Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Halakhic Poetry

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Halakhic Poetry

Article excerpt

Halakhic Poetry Majesty and Humilty: The Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik BY REUVEN ZIEGLER URIM, 424 PAGES, $34.95

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik gave a staggeringly extensive and wide-ranging number of lectures in his life, in addition to teaching his daily Talmud classes at Yeshiva University. His annual public lectures, one in commemoration of his father and another a "repentance homily" delivered in the week preceding Yom Kippur, were intricately crafted, fourhour affairs with audiences upwards of one thousand, and served for several decades as cornerstones of the Jewish intellectual calendar.

Yet though he left behind an abundance of manuscripts in various states of completion, relatively few were published in his lifetime, and those that were hardly constitute a complete, comprehensive system. Explanations vary: His vigorous perfectionism likely made publication prohibitive, and his extensive commitments in communal leadership certainly competed for his time and attention.

But more fundamentally, Soloveitchik had something of a principled aversion to the written word: Genuine learning is a living, dynamic, interactive process, with teacher and student engaged in ongoing, open-ended dialogue, a reality wherein Soloveitchik located the Jew's primary avenue for communion with the divine. A text, in contrast, is by nature fixed and static, necessarily sacrificing the freedom and vitality of oral communication. Writing finds success as communication but falls short as communion.

He characterized the human mind's imposing scientific structure on full-blooded, dynamic reality as an imperial act of violence, the "elimination of the object." There is, therefore, a certain irony, and perhaps even infidelity, in the attempt to pen a systematic, comprehensive presentation of Soloveitchik's thought, as Reuven Ziegler, director of research for the Toras HoRav Foundation, which holds Soloveitchik's manuscripts, does in Majesty and Humility.

On the other hand, of course, the diffuse, unwieldy character of Soloveitchik's teaching is precisely what makes such a project a desideratum. And so, acknowledging the necessary sacrifices involved, we can welcome Ziegler's well-structured, integrated introduction to Soloveitchik's thought - the first of its kind - as a long-awaited contribution.

Ziegler is sure to insist that his book is no substitute for reading Soloveitchik, and the message is reflected in the book's study-guide style. The clear aim is to facilitate the beginner's first foray into the field. While the full power and resonance of Soloveitchik's teaching is of necessity absent, Ziegler's unflagging, winsome enthusiasm succeeds in conveying a substantial tribute to the real thing.

Throughout his presentation, Ziegler stresses Soloveitchik's insistence that an authentic religious philosophy will always feature powerful dialectical tension, that genuine religious life is ineluctably pervaded with dynamic inner conflict. Soloveitchik vigorously championed a robust humanistic vision of man's autonomy and virtuous self-assertion, yet he no less emphasized the apparently conflicting necessity of man's unconditional submission and sacrifice before God. Man, for Soloveitchik, is ideally a self-sufficient, unique individual, yet no less organically bound to a selftranscending community and tradition; a majestic hero and yet the most humble of servants.

"Dialectic, complexity, plurality of demands - these are the fundamental difficulties in studying the Rav; but they also represent his greatness," writes Ziegler. ("The Rav," meaning simply "the rabbi," is an honorific in common use among Soloveitchik's many students.) Where so many resort to "simple, monochromatic answers to the great questions of life," Soloveitchik's characteristic virtue was to courageously embrace complexity, nuance, and tension, because "in his eyes, man contains conflicting tendencies, God sets forth multiple demands, and the world must be perceived under differing aspects. …

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