The Rav Between Halakhic Men and Lachrymose Lubavitchers
The following is a response to the Volume 10, Issue 1 Symposium. Click here for the symposium prompt and links to other responses.
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s telling of the well-known anecdote of his father, Rav Moshe, and the Lubavitcher ba’al tokea plays a curious role in Halakhic Man. (It should be noted that the incident occurred in the synagogue in Washington Heights, not in old-world Khislavichi, a mistake the reader might be forgiven for making.) The story itself is a fairly effective demonstration of halakhic man’s worldview, which sees in the halakha “a dam against the surging, subjective current coursing through the universal homo religiosus” (p. 59). It is precisely this outlook which drove halakhic men to view the Musar movement, and its perceived extremes of emotional life, with a jaundiced eye (see the Brisker Rx for castor oil, p. 75). In fact, although the shofar anecdote might be more well known, it is hardly the sharpest example cited. Although the Rav may have felt compelled to acknowledge in passing (p. 154 n.90) that there is a distinction between the halakhic men and the Stoics and Epicureans, he does not elaborate. A good demonstration of this is the encounter with Yom Kippur’s sunset (p. 38), which implies that halakhic men also are sensitive to aesthetic, and presumably emotional, experiences, but ultimately filter them through the prism of the pure halakha. Ultimately the reader is more stunned by the depictions of the Vilna Gaon and R. Elijah Pruzna’s encounters with the death of loved ones (pp. 77-78). These halakhic men are not exactly Spock-like, yet their emotions are deeply internalized, private, and regulated through strict halakhic mechanisms. Our reverence for those masters aside, few modern readers will fully identify with the depiction of these kalter litvaks; many will find the anecdotes downright grotesque.
However, I believe that the significance of the shofar story is not in its telling, but in how the Rav frames it. The anecdote occupies a mere eight lines of the text. What follows is two and a quarter pages (in a monograph containing only 132 pages of text) in which the Rav lays out the teaching of R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady regarding shofar and lulav. That is: He gives more than equal time to the opposing viewpoint. When Rav Moshe charges the lachrymose Lubavitcher: “Do you weep when you take the lulav? Why then do you weep when you sound the shofar? Are not both commandments of God?,” the lengthy citation from the Likkutei Torah which follows explains precisely why the ba’al tokea had no idea what the elder Rabbi Soloveitchik was asking him. To his ears it must have sounded like a nonsense question, akin to asking a sobbing child who has just crashed his bicycle: “Why do you cry when you scrape your knee? Do you cry when you get ice cream?” The Rav explains according to the Alter Rebbe how shofar and lulav represent different emotional experiences (in brief: Shofar heralds how distant we are from the Deus Absconditus; lulav signals the polar opposite). The hasidic excursus follows immediately on the heels of the misnagdic anecdote, without as much as a paragraph break, and the casual reader might not immediately perceive how subversive it is to the exposition of halakhic man’s worldview. Its place and purpose in the work is, I believe, to gently communicate that despite his reverence for halakhic man (who is after all, no more and no less than a typological distillation of his own grandfather, father, and uncle), the Rav does not fully identify with him, precisely regarding his position on the role of emotion in life and in the service of God. His lifelong occupation with the matter of Kiyyum she-baLev (although admittedly present in earlier Brisker Torah) may reveal a desire to introduce an emotional component into halakha proper. Consider this: If the Rav was a self-identified, card-carrying halakhic man could he also have authored The Lonely Man of Faith?
The Rav’s ambivalence toward the hero of Halakhic Man becomes significant in another area when, in 1959, he revisited the halakhic man, fifteen years after his first appearance, by way of eulogizing his uncle, Reb Velvel, the Brisker Rav of Jerusalem. The eulogy, later published as “Mah Dodekh mi-Dod” (available in Be-Sod Ha-Yahid ve-haYahad; an English translation is a serious desideratum), serves as an important supplement to our understanding of Halakhic Man in general and the question at hand in particular (especially as its distance in time may make it the product of a more mature perspective).
In addressing his uncle’s anti-Zionism, the Rav explained: “They said of him [Reb Velvel] that he was opposed to the State of Israel. This is not correct. Opposition to a State emanates from adopting a position regarding a political body, which is itself a political act. My uncle was completely removed from all socio-political thought or response. What may be said of him is that the State found no place within his halakhic thought system nor on his halakhic value scale. He was unable to ‘translate’ the idea of a sovereign, secular State to halakhic properties and values.” It is not that Reb Velvel was an anti-Zionist, per se, but that, as a halakhic matter the secular State of Israel did not register on his radar screen. Upon reaching the disappointing conclusion that there was no way to integrate the State into the a priori ideals of the halakha, Reb Velvel was forced to retreat and ignore (not oppose) the State. At this point in his presentation, we must pay close attention to the Rav’s words: “This disappointment led to my uncle separating himself from the most important event in modern Jewish history [i.e., the establishment of the State].”
Once again, very subtly, the Rav admits that “after many sleepless nights” he has broken with the tradition of halakhic man (and in this case, with the family’s rejection of Zionism), and conveys that he himself may not completely share the worldview that he has idealized in Halakhic Man (and again in “Mah Dodekh mi-Dod”). While in the eulogy he goes on to explain the way that he was able to conceive of the modern State of Israel within a halakhic framework, there can be no doubt that he was moved by an emotional consideration, one which his hero, halakhic man, could not or would not register.
We, too, revere halakhic men (and women). But when we look to role models, be they of flesh and blood or philosophical typologies on a page, we must take care when “cutting and pasting” their examples to our own lives. By doing so indiscriminately, we may be importing characteristics which are neither effective or appropriate for ourselves; eclectic modelling if done with integrity is often more sound. If we do not fully identify with Halakhic Man, and it is possible its author did not fully do so specifically on the role of emotion in religious life, that need not dampen our commitment to “defend the honor of the halakhah and halakhic men” nor to continue striving to “penetrate into the essence of halakhah” (the Rav’s stated goals in composing the work; p. 137).
Rabbi Jeffrey Saks, an associate editor of Tradition, is the founding director of ATID and its WebYeshiva.org program.
 For more on this see Jeffrey Saks, “Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on the Brisker Method,” Tradition 33:2 (Winter 1999).