From the April issue of our publication, Yoram Hazony’s article ‘The Rav’s Bombshell’ has occasioned impassioned debate around the world, with a flood of responses coming into our offices by email, through our website, and, yes, even in envelopes with stamps on them. This special letters section features comments from 14 of those who wrote in, with a significant response from Mr. Hazony.
Shubert Spero writes:
The curious thing about Yoram Hazony’s review of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s book The Emergence of Ethical Man [“The Rav’s Bombshell,” April] is that since the book’s publication, not even one of Soloveitchik’s many followers or students has concurred with Mr. Hazony’s decision to deem it a bombshell. Many of the things that surprise Mr. Hazony, such as naturalistic interpretation of biblical miracles and general blurring of the distinction between the natural and the supernatural, have been a part of modern Orthodox thought for quite some time. Additionally, the fallacies inherent in medieval Jewish philosophy were apparent even before the period ended; Soloveitchik’s “dissent” therefrom is hardly “striking.”
Mr. Hazony argues that the biblical concept of man as presented by Soloveitchik—man is part of the natural world and his essence is identical with the plant-animal continuum of which man is the most developed form—“throws into question much of what we think of as religion, namely metaphysical immortality, prophesy, and miracles.” In particular, Mr. Hazony deplores the fact that Soloveitchik makes no explicit use of the terms transcendence or supernatural in his concept of man. Indeed, Soloveitchik goes on to call man’s discovery of his capacity to distinguish between right and wrong and his yearning for God simply “intellectual.” But if so, asks Mr. Hazony, where is the “image of God” so central in the biblical account?
Soloveitchik would say that the answer lies in man’s experience of the ethical act, which is felt as a “unique imperative which man feels free to obey or to ignore.” All of this is still part of the natural order of man’s subjectivity. Only, however, when critical philosophy questions the authority of the ethical imperative and the reality of man’s sense of freedom do we have recourse to the “image of God” in man. What Mr. Hazony decries is precisely the great contribution of Soloveitchik—that is, to describe the emergence of ethical man consistent with the biblical account within the confines of anthropological naturalism.
Gil Student writes:
Yoram Hazony writes that the posthumous publication of books, such as The Emergence of Ethical Man, based on recorded lectures, notes, and unfinished manuscripts, is “problematic, morally and intellectually.” However, his subsequent discussion seems to acknowledge that refraining from publication is also problematic because it condemns to oblivion a great man’s lifework, denying him the privilege of teaching from the grave and preventing many students from learning his original thoughts. Soloveitchik entrusted his heirs with responsibility for publishing his teachings, thereby morally and religiously obligating his children to pursue publication of this and other manuscripts according to their best judgment. In some cases he even selected the editors.
Mr. Hazony says that Soloveitchik concludes his Halakhic Mind with a call for a new kind of Jewish philosophy that emerges from halakha, but that Emergence is based largely on the narratives in Genesis and Exodus rather than halakha. Mr. Hazony is correct but overstates his case. The passage he quotes from Halakhic Mind stresses the centrality of halakhic sources, but earlier in that work Soloveitchik explicitly makes room for biblical sources. Additionally, this same challenge can be posed to many of Soloveitchik’s other writings. Some of his most famous essays, such as “The Lonely Man of Faith,” “Kol Dodi Dofek,” and “Confrontation,” draw heavily and substantively on the Bible. Emergence fits right in with Soloveitchik’s other writings even if each piece must be analyzed on its own merits and in its own context.
Lawrence Kaplan writes:
Yoram Hazony deserves credit for bringing The Emergence of Ethical Man to the attention of a general audience and highlighting its often radical nature.
Mr. Hazony correctly notes that “Soloveitchik…painstakingly documents…that Hebrew Scripture views man as part of the natural world” and not as “alien to the order of nature.” In taking this naturalist view, Soloveitchik, Mr. Hazony notes, daringly breaks with medieval Jewish philosophy, which he views, on account of its transcendental image of man, as similar to Christianity, and he aligns himself with what he conceives to be the view of the Hebrew Bible and Talmud. Mr. Hazony’s analysis is cogent and incisive. However, when he explores the theological implications of this naturalistic picture, his argument becomes problematic.
Mr. Hazony correctly states that “Soloveitchik flatly rules out the idea that prophecy involves some kind of escape from the bounds of man’s natural endowment.” But he mischaracterizes what, in Soloveitchik’s view, is involved in prophecy. In support of his understanding, Mr. Hazony quotes this key passage: “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.” What is critical, however, is the omitted sentence in the ellipsis between these two sentences: “In order to meet man (i.e., revelation), God descends from transcendental infinity into concrete finitude and confines Himself to the identical area in which man was placed.”
Soloveitchik here is clearly drawing upon his concept of divine contraction described at length in Halakhic Man: “contraction of the infinite within the finite, the transcendent within the concrete … and the divine within the realm of reality.” Thus Soloveitchik’s doctrine of divine contraction turns out to be the theological correlative of his anthropological doctrine of naturalism. It is this divine contraction that enables man to meet God.
Jordan B. Cherrick writes:
Yoram Hazony is mistaken when he claims that Joseph B. Soloveitchik did not believe in the eschatological vision of Judaism.
Soloveitchik’s central thesis in Emergence amplifies some of the themes in Halakhic Man. He teaches that the human being was created in the image of God and has spiritual qualities that he or she can develop to imitate God’s Ways (imitatio Dei) by creating and perfecting the imperfect world in which we live. Unlike animals, we have the freedom of choice to lower ourselves to our animalistic nature or to redeem our physical qualities and nurture our spirituality to a high level that will then allow us to enjoy our presumptive share in the world to come when God decides to return our souls to Him.
In perhaps his most well-known book, The Lonely Man of Faith, published in 1965, Soloveitchik returns to the opening chapters of Genesis. When he creates the categories of Adam I (“majestic man”) and Adam II (“man of faith”), he focuses on the dialectical nature of the human being. Adam I imitates God’s creative ways by conquering nature, curing illnesses, and building a thriving civilization. On the other hand, Adam II must accept defeat and suffering while searching for God. This constant dialectical experience in life creates existential loneliness, as the human being must constantly live with this tension.
In a critical footnote, however, Soloveitchik teaches that this existential state is limited to this world: “Jewish eschatology beholds the great vision of a united majestic-covenantal community in which all oppositions will be reconciled and absolute harmony will prevail.”
Alex Sztuden writes:
In his assessment of Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s The Emergence of Ethical Man, Mr. Hazony alleges that the publication of previously unpublished manuscripts, and the publication of Emergence in particular, is intellectually and morally problematic. He then proceeds to portray the work as “a bombshell.” He is wrong on both counts.
Emergence is an extension of Soloveitchik’s writings that emphasize the public, universal, ethical aspects of Judaism—and of his theme regarding the need for public dialogue on issues of political and ethical import. In this age of irrationalists, obscurantists, and sectarians, we would do well to stress this fundamental, ethical, political, and outward manifestation of Judaism. But Soloveitchik, with his penchant for dialectic, is much too complicated and multifaceted a thinker to be reduced to simplistic labels such as “entirely naturalistic.”
As to its posthumous publication, anyone familiar with the individuals in the Soloveitchik family who initiated and, as acknowledgments in the books show, oversaw the Toras HoRav project will find the insinuation of moral impropriety surreal. Hazony doesn’t raise elementary questions: What wishes did Soloveitchik express regarding the hundreds of manuscripts he wrote for delivery in public or in classroom lectures, many of which open new avenues into Soloveitchik’s thought or clarify published material? Did Soloveitchik request that they be consigned to oblivion?
Scholarship thrives on the production of often unedited letters and manuscripts. Should Emergence have been published? The importance Hazony attributes to it is an answer in itself.
Yosef Reinman writes:
I must agree with Mr. Hazony’s evident disapproval of the posthumous publication of The Emergence of Ethical Man. It is inconceivable that Soloveitchik, who spent his entire life studying and explicating the views of the Rishonim—“those medieval Christian-influenced Jews” such as the Rambam and Rashi—would deny basic tenets of Judaism such as the immortality of the soul and the occurrence of supernatural events. As a youth, Soloveitchik was a scion of an illustrious Lithuanian rabbinical lineage who defied the conventions of his family and attended the University of Berlin. I can understand that such an impressionable young genius would wander down alien paths. But then he returned to the rabbinical fold, where his leadership and erudition guided generations of modern Orthodox communities.
Therefore, I am not surprised that this manuscript was left unfinished and stashed away in a drawer for more than a half century. It is scandalous that someone decided to publish this unfinished manuscript when its author clearly buried it; unfortunately, he couldn’t bring himself to burn this bastard child of his brilliant mind.
Joel Rutman writes:
Yoram Hazony describes Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s understanding of miracles in The Emergence of Ethical Man as part of the natural world, but there are limits to this application. Soloveitchik writes: “Had the plague of the firstborn…occurred a year before or after the exodus it would not have been [a miracle]. Why? God would have been instrumental in a natural children’s plague.” But, he goes on to say, the plague’s occurring when and where it did brought about a “historical metamorphosis,” and it is therefore a miracle.
“What is celebrated in the biblical account of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt,” Mr. Hazony comments, “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 miracle is said to be that “the natural world can, at times, act in accordance with the dictates of the moral law.”
But how can it be argued that a plague that smites firstborn sons of all ages is natural when no such plague exists in the natural world? The 10th plague may have brought about a change in history, but it is not an example of the natural world doing anything because it is not at all natural. It is a miracle in the old-fashioned sense.
Yaacov Krausz writes:
Yoram Hazony argues, based on The Emergence of Ethical Man, that Joseph B. Soloveitchik did not believe there is a life after death. He quotes Soloveitchik: “[The] concept of immortality as coined by Judaism is the continuation of a historical existence throughout the ages.”
Here Mr. Hazony is being misleading. The quote actually says, “The first concept of immortality as coined by Judaism is the continuation of a historical existence throughout the ages.” The word first is crucial. Again, Soloveitchik is trying to reinstate a balance between the natural and the transcendental. Living on in historical memory is a sense of immortality, and it may even be the first sense of that term according to the Bible, but nowhere does Soloveitchik say it is the only form of immortality. He states, “The first conquest of death takes place in the realm of history.” What the second or third conquests of death are Soloveitchik does not tell us in this manuscript.
That this manuscript was not ready for publication is very evident from pages 176–77. The text confuses resurrection of the dead with the idea of a historical immortality. The Talmud proves that there is a biblical basis for the belief in the resurrection of the dead. If Aaron is alive again, he can eat terumah. There is no need to postulate that historical immortality is the vehicle through which the promise that he will be given terumah is fulfilled. But this brings us back to the debate about how Maimonides understood the concept of the resurrection of the dead. Clearly, Soloveitchik’s line of reasoning needed further refinement and elaboration. In any case, Mr. Hazony is entitled to look for support for his views on these very important concepts. I think that if Soloveitchik had wanted to say the things Mr. Hazony thinks he said, Soloveitchik would have said them clearly and unambiguously.
Joseph Isaac Lifshitz writes:
Rabbi Soloveitchik is so highly respected that it is difficult to find any intellectual discussion of his teaching that is not tinged with admiration. Although admiration of Soloveitchik is justified, it is at the same time wonderful to hear a fresh voice that doesn’t come from his disciples. Yoram Hazony is not a specialist in biblical philosophy, and his remarks about Soloveitchik’s work are valuable.
What struck me in Mr. Hazony’s analysis of Soloveitchik’s The Emergence of Ethical Man was his take on the question of authority. Soloveitchik, who accepted the authority of the halakhic sages of the middle ages, in his halakhic studies and decisions, did not hesitate to tell us, already in Halakhic Mind: “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.” Hazony points out that in Emergence, Soloveitchik does not refrain from aligning “medieval Jewish thought with Christianity.”
Soloveitchik’s disciples are very much aware of his encouragement of every student to seek his own voice, and not to be threatened by the authority of their teacher. That is why it is refreshing to read Soloveitchik’s wisdom from the perspective of a scholar who himself proved his ability to read the Bible in an original and fresh light. Mr. Hazony’s alignment with Soloveitchik’s philosophy, albeit coming from a different school of thought, claiming that the Bible “stresses man’s alien status in the world of nature and his radical uniqueness,” is in itself proof of its success.
Daniel D. Edelman writes:
In his essay on The Emergence of Ethical Man, Yoram Hazony identifies something subtle yet quite concerning. With a quiet tinge of understatement, Mr. Hazony introduces his article by observing, “So far as I am aware, [Emergence] has drawn little attention since its publication” seven years ago.
Hazony’s concerns appear well founded. Only weeks before his article hit newsstands, Reuven Ziegler, director of research and archives of the Toras HoRav Foundation, the organization responsible for the posthumous dissemination of Soloveitchik’s writings, published the book Majesty and Humility, a survey of the Rav’s written works. Ziegler is to be commended for the years he spent leading the effort to sort through, study, and edit Soloveitchik’s manuscripts, but it does not go unnoticed that Emergence is the one major work by Soloveitchik nearly absent from the book.
