What would a literary critical approach look like if applied to Orthodox Jewish texts? What if the texts chosen for a critical theory treatment were the writings of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-93)? William Kolbrener attempts such a reading in The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition (Indiana UP, 2016), using psychoanalysis, gender, and 17th century literature to read Soloveitchik as a literary text.
William Kolbrener is professor of literature at Bar Ilan University, and was educated at Oxford (MA) and Columbia University (BA, PhD.). His first book was Milton’s Warring Angels: A Study of Critical Engagements, (Cambridge University Press, 1996). His current work The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition is an application of his literary studies to a contemporary Jewish thinker. Despite writing on Soloveitchik, his classes at Bar Ilan University are currently populated mainly Arab students, both Muslim and Christian. He has also recently started writing in the public forum at Haaretz on timely topics such as “The Moral Failure of pro-Trump Orthodox Jews” and “The Cartoon God of Israel’s Settler Rabbis.”
In this new volume, Kolbrener paints Soloveitchik as an irreconcilably torn personality and as a complex pluralist. Soloveitchik writings, in this reading, become texts of pluralism, creativity, modernity, and self-creation, instead of the more popular presentation of his writings as geometric, analytic, and halakhic. Kolbrener admits that his method as a literary critic, allows him to interpret freely outside of Soloveitchik’s original meaning and context. He is certainly not attempting a conventional archival based biography. Hence, Soloveitchik, using critical theory, becomes a window on contemporary pluralism, gender studies, and psychoanalysis, not the more often used Centrist Orthodox lens of mesorah, submission, and anti-feminism.
Kolbrener deeply admires John Milton’s religious vision, which combines religious commitment and intellectual freedom. Counted among his other literary heroes are Mary Astell, 18th century author who combined Tory politics, and conservative religion with a proto-feminist vision. He also admires John Donne’s use of comparisons and paradox. Kolbrener finds all of these intense poetics of synthesis and complexity resonating with the writings of Rabbi Soloveitchik.
(For insights into Kolbrener and his method, here is an illustrative Youtube lecture of his on Milton and Milton’s midrash. I would recommend comparing Kolbrener’s synthesis of complexity to the synthesis of “two worlds” of the poet Yehoshua November.)
Kolbrener also draws on recent psychoanalytic authors, Adam Phillips, for example, who writes about ‘voices in the plural,’ to illuminate the sometimes conflicting voices in Soloveitchik. The psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, as another example, points out how melancholy moderns, failure to capture the essence of the Real (associated for her, with the feminine) leads to embracing the compensation of the masculine Law (language, culture, law).
The Last Rabbi focuses on a vignette that Soloveitchik shares in And From There You Shall Seek, in which he recounts that as a child, Soloveitchik was torn between the rational intellectualism of his father and the emotional support offered by his mother. According to Kolbrener, Soloveitchik idealizes the halakhic man who relies exclusively on reason and Talmudic study.
Yet, Soloveitchik cannot fully accept his father’s masculinity and for this reason, he runs into the arms of his consoling mother who provides an outlet for his emotive self. It is with his mother that he finds “sympathy in the presence of the feminine”. The imagery of Soloveitchik running back and forth between his father and mother, according to Kolbrener, reverberates throughout his theological teachings. Soloveitchik confronted a constant psychological need to choose between his father and his mother.
Kolbrener’s own narrative arc moves from secular graduate student to living a haredi life in Israel, and now a tempered modernity writing about Modern Orthodox thinkers.
When he was a graduate student, Kolbrener fell in love with the religious writings of John Milton and Mary Astell, which led him to discover Ultra- Orthodox Judaism as a fulfillment of his religious quest.
Only when I began to study Paradise Lost, John Milton’s epic re-writing of Genesis, did it to occur to me that being religious was not a sign of neurosis or flaky otherworldliness. In graduate school at Oxford and later at Columbia, for me and many of my fellow Jewish students, Milton was a safe way, without the risk of embarrassment, of experiencing the poetry of a religious sensibility. In earnest discussions of Christian redemptive history, the relationship between free will and divine providence, I lived, through Milton, the possibility of religious engagement.
