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Ish ha-Halakhah (Halakhic Man)

Halakhic Man: The title and eponymous hero of a Hebrew essay, Ish ha-Halakhah (Halakhic Man) written in 1944 by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), one of leading rabbinic scholars and theologians of the second half of the twentieth century. This essay, together with S.’s other writings on the nature of Jewish law, or halakhah, to use the standard Hebrew term, and the personality of halakhic man, the rabbinic scholar whose life is devoted to and whose personality is forged by its practice and, even more so, its study, are endowed with special almost unique authority, not shared by any other of the works in the modern era on these subjects. For S., alone among the leading Jewish thinkers in the modern era to have written on the philosophy of halakhah 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 and was thus able to write about the halakhah in universal philosophical and phenomenological categories.

Historical background:

S. was born in Pruzhna, Belorussia. His father, R. Moses Soloveitchik was himself a distinguished rabbinic scholar, while his paternal grandfather, R. Hayyim Soloveitchik, communal rabbi of Brisk (Brest-Litovsk) was widely regarded as the outstanding rabbinic scholar of his day. R. Hayyim brought a new method of rigorous, highly abstract, conceptual analysis to the study of the Talmud and the cognate rabbinic literature, which formed the staple of the traditional Jewish curriculum.

S., a genuine child prodigy, mastered his grandfather’s “Brisker” method under the guidance of his father, who drove him mercilessly in a – successful! — attempt to groom him to become the leading Talmudic scholar of the next generation. At the same time, under the influence of his mother, Pesha, a devotee of German and Russian literature, he acquired a strong interest in secular education. After attaining the equivalent of a “gymnasium” education from private tutors, he entered the University of Berlin in1926 to study philosophy, where he received his doctorate in 1932 for a thesis on the epistemology and ontology of Hermann Cohen, the founder of the Marburg school of Neo-Kantianism. During his years in Berlin, Soloveitchik continued his rabbinic studies and was ordained by the eminent authority, Rabbi Abraham Kahana Shapiro. In 1932, the year S. received his doctorate, he immigrated to the United States, where he became a rabbi in Boston, and in1941 he succeeded his father as head of the Talmudic faculty of Yeshiva University in New York, where he also taught Jewish philosophy. In the 1950s S. emerged as the leading figure of American modern Orthodoxy, that stream of Judaism that combines fidelity to the rabbinic tradition with openness to and a positive evaluation of Western culture. Perhaps more than any other single individual he molded the spiritual profile of the American Orthodox community in the last half of the twentieth century.

Two major essays of S. written about the same time as HMa are U-Vikashtem mi-Sham (And From There You Will Seek), and The Halakhic Mind (originally entitled Is a Philosophy of Halakhah Possible?). However, neither essay, for reasons that remain unclear, appeared at the time. AFT appeared in 1978, HMi in 1986. A fourth major essay, The Lonely Man of Faith appeared in 1965.

Other important essays are “Kol Dodi Dofek” (1961), a discourse on the significance of the state of Israel and the nature of Jewish peoplehood; “Mah Dodekh mi-Dod” (1962), containing an extended analysis of the nature of halakhah and halakhic creativity, thereby supplementing HMa in significant ways; “Confrontation” (1964) an essay setting the limits Jewish-Christian interfaith dialogue in light of the relationship between faith and culture; and “Redemption, Prayer and Talmud Torah” (1978), an exploration of how prayer and study of the Torah contribute to the personal formation and redemption of the religious personality.

Since S.’s death a host other works have appeared, based on unpublished manuscripts in various stages of completion. Of particular importance is The Emergence of Ethical Man, a bold phenomenological attempt on S.’s part to trace how man starting out as a natural being develops a moral personality capable of self-transcendence.

HMa is devoted to a phenomenology of its eponymous hero. The essay sets forth certain themes that will become staples of S.’s work: the cognitive-normative nature of the religious experience, the importance of objectification in the realm of the spirit, an objectification which far from dampaening rather gives rise to religious passion, the need for moral seriousness which requires a this-worldly perspective, and an emphasis on freedom and creativity, both personal and intellectual creativity, as the ultimate goals of human development in general and halakhic man in particular, with the proviso that such freedom and such creativity should always be subject to ethical constraints. Particularly significant is the essay’s insistence that the objectivity of the halakhah as an intellectual structure similar to mathematical physic and the freedom, autonomy, and creativity of the individual committed to its practice and study are two sides of the same coin. Here S.’s thinking bears the strong imprint of Cohen’s critical idealism, in particular the latter’s insistence on the autonomous role of reason in creating out of its own resources, his opposition to the psychologization, sociologization, or historicization of either the sciences of nature (theoretical reason) or the moral sciences (practical reason), and his emphasis on primacy of ethics.

The essay’s moral critique of religious subjectivism has a distinctly contemporary polemical edge– recall that HMa appeared in 1944- as it notes that those modern anti-scientific romantic movements, “from the midst of which there arose in various forms the sanctification of vitality and intuition, the veneration of instinct … the glorification of the emotional -affective life, and the flowing, surging stream of subjectivity… have brought complete chaos and human depravity to the world. And let the events of the present era be proof!” (note 4, p.141).

S.’s use of modern philosophical and phenomenological categories to explore the very particularistic, hermetic, and insular figure of halakhic man seem to many to offer an entrée into very heart of traditional Judaism; others, however, criticize the essay for its alleged slighting of the historical development of the halakhah and the critical role of inward religious experience.

