Friday, June 01, 2012

Emergence of Ethical Man


I finished reading Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Emergence of Ethical Man on Shavuot, and have just completed a reading of Dr Hazony’s essay on the book. I was surprised, as was he, at the tremendously innovative (or not, as RYBS might contend) attitude the book takes towards naturalism, and its seeming implicit rejection (or at least severe de-amplification) of the supernatural1. It is part of Dr Hazony's thesis that Emergence of Ethical Man presents an exclusively naturalistic view of mankind's place in the created world, one that eschews the need for the supernatural aspect. I will point out later why I disagree with this.

It is also worth noting that my deep-seated hesitations to taking this book as true to the opinions which Rabbi Soloveitchik held and taught were dispelled at least somewhat by Hazony’s well-placed treatment in the fourth section: he points out correctly that nothing in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s other published writings contradicts what he wrote here, and provides testimony from a close confidante who seems to support this as being the Rav’s view throughout life. Additionally, Halachik Mind seems to have been written before Emergence was, and it may well be as Hazony suggests that this work is a continuation of that one. In that case, perhaps RYBS had the time to revise and prepare for publication the manuscript that became Halachik Mind, but did not have the leisure before his death to give the same polish to Emergence. Furthermore, I have been told that Rabbi Soloveitchik specifically mentioned this manuscript amongst the ones he wanted his family and students to publish.


As I mentioned above, I would take issue with one crucial aspect of Hazony’s thesis. He reads the book as a total rejection of the supernatural. However, I do not believe that Rabbi Soloveitchik's book supports such an interpretation. Allow me to demonstrate where we diverge with a few specific examples.

1) Dr Hazony writes: “If the biblical concept of man offers immortality only through the merger of one’s living consciousness with the unending life of one’s people, what kind of salvation or redemption can man hope for? Clearly, the Bible does not offer the individual salvation through the redemption of one’s soul in a transcendental world. What then?"

It is not clear RYBS rejected the individual's salvation through redemption in a transcendental world. In fact, he seems to uphold both. He says (p 176) that, "The first concept of immortality as coined by Judaism is the continuation of a historical existence throughout the ages. It differs from transcendental immortality...yet metaphysical immortality is based upon historical immortality. Whoever does not identify himself with the historical ego and remains on the natural level cannot attain immortality. The first conquest of death takes place in the realm of history."

It seems that RYBS does not replace the concept of transcendental immortality with historical immortality. Rather, he sees the latter as a prerequisite for the former. It is not that the former is false or even unnecessary, but that historical immortality is first, and is the gate-way to immortality of the transcendental kind.

2) Hazony says: "What we see in the exodus from Egypt is not the failure of the natural world to function according to physical law, but rather the remarkable possibility that the natural world can, at times, act in accordance with the dictates of the moral law."

RYBS's quoted passage explicitly states an active role for God. He may be acting through nature, but He is acting nonetheless. The miracle is not simply a blind confluence of the natural and the ethical, or a happenstance elevation of nature to the ethical realm, but God acting through nature, and for the purpose of guiding providential history forward. In essence, RYBS seems to hold, as Maimonides does, that the miracle is not in the natural event, but in the timing of that event, which enables meta-historical results. As Hazony himself quotes from Emergence, "God would have been instrumental in a natural children’s plague…. [But o]n the night of Passover he appeared… as acting along historical patterns…. Miracle is simply a natural event which causes a historical metamorphosis. Whenever history is transfigured under the impact of [natural] cosmic dynamics, we encounter a miracle."

3) Dr Hazony indicates: "… naturalist ones such as those we find in Maimonides’ Guide and Soloveitchik’s Emergence of Ethical Man"

Though it is tempting to group RYBS's Emergence with Maimonides, so doing ignores the fact that, in the Code, Maimonides is explicit in his need for תחיית המתים and other supernatural occurrences. I only point this out because, according to Hazony's argument, RYBS does not contradict his naturalistic Emergence in his other works. However, Rambam does, and I think this would preclude the association of the two masters in this matter.

