In loving memory of Mordekhai ben Shlomo
“And he shall live by them
and not die by them:”
The value of life in the thought of
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
By Dr. Alan Jotkowitz
The Rav remembered that as a youth he once took ill while visiting his grandfather in Brisk. It was Friday night and he probably had a strep throat. They sent for the doctor who was not Jewish. Standing around the sick youngster were his grandfather, Reb Chaim, his father, Reb Moshe and the Dayan of Brisk, Reb Simhah Selig Reuguer. The doctor utilized the glow of the kerosene lamp to examine the youngster’s throat. Reb Chaim asked whether the doctor felt it necessary to turn the lamp up. The doctor responded, “It would not be a bad idea.” Reb Chaim immediately turned to his son and asked him to turn the light higher. Reb Moshe intuitively exclaimed: “It is the Sabbath. Ask the doctor if he really needs more light.”
The Rav remembered how his grandfather got angry at his father. He declared to Reb Simcha Selig that his son was an ignoramus. He did not understand that the Sabbath plays no role when there is danger to life. The Brisker dayan then immediately turned the light up.1
This short anecdote told by the Rav highlights many aspects of his personality and thought. He had a remarkable ability to bring to life Torah luminaries of the last generation, and he himself served as a human bridge to that era; he was particularly fond of telling stories about his esteemed grandfather, Reb Chaim of Brisk. This incident also has a deeper message: the primacy of life in the thought of the Soloveitchik family. This brief essay will attempt to show that the value of our temporal existence is an underlying motif of the Rav’s philosophy. Like most of the Rav’s thought, it is grounded in halakhic principles and reflects the traditions of his illustrious family. The theme is recurring in his understanding of halakhic concepts, his approach to modern issues, and even in the simple stories with which he enthralled his students.
At the heart of the incident related above is a centuries-old halakhic controversy. As Rav Zevin points out, Reb Chaim was very reluctant to decide halakhic issues for the inhabitants of his town, except in one area: piku’ach nefesh (saving a life).2 He was forceful in his opinion that a sick person should be fed regular meals on Yom Kippur, instead of eating only small amounts so as not to transgress the prohibition of eating (which is violated on the Biblical level only by eating more than the volume of an olive). The apparent justification for this ruling is that the consideration of piku’ach nefesh undoes the prohibition (hutra), and therefore, from a halakhic perspective, when there is danger to life, it is as if there is no prohibition against eating on Yom Kippur. On this point, there exists a great debate among halakhic authorities, and a simple reading of the authoritative Shulchan Arukh seems to reject this position.33 Nevertheless, Reb Chaim insisted that his opinion be followed, commanding his son to follow his view because “it is an absolute halakhic truth.”44
The Rav claims that the ruling of his grandfather is “indicative of the high value which the halakhic viewpoint attributes to one’s earthly life,”55 and that “this law is the watchword of Judaism.”66 It appears from the Rav that the argument over whether piku’ach nefesh undoes the prohibition (“hutra”) or momentarily sets it aside (“dechuya”) has theological significance in respect to the purpose of mitzvot and the value of temporal existence. In this context, he quotes Maimonides: “The ordinances of the Torah were meant to bring upon the world not vengeance, but mercy, lovingkindness, and peace.”77 The commandments were meant to enhance our life, and therefore it is almost self-evident that they fall to the wayside when life is in danger. The Rav is speaking about the earthly life devoted to Halakha, and the charge of man “is the redemption of the world…. via the adaptation of Halakha.”88 Halakhic man does not yearn for another world or the afterlife. His ultimate goal is to sanctify this world through the medium of Halakha.
Life and Death
In another famous work, The Lonely Man of Faith,99 the Rav expands on the purpose of man’s role in this world. The Rav, basing himself on the verse in Bereishit that commands man to “fill the earth and subdue it,”1100 posits a religious imperative for man to conquer the world. He is charged with being a partner of God in creation, to fulfill the requirement of imitatio Dei. Man accomplishes this through scientific genius, technological creativity, and communal activity. In other words, the world was given to man to master and control. When man accomplishes this, he attains dignity and majesty. This view of man’s role in the world expands on the thesis found in Halakhic Man. Not only do the study and practice of Halakha sanctify the world, but they also elevate mankind’s natural desire and ability to transform its surroundings through scientific advancement. This formulation, by necessity, values man’s existence in the world and empowers him as agent of God. Life is not viewed as a necessary evil; rather, it is an opportunity and obligation.
In this context, on a theological level, death is viewed as a defeat for man. In the Rav’s thought, there is no room for the pursuit of death or even the passive acceptance of death as a step on the journey to a better world. Instead, the ultimate fulfillment of humanity is accomplished in this world through Halakha and creativity. In consonance with this view, the Rav formulates a theological perspective on the laws of aveilut (mourning). In Halakhic Man, he explains that mourning and death are in opposition and contradiction to holiness.1111 In Shiurim Le-zekher Abba Mari, he expands on this theory by comparing a person in mourning to a menudeh (someone in excommunication).1122 In the Rav’s formulation, a person in mourning is estranged from the Almighty. Death is not a time to come close to God, but a time when we realize how far we are from Him. This, according to the Rav, is why an onen (the deceased’s immediate relative before the funeral) is exempt from mitzvot. Only through a celebration and consecration of life does man fulfill his mission in this world.
