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The Soloveitchik Solution

To bridge the growing divide between secular and religious Israelis, look to the founder of modern Orthodoxy

David P. Goldman
May 11, 2023
Yeshiva University Archives
‘For R. Soloveitchik, man’s partnership with God in the continuing work of creation was hardly a quietistic endeavor’Yeshiva University Archives
Yeshiva University Archives
‘For R. Soloveitchik, man’s partnership with God in the continuing work of creation was hardly a quietistic endeavor’Yeshiva University Archives

Liel Leibovitz depicts poignantly the conflict between secular and religious Israelis, concluding that “soft appeals to brotherhood and shared destiny aren’t likely to resolve it.” I stand with those who believe that there is no Israel without Torah, but Israel won’t survive without the technological and military prowess of secular Israel—what Leibovitz calls the “First Israel” of the Ashkenazic elite who founded the state as well as the 100,000 scientists and technicians who emigrated from the former Soviet Union.

It may help to focus not on the First Israel in the broad sense that Leibovitz defines it, but instead on the scientific and technical elite who contribute decisively to Israel’s defense and prosperity. This elite is by no means entirely secular—Abraham Fraenkel, the founder of Israeli mathematics, and the computer scientist Moshe Koppel come to mind—but it is mainly secular. But for the most part, mutual antagonism reigns between Israel’s scientific-technical elite and its religious community, for well-known historical reasons.

After Napoleon, the Torah world’s retention rate of the most prominent Jews in secular fields of learning was painfully low. Of the 50 Jews awarded the Nobel Prize for physics, not one to my knowledge was shomer mitzvot as an adult. Among the most prominent Jewish philosophers of the past century, Bergson was agnostic, while Husserl and Scheler converted to Christianity. Shabbat observance excludes the performance of classical music as a Jewish career. It is impossible to account for the disproportionate success of Jewish scientists, mathematicians, musicians, and philosophers without referring to a unique Jewish sensibility. But “majestic man” often becomes too enamored of his majesty to remember the covenant.

The mutual antagonism between the worlds of Jewish observance and secular accomplishment is deep, ingrained, and well-founded. But that does not necessarily mean that it is necessary, let alone right. Secular and religious Israel will never merge, but the two sides might at least be capable of a grudging acknowledgement that both are indispensable to Jewish survival, providing they can find a common language in which to communicate with each other.

That outcome is at least conceivable in terms of Rav Soloveitchik’s Torah. During the second half of the 20th century, Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (1903-93) was the guiding light of the branch of Orthodoxy that supported Torah Umadda—secular studies combined with traditional Jewish learning—or what for lack of a better word we call modern, or centrist Orthodoxy. For more than 40 years, the Rav—as he is called simply in the Orthodox world—led the senior Talmud seminar at Yeshiva University, and gave smicha (ordination) to more than 2,000 rabbis. His bibliography includes 200 original works. He is the subject of 80 books and hundreds of academic articles. His most famous book, The Lonely Man of Faith (1965), is the only work by an Orthodox Jewish writer to reach a broad Christian audience.

In the Rav’s published writings, especially The Halakhic Mind (1984) and even more in newly published lecture notes from his teaching at Yeshiva University in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he advanced a powerful argument that the scientific revolution starting with the 17th-century formulation of the calculus was inspired by Torah. Notes on the Rav’s 1949-50 lectures on Genesis taken by R. Robert Blau and brilliantly annotated by R. Meir Triebitz were published in 2021-22 by Hakirah. I have published several monographs in Hakirah adding philosophical and mathematical context for the Rav’s writing.

Let me therefore offer an outrageous claim as a starting point for this discussion: Torah more than Greek hochma is the source of modern science. Secular Israelis might acknowledge, however grudgingly, the debt of science to Torah. And Torah-obedient Israelis might admit, however reluctantly, that scientific discovery for the betterment of the human condition is a religious obligation.