Kolbrener was deeply bothered by the weight of the modern age, which represents a loss of a common set of shared languages, with the growth of individual subjectivity leading to the loss of opportunity for meaningful community. Ultra-Orthodoxy was the rediscovery of a community of a shared language and meaningful community.
But the Haredi world was not the return to John Milton’s world of community. “Over years of living in ultra-orthodox neighborhoods and studying in their institutions, I realized that the fantasy of an isolated community with a single set of impervious languages was just that, a fantasy. Communities are porous: the Haredi world in many ways is – whether recognized or not – in conversation with the surrounding secular world.” In addition, Kolbrener was surprised to discover that they lacked the essential need for creativity and self-creation. Instead, they were fundamentalists expecting rigid conformity to social norms and having inability to tolerate complexity thereby reducing knowledge to a single and absolute meaning.
In a subsequent narrative turn, Rabbi Solovetichik and his son-in-law Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein offered Kolbrener his needed creativity and self-creation. They offered a cure for the potential fundamentalism of Orthodoxy, in that they celebrate complexity, pluralism, and self-creation. Nevertheless, here too he discovered that ideals, as Kolbrener understood them, of Torah uMadda were ever receding aspirations. Kolbroner wrote a piece on Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s ideal of the synthesis of Torah and literature, finding it precarious. Not that Kolbrener was, God forbid, questioning the indispensable need for literature and critical theory, rather that the path of synthesis was not a safe reproducible method.
When I first became religious, I thought that Judaism and literature were incommensurable, their synthesis impossible, in any case, entailing too many risks. Today, I still think ‘synthesis’ is an overly optimistic goal, but also understand that without taking the ‘risk’ – of reading literature and philosophy – Judaism itself would become, for me, an impoverished thing.
Kolbrener does indeed take this risk of synthesis by reading The Lonely Man of Faith as a confessional diary. His captivating analysis of Soloveitchik’s psyche is projected and speculative, yet it offers a complex synthesis of contemporary critical theory and Torah. Kolbrener has an uncanny ability for projection of ideas onto a religious system, followed by idealization and personal identity with the object of idealization, and eventual melancholy when it does not live up to his projections. This fascinating journey merging the personal, the interpretive, and the community offers us not a return to the pre-modern shared language and community, rather a methodology of taking risks to live in a fragmented subjective interpretive age.
1) What were you hoping for in the study of the Soloveitchik tradition?
I first encountered Soloveitchik’s work in graduate school while working for my PhD in English Literature. I had never considered taking Judaism seriously – as an intellectual enterprise – until I read Halakhic Man and Halakhic Mind, both written during the 1940s. Soloveitchik’s advocacy of methodological pluralism (or what he describes as different interpretive perspectives) seemed to anticipate so much of the critical theory that I was then studying at Columbia.
Unlike my professors in the academy, and strangely for me, Soloveitchik was able to advocate this pluralism in the context of both belief and commitment. Pursuing my interest in theories of interpretation, I went on to write several articles on pluralism in the Talmud and in Soloveitchik’s works. Several years back, I decided to put together a volume on pluralism and interpretation – a composite collection of those early articles.
The book that I found I was not able to write would have reflected the ideals of an earlier integrated self, mirroring the integrated image of Soloveitchik and the tradition of which he was said – especially by his students – to be the foremost modern exemplar. But re-reading Soloveitchik, instead of dialectic – the word so often invoked by students to describe Soloveitchik’s thought – I found contradiction. Instead of continuity between the Talmudic tradition and Soloveitchik, I saw rupture. My elegiac tone in The Last Rabbi, is for a pluralism not fully pursued.
2) What is your melancholy or disillusion with the Soloveitchik tradition?
Rabbinic interpretation performs, what I call following Freud, a hermeneutics of mourning, producing, in the face of loss or death, multiple possibilities of meaning. This version of interpretation acknowledges loss, indeed recognizes loss as intrinsic to the process of tradition, always offering partial interpretations in the plural.
Soloveitchik’s mourning, however, resembles more ‘melancholy,’ as Freud described it, where the devastation of loss (for Soloveitchik, personal, historical, existential) leads to a desire for a full compensation for loss. Unlike Talmudic ‘mourning’ which accommodates difference and merely good-enough interpretations, Soloveitchik’s ‘melancholy’ interpretive perspective shows him vacillating between a knowledge imagined as full conquest and the despairing realization that such knowledge is tragically insufficient.
Ironically, Soloveitchik acknowledges multiplicity in his ethics (the multiplicity of different perspectives) and in his conception of repentance (the multiplicity of different psychic voices or agencies); but in his representation of the Talmudic tradition, he usually emphasizes the certainty of a singular voice.
A further irony in his work: while Soloveitchik embraces the innovations of quantum physics to justify methodological pluralism, when it comes to justifying the interpretive perspective of halakhic man, he relies on older Newtonian conceptions of science and scientific truth. The melancholy, but still optimistic, tone of my book is for Soloveitchik’s abandonment of a pluralism that he cultivated in so many other realms, but not in his representations of Talmudic interpretation.
3) How is Soloveitchik a self-construction but also a failure?
Soloveitchik writes in Halakhic Man of what he considers to be the primary Jewish imperative, for man to ‘create himself.’ From this perspective, Soloveitchik’s philosophical writings serve as a kind of spiritual memoir, the means by which he creates himself through writing. Halakhic Man, for example, is about his father, his uncle, but also himself, as he at once declares allegiance to his ancestors, but also asserts independence from some of the traditions they represent. Repentance or teshuva is critical for Soloveitchik – throughout his works – as a form of story-telling about the self, one which allows for constant self-critique and continued self-construction.
Recognition of failure plays an important role in Soloveitchik’s emotional journey, and in the stories he tells about himself. Where in childhood memories, failure is embarrassing even shameful, later in his life, both failure and suffering, are transformed, becoming retroactively a mark of distinction, indeed of existential chosenness.
By contrast, the older halakhic man – from whom he distinguishes himself – does not pursue the emotional life, and only sees failure as devastating loss. Soloveitchik, however, through with a particular kind of memory – a ‘timeless event memory,’ what he calls both ‘blessing and curse,’ associated with the feminine – pursues his own story of self-creation. In the end, Soloveitchik emphasizes existential authenticity, failure and suffering, the preconditions for ethical success, and full personal development.
4) What does your title “last rabbi” mean?
Soloveitchik came to America in the early thirties when many Orthodox leaders in Europe forbade it: if you want to live a religious life, they said, you had better stay put. In this sense, Soloveitchik was one of the first rabbis in 20th century America, certainly the foremost innovator in Jewish thought and practice. To achieve this, Soloveitchik had to embody the traditions that his father represented, but also to create, innovate. In my reading, Soloveitchik has to kill off his father – in a version of his oedipal battle with his forbearers – to become fully himself, that is, a new version of the halakhic man who incorporates within his psyche, the ‘Torah of the heart’ associated not only with Brisk masculinity, but also with the feminine.
Indeed, I call him ‘last rabbi’ because of this self-perceived (and self-represented) failure as a teacher, his ostensible inability to communicate that ‘Torah of the heart.’ While engaging his students intellectually, he was not able, he confesses, to solicit ‘growth on the experiential plane,’ nor to bestow his ‘personal warmth on them.’ That is, Soloveitchik may have emphasized creativity and self-creation to such an extent, become so much the individual that he transformed himself into the last rabbi. Though perhaps Soloveitchik’s representation of his own failure implies as well a disappointment with his students who were unable to receive his personal legacy.
From my literary perspective, Soloveitchik in the Jewish tradition shows an emphasis on subjectivity that I first encountered reading John Milton, the great individualist of the English Renaissance, described by one literary critic as ‘a Church of one, a sect unto himself.’ Milton spent the last days of his life, however, as he writes in Paradise Lost ‘in darkness and solitude.’ Soloveitchik of course defines himself in similar solitary terms towards in his late writings. Soloveitchik, however traces his ‘lonely and forlorn’ sensibility to the Biblical figure of Moses, who lived out, according to him, in obviously autobiographical terms, ‘the tragedy of the teacher who is too great for his disciples.’
5) What is the importance of Milton for your thinking?
While still in graduate school, I wrote my first scholarly article on Areopagitica, Milton’s 1644 tract against censorship. Looking back now, I can see how it anticipates my subsequent research into questions of modernity, community and interpretation.
In Areopagitica, written, at the beginning of the English Civil War against Parliamentary policy to re-institute royalist publication policies, Milton argues against censorship, while also elaborating his ideal for the perfect republic, a commonwealth in which different perspectives and opinions multiply. Milton imagines a community strengthened through discourse, a political ‘discordia concors’ – or discordant harmony – where differences, or what he calls brotherly ‘dissimilitudes’ preserve the whole.
Aharon Lichtenstein, Soloveitchik’s son-in-law, often wrote often about the emotional power of Milton’s poetry. For me, Milton’s Areopagitica has always been most resonant, preparing me to understand a parallel ‘discordia concors’ of rabbinic thinking, where difference – encapsulated in the phrase about rabbinic disputes ‘these and these are the words of the living God’ – is essential to the dynamics of a vibrant interpretive community.
6) What is the importance of Mary Astell for your thinking?
Mary Astell was an 18th century Tory proto-feminist, a descriptive phrase which might be construed as an oxymoron. Astell was conservative in both her political and theological thinking: she embraced church ritual and royal authority in a time of dissent, arguing vigorously for older models of government and community. With those commitments, however, she was also among the first writers to articulate a program for education and rights for women – pointing out the corruption of a masculine culture that excluded women from the public sphere.
Astell’s simultaneous emphasis on a conservative theology with an emphasis on individual agency provides an antecedent parallel to Soloveitchik. But more than that, Astell’s methodology – reading gender as a marker of historical change – provides a methodological precedent for The Last Rabbi. Astell understands modernity after 1649 in relationship to the impoverishment of masculinity (as well as a concomitant abandonment of the feminine). Soloveitchik’s embodiment of a certain version of the masculine – what I call ‘Brisk masculinity’ – marks him in my readings as a ‘melancholy modern,’ a distinction he shares with others like Freud and Walter Benjamin. From the point of view of psychoanalysis and Astell’s gender-inflected historical analysis, Soloveitchik emerges in my book as a fraught figure with his ambivalent affinities to masculine and feminine (as well as the paternal and maternal) impacting his representation of cognition, interpretation, and tradition.
7) Why do you think of your book on Soloveitchik – with its emphasis on pluralism, gender, and psychoanalysis – as an outgrowth of your earlier work on Milton, Astell and psychoanalysis?
When, as an undergraduate I began to explore questions of pluralism, interpretation and community, I did so within the context of Western, particularly, Christian thought. My study of Milton and the discord of the English Revolution – and his version of an idealized commonwealth in Areopagitica – had prepared me to better understand the rabbinic pluralism of the Talmud.
My work on the eighteenth-century proto-feminist Mary Astell – with her emphasis on the relationship between concepts of gender and the modern – allowed me to see the importance of gender roles in Soloveitchik’s family reminiscences, and how they impacted his conceptions of interpretation. My more recent interest in psychoanalysis has enabled me to see how Soloveitchik’s representation of trauma – both personal and historical – came to inform both his conceptions of interpretation and ethics. Further, from a psychoanalytic perspective, Soloveitchik’s work was charged, I argue in The Last Rabbi, even from its beginnings, with an anxiety about Freud, and the attempt to distinguish his own ‘halakhic’ project from that of the founder of psychoanalysis.
One plan for my future personal memoir would be structured in relationship to the literary and philosophical texts that most influenced me. Reading Milton marked the personal discovery of the theological languages that were never made compelling to me in the Long Island Hebrew School of the 1970s. In many ways – and perhaps this is a paradox – my Jewish commitments emerged from my scholarly engagements with Christianity. Reading Astell, again from a scholarly perspective, marked a personal awakening, to the importance of gender and particularly the feminine (in the world of the Haredi yeshiva, I bracketed, or perhaps even repressed, questions of gender). Further, Astell showed me, as did Milton, that religious commitment and a commitment to individual freedom are not incommensurable. My engagement with Freud – and especially the neo-Freudians Jonathan Lear and Adam Phillips – started as a personal inventory that turned into my book Open Minded Torah, but then helped inform the methodology of The Last Rabbi.
I should also add that Soloveitchik would occupy a central chapter in that hypothetical memoir – for only through reading his writings did I realize that Judaism did not have to be watered-down, apologetic and clichéd. Indeed, reading Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man and Halakhic Mind showed me that Jewish languages could be as nuanced, sophisticated and complex as the languages I was encountering in graduate school. No matter how critical the methodology of The Last Rabbi, it is largely because of Soloveitchik and his students that I am the person I am today.
8) Does modern mean Niebuhr, Cassirer, and Dostoevsky which are Soloveitchik’s own historical canon and context or is it your canon of Adam Adam Philips, H. G. Gadamer, and Quintin Skinner?
My book takes the risk of placing myself both inside and outside of Soloveitchik’s hermeneutic circle. There is a part of me, privileged, grateful to be inside the circle that still reveres the figure referred to as ‘the Rav.’ But the literary critic in me, outside of the hermeneutic circle – never exposed to the charismatic brilliance of Soloveitchik’s presence – elicits a different more complicated, even divided, figure.
The hermeneutics of suspicion should never be a starting point for any kind of study of texts, but it can complement different interpretive approaches. Adam Phillips, for example, a British psychoanalyst, who writes about ‘voices in the plural,’ provides an external set of language for reading the sometimes conflicting voices in Soloveitchik, who himself embodies many of the ‘types’ about which he writes: ‘halakhic man,’ ‘lonely man,’ ‘homo religiosus.’ Soloveitchik marshalled dozens (even hundreds) of different voices to explain Jewish thought; I aspire to a similar methodology in reading Soloveitchik’s work. Moreover, Phillips recent literary biography of Freud, ‘Becoming Freud,’ became a model for The Last Rabbi – which charts Soloveitchik’s own drive towards individuation in relation to his predecessors as he becomes ‘The Rav.’
Hans Georg Gadamer, one of the founders of contemporary hermeneutics, and Quentin Skinner, a leading historian in the Cambridge School, are an odd couple in themselves. But for me the former, who typically emphasizes the role of subjectivity in interpretation, and the latter, who emphasizes intention and objectivity, provide a productive gloss when read together on Soloveitchik – who throughout his life was interested in breaking down the often rigid distinction between subject and object.
For Soloveitchik the exclusive emphasis on subjectivity led to the extremes of either relativism or fascism. The belief in objectivity, by contrast, for Soloveitchik, was just an illusion, leading to misunderstandings about the nature of both knowledge and interpretation.
Gadamer and Skinner, like Phillips, provide a set of external tools for showing how, for Soloveitchik (like many of the quantum physicists whom he celebrates in Halakhic Mind) subjective perspectives or constructs are indispensable in eliciting the truth of the object.
9) How can you psychoanalyze Soloveitchik from a vignette?
The psychotherapist Christopher Bollas writes of ‘small details of the past’ that are resonant with unexplored, even unconsciously unintended, meanings. Soloveitchik’s reminiscences of his family living room in Pruzhna can be simply appreciated, as some suggest, as a charming account of the family dynamics of Soloveitchik’s extraordinary rabbinic family. From this perspective, Soloveitchik’s memories of his youthful self simply provide two accounts of his father’s approach to study. In the first ‘Rabbi Moses’ confronts an interpretive problem raised by Maimonides and solves it; in the second, however, faced with a parallel interpretive problem, he fails.
From the psychoanalytic perspective that I adopt, however, the young Joseph’s response to his father’s interpretive endeavors (as well as his mother’s response) help to elaborate his future representations of both gender and interpretation. In the first instance, when his father resolves the interpretive crux, he is described, in unambivalent terms as triumphant, a man of conquest (indeed parallel to the description of the typological halakhic man whose knowledge is achieved through a process of acquisition and conquest).
The young Joseph, who conceives himself in these stories as standing apart from the gathering of young men in his grandfather’s study, runs off to his mother’s room, to share the triumph of his father. In Joseph’s eyes, his victorious father Rabbi Moses rescues ‘Moses ben Maimon,’ and by extension the prophet Moses, an intergenerational conquest, allowing for the continuation of Jewish tradition.
The heroic version of the conquest of Rabbi Moses has its opposite in the account of his father’s interpretive failure – which is treated as a near catastrophe by both Joseph and the gathered men. Subsequent to this, the young Joseph is figured as sitting on a bed together with Maimonides, together crying, with the boy again running to his mother’s room, but this time for consolation. She tells Joseph that one day he may surpass his father, but that in the meanwhile, he should learn to live with uncertainty.
Soloveitchik’s later representations of interpretation, in my reading, emerge from out of the reference points established in these earlier stories. For Soloveitchik, like for his father in his grandfather’s living room, interpretation means either absolute conquest or utter failure, anticipating the vacillation between triumph and melancholy prevalent in his later works.
Only in the feminine realm, outside of the gathering of men and their legal discourse, is the young Joseph able to express uncertainty as well as emotion. Throughout his writings, Soloveitchik’s conceives of interpretation as an all-or-nothing affair – interpretation as total conquest, or completely ineffective in the face of a resistant world. The feminine, by contrast, allows for the expression of uncertainty, and promises comfort outside of the strict and often uncompromising realm of interpretation associated with his ancestors.
Soloveitchik tells his story, not in the traditional terms of autobiography, but often in relationship to the masculine and feminine, and the different, contradictory values that they represent. Much like Adam Phillips sees Freud in his recent biography, I see Soloveitchik as both ‘scientific thinker’ attached to the rigorous methods of Brisk learning, but also ‘radical skeptic’ as he charts a course away from ‘halakhic men,’ a path only made possible through his detour through his mother’s room and the feminine.
10) How do you understand midrash or “midrashic poetry” using John Donne, Quentin Skinner and Hans Georg Gadamer?
John Donne helps in understanding the homiletic method of R. Elazar – for both embrace a poetic stance that elicits unexpected resemblances in both world and texts.
Donne went out of fashion for generations because critics like Samuel Johnson felt that the metaphors in Donne’s poems were inappropriate over-the-top, and the forceful yoking together of unconnected realms, such as compasses and lovers or sex and religion. Donne, in suggesting such comparisons, emerges, when read sympathetically, as the great poet of paradox.
Elazar as interpreter elicits the paradoxical poetry of the divine word. When R. Elazar reads a verse from Ecclesiastes – the subject of chapter 2 of my book – he pulls out multiple and seemingly contradictory meanings, where the Torah is compared to both ‘nails’ and ‘flowers,’ inorganic and organic matter, seen as both temporal and eternal. Reading R. Elazar through the lens of Donnean poetry shows the Biblical verse asserting paradox, a metaphysical conceit avante la letter, creating a poetry in which opposites are both asserted and maintained. In my readings, midrash should be read as Wittgenstein conceived of poetry, ‘the highest form of philosophy’ – rendered only in philosophical language as impoverished paraphrase.
Wittgenstein once wrote that poetry is the highest form of philosophy, that poetic insights can only be paraphrased through different – sometimes contrary – philosophical perspectives.
I turn to the Gadamer who emphasizes subjectivity in interpretation, and the historian Quentin Skinner, who by contrast emphasizes original intention to help explain midrash and the poetics of rabbinic dispute. The dual emphasis on objective intention and subjective perspectives – Skinner and Gadamer -help provide a philosophical gloss on the paradoxical divine pronouncement ‘these and these are the words of the living God’ – in which different subjects elicit opposed but still valid perspectives on the divine law. Indeed, a method combining Skinner’s injunction to be receptive to the text, with the Gadamerian emphasis on interpretation as a creative act provides a corollary to R. Elazar’s assumptions about the ideal interpreter, both passive and active, receptive and creative.
