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Lecture 22b: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on the Holocaust (Part 2)

  • Rav Tamir Granot

D.        Halakhic Man, the Holocaust, and Zionism: The change in the image of "Halakhic Man" in light of the Holocaust


From the previous section of this shiur, it follows that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s view of the relationship between the Holocaust and Zionism should be examined from the perspective of his halakhic philosophy. This philosophy has been analyzed and presented dozens of times by his students, rabbis, scholars, and philosophers. As a preface to our discussion, I will reference one of many articles on the subject.[1]


I. Halakha as an ideal system


One of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s main claims about Halakha is that it is an ideal system of concepts. He highlights this point in his book Ish ha-Halakha (Halakhic Man),[2] and it reappears in his later composition, "Ma Dodekh mi-Dod."[3] This idealism has dual significance, in keeping with the dual significance of Halakha in general in Rabbi Soloveitchik's thought:


1. Halakha as theoretical activity – "the act of pure halakhic thinking," i.e., lomdus;

2. Halakha as a system of norms for application in the world – “halakhic realization” ("Ma Dodekh mi-Dod," p. 81), i.e., halakhic rulings.


In the "learning" context, where Halakha is a theoretical system, the idealism of Halakha is established as a result of its being a pure and abstract conceptual system (ibid., pp. 80-81). On the normative, practical level – i.e., halakhic ruling and practice – the idealism of Halakha means that the system of norms is not drawn from the factual reality (ibid., pp. 76-77); rather, Halakha is a system of a priori law, through which a believer relates to reality. It is form, and reality is its substance (ibid., pp. 86-89). Rabbi Soloveitchik argues that not only is Halakha not dependent on reality; it is a system of given ideals (the fact that they are "given" is obvious; they were given through revelation.)


What is the relationship between the system of halakhic idealism and the real world? Here we encounter an interesting tension in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s thought, with its origins traceable to his early work, "Ish ha-Halakha."


On the one hand, he argues that "the aspiration [of Halakhic Man] is not the realization of Halakha, but rather the ideal construction" (Ish ha-Halakha, p. 31). Later on he asserts, "Halakhic Man does not foresee the possibility of the realization of the norm in the real world" (ibid., p. 60). "From this perspective, the ethos of molding the world is likewise reinterpreted; it is no longer an ethos of molding the real world, but rather the ethos of creating a theoretical world – a world in which the freedom and creativity of the Halakhic Man are revealed through 'chiddush' and theoretical construction" (ibid., p. 61).


On the other hand, Rabbi Soloveitchik also provides a clear presentation of the ethos of molding the real world as the quest of Halakha: "The ideal of Halakhic Man is subjugation of reality to the yoke of Halakha” (ibid., p. 35); "The certification of a religious person is bound up with the performance of the commandments, and this activity is possible only in this world, in the bodily and tangible reality… only against the tangible and sensible background of life in this world can Torah be realized" (ibid., pp. 37-38).


These contradictory goals apparently reflect the dual significance of the Halakha in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s philosophy: a theoretical system on the one hand, and a normative, practical system on the other. If Halakha is perceived as a purely conceptual system, and not as practical norm, then it is not the realization of the norm that is the purpose of the system, but rather its abstract construction (i.e., scholarly “chiddush,” according to the Brisker approach). This is only one step away from floating off into the realm of halakhic concepts and ideals. However, if Halakha is seen as a normative, practical system, one’s approach must seek the realization of the norm in this world as a religious ideal.


In Ish ha-Halakha, these two currents flow in parallel. But in the later essay "Ma Dodekh mi-Dod," they are arranged in a clearly hierarchical order, which awards the theoretical conceptual system preference over its realization ("Ma Dodekh mi-Dod," pp. 81-82, 89-90). The acknowledgment of this hierarchical order allows Rabbi Soloveitchik to argue that when Halakhic Man discovers that there can be no harmonious fit between the ideal and the real, then he gives chooses the ideal over the real (ibid., p. 90).


Clearly, then, the theoretical approach to Halakha does not regard the endless effort and battle to realize the ideal in the real world as a fundamental value in the halakhic system. The approach that views Halakha as a system for infusing holiness into concrete existence demands the Sisyphean battle for realization of halakhic norms in our world.


II. Halakha as a closed system


In keeping with the ideal nature of Halakha, Rabbi Soloveitchik presents it as a closed system: the ways of reasoning, the language of the arguments, the content and, in many respects, even the subjects, are its own; they are not taken from outside. He finds within Halakha "its own unchangeable rhythm" ("Ma Dodekh mi-Dod," p. 77), and describes it as a “method, an approach, that creates noetic unity” (ibid., p. 81). He goes on to claim that "Halakha, as a legal system that is perceived as 'wisdom,' has its own methodology, way of logical analysis, its own conceptual thinking."[4] From the comparison that Rabbi Soloveitchik frequently draws between Halakha and the natural sciences and mathematics, it becomes clear that the insularity of the system is a product of its functioning as a legal system proceeding from given assumptions and drawing its conclusions in accordance with an objective system of rules. Halakha is therefore a deductive system, whose primary assumptions are the halakhic concepts given at Sinai, and whose rules are an a priori system of laws (likewise given at Sinai). This system proceeds from its assumptions on the basis of those same laws, rather than in accordance with some other basis. Rabbi Soloveitchik is aware of the fact that in practice, halakhic activity takes place in relation to questions posed by concrete reality. In his view, however, reality is not a factor in the halakhic decision itself; its role is limited to serving as the motivation for the halakhic masters to activate the system. He defines reality as:


