New book eyes The Rav’s philosophical puzzle


Modern Orthodox Jews know a few things about The Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ztz”l: He was heir to the Brisker dynasty of Talmud Study; he studied neo-Kantian philosophy in Berlin; and he is the intellectual bedrock of diaspora religious Zionism. 

But how did he end up at Yeshiva University? What is the Brisker method? What does it have to do with philosophy? What is neo-Kantianism? Did he have a philosophy of his own? What is “religious” about his “Zionism”?

In an accessible but philosophically sophisticated work, Heshey and Mark (Meir) Zelcer (father and son) answer these questions and more in their new book “The Philosophy of Joseph B. Soloveitchik” (Routledge). The book begins with a biography of highlights from Rav Soloveitchik’s life. His youth centered on education in Poland, Belarus, and then Berlin. After a brief stay in Vilnius, he moved to Boston to raise a family, and settle for the rest of his life. He delved into communal life, becoming the leader we now know. We learn of the twists, turns, setbacks, and successes of his life as a communal Rabbi in Boston and religious educator in New York.

The core of the book is a large chapter on Rav Soloveitchik’s philosophical output for which the reader is given quite a bit of background. The Rav pulled together many ideas in his philosophical works, drawing from the history of philosophy, Jewish thought, and law. The book is full of brief introductions to a variety of topics strategically embedded throughout.

The Zelcers introduce the history of Jewish law, the Brisker method, metaphysics and epistemology, Plato and Aristotle, Neo-Kantianism, phenomenology, Tanya, Bible criticism, and many personalities and movements in intellectual history all in the service of showing how Judaism answers its central philosophical concern: what is the reason for the commandments? 

This question is quintessentially Jewish because it emerges organically from the most Jewish of sources: Halakhah. The ta’amei ha-mitzvot question, as it is known, asks why we are commanded to perform the mitzvot. The question is most poignant when it comes to those commandments that seem to have no obvious rationale.

Rav Soloveitchik however says that to answer it, we must first reframe the question and instead look for the ta’am of the mitzvot, the “taste” or experience of the commandments, thus keeping halakhah at the center of Rav Soloveitchik’s thinking. It is the source of Jewish philosophical speculation and the only thing upon which an answer may be built.

Rav Soloveitchik famously said that a Jewish philosophy must be built out of halakhah and the Zelcers show us how he does it by piecing together his philosophical output like a puzzle. Many people are familiar with his famous essays “The Lonely Man of Faith” and “Halakhic Man.” The Zelcers show how these are but pieces of a grand philosophical edifice.

The question that Rav Soloveitchik inherited from Berlin is how to understand the relationship between the outer objective world and one’s inner subjective experience of it. The world exists and we experience it. But what we grasp is shaped by a host of factors, from how our brain is wired to our personal values.

In the hands of a halakhic philosopher the question becomes: how do we understand the relationship between the world “created” by the halakhah and the subjective mindset of the “halakhic person”?

• • •

How is the objective world created by halakhah? Simple. Halakhah tells us what objects there are and shapes our mental categories.

Objects are different things to different people. To a geologist an ocean is a specific distinct body of salt water, to a biologist, a marine ecosystem, to a geographer, a border, to a halakhic man, a mikvah. Same for all objects. For a halakhic person everything has halakhic significance and all the things together make up real objects in his physical world. 

What about his inner subjective world? A halakhic man’s subjective worldview is uncomfortable. Rav Soloveitchik believes that ideally halakhah molds man’s personality so that it is perpetually drawn in opposing directions. He wants to be both analytic and spiritual, thinking and feeling, surrendering and questioning. If one is doing halakhah right, these competing drives pull a halakhic man in one direction and then the other, forever. 

The mitzvot are how the objective world gives rise to the subjective. Fulfilling each commandment with the religious objects creates a subjective experience which creates the uncomfortable halakhic personality. Rav Soloveitchik’s favorite examples involve prayer, repentance, and mourning. 

The Zelcers tie these all together and show how many of Rav Soloveitchik’s speeches, essays, and books contribute toward filling this picture. 

Two additional chapters address the unrelated philosophical issues of Zionism and interfaith dialogue. While modern Orthodoxy is sympathetic with his Zionism, his stance on interfaith dialogue has generated much controversy even among some of his most devoted followers. The Rav was viscerally Zionist and also opposed to Jews having theological discussions with Christians. He offered powerful, yet reasonable defenses of both of these positions that have repercussions for Modern Orthodox Jews till today.

The book is a good education in the history of philosophy all in the service of expounding the thought of one of Judaism’s most interesting and beloved thinkers.

Heshey Zelcer is a founder of “Hakirah: The Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought,” and a member of its editorial board. He has published books and articles on Jewish law, philosophy, history and liturgy. Mark Zelcer, assistant professor of philosophy at CUNY’s Queensborough Community College, has published in various areas of philosophy including the philosophy of mathematics and ancient philosophy and co-authored “Politics and Philosophy in Plato’s Menexenus” (Routledge, 2015).