Rabbi Soloveitchik

A teacher, writer, and community leader who helped to shape modern Orthodoxy in America.

Print this page Print this page

The tension between modernity and Orthodoxy manifested itself in every area of Soloveitchik's public life. He staunchly defended the authority of the rabbinate, fought against unwarranted halakhic change (for example, he led the campaign against mixed seating in synagogues), and opposed theological dialogue with Reform and Conservative rabbis and with the Church.

Yet he pioneered Talmudic education for girls, abandoned the Brisker family tradition by supporting Zionism, and advocated cooperation with the non-Orthodox--and even with Christians--in the pursuit of social justice and security for the Jewish people.

Soloveitchik, then, cannot be exclusively categorized as a modern philosopher or a traditionalist rabbi. Yet reconciling these radically different worldviews is a difficult, if not impossible, balancing act. Did either take priority in Soloveitchik's mind?

Halachic Man

The most obvious way to explore this question is to read Soloveitchik's writings, particularly two of his most important books: Halachic Man (1944) and Lonely Man of Faith (1965). In both works Soloveitchik paints a picture of the inner life of the religious Jew by comparing and contrasting between various religious and philosophical "types."

In Halachic Man, Soloveitchik analyzes the ideal religious Jew ("Halachic Man") in comparison with two other human types: Cognitive Man and Homo Religiosus--Religious Man. Cognitive Man's approach to life is that of a scientist, in particular a theoretical physicist or mathematician, exploring reality by constructing ideal intellectual models and analyzing the imperfect, concrete world in their terms.

Homo Religiosus, on the other hand, seeks what Abraham Joshua Heschel termed "radical amazement," the capacity for spiritual experience, transcending physical reality by experiencing God's presence in the world.

One might assume that the ideal religious Jew is similar to Homo Religiosus, but Soloveitchik relates him (or her) to Cognitive Man: Just as Cognitive Man approaches reality armed with a pre-prepared intellectual model, so too Halachic Man comes to the world armed with the Torah, revealed by God at Mount Sinai. If scientists initially understand reality in mathematical terms, Halachic Man understands it in Jewish legal categories.

For Halachic Man, seeing the first light of dawn breaking over the horizon is not an aesthetic experience. Rather, his first thought is, "it's time to recite the Shema." Similarly, when encountering a natural spring of water, Halachic Man's concern is whether the spring fits the legal requirements for various rituals of purification.

Halachic Man intuitively experiences the world in Jewish categories, as if he were wearing a pair of "halakhah-tinted" glasses. As such, observing the mitzvot is no effort for him--an observant lifestyle is a natural outcome of his basic orientation to reality.

Nonetheless, for Soloveitchik, observing the mitzvot is of secondary importance compared with what he sees as the supreme religious duty: formulating the framework of theoretical halakhic norms through the process of creative Talmudic scholarship.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.