Thoughts of the `rabbi's rabbi'. Synthesizing `the way'

The Halakhic Mind, by Joseph B. Soloveitchik. New York: The Free Press. 135 pp. $16.95. Joseph B. Soloveitchik occupies a unique position in American religious life. A scion of a great rabbinic family, he is known throughout the Jewish world as ``the Rav,'' the rabbi par excellence, the ``rabbis' rabbi.''

Born in Poland in 1903, he earned his PhD in philosophy at the University of Berlin in 1931. Soloveitchik and his wife came to the United States the following year and settled in Boston. In 1941 he succeeded his father, Moses, as professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University in Manhattan. Since then he has taught generations of students, many of whom consider Joseph Soloveitchik to be their supreme religious authority. He exercises his extraordinary influence through his teachings and writings. Time magazine has called him ``the teacher of the times.''

Despite his worldwide reputation, he has published relatively few books. Soloveitchik is a perfectionist. ``I'm never sure something is the best I can do.'' ``The Halakhic Mind,'' first written in 1944, has waited 42 years to be published. Soloveitchik confesses that he has hundreds of manuscripts in his files, and one hopes that other works will reach the general reading public, because ``the Rav'' has something important to say.

``The Halakhic Mind'' transcends religious and ethnic lines. Throughout his brilliant career, Soloveitchik has attempted to develop a religious philosophy that can thrive in modern society, and he rejects any notion of religious isolation. ``To find fulfillment, one must partake of the human endeavor.''

In this slender but tightly reasoned volume, Soloveitchik calls for a creative synthesis of modern philosophy and science with the traditional Jewish religious system of thought, the Halakhah. This term is derived from the Hebrew for ``way'' or ``path,'' and when used by Soloveitchik it means the formulation of religious principles and laws through a dynamic intellectual system of ethical thought, study, and action. He sees the Halakhah as an ``objective screen'' by which all principles, laws, and values must be judged.

His erudition is evident on every page as he weaves his way through the often obtuse speculations and postulates of such thinkers as Kant, Bergson, James, Pierce, Whitehead, Russell, Bradley, Roye, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Dewey, Bohr, and a host of others.

Soloveitchik, of course, advocates a traditional religious approach to life, but he warns against a totally ``subjective'' religion. The ``unguided, inward life leads to the renunciation of ethical authority and moral awareness.'' He calls for an ``objective order'' if ``religion is to play a role in the progress of human society.'' For Soloveitchik, that ``objective order'' in religion reaches its ``highest expression in the Halakhah . . . the objectifying instrument of our religious consciousness . . . rabbinic legalism, so derided by theolgians, is nothing but an exact method of objectification.''

It is Soloveitchik's insistence on a major role for Halakhah that makes his book so interesting and important. ``The Rav'' is well aware of the two polar positions that many modern people take vis-`a-vis religion. The first position is an outright rejection of all traditional religious authority: Science, reason, and modern philosophy form a sufficient basis to live a morally upright and spiritually satisfying life.

In a bitter irony, ``The Halakhic Mind'' was written in 1944, the most murderous year of the Nazi Holocaust. Although Soloveitchik makes no reference to the tragic events of World War II, he was acutely aware of the limitations of Western philosophy and science, and the terrible abuses they are capable of condoning. Indeed, no country was more ``rational, enlightened, and scientific'' than the Germany of the 1930s.

Nor does Soloveitchik blindly retreat into the other polar position: a totally ``subjective'' religious life, one that is oblivious to the teachings of modernity. Instead, he chooses a blending of the two positions. He sees the Halakhah, the carefully structured Jewish legal system with its many checks and balances, its constant reality testing, and its demand that religious values involve the ``increasing participation of the entire society in the religious drama'' as the ``culmination'' of religious life.

The Rav's message is most timely. The tide of religious extremism in various parts of the world is ominous. While we may rejoice in the renewed vitality of traditional religion, many observers are appalled by the excesses of ``subjective'' fundamentalism. Soloveitchik writes: ``When intercourse with God is divorced from its social and communal aspects and concrete normative action, religion may develop into a barbaric, deleterious force.''

Soloveitchik does not turn his back on the contemporary world with all its ambiguities and limitations. Nor does he view modern philosophy as a threat to the life of ``homo religiosus.'' The purpose of the Halakhic method and analysis is ``not to eliminate non-Jewish elements. Far from it . . . by tracing the Jewish trends and comparing them to the non-Jewish, we shall enrich our outlook and knowledge. . . . Out of the sources of Halakhah, a new world view awaits formulation.''

``The Halakhic Mind'' demands a reader's close attention, but it offers rich intellectual and spiritual gifts.

Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee's National Interreligious Affairs Director and a co-author of ``Why Me? Why Anyone?''

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