American Orthodoxy

Killing Off the Rav (So He May Live)

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William Kolbrener

Editors’ Note: In honor of Lag Ba-Omer, The Lehrhaus is pleased to present two complementary but very different essays. In this essay, “Killing off the Rav” (so he may live), William Kolbrener continues to explore some of the themes he addresses in his recent book on Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Last Rabbi. In the complementary essay, Elli Fischer meditates upon the hilula of R. Shimon b. Yohai and the idea of celebrating the death of a revered rabbinic sage.

For centuries, poets and critics have contested the reputation of the author of Paradise Lost. For many, John Milton was, indeed had to be, the most orthodox of Protestant poets; while for others, he was an unintentional heretic, as William Blake put it, “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Some critics today, advocates of Blake’s radical and political Milton, still feel that he did not go far enough, that he was wanting, for not being John Locke or John Stuart Mill.

Great, by which I mean complex, figures often elicit different, even contradictory readings. So Joseph Soloveitchik, like Milton, is one of the figures in intellectual history whose critics have broken down into opposing “opposing camps,” with each, as Lawrence Kaplan, the translator of Halakhic Man writes, “dismissing those features stressed by the other as secondary.” In a recent version of this internecine warfare, Nathan Cardozo, though touting the “brilliance” of Soloveitchik, finds him in the end to be “an old-fashioned Rosh Yeshiva,” “highly conservative,” who made “no practical breakthroughs in halakha.” If only, Cardozo suggests, Soloveitchik had been more like the more radical and innovative Eliezer Berkovits, or even Emanuel Rackman, Modern Orthodoxy would have truly had an advocate for the twenty-first century.

On the other side, Soloveitchik has become a “poster-boy” for an almost Haredi Orthodoxy, ideologically and theologically conservative, his engagement with secular studies, ostensibly misunderstood by some of his followers as innovative, in reality just part of a strategy to win over Americans.  For Avrohom Gordimer, apologist for this right-wing Soloveitchik, the latter was defined by a core that “was pure Torah and yiras shamayim.”  As in the Miltonic model, Soloveitchik was not radical enough for some, he was not theologically conservative enough for others, including members of his own family who rejected him as not being part of “authentic Judaism,’ a ‘Boston Sadducee.”

And so it goes, with Soloveitchik’s own “satanic” and “angelic” critics and followers producing mutually enforcing arguments, a combination of perspectives creating a reputation that turns out, as T.S. Eliot wrote of Ben Jonson, to be of the “most deadly kind.” Deadly for making Soloveitchik, a major theologian of the late twentieth century (a distinction more important than that bestowed with the title “the Rav”), irrelevant to an audience which may need him most (and not just those in the inner circles of Orthodoxy).  Indeed, when several years ago, I suggested a panel on Soloveitchik for the Limmud Conference in England, the program organizers dismissed the idea out of hand: “Soloveitchik,’ I was told, ‘is passé.”

Of Milton’s reputation, Edward Phillips, an early biographer and brother-in-law, concluded that “it will better become a person less related than myself, to deliver his judgement.” Phillips understood that it would be later generations, not family, nor followers, nor even religious fellow travelers would who would be the best future readers of Milton’s work (perhaps surprisingly and ironically, many of them Jews).  Sometimes reputations established in a lifetime—Phillips’ contemporary Puritan readers of Milton—become an obstacle to critical engagement, something Freud also knew, as he meditated on tradition in his fictive account of the death of Moses, Moses and Monotheism.  For Freud, sometimes for a message to be truly heard, for tradition to take hold, the “messenger has to be killed.”  The Freudian principle, as Jonathan Lear suggests, shows itself in a Greek context: philosophical culture could only come into existence after the death of Socrates—so the latter, though tried by the Athenians, knowingly takes the hemlock, making way for a philosophical culture only possible with his death.

The Freudian conception, developed in relationship to Moses, may not be foreign to the rabbinic one: ‘sometimes the nullification of a thing is necessary for its future existence.’ In one reading of Menahot 99b, the first tablets, evidence of divine perfection—can only be affirmed when they are destroyed, supplanted by the second tablets.  In the stories of Moses’s death in Temurah, uncannily parallel to those of Freud, only after Moses dies does tradition or mesorah begin: Moses dies, laws are forgotten, but Otniel of the Book of Judges, beginning genuine traditional activity “restores” them through his interpretive dialectics. Thus the paradox: only after Moses dies can the Law of Moses be affirmed.

What some will certainly find a discomforting conclusion follows: in order for Soloveitchik’s reputation to live for us today, he first has to be ‘‘killed off.” Soloveitchik understood the principle informing this himself, realizing that he could only become himself—in what he saw to be the ultimate hiddush or creative act, self-creation—by metaphorically killing off his own fathers, the ‘halakhic men’ whom he both revered and against whom he rebelled.  For Soloveitchik to become urgent again (as he should be), we must move past the conversation—or polemical disputes—between proponents or opponents of different versions of “Soloveitchik,” and re-read him with both critical and open minds.  This will mean adopting the methodological pluralism that Soloveitchik himself advocated in Halakhic Mind in his approach to “religious philosophy”—his commitment to “thick description” and a variety of different interpretive perspectives. We may read Soloveitchik now with reverence or critique—or both—but we should move past the tired oppositions of previous critical approaches and recognize different modes of reading, so that Soloveitchik can speak to us, as he should, in the twenty-first century.

William Kolbrener is Professor of English Literature at Bar Ilan University, author of Milton’s Warring Angels (Cambridge 1996), and Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love (Continuum 2011); his The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition was recently published by Indiana University