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Rav Soloveitchik on the Guide of the Perplexed-edited by Lawrence Kaplan

When Rabbi Soloveitchik arrived at Yeshiva University he gave classes for two decades on philosophic topics.  In these lectures, we see Soloveitchik as the graduate of the University of Berlin in philosophy and as the former student in the Berlin Rabbinical seminary (for a year). Soloveitchik gave great weight to future rabbis having training in philosophy and having a master’s degree in Jewish Studies.

Did you ever want to know what Rabbi Soloveitchik’s early philosophy lectures were like? Did you ever wish to have been able to attend them? Here is your chance.

We now have a record of one of those early courses, edited thanks to the hard work of Lawrence Kaplan professor at Magill University, who was the official translator for Halakhic Man.  The new volumes is called  Maimonides – Between Philosophy and Halakhah: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Lectures on the Guide of the Perplexed (Urim Publications). The work is based on  a complete set of notes, taken by Rabbi Gerald (Yaakov) Homnick. The original notes consisted of two five spiral notebooks of 375 pages and 224 pages.  For the philosophic reader of Soloveitchik, these are interesting and exciting lectures bringing many scattered ideas into one place. Kaplan provides a wonderful introductory essay setting out and explaining the ideas in the lectures.

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In this volume we see Soloveitchik in his use of Isaac Husik, David Neumark  and Leo Roth to help him understand the texts of Jewish thought, and his reliance on the modern thought of Hume, Spinoza, and Bertrand Russell. We see him giving out an academic reading list to start and engage with university Jewish studies.

Soloveitchik was originally planning on writing his dissertation on Maimonides but that did not work out so instead he switched advisers to work on Hermann Cohen. But what did he plan to discuss in the original medieval dissertation? This work gives the reader a sense of what he would have written since Soloveitchik incubated his ideas for decades and remained for decades with the direction of his earliest thoughts. It seems to have been a modern reading and defense of Maimonides.

Hermann Cohen’s modern reading of Maimonides as ethical and Platonic was instrumental in the 20th century return to Maimonides and especially Soloveitchik’s understanding of Maimonides. This lectures in this volume show how Soloveitchik both used and differed with Cohen. However, the citations from Cohen in the original lectures were telegraphed, in that, Cohen was not available in English at the time and Soloveitchik was just giving the gist to audience that had not read him. This makes it harder for those who have not read Cohen recently.

Kaplan notes that Soloveitchik’s readings of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and Aquinas are “highly controversial” meaning that they are less confrontations with the texts of those thinkers and more the reception and rejection as found in early 20th century thinkers. His German Professors considered idealism as superseding the classics and Russell considered science and positivism as superseding the ancient. For these works, Maimonides was relegated to the medieval bin. Soloveitchik was going to save the great eagle.

In addition, the 19th century Jewish interpreters saw Maimonides as an abstract Aristotelian philosopher, and, if anything relevant, closer to Reform than Orthodoxy. The scholar George Y. Kohler showed that at the Berlin seminary they were quite ambivalent about Maimonides. In addition, the instructor in Jewish thought Isaiah Wohlgemuth at the seminary leaned in his teaching towards considering faith as absurdity- Tertullian meets Kierkegaard and Scheler.

So the point of these lectures, and probably the unwritten dissertation, was to show the continuous relevance of philosophy for the understanding of Torah and the relevance of Maimonides. The goal was also to show the importance of Torah study for Maimonides despite the explicit vision in the Guide. Much of this agenda was later set out and popularized by Soloveitchik’s students David Hartman and Isidore Twersky.

Soloveitchik sought to move the reading of Maimonides from the practical Aristotelian approach to a German idealistic higher ethic of imitating God.  According to Kaplan’s notes this reading is not really Maimonides’ own thought.

One of the bigger unexpected formulations of this volume is Soloveitchik’s presentation of a pantheistic view of God as the hesed (mercy or caritas) behind creation. As in many idealists where the world is fundamentally mental or immaterial, the world is in God -in some ways the real is the rational- but he sets this within a theistic scheme .

This pantheism led Soloveitchik to think that aspiring Torah scholars should attain a cosmic-intellectual experience and thereby identify with the world through their minds.

There lectures discuss the ascent from ecstatic prophet to the higher cosmic prophetic experience. For Soloveitchik, the goal of cosmic-intellectual prophecy is to surrender to God beyond words to an inexpressible point.

Soloveitchik distinguishes between two levels in the observance of halakhah. A lower approach where halakhah concerns obedience, duties and practical law; at this level ethics are instrumental. There is a second higher level of identifying with God and thereby with the cosmos. In the lower level there is obedience to a normative halakhah which is distinctly and qualitatively lower than having a cosmic intellectual experience where the divine is internalized as a prophetic experience in which one reaches the pinnacle of human existence.

Soloveitchik declares that halakhah is not about “how to” rather in its ideal state it is about merging into cosmos via cosmic experience to reach a higher truth into reality. (This ideal is quite unlike the way many today conceive of Soloveitchik).

Kaplan notes that these lectures present an innovative theory of fear, in which fear at that moment of cosmic consciousness generates a recoil thereby returning us to the halakhah and norms. After love and identity with God, one recoils in distance, submission and returns to the external norm.

For Soloveitchik concern for others and responsibility for fellows as hesed is the inclusion of the other in the cosmic vision. Just as God is inclusive of the world and knows the world because it is part of Him, the Talmud scholar knows about people through his universal understanding.

