Joseph B. Soloveitchik on Jewish Law and America’s Promise

Oct. 19 2018

It has been a quarter-century since the death of Joseph B. Soloveitchik, one of the leading rabbis of post-World War II America and the talmudist, theologian, and sage who did the most to shape Modern Orthodoxy in the U.S. Drawing on the particular traditions of the Lithuanian rabbinic elite, among whom he was raised, Soloveitchik’s philosophical writings attempt to explain Judaism in the language of early 20th-century German thought. Mark Gottlieb summarizes their principles:

To his own Modern Orthodox community, Soloveitchik held out a spiritual ideal comprising equal parts subjective emotion and strict adherence to objective law (halakhah). In one of his early works, Halakhic Man (1944), he draws a sharp contrast between purely subjective religiosity, shorn of commandments and the law, and the fullness of the halakhic way of life. . . .

Soloveitchik thus saw in Orthodox Judaism, with its embodied form of religious life and attention to the totality of human existence, the ultimate response to the great chasm in philosophy between objective and subjective, inner and outer, that had bedeviled modern thought from Descartes to Heidegger. Far from the regressive purview of a despised people, halakhah becomes for Soloveitchik the master key to the intellectual problem that had plagued European culture for half a millennium.

Gottlieb also notes Soloveitchik’s complex attitude toward America, the country in which he settled in 1932. His thoughts remain relevant today:

Soloveitchik loved America, his adopted home, and believed in its promise. A small example: most years in the third week of November, he cut short his schedule of daily Talmud lectures in New York to return to Boston for Thanksgiving dinner—hardly common practice among Lithuanian-trained heads of yeshivas. . . .

More significantly, America was connected in Soloveitchik’s mind with human dignity, for him a supreme religious value—a potent expression of the human will to imitate God and to partner with him in improving creation. Writing in the 1960s, Soloveitchik saw America’s victory over the Soviets in the “space race” as a symbol of this dignity, a testament to the power of human ingenuity and ambition directed toward a noble universal cause.

Yet he was realistic in diagnosing America’s spiritual pathologies, and reserved some of his most incisive criticism for the problems arising from its hyperextended forms of freedom, individual conscience, and creativity—values he championed, albeit dialectically, more than any Orthodox Jewish thinker in the 20th century.

Read more at First Things

More about: American Jewry, Halakhah, Jewish Thought, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Modern Orthodoxy, Religion & Holidays


Syria’s Druze Uprising, and What It Means for the Region

When the Arab Spring came to Syria in 2011, the Druze for the most part remained loyal to the regime—which has generally depended on the support of religious minorities such as the Druze and thus afforded them a modicum of protection. But in the past several weeks that has changed, with sustained anti-government protests in the Druze-dominated southwestern province of Suwayda. Ehud Yaari evaluates the implications of this shift:

The disillusionment of the Druze with Bashar al-Assad, their suspicion of militias backed by Iran and Hizballah on the outskirts of their region, and growing economic hardships are fanning the flames of revolt. In Syrian Druze circles, there is now open discussion of “self-rule,” for example replacing government offices and services with local Druze alternative bodies.

Is there a politically acceptable way to assist the Druze and prevent the regime from the violent reoccupation of Jebel al-Druze, [as they call the area in which they live]? The answer is yes. It would require Jordan to open a short humanitarian corridor through the village of al-Anat, the southernmost point of the Druze community, less than three kilometers from the Syrian-Jordanian border.

Setting up a corridor to the Druze would require a broad consensus among Western and Gulf Arab states, which have currently suspended the process of normalization with Assad. . . . The cost of such an operation would not be high compared to the humanitarian corridors currently operating in northern Syria. It could be developed in stages, and perhaps ultimately include, if necessary, providing the Druze with weapons to defend their territory. A quick reminder: during the Islamic State attack on Suwayda province in 2018, the Druze demonstrated an ability to assemble close to 50,000 militia men almost overnight.

Read more at Jerusalem Strategic Tribune

More about: Druze, Iran, Israeli Security, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy