The Halakhic Community
I would like to discuss the question of whether R’ YB Soloveitchik’s model of what his students call “Torah uMada” and his ideal of the Halakhic Man are actually usable as a goal for a community. That’s not the same as asking the question of whether it is correct, or consistent with his Brisker origins. Or whether an individual could be inspired and lead to avodas Hashem with it — obviously someone can, as Rav Soloveitchik (hereafter “RYBS”) himself was.
In order to do so, I need to first present thumbnail sketches of the relevant parts of RYBS’s philosophy.
RYBS analyzed the human condition by presenting a typology. The notion is that the human condition could be understood by looking at archetypes, realizing that a real human being at some point in time may be embodying one or more of these archetypes.
For example, the Lonely Man of Faith introduces us to two such archetypes: Adam I, the pinacle of the narrative of Bereishis ch. 1, the peak of creation, who seeks to understand and world “and conquer it”. The next chapter describes Adam II, who seeks redemption through relationships; starting in partnership with the Almighty by naming His animals, and then in his need for “a helper in opposition to him”.
Halakhic Man introduces three archetypes:
- Cognitive Man, like Adam I (although not cut along exactly the same lines), seeks to comprehend and categorize the world, to control his surroundings.
- Religious Man, like Adam II, seeks an intimate relationship with G-d. He is the religious man who aspires to transcend the world, the one living in monastic orders, the ascetic and the mystic. The Chassid living for an ecstatic experience of deveiqus, attachment to the Almighty.
- Halakhic Man rises in creative partnership with G-d to learn how to live a G-dly and holy life within this world. He knows when something can be sanctified, and when it is more appropriate to retreat.
Dialectic Tension and Creativity
Halakhic Man is not a synthesis of cognitive and religious man. RYBS, following both Brisker and neo-Kantian traditions, does not believe that true synthesis is possible. There are always “tzvei dinim” (the Brisker mechanism of understanding a problematic discussion by showing how there are really “two laws” in play, not a single complex and confusing one), a dialectic.
It is because man lives in a tension between these goals, we have to choose our actions. That tension is what drives free will and creativity. Halakhah‘s goal is not to resolve the tension, but to show us how to navigate it. How to get them to harmoniously coexist in a single life.
The Halakhic Man’s creative partnership is thus central to RYBS’s understanding of man’s relationship to halakhah. Halakhah, by being man’s search for sanctity within G-d’s system and categories, is both cognitive and religious. But not by being a mix of these callings, but by teaching how to use the conflict between them.
One of RYBS’s few talks on Torah uMadda (a term he himself wasn’t known to use) is commonly referred to as “Ramatayim Tzofim” — two peaks from which to look out over the landscape, using a phrase from Shemu’el I 1:1. Man is torn between two peaks, which stand distinct. And again, it is the free will that emerges from choosing between these alternatives that is man’s “image of G-d”, the essence of our calling.
What are those peaks? The essay includes a description of his vision for Yeshiva University. Many complain about some of the material taught at YU; classes that include Greek mythology, or teachers that espouse heresy. However, Rabbi Soloveitchik (according to a lengthy quote in vol. II of R’ Rakeffet’s book) lauded YU’s independence, running a full yeshiva and a full university totally unconnected from each other but under the same roof. In contrast, in Lander College the rashei yeshiva have veto power over what is taught in the university. The YU experience allows a student to deal with the confrontation of the two unadulterated worlds in a safe context, rather than provide a fused experience that will provide less preparation for living according to the Torah in the “real” world. Synthesis, RYBS argues, would produce a yeshiva that couldn’t simply run in the footsteps of Volozhin and a university that couldn’t aspire to be a Harvard. Once blended, neither is left alone.
The Erev Shabbos Jew
Rav Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man also responds to the world around him in a manner defined by halakhah. For example:
I remember how once, on Yom Kippur, I went outside into the synagogue courtyard with my father just before the Neilah service. It had been a fresh, clear, day, one of the fine almost delicate days of summer end, filled with sunshine and light. Evening was fast approaching and an exquisite autumn sun was sinking in the west, beyond the trees of the cemetery unto a sea of purple and gold. Rav Moshe [RYBS’s father], a Halakhic Man par excellence, turned to me and said: “This sunset differs from ordinary sunsets, for with it forgiveness is bestowed upon us for our sins” (the end of the day atones). The Day of Atonement and the forgiveness of sin merged and blended here with the splendoir and beauty of the world and with the hidden lawfulness of the order of creation, and the whole was transformed into one living, holy, cosmic phenomenon.
