The transcendent Pharisee, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik: Israel and the poverty of politics

William Kolbrener

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, community leader, philosopher, and rabbi, was one of the most important voices in twentieth-century Jewish life, especially after the Holocaust. As scion of the "Brisk" family of Talmudic learning and founder of the new movement of American Modern Orthodox Judaism, Soloveitchik occupied a unique position. While embodying the principles of traditional orthodox Judaism, he also advocated strongly-eliciting much opposition from traditionalists-a full engagement with the modern world. Soloveitchik's works of the 1940s, the most famous of which was Halakhic Man or "Legal Man," provided philosophical justifications for Jewish practice and study by turning to traditions of nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophy and the history of science (he wrote his thesis on the neo-Kantian Hermann Cohen at the University of Berlin). Within the Jewish world, Soloveitchik is associated with perspectives emerging from Jewish law-including his advocacy of epistemological pluralism and individual agency. But in a series of newly published works from the 1950s, Soloveitchik turns away from the priority of law to the ethical realm. In political writings, inflected by ethical concerns, he advocates for the State of Israel against the vehement rejectionism of traditional orthodoxy (including his family members). But Soloveitchik's politics always have a theological basis, and as such, he resists the nationalist enthusiasm of many contemporaries, never fully embracing Israel as a contemporary nation-state. For him, the state of laws may be necessary, but his theological commitments, and his unexpected antinomian turn, shows him advocating a community based upon ethics-and not state laws or sanctions. This article shows the extent to which the halakhic man, the Pharisee par excellence, was transformed by ethics, and how that transformation shaped his view of politics and Israel.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)176-188
Number of pages13
JournalToronto Journal of Theology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Sep 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 Toronto Journal of Theology.


  • Antinomianism
  • Joseph Soloveitchik
  • Politics and theology
  • Rabbinic interpretation
  • Religious ethics


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