Exposition as a High Art

Review Essay of Gerald J. (Ya‘akov) Blidstein, Society and Self: On the Writings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, OU Press, New York, 2012.

Lawrence Kaplan


Rabbi Professor Gerald J. (Ya‘akov) Blidstein, Professor Emeritus of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University and a recipient of the Israel Prize in Jewish Thought, was one of the most distinguished students of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and over the past two decades—in particular since the Rav’s death in 1993—has written many articles about the writings of his teacher.  These have now been collected and have appeared under the title Society and Self: On the Writings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the volume under review.

Blidstein begins his Introduction with the following remarks:

The materials presented in this book reflect, by and large, my thoughts regarding the writings of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, over the last decades. As I look at these essays, I realize that I engaged mostly in exposition, which is perhaps a natural stance for a former student to adopt. By and large, I address the question: What does the Rav say?  (p.11)

These remarks, of course, reflect Blidstein’s genuine modesty and                      integrity. One might say, however, that these very lucid and incisive  essays, devoted primarily to exposition and consisting in large measure of penetrating readings of key texts and essays of the Rav, reflect the unique blend of thematic discussion and commentary form, scholarly synthesis and textual exegesis, literary sensitivity and  conceptual rigor, found in all of Blidstein’s writings. One thing is clear: if what we have in these essays is “mostly … exposition,” it is exposition as a high art.

First, even when the points he makes are well known, Blidstein phrases them with his customary elegance and insight.  Thus in speaking of “the priority generally attached to the halakhic over the aggadic,” Blidstein notes that this priority “reflects the central role of the community. For halakhah is normative, obliging all members of the community equally…, as against the often individualistic, idiosyncratic, and moderately non-normative quality of the Aggadah. Put another way: the language of halakhah, its basic forms are often communal” (p.95). The point itself is not new, but rarely has it been expressed with such deftness. I particularly like the exactness and nuance of Blidstein’s description of the Aggadah as “moderately non-normative.” This seems to me to get it just right.

One more example: In discussing the Rav’s claim that, in Blidstein’s words, “the identity of the Jewish people moves on two levels…, both covenantal…, the Covenant of Fate (brit goral) and the Covenant of Destiny (brit ye‘ud),” Blidstein remarks that this is “a maneuver that is characteristic of R. Soloveitchik’s midrashic method—we shall encounter it in The Lonely Man of Faith [=LMF]—but that may have been borrowed from his halakhic method. Simply put, R. Soloveitchik frequently discovers contrasting characteristics in ostensibly unitary or homogeneous topics (p. 65)” Again, the point has been made before, but rarely with such concision and precision. Indeed, “contrasting characteristics in ostensibly unitary or homogeneous topics” is about as neat a definition of the Brisker method of “tzvai dinim” as I have come across.

But praiseworthy as Blidstein’s style may be, what ultimately counts is the substance of his “exposition.” Precisely here, however, he has a special contribution to make. As is well known, the Rav was both a rabbinic figure of the first rank—indeed, he is considered by many to have been the outstanding traditional rabbinic scholar and jurist of the second half of the twentieth century—and also a creative theologian and philosopher who mastered the entire western tradition of philosophical and scientific thought. The dazzling scope of his writings, ranging from the most complex and technical halakhic discussions to the most complex and technical philosophical discussions and incorporating between these two poles Aggadah, Derush, Biblical interpretation, phenomenological analysis, autobiographical reflection, and much else, is also well known. Consequently, as has often been pointed out, very few of the Rav’s students are qualified to explore that full range, and they either, to oversimplify somewhat, focus more on the Rav’s philosophical writings or more on his halakhic writings.  Blidstein, as someone who is equally expert and at home in the fields of Halakhah, Midrash, and Jewish Though, is one of the Rav’s few students qualified to examine the broad spectrum of his writings in their rich and colorful variety, though I would note that he does not engage in the analysis of the Rav’s more technical philosophical writings.

Any division of the essays in Society and Self is, to a certain extent, arbitrary. Thus Blidstein’s essay “Letters on Public Affairs,” an extended review and discussion of Community, Covenant, and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications, deals, as the essay’s title indicates, with what one may term the Rav’s public thought broadly speaking; at the same time a major section of the essay consist of a penetrating examination of three English responsa of the Rav, and thus deals with his more strictly halakhic writings. That said, we may, nevertheless, divide the essays into four categories: the essays “A Religious-Zionist Thinker?” “Letters on Public Affairs,” “The Jewish People,” and “‘Fate’ and ‘Destiny’’’ focus on the Rav’s public thought, the “Society” in the title; the essays “The Covenant of Marriage” and “Death” focus on the more personal existential side of the Rav’s thought, the “Self” in the title; the essay “The Norms and Nature of Mourning” deals with the Rav’s halakhic writings; and the essay “Biblical Models” deals with the Rav’s hermeneutics, his phenomenological readings of biblical texts. Of course, as indicated above, this division is very rough, and there is much overlap between these categories. As we saw, “Letters on Public Affairs” deals both with the Rav’s public thought and with his halakhic writings; “Biblical Models” deals not only with the Rav’s hermeneutics, but, treating, as it does, both “Kol Dodi Dofek” and LMF, touches on both the Rav’s public thought and his more personal, existential thought; the essay “The Norms and Nature of Mourning” focusing, as it does, on the Rav’s treatment of “grief—the internalization of mourning—as a norm, not as a natural emotion” (p.134), raises existential issues; and, finally, “The Covenant of Marriage,” insofar as it shows how the Rav uses “Scripture as his source of guidance” and that for him “the creation of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis is a formative narrative” (p.117), raises the  issue of hermeneutics. Nevertheless, in my discussion of Blidstein’s essays I will try to keep as much as possible to my fourfold division, moving from Blidstein’s discussion of the Rav’s public thought to his discussions of the Rav’s personal existential  thought, his halakhic writings, and, finally, his hermeneutics.
Blidstein, as is well known,  has written widely and deeply about the various institutional frameworks in which the Jewish collective has expressed itself in Talmudic, medieval, and modern times, whether rabbinical, political, or communal, their modes of operation and claims to authority. It should not be surprising, then, that half the book’s essays deal with the Rav’s public thought.  To be sure, as Blidstein points out in his essay “The Jewish People,” “the individual is at the heart of Rabbi…Soloveitchik’s writings” (p.77).   Indeed, in his essay “A Religious-Zionist Thinker?” Blidstein goes so far as question whether the Rav can be considered a Religious-Zionist thinker, inasmuch as that “the discussion of the Zionist or Religious-Zionist problem constitutes only a small portion of his work. The great majority of his articles deal with other issues: the nature of the spiritual experience, the nature of the halakhic experience, the standing of the individual a vis-à-vis the community, and the like” (p. 21). Still, as Blidstein observes, “the focus on the person … should not obscure the fact that the community, and specifically the Jewish community of course, has also been a central concern of the Rav” (p. 77).

Blidstein notes the Rav’s subtle balancing act in adjudging which has priority, the individual or the community. On the one hand, “the community transcends the person and bestows upon him the forms of spiritual life and the possibility of God’s forgiveness and acceptance;” on the other, “the community is constituted by virtue of the ontological loneliness of the individual” (p. 83). Indeed, Blidstein points out, “Immediately after describing Knesset Israel as a ‘metaphysical entity,’ the Rav asserts that ‘the personalistic unity and reality of a community, such as Knesset Israel, is due to the philosophy of existential complementarity of the individuals belonging to Knesset Israel’” (p.83).

Of course, to revert to an earlier point, the Rav “discovers contrasting characteristics in [the] ostensibly unitary or homogeneous topic…” of the community, as he does elsewhere. Here Blidstein discusses, as is to be expected, the majestic community of Adam the first and the covenantal community of Adam the second, as developed in LMF, as well the people of the covenant of fate and the nation of covenant of destiny, as developed in “Kol Dodi Dofek” and other essays of the Rav. I will return to Blidstein’s discussion of the majestic and covenantal communities later. Here let me say a few words about his discussion of the two covenants, particularly the covenant of fate.

Blidstein maintains that that “even one who argues that the creation of the concepts of ‘covenant of fate’ and ‘covenant of destiny’ was directed primarily at the Zionist reality, to the problematic attitude toward religiously non-observant Jews in the context of the return to Zion and the establishment of a state” (p.23) must agree that that “is not the real topic of the piece…. For the State of Israel is, primarily, a secular reality, and it graphically represents the secularization of Jewish peoplehood in the modern world…. The true topic of ‘Kol Dodi Dofek,’ then, is the character of the modern Jewish people, or more precisely the integration of this reality into the world view of the believing Jew….It is likely, then, that the existence of the secular Jew and his community provided the problematic that R. Soloveitchik undertook to confront in ‘Kol Dodi Dofek’” (pp. 64, 66).

This point is well taken; still as one of those who argued “that the creation of the concepts of ‘covenant of fate’ and ‘covenant of destiny’ was directed primarily at the Zionist reality, to the problematic attitude toward religiously non-observant Jews in the context of the return to Zion and the establishment of a state,” I believe that Blidstein   underplays the Zionist setting. In my essay “Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and Dr. Isaac Breuer on Jewish Identity and the Jewish National Revival,” I showed how as late as 1944 the Rav, in a major published discourse, used many of the motifs later found in “Kol Dodi Dofek,” but without any mention of a covenant of fate. The essay sets forth an unambiguous indictment of modern Secular Jewry, which is seen in a wholly negative light, and leaves no room, no ground for cooperation, between religious and secular Jewry.  What then led to the shift in the Rav’s view?

In my essay I noted that the Rav combined his indictment of modern secular Jewry with a call for a Jewish national revival, a revival set against the background of the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust. But, I suggested, such a combination proved to be unstable and untenable. For how can one laud the Jewish national revival without according at least some measure of religious credit to the major group promoting that revival, namely, the secular Zionists? Moreover, the Rav was very well aware that the religious Zionists could not promote the national revival on their own. Thus, to come to “Kol Dodi Dofek,” the Rav there both sets a great task before religious Jewry: to transform the covenant of fate into a covenant of destiny, the people into a nation; and, at the same time, he criticizes it sharply for what he perceived to be its failure to respond to the voice of the Beloved knocking, to the call of the historic moment, to the divine act of Hesed expressed in the establishment of the State of Israel.  There is no doubt that he realized that, for the meanwhile, religious Jewry would be a junior partner in the task of national renewal.

Moreover, as Blidstein himself admits in another context—a point to which I shall return soon—there are places in his writing where the Rav does not seem to have absorbed the full dimensions of the secularization of the Jewish people. In sum, without denying Blidstein’s argument that “Kol Dodi Dofek” grapples with the secular character of large segments of the Jewish people in the modern era, it still seems to me that it is the Zionist context which constitutes the primary framework for the Rav’s discussion of this secularization and for his creation of the concepts of covenants of fate and destiny.

Regarding the moral content of the covenant of fate, Blidstein appears to waver. In a brief essay “‘Fate’ and ‘Destiny,’” Blidstein incisively compares and contrasts the Rav’s view of the covenants of fate and destiny with the very similar view of Martin Buber in his 1936 essay “On Nationalism.” In that essay, Buber, like the Rav, distinguishes between the people of Israel fashioned by “fate,” and the Israelite nation created by “a great inner transformation.” For both Buber and the Rav, the nation was created by the revelation at Mt. Sinai, though, as Blidstein points out, for the Rav that revelation was first and foremost a revelation of the Law, while for Buber it refers to a personal divine address calling for “a living relationship” with God. The more significant difference between the two though, Blidstein notes, is that, “for Buber the decisive fateful moment [in the fashioning of the people] was the exodus from Egypt, whereas R. Soloveitchik focuses on the Egyptian bondage itself” (p.107). As a result, Blidstein argues, “According to Buber, the people fashioned by ‘fate’ forms for itself a cultural mold and way of life …. This activity also exists for the Rav, with respect to the solidarity established among the slaves and the like, but nevertheless the difference is clear. According to Buber, the struggle with fate is active, whereas according to R. Soloveitchik, the people formed by way of the covenant of fate is fundamentally passive” (pp.106-107).  Blidstein continues to elaborate on this difference between Buber and the Rav, concluding that for the Rav “the covenant of fate is defined…in an almost minimalist fashion from a moral perspective, almost like preserving the body until the soul is returned to it” (p.108).

However, in his primary discussion of “Kol Dodi Dofek” in his essay “The Jewish People,” Blidstein strikes a different tone.   To be sure, he correctly insists there that for the Rav “Egypt and Sinai, the Jew of fate and the Jew of destiny and purpose clearly reflect a hierarchical order” (p.90). But he goes on to note—and how could he not?—that the Rav in describing the covenant of fate “tells us about the values that emerge in a people that must struggle to ensure its physical survival: mutuality, sympathy, self- sacrifice, hesed. These are functional values of the collective, to be sure, but they also require the individual to transcend his own selfish concerns, and as hesed resonate deeply in the Jewish consciousness” (p.91). We have come very far in this “moral perspective” from a mere concern with “solidarity,” from a minimalist definition of the covenant of fate. Indeed, the values of Hesed, loving kindness, and Kedushah, holiness, which, for the Rav, exemplify the covenants of fate and destiny respectively, constitute the primary ways whereby the individual, as the Rav always emphasized, imitates God.

This emphasis on Hesed as constituting the leading moral virtue of the covenant of fate again needs to be understood within the essay’s Zionist setting. In the section of “Kol Dodi Dofek,” “The Obligation of Torah Jewry to the Land of Israel,” the Rav calls on Orthodox American Jews to increase what he views as their inadequate financial support for the state and, in particular, for religious institutions in the state, to “establish more religious kibbutzim, build more houses for religious immigrants, [and] create an elaborate and extended system of schools.” In this context he launches the following remarkable accusation. “We Orthodox Jews suffer from a unique illness that is not found among non-religious Jews (with a few exceptions); we are all misers! In comparison with other American Jews, we do not excel in the attribute of Hesed.” This section precedes the sections on the covenants of fate and destiny. But in retrospect it becomes evident that in terms of financial support of the State of Israel and its institutions secular American Jews, in the view of the Rav, turn out to be more committed to the covenant of fate than Orthodox American Jews.

Another major theme of the Rav’s public thought discussed by Blidstein is the Jewish people as a source of authority. This, putting together different discussions of Blidstein, takes place on three levels. First, as Blidstein notes in speaking of the Rav’s religious Zionism, though the Rav “bases the standing of the state on its halakhic significance” (p.28), “this does not mean that his attitude toward [both the land and state] exhausted itself solely in halakhic terms” (p.28). Blidstein proceeds to eloquently elaborate:

Zionism obligates every Jew, inasmuch as he harbors “yearnings of the generations.” In other words, a Jew who has an organic, natural, healthy, and normal connection to his people, its fate and destiny, its memories hardships, and hopes, will want to participate in the building of the land and the establishment of the state, and return to Zion. The voices of the generations denied this are clearly heard; they resonate in his soul. The Rav does not see in the fact that essential elements of the state are secular something to prevent the “yearnings of the generations” form identifying with it. The main thing is the craving for the collective return to the Land of Israel, which includes an independent political foundation….  Regarding the Land of Israel and the state, as in other matters the Rav did not seek analytic or even halakhic support in the strict sense of the term; he listened to the generations speaking in his blood. (p.28)

Second, Blidstein notes, the Rav extends Maimonides’ view that “one of the bases of Talmudic authority as a whole is the consent of the people” by arguing that “popular consent is given an institutional concretization—the great Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin is thus understood as having a dual function, for it expresses the will of the people Israel as well as pronouncing opinions and decisions in its role as the  major organ of Oral Law” (pp.95-96). Here Blidstein discusses the Rav’s famous hiddush that the Great Court’s authority to constitute the Jewish calendar derives from its being the representative of the Jewish people.  This enables the Rav to solve the problem as to how the calendar can continue to function authoritatively if the Great Court no longer exists, the answer being that in the absence of the Great Court this power reverts back to the people. As Blidstein points out, the Rav offers two variants of this solution. In an earlier variant “what is really crucial are the calculations done by ‘the Jews of the land of Israel,’” while in a later one what is crucial is “the practice of Jewry as a whole” (p.96).