Kaplan points out how this is completely the opposite of Jewish thinkers such as Levinas where you actually confront the other and through the face of a real other person gains moral obligation.  (I am certain that Soloveitchik pantheistic-Idealist view of ethics will elicit some comments. )

Rav Soloveichik’s speaking style often consisted in sentence fragments and repetition of phrases, especially a repetition to return to where he left off, after a side interjection. Many times one did not know the relationship of the return to the interjection. Was it in agreement or disagreement? Unfortunately, I am not sure if this edition solved the problem in that there were many dangling sentences and lines that the reader would be unclear if it agreed or disagreed with the prior line. In addition, many of the lines in this book needed an explanatory footnote especially those concerning idealism and Hermann Cohen.  But despite these caveats, for the philosophic reader of Soloveitchik, we once again owe Kaplan gratitude for his fine work. We should also thank him for this extensive interview analyzing many of the most important issues in the work.

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  1. What is new in this work?

From the point of view of form, these lectures are certainly new, since until now we have never had an essay of Rav Soloveitchik [henceforth, “the Rav”], much less a book, devoted to an analysis of the Guide. But from the point of view of content, the matter is not so clear After all, the Rav discusses certain themes from the Guide at length in Halakhic Man, Halakhic Mind, and U-Vikashtem mi-Sham (And from There You Shall Seek). Also, another very important discussion of the Guide can be found in his Yiddish Teshuvah Derashah (Discourse on Repentance), “Yahid ve-Tzibbur” (“Individual and Community”) in his Yiddish volume of Essays and Discourses. The truth is that if combines what the Rav says in U-Vikashtem mi-Sham with what he says in “Yahid ve-Tzibbur,” you get much—not all—of the basic outline of the argument of these lectures. Still, there are a number of   new elements.

One point obvious, while, in another sense, new is that while the Rav in all his essays displays a great openness to scientific and philosophic thought, he never explicitly justifies such openness. In these lectures, however, the Rav finally justified his practices.  The Rav notes that Maimonides believes that non-Jews could also reach the high religious level of “serving the Lord continually.” In this connection he observes that Bahya often cites “pietists,” who turn out to be non-Jews, and similarly cites Arabic philosophers and Church Fathers. He goes on to cite Maimonides’ famous statement  “Accept the truth from whoever said it.” He also cites a passage from the Laws of the Sanctification of the New Moon to the same effect, and concludes “Maimonides is clear…we do not care who the author is.”

There are, however, three entirely new elements. First, in the lectures the Rav presents his basic argument as a response to the claim of medieval commentators on the Guide and, in the modern period, of Heinrich Graetz that Maimonides considers Halakhah (Jewish law), both its study and practice, as secondary to philosophy.

Second, though in U-Vikashtem mi-Sham the Rav maintains that according to Maimonides, “The existence of the world [is] not only caused by God, but [is] also rooted in Him,” he carefully avoids any use there of the word “pantheism.” In the lectures, by contrast, he does speak of Maimonides’ pantheism—to be sure, with certain important qualifications.  Third, the penultimate section of the book on Yirat ha-Shem, the fear of the Lord, is, to my knowledge, new, and, in important ways, it goes against what he states both in Halakhic Man and in U-Vikashtem mi-Sham.

2) Could you elaborate on the claim that Maimonides considers Halakhah as secondary to philosophy? How does R. Soloveitchik counter this approach?

This is an old objection to Maimonides. The claim is that Maimonides follows Aristotle in maintaining that knowledge is superior to morality, both moral virtue and moral action, and, furthermore, in arguing that only intellectual knowledge possesses intrinsic value, while morality possesses only instrumental worth, serving only as a steppingstone to attaining intellectual perfection. From this it would follow that Halakhah, dealing with action, is of lesser worth than science, and that Talmud Torah, that is, the study of Halakhah, is inferior to the study of the sciences.  The Rav—inaccurately by the way—quotes Graetz as stating that Maimonides in the Guide “sneered at halakhic scholarship.”

The Rav counters this objection by claiming that Maimonides distinguishes between two stages of ethics: pre-theoretical ethics, ethical action that precedes knowledge of the universe and God, and post-theoretical ethics, ethical action that follows upon knowledge of the universe and God. Pre-theoretical ethics is indeed inferior to theory and purely instrumental; however, post-theoretical ethics is ethics as the imitation of God’s divine attributes of action of Hesed (Loving Kindness), Mishpat, (Justice), and Tzedakah (Righteousness), the ethics referred to at the very end of the Guide, and this stage of ethics constitutes the individual’s highest perfection.

3) It sounds as if here Soloveitchik is just following Hermann Cohen.

The Rav, as he himself admits, takes the basic distinction between pre-theoretical ethics and post- theoretical ethics from Hermann Cohen, but his understanding of the imitation of the divine attributes of action involved in post-theoretical ethics differs from Cohen.

Cohen, following Kant’s thought, distinguishes sharply between practical and theoretical reason, ethics and the natural order, “is” and “ought.” For Cohen, God’s attributes of action do not belong to the realm of causality, but to that of purpose; they are not grounded in nature, but simply serve as models for human action.

What Cohen keeps apart, the Rav—and here he is, in my view and the view of others, for example, Avi Ravitzky and Dov Schwartz, more faithful to the historical Maimonides—brings together.  For the Rav, the main divine attribute of action is Hesed, God’s abundant lovingkindness, His “practicing beneficence toward one who has no right” to such beneficence. The prime example of Hesed, for Maimonides, is the creation of the world.  This act of creation is both an ethical act, whereby God freely wills the world into existence, and an ontological act, an overflow of divine being, whereby God brings the world into being by thinking it.  However, the Rav goes beyond what Maimonides states explicitly by maintaining that the deepest meaning of God’s Hesed is that he not only confers existence upon the world, but continuously sustains it by including the existence of reality as whole in His order of existence.

4) Is this the basis of Soloveitchik’s claim that Maimonides is a pantheist?

Yes. The Rav denies that Maimonides affirms substantive     pantheism, that is, in terms of substance there are two orders: a finite order, all reality other than God; and an infinite order, God Himself.

But he maintains that Maimonides was an ontological pantheist, inasmuch as God included the existence of reality as whole in His order of existence.  Actually—I did not make this point in my Introduction—I wonder whether the Rav might have done better to refer to Maimonides as a panentheist. Thus the Rav concludes that Maimonides agrees with the seventeenth century French Catholic philosopher, Malebranche that ontically the world exists in God, which is exactly what panentheism (All-in-God) means.

5) Why do you think that Soloveitchik felt it was so important to make this claim of pantheism?

I am not sure, but I believe it is may be motivated by his conception of what true human Hesed is. That is, formally, the Rav begins by articulating Maimonides’ conception of divine Hesed, and then maintains that human Hesed has to imitate and therefore resemble divine Hesed. But I wonder whether the Rav’s thought, in truth, proceeded in the opposite direction, that is, he began with a conception of what true human Hesed is, and then projected that conception back onto divine Hesed.

Anyway, the Rav’s argument is as follows. We can only grasp the divine Hesed and only imitate it through knowing the world in which that Hesed is manifest.  It is in this sense that the highest stage of ethics is post-theoretical, for it is based upon and follows from the knowledge of God attained through the knowledge of the cosmos. To spell this out, since God created and sustains the world through knowing it, when man knows the world, whether through philosophical knowledge or prophetic knowledge, he and God unite together, since they both have the same object—the world– as their object of thought.

More than that—and here the Rav’s interpretation of Maimonides follows that of Solomon Maimon, though, strangely enough, the Rav never cites Maimon in these lectures—in man’s every act of knowledge his finite intellect unites with the infinite divine intellect which constantly and uninterruptedly knows everything. Here, the Rav maintains, we find another type of pantheism in Maimonides, intellectual pantheism, the union of man’s finite intellect with God’s infinite intellect in the act of human knowledge.

But the real point, and, as I said, I think the motivation of all this, is that after this intellectual union with God, man first internalizes the all-embracing divine Hesed, and then imitates that Hesed in the sense that he not only helps and confers benefits upon all who are in need, but, rather, in God-like fashion, he invites them to share in, to participate in his own existence, including them in his own order of being.

Here I would contrast the Rav with Levinas. Hesed, for the Rav, is not extended to the other qua other, as Levinas would have it; but, to the contrary, it is extended to the other because he is not other, because I have made him part of myself, of my own existence. What is truly ethical is not acknowledging the otherness of individuals I interact with, but identifying with them.  And this, to repeat, constitutes the true imitation of God.

So I believe–this is yet another point I did not make in my introduction—that the Rav’s pantheistic or panentheistic reading of Maimonides’ view regarding God’s relationship to the world is motivated by what he perceives as its ethical payoff.

6) Is Soloveitchik, then, claiming that for Maimonides there is no direct knowledge of God?

Indeed, the Rav denies that for Maimonides there can be direct knowledge of God. In this way Maimonides differs, say, from Rav Kook, for whom the highest knowledge of God derives from the soul’s direct love of God as the highest good, a love not mediated through nature. As the Rav clearly says, for Maimonides the only way to know God is through knowledge of the world.

Three times in the lectures the Rav cites Maimonides’ statement in Guide 1:34 that “there is no way to apprehend [God] except through the things He has made.” Similarly, the Rav appears to understand Maimonides’ citing in Guide 3:51 the rabbinic statement that “Ben Zoma is still outside” to mean that Ben Zoma tried to attain direct knowledge of God without intellectually cognizing the universe.  To repeat, it can’t be done.

7) What is the relationship for Maimonides, as Soloveitchik understands it, between philosophical and prophetic knowledge?

For Soloveitchik, as stated earlier, when man knows the world, whether through philosophical knowledge or prophetic knowledge, he and God unite together.

As the Rav’s understands it, Maimonides’ view is that prophetic knowledge builds on philosophical knowledge, that is on the scientific knowledge of the cosmos. Or, as the Rav phrases it, first we have the pre-theoretical normative-halakhic experience, that is, the halakhic experience that precedes knowledge of the cosmos, then the cosmic-intellectual experience, and finally, building on and going beyond that cosmic-intellectual experience, the ecstatic–prophetic experience.

Sometimes the Rav emphasizes the difference between prophetic knowledge and philosophical knowledge, sometimes he blurs the distinction between the two. But there seem to be three features that characterize the ecstatic–prophetic experience as opposed to the cosmic-intellectual experience: intuition, vision, and self-surrender. The key point seems to be that while the cosmic-intellectual experience brings the individual into intellectual contact with God, the ecstatic–prophetic experience brings one into personal contact with God.

