Rabbi Soloveitchik

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

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Kantian Influences

Soloveitchik's philosophy of halakhah draws, perhaps surprisingly, on the work of 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant argued that we can never know reality as it is, but only as apprehended through the prism of human reason. The world seems to be structured in certain basic ways (for example, everything exists in three dimensional space and linear time) not because that's the way things actually are but because space and time are rational categories hardwired into our brains. In the same way, permitted and forbidden, holy and profane are not objective properties of the material world, but are theoretical categories through which Halachic Man perceives reality.

In the area of ethics, Kant claimed that moral deeds must always be the products of free decision-making, not imposed on us from the outside. Accordingly, the fact that Soloveitchik's Halachic Man has assimilated the Torah's categories into the deepest recesses of his soul enables him to observe the commandments without surrendering his autonomy.

The Lonely Man of Faith

In The Lonely Man of Faith, Soloveitchik continues his attempt to elucidate the inner life of the religious Jew by constructing two ideal types, based on the creation stories related in the first two chapters of the Bible. Genesis chapter one describes the creation of what Soloveitchik calls Adam I or "Majestic Man." This human type is driven by God's commandment to subdue the earth and to have dominion over all other creatures: he or she relates to the world as an arena for creativity and as a means to human progress. Adam I was created in the plural: "male and female [God] created him." From the outset, human beings exist as part of a community of interconnected individuals, dedicated to cooperating in an effort to achieve their common goals.

The second chapter of Genesis' depicts Adam II or "Covenantal Man." Created on his own, he suffers from existential loneliness, overcome only when God provides him with a companion in return for a sacrificial act--the surrender of his rib or a part of his flesh. For Soloveitchik, the loneliness of the person of faith can only be overcome in the context of a covenantal community, one based on a relationship with God and expressed in terms of sacrificial behavior--the performance of mitzvot, especially prayer.

 Yet because God created Adam as both majestic and covenantal, fundamental human loneliness can never be totally overcome. We discover our loneliness in the covenantal community, but the solution--building relationships of faith with God and other people--requires us to be not only sacrificial but creative. Hence it pushes us from the covenantal community back into the majestic one, where the answer to our loneliness cannot be found.

Traditionalist or Modern?

Although Soloveitchik's absolute commitment to Jewish law and Talmud scholarship in Halachic Man would seem toplace him firmly in the traditionalist camp, his articulation of this commitment in Kantian terms indicates modern philosophy's hold over him. The Lonely Man of Faith feels more traditionally religious: it sets out from the biblical text, asks questions about faith and comes to faith-based answers.

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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.