Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Halakhic Man

Review by Benjamin Samuels, 2008

Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man. Translated by Lawrence Kaplan. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1983. 164 pages.

In Halakhic Man, Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) eloquently introduces the reader to a particular form of Jewish spirituality and religious experience, namely that born of a life meticulously and conscientiously lived in communion with and by the dictates of Jewish law, known in rabbinic Hebrew as “halakhah,” which roughly translates to “the way.”  Adopting the language of pure ideal types in which he was schooled during his graduate studies in philosophy at University of Berlin in the late 1920’s, Soloveitchik constructs the religious paradigm of the halakhic man.  Inherent in halakhic man lies a dialectical dynamism between two other ideal types: cognitive man, who through sheer force of intellect seeks to fathom the secrets of the world, and homo religiosus who is captivated by the mysterium tremendum of existence.  Soloveitchik claims that these competing attitudes are oriented by a more fundamental ontic dualism that, at once, frustrates homo religiosus, leading him to search for an existence above empirical reality, and grounds cognitive man in his search for this-worldly comprehensibility.  The halakhic man shares a priori religious beliefs with homo religiosus, but merges them with a cognitive approach by “superimposing his a priori ideal system upon the realm of concrete existence” (18).  Like a mathematician who constructs “an ideal, lawful, unified system whose necessity flows from its very nature,” but “does not require, as far as its validity and truth are concerned, precise parallelism with the correlative realm of concrete, qualitative phenomena,” halakhic man’s ideal world of Jewish law need only map onto the concrete world as an approximate parallelism (19).   Thus, “when halakhic man approaches reality, he comes with his Torah, given to him from Sinai, in hand.  He orients himself to the world by means of fixed statutes and firm principles.  An entire corpus of precepts and laws guides him along the path leading to existence” (19).

Soloveitchik animates his treatise on the spirituality of a life lived in consonance with Jewish law with imaginative illustrations and moving personal recollections.  For example, Soloveitchik describes halakhic man’s coming across a bubbling spring and seeing not a wonder of nature, but a halakhic construct of a ritual immersion pool (20).  He recollects standing in the synagogue courtyard toward the end of the Day of Atonement with his father, watching the sunset, admiring not its softening hues, but the descent of divine forgiveness upon penitent Israel (28).  For Soloveitchik’s halakhic man, God is not found in the serenity of a mountain top, the whirl of a Jobian tempest, or through mystical meditation, but is experienced through the idealized study of Torah, and the cognizing of reality through Jewish law.

Halakhic Man, as a work, defies easy classification.  Its book jacket boasts that, “its pages include a brilliant exposition of Mitnaggedism [i.e, anti-Chassidism], of Lithuanian [Jewish] religiosity, with its emphasis on Talmudism; a profound excursion into religious psychology and phenomenology; a pioneering attempt at a philosophy of Halakhah [i.e., Jewish law]; a stringent critique of mysticism and romantic religion – all held together by the force of the author’s highly personal vision.” Halakhic Man sparkles with insights reflecting all of these, but as a whole is neither a systematic phenomenological study nor a sustained philosophical analysis of Jewish law.  The author himself concludes its pages by disclaiming its insufficiencies and humbly asserts: “This essay is but a patchwork of scattered reflections, a haphazard collection of fragmentary observations, an incomplete sketch of but a few of halakhic man’s features” (137).  However, regardless of its insufficiencies and inconsistencies, it offers compelling insight into the rich spirituality of Jewish ritual and legalistic observance.   Indeed, in many ways, Halakhic Man can best be described as a personal religious exposition, part autobiographical reflection, part apologia, by one of the twentieth century’s greatest rabbinical figures. While it surely does not represent the only form of authentic Jewish religious experience, nor does it necessarily even present a full model of ritual and legalistic Jewish spirituality, Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man expands our appreciation of the range of religious and spiritual experience.