This later variant, however, Blidstein indicates, raises an intriguing problem. The Rav writes, “Now Knesset Israel sanctifies… the holidays and New Moons by its ritual practice…. The entire people fix the calendar through the calculations, and the celebrations of the holidays and New Moons according to these calculations functions to set the calendar.” But, as Blidstein notes, “we all know—and so does Rabbi Soloveitchik—that the ‘entire people’ no longer celebrates the holidays” (p.97), certainly not in a halakhic mode.  We need not enter into Blidstein’s insightful discussion of this conundrum, except to note three things. First, Blidstein confronts here the issue I raised earlier, namely, to what extent the Rav absorbed the full dimensions of the secularization of the Jewish people.  But second—and here we arrive at the very heart and soul of the Rav’s faith—Blidstein suggests that if the Rav’s halakhic theory simply refuses to accept the reality of the secularization of the Jewish people, it may be because

Halakhic theory, in this case at least, is more than analytic description. It is also a statement of faith. Here (and elsewhere) the Rav asserts that the Jewish people, which is incomprehensible to him outside its covenantal commitment, will return to its vocation of holiness. Messianic faith, he declares, is “faith in the Jewish people.” (p.98)

Yet—and this is the third point—Blidstein soberly concludes:

Ironically it is precisely the description of the authority immanent in the Jewish people that suggests how far contemporary Jewish life actually is from its sacred vocation, and the argument for the indispensability of this authority, which suggests how fragile the sacred existence of this people is today. The calendar—

at least on the theory developed by the Rav—is living on borrowed time, and not the calendar alone. (p.98)


The third level on which the authority of the people operates relates to the people’s practice more broadly conceived. In his well-known halakhic essay, “Shenei Sugei Massoret” (“Two Types of Tradition”) the Rav writes:

There are two traditions: 1) One tradition relates entirely to a tradition of study, debate, give and take, and halakhic rulings based on intellectual considerations. This sage offers a reason for his view, and another sage offer a reason for his competing view, and they take a vote, as the Torah pictures it for us in the periscope regarding the rebellious elder (Deut. 17:8-13); 2) the tradition of practice constituted by the behavior of the entire Jewish people regarding the performance of commandments.  This tradition is based on the verse “Ask your father, and he will show you; your elders, and they will tell you” (Deut. 32:7)

The Rav, as his wont, elaborates brilliantly on the nature of these two traditions and the differences between them. In particular, he uses the concept of a tradition of practice to answer the well-known problem as to why can’t the Amoraim disagree with the Tannaim or for that matter why can’t the Geonim disagree with the Amoraim, given Maimonides’ ruling (Laws of Rebels 2:1) that in matters of exegesis and reasoning a later court can controvert the law proclaimed by an earlier court and “judge in accordance with what appears to them to be the law” even if the later court is not as great as the earlier one in wisdom and numbers.  To enter into an examination of the Rav’s answer here would, however, take us too far afield.

Blidstein, unfortunately, does not have that much to say about “these two forms of traditional authority” (p103).  He does, however, make the challenging claim that the Rav’s analysis of these two types of tradition, “that of scholarly analysis and decision and that of life lived by the people itself” (p.103) “dovetails perfectly” with his famous description of two other types of tradition, the tradition of the fathers and that of the mothers. It would follow that the tradition of the fathers is one of scholarly analysis and decision,” while the tradition of the mothers refers to the “life lived by the people itself.” I cannot agree.

In his very well-known essay “A Tribute to the Rebbetzin of Talne” the Rav writes:

We have two massorot, two traditions, two communities…—the massorah community of the fathers and that of the mothers. Father teaches the son the discipline of thought as well as the discipline of action.  Father’s tradition is an intellectual-moral one…. Mother [teaches]… that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience,…that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to the mitzvot.

I would suggest, then, contra Blidstein, that far from the traditions of the fathers and of the mothers “dovetail[ing] perfectly” with the traditions “of scholarly analysis and decision and … of life lived by the people itself,” the latter traditions are two sub-categories, two aspects of the tradition of the fathers.

In truth, the Rav’s multiple and varying analyses of the concept of tradition serve as a perfect illustration of his ability to “frequently discover contrasting characteristics in ostensibly unitary or homogeneous topics.” First, in “A Tribute to the Rebbetzin of Talne” the Rav differentiates between the tradition of the fathers and that of the mothers. The tradition of the fathers is intellectual- practical, while tradition of the mothers is experiential. Then within the intellectual- practical tradition of the fathers the Rav in “Shenei Sugei Massoret” differentiates between the intellectual tradition “of scholarly analysis and decision” and the practical tradition “of life lived by the people itself.” Finally, within the intellectual tradition itself the Rav in his oral discourse “Seguliyyuto shel Sefer Mishneh Torah” further differentiates between an intellectual tradition handed down by through a process of teaching and study from teacher to student and an intellectual tradition where the oral Law, aside from being handed down by through the standard process of teaching and study from teacher to student (limmud), is formally transmitted (mesirah) as a theoretical- intellectual discipline. That is, here the teacher, who himself is one of the Hakhmei ha-Massorah, one the those Sages who are part of and constitute the ongoing chain of tradition, does not only teach his students, but formally transmits the oral Law to those very few students of his who are worthy so that they in turn become yet another link in that chain of tradition.  And, as the Rav emphasizes, “This act of transmission … constitutes a process and an institution by itself.”

The analysis contained in the above paragraph may perhaps best be presented in the form of the following chart:


Blidstein’s review-essay of Community, Covenant, and Commitment contains much rich discussion of the Rav’s public thought. He provocatively claims  that one ought to group together the Rav’s discussions of “interreligious dialogue and contact with the Catholic Church before the issuance of the Vatican Declaration on the Jews, Orthodoxy’s relationship  with the Conservative movement and its rabbis, and (even!) the relations between Orthodox rabbis and non-rabbinic Orthodox agencies” (pp. 46-47). He admits that “On the face of it these groupings seems quite different from one another: What does the Pope have in common with the leader of Mizrachi?” (p.47) Yet he convincingly argues that “the Rav sees in each of these contexts the need to strike a balance (that will differ from case to case, of course) between drawing closer and keeping one’s distance, thereby setting the boundaries of cooperation and estrangement” (p. 47). Here we will concentrate on Blidstein’s analysis of the Rav’s view regarding interreligious dialogue and contact with the Catholic Church.

As Blidstein indicates, the philosophical foundation “the Rav posited…for rejecting [Interfaith] dialogue” in his famous essay “Confrontation” “had already been set into place in his 1950 letter to  [Professor Milton Konvitz of Cornell University and intended to be read by] Cornell’s President”  (p.49) regarding the “Depiction of Human Images on Stained Glass Windows  in an Interfaith Chapel.” In that letter, the Rav expresses his opposition to the very idea of an interfaith chapel, though, interestingly enough, he had been informed that decision to build it had already been made and was not on the table, arguing, to cite Blidstein’s paraphrase, that “every faith community has its own structure, forms of expression, and content, and that these cannot coexist within a single architectonic space” (50). It is particularly noteworthy, Blidstein stresses, “that the Rav manages to deny legitimacy of a shared house of worship for Jews and Christians without ever hinting at the possibly that Christianity has the status of idolatry” (pp.42-43).

Actually, this letter and others from the early 50s anticipate the Rav’s position as set forth in “Confrontation” even more fully than indicated by Blidstein. For, as is well known or should be well known, the Rav’s rejection of interfaith theological dialogue is only one side of the theological coin he mints in that essay.  In the essay the Rav speaks of a double confrontation, “a universal human and an exclusively covenantal confrontation.” The “universal human confrontation” is the confrontation of humankind and the cosmos. Here Jews “stand with civilized society shoulder to shoulder over against the great [natural] order that defies us all.” The “exclusively covenantal confrontation” comes into play in connection with the “personal confrontation of two faith communities,”  and it is in this connection that the Rav rejects interfaith theological dialogue on the ground of the uniqueness and incommensurability of different faith commitments.

Both in his letter of 1950 to Professor Konvitz and in his letter of 1953 to Rabbi Theodore Adams regarding Orthodox participation in Communal Tercentenary Celebrations the Rav clearly adumbrates this theme of a double confrontation. Thus in his letter of 1950 he writes:

We identify ourselves with our gentile neighbors in all matters of collective endeavor—social, political, and cultural activities. There should be no retreat on the part of the Jew from full participation in all phases of national life and we are committed to all of America’s institutions. However, the worship of God is not a social or collective gesture, but is a genuinely individual, most personal, intimate and tender relationship which cannot be shared with anyone else.


The same note is struck in his letter of 1953:

As to interfaith celebrations we are ready and willing to encourage such projects as long as they are held within the confines of secular activities. No joint worship, however, can be encouraged. We are loyal citizens of our great country and are committed to all its institutions, political, economic, and educational without any reservation or qualification, as are all other Americans. Hence joint action and common effort are commendable in all areas of mundane endeavor. Yet one’s relationship to, worship and dialogue with God, is an inner experience most intimate, most personal, most unique. Each community worships God in its singular way. “Gleichschaltung” distorts the very essence of the religious experience.

