Monday, September 26, 2016

Halakhic Man

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s (the Rav) seminal work is Halakhic Man; and it both echoes a work it mocks, The Organization Man.  Both books reflect the ethos of post-war America: the rise of collective bureaucracies in both the corporate world and government, the presence of massive totalitarian states in the Communist east, and the rising tide of discontent at the loss of personal identity and meaning.

The Rav, of course, believes that Halakhic Man, the individual who follows Jewish religious dictates, is most situated for a meaningful life in the world. The other types of people he creates and explores, Religious and Cognitive Man, stand in distinction from Halakhic Man.  

Interestingly, Religious Man is farther from the human ideal that Cognitive Man.  The Rav has little good to say about emotive forms of religion.  Following in the Litvak tradition he hails from, he finds Religious Man far too prone to extremes of behavior to follow the straight line of Judaism.  The Rav takes aim at Kabbalah, mysticism of all sorts, Chasidism, and even reading of psalms.  These subjects and pursuits take a person out of the world.  “Halakhic man will not dance on the streets on the Passover night, nor will he shout out his prayers on the Days of Awe…”

Cognitive Man, the person of science and empiricism, is much like Halakhic Man in that she obeys certain immutable laws of nature, and puts them into practice in living reality. Halakhic Man experiences religious enthusiasm, but this “experience is modest, retiring, very delicate, but strong as flint.”

Halakhic Man is an existentialist: “The Halakhah does not aspire to a heavenly transcendence… it fixes its gaze upon empirical reality and does not allow its attention to be diverted from it.”  He does not broker in spiritual dualities: “The true sanctuary is the sphere of our daily, mundane activities, for it is there that the realizations of Halakhah takes place.”

The Rav believes that intellect should guide Jewish practice.  I think his characterization of Religious Man is often misguided.  He sets up a straw man  in order to raise the stock of  Halakhah Man   Despite this, and certain opaque prose near the center and end of the book (particular in part two) this is an important work which sheds vital life and light on the Jewish experience. 

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