11) How do you use Kristeva and Winnicott to understand Soloveitchik?
Throughout his writings, Soloveitchik writes about loss: for him, even the greatest quantum scientists acknowledge with ‘despair’ that their conceptions only approximate reality, never getting to its essence. The psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva associates this outlook with melancholy moderns, where failure to capture the essence of the Real (associated for her, with the feminine) leads to embracing the compensation of the masculine Law (language, culture, law).
From this perspective, Soloveitchik’s yearning for a full connection with the Real, often associated for him with the comforts of the feminine and the maternal, leads to an always ambivalent embrace of the Law. Kristeva’s Law for Soloveitchik, the halakha, is only partially satisfying, indeed, manifests itself as opposed to the feminine – impersonal, dry and even punishing. Soloveitchik in the end chooses the Law of his father, quite literally, though he remains ambivalent about the stringencies and exclusions of the law, as well as the feminine and the experience of existential union it offers.
The memory of a pre-linguistic union with the feminine, as the child psychologist D.W. Winnicott explains, lingers in the adult psyche as an echo of a lost feeling of existential wholeness. That echo always remains for Soloveitchik, as a possibility both tempting and potentially dangerous, promising organic unity, but threatening to undermine his agency, and subsume him entirely.
12) How has repentance (teshuva) and self-creation been critical in your own life & thinking?
In his poem, ‘The Hollow Men,’ T. S. Eliot laments ‘20 years largely wasted,’ referring perhaps to two decades of an attitude born by a religious pursuit (he became an Anglican in the 1920s) – which he after came to regret.
My own life narrative – in retrospect – may look like a reverse version of modern Jewish history: where modernity is a progressive narrative of reform and enlightenment, my narrative began in the university, and ended, or perhaps looked like it was going to end, in a kollel in Mea Shearim.
Mine however was not a story that included body-snatching outreach rabbis at the Western Wall, but my decision to be part of the ultra-orthodox world was educated, informed by my readings of Western literature and philosophy. Not T. S. Eliot’s poetry, but his essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent,’ was a major influence, asserting that being part of a tradition involved, ‘a constant surrender,’ a ‘continual self-sacrifice.’
Gaining entrance to the world of Jewish ‘tradition,’ required, I thought, only an unequivocal and uncompromising immersion in Talmudic languages At the same time, I was reading the historian of science Thomas Kuhn who wrote about the incommensurability of different worldviews, how religious and enlightenment paradigms were necessarily in conflict with one another.
As a result, coming to Jerusalem in the early 1990s, I saw Western and Jewish worlds as opposed, even antagonistic, and thought the best way to be part of the latter tradition was a kind of surrender to it.
Over years of living in ultra-orthodox neighborhoods and studying in their institutions, I realized that the fantasy of an isolated community with a single set of impervious languages was just that, a fantasy. Communities are porous: the Haredi world in many ways is – whether recognized or not – in conversation with the surrounding secular world.
Further though tradition does require receptivity, even surrender of a sort (an obviously over-stated ideal of the ultra-orthodox world in which conformity to social norms is such a powerful force), it also requires, indeed is founded upon, as Soloveitchik always emphasizes, creativity. The Brisk Haredi world, I found, values the ‘hiddush’ in the Beit Midrash, but there only; for Soloveitchik, by contrast, the highest realization of creativity is the creation of the self.
Part of the challenge of the modern world, I think, is breaking out of the manic oscillation between authority and personal freedom, finding not so much a middle ground, but a balance, however fraught, between the two.
I hope I don’t show the same unhealthy zeal and close-mindedness of an earlier self, I also don’t consider those years ‘wasted,’ no more so than I think the years of skeptical questioning in the university wasted. Living with modernity, I have come to realize, means combining skepticism and commitment, however difficult that may be.