It would seem difficult to believe that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche—who assailed Judeo-Christian morality, urged that following the “death of God” it would be necessary to will new values into being, and occasionally dabbled in anti-Semitism—would have much in common with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the great religious thinker of American Orthodoxy. Yet Soloveitchik received the bulk of his secular education studying philosophy in Weimar Germany, where the influence of Nietzsche’s writings could still be felt. And as much as Nietzsche has been credited as an intellectual harbinger of fascism, he preferred the Old Testament to the New, and was even more contemptuous of anti-Semites than he was of Jews. Alex Ozar, reviewing a new book by Daniel Rynhold and Michael Harris on the two thinkers, writes:
Soloveitchik, writing in the 1940s, includes Nietzsche in a list of those philosophers whose “veneration of instinct, the desire for power, the glorification of the emotional-affective life and the flowing, surging stream of subjectivity,” among other things, have “brought complete chaos and human depravity to the world. And let the events of the present era be proof!” The stakes of the conflict are thus urgent in tenor and civilizational in scope. “Rome against Judea, Judea against Rome,” as Nietzsche puts it.
And yet, Rynhold and Harris show in their masterfully executed work, it is a fact that Soloveitchik’s writing evinces real affinities with Nietzsche’s, affinities too pervasive and substantial to be merely incidental. It is clear, in fact, that Soloveitchik not only looks past Nietzsche’s blistering critique of religion but largely embraces that critique, arguing only that halakhic Judaism, suitably interpreted, can and ought to escape it. Nietzsche diagnoses religion as a pathological retreat from the world, writing that “It was the sick and decaying who despised body and earth and invented the heavenly realm,” and that the very concept of God is a “counter-concept to life.”
And with respect to most religious forms, Soloveitchik seconds the charge: “Christians,” for instance, “developed a theory of contempt for this world,” Soloveitchik says. “Indeed some went and developed the doctrine of hatred for this world.” Indeed, the vicious rejection of worldly reality is intrinsic to religion considered in its generic form: “The ethical and religious ideal of homo religiosus is the extrication of his existence from the bonds of this world.” For Soloveitchik, however, just the opposite is true of Judaism.