Halakhic Man, Part I

A theological essay by Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik


Cognitive man –

The man of reason, the man who seeks an explanation for anything, who accepts only what is rational, and whose behavior follows his intellect. The scientist, the mathematician – disciplined, principled.
Math might be one of the purest forms of cognition since a world in math is an idealized, perfect version of our reality. One starts with ideal and then find how the world fits to what must be true, mathematically.

Homo Religiosus –
The artist. He revels in mystery. He wants outside of reason, beyond it, to the infinity he knows but can’t explain – the depth of feeling, the blurring of pain and pleasure, the in turns enormity and utter insignificance of the human being.
The religious man experiences intense conflict, periods of ecstasy, is constantly in the throes of a tumultuous questioning of existence and identity.

The religious man looks for questions he can’t answer; cognitive man looks for answers that are unquestionable.

Halakhic man –
He is, of course, the combination of both. He is a cognitive man, because to him, the world is a place to implement the idealized world that Halakha describes. He first seeks to understand what such a world would look like – hence the endless discussion of distance and size, endless what if scenarios, and pages devoted to the elucidation of one word.
He is a religious man because his cognition of the Halakhic world brings him closer and closer to truth, which he feels absolutely, but always within the framework of Halakha.

The implications –
Halakhic man does not suffer from the dualism usually associated with religion.

In mind: There is no schizophrenia, no yo-yoing between the heights of spiritual ecstasy and the depths of soul-sucking materialism.
Unlike the mystic, he does not presume to find G-d only outside of reality, in rapturous awe, or overwhelming love. The whole of his relationship with G-d consists of his interaction with this world, of his realizing the idealized Halakhic map, in practice.

In heart: Halakhic man is not uncomfortable in this world. He doesn’t see it as a dark and evil place, devoid of G-dliness. It is not an obstacle to but the means by which he encounters G-d.

In behavior: There is no dualism in his behavior. He is not one man during prayer, and another in the marketplace. His relationship with G-d doesn’t end at the door of the prayer-house. It penetrates every moment, every place, every aspect of his own nature. Every waking moment, there is a Halakhic model to inform his behavior.

Nevertheless, he is not devoid of the depth of emotion for which the homo religiosus, only it is contained. Instead of a futile quest, and the confusion/hopelessness/emptiness/madness that often accompanies it, the religious experience of the Halakhic man is grounded in knowledge and reason.


In Chapter IX (pg. 49-63) the author highlights the difference between Halakhic man and a prototypical follower of the Chabad branch of Chassidism.

He argues that according to Chabad there is an inherent dualism, which results in exactly the characteristics that Halakhic man is free of. According to the Chabad doctrine G-d is in exile in this world of lies and faithlessness (Shecinta Begalusa). Therefore, the Chasid (one who studies Chassidism) desires to escape this world, his soul reaches heavenward – to free itself, to free G-d. He is torn between two worlds, and dismayed by the state of the reality he is forced to live with every day.

To support the idea that this world is anathema to a Chasid, he cites a discussion about whether G-d created the world for the sake of his kindness, or his will. The mystics (presumably this means or includes Chabad since most of the quoted material here is from Chabad sources) take the position that G-d created the world out of kindness, while Halakhic man says that G-d created it for his will. The difference being that if G-d created it out of kindness, it indicates a concession on G-d’s part, a lowering of Himself for the sake of creation. If He created it for His own will, then the world is clearly not a contradiction to Him. He desired it, and desired man to be in it, not to abandon it for inclusion in the oneness of G-d.

The advantage of the Halakhic man is that he’s free of all this conflict and depression. This is his only world.

This argument is missing two points.

First, Chapter 36 of Tanya – the same book and author that Rabbi Soloveichik quotes to argue his point – starts with a paraphrased quote from the Midrash, “G-d desired to make for himself a dwelling place in the lower realms.” It is explained to mean that the motivation to create the world was an inexplicable desire to be hidden and then recognized. In other words.┬áThat is the crux of the Chassidic understanding of – to bring G-d here.

In fact, Rabbi Soloveichik notes this himself in footnote 65. “It is interesting that even Habad doctrine understood creation from a voluntaristic standpoint…. But this entire matter is of exceptional profundity.”

According to that, the Halakhic and Hassidic men are in agreement that this world is not a necessary evil. It is, or could be through our effort, G-d’s happy place.

But there the agreement ends. R.S. claims that there is only downward motion of putting G-d’s vision of this world into practice. In Chassidus the yo-yoing described earlier – on one hand to cleave to G-d, on the other to engage the world – that is the necessary pulse of life. It is necessary both to wish for a purer, truer place and at the same time to transcribe G-d’s plan, outlined in the Torah and Halakha, into the real world. To bring Him here.

I’m assuming I’m missing something here. Rabbi S. knew all this. Nevertheless he a. gives the impression that Chabad Chassidus does not believe that this world is G-d’s goal and b. never mentions the yo-yo theory – leaving us with either the desire to escape the world, or to live solely within it.

Those two ideas are deeply ingrained in me, so I’m going to need to address them if I am to understand what R.S. really means.

An interesting aside that may or may not be important: R.S. quotes a Midrash to prove his point that the world is the end, not the means – which at that point would have been revolutionary (1944). That same Midrash is used to illustrate the same point in the Chabad Rebbe’s first discourse in 1951, which is basically his manifesto. The two draw different conclusions from there, but is it a coincidence?

So I’m left with this –
What’s wrong with the bi-directional approach? We need to desire something above and beyond us, and G-d needs to penetrate every beautiful and vile and picayune part of our lives.
Is the approach of the last two Chabad Rebiim, that this world is G-d’s true home, revolutionary even within Chassidus? Whose ideas influenced whose?
From the prospective of Rabbi Soloveichik – what is truly the advantage of the Halakhic man over the approach of the Chabad Chasid?

2 thoughts on “Halakhic Man, Part I

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *