Commentary Magazine

Orthodox Judaism Moves with the Times:
The Creativity of Tradition

There is a belief in some circles that Orthodox Judaism is a petrified survivor of the past, entirely oblivious to the winds of modern doctrine and the needs of present-day Jewish experience. How erroneous this conception is can be seen from Rabbi Emanuel Rackman’s report on how Orthodox thinkers are grappling with all the problems—and all the ideologies—of our day.



Can there ever be anything new in Orthodoxy? Does not Orthodoxy believe that what was, should always be? The same question is often phrased in a more sophisticated way: can a revealed religion evolve? Given God’s timeless will, can man arrogate to himself the right to change it?

In general, a pat negative is assumed to be the correct reply to questions such as these, so that many American Jews have come to regard Orthodox Judaism as monolithic—as having a fixed philosophy, and an absolutely inflexible approach based on Jewish Law. The very term “Orthodox” conjures up the image of a central authority, comparable to the Pope, who makes ultimate decisions binding upon the faithful. This is not even true of Roman Catholicism, and far less so of Orthodox Judaism. There have always been, and still are, different modes of Orthodox Jewish thought and practice, and Orthodoxy has always admitted a great measure of innovation. It is a fact that Orthodox Judaism has more splinter rabbinic groups than either Conservative or Reform Judaism. And while Conservative and Reform rabbis are predominantly American, Orthodox Judaism has substantial rabbinic groups all over the world; their number and diversity often reflect ideological differences as well as national and geographical ones, and some members of these groups may actually espouse ideas that are atypical for the particular groups to which they belong.

A few examples from contemporary Jewish life will show that not all Orthodox Jews think alike or act alike. The two largest Orthodox rabbinic groups in America are at odds over the use of microphones in synagogues on the Sabbath. The largest Orthodox rabbinical seminaries in New York disagree as to the propriety of studying non-Jewish culture. The Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, by far the largest, advocates the mastering of all Western thought in order to create an ultimate synthesis with Jewish learning—with this aim in mind, it founded Yeshiva University and now projects medical and dental schools. The Mesiftos of Brooklyn hold that secular studies endanger faith, and that if a rabbinical student wants a baccalaureate degree, it would be better for him to major in a subject that would not impinge upon his religious convictions—mathematics, for example. The Lubawitcher Yeshiva simply forbids its students to attend college.

One large group of Orthodox rabbis today seeks greater cooperation with their Conservative and Reform colleagues in whatever areas their programs are similar. They want to work together in the Synagogue Council of America, in the Division of Religious Activities of the National Jewish Welfare Board, in the New York Board of Rabbis, in the Jewish Military Chaplains Association. But another group of Orthodox rabbis—very weak until, with the most recent influx of Jewish immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, Agudat Yisrael influence came to shore it up—would even refuse to address as “rabbi” anyone not Orthodox.

With regard to the re-establishment of the Sanhedrin there is also a wide spectrum of opinion. Even its advocates are not in agreement: some want a central authority only in order to impose uniformity on Orthodox practice throughout the world, others want it in order to effect changes in at least rabbinic, if not Biblical, law. Opposition to the Sanhedrin among Orthodox Jews includes both “rightists” and “leftists.” The “rightists” oppose a Sanhedrin on the ground that our generation is not pious enough to make any changes whatever in Jewish Law. The “leftists” oppose a Sanhedrin because they are in dread of what those who control it might do; they prefer that freedom which still prevails in Orthodoxy because of the very absence of a central authority.



One should not be surprised to learn that almost every modern approach to religion is reflected in the thinking of one or another Orthodox rabbi. It is not, however, easy to demonstrate this from published sources. Orthodox Jewry does not have a single journal devoted exclusively to philosophy or theology. The literary creativity of Orthodox Jews, as evidenced in such Hebrew periodicals as Hapardes, Hamaor, Ha-kochav, still goes overwhelmingly into matters juridical—or Halachic, a term to be preferred.1 Even Yeshiva University’s Taljnoih has comparatively small sections devoted to problems other than Jewish Law and its sources. Nevertheless, there is sufficient evidence available, in published and unpublished form, to indicate that every trend in current religious thought has a protagonist among Orthodox Jews.

