Walking the Tight Rope Called Life

Reviewed Book: Reuven Ziegler, Majesty and Humility: The Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Jerusalem: Urim Publications).

Yeshiva University is an institution that seeks to exemplify the relationship between Torah u-Madda, a philosophy adopted by the university in 1946 as its overarching mission. It is hard to identify oneself as a Modern Orthodox Jew without being literate in the pivotal works of Torah u-Madda, particularly, and most importantly, the fundamental teachings of the Rav. Despite this, I often hear from non-Judaic major/minor students that they regret having such a limited knowledge of the works of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Even for those who exhibit interest in his teachings, there is but one course offered on campus that would satisfy their curiosity yet at the same time does not require preliminary knowledge of the subject.

The phenomenon of disconnection from the teachings of the Rav became apparent to me during my first year on campus, mostly among those who do not generally opt for heavy beit midrash learning. I admit that I cannot speak with confidence on behalf of the YC/RIETS campus, yet I am curious to know if their experience is comparable with that of the Stern campus. I personally attended a Modern Orthodox high school like most Yeshiva University students, and there too I was barely, if at all, exposed to the Rav’s philosophy in a classroom setting. A possible reason for this may be that my high school administration chose to hire educators that were chiefly Haredi and that, in turn, softly pushed my education in the realm of Modern Orthodoxy to the margin. Don’t get me wrong, I cherish my high school educators; they planted within me a deep sense of commitment and love for my Judaism. However, it is embarrassing for me to admit that my first interactions with the Rav’s teachings were here at Stern in my first semester, while enrolled in the one non-advanced Philosophy of the Rav class that was offered.

If you find yourself under this category of people who have little to no familiarity with the philosophy of the Rav, then consider reading Majesty and Humility, a comprehensive study of the Rav’s essays by R. Reuven Ziegler. R. Ziegler is the Director of Research and Archiving at Toras HoRav Foundation, where he identified and pieced together the original manuscripts of the Rav, manuscripts that had previously only been seen by the Rav himself. The work of several years of research, Majesty and Humility masterfully integrates the Rav’s sharp knowledge and mastery of the Talmud, Bible, and Mishnah alongside his background in Western secular philosophy. Majesty and Humility records the way in which the Rav combined his staunch commitment to the mesorah while also addressing an exchange of conversation between reason and revelation, between modernity and tradition.[1]

The review contains a corpus of the Rav’s published and unpublished works. The goal of this piece is to provide a peek into R. Reuven Ziegler’s summary on R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s stream of consciousness as it is embodied in his essays. Ziegler’s book was written with the intention not of being a substitute, but rather an accompaniment to the Rav’s essays. Majesty and Humility creates a window of opportunity for anyone who has yet to encounter the major themes and motifs that encapsulate the Rav’s thinking, while also thoughtfully expanding concepts with which an avid Rav reader is already familiar. R. Ziegler successfully takes the complex ideas and the difficult language used constantly in R. Soloveitchik’s essays and presents them in an organized and audience-friendly manner. The book is arranged systematically into chapters according to theme and specific essays written by the Rav, with a summary of the entire book at the end.

A major overriding theme that R. Ziegler sets forth in this summary on the Rav is the centrality of the halakhic system in the Rav’s works. The Rav lived his life conducting a demanding search for knowledge that looked to elevate, rather than forfeit, the physical world. Ziegler explains that Halakhah serves as the primary medium for the ideal religious experience of relating to God – encapsulating both self-development and community-building. It is a system that regularly takes into account human nature and its opposing internal forces. Physicality, in that case, is in conflict with spirituality; feelings of self-transcendence stand against the harsh reality of human frailty. Dialectic, a word originating in ancient Greece, is often used by the Rav in the context of a dialectical method. Dialectical method is a discourse between two or more fundamentally different ideals with the purpose of resolving the conflict between them.[2] Use of the dialectic method in contending ideas is a process displayed consistently in the Talmudic approach of establishing a guided religious life. Halakhah, therefore, defines truths by means of thoroughly deliberated arguments. It is not surprising then that the Rav viewed Halakhah as the main text in understanding Jewish thought.[3]

Ziegler explains that, for the Rav, a desire for simplicity stems from a “rebellion against knowledge and against objective thought” – for the exposure and knowledge of the greater world does in fact disrupt peace of mind.[4] It causes man to reflect and to question his duality in nature, as discussed above. These are the thoughts of a religious leader who blazed the trail of a Torah u-Madda mindset, and I wonder if these thoughts are still present in our Yeshiva University mentality. Would we describe our daily experiences as centered on a halakhic, God-centered ideal, combined with an attempt to enrich our religious experiences with secular pursuits? Are Judaism and the halakhic man at the core of our functioning existence, as they were for the Rav?

