This is an extended version of an essay that appeared in the April issue of Commentarymagazine. To read the original article, click here.
Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) was one of the leading rabbinic figures of the twentieth century. He taught at Yeshiva University beginning in 1941, where he earned a virtually unrivalled reputation as a talmudist, and is said to have ordained two thousand rabbis over the course of half a century. He is also held in high regard as both a philosopher and a Zionist thinker, especially among Orthodox Jews but also further afield. Yet the significance of R. Soloveitchik’s thought has often been difficult for those of us who didn’t know him personally to assess due to the limited range of the written works he chose to publish during his lifetime.
This problem—the unavailability of published renderings of much of R. Soloveitchik’s thought—has been a source of understandable discomfort for his students, and recent years have seen an intensive effort to remedy this situation with the publication of a series of posthumous works prepared from manuscripts, notes, and lecture tapes by a group of scholars headed by the philosopher David Shatz of Yeshiva University. Since 2004, this effort has led to the publication of no fewer than a dozen volumes at the rate of one or two a year, and they are still appearing.
I have to admit I’ve been slow to getting around to reading these works. This hasn’t been due to any lack of interest in R. Soloveitchik’s thought, but rather because of long-standing qualms about the posthumous publishing business in general. My difficulty is basically this: Most productive authors leave behind them notebooks filled with fragments of essays and books they never finished, lecture notes from lectures they delivered but never prepared for publication, and other similar materials. But unless a manuscript was near completion and clearly intended for publication at the time of the author’s death, there is always a very real question as to whether what is found in these notebooks and lecture notes and cassette tapes represents the author’s best and settled judgment about the subjects being treated. A creative thinker can take up a line of argument and proceed with it quite far, even over a course of months, before concluding that this just isn’t something he wants to say—or even something he really believes. And if you don’t know that what you’re reading represents what the author really wanted to say, or even what he really believed, what exactly is the point in reading it?
I don’t raise this issue as an objection to the Soloveitchik publication project. I assume Shatz and his colleagues know what they’re doing. But it has been the main reason that each time I’ve reached for one of these volumes in recent years, I’ve felt a small stab of guilt—enough to get my hand to scoot over to something safer to read.
But recently I did it. I read carefully, for the first time, what may be the most important of the posthumous works published so far: A book published under the title The Emergence of Ethical Man (Toras Horav and Ktav, 2005). So far as I am aware, this work has drawn little attention since its publication. I’m not sure what are the reasons for this. But I am sure about one thing. This is a bombshell of a book: Its contents are perhaps no surprise at all to those who were personally close to R. Soloveitchik and knew his worldview well. But for those who have known him principally from his writings, reading this work is likely to come as something of a shock.
In particular, those who think that Orthodox Judaism—like Christianity—necessarily demands belief in a core set of propositions affirming God’s past and future supernatural action in the world, are going to find themselves scrambling to try to square this view with the things that one of the towering figures of Orthodox Jewry in the last century had to say (or at least, at one point considered saying) on such subjects such as miracles, prophecy, immortality, and salvation.
In this essay I’ll present some of this material, and then say a few words about how I think we should relate to it.
On its face, The Emergence of Ethical Man is just the kind of book I would normally want to avoid. At the time of R. Soloveitchik’s death, it consisted of ten handwritten notebooks in an envelope held together with a rubber band, with the words “The Concept of Man” written on it. My college friend Michael Berger, now professor of religion at Emory University in Atlanta, edited the notebooks and oversaw their publication. Michael guesses they were written in the 1950s or early 1960s, which means they were probably in that envelope for over thirty years during which R. Soloveitchik chose not to take them out again and work on a second draft of these materials. Moreover, the manuscript is incomplete, breaking off in the middle of what was to have been a larger project.
On the other hand, there are strong reasons for taking an interest in this work. It is one of the few pieces of R. Soloveitchik’s writings that we have which is not just an essay, but an actual book-length manuscript. And of the handful of book-length works he composed—the best known of which are Halachic Man (1983) and The Halachic Mind (1986 [written c. 1944])—it is the only one that gives us a reasonably systematic view of R. Soloveitchik’s conception of human nature, and of how he thought we should approach Hebrew Scripture in light of the achievements of modern science. These are very basic items in the construction of a modern Jewish philosophy, and once you find out that R. Soloveitchik takes these questions on in The Emergence of Ethical Man, it becomes hard not to want to know what’s in the book.
Moreover, The Emergence of Ethical Man can perhaps contribute something to solving what is probably the greatest riddle in the corpus of writings that R. Soloveitchik published during his lifetime: What did R. Soloveitchik have in mind when, at the end of his book The Halachic Mind, he announced that:
Out of the sources of halacha [Jewish law], a new world view awaits formulation.
This is a famous riddle, and it has been much discussed. These words were written at the end of World War II, when it was already becoming clear that much of European Jewry had not survived the war. And yet R. Soloveitchik, sitting in his garrett as the inferno of the Holocaust burns, writes that it is Judaism that will provide humanity with the new worldview that idealism, neo-Kantianism, pragmatism, and Heidegger-style existentialism (all discussed at some length in Halachic Mind) had failed to provide—the new world view, in fact, that modern physical science had failed to provide.
How were the sources of Judaism supposed to provide us with this “new world view”? Don’t they provide only an old and well-known world view? And why, if the sources of Judaism can provide a new world view, is this world view “awaiting formulation”? And also—new to whom? To Jews? To humanity?
None of this makes sense if one assumes that Judaism must be seen as a fixed body of doctrines whose contents are already well-defined and known to all. If Judaism is to give rise to a new world view then there must be some hesitation with respect to the old world view. And in Halachic Mind, R. Soloveitchik speaks briefly about what this hesitation is. Contemporary Jewish thought, he writes, is based neither on the classical sources of Jewish antiquity, nor on lived Jewish experience today. Instead, it is based largely on medieval Jewish philosophy, whose categories are principally Greek and Arab, and which cannot pass muster as genuine Jewish philosophy. As he writes:
[M]ost modern Jewish philosophers have adopted a very unique method. The source of knowledge, for them, is medieval Jewish philosophy…. [However,] we know that the most central concepts of medieval Jewish philosophy are rooted in ancient Greek and medieval Arabic thought and are not Jewish in origin at all. It is impossible to reconstruct a unique Jewish world perspective out of alien material.
Thus contemporary Jewish thought is based on medieval premises, which are themselves alien to Judaism. As a consequence, Judaism cannot field an alternative to European thought, for it has itself, in a sense, succumbed to European thought by way of medieval Jewish philosophy. Jewish thought will therefore have to go back to its roots—to the Hebrew Bible and the classical rabbinic texts, and from these derive a “new world view” that will be both different from the neo-medieval Jewish thought of today, and from the non-Jewish philosophical schools that await a new challenge from within Judaism.
In Halachic Mind, R. Soloveitchik sometimes gives the impression that it is the Jewish law, or halacha, in the strict sense of this term, that is to be the principal source of an authentic Jewish world perspective that can serve as an alternative to Greek and German thought.
With the publication of The Emergence of Ethical Man, however, the picture changes somewhat. In its opening paragraph, R. Soloveitchik draws a distinction among three different approaches to the concept of man—those identified, respectively, with Greek philosophy, with modern science, and with the viewpoint of the Bible. And from here he goes on to construct what is in effect a treatise on human nature, building up a concept of man that is then taken as the basis for what he refers to as a new “philosophy”—the true philosophy, as he sees it, of Judaism. All of which makes it sound as though The Emergence of Ethical Man was written as a conscious attempt to deliver on the promise of a “new world view” announced at the end of Halachic Mind. Yet the new concept of man so carefully constructed in The Emergence of Ethical Man is not, for the most part, derived from what we would usually consider Jewish legal sources. Instead, R. Soloveitchik relies overwhelmingly on the teachings of the narrative portions of the Hebrew Bible, especially Genesis and Exodus. It is in the stories of Adam, Abraham, and Moses that he finds a carefully elaborated conception of what it is to be a human being—a conception he builds up for nearly 200 pages before arriving at a discussion of the giving of the law at Sinai, which is where the text breaks off.
We can guess that had the work been completed, it would from this point forward have engaged more directly with the Mosaic law. Yet if this guess is right, it means that when R. Soloveitchik spoke about a new world view arising from the sources of halacha, what he had in mind was an understanding of the halacha that must itself be seen as flowing from a philosophical conception of the nature of man that is already present in the narrative portions of the books of Genesis andExodus. Seen in this light, the Jewish law is understood as an extensive, practical elaboration of a concept of man that is already fleshed out in the biblical narratives prior to the giving of the law. Biblical narrative is thus found to be the primary vehicle for giving expression to Jewish philosophy, which serves as the original source and wellspring for what later becomes halacha, Jewish law.
