Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik: Questioning the Centrality of Empirical Data
Some initial attempts at divergence from a strictly cognitive response to the theological dilemmas of Modern Orthodoxy can be discerned in interest on the part of several Orthodox academicians in problematizing over-rigid definitions of Jewish doctrine. Nevertheless, even in this context, the traditional belief in Torah from Heaven bears a unique status.
Even when seeking nuance in traditional understandings of Maimonides’ eighth principle of faith, Orthodox thinkers have until very recently refrained from alluding to the traditional account of the giving of the Torah as anything other than a factual description. Any direct questioning of the historical accuracy of this account or even detailed scrutiny as to what exactly it entails is regarded amongst Orthodox Jews as a serious breach of religious etiquette, on the presumption that such discussion involves a weakening of the Torah’s binding nature. This taboo is only now beginning to erode.
A few theologians and scholars in the Modern Orthodox camp seem to reject empiric data as the exclusive criterion for establishing the revelatory status of the Bible. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the revered leader of American Modern Orthodoxy, appears to be take a first step in this direction. In a notable passage from “The Lonely Man of Faith”, he states:
I have never been seriously troubled by the problem of the Biblical doctrine of creation vis-a-vis the scientific story of evolution at both the cosmic and the organic levels, nor have I been perturbed by the confrontation of the mechanistic interpretation of the human mind with the Biblical spiritual concept of man. I have not been perplexed by the impossibility of fitting the mystery of revelation into the framework of historical empiricism. Moreover, I have not even been troubled by the theories of Biblical criticism which contradict the very foundations upon which the sanctity and integrity of the Scriptures rest. However, while theoretical oppositions and dichotomies have never tormented my thoughts, I could not shake off the disquieting feeling that the practical role of the man of faith within modern society is a very difficult, indeed, a paradoxical one….
We all know that the Bible offers two accounts of the creation of man. We are also aware of the theory suggested by Bible critics attributing these two accounts to two different traditions and sources. Of course, since we do unreservedly accept the unity and integrity of the Scriptures and their divine character, we reject this hypothesis which is based, like much Biblical criticism, on literary categories invented by modern man, ignoring completely the eidetic-noetic content of the Biblical story. It is, of course, true that the two accounts of the creation of man differ considerably. This incongruity was not discovered by the Bible critics. Our sages of old were aware of it. However, the answer lies not in an alleged dual tradition but in dual man, not in an imaginary contradiction between two versions but in a real contradiction in the nature of man.
R. Soloveitchik’s remarks in this passage focus primarily on the contradiction between the two accounts of Adam in Genesis. Nevertheless, R. Soloveitchik makes tantalizing references, in passing, to the disparity between the traditional account of the “mystery of revelation” and the “framework of historical empiricism”, and to the “theories of Biblical criticism which contradict the very foundations upon which the sanctity and integrity of the Scriptures rest”.
This juxtaposition raises the question: would R. Soloveitchik have parted company with R. Breuer’s fundamentalism on this point,  and considered it legitimate to validate not only the contradiction between Adam I and Adam II, but even a problematizing of the traditional account of a one-time revelation to Moses, on existentialist grounds alone? Could R. Soloveitchik have accepted, for example, scholarly assumptions regarding the role of a final redactor, while simultaneously postulating “the unity and integrity of the Scriptures and their divine character”? Although the thrust of his argument makes this theoretically possible, such a conclusion is not at all clear, and – given his general religious orientation – highly unlikely.
In the end, we must admit that R. Soloveitchik offers us no real explanation for his lack of perplexity regarding what he obviously recognizes as a dilemma and “impossibility”. What is clear, however, is that Soloveitchik’s existentialist bent does not prevent him from basing religious commitment on claims of correspondence between religious truths and some objective ontology.
Subjective certainty provides – to Soloveitchik’s mind – the basic starting point for the inner experience of the believer. When this experience is transposed into practice in accordance with the abstract categories of halakha (which he understands to be the embodiment of ideal a priori values and principles, that transcend the historic, ideological, or moral interpretations that have accrued to them), however, Soloveitchik regards the end result as a reliable guide to an existing metaphysical reality which these categories are meant to realize. Nevertheless, what is significant for our purposes is his willingness to distinguish between cognitive and non-cognitive statements in principle, and to justify even the latter as pointers to ineffable truths, despite the fact that they cannot be validated empirically.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
March 25, 2014
February 21, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Tamar Ross is Professor Emeritus of the Department of Jewish philosophy at Bar Ilan University. She continues to teach at Midreshet Lindenbaum. She did her Ph.D. at the Hebrew University and served as a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard. She is the author of Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism. Her areas of expertise include: concepts of God, revelation, religious epistemology, philosophy of halacha, the Musar movement, and the thought of Rabbi A.I. Kook.
Essays on Related Topics: