Rav Soloveitchik and Social Issues: Defining the Ideal Torah Family

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

All of our current social-halakhic controversies are about the family

In order to focus and motivate his 1992 presidential campaign worker, Bill Clinton hung up the now famous slogan/sign, “It’s all about the economy, stupid!!”

I want to suggest a similar sign about the current social-halakhic controversies facing the national religious community, i.e. “It’s all about the family,….."

For example, our current rabbinic-social policy controversies concerning army service for women, homosexuals in family and synagogue life, women’s roles in Torah teaching and public prayer, and  policies of modesty and dating, all ultimately lead back  to the root question: “How will these social developments affect the religious nature of our family life? Will they weaken or strengthen our ability to create a family life that is happily full of Torah and G-d’s presence?”

Because of the centrality of this question, I would like to address it in a series of articles, inspired by the teachings of Rav Soloveitchik. This article addresses the question, “Can we, and should we, define an ideal typology (model) of Torah family life for the national religious community?”

When discussing gender role issues, our Orthodox rabbis - both liberal and traditional modern - must combine their halakhic guidance with a discussion of family sociology

The importance of sociologically defining an ideal model of Torah family life is based on the more primary understanding that an halakhic discussion of gender role issues is less a discussion of halakhic precedent, and more a discussion of sociology and social philosophy.  (The halakhic gender role innovations proposed by liberal orthodox rabbis are usually permissible, but are based on very weak halakhic precedent).   

For example, in my opinion, halakhic guidance on female army service also requires an open discussion on how army service will affect the woman’s subsequent ability to fulfill the feminine role in creating a family based on the centrality of Torah and G-d.  Similarly, a halakhic discussion of homosexuality must also address the sociological question of how granting a degree of legitimacy to same sex unions will affect the normative legitimacy of bi-gender Torah family life. Also, a halakhic discussion of women and public prayer, must also relate to the sociological question of how women’s activity in the synagogue will affect their ability to cultivate prayer and Torah learning at home.

In answering these questions, liberal orthodox rabbis feel comfortable adopting the au courant liberal social cultural values of egalitarianism, and the primacy of encouraging individual self fulfillment .Liberal orthodox rabbis feel that liberal social culture is “innocent until proven guilty” in regard to its effect on family religious life.

In contrast, traditional modern orthodox rabbis feel that any departure from normative halakhic practice should be done slowly, and cautiously, if at all, because they see great tension between the basic social values of rabbinic literature and the social values of current liberal, secular culture. In their eyes, liberal social culture is “guilty until proven innocent.”       

Unless liberal and traditional modern rabbis make explicit their basic sociological premises, our internal social dialogue will continue to go around in circle, have much volume, generate too much ill feeling, and create too little clarity, like a dog chasing its tail.

Defining the ideal Torah family: the conservative social, philosophy of Rav Soloveitchik

Having thus shown the necessity of combining halakhic guidance with sociological analysis, we can ask how we can best conduct a sociological discussion of Torah family life. I suggest that we adopt Rav Soloveitchik’s method of sociological analysis which is based on identifying ideal topologies (models) of sociological and psychological behavior, and then using them to elucidate everyday social reality.    

For the sake of intellectual honesty, I must relate to the reader that defining an ideal family is a very controversial task of sociological analysis, and considered unacceptable in today’s academic circles. The arguments against the study of an ideal typology (which are probably accepted by many liberal orthodox rabbis) are the following.

One, the ‘ideal’ Torah family never historically existed. Such a definition is misleading, and is an historical illusion.

Two, throughout history, Jewish family structure tremendously varied by country and historical epoch, and almost all of these variants historically coexisted with basic halakhic tenets. 

Three, the notion of an ‘ideal family gold standard’ implies that there can be a criteria of an ‘absolute truth or model’ in social issues. Post modernism denies that there is, or can be, an absolute social moral truth, particularly in the field of family structure. In the absence of an absolute truth, liberal analysis holds that cultural gender diversity and relativism should be respected. Individuals should be encouraged to find self fulfillment in whatever way they desire, as long as they do not harm each other.

Rav Soloveitchik’s social philosophical analysis is based on the use of ideal typologies

Rav Soloveitchik, as a teacher of Torah Orthodox Judaism, of course rejects these post modern social philosophical premises for two basic reasons.

One, as orthodox Jews we believe that the historical divine revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, and its subsequent interpretation and application by our great rabbis for over 2000 years, does provide us with a social philosophy (embedded in the halakha) that approximates being an absolute, fundamental social truth concerning how we are to organize and develop our social institutions, particularly the family.

Second, Rav Soloveitchik organizes of his theological-social discussions by contrasting ideal typologies (model) or conceptual constructions. For example, in his essay, “The Lonely Man of Faith”, he compares the social reality and community created by Adam One (a community emphasizing the more majestic and functional aspects of man’s being) with the social reality and community created by Adam Two (a community based on man’s search for meaning, faith, and mutual covenantal relationships).  The Rav argues that man’s soul contains elements of both typologies (majestic and covenantal), and man’s life is a dialectic struggle to coordinate the expression and fulfillment, in his daily existence, of both of these internalized topologies. The religious man of faith is existentially lonely because it is very hard to create a covenantal community of faith in the highly mechanical-functional-digital-materialistic society of modernity.

Summary: Comparing Torah and liberal, ‘new family’ typologies

Using the Rav’s method of social analysis, we will proceed to compare the ideal family typology of Torah social culture with the social ideology of liberal society’s ‘new family’ structure. This will help us better understand how liberal based halakhic innovations in family structure may strengthen or weaken our religious family life. This method of social analysis is particularly appropriate for the national religious community since we live (for idealistic reasons) simultaneously in both a Torah social culture and in the surrounding liberal social culture of Israel society.

Our subsequent article describes the ten basic sociological characteristics of an ideal Torah family.