Christian M. Rutishauser on Being Drawn to the Rav

From the Seforim blog:the human condition

Christian M. Rutishauser’s The Human Condition in the Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik has just been published by Ktav (having earlier appeared in German). Quite apart from Rutishauser’s scholarship, the book is noteworthy in that Rutishauser is a prominent Jesuit priest (see here; for those who don’t know, the University of Scranton is also Jesuit). The Seforim Blog is happy to present the introduction to the book where Rutishauser explains what led him to the Rav.

A Catholic Glimpse of Rav Soloveitchik

I never met Rav Soloveitchik personally. The reason is not only that I was born in the second half of the twentieth century and live in Europe. Actually, apart from a few scholars, Soloveitchik was hardly known in the German speaking world of the 1980s and 1990s. As a student of Catholic theology with a deep interest in philosophy, I neither met him nor came across his work, even though I moved around the academic world of Germany and France with an open and interested mind. As a Jesuit and a chaplain at Bern University, I organized study tours to Israel almost every year, but even there I never heard of him. Neither my involvement in Jewish-Christian dialogue in Switzerland nor my deep interest in Judaism altered any of this, at least for some time.

 Then a lucky coincidence changed everything. In July 1997, I was attending an Ulpan at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. During a break one day, I walked over to the Hecht Synagogue on the Mount Scopus campus. I decided look around, more to kill time than out of any particular interest. I wandered about the room, enjoying its coolness on this hot summer day, browsing aimlessly among the books displayed on the shelves along the wall. By chance I picked up a copy of Halakhic Man by the Rav naturally in the English translation, as my Ivrit would not have allowed me to read the original. The name Soloveitchik did not ring a bell. Opening the book at random, I read a few chapters and became so fascinated by its outline of the Orthodox life ideal that I ‘œkidnapped’ the book from the synagogue. Naturally the books were not supposed to be removed, but as everyone knows, students find ways to get around rules of this kind. Actually, I returned the book four days later, after I finished reading it. I would have liked to know more about Soloveitchik, but I didn’t follow up on my interest at that time. Nevertheless, I was deeply impressed by the original way he presented, and above all differentiated, the homo religiosus; the modern scientist and the halakhic man stayed with me.

 One and a half years later, when I began to look for a suitable subject for my doctoral dissertation, my discovery on that hot summer day in Jerusalem came to mind. I felt a desire to delve more deeply into Soloveitchik’s life and works. Moreover, I was not much inspired by the topic suggested by Prof. Clemens Thoma, my thesis adviser. An analysis of the Servant Songs from the Book of Isaiah really did not turn me on. Too much has already been written on this subject. Furthermore, I truly wanted to become more familiar with the theological and philosophical domain of Jewish thought, this being much more up to date. Meanwhile, I had been dealing with mattan Torah, the rabbinic concept of revelation, and had been intending to consecrate my energy to the interrelated theology of canons. However, I had to give up this topic too, because it went too far and had become too complex to be treated in a dissertation. Thus, the materials I had prepared for a discussion of revelation also had to be laid aside, and it was only several years later that I was able to use them in my first lecture at the Jesuit Philosophical School in Munich. In other words, the extended endeavor had not been in vain.

 In the winter of 1999 I seriously began my research on Soloveitchik. My first discovery was his collected oral discourses in On Repentance. Once again, I was fascinated by his presentation of a traditional core concept of Judaism organized in modern philosophical categories with an eminently practical sense. My reading of this text was a spiritual and intellectual experience that filled me with the talmudic spirit. As a Christian who had long been interested in Judaism and had studied in depth the works of such German-Jewish philosophers as Moses Mendelssohn, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and Walter Benjamin, I was somewhat disappointed, for I did not find Soloveitchik to be as philosophically innovative as I had hoped. Nevertheless, I was convinced that I had discovered the authentic bedrock of Orthodoxy and Halakhah, presented in a reliable and responsible form that corresponded to an important strand of modern thought. I was particularly thrilled by the way he conveyed talmudic-rabbinical tradition in a modern idiom as a line of thought and way of life for the world of today. This version of Judaism, living and reflective, was exactly what I, as a Jesuit, was anxious to know. We Jesuits are charged with the vital mission of transposing the Catholic faith and the wider Christian tradition, in an intellectually responsible way, into a form appropriate to modern and postmodern society. It was essential for me to understand how somebody whose background was so different from mine had dealt with the same challenge in respect to his own tradition; this became my very personal motivation for devoting my dissertation to the Rav.

 Unfortunately, my adviser’s reaction to my desire to concentrate on Rav Soloveitchik was far from encouraging.’How can you possibly write about a person who opposes Jewish-Christian dialogue?’ was his reaction, more or less. I had discussed my project with very few people, and the even fewer among them who had heard of Soloveitchik knew little more about him than his refusal to engage in dialogue, because the Rabbinical Council of America had publicized his essay “Confrontation.” The image of the Rav held by non-Jews did not bother me, because my interest in him had nothing to do with his views on Christianity or his attitude toward dialogue. Nevertheless, I was very pleased when, during the months of my stay in Jerusalem, I heard a shiur by David Hartman, a student of Soloveitchik, in which he refuted the too simplistic interpretation of “Confrontation.” Hartman showed that the Rav was not fundamentally opposed to dialogue, but insisted on certain conditions. Actually, for me the Rav represented exactly the type of qualified Orthodox figure who would be necessary for a serious interreligious dialogue. Later, subsequent to my own analysis of Soloveitchik’s writings, I could only agree with Hartman, especially after I realized that the Rav must have seriously studied Christian theology in connection with his encouraging selected educated people to take an interest in this field. However, Jewish-Christian dialogue was neither his main concern nor the reason for my interest in him. On the contrary, what I so eagerly wanted to know in greater depth was his exposition of the self-understanding and thought of Orthodox Judaism.

