Explaining the Rav’s Worldview

by Aaron Howard

Among Modern Orthodox thinkers, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (the Rav) stands as one of the gedolei Torah (giants of Torah). He’s modern, in the sense that his philosophy is centered on man’s relationship with G-d. The Rav described Judaism as being “theo-centric but anthropo-oriented”; that is, G-d still is at the center of Jewish thought but, instead of dwelling on G-d’s attributes, the Rav saw man’s relationship with G-d as key. The Rav is Orthodox because his philosophy is Halakho-centric; not through philosophy or Kabbalah, but through the study and practice of Halakha does one best connect to G-d.

In his youth, the Rav studied Halakha for some 12 years. He used the Brisker method. This method “identifies two approaches to an issue, both of which are necessary to understand an issue in its entirety.” The Brisker method of study gave rise to a central component of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s mature thought – the dialectic. The dialectic is the subject of the essay, “Majesty and Humility.” It’s also the name of a new book of the Rav’s philosophy, by Rabbi Reuven Ziegler (Urim Publications/OU Press). Rabbi Ziegler is director of research and archives of the Toras HoRav Foundation, which exists to disseminate Rabbi Soloveitchik’s philosophy.

Majesty and Humility refers to characteristics of G-d and man. Just as G-d displays both majesty and humility, those who walk in G-d’s ways also display the traits of majesty and humility. Majesty refers to G-d in His infinite vastness and distance (especially in times of joy and elation). Humility refers to G-d in His nearness and relatedness (especially in times of crisis and suffering).

The Rav argued since man is a dialectical being, he is conflicted at his very core. Man seeks to be majestic as a creator, a conqueror, as one who subjugates forces to his own needs. This is the “ethic of victory.” Man also experiences humility, times when one must accept his or her limitations and must retreat, contract or undergo the realization of humility. This is the “ethic of retreat.” The dialectic between these two directions, moving forward in victory and retreating in defeat, constitutes the essence of halakhic living. Or, as the Rav said, “[Modern man] forgets that defeat is built into the very structure of victory; that there is, in fact, no total victory; man is finite, so is his victory. Whatever is finite is imperfect; so is man’s triumph.”

According to the Rav, the Halakha’s meaning can be found in the imperative to live heroically. “This consists primarily of the capacity of restraint, the power to overcome oneself … or to purify one’s existence,” Rabbi Ziegler explained. In practical terms, heroism means living in accordance with Halakha. In the physical realm, that means restraining and channeling one’s desires in order to elevate physical existence. In the emotional realm, it means not simply refraining from certain acts but changing one’s innermost feelings in order to integrate them into the service of G-d. Intellectually, knowledge must be tempered with humility. This goes for one’s religious life as well. Religion, untempered by humility, often becomes self-righteous, insensitive or destructive.

Much of the Rav’s book, Halakhic Man, outlined the dangers of religious positions that focus on the world to come (versus this world), that aim to escape our corporeality, that are overly individualistic (versus incorporating the idea of community) or that leave religion to a small elite (maintaining the average person is incapable of attaining the requisite state of mind or detachment from experience).

Judaism, for the Rav, consists of Torah study, performance of mitzvot and the quality of inwardness, which can mean authentic emotion and feeling in the performance of both study and doing mitzvot. Study kindles the sacred fire. Strict and exacting halakhic discipline turns the sacred sparks into a flame.

Because sacrifice and retreat are major elements in the Rav’s thoughts, Rabbi Ziegler recognizes that Rabbi Soloveitchik demands a great deal from one. The Rav posits Halakha is supreme knowledge and therefore supreme good. For the Rav, Halakha is the crystallization and most authentic expression of Jewish thought. Torah study allows one to penetrate G-d’s will and allows man to bring his highest faculty, reason, into G-d’s service. We cannot understand G-d’s will. But, through the study of Halakha, we can understand G-d’s demands on us. This is mainstream Orthodox Judaism, but with an intellectual edge.

For all that, I would argue with Rabbi Ziegler when he says the Rav is not trying to prove truth claims. True, the Brisker method doesn’t take a single viewpoint and try to defend it from all attack. But honestly, does not the Rav argue that authority for the mitzvot comes exclusively from G-d and His will? Most non-Orthodox Jewish theologians would contest that position. For the Orthodox, the authority of the Torah still is definitive. The authority of the Torah is up for discussion among non-Orthodox.

The original article appeared in the Jewish Herald-Voice.

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