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.


On the Idea of Prayer as Human Nature in Contemporary Israeli Neo-Hasidut

On the Idea of Prayer as Human Nature
in Contemporary Israeli Neo-Hasidut

(Some Preliminary Thoughts)


I want to look at some texts from the contemporary Dati Le’umi turn to Hasidic texts in order to examine the theme of prayer as a natural human action. Specifically, I will look at texts from Rav Menahem Froman, Rav Dov Singer, and Yishai Mevorach. However, I will first briefly examine a similar idea from the writings of Rav Soloveitchik, in order to highlight the difference between Soloveitchik’s idea and the Israeli texts.


Rav Soloveitchik

In various text, Soloveitchik argues that petitionary prayer is the purest, most authentically Jewish form of prayer. He argues that petition is the aspect of prayer that corresponds to a person’s essential creaturely neediness.[1]


Prayer as a personal experience, as a creative gesture, is possible only if and when man discovers himself in crisis or in need. That is why the Jewish idea of prayer differs from the mystical idea, insofar as we have emphasized the centrality of the petition, while the mystics have stressed the relevance of the hymn. Since prayer flows from a personality which finds itself in need, despondent and hopeless, its main theme is not praise or adoration, but rather request, demand, supplication. True prayer comes to expression in the act of begging and interceding.[2]

Therefore, prayer in Judaism, unlike the prayer of classical mysticism, is bound up with human needs, wants, drives and urges, which make man suffer. Prayer is the doctrine of human needs. Prayer tells the individual, as well as the community, what his, or its, genuine needs are, what he should, or should not, petition God about […] In short, through prayer man finds himself. Prayer enlightens man about his needs. It tells man the story of his hidden hopes and expectations. It teaches him how to behold the vision and how to strive in order to realize this vision, when to be satisfied with what one possesses, when to reach out for more. In a word, man finds his need-awareness, himself, in prayer.[3]

Prayer, Soloveitchik says, fits with human nature. Moreover, it actually helps a person recognize her own nature. Petitioning God is both natural, and helps us be natural. However, it is not itself human nature. Additionally, he sees petition as just one part of prayer, if the primary one, and the rest of prayer is not as essentially linked to human nature. The texts from Israeli thinkers that we will see below will differ on these points, from him and each other.


Contemporary Israeli Neo-Hasidut

Contemporary Israel thinkers, specifically Dati Le’umi thinkers working off Hasidic texts, have also connected prayer to human nature, but they have done so very differently from Rav Soloveitchik. For example, Rabbi Dov Singer explores the nature of prayer in his book, Tikon Tefilati.


Various thinkers have given different answers to the philosophical question, which is to a great degree an existential question for humanity, what is man. The most famous answer is that Latin term, “Homo sapiens,” which means “thinking man” or “cognitive man.” Perhaps I could give a different answer: Man is “Homo mitpalelos,” a praying creature, or more specifically, a prayerful creature. The unique ability of the human soul to express prayer from within itself differentiates man from animal even more sharply than his cognitive capabilities. [4]

Singer argues that prayer is the very essence of human nature. This is in contrast to Soloveitchik’s argument neediness and lack are essential to human nature, and that prayer is a natural next step from them. Neither of them embrace the model of man as an essentially cognitive being, though Soloveitchik does not frame that model as prayer’s antagonist. Singer, on the other hand, sees intellectual reflection as an obstacle to prayer, overriding man’s nature.

In defining man as a praying creature, I am trying to free us from the need to explain to ourselves what prayer is, who God is, whether or not prayer works. The primary obstacle to prayer is often the theological, intellectual obstacle, the attempt to delineate and understand exactly how things work. Prayer suggests putting those questions aside for a time, an instance of “We will do and [then] we will understand.” We let the naturalness of prayer act upon us, exactly the way that we breath, without understanding the mechanism of breath entirely.[5]

Singer’s argument is essentially that we need to stop asking question about prayer, stop analyzing it, and just begin to pray. We shouldn’t be looking for a reason for prayer, because it is just who we are. Moreover, analyzing prayer and trying to explain it actually disrupts prayer. The same way breathing consciously and intentionally requires effort and disrupts our natural breathing, trying to be too conscious about prayer can disrupt it. Instead, we have to take prayer as our starting point.

The significance of taking prayer as our starting point receives an added layer in a short paragraph from Rav Froman’s Hasidim Tsohakim MiZeh. Froman formulates the idea aphoristically, so he lacks Singer’s systematic approach, but he makes up for it with emotional resonance.


I sometimes think that all theology, all religions, all of the things we say about God are just how we explain that basic, instinctive, human thing we call “prayer.”

A person prays, and he must explain to himself to whom he is praying, why he is praying, and what he is doing, so he calls it “God” and constructs a whole religious understanding of the world around it.

But the very core of it all is prayer.[6]

Froman claims that not only do we not need to explain prayer, prayer can in fact explain all of religion! While man comes up with the rest of religion in order to explain religion, the actual causal order is the reverse. Prayer is “instinctive” and “human,” and thus cannot be explained other than by saying it is human nature. There’s no room for any more analysis than that, and trying to insert such analysis, trying to explain why we pray, would be putting the cart before the horse.

            Singer and Froman both frame prayer as part or all of human nature, and they both seem to see this as a good thing. However, that’s not the only form this idea has to take. Yishai Mevorach, in the process of shaping a Jewish theology heavily influenced by Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, describes prayer as if it were a symptom from which a person suffers.


Just as a troubling thought does not exist independent of its manifestation in the troubled person, so too prayer does not exist independent of its manifestation in the praying person. The troubled thought, and prayer like it, is an integral element in the troubled-praying person, even though it is a perversion. […] The fact that prayer is “natural” does not mean that it is correct or good or successful. Obsession, anxiety, and depression are all natural and primordial parts of a person, but this does not mean that they are correct or good for him. They’re just there.[7]

Mevorach compares prayer to psychological conditions like depression and anxiety. These conditions naturally occur within a person, Mevorach says, and so too prayer naturally occurs within a person. With all of these, the goal isn’t to analyze them to determine if they’re good or correct or if they serve some sort of purpose. We have to accept that they exist, and then figure out how to work with them, how the individual person can tolerate them. Much like Singer and Froman, Mevorach places prayer within the realm of human nature and before any reflective analysis, moving away from questions of its function and efficacy. Unlike them, however, he does not speak of prayer and human nature in grandiose terms, but in the clinical language of psychoanalysis. As part of this, he makes no essentialist claims about the nature of all human beings, only about himself and those for whom his description rings true (much of the chapter from which the above quote is taken is written in first person language). He therefore also does not say that prayer is the defining characteristic of human nature, only a part of it, taking him back in the direction of Soloveitchik’s ideas. This is as opposed to Singer, while Froman’s unsystematic statement is silent on the issue. The three thus all take prayer as its own starting point, not to be explained by other factors, and an essential part of human nature.


The Maggid of Mezritch and Rav Kook

Having established this common theme, I want to take an aside to look at two texts that I hope will help sharpen this theme. I will argue that the first, from the Maggid of Mezritch, is only superficially similar, while actually differing in important ways. Meanwhile the second piece, from Rav Kook, is significantly similar to our theme, despite the ways it differs.

            In a famous passage, the Maggid of Mezritch denigrates any prayer where the individual praying seeks her own benefit.

“Don’t make your prayers set,” meaning that you should not pray for your business endeavors, only mercy and supplication before the Lord (makom), meaning for the sake of the Shekhinah, which is called “makom. So too the Zohar refers to brazen dogs who bark, “Woof! Woof!” etc., and this is the meaning of the verse, “I asked for one things,” which finishes “ I sought you,” meaning for the sake of the Shekhinah, as discussed above.[8]

Much like the Israeli thinkers quotes above, the Maggid is not interested in questions about what prayer accomplishes, whether it works, etc. However, he is not pushing for non-reflective prayer, prayer as human nature, taking prayer as its own starting place, or any of the other formulations I used above. Instead, he is trying to shift us from a human-focused to a divine-focused understanding of prayer, with assumed divine-centric answers to those questions. Thus he differs significantly from the Israeli thinkers I discussed above.


Rav Kook, on the other hand, is surprisingly similar to them. I say “surprisingly” because Kook was heavily involved in analyzing prayer, throughout his writings. However, in the very first passage in the introduction to Olat Re’iyah, the collection of his writings organized as a commentary on the siddur, he says that prayer is not something a person does, but a function of their soul.

The constant prayer of the soul constantly attempts to move from concealment to revelation, to extend to all the forces of life of all the spirit and the soul and all the life forces of the whole body. It also yearns to reveal its nature and the force of its action on everything around it, on the whole world and all of life. For this we need the accounting-of-the-world that we arrive at through Torah and wisdom. We therefore see that the entire work of the Torah and its wisdom is the constant revelation of the prayer hidden within the soul. “The soul of all life blesses your name, the Lord our God.”[9]

While none of the Israeli thinkers I discussed used this metaphysical framing, Rav Kook arrives at a similar idea by locating prayer within the soul.[10] He makes prayer into an essential aspect of human nature, so that all that remains for the individual is to stop fighting her nature and just pray.

For Rav Kook, this human nature is explained by its context within broader national, human, and cosmic selves, but prayer inheres on all those levels as well. The contemporary Dati Le’umi thinkers don’t make that turn, starting from and staying at the level of the individual human. Starting from prayer as an aspect of human nature keeps them from reflecting on the purpose and function of prayer (in a way that theo-centric prayer wouldn’t), though it didn’t need to do so. This doesn’t mean that Kook’s idea led them to this idea, but it’s worth considering the way their texts reflect him. Dati Le’umi thinkers, whether they affirm, reject, or ignore Rav Kook’s thought, write in a context built entirely on his thought, and their writing can reflect this. They may even reflect Rav Kook more than the Hasidic texts toward which they turn.



Rav Shagar

Another important thinker to mention in this context is Rav Shagar, as all three of the Israeli thinkers I mentioned were either students or close friends of his, or both. Rav Shagar does not identify prayer with human nature in any text of which I am aware, but he does push for a non-reflective approach to prayer, something that Dr. Smadar Cherlow has described as the primary innovation of his “Postmodern” approach to Judaism.[11]

[1] In addition to the sources below, see Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Three Leaves Press, 2006), 54.

[2] Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Mourning, Suffering and the Human Condition (Jersey City: Ktav Publishing House, 2003), 161.

[3] Rav Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, “Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah,” in Tradition Magazine 17, no. 2 (Spring 1978), 65-66.

[4] Rabbi Dov Singer, Tikon Tefilati: Matkonei Tefilah (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2014), 13.

[5] Ibid., 15.

[6] Rav Menachem Froman, Hasidim Tsohakim MiZeh (Jerusalem: Hai Shalom, 2016) §179, p. 160.

[7] Yishai Mevorach, Teologiah Shel Heser (Tel Aviv: Resling Books, 2016), 157

[8] Rabbi Dov Ber of Metzritch, Ohr Torah, §502.

[9] Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, Olat Re’iyah (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook), Introduction §1.

[10] Singer does use the term “soul” (nefesh), but he uses it in the way that contemporary Israelis use it, where it means something more like “the self,” and has connotations as much mental as metaphysical. He therefore may not mean “soul” in any strong sense. Regardless, he is certainly essentialist in his approach, and that is certainly similar to Rav Kook.

[11] See also the second chapter of her Mi Heziz Et HaYahadut Sheli?, pp. 71-88.

Rav Shagar Comes to America: “Faith Shattered and Restored”

Faith Shattered and Restored” is the first major English publication of writings of Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, known more colloquially as “Rav Shagar.” Rav Shagar (1950-2007) was a Religious Zionist thinker, teacher, and rosh yeshivah who was known for incorporation Hasidut and Postmodernism into his understanding of Judaism. This was part of his effort to shape a religious language for the Jews of our time, one that would resonate with our tradition and our daily lives (for more on that linguistic project, see my post on it and the conclusion to my longer essay on his understanding of “accepting the yoke of Heaven”). Such a language would feel like home to contemporary Jews, or at least the ones Shagar had in mind. Significantly, this suggests that if Rav Shagar’s unique combinations of tradition and philosophy do not speak to you, in translation or otherwise, then you are simply not his intended audience. That said, there is still much to be gained from how Rav Shagar tackles each individual topic (such as pluralism, providence, romance, or doubt), even if his overall project does not speak to you.

Getting to the heart of the matter, the most important thing to understand about this volume is that it was intended for an American Modern Orthodox audience, something that I think helps explain a few issues with the book. First is the selection/inclusion of the first essay in the book, “Uncertainty as the Trial of the Akedah.” Based on my own experience, and backed up by numerous conversations with other readers, the essay is hard to follow, and at the end it’s not entirely clear what Rav Shagar wanted to convey to his audience. This is not a problem with the translation, however, as the reading experience of the original Hebrew is just the same, begging the question why it was selected for inclusion in the translation. While the essay deals with important ideas, the real answer, I think, lies in the fact that in this essay Rav Shagar explicitly puts himself in dialogue the thought of Rav Soloveitchik, exemplar of American Modern Orthodoxy. The essay thus enables readers to begin to locate Rav Shagar in relation to Rav Soloveitchik’s thought, with which they are likely more familiar.

A second issue this helps explain is Rav Shalom Carmy’s afterword. The afterword is striking in that it is clear that Rav Carmy bears no particular love for Rav Shagar, and is perhaps more interested in how Rav Shagar can be used to critique the progressive end of Orthodoxy. While neither of these aspects is necessarily problematic, one might have expected a more sympathetic afterword from the first major publication of Rav Shagar’s writings in English. What explains this afterword (the reader will have to decide for herself if this justifies it) is that Rav Carmy is one of the people best acquainted with both Rav Shagar’s writings and the state of American Modern Orthodoxy. Most of the afterword is dedicated to showing how Rav Shagar’s thought fits in (or doesn’t) with more familiar works and thinkers, an effort that the average reader will no doubt appreciate.

A final issue that needs to be understood in this light is a paragraph from the essay “Religious Life in the Modern Age” which is troubling due to its absence from the original Hebrew version of the essay:

I should add that in discussing Modern Orthodoxy I refer not only to the American scene. For decades, Modern Orthodoxy in the United States and national religious Judaism in Israel constituted two distinct movements. However, with the rise in the standard of living in Israel, and as the country is swept by Western cultural influences, I predict that the differences between the two groups will erode, along with the differences between the challenges they both face. (Faith Shattered and Restored, p.43-44)

When I asked the translator about the appearance of this paragraph in the English essay, he said that it was a footnote the editors decided needed to be in the body of the essay itself, and it’s easy to see why. Rav Shagar did not speak, or even read, English, and he did not ever travel to America. Absent a specific statement to the contrary, it would be perfectly sensible to assume that his sociological statements were specific to Israeli Jewry, and that no extrapolations to American Jewry could or should be made. Since this book is intended for an American audience, it was worth the slight change to emphasize that Rav Shagar’s statements apply to both communities, and Rav Shagar’s citations of Rav Soloveitchik in this context would seem to bear this out. Notably, I have not yet been able to locate this footnote in the original Hebrew text (published as “Halakhah, Halikhah, ve-Emunah” in the collection of Hanukkah Sermons, “Le-Ha’ir Et ha-Petahim”), and if anyone locates it I would greatly appreciate the reference.

The fact that the book is aimed at an American Modern Orthodox audience does not just solve issues, it also raised a few of its own. By way of example, there were two translations that struck me as being very problematic (against the background of an otherwise excellent and readable translation throughout). The first essay translates the word “רציונליות,” in context of the practice of putting non-verbal experience into words, as “rationalism” when it should be “rationality.” What makes this worth pointing out is that “rationalism” has specific connotations in the American Modern Orthodox community where “rationalism” immediately recalls “rationalist judaism” and specific positions on issues of Torah and science. Whether “רציונליות” should be translated as “rationalism” or “rationality” might be debatable in the abstract, but for this audience it becomes obvious and important to translate it as “rationality.”

A second translation issue is the translation of the word freier (פראייר) as “gull.” The word freier, roughly referring to a person who lets themselves get taken advantage of, is so central in Israeli culture that it has its own Hebrew wikipedia page. The word “gull” (the noun form of “gullible”), on the other hand, peaked in popularity in 1922 and has been in steady decline since 1963, to the point where I had to look it up when I read it. While the best translation of the word could be debated (I like “loser”), translating a culturally important term with one that is culturally non-existent is incredibly problematic (it’s worth noting that this seems to have been a change made by a later editor rather than the original translator).


This handful of critiques should not overshadow how grateful I am that Maggid decided to publish this translation. I’ve spent the last few years deeply immersed in the writings of Rav Shagar, and I think they have a lot to offer the English speaking world of American Jewry. The selection of essays in Faith Shattered and Restored is broad, and touches on many of Rav Shagar’s most unique ideas, including his head-on tackling of relativism and his embrace of science-fiction literature as a new mythology that provides a mystical, almost messianic, reading experience. It includes his unique understanding of bitahon as a sense of security that in reality secures nothing (for more on this, see my translation of one of his Purim derashot), and a fascinating proposal regarding the role of the Jews in the global order of nations. It does not include his extensive discussions and critiques of Zionism and the modern state of Israel, but that is understandable for a book aimed at an American audience. Taken as a whole, the book is not perfect, but it is a good start, and I hope to see more translated volumes of Rav Shagar’s writings in the future.