Did the Rav Drop a Bombshell?

Joseph Soloveitchik

Joseph Soloveitchik (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yoram Hazony, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, has written a provocative review of a remarkable work by Orthodox rabbi, Talmudist, and Yeshiva University professor Joseph B. Soloveitchik, best known in the Torah community as “The Rav,” in Commentary. 

Hazony suggests that the Rav, in his posthumously-published book The Emergence of Ethical Man, framed an argument that “contemporary Jewish thought is based on medieval premises that are themselves alien to Judaism.” In essence, Hazony believes that the Rav was calling into question everything written in and about Judaism since at least the Renaissance, and possibly before.

As a consequence, Judaism cannot field an alternative to European thought, for it has itself, in a sense, succumbed to European thought. Jewish thought will therefore have to go back to its roots, to the Hebrew Bible and the classical rabbinic texts, and from them derive a “new worldview” that will be different from both the neo-medieval Jewish thought of modern times and the non-Jewish philosophical schools that await a new challenge from within Judaism.

I’ve spent the past four days wondering whether I should order The Emergence of Ethical Man, hoping perhaps to come to my own accommodation with the sheer intellectual mass of Jewish thought by redlining everything written after the Rambam.  and decided a few moments before sitting down to write this that I would not. What convinced me was this post by Rabbi Gil Student at his excellent blog Hihurim Musings. Rabbi Student concludes:

As I understand R. Soloveitchik’s words, they provide no basis to suggest that he breached any theological boundaries in Emergence, certainly not any of the Rambam’s 13 Principles. He remains an innovative thinker within Orthodox Judaism as traditionally understood.

All of which makes me realize that I am intellectually outclassed. I’m going to stick with the basic texts for a while, but in the meantime I’m going to watch this discussion from the sidelines.

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