Rav Soloveitchik- Religious Definitions of Man and his Social Institutions (1959) Part 3 of 7

This lecture is a continuation from Part One and Part Two. This one is a power house of Rav Soloveitchik’s thoughts on politics and ethics. He rejects the death penalty for the Rosenbergs, he thinks that the state if Israel needs to be judged on its ethics, and that election slander is forbidden. He has a great line “If the state does not live up to our ethical values, then the entire past 2000 years, the entirety of Jewish history will be reinterpreted in a different light. It will prove to the world that Jews are not better and only did not act wickedly because they did not have a chance.” Jews need to value ethics and human dignity for all of humanity and Jews are not better than others. He also admits his personal tension between his ideal of dignity and his impatience with the less educated.

The lecture is labeled 1958, but it is actually 1959 since the lecture mentions Rav Soloveitchik just returned from Washington giving testimony, which occurred on Nov. 20, 1959. The event was the  Secretary of Agriculture created standards for the humane treatment of slaughtering animals in 1957, and there was a debate about kosher slaughtering in 1959. So this lecture is after Thanksfgiving, on Dec 3rd, 1959. It seems to be in a room of social workers in a Christian setting. The voice in the tape who is running the show seems to be Rabbi Avrach, the director of Community Serives at YU. These weeks Ben Hur was released  and Khrusnev started his nuclear buildup that week. Ben Gurion had dissolved the 3rd Knesset at the start of November when information was leaked into the public and elections had just ended for the fourth Knesset elections. (Feel free to send me typos in  the comments.)

Lecture 3

The lecture is missing the beginning. The organizing rubric is the dignity of man in his unique individuality.

The opening was on the question of having to choose a person when a killer says to pick one of your group.  Also he deals with the case of two people who walk in desert with only one pitcher of water. If in possession of one then one drinks the water. If in joint possession then both die [Missing Discussion.]

High Priest and Met Mizvah

The second topic was the high priest and the met mitzvah (when a person dies and there is no one to deal with their burial).The priest ordinarily cannot have contact with dead bodies.  Judaism has an aversion to death – we are helpless before it. But in the case of a met mitzvah even a high priest defiles himself. (Berakhot 20a) The high priest was the highlight of the Temple service and of Second temple Judaism. They  prayed for him and it was the high point of the year.  There are Roman sources showing the glory of the high priest on the day of atonement. The Rav quotes Ben Sira chapter 50 (A source of Mareh Kohen)

5 How was he honored in the midst of the people in his coming out of the sanctuary! 6 He was as the morning star in the midst of a cloud, and as the moon at the full; 7 as the sun shining upon the temple of the Most High, and as the rainbow giving light in the bright clouds; 8and as the flower of roses in the spring of the year, as lilies by the rivers of waters, and as the branches of the frankincense tree in the time of summer;

The high priest gives up his catharsis attained in the Temple service for the dignity and inner worth of the person. Each person is singular – even a vagabond, prostitute, or pauper has a greatness of the individual. The  supreme meaning of the individual is his uniqueness and loneliness. The Temple service with its focus on mercy and forgiveness would be stripped of its meaning and made into a mockery  if the high priest did not appreciate the dignity of the individual – even the vagabond and the prostitute.

[AB- Rav Soloveitchik has several versions of dignity in his thought. In LMF, dignity is linked to responsibility and majesty reflecting Kantian and Brunner concerns. In Emergence of Ethical Man and elsewhere, man needs to rise above the animal state to attain dignity; some people have relinquished their dignity through their bestial actions. This version that emphasizes the uniqueness of each person as presented here comes back in the mid-1970’s versions summarized in Besdin, Reflections of the Rav. It is also the meaning of the blessing Hakham Razim in the 1957 philosophy of prayer lectures.]

A women asks about individuality vs community. The Rav answers that -Judaism does not accept placing the individual above the community but because of dignity we place the dignity of others, even individuals, above the self.

Man has value for himself, even without any contribution to society. There is an inner worth to even the anonymous person.

Why listen to me? Everything I say is common place. There is nothing new. I have no false modesty. These ideas are basic.

Cult or Ethos?

Rabbi Avrach asks a leading question: Does that apply to every man regardless of color, creed, and religion? The Rav answers that Yes, it does. Judaism is both parochial and universal . We are universal for dignity, you are right. But we are particular for sanctity. Whenever we distinguish between Jew and gentile we are labeled as parochial. The distinction is between dignity and sanctity. Many laws are under sanctity not dignity. Anything that only applies to the kerygmatic community is sanctity.  The dignity is the inner worth of every person.

The sanctity in Judaism is of the body. In contrast in Christianity it means the soul. (AB- this was soon to change in Vatican II). Judaism looks upon man as a body like the scientific community. Dignity is reflected in the body. We are influenced by Christian concepts- like spiritual vs physical. A Christian theologian asked him: What is Judaism’s singular contribution? It is not monotheism since we find it also in Egyptian and Greek thought.  The unique contribution of Judaism is the unified cult and ethos. Unlike Socrates who discharged his service to the gods but they are not interested in our relationship to fellow man. Pagan religions have no ethics, the ethics is from philosophy. The gods were unethical.

Judaism is about how you treat your fellow man, the laborer, the poor, your parents, how a king treats its citizens  You serve God by following moral law. Even the Sabbath is about its social meaning – it is so workers, slaves, animals should rest. (AB- Hermann Cohen, Essay on the Sabbath 1869 & Religion of Reason)

The prophets are not against cult, and there is something in man that requires cult. They were against cult without ethics.

When Reform says the Temple is the center of Judaism, when the Conservative say the synagogue is the center, when the Orthodox says the beit kenesset is the center. They are wrong. It is how we act at work, with the family, at home, at the night club [!], and on the street. The beit kenesset needs to reflect ethos. If there is a gap or a gulf between work and temple- that is what the prophets reject.

The trouble with Catholicism is psychology – a man like Francisco Franco is a schizophrenic. Franco can go to cathedral and knell. He can say “let your will be done”  [The Rav translates it into Latin- not a direct quote from the mass but a free translation of Luke 22:42 nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.] It is not hypocrisy. Franco delivers himself into God’s hands. In the cathedral, he is intoxicated by fragrance of the incense, and as long as the savior looks at him from the crucifix  he is in God’s hands. But he can afterwards sign a death sentence on a revolutionary on the steps of the church. There is no connection between the two parts of his life.

Agra deKallah Duhka

“The benefit of the gathering is the crushing.” (Berakhot 6b) – It was like the Catholic ecumenical assemblies.  This teaches that the reward is not for intellectual attainment but discomfort. Someone who does not understand what is discussed-he is bored and lonely. He was an outsider yet he diligently attended all sessions.  Why he did it psychologically is irrelevant, but he gets reward for his pain. Reward is based on the hardness of the bench.

“Axiological democracy”- is what Judaism believes in.  Modern man understands “political democracy” and socialist countries claim “economic democracy.”  However, axiological democracy”- the worth of the individual person is what Judaism strives for.

I don’t understand  how we can attain this level. It seems fantasy and imagination.

Ethics and the State of Israel

Now that we have the state of Israel- we are judged by our ethics.

The pages of history are bloody with the acts of European society – especially in feudal times. Judaism is not better because we are better than them but because we never had to face the challenge. A private person cannot do the injustices that can be done by a state. What if our history had been different, with a Jewish state in the Middle ages? Would we have been just like the feudal law? I have no answer? To say how we would have acted is ridiculous.

Now that we have a Jewish state, will we act ethically? The State in itself is a contradiction to ethics. Will we refrain from injustices, or immoral practices?

The few experiences, so far, are not re-assuring. I don’t know. We are the master now. Will we act like masters? Will we acknowledge that Judaism does not recognize a morality of master and slave, powerful and powerless, victor and vanquished. This is my problem with the State of Israel.

If the state does not live up to our ethical values then the entire past 2000 years, the entirety of Jewish history will be reinterpreted in a different light. It will prove to the world that Jews are not better and only did not act wickedly because they did not have a chance.

Wicked activity is connected with state power. Even the most powerful Jew did not avoid the experience of persecution as a stateless person.

Therefore Jews had compassion for the weak. But what will happen if Jews had a state? Things like McCarthy laws or the restrictions on groups immigrating to the country should not be passed in Israel

I won’t take an oath now to it. But, I hear voices in the Knesset that I don’t like. We should be proud of Israel whether we are a Zionist or not. Outside community considers it Jewish. Jewish, however, is not a question of defeating Arabs on the field of battle- it is whether we will defeat our evil within- this is our most important problem.

Return to Topic of human Dignity

In the Modern world we are not truly all equal

Rabbi Avrach- but as social workers we treat all equally.

Rav- Those are little cases and it’s a profession. Let me ask about your inner feelings. Do you have the same feelings when you speak to a lowly client as when you speak to Nelson Rockefeller?

Avrach – We see in every individual something.

Rav- Yes, I am supposed to see a reflection in every person of our father Abraham. It is an ideal but far from practice. I myself  have a great gulf. I have reverence for the person of science or economics  But no reverence toward my taxi driver. In this, I am not worse or better than others.

