Friday, April 07, 2006

The Rav זצ"ל: Thirteen Years Later...

Yeshivat Har Etzion recently published R. Aharon Lichtenstein's remarks describing Rav Soloveitchik's view of Religious Zionism (just in time for 18 Nissan, which marks his thirteenth yahrzeit). Not that he requires my haskamah, but I did find myself agreeing with almost every word.

The 'almost' is insignificant to the article, per se, but important to the evaluation of the Rav's legacy, generally. RAL begins by referring to a review of David Hartman's book, Love and Terror in the God Encounter: The Theological Legacy Of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, entitled 'Remaking Soloveitchik in His Own Image,' by Lawrence Grossman.

R. Lichtenstein opens by expressing his distaste for the rampant revisionism that seeks to force the Rav into various procrustean beds. I totally agree with him, as I do with Grossman's concluding remarks, citing Rabi Lamm, "He was who he was, and he was not a simple man."

However, I am less than thrilled with Grossman's review. First, I feel he misreads Professor Hartman. (My remarks on said book will, IY"H, appears in the next issue of BaDaD.) Grossman argues that Hartman is trying to remake the Rav in his own image, I think he actually restrained himself and was open and honest to the fact that he radically diverges from his teacher on a plethora of issues. Others are far less honest. Each of us, of course, is entitled to his interpretation of Hartman's book.

What really set me off was the downright nasty (and somewhat supercilious) tone that Grossman adopts toward Modern Orthodoxy and towards those who studied under R. Soloveitchik. Some examples:

Although the enterprise of carving out an intellectually respectable place for Orthodox Judaism in the modern world had already fallen into steep decline in the 1970s, the passing of its leading thinker and unanimously acknowledged halachic authority was a blow from which Modern Orthodoxy has never recovered....

Even granted the much vaunted 'move to the right,' this process has never ceased and (indeed) continues apace both here and in the Diaspora. In Israel, it is really just beginning and the Rav's writings are spurring it onward.

The clearest evidence of Soloveitchik's intellectual domination has been the inability of his successors to move beyond him. Much of what passes for Orthodox thought today consists of quarrels over what the great man said (a great many things, some of them apparently contradictory, at different times and to different audiences) and, more important, what he meant.

Grossman is correct but totally misses the point. The words of giants take many years to digest. Seminal thinkers always set new intellectual agendas, about which his/her students debate. Those agendas serve as the framework for further work. That's exactly what happened with Maimonides, Nahmanides, the Ari, the Besht, the Gra, and mutatis mutandis Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, Ockhem, Decartes, Voltaire and Kant. Without hesitation, I have no doubt that the Rav זצ"ל belongs in this category. Grossman seems to be smitten with the Modern affection for starting everything de novo. Every intellectual historian, and not just those of us enamored of Arthur O. Lovejoy, knows that it doesn't work that way. As Whitehead famously said: 'The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.' [It also reminds me of the exchange between Al-Ghazali's Tahafut al-Falsifa and Averroes' Tahaful al-Tahafut.]

Orthodoxy would be well served, Jewry would be well served, if we take the Rav's writings (both in Halakhah and Jewish Thought) as a point of departure for further, creative thought (including differing with our master, something of which he generally approved).


mycroft said...

Who would you rate as people who follow the Rav.?
Rate them in order of closeness to hashkafa-not necessarily by Lamdus.

Jeffrey said...

Since there are a number of areas in which the Rov's haskafa has impacted upon the community, that's a very difficult question. This is especially the case as he was vitally interested in each student developing his own outlook. Furthermore, the issue of lomdus is critical to this issue. Bifurcation of the Rov's legacy is a real distotion of the man (and fails to understand the subtle, but crucial, interplay between the two).