Contemporary religious thinking is generally of three kinds—psychological, sociological, or metaphysical. The psychological approach to religion involves the analysis and propagation of religion with “peace of mind” as its end. The sociological approach involves the analysis and propagation of religion as a means of uniting a group of people into a single moral community for the conservation of the values they hold in common. The metaphysical approach is typically Orthodox in spirit, in that it insists on the need for God’s revealed will; it sees its main enemy in a humanism that makes man the center of existence and the arbiter of ultimate value.

The psychological and the sociological points of view are best illustrated in the books of Joshua Loth Liebman and Mordecai M. Kaplan, whereas the metaphysical is found in writings by Abraham Joshua Heschel and Will Herberg. Echoes of all three orientations are to be found in the writings of Orthodox Jews, but while Reform Jewish thinkers have been most creative in the psychological, and Conservative thinkers in the sociological field, the leading contemporary Orthodox thinker and teacher, Joseph B. Soloveichik, devotes himself mainly to religious metaphysics.

Like most generalizations, this one is vulnerable. For example, the late Milton Steinberg, a Conservative rabbi, became very much interested in the last years of his life in Existentialism, which stresses the metaphysical, and Mr. Herberg, whose great book, Judaism and Modern Man, is a splendid example of religious metaphysics, admits how much indebted he is to Rabbi Steinberg. Nonetheless, Herberg’s book is so remote from the kind of thinking prevailing in Conservative circles that it does not quote Steinberg’s writings at all, and Mordecai Kaplan only once, and then on a peripheral topic. For the psychological approach of Joshua Liebman, which predominates in Reform Jewish thought, as does a preoccupation with the aesthetic, Herberg has only scorn, a scorn matched by Joseph Soloveichik’s. Both regard the humanist root of this Reform attitude as the most modern manifestation of idolatry.

Nonetheless, as I have said, there are exponents of all three approaches among Orthodox Jews. Thus Rabbi Leo Jung often writes and speaks of “Torah as the direction to happy and noble living.” The ceremonial of Judaism helps in moments of great emotional disturbance: “It reduces the expenditure of emotional energy and steadies our heartbeat, preventing us from losing balance in hours alike of extreme happiness or un-happiness.” Furthermore, the typical literature that Orthodox Jews publish on religious observances affecting sexual relations dwells on their value in promoting marital happiness and in strengthening the home as the “nursery for well-balanced personalities.” In the new state of Israel, too, where the rabbinate is quite completely Orthodox, this viewpoint has not been without its spokesmen.

The sociological approach has one of its ablest Orthodox spokesmen in Professor Maurice H. Farbridge. He writes: “Religion does for the social organism what nerves do for the body. It is the function of the nerves to bind all parts of the body together, and so place the resources of the whole at the disposal of every part. In like manner it is the function of religion to bear the thought and the will of God upon any given point in the social organism.” More revealing, however, is the general reaction of Orthodox rabbis to many of Mordecai Kaplan’s theses. Orthodox Jews rejected his views on Jewish Law, as did most of his Conservative colleagues, but they took even greater umbrage at his calling Orthodox Jewish theology otherworldly. Many Orthodox rabbis resented this, and whether they did so justifiably is not relevant at the moment: the point is that, like Rabbi Kaplan, they too regard Judaism as very much this-worldly, with its validity determined by its personal and social significance in the here and now.

But the greatest of Orthodox rabbis today, Joseph B. Soloveichik, speaks through metaphysics. Descended from an internationally known family of Talmudists in Volozhin and Brest-Litovsk, Rabbi Soloveichik is not only a great master of rabbinic literature, but a graduate of the University of Berlin, where he became equally proficient in philosophy, mathematics, and physics. At present, he teaches in the Seminary and Graduate School of Yeshiva University, and often gives public lectures that—whether in English, Hebrew, or Yiddish—bring out people in the thousands, for he is a great orator as well as a scholar. It is to be regretted that he has published so little, yet he is a very prolific writer. His greatest influence has been upon the intimate circle of the students whom he teaches and inspires at Yeshiva University, and upon the privileged few who see the texts of his lectures.



