generation or more ago, they deal with timeless questions. Sadly, since Rabbi Soloveitchik’s death, no other thinker has combined his level of deep talmudic learning with a mastery of contemporary philosophical literature and sensitivity to the difficulties of the human condition. Republishing these essays now makes sense, both for those of us who have read them before and, hopefully, for a new questioning generation.