What does R. Soloveitchik have to say about the biblical concept of man? There is much to be considered here, but I’ll restrict myself to two of his central points. First, R. Soloveitchik painstakingly documents the abundant evidence that the Hebrew Scriptures see man as being a part of the natural world. Time and again, man is depicted as resembling plant life and animal life, and as being, in the decisive sense, a variation on such life. Man is never depicted—as in other religions—as a divine soul that is in some sense alien to this world, but chained to it by a body that is fashioned from worldly materials. On R. Solovetchik’s understanding of Scripture, man is entirely “of this world” and a part of nature. True, man comes into conflict with the order of nature through his capacity to distinguish moral right and yearn for God. But R. Soloveitchik argues that the moral and religious capacities of man are not depicted, in the biblical narratives, as requiring a departure from the order of nature. As he writes:
[T]he widespread opinion that within the perspective of anthropological naturalism there is no place for the religious act, for the relatedness of man to eternity and infinity, is wrong…. [M]an-as-animal needs religious faith and commitment to a higher authority.
In this passage, R. Soloveitchik breaks ranks with a long tradition of writers who have sought to portray man as being, in some profound respect, alien to the order of nature; and tied essentially to some supernatural order that offers us a different kind of life from the one we gain at birth and lose when we die. Here, too, Soloveitchik’s dissent from the body of medieval Jewish thought is striking:
Our task now is to investigate the cogency of the almost dogmatic assertion that the Bible proclaimed the separateness of man from nature…. It is certain that the fathers of the Church and also the Jewish medieval scholars believed that the Bible preached this doctrine. Medieval and even modern Jewish moralists have almost canonized this viewpoint and attributed to it apodictic validity. Yet the consensus of many, however great and distinguished, does not prove the truth or falseness of a particular belief.
Note, too, the way in which Soloveitchik aligns medieval Jewish thought with Christianity—implicitly placing the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud in one camp, whereas on this issue at least, medieval Judaism takes its place together with Christianity in another. On this view, the Church fathers and the medieval Jewish philosophers did indeed seek a way of escaping man’s character as a part of nature. But the classical Jewish sources knew little if anything of such an aspiration. As he writes:
[T]he New Testament stresses man’s alien status in the world of nature and his radical uniqueness. To be sure, all these ideas are not only Christian but Jewish as well…. We come across a dual concept of man in the [Hebrew] Bible. His element of transcendence was well-known to the biblical Jew. Yet transcendence was always seen against the background of naturalness. The canvas was man’s immanence; transcendence was just projected on it as a display of colors. It was more a modifying than a basic attribute of man.
The deep feeling of man’s basic harmony with organic nature—a harmony emerging from uniformity—is the most salient feature of [the biblical] philosophical formula. Man may be the most developed form of life on the continuum of plant-animal-man, but the ontic essence remains identical.
The claim that man’s potential to transcend his nature is little more than a “display of colors” and not “a basic attribute of man,” and even that man’s “ontic essence remains identical” to that of the plant and animal life of which he is a continuation, is striking. With these claims, Soloveitchik draws a sharp line between his own understanding of Scripture and that of most Christians, as well as of many modern Jews. For if man’s transcendent element is not a central attribute of man’s nature, much that we now think of as “religion” must be called into question: Is man not endowed with a potentially immortal (that is, supernatural) soul? Can man not attain miraculous (that is, supernatural) knowledge by means of prophecy? Is man’s hope of salvation not in the miraculous (that is, supernatural) deeds of the God of Israel? In reducing the transcendent aspiration in man to a mere “modifying attribute,” all of this is thrown into question.
And in fact, as the argument progresses, it becomes evident that what R. Soloveitchik was looking to do in retrieving and clarifying the biblical conception of man was precisely to reframe our reading of Scripture so as to take these issues off the table. Indeed, Soloveitchik is unable to recognize in the Hebrew Scriptures anything resembling the conflict between the natural life of man in this world, which ends in biological death; and the supernatural, eternal life that Jesus promises mankind in the Gospel of John. In Hebrew Scripture, he argues, the drama turns on another, entirely different conflict: That between the natural life of man, which is conducted in accord with familiar laws of physics and biology, politics, and history; and the ethical life of man, which seeks to redirect the course of nature in the service of an end that is, in a certain sense, alien to it—the end of a world reconstructed in light of God’s will that something better and higher should come to pass. It is the awareness of the possibility of this better world that Soloveitchik identifies with the “image of God” (tzelem elohim) in man. As he writes:
[M]an as a natural being suddenly begins to discover in himself not only identity but also incommensurability with nature. Thus he enters a new phase of viewing nature from a distance…. [His] personality begins to assume shape and the ethical norm attains its full meaning. Man experiences the ethical must, not as a natural necessity which he cannot flee but as a unique imperative which, if he decides so, he may disobey and ignore…. [T]he consciousness of freedom begins to dawn on him.
In a sense, then, the image of God does, for Soloveitchik, involve the ability to overcome natural life. But Soloveitchik emphasizes that this distancing of man from natural life does not, in Hebrew Scripture, involve any turn to the supernatural. What he calls “personality,” or the freedom to choose between natural drives and the ethical impulse, “does not connote anything supernatural or transcendental. It signifies only the emergence of subjectivity in man.” It signifies, in other words, the development of the ability to mount a critique of nature as man finds it—something that no other living things can do. Man comes to regard nature as being to a certain extent alien, and therefore discerns the possibility of choosing against nature.
For Soloveitchik, then, there is in the Bible a story of man becoming aware of his ability to resist the course of nature. But he finds it not through the discovery of the supernatural, in the sense of the ability to violate the laws of nature. He discovers it, rather, in the awareness of his own subjectivity and freedom, which permit the moral imperative to emerge. One may wish to say that such freedom in a world of dead matter is “spooky” (as philosophers like to say these days),but this spookiness is not registered in the biblical worldview. For the authors of the Hebrew Bible, man’s capacity to choose something greater and better than that which the laws governing dead matter might lead us to expect—this too is part of the way God created the world, and therefore must be seen as a part of nature.
So what about miracles and prophecy? About salvation and the immortality of the soul? Can R. Soloveitchik really hold the line that all these things—so important to Christianity and medieval Jewish thought—are, in the Hebrew Bible, to be understood in terms of man’s natural life in this world?
Let’s look first at the prophetic relationship, in which God appears before man. As the Bible is most commonly read, any prophetic encounter must involve some kind of suspension of the laws of nature, requiring, for example, a miraculous inpouring of knowledge into the mind of man—an inpouring that could not have been available had the individual in question relied exclusively on his native mental capacities. Yet the supposition that prophecy involves some kind of escape from the bounds of man’s natural mental endowment is ruled out in a early passage in The Emergence of Ethical Man. As he writes:
This paradigm is crucial to understanding Judaism: As a natural being, man is arrested within concreteness and, as such, can never reach a transcendent God…. Man discovers God within finitude, within man’s own realm…. When man frees himself from such natural bonds [of concrete time and place], he loses contact with God.
In this passage, R. Soloveitchik explicitly rejects the claim that man can have knowledge of a transcendent God. Whatever man knows of God he knows entirely “within man’s own realm,” which is the realm of a “natural being.”
What does this mean? We get a clearer picture when R. Soloveitchik turns to examine actual instances of prophecy, such as “And the Lord said to Avram: Get you out of your homeland, and from your kindred, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”(Genesis 12.1)
In analyzing this instance of prophecy, R. Soloveitchik argues that the command given to Abraham is one of revolt: Abraham is to leave everything he has known, his life and home in the heart of the highly advanced civilization of Mesopotamia, and to live out his days as a shepherd dwelling in tents in the wilderness of Canaan. Abraham embarks, in other words, on a “spiritual straying,” of which the physical departure from his country is only the outward expression. Abraham’s impulse is thus an anarchic one, but R. Soloveitchik emphasizes that “biblical anarchy does not assert itself in the negation of the norm as such.” There is no revolt here against the very idea of law, but only against the laws of the nations of the ancient Near East, whose ways Abraham sees as perverse.
All this is right, I think. The command for Abraham to leave Mesopotamia does carry within itself just this message. But where does this prophetic communication come from? What are we to make of the words “And the Lord said” with which the prophetic command begins? Here is what R. Soloveitchik has to say about this:
The moral law is revealed to [Abraham] by his God… who speaks from beyond and within his own personality. The source of the law is the mahazeh, the prophetic vision, not the royal decree. [Abraham] discovers the ethos himself. As a free personality, he goes out to meet the moral law with his full collected being; he chances to find it within himself and to consciously adopt it. He is not overpowered by an unforseen element…. His sovereign freedom has not been restricted. Only later does he find out, to his surprise, that with the moral law in himself he has discovered the God of morality beyond himself….
Revelation is thus presented not as an overpowering, alien force, acting from outside Abraham’s own soul. The revelation is from God, but it is not so much received as something that Abraham “discovers,” that he “goes out to meet,” that he “chances to find… within himself,” that he “consciously adopts.” All this emphasizes the divine command as something that arises in the context of an active human personality that is searching and consequently makes discoveries. This is not to say that the divine command that has been discovered is an arbitrary personal creation. Abraham discovers something quite real that is both “from beyond and within his own personality.” But R. Soloveitchik is emphatic that:
God came to man after the latter had sought and found him. Only then did he contact Abraham.
Knowledge gained through prophetic insight is thus presented as something that man “seeks and finds” even before God’s role in this process becomes evident. This makes biblical prophecy sound like something very much akin to the natural human effort to attain knowledge—which likewise involves human seeking that ends with some kind of confirmation from beyond.
The same kind of naturalism appears again in R. Soloveitchik’s account of the biblical conception of immortality. On his view, what immortality there is in Hebrew Scripture is not based upon speculation concerning the existence of a “transcendental world” in which the individual soul lives on after biological death. It is rooted, rather, in an understanding of the possibility that the consciousness of the individual may live on in the form of an ongoing commitment, by one’s descendants and nation, to the agreements, obligations, and objectives of their ancestors. Soloveitchik calls this eternal “re-experience” a “covenant consciousness.” As he writes:
As a consequence of the perennial brit consciousness [i.e., covenant consciousness], we may speak of a historical ethical memory. Agreements entered into, obligations assumed, promises made, objectives formulated by the father of the nation are valid and binding for the… group. We remember the ethical duty contained in the covenant…. [T]his is not simple remembrance; it is rather a re-acceptance, a re-experience. We assumed our duties through Abraham and Moses. They represented us, and we in turn represent them.
In this passage, Soloveitchik sees the individual as taking up the obligations, promises, and hardship undertaken by his ancestors, thereby making his consciousness a re-experiencing of theirs: “The authentic historical figure,” he writes, “suffers for the past and relives it.” But it is not only obligations and suffering that is re-experienced. It is objectives and ideals too. And in recognizing the ideal of the founder and devoting oneself to this ideal, the individual partakes of a life that can in fact transcend biological death: “As long as the ideal has not materialized, the charismatic personality cannot die, for its life was given to its fulfillment.”
This means that the concept of immortality that one finds in the Hebrew Bible does in a sense involve overcoming life at what Soloveitchik calls “the natural level”—the life of man as an isolated atom, which is unable or unwilling to take up the experience of past and future generations as his own. But one does not overcome the nature level of man’s biological mortality by supernatural means. It is rather by merging one’s own consciousness with that of a historical existence or ego, which is to say, a people:
[The] concept of immortality as coined by Judaism is the continuation of a historical existence throughout the ages. It differs from transcendental immortality insofar as the deceased person does not lead an isolated, separate existence in a transcendental world. The identity [of the individual] persists on a level of concrete reality disguised as a people. It asserts itself in the consciousness of the many…. [Thus] metaphysical immortality is based upon historical immortality. Whoever does not identify himself with the historical ego and remains at the natural level cannot attain immortality.
If the biblical concept of man offers immortality only through the merger of one’s living consciousness with the unending life of one’s people, what kind of salvation or redemption can man hope for? Clearly, the Bible does not offer the individual salvation through the redemption of one’s soul in a transcendental world. What then?
Soloveitchik answers this question too with reference to the possibility of man’s covenant-consciousness, which permits him to take on divine attributes by acting to fulfill the objectives of the covenant in this world by means of his own efforts:
The covenant… draws man into the historical-divine performance…. [Man] joins God in carrying out the historical task. God worked through Moses in order to introduce man into the sphere of historical creativeness. Let man himself attempt to realize the covenant. Let this realization occur within the bounds of human activity…. The covenant assures man… of divine attributes. There is a merger of tasks, of performances…. [M]an shares the divine execution of covenant realization. The messianic hope is based on this aspect. Man acts as a divine agent and redeems himself.