Soloveichik regards as altogether too simple the popular notion of religious experience as one preeminently pleasing and soothing—a stream of delight and relaxation and an asylum from the frustrations of life. This conception of religion Rabbi Soloveichik deems a fraud, the result of a surrender on the part of religious thinkers to the desire of the mass of men to lose themselves in states of bliss. It also echoes Rousseau in his flight from reason, and much subsequent romanticist thought. Religion’s invitation has been misinterpreted to say: “If thou cravest peace, if thou cravest integration, make the leap of faith.” In the flight from reason and the rejection of objective truth, Rabbi Soloveichik sees the cause of the moral deterioration of contemporary man. He would prefer to see religion wedded to a cold objectivity and rationality, even though faith and reason may at times appear to conflict with one another, rather than derive religion from man’s instinctual longings.

Also, he asserts, the highest form of religious experience comes from constant turmoil and from the experiencing of life’s irreconcilable antitheses—from the simultaneous affirmation and abnegation of the self, the simultaneous awareness of the temporal and the eternal, the simultaneous clash of freedom and necessity, the simultaneous love and fear of God, his simultaneous transcendence and immanence. True, with the departure of Sabbath’s peace, Jews may sing, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” But the road to the green pastures is a narrow and winding one, along a steep cliff, with a bottomless pit below. It is the other words of the Psalmist—”From the deep I called unto Thee, O Lord”—that describe the most authentic religious experience, and the deep is a deep of antinomies, doubts, and spiritual travail.

That Rabbi Soloveichik has impressed few English writers is evident from the fact that though he anticipated Herberg’s approach to Judaism, Herberg does not mention or cite him once in Judaism and Modern Man. Yet he is the mentor of a whole new generation of Orthodox rabbis, and they in time will either commit the wisdom of the master to writing or develop it in his spirit.



In a sense, it can be said that Rabbi Soloveichik is trying to fuse the emotional intensity of Existentialism with the hard logic of rationalism. Yet in traditional Jewish style, his philosophy is derived from, and applied to, the Halachah of Judaism. He is not content with the way in which Jewish scholars have heretofore examined the sources: to reconcile conflicting authorities and to arrive at the correct rule of Law is only one phase of Jewish jurisprudence. Soloveichik finds the essential antinomies of religious reality also incarnated in Halachic matter. A dispute over the extent of liability in a particular tort, the question of a prohibited form of work on the Sabbath, or of the proper preparation of a temple offering—all these may become for him the basis of a theological insight. In this, he is in the tradition of the illustrious Abraham I. Kook, late Chief Rabbi of Palestine, who derived a philosophy of Jewish community, as opposed to mere “collectivity,” from Talmudic law on the acquisition of property.

Given the premise that all the Law is God’s revealed will, it follows logically that all of it will have theological significance. The totality of the Law is taken by Soloveichik as a realm of ideas in the Platonic sense, given by God for application to the realm of the real. Just as the mathematician creates an internally logical and coherent fabric of formulas with which he interprets and integrates the appearance of the visible world, so the Jew, the “Man of Halachah,” has the Torah as the divine idea that vests all of human life with direction and sanctity. Legislative change is irreconcilable with Halachah, yet creativity is of its very essence. “The Halachah is a multi-dimensional ever-expanding continuum which cuts through all levels of human existence from the most primitive and intimate to the most complex relationships” (from an unpublished lecture by Dr. Soloveichik). Thus, though Halachah refers to the ideal, its creativity must be affected by the real.

Halachic creativity is not an ingenious academic exercise. The man who would bridge the distance between the ideal and the real, who would discover what is the intent of divine will in a new and unprecedented situation, must employ the dialectic of reason in fear and trembling—his thinking must be part of a religious agony. God willed that man obey his Law. God also willed man’s welfare. Sometimes the Law and man’s welfare come into seeming conflict. The pious jurist must then probe the sources and the commentaries of the saints, must descend into that same crucible of pain out of which the right way was originally revealed.

A recent case in Halachah involved the armed forces of the United States. These were, and still are, in need of Jewish chaplains. The three largest rabbinic groups in America—Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform—instituted drafts. Rabbis were to be drafted compulsorily by their own rabbinic groups. For Orthodox rabbis, there was a significant Halachic problem. Could rabbis undertake to place any colleague in jeopardy? Furthermore, could they undertake to place their colleague in such a position that he might some day have to desecrate the Sabbath or another holy festival?

To this query Rabbi Soloveichik gave an affirmative reply. In a magnificent responsum based on a keen analysis of Talmudic sources, he upheld the action of Yeshiva University in calling for the drafting of its alumni for the military chaplaincy. He cited a medieval text permitting one to embark upon a voyage to fulfill a mitzvah—a religious commandment—though it was possible that in the course of the voyage one might have to desecrate the Sabbath in order to save one’s own life or the life of another. Rabbi Soloveichik admitted that he had not approached the sources with complete objectivity; that he had had certain intuitive feelings and held certain basic values that prejudiced him in favor of the decision rendered by Yeshiva University and guided him in his exploration of the various aspects and facets of the problem. But this lack of objectivity is merely a fundamental avowal of inevitable human limitation, and is not to be confused with arbitrariness. As anyone who has studied the Talmud knows, the Halachah is too objective a discipline to permit an approach based on transient moods. Nevertheless, in the deepest strata of Halachic thinking, logical judgment is preceded by value judgment, and intuitive insight gives impetus to the logic of argument.



Two other responsa by Rabbi Soloveichik reveal the vitality of the Halachah for the resolution of uniquely modern problems. For many years it was the practice in New York City for all foundlings to be turned over to Catholic and Protestant adoption agencies. Recently the city’s Jewish adoption agency made a request for its share—since a third of New York’s inhabitants are Jewish. Was the request Halachically proper, since there was no way of identifying the faith of the foundlings’ parents and the greater mathematical probability in the case of each child was that it was non-Jewish? Could foundlings be reared as Jews and converted to Judaism by foster parents?

Dr. Soloveichik sustained the propriety of the agency’s request, in a responsum that cited Halachic sources but also referred to mathematical formulas of probability. The Jewish Law frowns upon the use of mathematical probabilities in capital cases. On complex philosophical grounds,2 Dr. Soloveichik placed cases involving religious identity in the same category. Hence the fact that the majority of foundlings may be non-Jewish becomes inconsequential; if only one foundling may be Jewish, the Jewish community must assert its claim.

On another occasion he was asked about the use of anthropomorphic symbols in the stained-glass windows of an interfaith chapel on a college campus. He opposed their use, and his responsum revealed how the historical method may be used in solving Halachic problems. Since Talmudic law, which was developed principally in Babylon, did not support him, he relied upon later medieval Jewish law, which had been developed in _ Christian Europe. His responsum explains why, in a Christian society, it was more imperative to expand, rather than restrict, the prohibition against icons that suggest the Christological idea of God-man. “To what our sages in a non-Christian Babylonia did not object, our forefathers in Christian countries were very sensitive.” A similar method can be seen at work in the juridic writings of Rabbi Menachem M. Kasher, who is the editor and publisher of the stupendous Biblical and Talmudical encyclopedia known as Torah Shelemah, and who, by the use of photographs of every available Talmudic and Midrashic text, has wrought a revolution in the study of the sources. On one occasion he dealt extensively with the problem of the international date line and its effect upon the Sabbath. According to the presently effective international covenant, when it is the Sabbath in Israel it is Sunday in certain parts of the Pacific. Now, when shall Jews in those Pacific islands observe the Sabbath—on the seventh day by their local calendar, or on Sunday, on the theory that it was God’s intent that the Sabbath day be computed with Jerusalem as the center of time?