Ziegler instructs his readers several times that Soloveitchik’s core philosophy is “theo-centric but anthropo-oriented.” There is no work by Soloveitchik that more directly addresses the anthropology of man than Emergence, which originated as 10 handwritten notebooks bound together under the title the “Concept of Man.” One whole section of Ziegler’s book is captioned the “Doctrine of Man,” yet there is virtually no mention of The Emergence of Ethical Man in this section. Why?
Perhaps Mr. Hazony’s article provides something of an answer. As he demonstrates, Emergence is refreshingly direct in showing that Soloveitchik’s naturalist understanding of man is at odds with medieval Jewish thought and that Soloveitchik recognizes the need to go back to the original biblical sources so as to demonstrate a correct or more authentic Jewish approach. Some of those in the Orthodox community who revere Soloveitchik would probably consider such an approach too revolutionary and thus deem it preferable to not call attention to it. Let us hope that is not the case so we can appreciate accurately the full impact of Soloveitchik’s genius.
Meir Simchah Panzer writes:
I have more than a few questions and reservations about the particulars of Soloveitchik’s views as presented by Mr. Hazony. Nevertheless I find the general direction—the “naturalist” orientation, as Mr. Hazony puts it—deeply appealing. And yet it is precisely this naturalism that is a tough sell.
If we exist on a continuum of fundamental particles, complex molecules, plants, animals, and humanity—as Genesis and science strongly suggest—then we are not magically knowledgeable beings or inherently special beings or, accordingly, beings who can control the future or transcend the natural order. We are vulnerable. And if we want knowledge, we must make biology become aware of existence, we must discover the myriad processes that make up our world, we must turn and turn our Torah, never presuming that we have attained “the truth.” If we want specialness, we must make ourselves kedoshim—we must dedicate ourselves to our relationship with the Creator. And if we want to go beyond the whims and compulsions of materiality—if we want a future to call our own—then we must strip away any preconception of redemption and any formula that would promise a lasting solution and throw ourselves into the work of creation. We are Adam rising from adamah, the earth. We are the materiality conscious. Our purpose must emerge, and emergence is our purpose.
Even if it’s a tough sell, this is our tradition. Truly our challenge is more than establishing another worldview laced with halakhic language. Our challenge is to discover a new way, a way that emerges “out of the sources of halakha,” a way that, because it is of halakha, will be a way of halikha, of becoming through process. Is this not what Adam seeks, the path of return to the Tree of Life?
Leonard Levin writes:
I have taught Halakhic Man in my modern Jewish philosophy course for the past 12 years. I can attest that the outlook that Mr. Hazony depicts as being contained in The Emergence of Ethical Man accords quite well with Soloveitchik’s emphasis that “halakhic man” is closer in spirit to “cognitive man” than to “homo religiosus.” It also accords with his emphatic declaration in the fourth footnote of that work, that Judaism would do much better to plot its course in agreement with modern science than to embrace the mystical philosophies (especially Romanticism and existentialism) that seek to escape the constraints of worldly existence.
Yaakov Snyder writes:
Yoram Hazony’s article on The Emergence of Ethical Man has many potential implications for modern thought, not only in religion but also in the cognitive sciences, ethics, and anthropology. Many of these questions are unanswered and are among the most complex humanity has faced. To what extent are we a part of nature? How are we different? What does transcendence really mean?
The idea that the natural world can at times act in accordance with the dictates of the moral law and that this is a miracle—as opposed to a miracle being against nature—describes an experience most people have encountered, even if they are unable to explain it. And indeed, today we find even our physical sciences heading in a direction against absolute causality. This debate is central to Jewish thought as well.
Fred Ehrman writes:
Yoram Hazony’s article has caused quite a kerfuffle in the centrist Orthodox world, especially among Soloveitchik’s former students. Mr. Hazony has been accused of overstating his case, and has gone so far as to imply that Soloveitchik is an apostate for denying our traditional concepts of prophecy, miracles, the soul, and immortality.
My guess is that Mr. Hazony’s critics, if they carefully read the book, did so some years ago and their impressions are overwhelmed by their view of Soloveitchik as their melamed (teacher) and one of the outstanding Talmudists of the previous century, as opposed to the philosopher that he is in this book.
I think Mr. Hazony is correct to call Soloveitchik’s views in this book a “bombshell,” with one exception. On the difference between the prophecy of Abraham and Moses, Soloveitchik writes: “While the father of the nation voluntarily undertakes a historical mission without experiencing any duress or compulsion, the redeemer is forced by apocalyptic command into a historical situation….God endows him [Moses] with supernatural power to perform miraculous deeds. Moses attains a new stature.” Moses’s prophecy and ability to perform miracles is qualitatively different from all the other prophets beginning with Abraham and ending with Malachi, a view espoused by Rambam as well.
Yoram Hazony Responds:
I had hoped my essay on Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s The Emergence of Ethical Man would spark debate over a book that has suffered surprising and unjustified neglect since its posthumous publication in 2005. This it seems to have done, and I am delighted with all the attention his book is now receiving and will, I hope, continue to receive.
That said, I have to admit I’m a bit surprised by the way the argument over the book has developed so far. As is evident from the letters reprinted above, readers responding to my essay are divided into two camps: those who are willing to believe there is something new and remarkable in the pages of Emergence, something that is not usually said by Orthodox Jewish thinkers or by anyone else, and that does not appear in a clear systematic fashion in any of the works Soloveitchik published during his lifetime; and those who insist that this is just not true, that Emergence is more or less an elaboration of whatever else Soloveitchik wrote elsewhere. This second “no bombshell” group is represented here by the often impassioned letters of Jordan B. Cherrick, Yaacov Krausz, Shubert Spero, Gil Student, and Alex Sztuden.
What is it that this “no bombshell” camp wants? When it comes to the great questions raised in Emergence and discussed in my article, this camp has not even six inches of common ground on which to stand. Some, such as Mr. Spero, say my essay was unnecessary because everybody already knows that Soloveitchik’s thought is marked by a systematic naturalism and a rejection of central tenets of medieval Jewish philosophy. Others, such as Mr. Cherrick and Mr. Krausz, say exactly the opposite: that my essay is “unprecedented” (Mr. Cherrick) and that no responsible person has ever said that Soloveitchik’s thought is marked by a systematic naturalism and a rejection of central tenets of medieval Jewish philosophy.
What makes these perfectly contradictory positions a single camp is their common commitment to the proposition that basically nothing of unique significance takes place in the pages of The Emergence of Ethical Man. Thus Mr. Cherrick blandly asserts that “Soloveitchik’s central thesis in The Emergence of Ethical Man amplifies some of the themes in [his earlier book] Halakhic Man.” Mr. Sztuden says that “Emergence is an extension of Soloveitchik’s writings that emphasize the public, universal, ethical aspects of Judaism.” Mr. Student finds that “clearly, Emergence fits right in with Soloveitchik’s other writings.”
I’m sure these individuals are sincere in saying that Emergence is an original and important work. But at the same time, I can’t help noticing that they seem almost completely unaware of the questions that Emergence was written to resolve. Indeed, an inability to identify the thesis, or even the subject matter, of Emergence seems to be disturbingly common among those who have jumped forward to insist there’s no bombshell here.
As Daniel D. Edelman writes in his letter, Emergence is in fact highly distinctive among Soloveitchik’s writings in that its subject is an exposition of a theory of human nature (what Soloveitchik calls an “anthropology”). In other words, The Emergence of Ethical Man is not an essay on religious experience, whether Jewish or general—the subject matter of works such as Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man, And from There You Shall Seek, and Lonely Man of Faith. It is, in fact, something very different: It is a book about nature—almost a book of science. In fact, we might say that The Emergence of Ethical Man is an attempt to rebuild the scientific worldview out of Jewish sources so as to pave the way for a genuinely Jewish science.
The Jewish science that Soloveitchik was struggling to describe in The Emergence of Ethical Man does part ways with the conventional scientific worldview on important points. But it agrees with the conventional scientific worldview on at least this: There is nothing in human experience that requires recourse to the concept of the supernatural. In keeping with this approach, Soloveitchik writes that God’s creation of the world in Genesis was a natural event and involved no “supernatural phenomena”; that God’s infusion of life into creatures otherwise made of dead matter is likewise an event that takes place in nature; and the same is true of everything else that is ascribed to God in the biblical and classical rabbinic sources that Soloveitchik discusses in this book.
Indeed, in Emergence, the word supernatural is used exclusively to describe things that Christians or medieval Jews may believe but Soloveitchik sees as alien to classical, authentic Jewish belief. (If I’m not mistaken, the only exception to this is the sentence rightly highlighted by Fred Ehrman on page 183 of the book. To me this appears to be a slip—a result of the fact that the manuscript was a draft that Soloveitchik never edited for publication.)
Lawrence Kaplan questions whether Emergence really proposes a completely thoroughgoing naturalism, given that it refers to God as “transcendent.” But one has to be careful here. In this book, at least, the term transcendent does not refer to things that are supernatural at all. On this issue, Soloveitchik closely follows Henri Bergson’s Time and Free Will, which challenges the supposition that the concrete and finite objects of common human experience should be regarded as ultimate reality. Yet neither Bergson nor Soloveitchik believes you have to do anything supernatural or believe in anything supernatural to get beyond (or behind) these objects and encounter the transcendent and the infinite. Similarly, where Soloveitchik speaks of God as transcending the world of concrete and finite objects, he does not see this as a description of anything violating the order of nature.
Some members of the “no bombshell” group have no patience for this kind of thing and have been quoting me (in letters published in COMMENTARY and elsewhere) as saying that Soloveitchik did not believe in miracles or prophecy or the existence or immortality of the soul. This is nonsense. I have never said or written anything of the sort. Soloveitchik plainly believed in miracles, prophecy, and the existence and immortality of the soul, as I wrote in my essay. It is, however, the case that Soloveitchik rejects the Greek metaphysics that is often taken as the basis for an understanding of what these things are.
Take, for example, the soul. If you are a good Aristotelian, you may wish to say that the human soul is a distinct “substance,” detachable from the body and imperishable. Soloveitchik, however, is not a good Aristotelian and he rejects this picture explicitly in the opening pages of The Emergence of Ethical Man. But rejecting the medieval concept of the soul is not the same as denying the existence of the soul. Soloveitchik believes in a soul, but he sees it as what C.D. Broad in The Mind and Its Place in Nature (referenced by Soloveitchik on page 14 of Emergence) calls an “emergent” property of matter. In other words, Soloveitchik believes that the human soul and human subjectivity are perfectly real and distinguishable from the traditional objects of physics and chemistry, but that they are also properties that emerge in some way from those of the subatomic particles studied in the physical sciences.
This is what Soloveitchik means when he says that human beings are a “part of nature” whose “ontic essence remains identical” to that of plants and animals. The human soul is dependent upon and “emerges” from the same natural ingredients out of which plants and animals are constituted, as discussed in Meir Simchah Panzer’s letter. (Hence the title given to the book by its editors—the “emergence of ethical man” being a reference to the emergence of human subjectivity from the dead matter described by physics.)
Since the soul is portrayed as an emergent property of matter, it’s no surprise that Soloveitchik does not, in this book, permit the introduction of any kind of immortality that is based on the existence of a soul that is detachable and imperishable and that goes on to live in an alternate world after death. Such a concept of the soul would mean returning to the Aristotelian supposition of eternal and imperishable substances. It would, in other words, violate the whole premise of the book!
Which is why it is so strange to have Mr. Krausz and others accusing me of quoting out of context when I say that Soloveitchik sees metaphysical immortality as dependent on the individual’s passing a given historical consciousness to his or her descendants and heirs. In my article, I quoted a passage from page 176 of the book to make this point—and so now there’s been a generalized ransacking of page 176 by Mr. Krausz and others in search of ways to prove that my excerpts are sneaky and misleading. I admit it’s a hard page to read and, like Mr. Krausz, I think there are things on this page whose meaning we may never understand. (I have a suspicion as to what Soloveitchik’s reference to the “first conquest of death” means, but it is pure speculation. I haven’t found anyone yet who can fully explain this passage.)
But I reject completely the claim that I’ve quoted anything here out of context. On the contrary, if someone is quoting out of context, it is the reader who keeps trying to get page 176 to say what he wants it to say without reference to the fact that it is only one page out of 14 pages that Soloveitchik devotes to painstakingly laying out his theory of historical immortality. And in those 14 pages, Soloveitchik could not be more explicit or more consistent in the view that Abraham’s soul lives an immortal life because it is duplicated in the subjectivity of his descendants and heirs. As Soloveitchik writes:
The historical Abraham as a historical personality attained immortality. Yet Abraham did not conquer death in the metaphysical, transcendental sense. His immortality is through and through historical; immortality which consists in [Abraham’s] proximity to a distant future and closeness to a remote past. Immortal is the personality which, incarnated in anticipation of the multitude of a nonexistent group, is in turn incarnated by that group in retrospect [emphasis added].
