Lonely Man’s Halakhic Philosophy

David Shatz Tradition Online | July 18, 2023

[Editor’s Note: TRADITION’s recent special issue celebrating Rabbi Soloveitchik’s thought as we marked his 30th yahrzeit contained an essay by Mark Smilowitz that shows how the Rav’s core arguments in The Lonely Man of Faith about loneliness and the dialectical oscillation between the majestic and covenantal communities derive from halakhic sources, not just biblical sources, as is frequently thought Smilowitz suggests a connection between The Lonely Man of Faith and The Halakhic Mind, and in general between R. Soloveitchik’s later, existentialist-style writings and his earlier, neo-Kantian-style writings. The essay, The Lonely Man of Faith as Halakhic Philosophy” (Spring 2023) is now open-access and can be read here. To help orient us to the essay’s major claims and contributions we turned to our valued editorial board member, David Shatz, scholar of the Rav’s philosophy for a prefatory note discussing the article and its significance. Order your copy of the special issue on R. Soloveitchik’s thought.]

Near the end of The Halakhic Mind, written in 1944, there appears one of the best-known ideas in the Rav’s writings: “[t]here is only a single source from which a Jewish philosophical Weltanschauung could emerge; the objective order—the Halakhah…. Out of the sources of Halakhah, a new world view awaits formulation” (101-102).

Mark Smilowitz’s article poses a fascinating question. If halakha is the touchstone of a worldview’s Jewish authenticity, then why in The Lonely Man of Faith does the Rav ground his contentions by interpreting biblical material from Genesis? Why aren’t halakhic texts central?

Rather than accept the answer that, for instance, this is just another contradiction within the Rav’s oeuvre, Smilowitz meticulously examines the halakhic texts that the Rav cites in his footnotes. He argues that these notes are not just supplemental, peripheral remarks subordinated to the biblical analysis. Rather, the material in the notes are the Rav’s grounds for, or at least a check on, the essay’s thesis that God demands we live dialectically as both Adam the first and Adam the second. This is why, according to Smilowitz, The Lonely Man of Faith constitutes (in a phrase of the Rav) a “halakhic philosophy.”

Smilowitz fills out and augments his case by studying a lecture series that the Rav delivered in 1958-1959. In that series (preserved, perhaps incompletely, on audio; available at YUTorah), the Rav features, albeit with variations, what were later basic themes of The Lonely Man of Faith. Crucially, he insists, just as in Halakhic Mind, that halakha is the main source of Jewish philosophy, and he uses the language of “reconstruction” of subjective religious experience. In those lectures, the biblical material amplifies halakhically-based theses about another theme found in The Lonely Man of Faith, loneliness; but the material does not—so the Rav says explicitly—serve by itself to establish them. Why the Rav put the halakhic material in footnotes in Lonely Man if the halakhot are powering or checking the analysis can be explained in several ways, as Smilowitz points out. The upshot of the article is that the Rav saw The Lonely Man of Faith as a “fulfillment and implementation, not a rejection of, the demand in Halakhic Mind that Jewish philosophy come from halakhic sources” (140). The audio lectures are a bridge between the works, and connect the Rav’s early neo-Kantian works with his existentialist masterpiece.

Closely argued, carefully developed, and erudite, Smilowitz’s article is an extremely important contribution to understanding the surprising relationship between two works, written two decades apart, that initially appear distant, even contradictory, in both method and content.

David Shatz
Ronald P. Stanton University Professor of Philosophy, Ethics, and Religious Thought, Yeshiva University

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