Halakhic Man, Authen­tic Jew

Ira Bed­zow
  • Review
By – September 16, 2011

It is a daunt­ing task to sum­ma­rize the teach­ings of these two 20th cen­tu­ry Jew­ish thinkers in a slim vol­ume. Still more chal­leng­ing is select­ing which pieces of their mas­sive out­put to present. Even more quixot­ic is the attempt to chal­lenge some of their posi­tions. Most of the schol­ar­ship pro­duced about Rab­bi Soloveitchik has been to elu­ci­date his teach­ings and make them under­stand­able to a wider audi­ence. Rab­bi Berkovits’ writ­ings have not yet found many interpreters. 

The author under­stands the tech­ni­cal, philo­soph­i­cal lan­guage of these two writ­ers but may be out of his depth when he tries to dif­fer with them. Pre­sent­ing sophis­ti­cat­ed ideas by avatars of mod­ern Ortho­doxy is an impor­tant exer­cise. One must ask, how­ev­er, to whom is this book direct­ed? If it is meant to be read by schol­ars it falls short of the mark. If it is meant for lay­men, then the pre­sen­ta­tion of the top­ics is inappropriate. 

Rab­bi Soloveitchik and Berkovits sought to cre­ate a legion of Mod­ern Ortho­dox Jews who are involved in full Ortho­dox obser­vance, ongo­ing rab­binic text stud­ies, a col­lege edu­ca­tion, a job in the sec­u­lar or Jew­ish world, and engage­ment in seri­ous philo­soph­ic and the­o­log­i­cal studies. 

The absolute pri­ma­cy of halakha in Rab­bi Soloveitchik’s writ­ings and the place of ethics in Rab­bi Berkovits’ phi­los­o­phy are cru­cial to under­stand­ing their respec­tive out­looks. The­o­ry must dri­ve prac­tice. The top­ics select­ed such as the study of Torah, per­for­mance of com­mand­ments, indi­vid­ual ver­sus com­mu­ni­ty, exile, the cho­sen­ness of the Jew­ish peo­ple, and the role of the Land of Israel are impor­tant and need to be clar­i­fied in layman’s terms. Using the lan­guage of philoso­phers only appeals to oth­er philosophers. 

The Holo­caust played an impor­tant role in Rab­bi Berkovits’ writ­ings and its omis­sion in this dis­cus­sion is unfor­tu­nate. Rab­bi Soloveitchik’s writ­ings require great effort to mas­ter. Not since Mai­monides have we seen a mas­ter of the entire rab­binic cor­pus express him­self in the idiom of the great philoso­phers. It is there­fore impor­tant to dis­sem­i­nate and make acces­si­ble the writ­ings of great Jew­ish thinkers who worked to bridge the chasm which some think exists between moder­ni­ty and tra­di­tion­al Judaism. 

Rab­bi Soloveitchik showed the eter­nal ver­i­ty of Judaism while Rab­bi Berkovits favored a more devel­op­men­tal approach. In either case the syn­the­sis is shown to work.

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions