Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Indispensible Imprint on Modern Orthodoxy

There is a fascinating insight by Rav Soloveietichk’s daughter, Mrs. Tovah Lichtenstein into the world of Modern Orthodoxy and her father’s role in it. It is referenced in a Forward review of a new book: Rabbi in the New World: The Influence of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik on Culture, Education and Jewish Thought:

The book gives the last word to Tovah Lichtenstein, Soloveitchik’s daughter, who argues quite plausibly that without her father, Modern Orthodoxy would have been swallowed up by the Conservative movement, leaving the Haredi version as the only kind of Orthodox Judaism in America. And the Israel-based Lichtenstein ends with a chilling judgment of the contemporary American scene, claiming that while many cite Soloveitchik to further their own agendas, few follow in his path. Perhaps his example of living in two intellectual worlds simultaneously was too complex or too demanding, she says, but whatever the reason, her father’s form of Orthodoxy is in danger of disappearing in America.

I think she has hit the nail on its head. I don’t think Modern Orthodoxy could have survived without Rav Soloveitchik. Although the Rav never referred to himself as Modern Orthodox he clearly gave it its philosophical underpinnings. He was the quintessential role model for Torah U’Mada – at least as it pertains the the value given to secular studies. He was a world class Talmid Chacham on par with the greatest Torah minds of his generation – this at a very young age.

As a PhD in philosophy and a world class Jewish philosopher in his own right – he showed the world how it’s done. He studied the discipline at the University of Berlin in a non Jewish completely objective context– in a secular university of world renown. But he did not study it without first having a serious grounding in the Judaism of his forefathers. And he never put his secular studies ahead of Torah. Torah was always the most important thing on his agenda.

Not that he was an avowed adherent of Torah U’Mada but his actions spoke loudly on this subject. His studying the Mada in its unadulterated form without any Jewish biases on the part of his professors and then understanding it via his Halachic and Hashkafic mind is the essence of the philosophy of Torah U’Mada as I understand it. In my view - this is how he was able to create such masterpieces of Jewish though as Halakhik Man and Lonely Man of Faith.

Of course this was not his only contribution to modern Orthodoxy. He was the guiding light of all who had him as his Rebbe. And his light shone forth through a multi-faceted prism – with each facet being relevant to those who saw him through it. So that he could be either a Rebbe; a profound influence on; or even a role model to, people like Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rav Hershel Schachter, Rav Aaron Rakeffet, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Rabbi Avi Weiss, Rav Gedaliah Schwartz, Rabbi David Hartman, Rabbi Sholom Carmy, Rabbi Jacob J. Schachter, and many many others whose Hashkafos are in some cases far apart from each other.

The Rav’s detractors on the right saw this as a failing. How - they ask - could he be a Rebbe to such a wide variety of people some of whom are vehemently opposed to the Hashkafos of others? Could the Rav be so contradictory – saying one thing to one person and virtually the opposite to another?

The answer of course is that many on this list have diverged quite far from their Rebbe and have admitted doing so. But there are others who will say that their Hashkafos are entirely based on the Rav even as others say the Rav rejected those Hashkafos. The reason should be obvious. The Rav believed in Chanoch L’Naar Al Pi Darko.

In matters of Hashkafa a lot depends on who is asking and what the circumstances are. So as it pertains to something like Women’s Teffilah Groups which he opposed – he actually gave Halachic advice to one of his ordained rabbis on how to do it halachicly. This is not a contradiction. It is an example of knowing when to permit something that one might ordinarily frown upon because of a greater good. The Rav knew to whom and under what circumstances to say yes - and when to say no. That was his strength not his weakness.

Of course there were issues that he did not compromise on – such as removing Mechitzos from a Shul. He unequivocally forbade doing that under any circumstances. On the other hand the Rav was not afraid to go against the tide even if he was alone in doing so. For example he had positive views on the State of Israel. And he permitted serving on a rabbinical council comprised of Conservative and Reform Rabbis on non theological matters that affected the Klal.

He was truly a giant.

There are of course other influences that have greatly impacted Modern Orthodoxy including the Rav’s brother Rav Ahron Soloveichik; Rabbi Drs: Eliezer Berkovits, Bernard Revel, Samuel Belkin, and Norman Lamm to name but a few. But I do not believe they alone could have sustained it.

So even though as Mrs. Lichtenstein points out very few if any follow his path, I believe - as she does - that without the Rav’s guidance; his influence; his imprint - Modern Orthodoxy could have quite easily been swallowed up by the Conservative movement.