I have treated this point at some length because, as David Shatz has noted, many people in discussing “Confrontation” focus only on the Rav’s emphasis on the importance of the “exclusively covenantal confrontation” and his consequent rejection of interfaith dialogue, ignoring his emphasis on the equal importance of “universal human confrontation” and his consequent affirmation of the need for Jews to “stand with civilized society shoulder to shoulder over against the great [natural] order that defies us all.” It is important then to show that not just the Rav’s rejection of interfaith dialogue had its philosophical roots in his letters from the 50s, but his broader theme of the need for Jews to perform a double confrontation also had its roots those letters.



As noted earlier, the two essays in Blidstein’s collection that focus on the more personal existential side of the Rav’s thought are “The Covenant of Marriage” and “Death.” Indeed, love, sexuality, and marriage, on the one hand, and suffering, evil, and death, on the other, form the two poles around which much of the Rav’s personal thought revolves. If the Rav, thus, as Avi Ravitzky has maintained, is the philosopher of the Song of Songs, he is also the philosopher of Koheleth. Again, there is much of great interest in Blidstein’s analysis, and I will focus only on a few select points related to his essay “The Covenant of Marriage.”

This essay is a wide ranging review of Family Redeemed: Essays on Family Relationships. Blidstein emphasizes the uniqueness of the work.

The six essays in this volume are dedicated to marital and parental relationships as a Jewish and human phenomenon. It seems to me that the very writing of these essays during the late 1950s, the surprising decision to devote so much attention to the problems and challenges of marriage and family life, is in itself of great significance for understanding the Rav’s world and personality. There is even a certain daring to this choice, as the Rav does not refrain from relating to the erotic component of marital union. I am not familiar with another Jewish treatment of the issue similar to the one found in this book: a gaping divide stands between it and contemporary religious writing dealing with marriage. (pp. 111-112)


In addition to his discussion of the Rav’s views on “the erotic component of marital union,” Blidstein also touches on the Rav’s views regarding the issue of gender, which on the whole he finds to be rather traditional. One point, however, he singles out for particular attention.

In light of this traditional attitude to gender, I found great interest in the section the volume’s editors named “The Tragedy in Motherhood.” Indeed, the Rav himself uses the term “tragedy” in this context….This assessment is based on the fact that Abraham (who sits “in front of the tent”) responds  to the angels’ question “Where is Sarah, your wife,” with the answer, “Behold in the tent,” inside, concealed,… despite the importance of her work. The woman is found deep inside the tent, hidden, and her presence is passed on through her husband. Sarah’s concealment—and that of all women—is not interpreted here in favorable light. According to the Rav’s homiletical reading of the passage, the dialogue between Abraham and the angels embodies the price that a woman must pay. The Rav reminds us that Abraham’s historic role came to an end with Sarah’s death…The message is clear. “Why do people not know the truth” that Abraham’s work was in large measure the work of Sarah? And yet we say in our prayer “God of Abraham,” and not “God of Sarah,” despite the fact that “they had an equal share in the Creator of the World.” According to the Rav, it is here that the tragedy manifests itself with all its impact” The term “tragedy” is significant. The tragic, is inherent, almost unpreventable, in reality—the human- social reality or the religious-halakhic reality, as in our case. …It is interesting to see how the Rav leads the homily to the halakhic realm, and in this realm—to prayer and its formulations, issues that were so close to his heart. (pp. 118-119)


Blidstein again took note of this striking reading of the Rav, perhaps highlighting its bold nature even more strongly than he did in his essay itself, in a “Letter to the Editor” he wrote to Judaism Magazine in response to my own review of Family Redeemed. In the belief that our exchange will be of interest to the readers of this review, I am including it here as an appendix to this essay.

Blidstein, along with many others, notes that sacrifice, retreat, defeat, and submission “are central values in the Rav’s thought,” (pp145-146), and that they particularly come into play in connection with marriage and sexuality. He sums up the Rav’s position thus.

Marriage requires, first and foremost, mutual sacrifice. The reference, of course, is to the creation of an existential space in which the couple can both live together and as separate individuals. But marriage involves sacrifice in another sense as well. The two parties sacrifice sexual freedom…in marital life itself, where total abstinence is demanded at the time of the woman’s monthly period…. According to the Rav, at issue is simple and painful abstinence that leads to catharsis. (p.114)

Blidstein elaborates on this point in his essay “On Death.” There he notes that “retreat, sacrifice, and failure in the Rav’s teaching are almost always found in dialectical movement… Almost without exception, man falls solely in order to rise again with increased strength. He falls only so that he may know how to achieve true ascent” (p.147). In this connection Blidstein returns to the role of sacrifice and retreat in marriage and sexuality.

David Hartman correctly noted that the Rav’s use of the motif of falling in Eve’s formation from the body of Adam in his sleep also comes to teach the interpersonal and moral lesson that man is asked to make room for the existence of the other, which translates into the sacrifice of the personal ego. This is also the story of the bride and bridegroom who sacrifice their happiness on the altar of halakhah: “Sex, if unredeemed, may turn into a brutal ugly performance….Sex, therefore, is in need of redemption…. What action did Judaism recommend to man in order to achieve this purpose? The movement of withdrawal and defeat.” Retreat comes in the midst of life so that the continuation should be more delicate, more human. (pp. 147-148)

Blidstein in these two passages has put his finger on something very important about the Rav’s conception of sacrifice; however, it requires spelling out. Indeed, here we may yet again “discover contrasting characteristics in ostensibly unitary or homogeneous topics.” For, as I have argued elsewhere, the Rav operates with two conceptions of sacrifice, one found primarily in LMF and “The Community,” the other in ‘‘Majesty and Humility’’ and ‘‘Catharsis.’’

In LMF sacrifice is essentially connected with withdrawal in order to recognize and make room for the other, both human and divine. Limiting ourselves to the human other, it means  that Adam the second  must withdraw in order to make room for the other, in order to listen to and hear what the other  has to say in his or her otherness, for only thereby is true communication and consequently true community possible. In “The Community,” in like manner, the recognition of another’s existence is “eo ipso, a sacrificial act, since the mere admission that a Thou exists in addition to the I is tantamount to tzimtzum, self–limitation and self-contraction”

In ‘‘Majesty and Humility’’ and ‘‘Catharsis,’’ by contrast, sacrifice means that ‘‘at every level of [one’s] total existential experience” the individual gives up, withdraws from, if only temporarily, whatever he “desires the most.’’ This act of withdrawal, of self-defeat is, for the Rav, the true heroic act. Man, whenever ‘‘victory is within reach …stop[s], turn[s] around, and retreats.” Defeat here is an intra-psychic category, one basically unconnected with the presence of an other, whether human or divine. It is an akedah experience in the precise sense of the term, as man sacrifices that which is most precious to him only to re-acquire it once again.

To return, then, to Blidstein’s two passages about the Rav’s view on marriage cited above, it is clear that in both passages he first begins with LMF and “The Community” type of sacrifice where one withdraws in order to make room for the other, and then moves to the “Majesty and Humility’’ and ‘‘Catharsis’’ type of sacrifice where defeat is an intra-psychic category.

I still believe that my claim that the Rav operates with two different conceptions of sacrifice is fundamentally correct. However, in light of both Blidstein’s discussion and further reflection on my own, it seems to me now that I failed to properly discern the link between the two. In truth, both conceptions of sacrifice are linked to interpersonal ethics. However, in the conception of sacrifice found in LMF and “The Community,” the connection between sacrifice and interpersonal ethics is clear and immediate, for by sacrifice the Rav means withdrawal precisely for the purpose of recognition of the other and of the other’s needs. The conception of sacrifice as self-defeat found in ‘‘Majesty and Humility’’ and ‘‘Catharsis’’ is also connected to interpersonal ethics, but given the intra-psychic nature of this type of sacrifice, the connection is indirect. The Rav argues that such self-defeat is a heroic, cathartic act, a “divine dialectical discipline,” whereby man purges himself of pride and arrogance and develops a sense of humility and critical self-awareness. Presumably, such refinement of character can have only positive ethical consequences on the interpersonal level. Thus we may say that the intra-psychic type of sacrifice found in ‘‘Majesty and Humility’’ and ‘‘Catharsis’’ refines and purges an individual’s personality so that he is sensitized to the existence and needs of the other and is thus better able to withdraw in order to make room for him or her, thereby performing the LMF and “The Community” type of sacrifice. It is this link, I believe, Blidstein has in mind when at the end of the second passage cited he first quotes the Rav’s assertion that through withdrawal and defeat—the ‘‘Majesty and Humility’’ and ‘‘Catharsis’’ type of sacrifice—man redeems sex and purges it of any possible brutal and ugly aspects, and then comments “Retreat comes in the midst of life so that the continuation should be more delicate, more human”—the LMF and “The Community” type of sacrifice.