a psychological impetus that guides pure thought to its path. However, as soon as it sets off along its particular path, it executes its movement not in submission to an (external) event, but rather in obedience to (own) its normative, ideal principles... When a rabbi sits and addresses the issue of an 'aguna' (a woman who is unable to obtain a divorce from her husband and hence remains "chained" to her marriage), he rules on this problem not under the pressure of a feeling of sympathy... but rather in accordance with theoretical halakhic principles. His ruling is arrived at solely through critical and precise reasoning... ("Ma Dodekh mi-Dod," p. 72)


This description of Halakha as a deductive system of law obviously sits well with the nature of the theoretical study characterized by the Brisker beit midrash. But does it sit well with the nature of the halakhic activity of the halakhic masters in responding and ruling on questions? We know that there is a vast literature on the "rules" of Halakha, but to what extent have these rules actually decided the halakhic rulings? To what extent do halakhic authorities consult or implement abstract principles of thought? A quick glance at the responsa literature is enough to convince us of the non-deductive nature of this legal literary genre.


Indeed, in some places we find Rabbi Soloveitchik turning away from the deductive model. Thus, for example, in addressing the question of cooperation between religious and secular Jews, he states:


I once said that there exist problems for which one cannot find a clear-cut decision in the Shulchan Arukh…; one has to decide them intuitively. Sometimes one cannot even know whether a decision was correct… God should behold our distress, our intentions, our being held in contempt; He should see the dedication with which we work in certain situations… - and He should wipe out our errors. (Chamesh Derashot, pp. 49-53)


It is difficult to reconcile such statements with a view of Halakha as a closed, deductive system. If the Halakha is indeed such a system, then what room is there for intuitive rulings that omit the process of halakhic deduction? Does such omission not indicate a fundamental flaw and deficiency in the system, which is apparently not complete? Are there truly questions to which Halakha has no answers, and which halakhic man faces helplessly with the tools in his possession?


This is indeed an important problem to address in any discussion of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s overall approach. The description of "Halakhic Man" as someone whose entire world is molded by halakhic idealism and who perceives the world and its phenomena only from within Halakha and through its prism, is a most comprehensive one. What it means is that even one’s ideology must be determined from within a halakhic view – yet here we see that Halakha does not supply clear, unequivocal answers to every question.


The crux of the problem, it seems, is our understanding of the phrase, “one has to rule intuitively.” Does this express a non-systematic or a-logical manner of halakhic ruling, or does it recognize a completely different track for making decisions? I will offer my own opinion on the matter subsequently.


Some scholars have addressed this tension between the idealism and all-encompassing scope of Halakha and the need to make decisions and to consolidate views from within reality. Sagi proposes the following solution (in his article mentioned in note 4):


It seems that the characterization of Halakha as a deductive system is typical of Soloveitchik, the learned scholar of the theoretical, Brisk school, while his later assertions reflect his position as a posek who is aware that halakhic decisions rest upon [human] sense, which cannot be deductively concluded from the assumptions of the system itself. Often, the source of this sense is not in the Shulchan Arukh, but rather in the world of values and ideals that the posek believes in. In the example under discussion, the decision in favor of cooperation with secular Jews is based on the Religious Zionist ideology of the Mizrachi [movement]. This ideology is what guides the path of the intuition, rather than the [halakhic] system’s theoretical assumptions.


In his view, the posek exercises extra-halakhic discretion with its source in his own ideology. The legitimacy of such discretion arises not from the scholarly beit midrash, but rather from the world of the poskim.


This explanation is difficult to accept for at least two reasons. Although Rabbi Soloveitchik is aware of the nature of halakhic rulings and their needs, he perceives no chasm separating theoretical study from practical ruling. Even if reality sometimes places some constraints on Halakha, the world of the posek does not change course and follow a completely different path. On the contrary, even when a question is posed to the posek, he will deduce the answer from within the world of Halakha, not from external reality. Therefore, it is difficult to understand what gives rise to any “extra-halakhic” sense.


Moreover, Sagi argues that the posek is guided by his ideology. But what are the sources of that ideology itself? Does Rabbi Soloveitchik not explain, over and over, that the ideology of "Halakhic Man" also arises from within his halakhic world? He asserts (at the end of "Ma Dodekh mi-Dod") that Rabbi Y.Z. Soloveitchik of Brisk opposed the establishment of the State of Israel because he could not justify it or award it any function or significance within his world of halakhic concepts. He explains Rabbi Chaim Soloveichik’s view of redemption and of Eretz Yisrael in the same way (in his article, "Joseph Dreamt a Dream," cited above).