4) Finally, a completely naturalistic take on mankind seems to preclude events such as prophecy, and the giving and receiving of the Torah at Har Sinai. Indeed, Rabbi Soloveitchik does not deny that there exists such a paradigm. Even as he describes prophecy as a charismatic bond between giver and receiver, he does not deny that the essential, supernatural, element of this bond is the divine order: "That is why God tolerates no intrusion by society upon His befriended Abraham...The human being acting under divine orders is portrayed as a forsaken person whose only friend is God." (p 152)

With regard to revelatory experience, RYBS writes (p 187), "The voice coming forth from the burning bush and Moses' resistance symbolize the clash of the thesis with the antithesis. The final reformation of Moses embodies the synthesis of redemption." It is clear that this "coming forth" is a supernatural occurrence to which Man is susceptible, even in the naturalistically leaning Emergence. It is indeed mankind's highest step to be capable of immanent discourse with God. Further (p 184), Rabbi Soloveitchik describes Moses' role as "The angelic role - that is to say, the role of agent". An angel may simply be an agent of God, but Moses' task as such propelled him into the realm of the supernatural, with "divine power" delegated to him. This would also seem to be at odds with Dr Hazony's thesis.


Certainly, Emergence presents a unique and important viewpoint, and one that deserves more reflection and study. Hazony’s article zeros in on some of the more notable and revolutionary aspects of the work, and points out how monumental these points may be to modern-day Jewish philosophical ambitions. There is value in a commitment to a religious-philosophical system which is complete within the here-and-now, and which gives adequate meaning to life in the world which we experience, with less resort to the supernatural. However, it is important to note that Rabbi Soloveitchik does not deny the element of the supernatural; he merely downplays it. In this respect, he follows the lead of thinkers such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (see Dayan Grunfeld's Introduction to Horeb, p 37), who held that the unique message of Judaism is not one of metaphysical speculation, but down-to-earth activity within the real world, and the raising of the natural to the status of the ethically commanded.

1 Certain parts of the book itself left me unconvinced. In particular, Rabbi Soloveitchik's read of the Gemara in Sanhedrin 90b (pp 176-177 in Emergence) struck me as ignoring the subject matter of that passage, ie, תחיית המתים, the revival of the dead, and treating the passage as discussing immortality. This explication is a misreading of the passage.

The Talmud states (Soncino translation): "How is resurrection derived from the Torah? — As it is written, And ye shall give thereof the Lord's heave offering to Aaron the priest. But would Aaron live forever; he did not even enter Palestine, that terumah should be given him? But it teaches that he would be resurrected, and Israel give him terumah. Thus resurrection is derived from the Torah."

The obvious meaning of this passage (and the similar one regarding Avraham) is that since the corporeal, actual Aharon was not alive at a time when he could receive terumah, the verse would only be fulfilled literally if a time comes when Aharon is revived, and lives in Israel.

This passage speaks of revival of the dead, not immortality. Rabbi Soloveitchik reads it metaphorically at best, understanding "resurrection is derived from the Torah" as "immortality is indicated in the Torah", and applies his understanding of historical immortality to it. He undoubtedly takes the passage away from its true meaning.

To be sure, Rabbi Soloveitchik's understanding of the verses may make more sense than the Talmud's, and be less forced. Indeed, he mentions it earlier in the book. I myself am drawn strongly to his explanation of the verses as discussing historical Aharon and historical Avraham, as opposed to the individuals. However, it is clear that this explanation is at odds with this Talmudic passage; the passage itself does not bear Rabbi Soloveitchik's interpretation.

However, whatever my concerns with this deconstruction and its removal of the plain sense of the Talmudic passage, it is clear that RYBS emphasizes immortality through historical identification, over transcendental life-after-death.