A lecture by Prof William Kolbrener on 12th February 2016.
A central tension for committed Jews is that between halakhic observance and personal morality, between traditional law and a sense of ethical progress.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik is usually identified with the former positions, as championing ‘Halakhic Man’ and the ‘Halakhic Mind’ over more personal and subjective visions of ethics. The story, however, is not so straightforward, and it turns out that a careful reading of his work shows him transitioning from a strictly halakhic worldview to a more fluid one wherein ethics is born from the depths of our subjectivity.
This talk will explored this development, considered both the personal and historical circumstances which led Rabbi Soloveitchik to undergo this transition. It also considered the reasons why this shift has not been fully appreciated, and why the depiction of him as the archetypal ‘halakhic man’ have persisted so strongly in contemporary Jewry.
William Kolbrener is Professor of English Literature at Bar Ilan University in Israel, where he lectures on Renaissance literature, philosophy and theology. He has written – on the Jewish world – for Haaretz, the Forward, the Washington Post, Commentary, the Jerusalem Post among others venues. His Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love was published by Continuum in 2012; his new The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition is published by Indiana
One of the most exciting aspects of the educational work of the Louis Jacobs Foundation is the ability to host speakers of the highest calibre from around the world. We were extremely excited to welcome Professor William Kolbrener, a thinker, teacher and writer of the highest order.
Professor Kolbrener was raised in a Reform community in America, and found his way towards an Orthodox community in Israel via Columbia and Oxford Universities. His spiritual searching was first documented in his book Open Minded Torah, which Rabbi Lord Sacks commended in the following words “When a great and capacious mind, blessed with sensibility and sensitivity, engages in conversation with the timeless texts of Torah, the result is both enlightening and enthralling… All whose Judaism is reflective and thoughtful will be enlarged by it.”
His thought since then has developed and deepened, and has come to perhaps its fullest fruition in his new book on Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, “The Last Rabbi“. As he says in the introduction, it is not a straightforward work of admiration, but rather “a product first of melancholy disillusionment not only in Soloveitchik but in the current institutions and practices of reading throughout the Jewish world… [it] aspires to provide a more complex critical assessment of Soloveitchik’s work, one that is attentive to the voice that captivated his students (as well as myself), and also to those occluded, even repressed voices, to which scholars have given less attention.”
In the Jewish Chronicle’s review of the book, Rabbi Dr Harvey Belovski sang its praises, reflecting that in “commanding an extraordinary range of sources – where else might Freud, Corinthians, Donne and Adam Phillips share a page in a book about an Orthodox rabbi? – the author… demonstrates that his transition from English professor to polymath is complete.”