The hegemonic character of this assertion cannot be overemphasized. The religious literature is filled with harmless homiletics about the compatibility of science and faith, for example the late R. Jonathan Sacks’ Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning. That is not what I am arguing here. Rather, with the collapse of Newtonian physics and with it the tyranny of Newtonian time with the advent of quantum theory, what R. Soloveitchik called “the paradoxical present-day conflict of science and philosophy … may yet give birth to a new religious world perspective.”

The Rav argues that the finitization of the infinite proceeds from the great discovery of modern Jewish thought, namely Isaac Luria’s reformulation of the concept of tsimtsum, or divine self-contraction. In recently published lectures on Halacha, Kabbalah, and Aggadah, R. Soloveitchik wrote:

It is Judaism that has given the world the secret of tsimtsum, of ‘contraction,’ contraction of the infinite within the finite, the transcendent within the concrete, the supernal within the empirical, and the divine within the realm of reality. When the Holy One, blessed be He, descended on Mt. Sinai, He set an eternally binding precedent that it is God who descends to man, not man who ascends to God.

The “secret of tsimtsum” implies no less than the dethroning of the self-contemplating God of Aristotle and Plotinus, and the coronation of the God of the Bible, and a change of intellectual regime from divine passivity to divine turbulence, in Gershom Scholem’s felicitous phrase. Creation is unthinkable under the reign of Aristotle’s god, the “unmoved mover” who is eternally unchanging. As Parmenides demonstrated, differentiation and change must be an illusion. Creation ex nihilo (yesh m’ayin) stumbles into contradictions: If God created the world from nothing, there was nothing but God before creation, and all creation must be part of God. God therefore is everything and everywhere, and we are trapped in Spinoza’s pantheism.

Why would God wait an eternity to create the world, and then create it at a given point in time? Maimonides tries to get around the problem by asserting that time itself is created, but does not explain what time itself is, issues I reviewed in an essay for Hakirah, “The Jewish Idea of Freedom.”

R. Isaac Luria offered a revolutionary solution, implicit perhaps in biblical and rabbinic sources, but formulated with luminous originality: God contracted Himself within Himself to create an empty space in which He could create something that was not God.

The finitization of the infinite, the “secret” that Judaism imparted to the world through tsimtsum, is the defining characteristic of what for lack of a better word we call the ”modern.” In the middle of the 15th century, the West began to see the world differently thanks to perspective in painting, and to hear the world differently thanks to tonal counterpoint in music. By the middle of the 17th century, we understood the universe in an entirely new way, through the laws of planetary motion and infinitesimal calculus. All of this presumes a Creator God who makes this engagement possible by contracting his finitude.

The ancient world, to be sure, recognized the infinite in the irrational numbers, whose discovery is attributed to Hippasus of Metapontum in the sixth-century-BCE Zeno’s paradox of motion, in Archimedes’ approximation of the calculus, in the Babylonian discovery of the mean speed theorem, and—most notably in my view—Augustine’s identification of “numbers of the intellect” in his De Musica. But these intimations are a perception of something beyond ordinary calculation, in contrast to our modern capacity to act upon infinite space, infinite time, and infinite series of numbers.

The finitization of the infinite is the foundational concept of modern mathematics (in the calculus), of visual arts (in linear perspective), of music (in the plasticity of time in modern voice-leading), and of philosophy, most prominently in Kant’s aesthetics and the Hegelian dialectic. In the medieval representation of space in painting, objects simply coexist on a surface with no defined relation to each other. The linear perspective invented by Brunelleschi in 1415 established a hierarchy of proportions that gave order to objects in representational space, and it did so by organizing space around the “vanishing point” of the lines of perspective, that is, the point of convergence of the lines at infinity.

The geometry of perspective is a minor event in the history of mathematics, but an enormous event in human consciousness. Musical counterpoint matured in the middle of the 15th century, creating plasticity in time, making it possible for the finite time of music to evoke the infinitude of sacred time. The defining characteristic of Western tonal music, namely the association of the resolution of dissonance into consonance through metrical stress and relief, made musical time plastic. The prolongation of dissonance and the delay of resolution in tonal music enabled higher orders of musical time, and allowed the great composers to convey a sense of the infinite within the finite time of music.

