Trying to unravel the legacy of Rav J. B. Soloveitchik

The Rav held fast to tradition but often promoted it via a contemporary medium; the core was pure Torah but the conveyance often included present-day worldly expression.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

Judaism Yeshiva University
Yeshiva University
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

The legacy of Rav Yosef B. Soloveitchik zt”l of RIETS has been an enigma for many. Those in Orthodoxy who rejected Rav Soloveitchik half a century ago were extremely wary and disapproving of his then novel acceptance of many elements of modernity. His direct influence at the time was inevitably thus limited primarily (but far from exclusively) to the Modern Orthodox world, which could claim that a preeminent and towering gadol ba-Torah identified with its weltanschauung of higher secular education, political Zionism, and so forth.

Close talmidim of the Rav knew that his worldly associations were not what defined him and did not impact his commitment to an unadulterated Torah vision, for he was a personality of pure Torah. It was understood by the Rav’s close talmidim that both the detractors as well as the enthusiasts who sought to paint the Rav as a religious compromiser were incorrect, for the Rav made use of the secular in the manner described by the Rambam, as rakachos v’tabachos (Pe’er Ha-Dor 41) – in a functional manner (in the Litvisher tradition of not shunning modernity, but rather putting it to useful ends, when appropriate). The Rav held fast to tradition yet garbed and promoted it via a contemporary medium; the core was pure Torah and yiras shamayim, but the conveyance often included present-day worldly expression which the Rav appreciated, and which would deliver maximal effect and achieve utmost receptivity toward Torah teachings within the larger Orthodox orbit of 20th century modern America.

Anyone who listens to or reads Rav Soloveitchik’s shiurim is struck by this reality and must conclude that it is a grave mistake to impute his favorable disposition toward many components of the secular world as reflective of a hashfaka of dilution. While those who rejected the Rav due to his support for secular education and Zionism felt that his approach imperiled Orthodoxy, arguing that exposure or embrace of that which was viewed as inconsistent with a pure Torah ideal posed a profound risk, the issue was not one of inherent compromise of the integrity of Torah belief and practice (even if/when such compromise was claimed by objectors), but rather one of introducing that which was seen as jeopardizing such belief and practice on an empirical level. These fundamental points have always been clear to those who identify with the Rav as their rebbe, whether in the flesh or through his Mesorah as transmitted by his closest talmidim.

Ironically, the purity of the Rav’s Torah positions and his intense impact on the safeguarding of Torah standards have recently been affirmed by several articles critiquing the Rav for his steadfastness to the halakhic and hashkafic tradition.

In an article entitled The Genius and Limitations of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l, Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo laments about Rav Soloveitchik:

He did not solve major halakhic problems… 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 halakhic 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 halakhic issues. In that sense he was not at all a mechadesh but rather a conservative halachist. 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)… 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. 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… Rav Soloveitchik himself was a Chareidi, 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.

In his article Why I Ordained Women, R. Herzl Hefter first quotes the Rav:

The religious experience is not the primary gesture. It is only secondary. The point of departure must never be the internal subjective experience, no matter how redemptive it is, no matter how colorful it is, no matter how therapeutic it is, no matter how substantial its impact upon the total personality of man…

We can never determine what is a religious experience in contradistinction to a hedonic mundane experience. We know of many hedonic emotions which are provided with enormous power, which are hypnotic, and, at first glance, redemptive… (Nora’os HaRav, R. David Schreiber, 1999, p.92)

And then R. Hefter, building his case as to why he ordains women as rabbis, proceeds to argue against Rav Soloveitchik, whose approach would not tolerate such a change in tradition (and please see here as well, the second to rightmost paragraph in particular):

Unfortunately (and entirely unintended by the Rav), this approach [of Rav Soloveitchik] also feeds on and nurtures the weaknesses of Modern Orthodox society as well. The stubborn dogmatic assertion that absolute truth can be known and confirmed by exterior authority betrays a thinly veiled adolescent-like need for certainty, a consequence of impoverished religious sensitivity and ultimately a lack of faith in God and the Torah. Taken to the extreme, this approach invalidates healthy religious and moral instincts in favor of what is perceived to be the “pure” Halakha.

The rigidity of thought, the continued, and by now shrill, cries of heresy are indicative of fear to encounter the challenges which the positive values of liberal democratic culture pose to Torah tradition. This fear as well, is born of lack of faith in the Torah.

Precisely because I have absolute faith in the Torah as an expression of the divine in the world, I do not fear the encounter. Nor do I fear the uncertainty the encounter engenders.

(This week, R. Hefter was quoted in Times of Israel as “in formation about the question of (women counting towards a) minyan”, and he previously defended denial of the historicity of the Torah and God’s direct communication to Moshe at Sinai; please see here.)

Some articles on the Lehrhaus website have sought to bring into question the soundness of the OU ruling banning female clergy – which is heavily based on the Rav’s thought – by arguing against the reliability or dependability of the Rav’s approach and interpretation.

For example, in the recent Lehrhaus article Modeling Modernity: Revisiting the Rabbi Soloveitchik Paradigm, it is argued that the Rav approached the role of women in Judaism from ideal halakhic and hashkafic abstracts rather than from a practical perspective, and that hence less weight should perhaps be granted to the Rav in this area:

(W)hen examining the halakhic status of women, the Rav resorted to definitions of female gender roles that are based on the primordial place of women in the cosmos. For the Rav, the relationship of women to men and their place in society is based on prototypes that he developed from the rabbinic literature and the corpus of law that they constructed.

Accordingly, many of his students rightfully rely on his points of view to narrow the scope of women’s roles in Judaism. The rabbinic statement that a woman would rather be in any sort of marriage rather than live alone (Kidushin 41a) is cited as an ineradicable fact and not as a sociological observation prone to change. As such, these positions become restrictive and resistant to any human modification because any attempt to introduce a personal status change undermines the stability of the divinely ordained plan for how men and women should interact. This strongly suggests that alternate models of halakhic change other than the one offered by the Rav may be of value.

Another recent Lehrhaus article, this time by the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat, seeks to deflate the Rav’s opposition to women serving in positions of religious authority, by arguing against the Rav’s halakhic analysis thereof.

The same Rav Soloveitchik who was viewed by some as validating a modernity that could end up clashing with tradition – even as he always firmly rejected such aspects of modernity, such as biblical criticism and subjectivism – is now viewed by those who seek to reform Orthodoxy as the main impediment to their endeavor. This outcome is the most substantive endorsement of the Rav’s essence as a pure Torah personality and a brave leader of traditional Judaism, who harnessed the tools of secular wisdom as rakachos v’tabachos and not as inherent values or truths.

I once asked a close talmid of the Rav what the Rav’s greatest achievement was. I expected the answer to relate to the Rav’s brilliant halakhic insights, or his cultivation of a nucleus of master talmidei chachamim, most of whom constitute the RIETS rabbinic faculty. The answer I was given came as a shock, and I never fully appreciated it – until now. The answer was that the Rav prevented a generation of Jews from leaving Orthodoxy, in favor of the Conservative movement. Half a century ago, when the Conservative movement was on the ascendancy and many of those in (Modern) Orthodoxy were not completely firm as to their religious identification, in large measure due to the weak and relatively tiny infrastructure of Orthodoxy and the former dominance of the Conservative movement, there was always the concern that many in the (Modern) Orthodox camp would migrate toward the Conservative camp, and that Conservative practice and belief would influence (Modern) Orthodoxy. There was even a period when some RIETS students transferred to JTS, seeking to be part of a more prominent and powerful movement, and joining what was then sensed to be the future of American Jewry.

The Rav captivated the masses and was unyielding with standards, be it watershed issues such as mechitza and conversion, issues of synagogue protocol such as strict adherence to the traditional prayer text, or attitudinal issues, such as the primacy of traditional Torah study and the immutability of the Mesorah, along with the great reverence due to its bearers. The Rav insisted on high standards and successfully drew and retained the laity toward full Orthodox commitment. This is the Rav’s greatest achievement, and the contemporary effort to paint him as an inflexible traditionalist whose legacy is now blocking halakhic reform is the most spectacular attestation to his accomplishments and enduring impact.

Sent by the author, first posted on CrossCurrents.