Redemption is thus seen to be a concept that finds its place within the framework of the natural order as well. Man redeems himself (that is, he is “saved”) when he succeeds in rising above the aimlessness of the natural world and exerts himself to bring nature in line with the historical imperative of the covenant. As R. Soloveitchik writes: “In the apostolic transcending is implied a historical adventure. I am freeing myself from the concrete and natural in order to attain the historical…. Moses imposed upon [nature] a new aspect—the historical—and made it cooperate with the new order. Moses actually reminded nature of its genuine purpose….”
Finally, Soloveitchik turns to the question of the miraculous in Hebrew Scripture. For is the Bible not a book of miracles? “The central theme of the exodus tale,” he writes, “is the miracle.”
Yet in the thought of the Hebrew Bible, there are no miracles in the sense of a supernatural act that violates nature’s immutable order:
The word “miracle” in Hebrew does not possess the connotation of the supernatural. It has never been placed on the transcendental level. “Miracle” [Heb., peleh, nes] describes only an outstanding event which causes amazement…. As we read the story of the exodus from Egypt, we are impressed by the distinct tendency of the Bible to relate the events in natural terms. The frogs came out of the river when the Nile rose; the wind brought the locusts and split the sea…. The Bible never emphasizes the unnaturalness of the events; only [their] intensity and force are emphasized.
As Soloveitchik argues, the possibility of a “violation” of the natural order occurs only where one considers “the world-drama as a fixed, mechanical process.” Only then is there an assumption that nature must at bottom be a “causalistic, meaningless monotony.” And only then does something outstanding or amazing come to be seen as a “supernatural transcendental phenomenon.”
In the world of the biblical authors, however, there is no such sharp demarcation between nature and super-nature. The Bible “describes the most elementary natural phenomena like the propagation of light in terms of wonder and astonishment—no different from Moses’ “Song at the Sea” in which God’s victory over Pharaoh’s armies is described.
But if this is so—if the Bible recognizes nothing “supernatural” in the great events it is describing any more than in the propagation of light—then what is it that makes an event such as the drowning of Pharaoh’s armies in the Red Sea worthy of being described using the terms peleh or nes—a miracle?
R. Soloveitchik’s answer is breathtaking in its boldness:
What is a miracle in Judaism?… In what does the uniqueness of the miracle assert itself? In the correspondence of the natural and historical orders. The miracle does not destroy the objective scientific [character of the event] itself, it only combines natural dynamics and historical purposefulness. Had the plague of the firstborn, for instance, occurred a year before or after the exodus [of the Hebrews from Egypt], it would not have been [a miracle]. Why? God would have been instrumental in a natural children’s plague…. [But o]n the night of Passover he appeared… as acting along historical patterns…. Miracle is simply a natural event which causes a historical metamorphosis. Whenever history is transfigured under the impact of [natural] cosmic dynamics, we encounter a miracle. 
This passage deserves careful attention. The argument is that what is celebrated in the biblical account of the Israelite’s departure from Egypt is not the fact that the laws of nature can be violated, and that God did indeed violate them in this or that plague. Rather, the biblical narrative celebrates something entirely different: The fact that the dead matter of the physical world is capable of displaying moral qualities—that it is capable of movement in a direction that the human mind can recognize as being ethically valenced and positive. What we see in the exodus from Egypt is not the failure of the natural world to function according to physical law, but rather the remarkable possibility that the natural world can, at times, act in accordance with the dictates of the moral law.
In another passage, R. Soloveitchik refers to the clockwork of physical nature as the “forces of indifference” to man’s well-being and fate, whereas the existence of an ethical dimension, visible in nature as progress toward a better world, he calls the “historical motive.” When historical motives prevail, as when an enslaved nation attains its freedom, the natural is not superseded by the supernatural. Instead, the natural is elevated to the level of the ethical, becoming one with it—and this is miracle enough:
Miracle expresses the idea that whenever the covenant comes to a crisis in its eternal struggle with the forces of indifference, the historical motives will overcome the opposition of a cruel reality. Historical motives will emerge victorious from the clash with actual forces, which during the interim seemed to run contrary to the vision of realization. This faith is rooted in our identification of both realms…. The great ideal is… the elevation of the natural level to the ethical one.