R. Soloveitchik’s celebrated discussion of time is a special case of the finitization of the infinite. We might think of the mitzvot as the instruments by which we bring past and future—Matan Torah at Sinai and Olam haBa—into the Jewish present. Time is not a created thing, an object to be contemplated as Maimonides implied. Rather, time is constituted by our actions as directed by the ethical will. The reliving of the past and the anticipation of the future enrich every moment of Jewish life with an infinite density of time-experience.

Where St. Augustine dismissed the moment as evanescent and insubstantial, the moment constituted by the mitzvot is by contrast rich with memory and expectation. The mitzvot fuse the past and future in the Jewish present. To Augustine, time is a paradox and eternity is an abstraction; to Jews, time is a construct of infinite richness, and eternity is built into the moment that the mitzvot made. The finite moment as constituted by the mitzvot embodies the infinity of endless time.

As the Rav wrote in Halakhic Man:

There is a past that persists in its existence, that does not vanish and disappear but remains firm in its place. Such a past enters into the domain of the present and links up with the future. Similarly, there is a future that is not hidden behind a thick cloud but reveals itself now in all its beauty and majesty. Such a future, drawing upon its own hidden roots, infuses the past with strength and might, vigor and vitality. Both—past and future—are alive; both act and create in the heart of the present and shape the very image of reality. From this perspective we neither perceive the past as “no more” nor the future as “not yet” nor the present as “a fleeting moment.” Rather past, present and future merge and blend together, and this new threefold time structure arises before us adorned with a splendid unity. The past is joined to the future, and both are reflected in the present … The past by itself is indeterminate, a closed book. It is only the present and the future that can pry it open and read its meaning. There are many different paths, according to this perspective, along which the cause can travel. It is the future that determines its direction and points the way. There can be a certain sequence of events that starts out with sin and iniquity but ends up with mitzvot and good deeds, and vice versa. The future transforms the thrust of the past. This is the nature of that causality operating in the realm of the spirit if man, as a spiritual being, opts for this outlook on time, time as grounded in the realm of eternity.

The quietest messianism of Eastern European Orthodoxy came to grief in 1939. It is a testimony to the power of nostalgia and the loyalty of its adherents to tradition that the same messianism still predominates among Israel Haredim. For R. Soloveitchik, man’s partnership with God in the continuing work of creation was hardly a quietistic endeavor. He wrote in Lonely Man of Faith:

The doctrine of faith in God’s charity is not to be equated with the folly of the mystical doctrine of quietism, which in its extreme form exempts man from his duty of attending to his own needs and lets him wait in “holy” idleness and indifference for God’s intervention. This kind of repose is wholly contrary to the repose which the Halakhah recommends: the one which follows human effort and remedial action. Man must first use his own skill and try to help himself as much as possible. Then, and only then, man may find repose and quietude in God and be confident that his effort and action will be crowned with success.

“Majestic man,” the Rav taught, becomes God’s partner in creation through scientific discovery:

The unqualified acceptance of the world of majesty by the Halakhah expresses itself in its natural and inevitable involvement in every sector of human majestic endeavor. There is not a single theoretical or technological discovery, from new psychological insights into the human personality to man’s attempts to reach out among the planets, with which the Halakhah is not concerned … This acceptance, easily proven in regard to the total majestic gesture, is most pronounced in the Halakhah’s relationship to scientific medicine and the art of healing. The latter has always been considered by the Halakhah as a great and noble occupation.

What does this mean practically? Our Haredi brethren should learn mathematics, as the Vilna Gaon once advocated. When they study calculus, they should (following the example of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch) read Hegel’s presentation of the subject in The Science of Logic, which R. Soloveitchik quoted almost verbatim in his Genesis lectures (see my essay “The Rav’s Uncompleted Grand Design”). Yet Hegel himself acknowledged his debt to the Arizal, whose work he knew from secondary sources. Jewish students should engage with Greek philosophy not as “the wisdom of the ancients,” but as a sequence of paradoxes that cannot be resolved within the realm of philosophy itself. The virtue of the Greeks is not that they promulgated timeless wisdom, but rather that they formulated the persistent problems of philosophy with sufficient rigor that the antinomies set forth by Parmenides in the eponymous Plato dialogue are instantly recognizable in the paradoxes of modern set theory.