– Halakhic Man, pg. 38
Another instance, which RYBS recognized was one of the cultural lapses between the European Jews of his youth and contemporary Judaism:
Even in those neighborhoods made up predominantly of religious Jews, one can no longer talk of the “sanctity of Shabbat.” True, there are Jews in America who observe Shabbat… But it is not for Shabbat that my heart aches; it is for the forgotten “erev Shabbat” (eve of the Sabbath). There are Shabbat-observing Jews in America, but there are no “erev Shabbat” Jews who go out to greet Shabbat with beating hearts and pulsating souls. There are many who observe the precepts with their hands, with their feet, and/or with their mouths – but there are few indeed who truly know the meaning of the service of the heart!
– On Repentence, pp. 97-98
This lack of connection to fundamental Torah worldview was something Rav Soloveitchik felt (at least in 1960, when the following was written; although I would argue that it’s still true today) was not specific to the uneducated or the boorish, nor to any one Orthodox subcommunity. Even those who know the Torah intellectually do not know what it is to have a “living tangible sensation, which causes the heart to tremble and to rejoice” (Al Ahavas haTorah uGe’ulas Nefesh haDor, pg. 419)
Much of this is due to the current religious atmosphere, suffused with shallow pragmatism; much is caused by the tendency towards the ceremonialization – and, at times, the vulgarization – of religion; and much is brought about by the lack of a serious ability to introspect and to assess the world and the spirit.
– Ibid (Al Ahavas haTorah…), pg. 419
If we borrow the term Torah uMadda to describe RYBS’s position, I could say that I wish to raise questions about each of the three clauses of the idiom:
Torah: Can a community relate to RYBS’s vision for Torah?
I would argue not. Halakhic Man relates to the creativity of halakhah. Now this is true for the people of his ancestry that RYBS uses to illustrate his various points in the book. Certainly R’ Chaim Brisker played creatively in the field of din, as did RYBS himself.
But can the masses? That would be a fiasco! Few neighborhood rabbanim are capable of regularly engaging in creativity in pesaq without creating something far from proper observance. How can the masses experience creativity to the extent that it typifies their relationship to halakhah?
The other element is also missing — the lack of “erev Shabbos Jew” feeling. Halakhah and the values it embodies does not underpin the contemporary Jew’s values.
Instead, the masses receive halakhah in the form of decisions to comply to. Their relationship to halakhah is a structure that they must trust the sages represents the covenant, and G-d’s Will for how we are to redeem ourselves and the world around us.
Madda:Would the masses relate to the academic orientation of RYBS’s ideal?
Again, I think the answer is “no”. Maybe the typical person who wades though this blog has an interest in heavy thought where words like dialectic or antinomy are thrown around, where I speak of the Maharal’s model of halakhah sounding fundamentally Platonic, or I use examples from Quantum Mechanics or Information science to illustrate a point. But this isn’t the Orthodox world’s most popular blog.
Most people see academia as “ivory tower”. Rather than giving someone a more precise and informed perspective of reality, they perceive the academic as disconnected from the real world and their experience.
Thus, while to RYBS, the encounter was between Rashi and Rachmaninoff, between the Rambam and Reimann geometry (where the Red Sox and Westerns are side-matters to the core conflict), to the community who aspires to follow his vision, the reality tends to be an English halachic handbook and the Yankees.
u-: The conjunctive linking Torah and Mada — can we teach the masses to aspire for navigating the tension of conflicting values?
The twin peaks calling RYBS are creative lomdus and secular knowledge. The confrontation between Torah and the world in which we live creates a tension which fuels creativity. Man is called to cognitively resolve the sanctification of this world, which can only be acheived through halakhah. This vision of unity of Torah and Madda demands that the individual himself pair in that creative with G-d, that finding their own resolution of the diealectiv tension. Cognitive man harnesed to applying the goals of homo religiosus to master this world in sanctity — vekivshuha.
The majority of his followers are trying to juggle a rule set and the western world — not just high culture and academic knowledge, but primarily the day-to-day mileau they are exposed to and the values assumed by the world around them.
