Monday, April 22, 2019

Joseph Soloveitchik as a Jewish Existentialist: Halakhic Man (overview)

In Halakhic Man, Joseph Soloveitchik responds to Kierkegaard and Heschel’s emphasis on the interiority of religious experience. Both Heschel (an extremely knowledgeable scholar of Judaism who was a rabbi in the mystical Hassidic tradition) and Kierkegaard (who wrote extensively on the internal struggle to know God as the primary mode of religious experience) would be considered examples of "religious man" for Soloveitchik. In Halakhic Man, Soloveitchik seeks to shift the paradigm of religion from one of "religious experience," consciousness, and interiority (i.e. profound meditations of the nature of the soul, the self, and God) to a more worldly "Lawfulness." According to Soloveitchik, Halakha (the Jewish code of law) is a better expression of religious identity and passion than the unthinking mysticism and piety of the religious or spiritual human. After all, Halakhic (lawful) man is motivated by a “passionate love of the truth”  and all his actions are intended to bring him closer to God and God closer to the world. This more worldly approach to Judaism not only allows the human being to approach God, but also brings God closer to the world. This is because following the mitzvoth contained within the halakha is a positive moral action which improves the world and the person obeying the mitzvoth.

Throughout Halakhic Man, Soloveitchik often returns to his three-part construction of the “cognitive man,” the “religious man,” and the “Halakhic man.” “Cognitive man” is a modern, scientifically-minded rational human who seeks to rationalize everything and explain occurrences in terms of rule-following natural phenomena. “Religious man” is a mystical believer in divine mysteries and internal ecstatic religious experience. “Halakhic man” takes the analytic, rational nature of “scientific man” and combines it with the love of the divine central to religious man’s character. Halakhic man is also committed to living under God’s law.

Kierkegaard says that to love one’s neighbor perfectly as Jesus did is “the fulfilling of the law.” (Works of Love, 103) However, R. Soloveitchik would say in response that “living under the law” requires much more than "loving the neighbor" and points to a much larger body of law (Jewish Halakha) that gives the Jew the ability to connect to God in a much more concrete way. In general, Christianity de-emphasizes law and the Torah’s commandments, emphasizing faith in God and general morality. Judaism emphasizes law and the Commandments. Soloveitchik’s purpose in writing Halakhic Man is to explain to the secular Jew and other lay-readers the benefits of Orthodox Judaism’s focus on externalized law over internalized faith as a way for humans to add meaning to their own lives and transcend their base humanity. For the Halakhic man, being religious and spiritual is not about correct mindfulness alone (though this may have its part in the religious experience) but is rather about right action. Right moral action is part and parcel in following God’s Halakha, given to the Jews as part of the Torah at Sinai.

A classic example from the book of Halakhic Man using the law to add meaning to his own life is Soloveitchik’s explanation of the religious Jew’s reaction to a beautiful sunrise or sunset:
“When halakhic man looks to see the western horizon and sees the fading rays of the setting sun or to the eastern horizon and sees the first light of dawn…he knows that this sunset or sunrise imposes upon him anew obligations and commandments. Dawn and sunrise obligate him to fulfill those commandments that are performed during the day: the recitation of the morning Shema, tzitzit, tefillin, the morning prayer...It is not anything transcendent that creates holiness but rather the visible reality…” (Halakhic Man, 52)

Instead of simply wondering at the beauty and mystery of God’s creation as the mystic “religious man” (like Kierkegaard or Heschel), Soloveitchik’s “Halakhic man” has rigorous laws to follow for every new natural phenomena and life cycle event he encounters, thereby sanctifying his life and the existence of the universe with each day. The Halakha is Soloveitchik’s answer to the question of how to make a human being’s life meaningful 

Additional books by Joseph Soloveitchik:

Recommended books on Jewish Existentialism: