Soci­ety & Self: On the Writ­ings of Rab­bi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Ger­ald J. Blidstein
  • Review
By – June 21, 2012

It is not easy to pen­e­trate the world of Rab­bi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Thou­sands of rab­bis and advanced Tal­mu­dic schol­ars have sat enthralled through his three to four hour lec­tures and class­es. Aca­d­e­mics debate the fin­er points of his pub­lished arti­cles at con­fer­ences all over the world. Unfor­tu­nate­ly only a gift­ed few ful­ly com­pre­hend that the East­ern Euro­pean Tal­mu­dic gaon and uni­ver­sal­ly rec­og­nized rab­binic schol­ar is one and the same as the West­ern Euro­pean uni­ver­si­ty-trained Jew­ish the­olo­gian and philoso­pher. Not all of his Tal­mud stu­dents read or could under­stand his phi­los­o­phy, nor could many of those who read his phi­los­o­phy ever com­pre­hend his Tal­mu­dic analy­ses. For the Rav, as he was affec­tion­ate­ly and respect­ful­ly known, halakha, the sys­tem of Jew­ish law, is supreme and all-encom­pass­ing and every­thing must be viewed from with­in that per­spec­tive. His rapi­er Tal­mu­dic analy­ses no less than his philo­soph­ic essays all flow from this per­spec­tive. Nat­u­ral­ly along the way many oth­er sources are brought along for illus­tra­tive purposes.

Pro­fes­sor Ger­ald Blid­stein is among those few Soloveitchik schol­ars who are tru­ly com­pe­tent to pro­vide an inter­pre­tive guide and analy­sis to his writ­ings. A for­mer stu­dent of the Rav and a world-class schol­ar in his own right, Blid­stein dis­cuss­es some of the Rav’s essays and major themes and offers inter­pre­ta­tions of some themes that might be con­sid­ered nov­el or bold.

Although the Rav sup­port­ed Israel and reli­gious Zion­ism, and cel­e­brat­ed the rebirth of Israel as an almost super­nat­ur­al occur­rence,” it was not a major theme in the Rav’s writ­ings, accord­ing to Blid­stein. He describes how the Rav felt break­ing with his family’s anti-Zion­ist posi­tion. He clar­i­fies the Rav’s posi­tion regard­ing Jewish/​gentile rela­tion­ships: there is no shared spir­i­tu­al dis­course and no com­mon lan­guage. Each faith com­mu­ni­ty has its own auton­o­my. Hence, no dia­logue — at least not on reli­gious themes. 

Rav Soloveitchik’s thoughts on faith after the Holo­caust and the estab­lish­ment of Israel, the the­o­log­i­cal and exis­ten­tial ten­sion between the indi­vid­ual and the com­mu­ni­ty, his the­ol­o­gy of mar­riage and its broad­er impli­ca­tions, and his view of human mor­tal­i­ty and mourn­ing are also explored in depth. Even if one has not read the orig­i­nal essays, these inter­pre­tive insights are fascinating.

Blid­stein explores at length the role of the indi­vid­ual viv-a-vis the com­mu­ni­ty. Rav Soloveitchik reject­ed a sec­u­lar Jew­ish exis­tence, which he regard­ed as a betray­al of Jew­ish des­tiny. His pri­vate cor­re­spon­dence indi­cates the broad range of top­ics on which he was con­sult­ed by world lead­ers, politi­cians, col­lege pres­i­dents, and oth­er rab­bis. Of spe­cial inter­est is the exchange of let­ters con­cern­ing repeat­ed requests that he accept the posi­tion of Chief Rab­bi of Israel. The Rav was opposed to emp­ty cer­e­mo­ni­al­ism and since the Chief Rab­bi had no con­trol over Jew­ish edu­ca­tion, he refused.

The lega­cy of Rab­bi Soloveitchik is assured by the many stu­dents who dis­sem­i­nate his teach­ings. It is unfor­tu­nate that his Tal­mu­dic novel­lae and his the­o­log­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal essays exist in two par­al­lel uni­vers­es. In the mean­time, those wish­ing to gain an insight into the mind of one of the tow­er­ing thinkers of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry would do well to study this volume. 

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

Discussion Questions