 My dissertation presented the philosophy of the Rav to a German-speaking and predominantly non-Jewish public. The Jewish community, I realized, might also find some value in my research, because while both On Repentance and Halakhic Man were fairly well known, only a handful had studied Soloveitchik in depth. In my dissertation, it was essential for me to fully grasp Soloveitchik’s intellectual and philosophical context, which were hardly presented in the writings about him I found. This is most unfortunate, because he was actually a product of German and European culture and philosophy. His time in the Berlin of the Weimar Republic, where he studied from 1926 to 1932, had a profound impact upon him. In the German metropolis, he majored in philosophy, with a focus on the work of the recently deceased Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen (d. 1918). The young and very talented Soloveitchik, already trained in talmudic studies, was receptive to the search for the scientifically based truth of the neo-Kantianism that prevailed in Berlin. In the pure thought of Hermann Cohen, he discovered a system of categories that helped him to protect the revelation of Torah against the challenge of historical relativism. Nineteenth century historico-critical research had reduced the Holy Scriptures to no more than literary products of their time. However, it was not only research on the very existence of the Bible and the Talmud that threatened to dissolve the revelation. For a person so intensely devout, the identification of religiousness with inward feelings and subjective perceptions was the greater temptation and challenge. Psychology of religion and philosophy of religion at that time, as represented by William James and Rudolf Otto among others, reduced the origin of religion to the personal experience of the inner self. The reduction of religion to a historical and psychological phenomenon, so mightily in effect even today, was the adversary Soloveitchik fought against. He considered the Halakhah to be the specific core of the revelation, understanding it as a process of pure thought that he described by means of the reconstruction method of Paul Natorp, who held that psychic processes can only be perceived with the help of the categories of reason, because pure experience does not exist. Although the philosophical movement known as idealism had broken away, Soloveitchik succeeded in separating the Halakhah from subjective religiosity and placed it as an opposition. As a result, he was able to engage in a productive dialectic. It is obvious from some of his writings that the dialectical theology of Karl Barth was a great help in his endeavors.

 Thus, the Rav searched for an authentically Jewish way of acknowledging reality, tackling it face to face, and shaping its form. He did not turn only to halakhic concepts or religious topics. The way he understood Halakhah was more as an instrument of world encounter. This enabled him to integrate into his Orthodox way of life the most diverse aspects of society, environment, and the preconceptions of modernity. Through this method, he attached less of his Orthodox identity to external facts and contents, becoming more and more rigid during the course of history, with a tendency to incline toward a fundamentalist stance. Identity, with Halakhah in hand, can be newly reestablished under any conditions and everywhere, as our whole life is constantly being reshaped through it. Soloveitchik introduced a uniquely Jewish approach to reality in the modern world, which is of interest to me as a Christian even though I am not supposed to, and do not want to, follow the Halakhah. Catholicism too does not wish to turn religion into a subjective, individualized exercise of piety, but, as postulated by Soloveitchik, wants it to be seen as an objective ‘truth’ that man has to adhere to and make the main guideline of his life. Although there are great differences as regards content, there are nevertheless many similarities on the structural level.

 There is a second element that Soloveitchik took along to the New World; something that added depth and seriousness to his American-rabbinical pragmatism. This was his existentialist view of man, most certainly shaped by Søren Kierkegaard. He personally makes only a few tangible statements in this vein when discussing certain philosophers, theologians, and writers. He does not convey much about the sources of his ideas, in order not to cast a shadow on his crucial source, the Halakhah, and its regulatory status. The silence that from time to time shrouds his life in Berlin and his personal intellectual history in the ‘œOld World’ envelops him in an aura of mystery within which he led his existence as the lonely man of faith he really was. In any case, his encounter with Kierkegaard may have taken place early in his life. The works of the Danish philosopher had already been translated into Yiddish in Lithuania during the Haskalah of the nineteenth century. Moreover, since Soloveitchik wrote his most important works in the period from the 1940s to the 1970s, we must not underestimate the influence of the existentialist spirit of the postwar years. Experiencing the breakdown of tradition, not only in the premodern era but also in the middle-class European world to which most Jews belonged at the time, seems to have driven him into the isolation of a displaced person who had lost his home. Looking at his biography, it is evident that his migration from an East European Orthodox Jewish environment, to the sophisticated Berlin metropolis, and finally to the Jewish no-man’s land of Boston, mirrors the external symptoms of his uprooting and loneliness. The experience of loneliness, however, turned the Rav’s line of thought into an explosive, existentially fundamental experience, out of which human existence grows in a qualified sense. This throwing into loneliness signifies for him the conditio humana that can bring man into authentic life. He correlates it with Halakhah, because for Orthodox Jews the Halakhah is the instrument that shapes their existence. Halakhic existence takes place between these two poles of the ellipsis; it is the duty of the Orthodox Jew to accept both deliberately and to lead his life with their guidance.

 In a similar area of tension, a spiritual life is drawn for every human being who, in the modern, open world of today, feels committed to the revelation of God. That is why for me as a Jesuit priest, as well as for my Catholic brothers and sisters, Rav Joseph Dov Soloveitchik is of interest and his work is a source of inspiration.


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