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.