Phenomenology of the Mitsvot: A Materialist Approach to the Commandments in Rav Soloveitchik’s “Halakhic Mind”

Phenomenology of the Mitsvot:

A Materialist Approach to the Commandments in Rav Soloveitchik’s “Halakhic Mind”

Continuing my series of posts (see here and here) on materialist approaches to taamei hamitsvot, reasons for the commandments, I want to take a look at a few passages from Rav Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Mind. In these passages, Rav Soloveitchik constructs a theory of the commandments (based on the philosophy of religion developed throughout the work, and in use throughout Rav Soloveitchik’s other writings) which emphasizes the material rites of the commandments over any reason or cause given for them. That said, his theory differs from the approach of R. David Silverstein, which I discussed in my last post on the topic, and that of Rav Shagar, which I plan to discuss in a future post. I will discuss the nuances of Rav Soloveitchik’s theory below.


Not only does Rav Soloveitchik’s theory emphasize the physical aspect of the commandments, he actually uses it attack theories of the commandments that emphasize the reasons for the commandments over the physical actions. While his main targets seem to be non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, he also sees himself as siding with the Maimonides of the Mishneh Torah against the Maimonides of the Guide for the Perplexed (without getting into the validity of that distinction, I take issue with his reading of the GP, which I think fails to take into account GP III:34).

The reluctance on the part of the Jewish homo religiosus to accept Maimonidean rationalistic ideas is not ascribable to any agnostic tendencies, but to the incontrovertible fact that such explanations neither edify nor inspire the religious consciousness. They are essentially, if not entirely valueless for the religious interests we have most at heart. Maimonides’ failure to impress his rationalistic method upon the vivid religious consciousness is to be attributed mainly to the fact that the central theme of the Maimonidean exposition is the causalistic problem. The “how” question, the explanatory quest, and the genetic attitude determined Maimonides’ doctrine of the commandments. Instead of describing, Maimonides explained; instead of reconstructing, he constructed. (Halakhic Mind, 92)

The Jewish people, Rav Soloveitchik argues, are not interested in “genetic” questions about what led to the creation of the commandments. The commandments exist, as objects independent of any cause, and the “religious consciousness” is not interested in questions that might challenge their existence.

The “genetic” approach, according to Rav Soloveitchik, sees the commandments as serving goals unrelated to the commandments themselves.

As we have previous indicated, whenever the causal question is raised, the philosopher must transcend the boundary line of religion in order to find his answer which lies beyond the religious domain. Both mechanistic and teleological concepts of causality explain the effect through the existence of an alien factor, be it within or without the system. Thus religion cannot be interpreted under immanent aspects but must avail itself of foreign elements. The net result of Maimonides’ rationalization is that religion no longer operates with unique autonomous norms, but with technical rules, the employment of which would culminate in the attainment of some extraneous maximum bonum. In rationalizing the commandments genetically, Maimonides developed a religious “instrumentalism.” Causality reverted to teleology (the Aristotelian concept of causa finalis) and Jewish religion was converted into technical wisdom. (93)

Maimonides’ theory of the commandments in the Guide for the Perplexed describes the commandments as having goals outside what we call “religion.” Instead, they are meant to “rectify the body and the mind,” meaning that they are supposed to create a peaceful society of virtuous individuals with accurate knowledge reality (GP III:28-32). The goals of the commandments thus come not from the realm of Judaism, or even religion more generally, but from politics and philosophy.

Against this model of reasons for the commandments, which renders religion the handmaiden of the secular realm, Rav Soloveitchik proposes an alternative.

In contradistinction to the causal method of the philosophical Guide that reads to a religious techne, the halakhic Code (the Mishneh Torah) apprehends the religious act in an entirely different light. The Code does not pursue the objective causation of the commandment, but attempts to reconstruct its subjective correlative. It would seem that the Maimonides of the Halakhah was not intrigued by the “how” question. He freed himself from the genetic purview and employed a descriptive method of expounding the content and symbolic meaning of the religious norm. The “what” question was his guide in the Code. (93-94)

Here, as throughout his various writings, Rav Soloveitchik sees the commandments as the “objectification” of “subjective” religious ideas, experiences, and values.[1] This movement from subjective to objective is not strictly a move from internal to external, but from the individual, chaotic, and unrefined to the shared, orderly, and well defined. Hence Halakhah not only guides a person’s actions, but also her thoughts and feelings. Derived through the objectification of certain ideas, experiences, and values, halakhah’s goal is essentially to perpetuate them, recreating that subjective element in the individual fulfilling the commandment. However, all of this is essentially a reconstruction, our determination extrapolated from the already-existing halakhah. It does not enable us to really get “behind” the halakhah, such that we could challenge its nature or existence. In keeping with Rav Soloveitchik’s phenomenological method, he takes halakhah as a given and examines the way the individual living according to its laws experiences it, rather than asking about whether or not halakhah should exist at all.

Looking through the lens of “materialist” approaches to taamei hamitsvot, we can see that Rav Soloveitchik’s approach gives primacy to the physical acts of halakhic rituals over any reasons or goals that we might give the commandments. As with Rabbi David Silverstein’s approach, Rav Soloveitchik’s discussion does not once appeal to the reasons that the commands were given, or what God may have had in mind for them. The emphasis is on what the commandments do, the experiences they evoke or the values they convey, rather than what motivated them.

However, Rav Soloveitchik’s approach does seem to assume specific, singular meanings for each commandment. In contrast, Rav Silverstein’s discusses the different ways each commandment he examines has been understood throughout Jewish history. He gives the ritual acts of the commandments such independent weight that the same commandment can essentially mean different things to different people. Not so Rav Soloveitchik, who seems to see each commandment has having one true meaning in all historical contexts. The practical outcome of this distinction is that Rav Soloveitchik by definition thinks most of the attempts to explain the meaning of a given commandment missed their mark, as only one of them could be correct (notably, his discussion of reasons for the commandments in Halakhic Mind takes the form of an attack on Maimonides discussion thereof in the Guide for the Perplexed). Rav Soloveitchik’s approach therefore differs from what I have called a “materialist” approach to the commandments while still possessing its primary characteristic, an emphasis on the physical acts of the commandments over any meaning or explanation. In my next post on this topic, I will examine how Rav Shagar differs from Rav Soloveitchik on exactly this point.

[1] For a thorough discussion of this idea, see Reuven Ziegler, Majesty and Humility (Jerusalem, Israel, and Brooklyn, NY: Urim Publications and the Orthodox Union Press, 2012), 334-340.


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