Majesty and Humility: The Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

by Yoel Finkelman

Anyone who has attempted to offer an introductory course in Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s philosophical writings knows just how rewarding, but also frustrating, an experience it can be. Anyone who has brought a passage from the Rav’s writings into class to make a point or raise a particular perspective, appreciates how difficult his texts are. The Rav’s philosophy has become part of the nikhsei tzon barzel of any Modern Orthodox philosophical and theological education. Modern Orthodox people can gain enormously from the depth and honesty of his religious writings. Yet, even the most intelligent and dedicated young people, and often teachers and educators as well, struggle with Rabbi Soloveitchik’s philosophical vocabulary and difficult prose. Sometimes, in teaching these texts, I get the impression that my students understand what I am saying, but they do not understand how I saw that in the texts we have read.

Based on a series of classes he prepared for Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash, Rabbi Reuven Ziegler’s Majesty and Humility: The Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, offers a fine reader’s companion to Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writings. In part a summary of the major essays and books, in part a gloss and commentary, Ziegler reviews almost all of the Rav’s major philosophical essays, summarizing, providing background, defining terms, explaining the links between ideas, and contextualizing. Ziegler also offers suggestions for further reading, mostly of secondary sources, at the end of each chapter. Ziegler is uniquely qualified for this task. As the Director of Research and Archives of the Toras HaRav Foundation, he played a key role in almost all of the posthumous publication of the Rav’s writings.

Zeigler subtly manages to show thematic connections between various connected essays, such as “Majesty and Humility” and Lonely Man of Faith, without reducing one essay to the other. Similarly, he points to the way in which the theme of the autonomy of faith and religion appears in some very different essays, suggesting that Torah does not need to answer or justify itself before any particular discipline. Ziegler also identifies similarities between the various typological characters, who appear constantly in the Rav’s writings, without equating these characters to one another. For example, he points to the Rav’s celebration of the worldliness of Adam the First in Lonely Man and a similar worldliness within Cognitive Man in Halakhic Man, without suggesting, as others have, that they are at their root the same character (P. 302-304). In short, he manages to weave Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writings into a coherent whole, without glossing over tensions and inconsistencies in the Rav’s larger thought.

The book can be used as a stand-alone introduction to the Rav’s philosophical writings, offering a less taxing and more readable introduction than the original texts, whether for students or for teachers who want to expand their philosophical horizons. More ideally, however, readers will move back and forth between Rabbi Soloveitchik’s original writings and Ziegler’s gloss, using the latter to help make sense and appreciate the depth of the former. For example, readers faced with the daunting task of approaching Lonely Man of Faith for the first time can make use of Ziegler’s excellent outline of the essay (P. 129). Teachers, likewise, might assign sections of Ziegler’s book in advance of class-time, which can focus on in-depth close readings of the Rav’s own prose. Students are likely to find the highly technical opening sections of Halakhic Man too difficult, but Ziegler’s summary can help, and allow teachers to focus on particular elements and details they want to focus on.

Furthermore, the “For Further Reference” appendices at the end of each chapter and the book’s thematic index can help teachers find relevant passages in Rav Soloveitchik’s writings for use in classes on other topics. A teacher, for example, addressing Jewish attitudes toward asceticism, pleasure, and sexuality will find accessible references to Rav Soloveitchik’s discussion of these topics (P. 78), while an educator hoping to expand students appreciation of daily blessings will be able to track down relevant texts as well (P. 157).

Two relatively minor criticisms: First, some of the philosophical and social background is oversimplified and at times imprecise. Second, and more importantly, the decision not to include a systematic discussion of The Halakhic Mind is unfortunate. It is the most difficult and highly technical of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writings, and in many ways it provides the background in philosophy of knowledge for understanding Ish Hahalakhah, Uviqqashtem Misham, and other essays. A user’s guide to that essay remains a significant desideratum.

Still, in the vast writings that are constantly being published about Rabbi Soloveitchik, Ziegler’s book stands out for its user-friendliness, accessibility, and subtlety. Rabbi Ziegler has offered beginning students and more advanced readers an intelligent, readable, and thorough companion that will make reading the Rav’s writings in the original easier and more effective.

The original review can be viewed here.

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