I believe that this tension in the teachings of Rabbi Soloveitchik plays a decisive role in the psychological and ideological revolution that he underwent, causing him to decide in favor of Religious Zionism. What did the Holocaust teach Rabbi Soloveitchik? That the closed, ideal, halakhic view is not sufficient. Sometimes, its very exaltedness is its downfall; its inability to grasp the reality and respond to its demands can sometimes become a disadvantage. In his classic composition, Kol Dodi Dofek, Rabbi Soloveitchik teaches that we must listen to God knocking on the door. The first knock went unheard, "in the middle of a nightmarish night full of the horrors of Majdanek, Treblinka and Buchenwald.”


The "knocks" are the sound of the "Beloved" (God) calling to us. These are not calls that register in acoustic space, nor could one perceive them through mystical contemplation. The knocks – the ingathering of the exiles, Israel’s independence, our ability to defend ourselves, etc. – are historical events, each of which bears its own significance and message, and all of which collectively coalesce into a clear orientation. It is to all of these that we must be attentive. The decision in favor of aliya or the establishment of the State, or cooperation with secular Jews, did not arise from within Halakha or from some or other literary source. Rather, it arose from sensitivity and attentiveness to God’s "knocks" in history. God’s actions in history are the source of the ideology; it is they that represent the extra-halakhic source from which decisions may arise. Halakha alone is not a sufficient source for us to learn God’s will.


I believe that from this point of view the essay Kol Dodi Dofek turns out to be a work of fundamental importance not only on the ideological level (as a systematic expression of the Zionist position) but also insofar as it presents a religious and meta-ideological[5] position that is different from the one set forth in Ish ha-Halakha. It is a position that is more complex, presenting the complete religious personality as molding his views and his decisions not only in light of Halakha and books, but also in light of reality and God’s will as revealed in it.


E.        Summary: Halakhic View and Prophetic View


We may say that the Holocaust brought about a dual revolution in the thought of Rabbi Soloveitchik: it led to (or, at the very least, made a significant contribution towards) his transition from the anti-Zionist camp to the Zionist camp; and at the same time it provided a decisive contribution to his recognition that religious existence is not molded solely within the beit midrash, that God’s word appears through other channels, too – and especially within history. As we learned in the lecture about Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, the Halakhic Man seeks answers only in the Torah and in halakhic sources. Rabbi Soloveitchik believes that this is not sufficient. He thus adopts a prophetic approach to reality: as in prophecy, contemplation of history – of that which has been and that which will, or may, be – has ideological and practical significance.


This transformation that took place in the thought of Rabbi Soloveitchik shares some characteristics with the general Religious-Zionist world-view. In our lecture on Rabbi Teichtal, we witnessed a similar turnaround – both in terms of its sources (the trauma of the Holocaust) and in terms of its conclusions.


However, there remains a sharp distinction between the Zionist approach of Rabbi Soloveitchik and that of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, whose philosophy we examined in previous lectures. Rabbi Zvi Yehuda proposed an explanation for the Holocaust from within a comprehensive historiosophic model, which observes the process of history from beginning to end. The prophetic view, for him, is complete. He looks at what is going to happen – i.e., as the process of redemption continues – and from within that view he understands the significance of events in the present, such as the Holocaust. Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook therefore views the Holocaust as a "painful operation" with a purpose within the framework of the process that brings Am Yisrael back to its natural environment – Eretz Yisrael.


Rabbi Soloveitchik’s prophetic view is far more modest in scope. He refrains from speaking about the historic process in its totality. He is not certain as to what is going to arise from the establishment of the State of Israel. He is convinced, however, that its establishment in the wake of the Holocaust demands our response in the present, and this dictates his ideology.


Hence, the Holocaust is not merely the catalyst for the ideological transformation that Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik undergoes. It makes a decisive contribution to the molding of a religious personality and ideology that differ necessarily from those that preceded the Holocaust. With the Holocaust, we part not only from European exile, but also from one of its classic characters – a character that Rabbi Soloveitchik eulogized so eloquently: the "Halakhic Man."[6]



Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]       The description that follows is based (with certain necessary adaptations) on A. Sagi (Schweitzer), “Rabbi Soloveitchik and Professor Leibowitz as Theoreticians of Halakha” (Heb.), Da’at 29 (5752), p. 131ff.

[2]      Ish ha-Halakha – Galui ve-Nistar (Jerusalem 5739), pp. 25-28.

[3]       Rabbi Soloveitchik’s eulogy for his uncle, Rabbi Y.Z. Soloveitchik; printed in Divrei Hagut ve-Ha’arakha (Jerusalem, 5744), pp. 57-98.

[4]           Rabbi A. Besdin, Perakim be-Makhshevet ha-Rav Y.D. ha-Levi Soloveitchik (Jerusalem, 5744), p. 111.

[5]           In other words, a position as to the sources of the ideology; of ideology as such.

[6]           Of course, this is not a final and complete goodbye. The "Halakhic Man" continues to exist, but from this point he can no longer be only a man of Halakha. He must also be a prophet when necessary, and a man of majesty (i.e., a man of wisdom and science – a modern man). Ultimately, Halakha is one main pole guiding his activity and his personality, but it is not the sole factor.