Dignity comes from the Kerygmatic personality and utilitarian  purpose [AB- See above on types of dignity]

[We have two  minutes of dead time at 46 minutes until 48:14.]

In the existential experience – who is greater Kant or a poor tailor – it is hard to say [AB- Ricoeur and other have moved pass this impasse.] Whose blood is greater among people? Who is greater only God can judge.

Avrach – What is Existential experience?  It is the ego I experience not Existentialist  as a philosophic doctrine.

I.L. Peretz  has a short story “meshuga batlan”  “who am I?” They recognize me but who am I? Can I be explained in externals?  Rav – this problem of the batlan disturbs me as well.

Judaism formulates its social ethic as a truism of  human dignity and awareness of self-worthiness.

[dead spot at 53 minutes – less than minutes]

Libel, shame, dayyanim, and the Rosenberg case

There are basic rights of individual including the right to experience basic dignity. Anyone who inflicts injury on someone’s self- respect will be severely punished by God. It is not just slander or libel. But even insulting someone’s pride or causing embarrassment to someone, especially in public is as murder.

I listen to pre-election speeches: What would rabbinic scholars have thought- of the shaming and insulting? A political campaign is impossible in Jewish ethics. In Israel where they have elections, they are not Jews anymore. It is a crime to shaming others in public, and to speak not truthfully.

Yes, a rodef is to be exposed. But it is to be done without drama or appeal to lower instincts of the crowd. A moser an informer is one who gives information to enemy as espionage. Even if in a Jewish state and one knows about  a crime , he has no right to inform state. You are not to be a judge over other people. Even in criminal matters, you are only obligated to testify if summoned. This is all only if it does not endangers others.

Even courts in the past were a mystery to Jews. The dayyan is in a precarious situation in Jewish ethics. The dayyan should see himself as subject to wrath from below and Divine anger from above.  Judges are not entitled to pass judgment on others. There is something inhuman in it. Halakhah had to come to terms reluctantly with courts.

Avrach- Look at the Rosenberg trial with Judge Kaufman. A few of the rabbis tried to get to him.

Rav Soloveitchik- I don’t believe he was so stupid as to give a death penalty in peace time. The information came via the scientist [Klaus] Fuchs. The Rosenbergs were small simple people. In my opinion it was murder. Judge Kaufman did not do a service to the United States or its security. It was the McCarthy atmosphere.  What if Kaufman was not a Jew – would he have given a death sentence? I think not?

Avrach – Aren’t you judging the judge? Rav- You are right, mea culpa. What can I do?

Avrach- Is this from a Jewish point of view or your own?

Rav Soloveitchik- It is the Jewish point of view. The death penalty as non-halakhic punishment is not a possibility [to be just].

Avrach- Judge Kaufman said he looked to his God what to do. Rackman went to him.

Rav Soloveitchik- It is a McCarthy God not a Jewish God.  To introduce the God of Judaism into the death penalty as a punishment for small people is unwarranted. Respecting the inner dignity of each person is Jewish.  Don’t oppress anyone.

Avrach –What of the informing in the Maimonidean controversy and between Mitnagdim and Hasidim? Rav Soloveitchik- it is wrong even if great people did it. It is an ideal and not a guiding light

Avrach – So you mean like in Christianity which has many unrealized ideals. Rav- I am not  romanticizing but it was the reality.

Widows and Orphans

Lev. 19:14- don’t curse the deaf and no stumbling block before blind. They are handicapped and wont accomplish much in life but they still have dignity.  Ex 23:20 – don’t vex a stranger or widow or fatherless child- [AB-He is quoting from a Christian Bible in the room. Where is this meeting being held?]

Maimonides Deot 6 – Deot means virtues. One should treat widows and orphans only tenderly and with courtesy, don’t pain them or even shames them.

The story of the 10 martyrs who lived in Palestine [asarah harugei malkhut] It is a strange story but is typical –– it looks historical. Rabbi Akiva  – I am not frightened but we don’t deserve to be killed like ordinary criminals. [missing at 1:20]

Rabban Gamliel was told: Once you took a nap and a poor women inquired if the bread is clean or unclean and your servant told her to wait a while. And the lonely widow sighed and felt hurt that since she is not prominent therefore she had to wait.  You know the penalty is to be slayed by sword.

The Talmud is a bit Freudian in its approach to dreams-  dreams reflect the personality; so too ideals reflect the religious consciousness. Here the ideal is that no one should be made to wait “ Rabban Gamliel realizes that “I am just a sinner as all others”

Avrach: We should accept everyone?