Moreover, human life has an infinite value not only as an abstract concept, but also in relation to the individual. “Each person is a microcosm, an individuality with dignity, an original with worthiness.”1133 This is why the Talmud tells us that one who saves a life is as if he has saved the entire world (Sanhedrin 38a).
The Rav’s conception of death might help explain the laws of ritual purity (tuma and tahara), and, in particular, tumat ha-met (impurity resulting from contact with a corpse). Intimate contact with death creates the highest form of ritual impurity because, according to the Rav, the death of an individual is absurd and existentially abominable. For man, the specter of death creates a state of existential anguish, and in this condition man may not approach God. He is rendered impure, and must proceed with a cleansing ritual.1144 This ritual, involving the sprinkling of the ashes of the red heifer, is the paradigm of a chuka (a commandment for which we do not understand the reason) because, in the thought of the Rav, death itself is a chukka: “Death is a mocking fate which awaits us all, a trauma of human helplessness which disturbs our existential serenity.”1155 Man can overcome this despair only through faith in God, and that is the meaning of the ritual of the red heifer.
Given the high value that the Rav placed on life, he had also had a high regard for those who work at preserving it. In a footnote to The Lonely Man of Faith, he writes,
Scientific medicine … has always been considered by the Halakha as a great and noble occupation. Unlike other faith communities, the Halakhic community has never been troubled by the problem of human interference, on the part of the physician and patient with God’s will. On the contrary, argues the Halakha, God wants man to fight evil bravely and to mobilize all his intellectual and technological ingenuity to defeat it. The conquest of disease is the sacred duty of the man of majesty and he must not shirk it.1166
The Rav takes it as axiomatic that man has a duty to fight disease and does not even entertain the possibility that there is a potential theological problem in doing so. He dismisses the comment of Ramban in Vayikra1177 suggesting that a truly righteous person should avoid going to doctors, instead putting his trust in God, by saying that the Ramban’s statement “refers to an ideal state of the covenantal community enjoying unlimited divine grace and has no application, therefore, to the imperfect state of affairs of the ordinary world.”1188
The Soloveitchik family’s response to the Musar movement can also be understood in this context. Reb Chaim had a negative attitude toward the discipline, and felt that there was no need to study Musar. Why? The Rav expresses opposition to the melancholia and depression that permeates the movement; the Torah cannot be acquired in such a state.1199 Yet another element of Musar is antithetical to the Rav’s outlook. In Musar, one is taught to view this world as merely a passageway to the world-to-come. This perspective negates man’s infinite value and his responsibility to master his environment. In the words of the Rav, Musar symbolized a “perspective directed toward the transcendent, toward that existence lying beyond the realm of concrete reality.”2200 According to the Rav’s own philosophy, however, man should focus his energies and creativity on the natural world around him, as opposed to yearning constantly for the afterlife.
This worldview in no way suggests that man’s temporal life should be devoid of spiritual depth or crisis. The Rav constantly emphasizes the dialectical tension that plagues modern man. This tension consists, partly, in man’s ability to soar to the heavens on wings of thought, while paradoxically feeling farther away from the One Above. The Rav’s ideal life does not relieve the religious person of the psychic anguish of living in the modern world. In his own words, “Contemporary man of faith lives through a particularly difficult and agonizing crisis.”2211
The same tension may be found in the authentic religious experience of sacrifice. According to the Rav, God demands that man sacrifice what is most dear to him before he can come close to Him. For instance, Avraham had to be willing to sacrifice his beloved son upon the order of God, in order to reach the highest spiritual level. Likewise, the Rav argues, modern man must sacrifice his intellectual and emotional life to God before he can be truly close to Him. For most people, to be sure, the sacrifice is too much to bear, but, nevertheless, God commands a lifelong struggle to this end.
At the end of World War I when Reb Chaim was in Minsk, the gentiles staged a pogrom against the Jews. One day, Reb Chaim was sitting with a group of Jews who were bemoaning the killings, the plunderings, and the destruction of entire Jewish communities.
In the midst of their discussions, one of the Jews exclaimed: “If only we would be certain that these were the pangs of redemption that precede the coming of the Messiah!” Before he was able to complete the sentence, Reb Chaim interrupted him and exclaimed: “I do not agree with you.”
Taken aback, the Jew responded to Reb Chaim: “What did I say, Rebbe, that you did not agree with? I barely said anything.” Reb Chaim replied: “You said too much! You implied that all the sufferings and sacrifices would be worth it if only we could be certain that theses were the pangs of redemption. I do not agree with this approach because it is totally against the Halakha. The law is that saving lives cancels the entire Torah. Accordingly, it also cancels the coming of the Messiah. Who says that the Messiah will come only through the murder of innocent Jews? God has many ways to bring the Messiah, and certainly He does not have to bring him through the shedding of innocent Jewish blood.”