As noted earlier, Blidstein deals with the Rav’s halakhic writings both in his review-essay of Community, Covenant, and Commitment and in his essay “The Norms and Nature of Mourning.”

The first section of Blidstein’s review essay (pp. 39-46) is devoted to a penetrating examination of three English responsa of the Rav: 1) the aforementioned letter “On the Depiction of Human Images on Stained Glass Windows in an Interfaith Chapel;” 2) “On Directing Foundlings to Jewish Welfare Agencies;” and 3) “On Drafting Rabbis and Rabbinical Students for the U.S. Armed Forces Chaplaincy.” As Blidstein notes in the introductory section of his essay, these responsa are of particular importance in shedding light on the Rav’s conception of halakhah and providing a corrective to the impression one might receive from his more theoretical writings. Blidstein comments, “the Rav’s essay Ish ha-Halakhah often is cited as proof that he viewed the halakhah as the realm of the a priori, impervious to social reality, and as subject to a method partaking more of mathematics than of the human sciences…. But that reading of Ish ha-Halakhah, taken alone, can afford a one-sided picture” (p. 38).

Of special relevance to this issue, Blidstein points out, is the Rav’s “methodological pronouncement” introducing his responsum on “Drafting Rabbis and Rabbinical Students for the U.S. Armed Forces Chaplaincy.”  Blidstein explains:

[This] methodological pronouncement included a two-fold statement of reservations about the “objective” model of halakhic decision-making. First, every intellectual activity (including even aspects of natural science) combines formal components and human intuitive components; in our case he declared his intuition was to approve the project… Second, one must distinguish between but ultimately combine “pure halakhic formalism which… places the problem on an ahistorical conceptual level… [and] applied halakhah which transposes abstractions into central realities…. Under this aspect I gave thought not only to halakhic speculation but also to the concrete situation.” It is likely—though not certain—that the intuitive component of the project pertained primarily to the practical decision.  In any event, it is clear that the Rav was not about to adopt the “mathematical” model of the halakhic process so admired within certain segments of Modern Orthodoxy— a model envisioned as automatically spitting out halakhic solutions solely on the basis of objective expertise. (pp. 44-45)

I would like to take a closer look at the Rav’s responsum “On the Depiction of Human Images on Stained Glass Windows in an Interfaith Chapel,” which, I believe, sheds clearer light on the interplay of halakhic and extra-halakhic in his responsa. Blidstein first presents the Rav’s basic argument:

The Rav begins by declaring that he cannot base his response on formal halakhah, but must look as well “to central historical realities with their deep-seated philosophical meaning.”…That leads him to a passage in Tractate Avodah Zarah, from which one can only conclude that the greatest of the amora’im permitted the presence of a non-cultic human statue in the synagogue and that this teaching can be seen as normative…. But the Rav then goes on to find that Judaism historically did not act in accordance with this view and, as a practical matter, forbade the presence of images in the Synagogue. This approach …was consistently followed in synagogues built in Christian Europe, and remains practice to this day.

Here the impact of Christianity proves decisive. In the Christian milieu, the Rav argues with outstanding cultural sensitivity, every human figure found in a cultic site instantly becomes a cultic figure—a consequence of the basic Christian belief Jesus as man-god ….  These circumstances are quite different, then, from those of Babylonian synagogues in Talmudic times (p.40)

To cite the Rav, “To what our sages in a non-Christian Babylonia did not object, our forefathers in Christian counties were quite susceptible.”

Blidstein, after this summary, goes on to argue that the Rav’s “treatment here of the halakhic sources … provides …an illustration of his comment that when he decides a halakhic issue, he has ‘always been guided by a dim intuitive feeling which pointed out to me the true path,’ and that ‘my inquiry consisted only in translating vague intuitive feeling into fixed terms of halakhic discursive thinking.’ That is so even though the argumentation here is far from halakhic, as the Rav himself acknowledges” (p.41).

But, we may ask, is the argumentation in this responsum “far from halakhic,” and does the Rav acknowledge this? Indeed, immediately after making the observation cited above that “To what our sages in a non-Christian Babylonia did not object, our forefathers in Christian counties were quite susceptible,” the Rav goes on to say “I wish to emphasize that this [unequivocal iconoclastic attitude of Judaism toward the display of human images in houses of worship in Christian countries] was not merely a medieval addendum to the law but it expresses its very spirit.”

I believe that Blidstein himself in the contrast he implicitly draws between the permissible “presence of a non-cultic human statue in the [Babylonian] synagogue” and forbidden presence of “a human figure” in synagogues in a “Christian milieu,” inasmuch as it instantly “becomes a cultic figure,” has provided us with the key for understanding the Rav’s halakhic argument, but again the point needs to be spelled out.

The Rav in his brief presentation of the “formal halakhic viewpoint” regarding images first notes: “There are two fundamental prohibitions against the making of images. One deals with the making or possessing of idols…and is not limited to a specific design….The second…applies to the making of [certain] images even if it not be for cultic but artistic purposes.”

He then adds—and this serves as the basis of his entire argument—“It is also prohibited to create or possess any design which is usually associated with a cultic or religious motif, though the objective meaning of this design is purely artistic.”

It is this halakhic principle which enables the Rav to combine here a formal-halakhic analysis with the taking into account of “central historical realities.” For if we are speaking of a design “the objective meaning of [which] is purely artistic,” what is it that determines whether or not this design “is usually associated with a cultic or religious motif,” if not “central historical realities?” Here then sensitivity and responsiveness to historical and cultural change are built into the very fabric of the halakhic principle. Thus the Rav’s main point is that in “non-Christian Babylonia” a human image in a synagogue was not “associated with a cultic or religious motif,” while in Christian Europe it was. Indeed, after emphasizing that “the unequivocal iconoclastic attitude of Judaism unequivocal iconoclastic attitude of Judaism toward the display of human images … in Christian countries … was not merely a medieval addendum to the law but it expresses its very spirit,” the Rav goes on to explain “As I have emphasized before, the law prohibits the representation of any figure or form which … alludes to a cultic motif, and the human figure  in the synagogue”—and here we may add in Christian Europe though  not in non-Christian Babylonia —“though its objective meaning be of an artistic nature, comes under this category.”

One can also raise the broader question as to how extensive a light these three responsa   shed on the Rav’s conception of halakhah, particularly halakhic pesak. One must remember that these responsa, which indeed make use of “axiological premises” and “philosophico-historical” considerations, were all written in the space of five months from December 1950 through April 1951, and, at least on the basis of current information, appear to be unique. Moreover, as is well known and as Blidstein surely knows, the Rav when describing the halakhah in Ish ha-Halakhah “as the realm of the a priori, impervious to social reality, and as subject to a method partaking more of mathematics than of the human sciences” is speaking of the halakhah as an ideal system, and not of halakhic pesak. It is only with his essay “Mah Dodekh mi-Dod,” written in 1961, that we find the view of halakhah as a formal, abstract, self-contained system extended, albeit not entirely, to the realm of pesak. Certainly the need to combine, when engaging in pesak, “axiological premises” and “philosophico-historical” considerations with a formal-halakhic analysis, though not absent entirely in “Mah Dodekh mi-Dod,” plays a peripheral role. One could then maintain that the Rav shifted from a more values oriented approach to pesak in the 1950s to a more formalistic approach in the 60s. I put forward this possibility very tentatively, for our current knowledge of the Rav’s halakhic activity qua posek is incomplete, but it serves to remind us that while these three responsa indeed possess great intrinsic interest, it is not clear whether they are truly representative of that activity over a period of forty years.

Blidstein’s essay “The Norms and Nature of Mourning” begins with the observation that while “a not insignificant body of analysis, interpretation, and commentary to…the Rav’s view…of the nature and ends of halakhah, his descriptions of the halakhic process, and ‘how’ one does halakhah,… nevertheless  little has been done … in actual  treatment  of the Rav’s specific halakhic studies” (p.121). His essay itself consists primarily of a lucid and incisive summary and analysis of two major essays of the Rav found in Shi‘urim le-Zekher Abba Mari [SZAM], “Tum’at ha-Kohanim le-Shiv‘at ha-Kerovim”  (“Priests Rendering themselves Impure on the Death of one of the Seven Closest Relatives”)  and “Aveilut” (“Mourning”). “The first… deals with the obligation that priests render themselves impure on the death of one of the seven closest relatives, despite the general ban on priestly impurity…. The [second]… directly confronts the performative norms of mourning as well as its essential internal correlates and manifestations” (pp.123, 127).

The question arises to what extent these shi‘urim and the others in SZAM are representative of the Rav’s derekh ha-limmud, as contained in the bulk of his shi‘urim. Blidstein does not address this question directly, but touches on it indirectly when considering the issue as to whether these shi‘urim should be viewed as being in the traditional mode or not. In the body of his essay he asserts:

The shi‘urim I shall discuss proceed in the traditional mode. The Rav first assembles a list of textual anomalies and contradictions and then proceeds to solve the series of problems by presenting on overall thesis—analytical, of course, rather than textual or historical—which accounts for the earlier puzzling phenomena. (p.122)

However in the appended note Blidstein expresses second thoughts.


I would no longer characterize the Rav’s shi‘urim, given in memory of his father and subsequently published, as being in the traditional mode….Most traditional work is anchored in a specific text, broadening out to other texts only as ramifications (or contradictions) of the initial source. Thus it is hardly true … that traditional halakhic study assembles a list of anomalies and then proceeds to solve the problems by presenting on overall thesis. Traditional halakhic commentary, rather, tends to focus on single sources, interpreted through an initial hypothetical thesis, which is then refined by the dialectical interpolation of more and more sources.… In these shi‘urim the Rav, on the contrary, makes an initial presentation of numerous sources that require resolution in the guise of an overall thesis. (p.122, note 2)

It is somewhat surprising that Blidstein in recording his change of mind does not advert to the already well known debate between Rabbis Elyakim Krumbein and Avraham Walfish regarding the question I raised earlier as to whether the shi‘urim in SZAM can be viewed as being representative of the bulk of the Rav’s shi‘urim, Krumbein arguing yes, Walfish no, for certainly those shi‘urim are in the traditional mode. In particular, the argument Walfish presents in support of his position anticipates the distinction Blidstein draws in his note and seeks to account for it as well.

It is only to be expected that SZAM would differ in its rhetorical structure from most shi‘urim of the Rav, given the unique forum in which it was given: a mass audience, before whom a single lecture would be delivered, as opposed to the bulk of his shi‘urim, which were delivered before his students, with whom he met on a regular basis for consecutive study of a single text. It is no wonder that such a lecture would focus much more heavily on concept than on text…[as opposed to] the daily  shi‘urim [which] focused on the text, on the concepts emerging from the text, and on the methodology the Rav was practicing  and teaching.

Whether the two shi‘urim examined by Blidstein are representative of the bulk of the Rav’s shi‘urim or not, they are both certainly of great intrinsic interest and importance, and, as stated above, his summary and analysis of them both lucid and incisive. Blidstein shows how in both shi‘urim the Rav “mounts questions that penetrate to the very heart of the topic discussed and molds the myriad particulars of the halakhic discussion into a broad synthetic structure. He deals with details, of course—no authentic halakhic discussion could ever forego that—but details are not trivia.”  Here I will focus on Blidstein’s discussion of the essay on “Aveilut.”

As Blidstein notes:


This essay indicates that both performance and internalization are halakhic components of mourning. To be more specific: mourning requires both patterned ritual activity and individualized emotional activity, that is to say, grief…. Both are equally halakhic. The internalized activity, in other words, is not the “aggadic” correlate of the performed ritual. Rather ritual and emotion are both normative… This, of course, is a claim that the Rav makes frequently. (p.127)

Blidstein, of course, is referring to one of the best known innovative insights, hiddushim, of the Rav, namely, his distinction between the ma‘aseh ha-mitzvah, the indispensable means whereby one performs a commandment, and the kiyyum ha-mitzvah, the actual fulfillment of the commandment. This distinction enables the Rav to incorporate at least part of the realm of subjective religious experience into the inner sanctum of Halakhah.


Normally, the Rav points out, ma‘aseh and kiyyum coincide. Thus, for example, one performs the commandment to eat matzah by eating matzah, and that very act of eating constitutes the fulfillment of the commandment.  The same holds true for most commandments. However, the Rav contends, there are central and fundamental ‘‘experiential’’ commandments—my term–where performance and fulfillment do not coincide, where the performance is an outward act but the fulfillment is an inner experience.

This, of course, as I just stated, is a very famous hiddush of the Rav, and many scholars, including myself, have discussed it at some length.  Examples of such ‘‘experiential’’ commandments are prayer, repentance and (according to some rishonim) the recitation of the Shema. What is relevant here, as Blidstein notes, is the Rav’s claim that both mourning and rejoicing on festivals are examples of such ‘‘experiential’’ commandments. Indeed, as Blidstein further notes, the halakhic principle that a mourner does not follow his mourning practices on a festival, inasmuch as the positive commandment to “rejoice on thy festival” (Deut. 16:14) overrides the commandment to mourn, the clear implication being that mourning and festival rejoicing are mutually exclusive, serves to indicate that both mourning and festival rejoicing fundamentally require the attainment of an inward emotional experience,  mourning that of grief,  rejoicing that of joy. To cite Blidstein’s paraphrase of the Rav’s argument:

Now mourning and holiday ritual do not rule each other out as behavioral norms; it is possible to eat the holiday sacrifices while unshod and unshorn. The point, R. Soloveitchik argues, is that mourning and holiday joy are internalized emotional states before they are performed rituals, and these emotional states are in total conflict. (pp. 127-128)

Of course, one may ask: Granted that grief and joy contradict one another, is it not possible for these contradictory emotions to coexist in the psyche of the mourner? In truth, and this point is not noted by Blidstein, for the Rav there is a deeper inward contradiction between mourning and holiday joy, a contradiction on the level of consciousness. Here the Rav sets forth the following equations:  Rejoicing = Standing in the Presence of God (‘amidah lifnei ha-shem), while Mourning = Distancing from the Presence of God (hitrahkut mi-lifnei ha-shem). And it is this fundamental contradiction between the consciousness of standing in the presence of God and the consciousness of exile and separation from Him that is responsible for the commandment of festival rejoicing cancelling the commandment of mourning. (Indeed, also in the other examples cited previously—prayer, repentance, and the recitation of the Shema—the inner fulfillment is not just an emotional experience, but involves an awareness of a special type of relationship with God.)

Be this last point as it may, Blidstein succinctly shows how the Rav’s claim that the commandment of mourning refers first and foremost to the internalized emotional state of grief enables him to account for otherwise perplexing and problematic halakhic phenomena.  In response to those who “may view the Rav’s assertion that mourning is both behavioral and internalized … [as] reflect[ing] a modernizing Protestant bent,”   Blidstein correctly notes that “despite the modern terminology the halakhic analysis seems to be autonomous” (p.132). Indeed, as Blidstein points out, the Rav, as is to be expected, invokes in support of his thesis  a number of rishonim,  particularly the anonymous disciple  of R. Yehiel of Paris “for whom this internalization is a consistent motif.” Somewhat surprisingly, particularly in light of Blidstein’s great interest in and extensive and illuminating writings on Maimonidean Halakhah, Blidstein does not mention that the Rav devotes considerable energy and ingenuity to arguing that the view that the commandment of mourning refers to the internalized emotional state of grief is also espoused by Maimonides, though in none of his works does Maimonides make the point explicitly.

Blidstein emphasizes that while he has “summarized and occasionally interpreted” he has “not evaluated or attempted a critique” (p.133). Therefore I do not feel it is appropriate to present here my own critique of the Rav’s views, which, in any event, I will present in a forthcoming article of mine.  But I would like to take issue here with a point that Blidstein raises in support of the Rav’s thesis. He argues that “the claim that grief itself possesses normative status ought to come as no surprise. A significant component of the mourning process is, after all, nihum aveilim…. Nihum presumes, clearly, that grief—to which consolation responds—is normatively present” (p.121). I cannot agree. The reality of the mourner’s grief as a natural emotion is, indeed, normatively present in the sense that imposes upon others the obligation of nihum. But I do not see that how this means that the mourner himself is normatively obligated to experience grief, much less that this inner experience of grief constitutes the fulfillment of the commandment to mourn.

Despite this minor caveat, I again wish to commend Blidstein for the skill and deftness  with which he summarizes and analyses the Rav’s halakhic thought as contained in these two shi‘urim from SZAM. It is Blidstein’s confrontation with the substance of the Rav’s halakhic thought, with the “it” and not just the “about it,” that lends particular weight to his more general reflections on that halakhic thought in the last section of his essay. In that section Blidstein convincingly suggests that the Rav isn’t so much presenting a philosophy of halakhah, as he is presenting an interpretation, a hermeneutic of halakhah, which, Blidstein notes, is a hermeneutic in dual sense.  Not only does the Rav attempt to “provide… a coherent ‘text,’” but he also attempts “to ‘interpret’ halakhic ritual behavior, to render [it] coherent and meaningful” (135-136). We have here, Blidstein observes, “A hermeneutic of halakhic behavior—a hermeneutic that draws upon halakhic concepts, values, and, in our case, psychological and emotional facts” (p.136). Above all, Blidstein concludes, in the Rav’s work, as in “certain facets of the work of people like [Peter] Berger, [Clifford] Geertz, [Charles] Taylor, [Michael] Walzer, and others…, norms are taken…as tools of world-building and world-perceiving” (p.138). This extremely important observation deserves careful analysis, but such an analysis would take us beyond the bounds this already greatly distended review-essay.  V

As noted already, the essay “Biblical Models” deals with the Rav’s hermeneutics, his phenomenological readings of biblical texts, focusing on “Kol Dodi Dofek” and LMF. Blidstein argues, I believe correctly, that LMF “works much more closely with the biblical narrative” than does “Kol Dodi Dofek,” and that while the latter is more of a homily, “one could describe [the former]  as genuine hermeneutic” (p.69). A major component of Blidstein’s essay is his comparison of the Rav’s reading of the “exodus experience—bondage, release, Sinai”— in “Kol Dodi Dofek” with that of Martin Buber as found in his 1936 essay “On Nationalism” (pp.64-69), and of his reading of the two creation stories in LMF with that of Karl Barth, as contained in the (almost 300 page) forty-first section of Church Dogmatics. Since I have already discussed Blidstein’s “Kol Dodi Dofek”/“On Nationalism” comparison, I will focus here on his LMF/Church Dogmatics comparison.

Blidstein notes “It is difficult not to perceive the similarity in these works of Barth and Soloveitchik; they simply breath the same conceptual, literary, and hermeneutic air” (p.73). He proceeds to elaborate on a number of the similarities, both in broad theme and specific details, between the works; I would like, however, to concentrate on the “manifold differences” (p.74) between the works he brings light.

Both, of course, as noted, build their discussions around “the basic Biblical structure of the double creation narrative and, more specifically, the twice-told story of the creation of man and woman” (p.69). The Rav, however, as is well known, “rather than harmonizing away the distinctions between these texts,…pushes them to the limit,…mak[ing] a sharp distinction between First Adam and Second Adam, between the person created in Genesis 1 and the person created in Genesis 2. First Adam may be majestic and dignified, but covenantal dialogical existence is bestowed on Second Adam” (pp. 69, 74). Barth, to the contrary, “does not distinguish at all between the two Adams, as he treats the two narratives as a virtual continuity” (p.74). Blidstein accounts for this difference as follows.

For Barth, it is precisely this dialogical possibility that forms the “image of God” in man (the motif found in Genesis1 of course)…. Barth’s reading, not unexpectedly, is solidly in the Christological exegetical tradition of Gen.1:26. Jewish tradition, however, is not committed to any single understanding of the “image of God” in man, which leaves R. Soloveitchik fairly free to cast the net of his imagination or alternatively to exploit this motif for his own purposes. Moreover….he tends to read materials—even biblical materials—in a mode that suggests contrasts …at least as much as continuities, a habit of mind possibly deriving from halakhic studies. In this particular case, he pursues own agenda, which has as a dual focus the …affirmation of technological man and the painful awareness of the gap between utilitarian fulfillment and true covenantal existence. (p.74)

All this certainly true, yet, in my view, the reason for the difference here between Barth and the Rav lies even deeper. For Barth, with his exceptionally strong Christo-centrism and his equally strong rejection of any natural theology, the cosmos by itself provides no independent path to God. Not only is Christ, for Barth, man’s only path to God, but, more, man becomes aware of his own existence as creature and more broadly of the world’s existence as God’s creation only through the divine self-witness in Christ.  As Barth states at the beginning of Chapter IX, “The Work of Creation,” of which Section 41 forms a part, “The insight that man owes his existence and form, together with all the reality distinct from God, to God’s creation, is achieved only in the reception and answer of the divine self-witness, that is, only in faith in Jesus Christ, i.e., in the knowledge of the unity of Creator and creature actualized in Him.” The sole function of creation, as the title of Bath’s subsection dealing with Genesis 1 indicates, is to serve as the “External Basis of the Covenant.”  Given this, there is room only for a covenantal approach to God, not a cosmic one.

But for the Rav First Adam’s relationship with God in Genesis 1 is set within a cosmic framework.  Man’s image of God in the first creation account refers, for the Rav, to his “inner charismatic endowment as a creative being” that enables him to dominate his environment and thereby achieve dignity and majesty.  Most important, “In doing all this Adam the first is trying to carry out the mandate of God…. [The striving for majesty and majesty and dignity] is a manifestation of obedience to rather than rebellion against God.”  Particularly, very much contrary to Barth, man in LMF, both Adam the first and Adam the second, has a religious awareness of God mediated through the cosmos. Adam the first has a “pure rational religious awareness,” which is a product of his creative cultural consciousness that picks out elements that point to the infinite. Adam the second as well, prior to his revelational covenantal experience, has an “aboriginal,” cosmic religious experience. This is a genuine living experience, receptive in nature and distinct from man’s creative cultural consciousness, where the individual searches for the mysterious fascinating personal God hidden within the qualitative sense world. (Indeed, there is a cross-over here, going in the direction from Adam the second to Adam the first, for Adam the first constructs his “pure rational religious awareness”  by borrowing “some component parts” from the transcendental, “aboriginal,” cosmic religious experience of Adam the second and “translating” them into cultural religious categories.) In a somewhat similar vein, the Rav in And From There You Will Seek speaks of the significance and necessity of the rational religious experience. This, like the “aboriginal,” cosmic religious experience of Adam the second, is a genuine living experience where God is sought out as the Hidden Intellect standing behind the qualitative sense world, but, unlike the “aboriginal,” cosmic religious experience of Adam the second which is receptive in nature and distinct from man’s creative cultural consciousness, the rational religious experience is active in nature and part of the individual’s creative cultural consciousness. To be sure, the Rav is critical, to a greater or lesser degree, of all these forms of a cosmic approach to God, viewing them all as insufficient and staunchly, indeed passionately, maintaining that the covenantal revelational religious experience is absolutely fundamental and indispensable.  Still, while all these cosmic approaches to God are inadequate, none, contrary to Barth, are illegitimate. Given all this, one can understand the contrast the Rav draws between cosmic Adam the first of Genesis 1 and covenantal Adam the second of Genesis 2, privileging the latter but still valuing the former.

Blidstein takes note of “a second and even more interesting difference in the way our materials are handled by Barth and R. Soloveitchik” (p.74).

For Barth the covenant between Adam and Eve prefigures the covenant between Israel and God…. Adam and Eve embody…the ideal covenant—that which inheres not only in the ideal relationship of man and woman or even Israel and God, but of Jesus and the Church…. God is not covenanted to Adam and Eve; their covenantal relationship with each other rather is a model of His relationship with a corresponding partner, Israel or the Church.

R. Soloveitchik constructs the covenantal reality of God in a totally different way…. God, for him, is a covenantal partner with Adam and Eve….On the level of human dynamics R. Soloveitchik argues that it is the presence of God—a commanding presence that demands mutual commitment to the goals He sets down—which introduces substantive content and value to the human relationship. Yet, by entering into the covenantal relationship, God also commits Himself to the human pair. Both this commitment and the intimacy it implies are adumbrations of God’s relationship with His people Israel, a relationship of mutual commitment and intimacy. For R. Soloveitchik, unlike Barth, the relationship of God and people is not symbolically or metaphorically present in the relationship of the first pair; rather the covenant between these two humans include God as a third partner. (pp. 74-75)

Here, of course, we clearly see the Rav’s Halakho-centrism as opposed to Barth’s Christo-centrism. What “introduces substantive content and value to the human relationship” is “Gods commanding presence” (emphasis added). As Blidstein goes on to say, “R. Soloveitchik …posits a relationship that is covenantal [only] if it strives toward a normative goal….Dialogue here has a halakhic character” (p.75).

