oseph B. Soloveitchik was one of the leading rabbinic figures of the 20th century. As a professor at Yeshiva University from 1941 until his death at the age of 90 in 1993, he earned a virtually unrivaled reputation as a Talmudist—and is said to have ordained 2,000 rabbis. He is also held in high regard as both a philosopher and a Zionist thinker, especially among Orthodox Jews but also those further afield. His renown and reputation are such that he remains known to many, nearly two decades after his death, simply as “the Rav.”
Yet the significance of Soloveitchik’s thought has often been difficult for those who were not his students or friends to assess, simply because little of his work was published during his lifetime. Recent years have seen an intensive effort to remedy this situation, however: A group of scholars, headed by the philosopher David Shatz, have released a series of posthumous works prepared from Soloveitchik’s manuscripts, notes, and lecture tapes. Since 2004, this effort has led to the publication of no fewer than a dozen volumes at the rate of one or two a year, and they are still appearing.
Such publications are problematic, morally and intellectually, because they raise uncomfortable questions about what the author’s intentions might have been. Take, as an example, a book published in 2005 under the title The Emergence of Ethical Man. At the time of Soloveitchik’s death, it was a bundle of 10 handwritten notebooks in a rubber band–bound envelope on which the words “The Concept of Man” were written. My college friend Michael Berger, now professor of religion at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, edited the notebooks and oversaw their publication. Berger guesses they were written in the 1950s or early 1960s. They were probably in that envelope for more than 30 years, during which time Soloveitchik chose not to take them out again and revise them into a second draft. Moreover, the manuscript is incomplete, breaking off in the middle of what was to have been a larger project.
If Soloveitchik chose not to publish the ideas set forth in that envelope, he may have had good reasons for not doing so. And this discomfiting possibility has led me, and perhaps others as well, to avoid looking too closely at this work for quite a few years. But there are reasons on the other side, too: The Emergence of Ethical Man is one of the few pieces of Soloveitchik’s writings that is more than an essay; it is an actual book-length manuscript—meaning that a great deal of thought went into it. Soloveitchik’s students and his family both, moreover, approved publication, and they, presumably, could have avoided publishing it if it in some way distorted his views. These latter considerations recently compelled me to pick up, with some trepidation, The Emergence of Ethical Man and study it in earnest. And what I discovered is this: It is a bombshell.
Of the handful of book-length works he composed—the best known of which are Halakhic Man (1983) and The Halakhic Mind (1986, but written in 1944)—The Emergence of Ethical Man is the only one to expound a reasonably systematic view of human nature, and of how he thought we should approach Hebrew Scripture in light of the achievements of modern science. For those who have known Soloveitchik principally from his two most widely read books, The Emergence of Ethical Man is likely to come as a shock—and a challenge.
In particular, those who think that Orthodox Judaism, like Christianity, necessarily demands belief in a core set of propositions affirming God’s past and future supernatural action in the world are going to have great difficulty squaring that thought with what one of the towering figures of Orthodox Jewry has to say on subjects such as miracles, prophecy, immortality, and salvation.
In the opening paragraph of The Emergence of Ethical Man, Soloveitchik distinguishes three different approaches to the concept of man: those identified with ancient Greek philosophy, modern science, and the Bible. And from there he goes on to construct what is, in effect, a treatise on human nature, building up a concept of man that he uses as the basis for what he terms a new “philosophy”—the true philosophy, as he sees it, of Judaism.
This seems to be a fulfillment of a vague and haunting statement at the conclusion of The Halakhic Mind: “Out of the sources of halakha [Jewish law] a new worldview awaits formulation.” These words were written near the end of World War II, when it was already becoming clear that much of European Jewry had not survived the war. And yet as the inferno of the Holocaust burned, Soloveitchik felt free to write that Judaism would provide humanity with a new worldview—a worldview that the philosophies of idealism, neo-Kantianism, pragmatism, and existentialism (discussed at some length in The Halakhic Mind) had failed to provide, and that even modern medical science had failed to provide. Indeed, it would be a worldview that even modern physical science failed to provide.
The statement has been a source of puzzlement since the book’s release. How could the sources of Judaism provide us with this “new worldview”? Don’t they already provide us with one? And why, if the sources of Judaism can provide a new worldview, is this worldview “awaiting formulation”?
And also—new to whom? To Jews? To humanity?
None of this makes sense if one assumes that Judaism must be seen as a fixed body of doctrines whose contents are already well defined and known to all. If Judaism is to give rise to a new worldview, then there must be some question about what the old worldview is. In The Halakhic Mind, Soloveitchik speaks briefly about this hesitation. Contemporary Jewish thought, he writes, is based neither on the classical sources of Jewish antiquity nor on lived Jewish experience today. Instead, it is based largely on medieval Jewish philosophy, whose categories are principally Greek and Arab and which cannot pass muster as genuine Jewish philosophy. He writes:
Most modern Jewish philosophers have adopted a very unique method. The source of knowledge, for them, is medieval Jewish philosophy….[However,] we know that the most central concepts of medieval Jewish philosophy are rooted in ancient Greek and medieval Arabic thought and are not Jewish in origin at all. It is impossible to reconstruct a unique Jewish world perspective out of alien material.
Thus, argues Soloveitchik, contemporary Jewish thought is based on medieval premises that are themselves alien to Judaism. As a consequence, Judaism cannot field an alternative to European thought, for it has itself, in a sense, succumbed to European thought. Jewish thought will therefore have to go back to its roots, to the Hebrew Bible and the classical rabbinic texts, and from them derive a “new worldview” that will be different from both the neo-medieval Jewish thought of modern times and the non-Jewish philosophical schools that await a new challenge from within Judaism.
All of this makes it sound as though The Emergence of Ethical Man was written as a conscious attempt to deliver on the promise of a “new worldview” announced at the end of The Halakhic Mind. Yet the new concept of man so carefully constructed in The Emergence of Ethical Man does not, for the most part, derive from what we would usually consider Jewish legal sources. Instead, Soloveitchik relies overwhelmingly on the teachings of the narrative portions of the Hebrew Bible, especially Genesis and Exodus. It is in the stories of Adam, Abraham, and Moses that he finds a carefully elaborated conception of what it is to be a human being—a conception he builds up for nearly 200 pages before arriving at a discussion of the giving of the law at Sinai. Soon thereafter, Soloveitchik’s text breaks off.
This suggests that when Soloveitchik spoke about a new worldview arising from the sources of halakha, he was suggesting that Jewish law flowed from a philosophical conception of the nature of man already present in the narrative portions of Genesis and Exodus. Seen in this light, Jewish law refines a concept of man already fleshed out in the biblical narratives. Biblical narrative is not what comes before the law; it is the source and wellspring of the law.
And narrative is not abstract. It is about men. It is about man.
What does Soloveitchik have to say about the biblical concept of man? He painstakingly documents the abundant evidence that Hebrew Scripture views man as part of the natural world. Time and again, man is depicted as resembling plant life and animal life—indeed, as a variation on such life. Man is never depicted, as he is in other religions, as a divine soul that is in some sense alien to this world but chained to it by a body fashioned from worldly materials. Soloveitchik’s man is entirely “of this world,” a part of nature.
True, man comes into conflict with the order of nature through his capacity to distinguish between right and wrong and his yearning for God. But Soloveitchik argues that the possession of such qualities does not require a departure from the order of nature. In a difficult but important sentence, he explains: “The widespread opinion that within the perspective of anthropological naturalism there is no place for the religious act, for the relatedness of man to eternity and infinity, is wrong….[M]an-as-animal needs religious faith and commitment to a higher authority.”
Here Soloveitchik breaks rank with a long tradition of writers who have sought to portray man as being, in some profound respect, alien to the order of nature. Such depictions of man tie him to a supernatural order that offers man a different kind of life from the one we gain at birth and lose in death. Here, again, Soloveitchik’s dissent from the body of medieval Jewish thought is striking: “It is certain that the fathers of the Church and also the Jewish medieval scholars believed that the Bible preached this doctrine. Medieval and even modern Jewish moralists have almost canonized this viewpoint and attributed to it apodictic validity. Yet the consensus of many, however great and distinguished, does not prove the truth or falseness of a particular belief.”
Soloveitchik thus aligns medieval Jewish thought with Christianity, and in so doing, he implicitly places the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud in one camp and medieval Judaism together with Christianity in another. He says both the Church fathers and the medieval Jewish philosophers sought a way to liberate man’s essence from nature. But according to Soloveitchik, classical Jewish sources knew little if anything of such an aspiration: “We come across a dual concept of man in the Bible. His element of transcendence is well-known to the biblical Jew. Yet transcendence was always seen against the background of naturalness. The canvas was man’s immanence; transcendence was just projected on it as a display of colors. It was more a modifying than a basic attribute of man.”
“The deep feeling of man’s basic harmony with organic nature…is the most salient feature of [the biblical] philosophical formula,” he writes. “Man may be the most developed form of life on the continuum of plant-animal-man,” he suggests, but the “essence remains identical.”
These assertions—that man’s potential to transcend nature is little more than a “display of colors” and not “a basic attribute,” and even that man’s “essence remains identical” to plant and animal life—are major. Soloveitchik is drawing a sharp line between his own understanding of Scripture and that of most Christians, as well as many modern Jews.
For if man’s transcendent element is not a central attribute of his nature, much that we now think of as “religion” must be called into question. Is man not endowed with a potentially immortal (that is, supernatural) soul? Can man not attain miraculous (that is, supernatural) knowledge by means of prophecy? Is man’s hope of salvation not in the miraculous (that is, supernatural) deeds of the God of Israel? In reducing the transcendent aspiration in man to a mere “modifying attribute,” all this is thrown into question.
And in fact, as the argument progresses, it becomes evident that Soloveitchik is retrieving and clarifying the biblical conception of man precisely to take these issues off the table. Indeed, he is unable to recognize anything in Hebrew Scripture that resembles the conflict between the natural life of man in this world, which ends in biological death, and the supernatural, eternal life that Jesus promises in the gospel.
In Hebrew Scripture, Soloveitchik argues, the drama turns on another, entirely different conflict. That conflict is between the natural life of man, which is conducted in accord with familiar laws of physics and biology, politics, and history, and the ethical life of man, which seeks to redirect the course of nature in the service of an end alien to nature.
Ethical man seeks a world reconstructed in light of God’s will that something better and higher should come to pass. It is the awareness of the possibility of a better world that Soloveitchik identifies with the “image of God” (tzelem Elohim) in man. He writes: “Man as a natural being suddenly begins to discover in himself not only identity but also incommensurability with nature.” This separation from nature is not intrinsic; it is intellectual. “His personality begins to assume shape,” and as it does so, “the ethical norm attains its full meaning,” Soloveitchik says. “Man experiences the ethical not as a natural necessity which he cannot flee but as a unique imperative which, if he decides so, he may disobey and ignore.” And as he perceives this, “the consciousness of freedom begins to dawn on him.”
In a sense, then, the image of God does give man the ability to overcome natural life. But Soloveitchik emphasizes that this distancing of man from natural life does not, in Hebrew Scripture, involve any turn to the supernatural. What he calls “personality,” or the freedom to choose between natural drives and the ethical impulse, “does not connote anything supernatural or transcendental. It signifies only the emergence of subjectivity.” It signifies the ability to mount a critique of nature—something that no other living thing can do. Man comes to regard nature as being to a certain extent alien, and he therefore discerns the possibility of choosing against nature.
For Soloveitchik, then, there is in the Bible a story of man becoming aware of his ability to resist nature. But he finds it not through the discovery of the supernatural. He discovers it, rather, in the discovery of his own freedom, which permits the moral imperative to emerge. For the authors of the Hebrew Bible, man’s capacity to choose is part of the way God created the world, and therefore must be seen as a part of nature.
What about miracles and prophecy? About salvation and the immortality of the soul? Can Joseph Soloveitchik really hold the line that all these things—so important to Christianity and medieval Jewish thought—are, in the Hebrew Bible, to be understood in terms of man’s natural life in this world?
Consider first the prophetic relationship, in which God appears before man. As the Bible is commonly read, any prophetic encounter must involve some kind of suspension of the laws of nature—for example, a miraculous inpouring of knowledge into the mind of man, an inpouring that could not have been possible had the individual in question relied exclusively on his native mental capacities. Soloveitchik flatly rules out the idea that prophecy involves some kind of escape from the bounds of man’s natural mental endowment. As he writes: “The paradigm is crucial for understanding Judaism: As a natural being, man is arrested within concreteness and, as such, can never reach a transcendent God….Man discovers God within finitude, within man’s own realm.” Thus Soloveitchik explicitly rejects the claim that man can have knowledge of a transcendent God. Whatever man knows of God he knows entirely “within his own realm,” which is the realm of “natural being.”
What does this mean? We get a clearer picture when Soloveitchik turns to examine actual instances of prophecy, as when we read in Genesis 12:1: “And the Lord said to Abraham: Get you out of your homeland, and from your kindred, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”
Soloveitchik argues that the command given to Abraham is one of revolt: Abraham is to leave everything he has known, his life and home in the heart of the highly advanced civilization of Mesopotamia, and live out his life as a shepherd dwelling in tents in the wilderness of Canaan. Abraham embarks, in other words, on a “spiritual straying,” of which the physical departure from his country is only the outward expression. Abraham’s impulse is thus an anarchic one, but Soloveitchik emphasizes that “biblical anarchy does not assert itself in the negation of the norm as such.” There is no revolt here against the very idea of law, but only against the laws of the nations of the ancient Near East, whose ways Abraham sees as perverse.
But where does this prophetic communication come from? What are we to make of the statement “And the Lord said,” with which the prophetic command begins? Soloveitchik explains: “The moral law is revealed to [Abraham] by his God…who speaks from beyond and within his own personality.” In fact, Abraham “discovers the ethos himself. As a free personality, he goes out to meet the moral law with his full collected being; he chances to find it within himself and to consciously adopt it.”
Abraham is “not overpowered by an unforeseen element.” His “sovereign freedom has not been restricted. Only later does he find out, to his surprise, that with the moral law in himself he has discovered the God of morality beyond himself.”
Soloveitchik argues here that revelation is not some overpowering alien force, acting from outside Abraham’s own soul. The revelation is from God, but it is not so much something Abraham receives. It is something he “discovers,” that he “goes out to meet,” that he “chances to find…within himself,” that he “consciously adopts.” All this emphasizes the divine command as something that arises in the context of an active human personality that is searching and consequently making discoveries. This is not to say that the divine command Abraham discovers is of his own invention. No, he discovers something real that is both “from beyond and within his own personality.” But Soloveitchik stresses: “God came to man after the latter had sought and found him. Only then did he contact Abraham.”
Knowledge gained through prophetic insight is thus presented here as something that man “seeks and finds” even before God’s role in this process becomes evident. This makes biblical prophecy sound very much akin to the natural human effort to attain knowledge: That effort, too, is a search that ends with some kind of confirmation from beyond.
This same kind of naturalism appears again in Soloveitchik’s account of the biblical conception of immortality. What immortality there is in Hebrew Scripture is not based on the existence of a “transcendental world,” in which the individual soul lives on after biological death. It is rooted, rather, in an understanding of the possibility that the consciousness of the individual may live on in the form of an ongoing commitment, by his descendants and nation, to the agreements, obligations, and objectives of ancestors. Soloveitchik calls this eternal “re-experience” a “covenant consciousness.” It is a “historical ethical memory,” he writes. “We remember the ethical duty contained in the covenant….We assumed our duties through Abraham and Moses. They represented us, and we in turn represent them.”
Each descendant thus keeps his ancestor alive after death by assuming his responsibilities: “The authentic historical figure,” Soloveitchik writes, “suffers for the past and relives it.” But it is not only obligations and suffering that he re-experiences. It is objectives and ideals, too. And in recognizing the ideal of the founder and devoting oneself to this ideal, the individual partakes of a life that can in fact transcend biological death: “As long as the ideal has not materialized, the charismatic personality cannot die, for its life was given to its fulfillment.”
Thus, one does not overcome the natural limit of man’s biological mortality by some supernatural means. It is rather by merging one’s own consciousness with that of a historical existence or ego, which is to say, a people:
[The] concept of immortality as coined by Judaism is the continuation of a historical existence throughout the ages. It differs from transcendental immortality insofar as the deceased person does not lead an isolated, separate existence in a transcendental world. The identity [of the individual] persists on a level of concrete reality disguised as a people….Metaphysical immortality is based upon historical immortality. Whoever does not identify himself with the historical ego and remains at the natural level cannot attain immortality.
If the biblical concept of man offers immortality only through the merger of one’s living consciousness with the unending life of one’s people, what kind of salvation or redemption can man hope for? Clearly, the Bible does not offer the individual salvation through the redemption of his soul in a transcendental world. What, then?
Soloveitchik answers this question as well with reference to the possibility of man’s covenant-consciousness: “Man joins God in carrying out the historical task. God worked through Moses in order to introduce man into the sphere of historical creativeness. Let man himself attempt to realize the covenant. Let this realization occur within the bounds of human activity….The covenant assures man…of divine attributes….Man acts as a divine agent and redeems himself.”
Redemption, too, is a concept that Soloveitchik sees as taking place within the framework of the natural order. Man redeems himself (that is, he is “saved”) when he succeeds in rising above the aimlessness of the natural world and exerts himself to bring nature in line with the historical imperative of the covenant. “I am freeing myself from the concrete and natural,” he writes, “in order to attain the historical.”
Finally, Soloveitchik turns to the question of the miraculous in Hebrew Scripture. For is the Bible not a book of miracles? “The central theme of the exodus tale,” he writes, “is the miracle.” Yet in the thought of the Hebrew Bible, there are no miracles in the sense of a supernatural act that violates nature’s immutable order:
The word “miracle” in Hebrew does not possess the connotation of the supernatural. It has never been placed on the transcendental level. “Miracle” describes only an outstanding event which causes amazement….As we read the story of the exodus from Egypt, we are impressed by the distinct tendency of the Bible to relate the events in natural terms. The frogs came out of the river when the Nile rose; the wind brought the locusts and split the sea….The Bible never emphasizes the unnaturalness of the events; only [their] intensity and force are emphasized.
As Soloveitchik argues, the possibility of a “violation” of the natural order occurs only when one considers “the world-drama as a fixed, mechanical process.” Only then is there an assumption that nature must at bottom be a “causalistic, meaningless monotony.” And only then does something outstanding or amazing come to be seen as a “supernatural transcendental phenomenon.”
In the world of the biblical authors, however, there is no such sharp demarcation between nature and super-nature. The Bible “describes the most elementary natural phenomena like the propagation of light in terms of wonder and astonishment—no different from Moses’ ‘Song at the Sea,’” in which God’s victory over Pharaoh’s armies is described.
But if this is so—if the Bible recognizes nothing supernatural in the great events it is describing, any more than in the propagation of light—then what is it that makes an event such as the drowning of Pharaoh’s armies in the Red Sea worthy of being described with the terms peleh or nes, a miracle? Soloveitchik’s answer is breathtaking in its boldness:
The miracle does not destroy the objective scientific [character of the event] itself, it only combines natural dynamics and historical purposefulness. Had the plague of the firstborn, for instance, occurred a year before or after the exodus [of the Hebrews from Egypt], it would not have been [a miracle]. Why? God would have been instrumental in a natural children’s plague….[But] on the night of Passover he appeared…as acting along historical patterns….Miracle is simply a natural event which causes a historical metamorphosis. Whenever history is transfigured under the impact of [natural] cosmic dynamics, we encounter a miracle.
This passage deserves careful attention. The argument is that what is celebrated in the biblical account of the Israelite’s departure from Egypt is not the fact that the laws of nature can be violated, nor that God did indeed violate them in this or that plague. Rather, the biblical narrative celebrates something entirely different: that the dead matter of the physical world is capable of displaying moral qualities. What we see in the exodus from Egypt is not the failure of the natural world to function according to physical law, but the remarkable possibility that the natural world can, at times, act in accordance with the dictates of the moral law.
When historical motives prevail, as when an enslaved nation attains its freedom, the natural is not superseded by the supernatural. Instead the natural is elevated to the level of the ethical, becoming one with it—and this is miracle enough. “The great ideal,” he writes, “is the elevation of the natural level to the ethical one.”
In the context of present-day views, which see religion as essentially, if not exclusively, concerned with supernatural events and powers, this way of looking at Judaism—especially coming from one of the last century’s foremost Orthodox Jewish thinkers—is theologically explosive. In Soloveitchik’s view, Judaism is a religion or a philosophy (Soloveitchik frequently refers to Judaism as a philosophy) that seeks purpose and meaning, the ethical and the holy, and even an authentic encounter with God himself, all within the confines of the world of man’s experience, the natural world.
The appearance of The Emergence of Ethical Man raises a number of pressing questions. Questions such as, Is this really an example of Orthodox Judaism? And, most important, Is this way of looking at Judaism true? Does this way really penetrate the world of the biblical authors and reveal something close to the heart of what they were trying to teach us?
As for the first question: If one of the undisputed leaders of Orthodox Judaism says that Judaism teaches certain things, then these things would seem to comprise at least one Orthodox view.
But the question of whether The Emergence of Ethical Man can be seen as an Orthodox Jewish work also serves to emphasize something important about “Orthodox” Judaism. The word orthodox—which in English could be rendered as something like right belief or right-believing—is a term derived from Christian discussion of Christian religious dogmas, and it has always sat uneasily as a description of anything in Judaism. Saying that there is nothing a Jew must believe to be right-believing would be going too far. Orthodox Jewish thought has always supposed, for example, that the Mosaic law, if we adhere to it, will bring blessings to Jews and non-Jews and that the rule of God on Earth is ultimately just. These are central propositions for the biblical authors (although even these propositions are not accepted in the Hebrew Bible without question). Without them there wouldn’t be much left of Judaism.
But the category of the “supernatural” has no similar status in biblical thought. It is only later readers (“the fathers of the Church and also the Jewish medieval scholars,” as Soloveitchik says) who are familiar with a sharp distinction between natural and supernatural—and who are consequently able to turn the existence of the supernatural into a religious doctrine. That is why Soloveitchik turns to the Hebrew Bible: He believes it serves as an antidote to such thought. Indeed, the question of the supernatural is for him precisely the heart of the opposition between Christianity and authentic Jewish thought. As he writes:
It is at this point that Judaism breaks with Christianity. Christianity has been bent upon a transcendental adventure, namely, to free man from his bondage to the flesh….Judaism, in contrast, proclaimed the goodness of the whole man, of the natural man-plant-animal.
In effect, Soloveitchik is arguing that it is not supernaturalist readings of the Hebrew Bible that constitute a genuinely Jewish approach, but naturalist ones, such as those we find in Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed and Soloveitchik’s Emergence of Ethical Man. Indeed, it is the supernaturalist interpretation of Scripture, shaped by Christian metaphysics, that embraced nothing of the sort, and that may be seen as having a potentially tenuous relationship with Jewish “orthodoxy.”
This helps answer the question of whether Soloveitchik’s reading of Hebrew Scripture could really be at least in the ballpark of being right. For nearly 20 centuries, the West has read the Hebrew Bible in light of the very different teachings found in the Christian New Testament. Today, nearly everyone reads Hebrew Scripture, to one extent or another, as if its authors were party to the supernaturalist concerns of the Gospel of John or Paul’s letters.
Yet there is reason to doubt that the New-Testamentized reading of the Hebrew Bible that we’re used to is right. After all, the principal texts of Hebrew Scripture were written centuries before the distinction between natural and supernatural was applied to them. They were written by people who didn’t speak Greek (the language in which this dichotomy was framed) and who professed a different religion from the Christianity whose virtues the texts were designed to emphasize. The texts of the Hebrew Bible, moreover, seem largely uninterested in the subjects that made the concept of the supernatural so important and useful in explaining Christianity. The hidden secrets of God’s previously unrevealed plan for mankind, the salvific power of faith, the availability of eternal life—none of these subjects are even top-40 in Hebrew Scripture, a fact so obvious and so jarring that it prompted Kant to argue that the Judaism of ancient Israel was not really a religion!
The things that we do find in Hebrew Scripture, by contrast, are in many respects similar to materials that are found in the books of philosophers and historians—whose subject matter is presumed to be the natural world: histories of ancient peoples and attempts to draw political lessons from them; explorations of how best to conduct the life of the nation and the life of the individual; the writings of individuals who struggled with personal persecution and failure and their speculations concerning human nature and the search for the true and the good; attempts to get beyond the sphere of the here and now and to try to reach a more general understanding of the nature of reality, of man’s place in it, and of his relationship with that which is beyond his control. God is, of course, a central subject in the Hebrew Bible. But to a remarkable degree, the God of Israel and those who wrote about Him sought to address subjects close to the heart of what later tradition calls works of philosophy or reason—subjects that are firmly rooted in the natural order of the world.
In the last century, the possibility that the Middle Ages saw a wrong turn in the way we read the Hebrew Bible was broached time and again. The sense that Judaism has yet to fully recover the source of its original vitality in the biblical texts could be discerned in the writings of thinkers as different as Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Eliezer Berkovits. But no 20th-century work challenges the thesis of biblical supernaturalism as directly and systematically as does Joseph Soloveitchik’s The Emergence of Ethical Man.
In the pages of this unfinished work, one of the most remarkable minds of our time offers us a first sketch of a way to read Scripture—and of an approach to Judaism—such as the modern world has rarely seen. It speaks to us of a form of religion that is entirely Orthodox and yet entirely naturalistic, in which the world of our experience is recognized as the arena where the ancient covenant with the God of Israel can unfold even now.