Between Community and Communion

Reviewed Book: R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Morality: Essays on Ethics and Masorah (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2017).

While the wisdom of clichéd aphorisms warns us to “never judge a book by its cover,” it is hard not to judge Toras HoRav’s latest product by the austere black typeface centered on its book jacket. In part, this is due to the lack of graphic intrigue to be found on the cover, but mainly, it is because of the ambitious promise the title offers – Halakhic Morality: Essays on Ethics and Masorah. This header presents an intriguing (and perhaps unintentional) tension between the title and the subtitle. Although the title promises a work that deals with “morality,” the post-colon clause declares the books contents as “essays on ethics.” While I would typically be the first to admit that such nitpicking seems pedantic, if not meaninglessly overly sensitive to semantics, in this instance it seems important to draw upon the ill-defined and historically contentious distinction between “ethics” and “morality.”

“Ethics” finds its origin in the Greek work ethos, which, while invoked nowadays to mean a certain spirit or zeitgeist, literally translates to “custom” or “habit.” Similar to halakha, with its literal translation of “the way to go,” ethics concerns itself with the creation of a system or a norm that can prescriptively attribute value to actions. This term stands in clear distinction to morality, derived from the Latin word moralis, meaning “manner” or “character.” Rather than attempting to engage in a systematic enterprise, morality is largely an individual judgment call about whether an actor feels that a thought or action is right or wrong. Thus, while ethics are broad and applied to communities or fields (business ethics, medical ethics, etc.), morality is localized and personal, focusing on moral or immoral acts or thoughts. While it is undeniable that throughout history morals have been packaged and universalized into “moral codes,” and ethics have been parsed and individuated into “ethical actions,” as a whole this basic distinction stands true. Ethics are concerned with the creation of a system that governs between people, while morality is an individual self-assessment based on one’s own feelings and intuitions. Thus, for example, while one may deem a particular ethical code immoral, that judgment does not negate that one who lives by such a code is living ethically. Conversely, while one may determine that jaywalking is not immoral, since it is a largely victimless crime, it could still come into conflict with one’s ethical code. While in popular parlance it is acceptable to, and I will, use these two terms interchangeably, it is important to note that a significant difference does exist.

Given that introduction, one can understand why I, upon beginning a book entitled Halakhic Morality, expected to read discussions about particular modern values – whether they are right or wrong – and how to properly tune my moral compass to the complex nuances of the contemporary zeitgeist. In fact, Rav Soloveitchik himself writes (as is excerpted in the dust jacket), “Hence, nowadays a basic investigation of morality and ethos would be of great importance. There is a crying need for clarification of many practical problems, both in the individual-private and in the social-ethical realms. There are too many uncertainties in which we live today, uncertainties about what we ought to do.”[1] Undeniably emphasizing the practical and the contemporary, it seems like this book is about to engage in discussions of universalism vs. Jewish particularism, egalitarianism vs. halakhic hierarchialism, feminism vs. gendered traditionalism, and any other ism one could imagine in todays cultural landscape. Granted, Rav Soloveitchik roots his investigation into morality in the text of Pirkei Avot, but the confines of ancient masoretic texts have never inhibited contemporary exploration amongst modern Jewish philosophers.

At this point, it must be acknowledged that there is a certain amount of irony, and even uncomfortable apprehension, in turning to this work for guidance in contemporary issues. While Rav Soloveitchik, as a giant in Torah and intellectual thought and a bearer and shaper of the Masorah, lives on beyond his own lifespan in his eternal Torah and living lessons, there is undoubtedly a certain amount of contextualization, and thereby limitation, that must take place when turning for advice on contemporary issues. Rav Soloveitchik himself writes, “an investigation and reformulation of practical ethical standards is vitally necessary in every epoch… [as] the particular norm – the specific ethical act, the detail– was never subjected to a legislative act as was the Halakha.”[2] In other words, the very project of investigating morality is itself anchored in the details of the period and context in which it is undergone. As such, there is an undeniable limitation in the guidance one can receive in this realm from a figure who passed away over two decades ago, and whose source material, upon which much of this book is based, was penned over half a century ago. This lacking is ironically exasperated by the Rav’s own thoughts, as he frames the moral teachings that are to follow. Rav Soloveitchik writes,