The problem reminds one of the great medieval dispute as to whether the earth or the sun was the center of the universe. The Church chose the earth and any other opinion was declared a heresy. Similarly, many rabbis had argued that Jerusalem was the center for the computation of time and that no other place would satisfy the requirements of Jewish Law. Against this view, Rabbi Kasher marshaled all the sources, and he was upheld by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate when he asserted that the international date line was binding on Jews. It is interesting to note that, among the arguments advanced by Rabbi Kasher, there are several that are non-legal. He argued, for example, that if “the nations of the world in years gone by used their own capitals” for the purpose of measuring time, it reflected their concern for “national pride and honor. We should not imitate them. . . particularly when they have waived their honor and agreed upon” a more reasonable approach. His decision was also influenced by the practice with regard to the Sabbath already prevailing among Jews in the areas affected by the date line.

Rabbi Kasher more recently overwhelmed Jewish scholars with a responsum on the use of electric broilers. According to the dietary laws, meat may not be eaten unless the blood is removed in advance by water and salt. As an alternative, meat may be broiled on a grill. However, a number of rabbis had insisted that the only proper way to broil meat was with wood or coals and with the flame under the meat. In this way the blood would be drawn to the flame and consumed. Rabbi Kasher, on the other hand, repudiated the insistence, in this or any other case, that the only proper method was the one familiar to one’s immediate forebears or in one’s own generation. The way an anthropologist would assemble data, he outlined scores of methods used by Jews from time immemorial for the broiling of meat and the removal of blood. He discovered eight different ways in which Jews had prepared the paschal lamb alone. And after a thorough analysis of the sources, he came to the conclusion that neither the nature of the fuel nor the position of the source of heat makes any material difference.



The trend represented by Rabbis Soloveichik and Kasher should not prompt anyone to say that Orthodox Judaism is paving the way for certain basic changes in the Law that many American Jews want today. Unfortunately, the clamor for change in the Law too often expresses simply a desire to substitute new values for old ones—to make the Sabbath the occasion for a good time instead of a day of holiness, to make the table a gourmet’s delight instead of an altar, to make sexual relations open to lust instead of disciplined for love.

However, as has been demonstrated, the Orthodox view does not exclude Halachic creativity or changes, flexibility, and growth in concept and method in order to meet the most perplexing of the problems that trouble the religious minds of today. But it insists that such evolution must be organic, i.e., it must be a further unfolding of historical continuity and develop authentically out of tradition. Orthodox Jews feel that they are helping the revealed Law to fulfill itself, and in their Halachic creativity they move slowly and with the same turmoil of soul that characterizes the authentic religious experience, but with the firm faith that where the basic values of Judaism still live, the Law will suffice to meet the requirements of life.

In any event, it ought be apparent that among Orthodox Jews, too, a spiritual quest is now going on. Orthodox Judaism is only beginning to recover from the initially devastating effects of the Enlightenment, but as it develops in America and in Israel, it is not too much to hope that it will reinvigorate Jewish life and enrich Western thought as well.




1 Halachah means literally “the right way,” and refers to a spiritual norm as well as to purely legal precedent.

2 The following may serve as a sample: “One school sees, in a naturalistic fashion, life and death on a biological level exclusively and identifies Pikuah Nefesh (the obligation to conserve life) with the saving of a carnal existence from extinction. The other school introduces an idealistic motif. It maintains that the law of Pikuah Nefesh which is based upon a value judgment—the appraisal of life as the highest good—transcends the bounds of biological fact and extends into the domain of spiritual activity. Life is not only a factum but also an actus, not only a tangible reality but also an abstract ethical value to be attained. Death is both a biological and ethical-spiritual phenomenon. The failure of an individual to realize his own personality in a manner decreed by his creator at birth is as tragic as his physical disintegration. One may save a life not only through medical skill but also by extending moral help. Hence, whenever man’s inner life, his unique relationship to God, and the mode of his existence as an individual and social being are to be determined, we encounter the problem of Pikuah Nefesh, which means here the preservation of a spiritual identity. . . . Hence [the concept of] majority finds no application in this case.”

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