In Ziegler’s footnotes, he mentions that, for the Rav, the practice and study of Halakhah is comparable to that of mathematics. Just as a mathematician creates an a priori abstract construct, focusing his attention on that ideal equation when attempting to apply it to the physical world, similarly, our individual conceptions of the world ought to appear only as a consequence of the superior divinely revealed principles (the halakhic ideal). The halakhic expert uses Halakhah as an ideal system of laws through which she then sees nature and reality. A celebrated example of this is when the Rav’s Halakhic Man comes across a spring of water. He possesses a fixed a priori relationship to the nature of the spring regarding his halakhic construct. He questions whether the spring corresponds to the requirements of the ideal halakhah in regards to the immersion of a zav (a man with a discharge) in mei hattat (waters of purification), whether the spring requires forty se’ah of water, and so on. This is a striking illustration of taking the ideal halakhic equation and applying it to the natural experiential world.[5]

Ziegler articulates that “there is no phenomenon, entity or object in this concrete world with which an a priori halakhah does not approach its ideal standards; all aspects of creation fall under a Halakhic category: nature, society, commerce laws, government, family etc.”[6] We thereby bring God into this world through halakhic cognition (talmud Torah) and halakhic action by means of shemirat ha-mitsvot.[7] It is a system that guides us in the swinging pendulum of human motivation. Halakhic Man is entirely unconcerned with the next world; he prefers the real world over a transcendent existence. According to the Rav, “Here, in this world, man is given the opportunity to create, act, accomplish, while there, in the world to come, he is powerless to change anything at all.”[8] Halakhah is meant to be alive; it is the agent that engages man’s intellect, will, emotions and activity, all of which are harnessed toward serving God. No realm of life could be tedious or neutral.

The Rav addresses the sense of constraint that many feel in observing Halakhah, but believes that the inner struggle can lead to self-sacrifice and ultimate commitment, a process he calls “catharsis,” i.e. purging oneself in submission to a higher purpose.[9] A clear display of the Rav’s intellectual honesty is that he places no emphasis on a feeling of reward or inner tranquility gained through observance. He writes, “Religion is not, at the outset, a refuge of grace and mercy for the despondent and desperate, an enchanted stream for crushed spirits, but a raging, clamorous torrent of man’s consciousness with all its crises, pangs and torments.”[10] By no means is religion a psychological relief, an “opiate to the masses,” as Karl Marx and others would reckon it to be. A religious lifestyle is laced with tensions of values and sacrifices of self for a higher purpose — God.

Majesty and Humility attests to the notion that religion, and especially Modern Orthodoxy, is a difficult all-encompassing pursuit. One is constantly on a tight rope trying to balance the dialectic tensions between utilitarianism and submissiveness,[11] majesty and humility,[12] individual and community,[13] Adam I and Adam II,[14] etc., all terms used in the Rav’s work. There is no trait, talent, urge, and no aspect of life, which cannot be used in the service of God.

Ziegler bridges coherent themes within the Rav’s works, formulating his teachings in a comprehensive, organized fashion. He consistently displays the notion that, for the Rav, Halakhah is a way of perceiving reality as a blueprint for the world. It is the guide to human development and self-transcendence, facilitating a man-mediated relationship with God, sanctifying man’s natural, mundane day-to-day experience, and filling his life with meaning and direction. The Rav believes that man becomes a collaborator with God in the development of Halakhah; he is not simply being submissive to a higher force. For the Rav, Halakhah is the supreme knowledge. It requires no harmonization of external philosophical views because Halakhah is a crystallization of the most authentic expressions of Jewish thought.

R. Joseph B. Solovietchik defended Jewish tradition and yet confidently embraced science, technology, and philosophy. He allowed Orthodox Judaism to flourish in conjunction with the modern world, instead of encouraging Jews to isolate themselves from it. He viewed Halakhah as a source of Jewish philosophy, a tool in balancing one’s life and a guide to everyday decision-making. Being an observant Jew according to the Rav is an active existence, a cerebral activity, where questions are demanding and at times tormenting, but, in its complexity, one finds creativity and meaning.

Majesty and Humility by Reuven Ziegler successfully gives the reader a broad, yet profound and comprehensive, understanding of the Rav’s teaching and insights. A worthwhile read for an observant and committed Jew walking the tightrope called life.

Mati Engel is a senior at SCW majoring in Psychology, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.

[1] Reuven Ziegler, Majesty and Humility: The Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Jerusalem, Israel: Urim Publications, 2012).

[2] “Dialectic,” Merriam Webster Dictionary, available at: www.merriam-webster.com.

[3] Ziegler, 147.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 308.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid,

[9] Ibid, 69.

[10] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Doubleday, 1965), xi.

[11] Ziegler, 130.

[12] Ziegler, 51.

[13] Ziegler, 39.

[14] Ibid.,308.