Thursday, November 27, 2014

Book Review: Majesty and Humility by Rav Reuven Ziegler

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book.

It's taken me nearly three years to read a book.

I typically read five books a week, so this is pretty unusual. The book in question is special. It's like fine wine. One is meant to sip at it, consider the flavor, delicately swish it from side to side in one's mouth. It's not like soda, where you swig it back and chug it down. No, it's something that's meant to be considered, enjoyed, absorbed. 

The book is entitled Majesty and Humility: The Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and is written by Rabbi Reuven Ziegler.

Those of you who are used to the TAC/SOY Seforim Sale may be thinking: "Do we really  need another Rav book?" The subject of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik is exhaustively covered from all angles within the Modern Orthodox world. We know about important moments in his life, have copies of his shiurim, written works published during his lifetime and afterwards, and even have insights provided by his shamashim. So what can this book provide that the others don't?

The answer is: a lot.

That's because Majesty and Humility is a different kind of Rav book. It's a book that aims to make sense of the Rav's overarching philosophy and to trace his thought and its development across all of his works. It seeks to either resolve contradictions or assert that the Rav's thinking changed over time when it seems like certain ideas may not mesh with one another. While those of us who read the Rav in school are generally familiar with Halakhic Man and The Lonely Man of Faith, unless one has put in a great deal of effort and research, one is probably not aware of the scope and breadth of all the Rav's works and the thought that binds them together. Unlike the layperson, Ziegler is eminently aware of the scope and breadth of the Rav's works. His extremely well-researched book is filled with footnotes and references to other works, and each segment ends with a helpful section called "For Further Reference" that elaborates upon ideas mentioned in that section.

I see a lot of possible uses for Majesty and Humility. Any teacher who is going to incorporate the Rav's writings into class ought to own a copy. Higher-level high school classes and college classes ought to use this as a companion to the Rav's written works. One can focus on creating a year-long (or longer) class utilizing the different chapters of this book or alternatively, simply take one section and create a semester to year-long offering.

Ziegler breaks up the book into the following segments:

  • An  overall introduction
  • The Rav's conception of thought, feeling and action (physical experiences in this world and mitzvot)
  • The Rav's view of religion in the modern world 
  • The Rav's understanding of ways in which man reaches out to God (roles of family, prayer, repentance, suffering) 
  • The Rav's understanding of Jewish history and destiny (the Holocaust, State of Israel, Jewish identity)
  • The Rav's viewpoint on the significance of and parameters of Halakha (halakhic man, subjectivity and objectivity in halakha, how man finds God and cleaves to Him via the halakha)
  • A review of the major points and themes brought out in earlier chapters
I found this format to be extremely clear and very valuable as a resource should I wish to go back and incorporate some of these topics within my classes. 

As an English major, I enjoyed this book for its usage of critical techniques. When reading Wuthering Heights, one strives to understand Emily Bronte within her historical context, as a proponent of the gothic, and to look at the ways that her writing advanced the genre and literature in general. One also seeks to compare Bronte to her contemporaries to better understand both her writing and her influence. Ziegler does this with Rabbi Soloveitchik. One of the sections I most enjoyed in the book compared Rav Kook's thought to Rabbi Soloveitchik's thought. Here's one of the takeaways:
Two Conceptions of Human Nature 
Rav Kook's and Rav Soloveitchik's understandings of repentance, with all their differences, are clearly predicated on divergent views of the nature of man. 
For Rav Kook, the categories of sin and repentance apply not to man in relation to God, but to man in relation to himself: one sins against one's "self" and returns to one's "self." 
This, in turn, is based on the idea of the God-man unity in the inner self, symbolized by the perpetual inner teshuvah of the soul. In Rav Kook's thought, everything begins and ends with God. Repentance means revealing the divine within man and ideally, uniting it with divinity in its fullness. 
Rav Kook's is thus an encouraging and uplifting approach. Man is essentially good and holy, and must merely remove the impediments in order to allow himself to join the soul of the world in its upward movement. 
Rav Soloveitchik believes that God is God and man is man, and there is a chasm between them; man must create himself if he wants to draw closer to God. Man begins as a formless mass and must either shape himself actively or be shaped passively by circumstances. He has great potential, but must work hard to actualize it. 
The difference between their approaches is nicely encapsulated in their differing approaches to the relationship between Torah study and teshuvah. Rav Kook writes that the clarity of one's Torah learning increases in accordance with the teshuvah that precedes it (14:28). Rav Soloveitchik says the reverse: Torah study brings about a purification of the personality! For Rav Kook, teshuvah reveals the divine within a person, which helps that person understand the Torah; for Rav Soloveitchik, teshuvah is a process of building oneself and Torah gives one guidelines and ideals to emulate. 
-pages 244-245

While I think this is interesting to your average reader, I also can conceive of it making a great project or assignment in a Contemporary Jewish Philosophy class. You can provide students with the relevant works on teshuvah by Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rav Kook and then assign them to do what Ziegler has done here- compare and contrast them and come to their own conclusions as to the differences between these two greats' worldviews. If they reach the same conclusion as Ziegler, great!- you can show them his summation within this book. If not, and they come up with something different, also great- you can applaud their creativity, assuming it makes sense with the texts.

I was also very interested to learn about the "stages of the religious odyssey depicted by Rav Soloveitchik" (354) which begin with a dialectic between Trust and Fear, then a dialectic between Love and Awe and finally dvekut or cleaving. Ziegler explains that this is the thrust of U-Vikkashtem mi-Sham (And From There You Shall Seek), a book which Soloveitchik concluded surpassed Halakhic Man "in both content and form" (344). Ziegler incisively breaks down the key ideas the Rav was building upon in the work so that people who might otherwise be confused or put off by its lofty prose can actually get a handle on it. Some people use SparkNotes or No Fear-Shakespeare to enable them to engage with difficult works; Ziegler has done that for the Rav.

Majesty and Humility could be considered a magnum opus in its own right. It is meticulously researched, easy to use, considers a wide range of materials and offers something new- the ability to understand key ideas in the Rav's worldview, and how, like themes in music, they recur through his disparate works. Just like music, sometimes the theme is accompanied by an entire orchestra while other times it is the reedy thread of a flute, but it is still there and the person who knows to look for it can find it. Your average reader would not know to look for it, so Ziegler's great achievement is drawing back the curtain to show that it is there, and then demonstrating the ways in which very different pieces of Soloveitchik's thought can be puzzled together to form a vast and compelling vision.

I consider myself an amateur enthusiast of the Rav and I learned a lot through reading this book. Whether you are someone who sees yourself as a true beginner, a knowledgeable layperson or even someone very familiar with the Rav and his philosophy, there will be a new perspective or approach for you to benefit from in this book. Go get a copy.

1 comment:

Zak Ripps said...

A beautiful article about a beautiful book