Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Halakhic Philosophies

When I first opened R. Ira Bedzow's recent book, Halakhic Man, Authentic Jew: Modern Expressions of Orthodox Thought from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, I was surprised. I had expected to find summaries of each thinkers' approach and then a constructive comparison and contrast of their views. That's not what I saw at all. Instead, I found something much bolder and more original.

Halakhic Man, Authentic Jew consists of four daring chapters, book-ended by a very brief introduction and conclusion. In the introduction, R. Bedzow states that Modern Orthodox thought is orthodoxy merely translated into contemporary language and thought structures. In the conclusion, he suggests that R. Soloveitchik and R. Berkovits did more than merely translate; they innovated and deviated from traditional Jewish thought.

Click here to read moreThe intervening chapters are where R. Bedzow attempts to prove this daring thesis. In the first two chapters, he raises point after point from each thinker and then critiques them, attempting to prove their incompatibility with Jewish tradition.

This is not some sort of hatchet job. It is a very thoughtful, respectful critique that attempts to analyze the subjects' ideas on their own terms. For example, on pages 47-58, R. Bedzow describes R. Soloveitchik's different typologies as being occupied entirely with the theoretical world: "For example, epistemological man's true ideal is the creation of mathematical constructs that can duplicate the functional relationships existing in the world, while homo religiosus leaves the physical world altogether. Even halakhic man has no inherent relationship to the real world, since his focus of concern is the ideal world of Halakha." R. Bedzow then proceeds to argue to the contrary, that Jewish tradition values action over all else.

R. Berkovits claims that the Jews were not inherently chosen. In R. Berkovits' own words: "God never chose the Jews; rather, any people whom God chose was to become the Jewish people." On pages 88-99, R. Bedzow argues from traditional texts that the Jewish people was chosen because of its unique worthiness.

These are just two examples of a series of ideas that R. Bedzow critiques, in chapter 1 of R. Soloveitchik and in chapter 2 of R. Berkovits. Chapter 3 is an essay on the subject of R. Soloveitchik's attempt to derive a philosophy of Judaism solely from halakhah. R. Bedzow concludes: "Halakha necessarily will shape the way people think by virtue of its pedagogical character; nevertheless, a Jewish Weltanschauung consists of more than just a normative system. The Torah encompasses history, poetry, mysticism, literature, philosophy, and many other facets of reality, as well as Halakha. A Jewish world view should do the same." (p. 147)

Chapter 4 is an essay on R. Berkovits' philosophy of ethics. As R. Bedzow describes it, R. Berkovits considers religion to be equated with ethics. This is an idea that R. Bedzow critiques at length.

After four chapters of critiquing the views of R. Soloveitchik and R. Berkovits -- one chapter each of short discussions and one long essay each -- R. Bedzow concludes as above, that both R. Soloveitchik and R. Berkovits misstated traditional Judaism in their religious philosophies. However, his conclusion is stated implicitly and not explicitly. He lets it flow from his arguments, in a way that seems respectful and maybe even tentative.

I have to admit that I am entirely incapable of evaluating the arguments in the book. The philosophical discussions are generally over my head. It makes me uncomfortable to see someone argue so extensively against R. Soloveitchik's ideas but I have no problem with honest discussions. I expect, and look forward to seeing, those more capable discuss these issues and fully evaluate the arguments.

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