Joseph B. Soloveitchik on Tradition, Authority, and Historical Change

June 1, 2016 | Jeffrey Woolf
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Focusing on a speech given by the 20th-century sage in 1975, Jeffrey Woolf analyzes Soloveitchik’s understanding of the halakhic authority of tradition, and his response to those who would say that Jewish law must change to keep up with a changing world:

The Torah, [according to Soloveitchik], has its own methodological and axiological integrity. It stands on its own two feet, and does not need to be validated by any source outside of itself. It is by no means . . . static, but it is internally stable and consistent.

It was precisely this deeply held axiom that prompted Soloveitchik’s passionate reaction to [those] who maintained that the rulings [of the talmudic sages] were conditioned upon a specific historical reality [and thus lose their validity if that reality changes. For them], halakhah becomes eminently malleable and can be freely adapted according to the will (or whim) of the interpreter. Soloveitchik forthrightly condemned the subjugation of Judaism to external systems of values, coercing it to conform thereto in violation of its textual and interpretive tradition. . . ..

At the same time, Soloveitchik definitely did not advocate a blind, . . . fundamentalist stance toward the outside world and its culture. . . . [He believed] that one should courageously enlist the full panoply of Western culture for the explication and enhancement of Judaism. Judaism, in Soloveitchik’s model, creatively engages and interacts with other systems of thought and value. It is enriched and our appreciation of it is deepened by that interaction. It does not, however, subordinate itself to them, or make its validity contingent on them. . . .

This is not to suggest . . . that changes in social and historical circumstances do not affect halakhah. Obviously, they do. However, the interaction between them (and the pace of that interaction) is predicated upon the tools that tradition itself provides.

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