A response to Rabbi Cardozo by a Think Tank Member who prefers to remain anonymous
In a recent essay, Rabbi Cardozo’s wrote that Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik was not a great innovator in Halakhah. R. Cardozo opens his piece by suggesting that JBS’s approach to halacha presents something of a paradox: on the one hand, JBS’s theoretical writing on halacha is full of novelty and deep philosophical insight while, on the other, his practical halachic rulings lacked boldness and innovation.
I would like to suggest that this air of paradox is only prima facie. On closer inspection, JBS’s philosophical and practical approach to halacha are highly consilient.
When I read Halachic Man many years ago I was struck by how much it is indebted to Kantian philosophy. At the heart of Kant’s moral philosophy is the idea of freedom, and the very particular and peculiar construction that Kant gives to that concept. According to Kant, the moral law is the law of freedom. But “freedom” for Kant does not mean what we ordinarily take it to mean (choosing between different options, ability to act on our own desires free of political constraint etc.). For Kant, the true self is the rational self, the faculty of rational deliberation which is capable of standing outside our personal desires and interests and of making decisions based in pure, universal reason and free of the influence of those desires and interests.
For Kant, therefore, to act on the basis of our desires and emotions is precisely to be unfree. Freedom consists in our capacity to detach ourselves from those emotions and to act on pure, universal rational principle. Hence, to act in accordance with universal moral law is to be free. According to Kant, when we are moved by our emotions (compassion, empathy) to act kindly towards another person, our action is neither free nor moral. We act freely and morally only when we act out of duty towards the universal moral law.
These ideas—which probably sound weird to us, not to say repulsive (though they probably make more sense within the context of Protestant Christian theology)—form the core of JBS’s philosophy of halacha in Halachic Man. In fact, it’s probably only a slight exaggeration to say that Halachic Man does little more than borrow Kantian philosophical ideas and dress them up in Jewish, halachic clothing.
One feature of Kantian moral philosophy—which may be apparent from my thumbnail sketch—is that it is radically ahistorical. It does not see moral values as being the product of historical, social forces. On the contrary, it locates the source of morality in an abstract, universal, noumenal realm entirely detached from actual, empirical human emotions, relations, social structures etc. This aspect of Kant’s moral philosophy was severely criticised by Hegel and Nietzsche.
In failing to address the critiques of Hegel and Nietzsche, and contenting himself with the philosophical world of Kant, JBS shows himself to be thoroughly unmodern in his philosophical approach to halacha.
I don’t know anything at all about JBS’s personal biography or his philosophical schooling—perhaps his philosophy teachers venerated Kant and not Hegel. I’ve often wondered, though, whether there may not be another reason why he was so drawn to a Kantian philosophical account of halacha, namely that it fits so well with his Brisker lomdus approach to talmud and halacha—the approach which sees halachic concepts not as historically conditioned moral responses to real social problems but rather as abstract, timeless metaphysical truths.
In both his philosophical and his practical approach to halacha, JBS can therefore be seen to be unmodern. His philosophical writing on halacha—for all its supposed intellectual daring—is essentially “safe,” from a traditional orthodox point of view. Rabbis Rackman, Berkovits etc., on the other hand, are “dangerous” because they require us to take historical and social change into account in our halachic thinking.
One final (not entirely unrelated) thought: people often invoke, in the context of halachic innovation, the idea of the slippery slope. The idea of the “slippery slope” implies a picture of something like a cliff edge, a slope at the top of which stands a plateau. In order to avoid slipping down the slope you need to step back from the edge. But what if it isn’t a cliff edge but rather a mountain ridge?