In noting the Rav’s insistence that it is “God’s commanding presence” that “introduces substantive content and value to the human relationship,” Blidstein appears to be referring to the following passage from LMF:

Only when God emerged from the transcendent darkness of He-anonymity to the illumined spaces of community knowability and charged man with an ethical-moral mission [emphasis added] did Adam absconditus and Eve abscondita, while revealing themselves to God in prayer and unqualified commitment — also reveal themselves to each other in sympathy and love on the one hand and common action on the other.

But where in Genesis 2 does God charge Adam and Eve “with an ethical-moral mission?”  Blidstein suggests that perhaps this reading “responds …to God’s matchmaking role” (p.72). Indeed, as Blidstein notes, the Rav in describing how “Adam the second was introduced to Eve by God” states that “God…summoned Adam to join Eve in an existential community molded by sacrifice and suffering, and…Himself became a partner in this community. God is never outside the covenantal community; He joined man and shares in his covenantal existence.”  As Blidstein comments, “this reading, needless to say, hangs virtually by a hair” (p.72). Indeed, even with the Rav’s midrashic expansion of Adam the second’s being introduced to Eve by God, it is still difficult to see where in this “introduction” God charges them “with an ethical-moral mission.”

Perhaps the Rav may also have in mind the verse “And the Lord God took the man and placed him the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). For the Rav this is a duty with which Adam the second is charged. The Rav understands this duty thus. “God…summoned Adam the second to retreat.” Here “humble man makes a movement of recoil, and lets himself be confronted and defeated by a Higher and Truer Being.”  He thereby achieves redemption, and “a redeemed life is ipso facto a disciplined life.”  Again, this is reading a great deal into the biblical text. Moreover, the verse never actually speaks of a charge to cultivate and keep the Garden. Neither the word “va-yomer,” “And He said,” much less the word “va-yetzav,” “and He commanded,” is used. Finally, this “charge” takes place before the creation of Eve.

What is striking and requires further examination is that the Rav in LMF never cites the verses forbidding the eating of the tree of knowledge. “And the Lord God commanded the man saying: ‘Of every tree in the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it; for on the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Gen. 2:16-17). These verses play an important role in “Confrontation,” and an absolutely critical one in The Emergence of Ethical Man [=EEM]. In “Confrontation” the Rav cite these verses and comments, “With the birth of the divine norm man becomes aware of his singularly human existence.” In EEM these verses form the key transition from natural man to ethical man. After citing these verses the Rav comments:

The first ethical norm is disclosed to man.…The Torah [here] used the verb “va-yetzav,” “He commanded.”… Va-yetzav …means command. A new law in all its uniqueness was imposed upon [man]…. Man suddenly experienced an ethical imperative which was prompted by autonomous, unique interests, unknown to natural man. He suddenly gained insight into a new force, an ethical one. With the va-yetzav of divine command, with the dawning of the ethical experience, man began to experience his selfhood, his personalistic existence.

Given this view that “va-yetzav” contains the divine ethical norm, it is difficult to see why the Rav in LMF does not appeal to these verses in support of his claim that God “charged man with an ethical-moral mission.” To be sure, these verses, like the verse “And the Lord God took the man and placed him the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15), take place before the creation of Eve. But the Rav in EEM, basing himself on Eve’s use of the plural in the verse “God has said, ‘You shall not eat (lo tokhlu) of [the fruit of the tree]’” (Gen.3:3), argues:

This… clearly implies that both Adam and Eve were enjoined from consuming the fruit….Apparently, the norm given to Adam was binding even with regard to the woman. The unity of the I and the thou, the “and he shall cling to his wife,” asserted itself in the common sense of moral duty, ethical solidarity, and also in responsibility… Both are partaking of the same destiny with all its ramifications; coexistence is synonymous with ethical sympathy. What had been a command to Adam became a moral dialogue, an ethical conversation between the I and the thou.

The similarity between the Rav’s claim in LMF that God’s “charging man with an ethical-moral mission” was followed by Adam and Eve’s “reveal[ing] themselves to each other in sympathy and love on the one hand and common action on the other” and his claim in EEM that “What had been a command to Adam became a moral dialogue, an ethical conversation between the I and the thou” is striking. So the mystery as to why the Rav in LMF never cited the verses forbidding the eating of the tree of knowledge remains. One thing though we may state with confidence. The very fact that the Rav’s claim in LMF that, to cite Blidstein’s paraphrase, it is “God’s commanding presence …which introduces substantive content and value to the human relationship” as a reading of the Scriptural text “hangs virtually by a hair” serves only to drive home even more strongly his Halakho-centrism.


Beyond the specific themes in the Rav’s thought that Blidstein treats in Society and Self, he raises two broader issues. First, Blidstein in his essay “Letters on Public Affairs” takes note of the “growing dispute over [the Rav’s] cultural legacy and personality. The dispute pits those who account for his modernist vision and his openness to general learning as post-facto (be-di‘avad) submission to the needs of the hour as against those who see these traits as authentic aspects of his identity” (p. 39). While Blidstein does not, except perhaps indirectly, seek to adjudicate this dispute in that essay, he does directly address himself to one critical aspect of it in his essay “The Jewish People.” There Blidstein, in speaking of the Rav’s depiction of Adam the first in LMF, raises the following striking paradox.

R. Soloveitchik does indeed allow man’s technological ability a significant role in the Divine scheme: “majestic” First Adam…fulfills a godly mandate by subduing the physical world and perfecting it. But this positive appropriation of this major characteristic of Western civilization is not accompanied by a corresponding imperative to appropriate Western culture, its philosophical or literary achievements. This assertion seems improbable or at least paradoxical, with regard to the Rav, whose major writings are suffused with modern Western philosophy and literature, and whose very intellectual world is constructed, at least in part, with materials provided by modern culture. Yet the paradox is a fact; the Rav is a paradigm of the synthesis of Jewish and Western culture, but he nowhere prescribes this move or even urges legitimacy. (p.81)

This “paradox,” in turn, leads Blidstein to pose the following disquieting question. “Are we to assume, then, that this silence discloses a measure of ambivalence, as though the Rav is hinting that he cannot fully approve of involvement in Western culture, or even that there is no systematic way to make it part of the spiritual curriculum?” (p.81)

But how does he answer it? Here, despite Blidstein’s assertion that “except for editorial adjustments I have not made changes in the essays I wrote over the years” (p.11), the answer he provides in the original version of his essay, published in Tradition in 1989, differs significantly, certainly in tone and perhaps also in substance, from the one he provides in the version found in Society and Self. Here is Blidstein’s Tradition answer.

One may explain that technology complements Jewish spirituality, but does not compete with it, as do philosophy, literature, and so on; consequently, only Jewish sources can provide Jewish values. Thus—and this a classic move—the non-Jewish material will be presented simply  as Torah insights presented in a different language, as it were…. Put less systematically, the Rav finds the categories and insights of Western philosophy and its literature and psychology to be an accurate description of reality, and as such they need no explicit defense.

And here is Blidstein’s Society and Self answer.

Technology is … concrete and materialistic; it raises the standard of living, but does not necessarily enhance our spiritual or even human quality—nor is that its intention. Technology, then, needs rabbinic approval and even defense. This is, of course, not true of philosophy, literature, music. These, despite their potential dangers, are intrinsically related to the noetic and spiritual component of human existence. It is obvious that they should be cultivated and that the Jew who strives for a fuller spiritual existence will be open to their message and impact. The Rav’s silence would derive, then, from the example he provides. How after reading Ish ha-Halakhah could one imagine that Max Scheler and William James are not required reading? Indeed, that they would not contribute to one’s spiritual formation? (p.81)

Readers can decide for themselves the distance between First Blidstein and Second Blidstein. Presumably those “who account for [the Rav’s] modernist vision and his openness to general learning as post-facto … submission to the needs of the hour will prefer Blidstein’s first answer, at least its first part, while those—like myself—who “see [the Rav’s modernist vision and his openness to general learning] as authentic aspects of his identity” will prefer his second answer.

The second broader issue Blidstein raises is that of the Rav’s uniqueness. Here Blidstein’s answer is unambiguous. As he states in the conclusion of his review of Family Redeemed:

By placing this volume alongside the Rav’s halakhic works, we are reminded once again of his uniqueness. Despite recent attempts to blur and even sully his singularity, the written words speak for themselves. (p.120)

Yet written words rarely “speak for themselves.” They require highlighting, exegesis, and interpretation, precisely the skills at which Gerald Blidstein excels.   Indeed, then, not the least of the many contributions that Society and Self, with its inimitable blend of scholarly precision and literary power, makes to our understanding is not just to remind us of the Rav’s uniqueness, but to  enable us to re-discover and appreciate that uniqueness for ourselves,  ever new and ever fresh.