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.