"And They Created Him in Their Image;" David Hartman's Soloveitchik and the Battle for a Teachers' Legacy

Article excerpt

Review Essay

Love and Terror in the God Encounter: The Theological Legacy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Vol. I, by David Hartman. Woodstock VT: Jewish Lights, 2001. 212 pp. $25.00.

Those of us who are students and sometime teachers of modern Jewish philosophy and theology owe a great deal to David Hartman. Since the 1970s Hartman's books and essays have explored central themes and figures in Jewish philosophy, offering creative and provocative ways of understanding, interpreting, and utilizing Jewish philosophy and theology for constructive purposes. While his new book Love and Terror in the God Encounter: The Theological Legacy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Volume I is no exception, it also offers a more focused portrait of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, one of Hartman's most important influences. A reader of Hartman's earlier works can justifiably ask the question, "Aren't all David Hartman's books about Soloveitchik?" The answer is both yes and no. Yes, Soloveitchik plays a major, perhaps even dominant, role in Hartman's oeuvre. No, Hartman's other books are more widely construed, Soloveitchik being one of many voices that inform his theological thinking.

In this book Hartman becomes a reader, defender, and critic of Soloveitchik's approach to religiosity in general and Judaism in particular. More to the point, Hartman seeks to defend his thesis, argued in earlier works, that (a) Soloveitchik is more than an apologist for Orthodoxy and (b) that his "theology" should not be viewed as secondary and subordinate to his legal and Talmudic essays and lectures.

There are two important prefatory remarks for the interested reader. First, this is not an academic book. That is, Hartman does not engage the myriad of secondary sources on Soloveitchik's theological works nor does he seek to place Soloveitchik in the larger philosophical discourse of the twentieth century. For Hartman, Soloveitchik is a thoroughly Jewish thinker, even though he suggests in places that he uses Judaism to make claims about the general human condition. Yet, while it is Judaism alone that concerns him, Judaism, argues Hartman, is only possible for Soloveitchik by venturing outside it through philosophy.

Second, this book is, in many ways, a book for insiders. It is engaged in a polemic in the Orthodox world (and also to some extent in learned non-Orthodoxy) concerning the legacy, viability, and contribution of Soloveitchik as a meta-halakhic thinker. This agenda consistently underlies (and sometimes undermines) Hartman's analysis of Soloveitchik's writings. It is, therefore, not an introduction to his work (even though it sometimes reads as such) but a focused attempt to vindicate Soloveitchik (and, by extension, Hartman) against his critics from the right and the left.

Hartman makes the context and agenda of this book clear at the outset. Hartman's context, as he explains it, is the polar opposite of what was likely the context that inspired Soloveitchik originally to write these works. Whereas Soloveitchik lived and wrote in a world (mid-twentieth- century America) where traditionalism was dying and both humanism and liberalism (including non-Orthodox Judaisms) were thriving, Hartman states that his context (late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century Jewry) is the upsurge of traditionalism, even ultra-traditionalism, perhaps the "haredization" of world Jewry (pp. 4, 5). While Soloveitchik wrote to enable Orthodox Jews to be "modern" and remain "traditional," Hartman writes to temper and even counter the popularity of ultra-traditionalism among modern traditional Jews. Soloveitchik wrote to create Modern Orthodoxy as a response to a turn to the "left"; Hartman writes to save it from collapsing to the "right." Implied in this stance, I think, is that the failure of Modern Orthodoxy is due either to the marginalization of Soloveitchik's theological writings or to a misunderstanding of them. As I will argue in my conclusion, this theory is only partially correct. …


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