AFT is a highly dialectical description of the stages a religious individual must traverse in his search for God. The individual, at first, in a state of freedom and creativity, searches for God’s traces in all natural and spiritual phenomena. But this stage of rational cosmic religiosity breaks down, and the individual experiences the sheer otherness of a trans-cosmic divine revelation in a state of terror, constraint, and necessity. It is then incumbent upon the individual, or better the Jew, to actively transform this revealed content into a creative experience of freedom. This is a complex and gradual process in which the individual (or the Jew) passes from a condition of trust-fear to one of love-awe until he finally attains the complete experience of freedom in a condition of passionate-cleaving love.
For S., then, these two experiences, the rational, cosmic religious experience and the revelational, trans-cosmic religious experience introduce a deep dualism into the individual’s consciousness, nay, into his personality as a whole. In the final stage of the individual’s religious development, however, this dualism is transcended as man moves from a disjunctive, tensile existence to a harmonious, integrated one. Paradoxically, while it is the revelational experience that forms the basis for the individual’s deepest religiosity, this ultimate religious stage is characterized by the personal states of freedom and creativity that S. initially associated with the rational experience. S., thus, deliberately establishes a sharp dialectical opposition between these two religious experiences, very powerfully and incisively portraying this opposition through the use of vivid and dramatic contrasting polar categories, the better to overcome it. We have here a strictly dialectical procedure where, in an almost Hegelian fashion, one pole of the dialectic, the thesis, through its internal inadequacies and contradictions breaks down and gives rise to its opposite pole, the antithesis, whereupon the second pole is deepened and developed, imbued with many of the characteristics of the first pole, until an adequate synthesis is achieved. Again, as in Hma, Soloveitchik’s attempt to balance the objectivity of the halakhah and the freedom, autonomy, and creativity of the individual committed to its practice and study is evident.
Outward Deed and Inward Fulfillment

1. Two central contentions of Soloveitchik cut across his essays, recurring throughout his writings in the most varied of contexts. The first is his contention that a halakhic-phenomenological analysis reveals that exteriority of deed and interiority of experience are built into the very fabric of certain central commandments. In this connection S. introduces one of his best known innovative insights, namely, the 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. Normally, S. notes, ma‘aseh and kiyyum coincide. For example, one performs the commandment to eat matzah by eating matzah, and that act of eating simultaneously constitutes the fulfillment of the commandment. The same holds true for most commandments. However, he contends, there are fundamental ‘‘experiential’’ commandments where performance and fulfillment do not coincide, where the performance is an outward act but the fulfillment consists in an inner experience. Examples of such commandments are prayer, which is performed by the pray-er’s verbal recitation of a liturgical text, but fulfilled by his awareness of standing before the divine presence; repentance, which is performed by the returnee’s verbal recitation of the confession, but fulfilled by his inner recognition of his sin, regret over the past, and resolve for the future, thereby returning to God, minimally out of fear and maximally out of love; rejoicing on the festivals, which is performed by such acts as the celebrant’s eating from the meat of the holiday peace offering (when the Temple was still standing) or (nowadays) by his eating meat and drinking wine, but fulfilled by his inward sense of rejoicing before the Lord; and mourning, which is performed by the mourner’s engaging in the rites of mourning, but fulfilled by his undergoing the inner experience of pain and grief, and by his sense that the grisly encounter with death has cut him off from God. (Note how in all four commandments the inner fulfillment is not just an emotional experience, but involves an awareness of a special, very intimate type of relationship with God.)

2. On Halakhic Creativity
His second contention is that a philosophical examination of the nature
of halakhic thinking reveals the halakhic dialectic to which that thinking gives rise to be a rational autonomous process deriving from the halakhist’s creative intellect. This matter is particularly addressed in his essay, “Mah Dodekh mi-Dod.” In that essay, S. concentrates on the halakhist’s relationship to the halakhah and the type of free, spontaneous spiritual-intellectual creativity made possible by, or better constituting the essence of, that relationship. His concern is the halakhist qua jurist who constructs an ideal, coherent, rational system of law out of the welter of oftentimes conflicting, perplexing, obscure individual texts, decisions, rules, and cases, or rather who constructs this coherent system and imposes it upon the welter of source material at hand.

In the essay S. takes as his model of hiddush, halakhic creativity, the method of Talmudic analysis developed by his grandfather, R. Hayyim of Brisk. Soloveitchik argues that his grandfather introduced a revolution into the study of halakhah comparable to the Galilean-Newtonian revolution in science. Just as the Galilean-Newtonian scientist, unlike the Aristotelian scientist, does not seek to explain the world in its own terms, i.e., qualitative sense categories, but rather constructs his own terms and modes of discourse and explanation, i.e., abstract–formal mathematical equations and functions that parallel the qualitative sense world, so R. Hayyim was not content to explain halakhic texts in their own terms, but rather constructed an entire system of abstract concepts and definitions in order to explain and understand them. Both halakhic and scientific concepts, then, are not derived from the data, whether the halakhic data or scientific data confronting halakhist and scientist respectively, but are free constructions of their powerful creative spirits and intellects.

Both these contentions –indeed, S’s writings a whole — may be seen in part as his response to the modern philosophic critique of traditional Judaism that, as a religion of revealed Law, it gives rise to a spiritual slavishness, grounded in the fear of God and exhausting itself in external obedience.