Honest Human Halakhists
(UK readers - see the announcement at the end of this post!)
Pursuant to my post of a few weeks ago, "The Human Approach to Halakha," Rabbi Daniel Korobkin sent me the following extract from a letter written by Rav Soloveitchik in 1951, printed in Community, Covenant and Commitment. It is from a responsum sent to Dr. Samuel Belkin with regard to the question of volunteering as a chaplain in the armed forces. Before getting into the substance of the topic, Rav Soloveitchik writes the following very significant introduction:
...I have undertaken the research into the halakhic phase of this problem, which is fraught with grave political and social implications on the highest level of public relations, with utmost care and seriousness. Yet, I cannot lay claim to objectivity if the latter should signify the absence of axiological premises and a completely emotionally detached attitude. The halakhic inquiry, like any other cognitive theoretical performance, does not start out from the point of absolutely zero as to sentimental attitudes and value judgments. There always exists in the mind of the researcher an ethico-axiological background against which the contours of the subject matter in question stand out more clearly. In all fields of human intellectual endeavor there is always an intuitive approach which determines the course and method of the analysis. Not even in exact sciences (particularly in their interpretative phase) is it possible to divorce the human element from the formal aspect. Hence this investigation was also undertaken in a similar subjective mood. From the very outset I was prejudiced in favor of the project of the Rabbinical Council of America and I could not imagine any halakhic authority rendering a decision against it. My inquiry consisted only translating a vague intuitive feeling into fixed terms of halakhic discursive thinking."
The truth is that, as Dr. Marc Shapiro has pointed out, all halachic authorities operate this way, because they are human beings. (On a related note, see the recent fascinating article "Why Facts Don't Change Our Minds" in the New Yorker, about how humans are unfortunately fundamentally wired against being truly objective.) The chiddush in this quote from Rav Soloveitchik is that he was sufficiently self-aware and intellectually honest to openly admit to it.
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Note to UK readers - In a few weeks I will be visiting London and Manchester (for the first time since leaving 24 years ago!). On Shabbos March 24/25, I am speaking at Kehillat Ohev Shalom in Edgware; on Sunday March 26 I am speaking about Rationalism vs. Mysticism on behalf of Shema in Manchester, at Maccabi; and on Tuesday March 28 I will be back in London, discussing Rationalism vs. Mysticism with Rabbi Joseph Dweck at the Spanish and Portugese Synagogue in Lauderdale Road, an event which I'm sure Yosef Mizrachi will be happy to publicize! I might still have availability for an engagement on Wednesday March 29; if you want to arrange something, please be in touch. Also, if you happen to be driving from London to Manchester on Motzai Shabbos March 25, or from Manchester to London on March 28, please let me know!