R. Soloveitchik’s The Emergence of Ethical Man thus presents the teachings of Hebrew Scripture as having little or no interest in the supernatural. On this view, Judaism is a religion or a philosophy (Soloveitchik frequently refers to Judaism as a “philosophy”) that seeks purpose and meaning, the ethical and the holy, and even an authentic encounter with God himself, all within the confines of the world of man’s experience, which is the natural world.
In the context of present-day views, which see religion as essentially, if not exclusively, concerned with supernatural events and powers, this way of looking at Judaism—especially coming from one of the last century’s foremost Orthodox Jewish thinkers—has to be seen as something of bombshell.
Indeed, the appearance of The Emergence of Ethical Man raises quite a number of pressing questions that really must be given more attention than they have until now. Questions like: Is this really what R. Soloveitchik thought? Is this really an example of Orthodox Judaism? And most important, is this way of looking at Judaism true? That is, does it really penetrate the world of the biblical authors and retrieve for us something close to the heart of what it was that they were trying to teach us?
With respect to the first question, I think we have to conclude that The Emergence of Ethical Man is indeed an authentic presentation of R. Soloveitchik’s thought with respect to the relationship between nature and Jewish religion. True, Soloveitchik chose not to publish The Emergence of Ethical Man during his lifetime, leaving it in that envelope, untouched, for decades until his death. And what he did publish in the years after he wrote this manuscript carefully steered clear of a discussion of the relationship between the Bible and nature such as we find in The Emergence of Ethical Man. For example, the essay Lonely Man of Faith (1965), which Soloveitchik wrote just a few years later, very much resemblesEmergence of Ethical Man in that it offers a close reading of the early chapters of Genesis in order to develop a concept of man. But it is presented entirely as a “reflection on a human life-situation,” and a description of “a personal dilemma.” He explicitly renounces any attempt at discussing the problem of faith and reason in a theoretical fashion—and so makes it seem as though the issues that were front and center in The Emergence of Ethical Man couldn’t be further from his mind.
These facts will no doubt be interpreted by some as suggesting that The Emergence of Ethical Man should be regarded as spurious: If the Rav had wanted to say these things, he would have said them out loud at some point in his long career. The fact is that he chose not to say them, and we had best treat the entire episode as an aberration rather than as an important part of his thought.
My usual worries about the dangers of rifling through unpublished manuscripts notwithstanding, I think such an assessment would be misplaced here. A teacher of mine who is himself a relative of the Soloveitchik family assures me that the standpoint presented in The Emergence of Ethical Man was indeed that of R. Soloveitchik in later years as well, and that anyone who knew the great rabbi well was aware of this fact. Moreover, so far as I have been able to tell, nothing in R. Soloveitchik’s published works in any way contradicts the naturalism of Emergence of Ethical Man. These issues are deftly sidestepped, as in Lonely Man of Faith. But the naturalist standpoint of The Emergence of Ethical Man is never contradicted. Finally, this book is in print today only with the consent of Soloveitchik’s family and of those of his students who are his literary executors. No doubt if they had believed that this work in some important sense failed to represent the great man’s thought, its publication could have been avoided. No, this would appear to be authentic Soloveitchik.
Which conclusion leads us to the question of whether the ideas presented in The Emergence of Ethical Man can really be considered Orthodox Judaism. To a certain extent, this is a meaningless question: If one of the undisputed leaders of Orthodox Judaism says that Judaism teaches certain things, then these things would seem to be at least one Orthodox view.
But this question also serves to emphasize something important about “Orthodox” Judaism that we sometimes remember but more often forget. This is the fact that the word orthodox—which in English could be rendered as something like right belief or right-believing—is a term derived from Christian discussion of Christian religious dogmas, and that it always did sit uneasily as a description of anything in Judaism. It is, I think, going too far to say that there is nothing a Jew must believe to be right-believing. Orthodox Jewish thought has always supposed, for example, that the Mosaic law, if we adhere to it, will bring blessings to Jews and non-Jews; and that the rule of God on earth is ultimately just. These are central propositions for the biblical authors (although even these propositions are not accepted in the Hebrew Bible without question). Without them there wouldn’t be much left of Judaism.
But the category of the “supernatural” has no similar status in biblical thought. It is only later readers (“the fathers of the Church and also the Jewish medieval scholars,” as R. Soloveitchik says) who are familiar with a sharp distinction betweennatural and supernatural—and who are consequently able to turn the existence of the supernatural into a religious doctrine. But as I suggested earlier, R. Soloveitchik turns to the Hebrew Bible as an antidote to such thought. Indeed, the question of the supernatural is for him precisely the heart of the opposition between Christianity and authentic Jewish thought. As he writes:
It is at this point that Judaism breaks with Christianity. Christianity has been bent upon a transcendental adventure, namely, to free man from his bondage to the flesh and raise him to a spiritual level. Judaism, in contrast, proclaimed the goodness of the whole man, of the natural man-plant-animal.
On this view, it is not supernaturalist readings of the Hebrew Bible that should be considered to represent an original and genuinely Jewish approach, but rather naturalist ones such as those we find in Maimonides’ Guide and Soloveitchik’sEmergence of Ethical Man. Indeed, it is the supernaturalist interpretation of Scripture—which imports a Christian metaphysics into earlier Hebrew texts that embraced nothing of the kind—that may be seen as having a potentially tenuous relationship with Jewish “orthodoxy.”
This goes a long way in answering the question of whether R. Soloveitchik’s reading of Hebrew Scripture could really be at least in the ballpark of being right. For nearly twenty centuries, the West has read the Hebrew Bible in light of the very different teachings found in the Christian New Testament. Today, nearly everyone reads Hebrew Scripture—to one extent or another—as if its authors were party to the supernaturalist concerns of the Gospel of John or of Paul’s Letters.
Yet there is reason to doubt that the common New-Testamentized reading of the Hebrew Bible that we’re used to is right. After all, the principal texts of Hebrew Scripture were written centuries before the distinction between natural andsupernatural was applied to them. They were written by individuals who spoke a different language from the Greek in which this dichotomy was framed, and professed a different religion from the Christianity whose virtues it was designed to emphasize. Moreover, the texts of the Hebrew Bible seem largely uninterested in the subjects that made the concept of thesupernatural so important and useful in explaining Christianity. The hidden secrets of God’s previously unrevealed plan for mankind, the salvific power of faith, the availability of eternal life—none of these subjects are even top-40 in the Hebrew Scriptures, a fact so obvious and so jarring that it prompted Kant to argue that the Judaism of ancient Israel was not really a religion!
The things that we do find in the Hebrew Scriptures, by contrast, are in many respects similar to materials that are found in the books of philosophers and historians—whose subject matter is presumed to be the natural world: Histories of ancient peoples and attempts to draw political lessons from them; explorations of how best to conduct the life of the nation and the life of the individual; the writings of individuals who struggled with personal persecution and failure and their speculations concerning human nature and the search for the true and the good; attempts to get beyond the sphere of the here and now and to try and reach a more general understanding of the nature of reality, of man’s place in it, and of his relationship with that which is beyond his control. God is, of course, a central subject in the Hebrew Bible. But to a remarkable degree, the God of Israel and those who wrote about him seem to have been concerned to address subjects close to the heart of what later tradition calls works of philosophy or reason—subjects that are firmly rooted in the natural order of the world.
In the last century, the possibility that the Middle Ages may have seen a wrong turn in the way we read the Hebrew Bible was broached time and again. The sense that Judaism has yet to fully recover the source of its original vitality in the biblical texts could be discerned in the writings of thinkers as different as Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, A. J. Heschel, and Eliezer Berkovits. But no twentieth-century work challenges the thesis of biblical supernaturalism so directly and systematically as Joseph Soloveitchik’s The Emergence of Ethical Man.
The Emergence of Ethical Man may not have the impact it might have had if R. Soloveitchik had decided to bring it into the world during his own lifetime. But I suspect time will show we’ve greatly underestimated the significance of this manuscript. In its pages, one of the last century’s most remarkable minds offers us a first sketch of a reading of Scripture—and of an approach to Judaism—such as the modern world has rarely seen. It speaks to us of a form of religion that is entirely Orthodox and yet entirely naturalistic, in which the world of our present-day experience is recognized as the arena in which the ancient covenant with the God of Israel can still unfold even now.
For further discussion of these issues, see my new book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture: An Introduction(forthcoming with Cambridge University Press, September 2012). You can get more information about it here.