There is the intimate personal Masorah. The medium of transmission is not the word, if it is to be understood in its phonetic dimensions, but an experience, a state of mind, a mode of self-manifestation… The master addresses, or rather expression himself, revealing some aspect of his unique personality, and the disciple spies on him and overhears his whisper.[3]

Rav Soloveitchik lays out a unique theory of the Masorah of morality, which dictates that morals cannot be taught merely through words or ideas, but must be observed and absorbed via a relationship between the teacher and disciple. Later, Rav Soloveitchik emphasizes the need for a “living closeness”[4] to properly form the necessary bond between master and disciple. Reading this, one cannot help but think of the cruel irony and the unfortunate limitation posed by the posthumous nature of this publication.

Perhaps it was in part due to this limitation that in the following pages few to none of what I would consider “today’s issues” were addressed or discussed. Empty were the pages discussing the tension of balancing egalitarian values with halakha, and missing was the chapter discussing how to relate to community members whose orientations or identities might seem to push them out of our reach. Instead of discussing the “right” and “wrong” of various contemporary issues, and how to answer pressing popular questions, Halakhic Morality lays out an abstract and diverse list of teachings about various uncontroversial and largely settled issues. The work begins by describing the evils of power,[5] perhaps a clichéd moral message by now, and from there jumps to the need for an exoteric educational philosophy with democratized access to and participation in Talmud Torah.[6] From there, the work jumps to the need for an “all-inclusive moral law” (a phrase that raises unaddressed questions about the previous distinction between legislated halakha and dynamic morality), and that is just within the first chapter.[7] The following chapters discuss the role of hesed, loving-kindness, in forming an ontologically unified community,[8] and the threats of Hellenist eudemonism and Anglo utilitarianism on the cohesion and very fabric of said community.[9] In fact, it seems that the only theme that runs consistently throughout the work, and perhaps the most used word in the whole book (after “ontic”) was community – a concept that one may not have initially expected to be so closely tied to a study of “morality.” All in all, having completed the first of the two sections of this book (the second containing various self-contained essays on topics like Tzedakah and humility), I was left confused and disappointed, as the work simply failed to deliver on its promise of being a practical guide to contemporary issues.

It is easy, and in fact was my first reaction, to chalk this up to the limits of Rav Soloveitchik’s relevance to contemporary discourse. Perhaps, while a college educated Semikha student living in 2017 might take it for granted that power is corruptible, that Torah should be democratized, and that a sense of community is essential for a Jew to thrive, in the 1950’s, when the Rav gave the original Revel class that this book is based off of, these concepts were perhaps not as settled and straight forward. Maybe the modern ‘isms’ are just too new for Rav Soloveitchik to have penned anything about them, and this book was simply doomed from the cover page to overpromise and under deliver. Yet, upon reflection, it became clear that, while true that this book’s title may doom it to disappoint, it is not a failing in the content of the work, but rather, in the reader’s expectations. I came to this work with the expectation of a discussion, and hopefully even a conclusion, about contemporary matters of moral judgment. In other words, how would Rav Soloveitchik advise I feel about the many issues cluttering Facebook newsfeeds and Tablet articles. However, Rav Soloveitchik was not addressing how one should feel about particular issues. He was not engaging in particular moral assessments. Rather, this work is a work of ethics, dealing with the role and nature of a value system. But more than that, this book is really a work of ethico-political theory, explaining the role a particular ethical code should play in the formation of a political entity – the Jewish community.