The way I understand this—the Rav never states this explicitly—is as follows. God created the world by an act of free will, and, as such, His relationship with the world is a voluntary one, and the connection between Himself and man is an ethical one. But God also created the world by an act of thought, in which case God’s relationship with man is primarily intellectual and ontological.

Ultimately these are two sides of the same coin, for, in Maimonides’ view, God’s will and wisdom are one. Still—again, this is my formulation of the Rav’s view—the philosopher who unites with God solely through the intellect focuses on God’s wisdom, on God as pure intellect, while the prophet who, in addition to uniting with God intellectually, also connects with Him via intuition, vision, and self- surrender, focuses on the personal God, whose creation of the world is a free ethical act.

8) Does Soloveitchik deprecate philosophic thought, at least in comparison to prophetic knowledge?

To an extent. But while the Rav refers to Maimonides’ alleged belief in “the insufficiency of the cosmic-intellectual experience,” nevertheless, in the Rav’s view, Maimonides is firm in affirming that this experience is a necessary stage in arriving at the ecstatic–prophetic experience.  The Rav could not be clearer that for Maimonides there is no bypassing the scientific knowledge of the cosmos.

 9) How would you answer someone who says that this book sets up each problem as goyish philosophy as opposed to Maimonides and that Maimonides is really a halakhic position? Ostensibly, this work rejects both Aristotle and Kant on most issues, leaving Maimonides as unique and as halakhic?
With reference to the Rav’s playing up Maimonides’ differences with Aristotle and (a-chronologically) with Kant, as I and other scholars have noted, one can broadly divide interpreters of Maimonides into two camps: the radicals who minimize the differences between Maimonides and the philosophers (particularly Aristotle), sometimes going so far as to deny that there are any differences; and the traditionalists, who emphasize these differences. The Rav clearly belongs in the traditionalist camp.

Still, though the Rav devotes an entire chapter to contrasting Aristotle and Maimonides, we must not forget that regarding the issue of the necessity for scientific knowledge of the cosmos, and regarding the conception of God as the unity of intellect, the subject of intellection, and the object of intellection the Rav forthrightly acknowledges that Maimonides follows in Aristotle’s wake.

I think that what the Rav objected to most in Aristotle, Plotinus, and
Spinoza was that for them God’s relationship with the world and man is one of necessity. (I am not sure if the Rav is correct about Plotinus, but this is a long story.) They, thereby, negate the possibility of an ethical relationship between God and man, which, as stated above, is possible only if God’s creation of the world was a free and therefore an ethical act. Again we see the ethical motif coming to the fore.  Perhaps in this respect, the Rav reflects the influence of Kant.

10) Is the ecstatic–prophetic experience the same thing for Soloveitchik as revelation? Does he have multiple conceptions of Maimonides’ view of revelation?

Actually, the Rav contrasts the ecstatic-prophetic experience with prophecy and revelation proper, what the Rav refers to as “apocalyptic prophecy.” To cite the lectures: “The Prophetic-Ecstatic experience… is not the apocalyptic moment of prophecy he describes in the latter chapters of Book 2 of the Guide. That moment of prophecy, where God bestows upon man a prophetic revelation, is an act of grace on God’s part. The Prophetic-Ecstatic type of prophecy that Maimonides speaks about in Guide 3:51 can be obtained by all.

In sum, there are two types of prophecy:  The apocalyptic moment of prophecy is granted to the individual by God; the Prophetic-Ecstatic experience is a state of mind.”

Another indication that the ecstatic-prophetic experience is not to be identified with prophecy proper is that sometimes the Rav refers to the ecstatic-prophetic experience as the ecstatic-mystic experience.  This is part of the emphasis in all the Rav’s works not so much on theology, but on human experience, human states of consciousness. Nevertheless, I actually think there is some basis here for the Rav’s distinction in Maimonides’ texts, though it is not so clear and neat as he would have it.

In U-Vikashtem mi-Sham, when the Rav refers to the revelational experience he is referring to “apocalyptic prophecy,” which, for him, is a supernatural phenomenon.So U-Vikashtem and the lectures are operating on two different planes. Actually, I think that, contra the Rav, all prophecy, for Maimonides is natural, but, again, that is a long story. (For Kaplan’s understanding of revelation in Maimonides – see his prior post on Maimonides on Mosaic revelation. )

Still, there may be an important difference between the lectures and U-Vikashtem. In the lectures, where the Rav speaks as an expositor of Maimonides, it is clear that no prophet, not even Moses, can bypass the cosmic-intellectual experience. In U-Vikashtem, where the Rav, though citing Maimonides, speaks in his own name, the revelational religious experience is discontinuous with what he refers to as the rational religious experience.

11) How does this respond to the objection that even if Maimonides did not “sneer at halakhic scholarship,” nevertheless in his view the study of Halakhah, is inferior to the study of the sciences.

The Rav, like a good “Brisker,” a practitioner and devotee of the analytic school of Talmud study, sharply distinguishes between the practical study of Halakhah, study in order to know how to perform the norm properly, and the conceptual and theoretical study of the Halakhah, lomdus. He grants that Maimonides deprecates the significance of the practical study of Halakhah, inasmuch as it belongs to the pre-theoretical, normative-halakhic, stage of religious experience, and, indeed, possesses only the instrumental value of enabling one to perform the commandments properly.

However, he argues that Maimonides would view lomdus, the theoretical study of the Halakhah, if carried out “in conjunction with the cosmic experience (science),” as providing a cosmic-ethical experience parallel to the cosmic-ethical experience attained in the study of the cosmos. Indeed, he claims that when Maimonides in Guide 3:52 states that the knowledge of the de‘ot, “the opinions the Torah teaches us” leads to the love of God,  he is referring not only to theoretical, metaphysical knowledge, but also to the theoretical understanding of the Halakhah.

This claim in my view lacks any textual basis in Maimonides. Still, perhaps the Rav might view his reading of Maimonides as a legitimate “updating” of Maimonides’ position.  Thus, as a number of scholars, including myself, have argued, Maimonides in the Guide appears to suggest, albeit not explicitly, that understanding the reasons for the commandments, that is, the divine wisdom inherent in the commandments, leads to the love of God. The Rav might argue that given that Maimonides’ view of nature was teleological, he viewed the wisdom inherent in the commandments in teleological terms, and thus focused in the Guide on ta‘amei  ha-mitovot, the purpose and aim of the commandments.

However, as the Rav often pointed out, modern science, as a result of the Galilean-Newtonian revolution, no longer views nature as teleological.   Rather the rationality found in nature is that of the abstract quantitative laws that parallel and thus serve to explain the particular, qualitative, natural phenomena. Following from this, the wisdom found in the commandments would not be their purpose, but the abstract legal principles that underlie the particular laws, i.e. lomdus!

But coming back to Maimonides himself, presumably, Maimonides, according to the Rav’s understanding, would not view the lomdus of Rav Hayyim Brisker, the Rav’s grandfather and the founder of the analytic school, as significant, since Rav Hayyim never studied science, and thus should be classified as one of the talmudiyyim, the unphilosophical jurists, to whom Maimonides refers in deprecating fashion in Guide 3:51, but he would approve of the Rav’s lomdus. This obviously is my own extrapolation.

12) How is Soloveitchik’s discussion of the fear of the Lord, (Yirat ha-Shem) original, and how does it goes against what he states elsewhere?

The Rav’s take on the fear of God is, in my view, the most innovative part of the lectures. In U-Vikashtem, the Rav’s discussion of the love and fear of God follows, I would say, a Mishneh Torah model. That is, in the Mishneh Torah, his great code of Jewish Law, Maimonides discusses the love and fear of God, where fear follows love, in Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2, and both are necessary. However, in Laws of Repentance 10:3 he only discusses the befitting love of God and does not mention fear. The Rav—questionably, I believe—understands this to mean that the love and fear of the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2 refer to a lower form of religious experience, Hidammut, imitation of God, but at the highest level of religious experience, Devekut, cleaving to God, there is only love and no fear, as Maimonides supposedly suggests in Laws of Repentance 10:3.

The Rav’s discussion of the love and fear of God in the lectures follows, I would say, a Guide model—not surprising, since these are lectures on the Guide—and differs from his discussion in U-Vikashtem in three ways. First, as I already noted, in the lectures, according to the Rav’s reading of the Guide, imitation of God does not precede but follows upon Devekut or union with God. Second, in the Guide Maimonides discusses love in Guide 3:51 and fear in 3:52, and in the conclusion of 3:52 he sums up his discussion by speaking first of love, then of fear. As the Rav, correctly I believe, understands it, fear here is the last word, and, unlike the alleged implication from Laws of Repentance 10:3, is indispensable.

The Rav notes that in Guide 3:52 Maimonides links fear with the “actions prescribed by the Law,” or, to use the Rav’s terminology, the mitzvot ma‘asiyyot, by which the Rav seems to have in mind rituals, such as—the example is his—tzitizit (ritual fringes). How is fear connected the “actions prescribed by the Law”? The Rav links Maimonides’ discussion of fear of God in Guide 3:52 with his discussion in the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2. There Maimonides states that while love of God is the drive to know God and unite with Him, in the fear of God the individual becomes aware of his lowliness and immediately “nirta le-ahorav,” recoils backward. Thus fear reopens the gap between God and man that love or union had closed up. In this way—and this is the Rav’s main point— fear fulfills a halakhic function. Via the love of God, via uniting with Him, the individual internalizes the Law. But the danger is that by internalizing the Law the binding force of the norm will fade away. Fear, by reinstating the distance between man and God, “rehabilitates the norm,” the performance of the law on the practical level. That is, only a heteronomous norm, only a norm imposed upon man from the outside retains its force and binding authority. And this, concludes the Rav, is the meaning of the link that Maimonides in the Guide 3:52 establishes between the fear of God and the “actions prescribed by the Law.”

Here we come to the third difference between the lectures and U-Vikashtem mi-Sham, and, I would add, Halakhic Man.  In the latter essays the highest religious level that halakhic man or the man of God reaches is precisely the love of God and consequently the autonomous internalization of the laws; but in the lectures internalization must be followed by externalization, autonomy by heteronomy. Of course, in the essays the Rav speaks in his own name; in the lectures as an expositor of Maimonides. Are we to conclude that the Rav’s exposition of Maimonides in these lectures is more “halakhic” and less “philosophic” than the Rav’s own philosophy?

I should add that while this reading of the link in Guide 3:52 between the fear of God and the “actions prescribed by the Law” is very ingenious and provocative, it is exceptionally hard to maintain that it is what Maimonides had in mind. The Rav’s attempt to understand Maimonides’ discussion of fear in Guide 3:52 in light of his discussion of fear in Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2 fails, in my view, to convince.  For in Guide 3:52 Maimonides sees the fear of God as being connected not with distance from God, as he does in Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2, but, to the contrary, with God’s constant presence, with, to use Moshe Halbertal’s phrase, the individual’s sense of constantly being scrutinized by God. How, in fact, then, Maimonides understands the link in Guide 3:52 between the fear of God and the “actions prescribed by the Law” remains to be established, but whatever it turns out to be, it is not what the Rav had in mind.

13) You pointed to a number of places where you argued that is it difficult to uphold Soloveitchik’s interpretation as what Maimonides actually meant. Do you think this is true for Soloveitchik’s reading of the Guide more generally?

While I think that the Rav’s understanding of the cosmic-intellectual experience in Maimonides, with its focus on the cognition of the cosmos and man uniting with God through the intellect is true to the spirit of Maimonides, I think the way he attempts to broaden and deepen this concept and argue that in the ecstatic-prophetic stage the total individual establishes personal contact with God is a modernizing reading that is much too existentialist for my tastes.

Negatively speaking, the presentation of Maimonides in the lectures differs from more recent interpretations of Maimonides by the almost complete absence in it of any concern for Maimonides’ political thought and, as well, with the almost complete lack of any concern for the hermeneutic aspect of the Guide, for the Guide as a reading of both Scripture and the rabbinic tradition.

This last point is ironic, for the lectures begin with a lengthy analysis of why Maimonides began the Guide with the verse “In the name of God, the Lord of the world” (Gen. 21:33).  In that connection, the Rav very presciently observes that Maimonides “in quoting a verse… casts off philosophic routine and jargon, and we can gain a more intimate glimpse of him. Maimonides’ citations of biblical verses and rabbinic midrashim throw new light on his thought.”  Prof. James Diamond couldn’t have said it better! But, alas, the Rav does not follow up on this insight.

Reflections on the Pew Survey

When Rav Soloveitchik was teaching the beginning of Yoreh Deah, which excludes those who do not observe the mizvot or those who spitefully cede from the community, he told a story of how men who attended Yom Kippur balls and ate on Yom Kippur later in life become members of his Chevra Shas. He had a keen sense of reversals and surprise endings.

My post on the Pew survey was up five minutes after we were allowed to reveal its data, and consisted of a collection of the factoids, but it was not yet a piece of reflection. It turns out that even though the margin of error for the entire survey, was +/- 3%, the margin of error for the Orthodox data turns out to be +/- 12.4%, explaining the surprising and wildly outlying data. Yet, the overall directions and proportions remain correct. In addition, much of the data was descriptive as opposed to predictive because of the generational and terminological differences.

But what do I think the results mean?

I share the same reaction as Professor Jonathan Sarna which is that one does not have prophecy about the future. No one would have predicted that the Conservative movement would be the largest group in 1920 and likewise, no one could have predicted the return of Ultra-Orthodox in 1955. In 1960, modern Orthodoxy was the least educated and poorest of the three denominations not the most professional and with the most high incomes.

One of the few certainties in history is its unpredictability and the ever present reversals yet there are unexpected returns. Some who threw off all Judaism in 1880s were by the 1920s, integrated into the newly established Jewish community. In the 1930s, many who thought religion was going to die and that keeping ritual was old-fashioned, returned post-Korean War to the suburbs and affiliated with a house of worship. The Jewish community did this if for no other reason than because their Christian neighbors were affiliating. Assimilated Jews isolated in North Dakota and Arizona became aware of their Judaism as soldiers and used the GI Bill to settle in Jewish-dense Long Island and Los Angeles.

Two decades after Harvey Cox’s 1966 declaration of The Secular City, we were in the midst of a return to traditional religion that no one foresaw. Soviet Jewry has returned twice; first, when the secular Communist era Jews received a large influx of more traditional Polish Jews when Eastern Poland was absorbed by Russia and then again when the over-whelming majority immigrated to Israel and the US. Who would have dreamed of it?

Historians used to teach Hanson’s Law from the “The Problem of the Third Generation Immigrant” in that we would say, “What the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember.” If one generation seeks to integrate into the melting pot, the next one returns. It does not serve as a useful analytic tool anymore but when taught it at least gave you sense of reversals in Jewish history.

Jewish Identity

When do people assimilate to the point of forgetting the past? Usually, in the case of Judaism, the answer to that question lies in times of cultural and economic oppression as well as around a time that conversion offers a possibility of escape. For example, Ottoman Empire Jews converted to escape the oppressive poll tax during the period of decline. European Jewry converted during the time between 1780 and 1815 (and well into 1900) to escape the exclusion from the social, economic, and cultural worlds.

The Jews often assimilated when they did not have enough Jewish markers in their lives. In his comparison of the Jews of China and India, Nathan Katz notes that the former assimilated away because they used Chinese cultural forms for their Judaism, while the latter kept to Jewish forms.

But in America, 94% of all Jews are proud of their Judaism! Jews are at a social, financial, and cultural peak and do not have significant restriction. Who would have thought fifty years ago that there would be more Jews in Congress and other establishment benchmarks than Episcopalians? That is a success

American Jewish identity has always had universal benchmarks and its own forms of “nones”. Currently, these Jews define themselves as being funny, smart, and wealthy. In the 1950s, bastions of secular anti-religious Jewish thought such as Commentary Magazine, made the hallmarks of being a Jew to be alienation, outsider pariah status, and to have universal social justice values. During the 1990s, the benchmarks were fighting Anti-Semitism, Holocaust commemoration and supporting Israel.

In a great blog post by Rokhl (whom I do not know), she pointed out that in AJC’s commissioned Lakeville study as the typical American Jewish suburb done in the early 1950’s by Marshall Sklare, et. al. . where they predicted the demise of Orthodoxy, the criteria for being a good Jew were, in order,

Lead an ethical and moral life,
Accept his being a Jew and try not to hide it
Support all humanitarian causes
Promote civic betterment and improvement in the community
Gain respect of Christian neighbors
Help the underprivileged improve their lot
Know the fundamentals of Judaism
Work for equality for Negroes

So do not blame this generation for stressing the universal. She also notes “Public opinion surveys some years ago indicated that hardly 18% of American Jews attended religious services at least once a month.” -Will Herberg, 1950

The biggest problem in the survey, as pointed out by the sociologist Ari Kelman, was that when discussing Jewish-not-by-religion, the survey did not show any “deep understanding of the ways in which Jews-not-by-religion understand and engage in Jewish life.” Kelman notes “that the survey asked Jews of no religion to offer a denominational affinity for themselves, even when denominationalism is really a way of distinguishing between religious choices…It would be like asking someone who is lactose intolerant to choose her favorite kind of cheese.”

The survey has a false religion and culture distinction. As noted by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, the survey shows the continuing truth of Mordechai Kaplan for American Jewry. “Jewish peoplehood, culture and civilization are the prime motivators of Jewish pride and connection.” However, in the past peoplehood and civilization were considered Judaism itself. In fact, the Conservative movement defined affiliation as peoplehood for decades. The survey had a funny meeting of a the Pew’s Protestant separation of peoplehood and religion, with the Jewish consultants Orthodox bias of stressing ritual observance.

If I would want to add one extra breakdown to the survey, I would add location. The sociologist Steven M. Cohen, who worked on the survey, notes on many occasions that zip code is destiny. In Bergen County, as the third lowest intermarriage rate in the country, a non-affiliated Jew is more likely to marry a Jew that an affiliated Jew in a zip code with few Jews. As shown by the noted Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow, intermarriage is due to proximity close enough to fall in love not from a failing interest in religion.

And most important for the Orthodox statistics, Chabad should have been separated from Ultra-Orthodoxy because their eclectic mixture of practices has little in common with Satmar. Much of American Jewry of all denominations has a secondary affiliation with Chabad.

The most significant statistic is the high rate of marrying those of another faith. But even those Jews are proud of their Jewishness. There is a joke going around this year that the predominate religion among this year’s Harvard freshmen is “half-Jewish”. Rather than spinning the story as one of the loss of American Jewry, the challenge for everyone should be how to increase Jewish markers in this demographic.

The survey shows that the denominations are not as they used to be and people dont define in institutional terms. When the current configurations of the denominations came to be in late 1950s they had clear imagined lines of demarcation for their social constructions. If you lived in Newark you were Orthodox, uneducated, and poor or if you were acculturated, you moved to Caldwell or South Orange and choose a Conservative congregation to balance tradition and change. If you were wealthy you sought to become more Protestant in lifestyles in order to break the still prevalent glass ceiling for Jewish participation in American life, so you choose to move to Summit and affiliate Reform- think of Roth’s Goodbye Columbus. But now it does not sort out that way. To use an Orthodox example, modern Orthodoxy has the highest percentage of high income and the highest college rate. Or Orthodox progressives and Reform conservative have been out of place for a long time. (For a devastating treatment of all the movements- see Volokh)

In the 1950s everyone went to synagogue as part of suburbanization, the same way Methodists went to Church. Modern Orthodoxy did well in the 1970s and 1980s by emphasizing Shabbos table warmth, home life and study rather than synagogue. But everyone now needs to think about should be emphasized in an age that has little patience for institutional religion. During this religious recession, organized institutional synagogues have a bad reputation. As noted, even Orthodoxy has 22% that claims to have no affiliation.

The major change shown in the survey was that Jews have finally internalized the post Nostra Aetate change in Christianity and have lost their fear of Christian practices and sancta. American Jewry’s relationship with Christianity will become the same sort of symbiosis that Jews showed in Islamic land when Jews prayed in Mosques, went to dhikr, and became Sufis.

All Jewish movements and leaders have to address the issues of half-Jews, “nones,” and synagogue decline. There should be some serious listening and responding in new ways by rabbis. But more likely, we will repeat what we did in the past which is to copy the solutions of Protestants and Catholics use to reach out to their nones.

Judaism theology in its traditional form affirms the divine promise of the eternity of the Jewish people. Despite persecutions, assimilation, and upheavals we assume, “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind” (I Samuel 15:29). We don’t know God’s thoughts on the cunning of history, its dialectics, and reverses.

The covenant of God with the Patriarchs (Brit Avot) has full expositions, in many thinkers including Yehudah Halevi, Marahal, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, as well as by Nachman Krochmal and Leo Baeck. In 1962, the author Arthur A. Cohen wrote a profound work, The Natural and the Supernatural Jew which offered a theory describing the natural secular existence of the Jew has metaphysical elements of God’s providence and a promise of eternity. There are many aspects to debate in the book, especially from an Orthodox point of view, but when 94% of the Jews surveyed by Pew, including those intermarried are proud of their Judaism, it affirms Cohen’s point.

However, I find the response of some rabbis to the Pew survey as going against the Jewish idea of the Patriarchal covenant. Their commitment to the identity politics of their Orthodoxy is a denial of the mission of Israel. Their narrow sense of the Jewish community as limited to their provincial approach is closer to the approach of a Jehovah Witness, who thinks only their small group will be saved in the end of days. These Jews may have assimilated more due to the culture wars by denying a fundamental tenet of Judaism than those with Christmas Trees.

Rav Soloveitchik distinguished between the Sinai covenant that teaches what a Jew should do and the Patriarchal covenant (Brit Avot) – the “I’ awareness of the Jew. 94% of the Jews in the entire study had that awareness. Rabbi Soloveitchik clearly stated that precedence goes to the Patriarchal covenant. How do we learn about this covenant? Rabbi Soloveitchik answered that we learn through exemplarity; Abraham was kind to strangers and argued for justice.

(This is a first draft that may have changes in the next day or two)

Rav Shagar z”l, Purim, the Princess and the Plebian

In the fairy tale of the princess and the frog, how does the frog turn into a prince? In the modern versions the princess kisses the frog. But in the early modern versions, she throws the frog at the wall to smash him. During that era, only by doing the opposite can one achieve one’s goal.
In addition during that time period, they distinguished between the inner and outer self. Shakespeare’s character Polonius advised Laertes  about both of these aspects: “to thine own self be true,” and also to dress well: “For the apparel oft proclaims the man.”

During these three centuries, the Purim Torah was filled with sinning for the sake of heaven, fortunate falls, fortunate faults, this day is a tikkun for haman, the need to do the opposite of intellect and get drunk, things not appearing what they seem. Each in his own way, Maharal, Shelah, Ramhal, Yonathan Eybeschutz, and the Izbitzer had these approaches. (If it was still Purim time, then I would give lots of examples, maybe next year.)

But what I find interesting is that Rav Shagar Z”l advocates going back to this material in what he considers the post-modern condition, the needs of what he calls “the Jewish intellectual.” His Purim Shiurim were translated three years ago as a small book, ideal for giving as mishloach manot, which I did when I received a bunch when they came out. But his Torah does not catch on here.

In his book Change and Providence, he advocates drinking to oblivion, we need to get beyond intellect and cognition, all divisions are meaningless to the eye, all is an inner divine providence, there is a holy haman in our “”will to power” needed to create, we need to get beyond Torah as a burden or as neurosis, we rejoice through destroying the ordinary categories, Purim is beyond history and celebrates the loss of all categories, it is the holiday of the fragmentary nature of our lives.

Can one group go back and understand reality in a different way. Can one adopt the cosmology of a different era? In 1700 many people thought that way as their natural cosmology, does it have the same affect if it is artifice and constructed self?

Yet, the Tablet had an article that Purim may be the holiday for this generation. “Sanctioning a host of transgressive behaviors—from drunkenness to masquerading in costume—and commemorating a tale of Jewish valor that culminates in the slaughter of 75,000 Persians more than 2,000 years ago, Purim is increasingly providing Jews of all backgrounds and ages with an opportunity to engage with whatever concerns them personally and politically.”

Modernist Postscript:

Rav Soloveitchik as a staunch advocate of the intellect, generally used the midrash on Ahashveros as foolish to show how America and Jewish values are different. He generally stuck up for a Boston Brahmin position as the Jewish position. In my era, he used this moment to make fun of President Reagan as plebian, uneducated, a fool, and not someone the Torah thinks should be in leadership. He seems influenced by the rhetoric of Richard Hofstadter, which was also emphasized in the secular curriculum at Maimonides.

The Second Characteristic (Persia versus U.S.) In Persia there was an anti-aristocratic movement where the average citizen was the hero. He was the ordinary and mediocre man. (In America who is the all American boy? Is it the great student, the researcher, the scientist? No, the all American boy is the uncultured basketball or baseball player.) Then, the ordinary man was looked upon as the right man. Achashueros celebrated his rise to power in a common way. He himself was a usurper to the throne and he hated the cultured. He was sly, a Stalin, cunning, who wrangled his way to the top. Achashueros hated the nobility! Yet, why did he invite them separately to a party for no less than 180 days? He needed them because they controlled the army. The megilah terms it “Chale, Paras u’Madai” (the commanders of the forces). Those who control the army are the bosses. They were responsible for his security, and he needed them. But, Achashueros felt out of place in their company. Their fine manners irritated him because he was a plebeian. Then he invited his “crowd,” the citizens, the uncouth of Shushan Habirah. How do we know that he enjoyed the common? Because the megilah tells us that on the seventh day “the heart of the king was merry from wine.” During the 180 days before the cultured, he was not merry.

It would have been nicer for Queen Vashti to appear before the aristocracy, but instead, when did he summon her? Before the ordinary people! What does it mean that he told her to “appear before the people?” It means that in his intoxication he wanted to “shame and to humiliate her.” Vashti came from royalty-was the daughter of Balshazar, the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezer. He wanted to degrade her before the common people. Why did she refuse? She knew that he wanted to degrade her because otherwise, he would have come personally instead of sending servants as if she were a slave. It was as if sending a guard to degrade her. She returned a message, “My father drank wine in front of thousands and never got drunk. You got drunk on a little wine! You are a vulgar usurper! It was an exchange of derogatory messages, each wishing to destroy the other. Full Version Here.

44 years later, how would he look at our communities? What does the community value? Do they even have a concept of ordinary people (hamon am) anymore? Would he like the all-American values of Centrist orthodoxy?

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