Rav- This concern for the lowly can only be understood as part of imatatio dei. As I said two lectures ago- one can only approach God as a lonely being, as a sinner, forsaken by everyone. Not as Judge Kaufman did in his power. God humbles himself to abide with the individual- the poor and oppressed.  Isaiah 66:1-2 the heaven is my throne – where will I dwell — poor, contrite spirit. Kabblah calls this infinite and humility eyn sof and zimzum, God contracts himself.

At the conclusion of the Sabbath, Jews quote R. Yohanan- wherever you find his greatness, you find his humbleness. In Psalms, we say “He never takes a bribe, humble to help poor and orphan.”

Does the president invite ordinary people to his table?.  Eleanor Roosevelt said about her husband – “I cant relax around people less educated than me. Me too.[Rav speaking about himself]  And I suppose the less educated person does not fell confortable in my company.

But God can dwell with poor and ignorant. It is an ability to be around uncultured. A person comes to the rabbi with primitive ideas and with superstition. I know the boundary between religion and superstition, which people don’t know. Instead, they come with foolish questions. A woman comes to me and says her husband dies and his spirit is still in the house because she puts away the dishes and in the morning they are in a different place. She is obviously elderly and forgets where she puts the dishes. If you look down upon the person who comes to you then you can’t have patience. You need to have inner esteem of the ignoble spirit as much as the noble spirit.

9 responses to “Rav Soloveitchik- Religious Definitions of Man and his Social Institutions (1959) Part 3 of 7

  1. This excellent post opens so many topics. One thing it doesn’t make explicit, though, is the filiation of the Rav’s version of “What is Man?’ Clearly, the Rav is riffing off of his Neokantian interlocutors. It’d be instructive to compare the Rav to Kristeller, Cassirer and Trinkaus on the innate dignity of man. From AB’s summary it seems like man is valued for his spontaneity and autonomy (Kant), for his adherence to the moral law (Kant) or his status as an ensouled animal (Neokantians reading Ficino).

    A side note: What’s with the reclaiming of carnal israel 40 years before Boyarin did it (“sanctity in Judaism is of the body”)? Jews are all about the body and lets bite the bullet on Paul. That’s a remarkable thought.

  2. I hope you’re not turning RYBS into ישעיהו לייבוביץ’ the believer…

    • Leibowitz would disagree with most of this. Leibowitz thought that we follow ethics because of Kant and secular ethics- not because of Torah. For him, Torah has no ethic or social theory. For Rav Soloveitchik, the goal was to develop a Torah ethic. This lecture is just one side of the Rav, the next one may be on the parochial and sanctity elements.

  3. “If the state does not live up to our values then the entire past 2000 years, the entirety of Jewish history will be reinterpreted in a different light. It will prove to the world that Jews are not better and only did not act wickedly because they did not have a chance.” – you’re right, great comment, but its drawn directly from Halevi’s Kuzari.

    About comment above – you’ll find that Boyarin didn’t simply ‘do it’ but that that theme has lingered in unarticulated forms through many Jewish and non-Jewish discourses. Boyarin only tried to show that it develops in a sort of back-and-forth with Christian discourse surrounded the body and the spirit.

    • I meant the line about Judaism holding the body more sacred then the soul not the line about the past 2000 yrs. He’s taking the Christian bait there and embracing the body. I wonder what he means by body and how it plays out.

      • I dunno about Christian bait – but I agree – significant problems arise when we say something like “Judaism is about the body” because, such as in Boyarin’s writings, it’s a very specific “rabbinic Judaism” – meaning pre-Aristotelian and neo-platonic forms (Halevi, Ibn Rush, Maimonides, Gersonides, etc.) To say Judaism disregards the soul ignores post-philosophic thought. You don’t find that line so tightly drawn in Soloveitchik’s other writings (especially Halakhic man). There is often a very dualistic sense that relies on medieval Jewish philosophy.

  4. To what degree was R. Soloveitchik playing off the early 20th Century anti-Zionist German Jewish philosophers? And to what degree was he accepting their basic arguments?

    • It is a great question. His ethical thinking has Hermann Cohen directly in front. He uses the same language and categories. Cohen was anti-Zionist. Two years prior, his Five Addresses used the Religious Zionist Reines. He does not use Reines’ ethic which goes back to Seforno and medieval/renaissance categories. He clearly wants a post-Kantian ethic of individuality and responsibility. He had a dialectic between the political and the ethical. Does it work? We know that by the time these lectures became LMF, the political elements are removed. Several scholars have noted that the Rav was a great Zionist leader but not a Zionist thinker, the eternal overrides the temporal. Listening to destiny, to heed the political call of the hour, is located in the self. Buber comes up occasionally in these discussions, but this lecture has large chunks of Cohen.

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