Towards the end of the 20th century, in response to the ideological writings of liberal philosophers such as John Rawls, as well as to the conservative realities of political figures such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, a new political philosophy emerged known as communitarianism. While the particular context of the period formalized the theory, the principles behind the pejoratively titled philosophy had existed at least since World War II. Communitarianism argued that, instead of focusing on the individual, either from a libertarian perspective as a free actor or from a liberal perspective as an essential participant in the social contract, political systems should focus on communities. Thus, instead of investigating what social welfare would be necessary for an individual to subscribe to a social contract, politicians should explore what measures would enable and encourage individuals to join and grow flourishing communities. In other words, communitarianism argued that the focus should be shifted, and the subject of philosophical discourse should become the community and not the individual.

In his work Communitarianism: A New Agenda for Politics and Citizenship, political theorist Henry Tam lays out three core principles at the heart of communitarianism. First is the need for cooperative inquiry. Any assertion must be judged against the communal acceptance of such a position. Second is the need for common values. By sharing values, a community creates a sense of mutual responsibility and cohesion. Third is equal access to and participation in the power structures of the community. By ensuring that there is no ruling elite and knowledge and power are democratized within the community, the community as a whole can maintain its distinct and cohesive nature and continue to survive.[10]

It would seem that these three principles, if not intentionally at least incidentally, sum up much of Rav Soloveitchik’s agenda in his work. While the various themes and topics addressed may seem somewhat random, when considered in this light, they begin to cohere and make sense. The common theme that runs throughout these subjects is that of community, and altogether, they lay the necessary blueprint as to how to construct a religious community as a thriving political entity. Power, as the pursuit of an individual to impose his or her will over others, negates and undermines the community, as does harboring an aristocratic elite. Rather, the political entity must be open and accessible to all of its members. Moreover, this community must be all-encompassing, as without an all-inclusive norm, it will fail in its ability to keep people deeply identified with it. But this practical political organization is not enough, as the community must be one fundamentally unified around a shared sense of value and responsibility. Hesed serves as this necessary ontic glue, unifying the souls and not just the bodies of the community’s constituents. Finally, by organizing around a Torah-endorsed ethic, one which focuses on the public ought instead of personal liberty, such a religious community will be poised to survive and flourish despite the challenges of liberal individualism surrounding it. As such, Rav Soloveitchik’s argument reveals little about the details of a Jewish ethic, and much about its importance and the role it plays.

Indeed, it appears that Rav Soloveitchik’s work, rather than addressing the content of an individual’s morality, is appealing to the individual to sacrifice his individuality to the greater communal unit. Hellenistic pursuits of eudemonia are concerned with individual happiness, as are American conquests to maximize utility, but by foregoing those individual missions and joining a community – a Jewish community that has a Masorah that transcends history and transverses time – one is able to live a Torah lifestyle. In other words, Rav Soloveitchik is not attempting to address specific moral questions, nor is he even attempting to advise on the particular content of an ethical code. Rather, Rav Soloveitchik is building a model of the type of ethical code a Jew should construct. When it comes to constructing an ethical code, informed by Torah, our tradition, and our Masorah, Rav Soloveitchik tells us that we must make sure to build it and understand it in such a way that it facilitates community. While, on the one hand, Halakhic Morality did not, as I initially expected, address the particular problems of the current Modern Orthodox world, on the other hand, it could not be more relevant. As we live in a time of fracture and fission, Rav Soloveitchik has one, perhaps intuitive, but nonetheless essential point to drive home. While the what and the how may be obscure, and the implementation may be difficult, we cannot allow ourselves to ever forget the ultimate goal of constructing a public ethic and outlook: facilitating a community of ovdei Hashem that, arm in arm, can support each other in the shared pursuit of serving God.


[1] Soloveitchik, 5.

[2] Ibid, 4.

[3] Ibid, 8.

[4] Ibid, 12.

[5] Ibid, 32.

[6] Ibid, 39.

[7] Ibid, 62.

[8] Ibid, 79.

[9] Ibid, 94.

[10] Henry Tam, Communitarianism: A New Agenda for Politics and Citizenship. NYU Press. 1998.