And in any case, they can’t employ creativity to map halakhah to the world they face. The majority of any large community will not be people capable of it — they aren’t posqim and rabbanim. When people are called upon to live in two worlds, and yet are unequipped to deal with the resulting conflicts, they are left in cognitive dissonance, which leaves them with two recourses. Both of which we find in practice, among those who aspire to live by RYBS’s teachings (as well as among many others).
The first approach is to keep them separate. Since he doesn’t have the tools to navigate the gap between the worlds, the person compartmentalizes them. Dr. David Singer gives an example in Tradition 21(4), in his article “Is Club Med Kosher? Reflections on Synthesis and Compartmentalization” (available by subscription only).
It all started when I told my friend Larry Grossman that I was planning to take my wife Judy to Club Med for a winter vacation. On December 22, 1983, you see, Judy and I passed the twenty-year mark in our marriage, and it seemed to me that a marathon achievement of that order merited some kind of special celebration. What then could be nicer than to escape the cold of winter for a few days by going to a Caribbean island — the Dominican Republic, for example where we could soak up the sun, loll on the beach, and maybe down a pina colada or two under the swaying palms? Please don’t misunderstand; Judy and I are hardly swingers. Indeed, it is fair to say that my own social outlook is quite conservative…. I was interested in the paradise and not in the swinging. … All I wanted was a crack at some sunshine, a quiet stretch of beach, and those swaying palms — all this at a guaranteed first-class resort. Innocent enough, no? Larry, however, would have none of it. He expressed amazement that an Orthodox Jew could even contemplate going to Club Med, citing it as a classic example of Orthodox “compartmentalization,” i.e., the process whereby modern Orthodox Jews — those deeply enmeshed in modern secular culture separate out the Jewish from the non-Jewish aspects of their lives.
Compartmentalization has both its defenders and detractors, and I have always been counted among the latter. Indeed, in a Spring 1982 symposium in Tradition,’ I went so far as to label compartmentalization the “Frankenstein” of modern Orthodoxy, arguing instead for “synthesis,” the creative blending of the best elements of Jewish tradition and modern culture. To me, an Orthodox Jew vacationing at Club Med — taking care not to violate the kashrut laws, saying the afternoon prayers on a wind-swept beach, etc., etc. — represented the epitome of synthesis. Yet here was Larry accusing me — me of all people — of being a compartmentalized modern Orthodox type….
Compartmentalization also arises in avoiding seeing that one is arriving at conflicting answers when standing in each of the different “worlds”. The current youth of the Modern Orthodox world face this dilemma when asked about the social acceptability of homosexuality. Their Torah says one thing, their culture says another, and for the majority, their answers are inconsistent depending on time and context.
The other possible response is failed synthesis — compromise. How can I get done what I want to get done without violating any of the law? I might fish for leniencies, I might be doing something that is opposite in thrust and goal to all of tradition, but I will find some way to work my goal into what I can of the rule set.
Take for example the woman who belongs to JOFA, attends a Woman’s Prayer Group, and doesn’t cover her hair. What’s the justification for the WPG? Well, if you look at the sources, you can navigate a services that is similar in feel to a minyan, but does not actually cross any of the lines spelled out in the text. The cultural tradition that this isn’t where women’s attention belongs is ignored, in favor of the desideratum — being able to serve G-d in as nearly an egalitarian experience as possible. However, when it comes to covering her hair, she whittled halakhah in another direction. There, the texts are quite clear. It’s the cultural tradition that historically has been lax. And yet it’s the presumption that these Eastern European women of the 19th and early 20th century must have had a source that drives her leniency.
(RYBS himself was opposed to such prayer groups, allowing them only in kiruv settings. And yet here is an entire subcommunity of people who consider themselves his students or students of his students who figured out a way to come to peace with the idea.)
Whether right or wrong, RYBS himself was against such prayer groups. Their approach is not a product of his worldview. And yet, the majority of those in the US who support them believe themselves to be disciples of his path in Torah.
Unworking or Unworkable?
Because the masses see Torah as primarily a set of rules handed down, and because they aren’t spending their lives immersed in that which is particular positive of Yefet’s contribution to the world, they can not creatively construct positive responses to the conflict of worlds.
In short I identified a number of gaps between Rav Soloveitchik’s philosophy and his followers:
- The masses are incapable of creating halakhah, and shouldn’t try.
- The feeling of the “erev Shabbos Jew” eludes modern man.
- Most people are not intellectually or academically inclined, and so encounter the contemporary world at a lower plane than Rav Soloveitchik envisions.
- Because of the above, rather than navigating the tensions of two noble callings, thereby being religious beings who sanctify, rather than retreat from the world, the more common responses are:
- compartmentalizing, and simply living in different worlds depending on the setting,
- using that compartmentalization to find rulings that fit desired goals, and/or
- compromising both their observance and their ideals in an attempt to be “normal”.
To look at all of these points and criticizing the ideal is unfair. No large group manage to live fully up to their ideals. And other ideals simply have other dangers. For example, while we identified an Orthodox-lite subgrouping within Modern Orthodoxy. But isn’t the Chareidi who hides behind chitzoniyus (externalities) his suit and black hat in order to think of himself as “frum” rather than leveraging it to reinforce a self-image and the calling it demands, equally “lite”?
However, I asserted that not only isn’t RYBS’s philosophy working as well as it might, trying to apply it to the masses exposes that make it less workable even in principle.
One could divide approaches to Torah into three categories.
1- Some describe an ideal that may not be reachable, but has a clear path from where most people stand to that ideal. People can strive to get as close to that ideal as they are capable of. Not every chassid may be capable of living every moment in conscious awareness of Hashem’s presence and acting solely from that knowledge, but anyone can try to maximize the intensity and frequency of that awareness in their lives.
2- Some do not describe only the ideal, they describe the path as well. In particular, Mussar defines the ideal person, his fear/awe of G-d, his love of G-d, his modesty, his focus on giving to others, etc… But it also provides tools for developing oneself into that kind of person. As Rav Yisrael Salanter put it, “One doesn’t learn Mussar to be a tzaddiq, but to become a tzaddiq.”
3- Then there are ideals that can’t be implemented partway. Rather than there being a steady incline, such that the more one tries to implement it, the better they are, there is a trough — where trying and not reaching this point is actually worse than not trying.
Rav Soloveitchik calls upon someone to be both cognitive and religious by being halachically creative. This creativity is fueled by the tension between Torah and this world, so we’re speaking of creativity on the pragmatic plane; relieving the conflict by finding one’s own harmonious coexistence. Notice this means we are not discussing simply studying someone else’s creative results, or limiting oneself to novella on a theoretical level. In RYBS’s worldview, halakhah maximizes autonomy by giving you a means of answering conflicting callings. It is based in the experience of living out his cognitive man in how he relates to the modern world. Halakhic Man is cognitive. RYBS’s dialectic tension demands decision making and fueling creativity. It’s all about creating and decision-making. When he says creativity, it can only be one’s own creativity, not learning creative ideas of others — that isn’t the product of one’s own personal conflict. And it means creativity on a pragmatic level, deciding how to balance one’s life, not theoretical lomdus.
However, if someone who doesn’t know how to assess those callings, or even just started learning about their content, is told to make their own decisions, he will make a travesty of observance. Rather than getting closer to doing so better in the future, he is leading himself astray. Fitting halakhah to Western values, or fitting his activities to the letter of the law with no concern with the mindset of the Erev Shabbos Jew. Rav Soloveitchik’s approach not the kind of linear more-is-better in that way, the way we described Chassidus. The path to this ideal has a trough — someone who tries to do so without having already developed the tools to do so will lead himself astray. Most people are not capable of becoming Rav Chaim Brisker, such that they creatively construct halakhah in response to their reality to the extent that their primary experience of halakhah is a partnership with the A-lmighty. If you are too far from that point, in the trough, you can’t bring yourself closer to the ideal by being a low-level halakhah creator, a less skilled version of Rav Chaim — that simply creates bad halakhah.
If they stood alone, the other issues could have been solved incrementally. A person can study aggadita at their level and increase their feel for Torah values and seeing the world from the perspective implied by halakhah. Similarly, they can work on their interests and develop interests toward those parts of the general culture that help us better understand and work with the world around us and the people in it.
RYBS unifies modernity and Orthodoxy by making them a tension that drives a level of creativity that few are capable of. RYBS’s path may work for someone who sufficiently shares the abilities of himself or the role models he uses in the examples that pepper Halakhic Man. But unless one is speaking of an artificial, self-selected population of the elite, a more typical community simply can’t be built upon it. The compartmentalization and compromise found in contemporary Modern Orthodoxy are caused by problems more fundamental than the usual effects of the limitations of the people who aspire for that common ideal. It is exacerbated by being an inevitable product of the nature of the path between where the middle of the bell curve lives, and this particular ideal that they are striving for.