Note that Soloveitchik is unequivocal here: He writes that Abraham attained immortality, but that “he did not conquer death in the metaphysical, transcendental sense.” The immortality of Abraham is—in Soloveitchik’s own words—“through and through historical.”
Remarkably, this understanding of immortality is not, in Soloveitchik’s view, limited to the Bible. Indeed, Soloveitchik attributes this same view to the Talmud on pages 176–77. Krausz thinks these pages prove that The Emergence of Ethical Man was not ready for publication because Soloveitchik here “confuses” the resurrection of the dead in the messianic age with his own theory of a historical immortality rooted in the consciousness of our descendants. But why does Mr. Krausz believe Soloveitchik is confused? Soloveitchik quotes a Talmudic text (Sanhedrin 90b) and explains that when the rabbis speak here of the resurrection of the dead, they base it on two biblical texts (Exodus 6:4 and Numbers 18:28) that seem to promise our ancestors historical immortality. From this Soloveitchik concludes that when the Talmud refers to the resurrection of the dead, it is in fact, at least in this particular passage, invoking a view resembling his own theory of historical immortality.
The reading that Soloveitchik is proposing here is not confused at all. It is coherent, clear, and entirely consistent with the conception of man’s nature developed, step by step, from the beginning of The Emergence of Ethical Man through its last pages.
I understand that Mr. Krausz and others may be surprised to find such a view of immortality in a work by Soloveitchik. But it is plainly what is written in this book. If we don’t want to accept what is written here as Soloveitchik’s view, at least during the period when he composed this manuscript, then I think we have to conclude that the text as we have it is not a good guide to what Soloveitchik thought about this issue. I consider this to be a possible, legitimate conclusion—given that we are speaking about an unfinished manuscript that Soloveitchik never went back to put into publishable form, and that he chose not to publish during his lifetime. I do not believe we can rule out the possibility that there were reasons, as Yosef Reinman suggests, for Soloveitchik’s never having completed and published this manuscript.
This brings us to the issue of whether The Emergence of Ethical Man should have been published posthumously. In my essay, I refer to the posthumous publishing enterprise as “problematic, morally and intellectually.” I didn’t mean this to be a controversial remark. I wrote explicitly that Soloveitchik’s family and his students had both approved the publication of The Emergence of Ethical Man and that this, among other factors, should count strongly in favor of the project. However, some readers (Mr. Student, Mr. Reinman) have interpreted my comments as criticism of those at the Toras HoRav Foundation involved in the project. I obviously should have been clearer on this point. I do believe posthumous publishing poses serious moral and intellectual problems. After all, isn’t the question of whether to reject the author’s title and replace it with a different title (The Emergence of Ethical Man was originally named The Concept of Man) obviously a problem? I say it is. But as far as I can judge, those involved with this project did an excellent job of dealing with the many complex issues they faced. I don’t see any reason to think they acted inappropriately. On the contrary, I believe that on balance the considerations justified publication of The Emergence of Ethical Man. I am personally very grateful that this manuscript came to light and believe the editors deserve only to be commended for their efforts.
In short, I stand by the suggestion that The Emergence of Ethical Man is a unique work within the corpus of Soloveitchik’s writings. This is because its thesis and subject matter are highly distinctive and address issues that Soloveitchik seems to have treated in a systematic fashion nowhere else. Indeed, it is because of its unique subject matter that Emergence is able to provide a sketch of a kind of Orthodox Judaism (and indeed, of religious belief more generally) that will be new to a great many readers, including some who believe Soloveitchik could not have held such views.
Can the naturalized understanding of Judaism proposed in The Emergence of Ethical Man be right? Soloveitchik makes a surprisingly powerful argument (helpfully elaborated in the letters of Daniel D. Edelman, Fred Ehrman, Lawrence Kaplan, Leonard Levin, Meir Simchah Panzer, and Yaakov Snyder) to the effect that philosophical naturalism—if interpreted in light of developments in philosophy over the last century—can be the basis for a more faithful reading of the classical Jewish texts than was possible during the long reign of Aristotelian and Kantian premises through the end of the 19th century. I would hope this naturalized system can receive the careful, thoughtful discussion that the work of a great man, even if it is an unfinished work, deserves.