The antibodies of the Orthodox world will attack attempts to introduce Greek hochma into the yeshiva world as an alien bacillus, and rightly so—unless it is taught as a critique of Greek thought and an exposition of its deficiencies. Yet while the Rav made use of Western philosophy, prominently including Kant and Hegel, he never did so uncritically. Instead, he judged these sources by Jewish criteria, as he wrote (in Halakhic Morality):

The problem that bothered the Jewish mind since time immemorial was not why we ought to act in a certain way—the great question of the Hellenistic, metaphysical mind—but rather what we ought to do. … The first group that displayed a genuine interest in matters of a speculative and metaphysical nature were the mystics, the Ba’alei ha-Kabbalah—and even those God-intoxicated and wisdom-thirsty men indulged in the mysteries of being and divinity not out of sheer intellectual curiosity, but for a practical end. They uncovered the mysterious bond between the theo-cosmic and human destiny, and they raised man’s action to an event of metaphysical significance that had a bearing upon the dynamics of the universe. Hence, they explored the outer fringes of creation, where the mechanical cyclic occurrence and the boring monotony of repetition end and the free, spontaneous and intelligent divine act begins.

To enquiring young minds among the Israeli secular, we must say, as the Rav did in The Halakhic Mind, that the mechanistic, materialistic view of the world has failed, and that the crisis of science and philosophy have opened the door to a new philosophical understanding of religion. Western philosophy came to a dead end when Kurt Gödel demonstrated that mathematics could not prove its own premises. What great philosophers are working today? With the deaths of Hilary Putnam in 2016 and Saul Kripke in 2022, we lost the last of the generation that grappled with the foundational issues raised by Gödel. Set theory hasn’t advanced since Gödel and Paul Cohen proved the independence of the continuum hypothesis from its axioms. Physics has learned nothing fundamental since the quantum revolution of the 1920s.

The way forward is the way back—back to the hashkafa that inspired and guided the scientific revolution to begin with. To young ultra-Orthodox, above all the haredi leumi, we should say: Scientific discovery is a religious obligation as much as learning Gemara. It is also a matter of pekuach nefesh. Without technological superiority the State of Israel will not survive.

At first consideration, the prospects for success of such an enterprise might seem poor. At the moment, the Rav’s influence in Israel is sadly limited. As one of his students, R. Shalom Carmy, wrote in 2018:

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s outlook remains influential among religious Zionists. But in all likelihood it is a minority position. Most religious Zionists adopt a more eschatologically tinged theology of history. The dominant figure here is the great Talmudist and mystic Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who died in 1935. He served as chief rabbi of the Ashkenazi community in Palestine. For him and for subsequent generations of acolytes, the return of the Jews to their homeland was not merely, or even primarily, a solution to the physical menace of an anti-Semitic world. It was a spiritual renaissance which could not but lead to messianic fulfillment.

R. Soloveitchik stopped teaching Western philosophy at Yeshiva University in the mid-1950s, and did not return to the subject in the English language until the 1983 publication of Halakhic Man. The late professor Michael Wyschogrod Z”L, who spent eight years in the Rav’s shiur, told me that the Rav feared that ultra-Orthodox opposition would get him fired. R. Soloveitchik himself told R. Aharon Lichtenstein, “You know, I have devoted talmidim—very devoted talmidim. If I were to announce a sh’iur at two o-clock in the morning, they would come en bloc. And yet, deep in their hearts, they think I’m an apikoros.”

R. Soloveitchik began to build a bridge between the worlds of science and religion, using the language of the former to illuminate the latter. Perhaps Israel’s existential crisis might inspire us to finish his work. Otherwise, the secularism of the Israeli left will lose the Jewish people, and the quietism of the Israeli ultra-Orthodox will lose the Jewish state.

David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too) and the new book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World.