This is the tradition I received from Reb Chaim of Brisk2223
Again, this story demonstrates the power of piku’ach nefesh in the halakhic thought of Reb Chaim; it also hints at a general attitude towards messianism. The Messiah may not come at the expense of life. In other words, human life is more important than even the coming of the Messiah.
Like any believing Jew, the Rav waited in eager anticipation for the coming of the Messiah. However, this anticipation did not downplay the significance of our earthly existence. Messianism, as a movement, is usually associated with dissatisfaction and disappointment in the world we live in; precisely this attitude is foreign to the Rav’s thought. One does not have the right to abrogate one’s duty in this world by waiting passively for the coming of the Messiah. A person is mandated to sanctify the mundane through the practice of Halakha and the conquest of the world.
In another essay, “Al Ahavat Ha-Torah U-geulat Nefesh Ha-dor,” the Rav goes even further.2234 He claims that the fact that the Messiah will be a living human being is central to the Jewish understanding of redemption. This demonstrates the potential that all humans have to elevate themselves toward God in this world. In other words, the concept of messianism speaks to man’s current temporal existence, not to a perpetual longing for a future world.
This attitude towards messianism also has ramifications for the Rav’s approach to Zionism. Nowhere in his two classic works on Zionism, “Kol Dodi Dofek” and The Rav Speaks (or Hamesh Derashot), does he connect his commitment to Israel with messianism. He opposed the identification of the State of Israel with the beginning of the messianic age as formulated in the prayer for the State, and advised his followers to omit or amend that phrase.2245
The Rav bases his support of Israel on two guiding principles, the religious and historical. He writes, “[T]he land of Israel played a major role in my household,”2256 while the halakhic categories that applied to Israel were “not only concepts, abstract thought and formal novel ideas, but deep-rooted emotions; love, yearnings and visions.”2267 He called Reb Chaim “the greatest lover of Zion in his generation.”2278 But this tradition did not translate into a natural support for political Zionism. The Rav writes, “My parents’ ancestors, my father’s house, my teachers and colleagues were far from the Mizrachi religious Zionists. They too held, ‘Why meddle in the secrets of the Merciful one?’”2289 Apparently, the cataclysmic historical developments of the last hundred years convinced the Rav to adopt a different approach. The destruction of the vibrant Jewish civilization in Eastern European and the miracle of the birth of the State were proof to him of the merits of Religious Zionism. He assumed that God was telling us, through the historical events of the twentieth century, that the pursuit of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel is a holy endeavor. In his own words, “In our days, the Creator of the universe similarly decided that the (historical) ‘law’ will be as the religious Zionists had predicted – in accord with the view of him who had little faith in the future of East European Jewry and who dreamed of another land and other conditions.”3290
He expanded on this idea in his essay on the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, “Kol Dodi Dofek.” In the creation of the State of Israel, a believing Jew must be able to see the hand of God guiding history. The era of hester panim has ended, and the Almighty Himself presided over the establishment of the State. Borrowing a metaphor from Shir Ha-shirim, the Rav writes that in 1948, God knocked six times on the doors of the despondent Jewish People. Each knock signified a seminal historical fact validated by the birth of the State.3301 At the same time, the Rav’s Zionism is rooted in a passionate love for the eternal sanctity of the land of Israel. Still, our intimate connection to the State is independent of our eternal longing for the Messiah, but in no way diminishes our love for it. This non-messianic philosophy of Zionism, coupled with the centrality of life in the thought of the Rav, explains his famous opinion that one may cede parts of Israel in exchange for real peace for the sake of piku’ach nefesh.
The Rav’s view of temporal life, with its emphasis on consecrating the world through uncompromising loyalty to Halakha, combined with a mission to master the world through scientific and technological creativity, retains its significance in our time. Many in the religious community have retreated from the world in which they live into either the four walls of Halakha exclusively or into a worldview that actively embraces messianism. The Rav tells us that a Jew should view himself – in the words of Avraham – as a “stranger and resident”3312 in relation to the gentile world: a resident with the gentiles as we work together to improve our common world, but a stranger since I also inhabit “the world of Torah, of loving-kindness, of sanctity and of purity.”3323
A Jew living today has the unique opportunity to fulfill this vision fully in the Land of Israel. “There is no contradiction between building the land and building up of the Torah, between breaking up the earth about the olive trees and clearing roads and building yeshivot.”3334 This picture of life in Israel is more mundane than one filled with visions of the Third Temple, but we should be aware of the potential dangers of an individual and nation living life as if the Messiah has already come. The Rav’s wisdom and example of a life based on Halakha, Torah, and the commandment to “fill the earth and subdue it” serves as a challenge and inspiration to all of us.
Alei Etzion vol. 13 (Cheshvan 5765)