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Community, Covenant, and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Community, Covenant, and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

by Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Netanel Helfgot
American talmudist and Jewish thinker Solveitchik (1903-93), or the Rav as he is widely known, used Jewish thought and law to interpret and assess modern experience. While earlier volumes in the series have portrayed him as a teacher, philosopher, and theologian, the 72 letters here reveal his role as an adviser and guide who impacted individuals that he taught and


American talmudist and Jewish thinker Solveitchik (1903-93), or the Rav as he is widely known, used Jewish thought and law to interpret and assess modern experience. While earlier volumes in the series have portrayed him as a teacher, philosopher, and theologian, the 72 letters here reveal his role as an adviser and guide who impacted individuals that he taught and counseled and influenced institutions and committees that he led. Published for the Toras HoRav Foundation by Ktav Publishing House. Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR

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Community, Covenant and Commitment

Selected Letters and Communications
By Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Ktav Publishing House, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Toras HoRav Foundation
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-88125-872-5

Chapter One

On Depiction of Human Images on Stained Glass Windows in an Interfaith Chapel

In 1949, Myron C. Taylor, former us representative to the Vatican and former chairman of the board of us Steel, donated $1,500,000 to his alma mater, Cornell University, for the construction of an interfaith center that would bear the name of his wife, Annabel. The various religious denominations on campus at the time participated in an umbrella group known as the Cornell United Religious Work (CURW). Dr. Milton Konvitz (1908-2003), a professor at the school of industrial relations, and son of Rabbi Joseph Konvitz (1878-1944), a respected Talmudic scholar, communal rabbi, member of Agudat ha-Rabbanim, and friend of the Rav, was the Jewish representative to CURW on behalf of the three thousand Jewish students and several hundred faculty members then at Cornell. The sketches presented to the CURW board contained depictions of human figures such as Joshua and Jeremiah and citations from the Bible. Dr. Konvitz argued against the acceptance of these depictions, but was met with differing views on this point. He approached the president, who was reluctant to intervene unless he had an authoritative and definitive ruling that Jews could not accept the current designs. Dr. Konvitz proposed to turn to the Rav and secured the president's assent that the university would abide by the Rav's ruling. In his submission to the Rav, Dr. Konvitz made it clear that he was limiting his query to the issue of the human images on the stained glass windows, as the issue of having an interfaith chapel altogether was simply a nonnegotiable item for the donor and the university. In addition, Dr. Konvitz indicated to the Rav that his reply on this matter would be read by both Cornell's president and Mr. Taylor. It is thus important to note that the letter is written in a style accesible to non-Jews not familiar with classical halakhic writing. The Rav's negative response printed below was adopted by the university and the final sketches portrayed only natural scenes such as flowers and bushes. The Annabel Taylor Hall was completed in late 1951.

December 6, 1950

Dr. Milton R. Konvitz New York State School of Industrial Relations Cornell University Ithaca, New York

Dear Dr. Konvitz:

I acknowledge receipt of your letter of November 22nd. I gave serious thought to the problem you presented to me and I fully realize its extreme urgency and grave implications.

The subject matter must be analyzed under both a formal and philosophico-historical halakhic aspect. Since the problem has arisen under unique social circumstances, halakhic formalism and syllogism will not suffice to solve it. Central historical realities with their deep-seated philosophical meaning must be taken into account.

Such an approach is not a novelty in the history of Halakhah, and many a time our rabbis preferred it to the purely abstract method of analysis. Let us discuss, now, the formal halakhic viewpoint. There are two fundamental prohibitions against the making of images. One deals with the making of possessing of idols - objects of worship - and is not limited to a specific design. Any object or any form which is considered as a representation of deity, or as endowed with a transcendental Divine quality, is included in this injunction. The second prohibition applies to the making of images even if it be not for cultic but artistic purposes. This law includes three kinds of figured subjects: (1) the human form, (2) any representation of transcendental separate intelligences such as angels, seraphim, the four figures of the "Holy Chariot," etc., (3) images of the astral world such as stars and planets which in antiquity were conceived as deities. Besides these three classes of figures it is also prohibited to create or possess any design which is usually associated with a cultic or religious motif, though the objective meaning of this work is purely artistic.

As to the prohibition against the human form, a controversy developed in the Middle Ages. One school of thought maintained that it applies to both sculpture and painting, while another school has adopted a more liberal attitude and restricted the law only to protruding three-dimensional works of art. At this same time another question came to the fore - whether the prohibition against the aforementioned three categories of artistic figures applied to possession as to manufacture. The religious practice has accepted the more liberal viewpoint in both cases. In the most traditional Jewish homes, paintings and photographs are to be found. Many do not object even to the display of sculptures if their esthetic character and universal meaning are so obvious that they exclude the possibility of association with a cultic motif.

In regard to the synagogue, we do not find in the halakhic literature (with the exception of a single passage in the Mekhilta quoted by Rashi, Exodus 20:20) a specific prohibition against paintings or any other design representing the human figure. On the contrary, our sages were more tolerant toward the display of human images in the synagogue than in the home. In the tractates Rosh ha-Shanah (24) and Avodah Zarah (43) we find that a statute of the king was displayed in a Babylonian synagogue and nevertheless, Rav, Samuel and Levi did not refrain from worshipping there, though they would have objected to the exhibition of the effigy in a private home. The reason for the distinction between synagogue and home is that while in the synagogue no one would suspect the community of having the statute for a religious purpose, such suspicion would be warranted concerning a private home. In the course of time, however, tradition has reversed its attitude. While pictures were not banned from Jewish homes as I have mentioned, the synagogue has excluded any image of man from its decorative motives. Moreover, many halakhic scholars insisted upon utmost simplicity of the synagogue, and disapproved of elaborate ornaments in general. Maimonides, for instance, objected to murals and mosaics which would confront the worshipper during his devotional meditation because they might serve as a distraction. An even stronger dislike was shown towards figured subjects such as animals. Rabbi Eliakim of Cologne ordered his congregation to remove from the synagogue a carpet which had animal designs woven in it. Likewise, we know of a controversy concerning the display of the lion of Judah above the ark that raged in the sixteenth century and in which Rabbi Moses of Trani, Rabbi Me'ir of Padua and Rabbi Joseph Karo were involved. There were many synagogues that did not tolerate panels representing animals. Yet again the practice was more liberal and all figures with the exception of the human form were introduced as architectural designs in the synagogue. As to the anthropomorphic symbols, there is almost unanimity of disapproval. (The fact that some excavations disclose such motives is irrelevant to us. The tradition as such has rejected them.)

Now the question arises why the halakhic tradition revised the Talmudic law which permitted the display of the human likeness in the synagogue. In order to find an adequate answer we must place the problem in a philosophical and historical perspective. The human figure as a decorative motif in the synagogue conflicts with the very essence of prayer. The latter expresses the creature-consciousness - i.e., the awareness of absolute dependence on and surrender to God. The feeling of centrality of man is superseded by one of helplessness, worthlessness and wretchedness. Since any anthropomorphic emblem in the synagogue conveys an anthropocentric idea - it places emphasis on the unique role that has been assigned to man - such design was ruled out. In the case of the Babylonian synagogue, the king's effigy served as a mere political symbol placed, in all probability, by a royal edict and did not constitute an aesthetic or decorative pattern designed to introduce the motif of axiological supremacy of man into the religious experience - and that is the reason why the Rabbis did not raise any objection to the display of the statue.

However, there is a more cogent reason which explains the deviation of practice from Talmudic theory, and this is to be sought in historical circumstances which necessitated such a change.

The icon in the Christian world is a typical ecclesiastical motif that suggests to us the Christological idea of God-man which is associated according to the Christian faith with the very act of worshipping, deus absconditus being too remote and transcendent to be approached through the medium of worship. Hence, the unequivocal iconoclastic attitude of Judaism toward the display of human images in houses of worship. To what our sages in a non-Christian Babylonia did not object, our forefathers in Christian countries were very susceptible. I wish to emphasize that this was not merely a medieval addendum to the law but it expresses its very spirit. As I have emphasized before, the law prohibits the representation of any figure or form which only alludes to a cultic motif, and the human figure in the synagogue, though its objective meaning be of artistic nature, comes under this category. This also explains the iconoclastic mood which was characteristic of the Jews of the Second Commonwealth to whom the human form suggested the deities of the Hellenistic world. History records that twice they violently resisted the attempts of the Roman authorities to display the likeness of the Caesars in Jerusalem or in the Temple. While their opposition during the reign of Caius was caused by the fact that the statue was to be worshipped as a deity, their opposition during the time of Tiberius to the royal image stamped on the army standards of the Roman legion is to be explained on the grounds of their dislike for the human image as such. Reading Josephus or Philo, we cannot help but be struck by the historical fact that our ancestors in Palestine objected to the exhibition of any human figure in the Holy City. The same tradition was later adopted by the medieval synagogue, for in both cases an anthropomorphic symbol suggested a religious idea and the criterion for approval or disapproval of a design was not its objective content but the subjective impression it conveys.

This premise is also valid in our particular problem. An anthropomorphic symbol which will form part of the decoration of a stained-glass window (which in itself is a purely ecclesiastical motif reminiscent of the medieval Gothic cathedrals) regardless of the universal character of the figures, will immediately, by the sheer law of association, be identified with the usual Christological motif. The chapel will certainly be fashioned in the style of church architecture rather than that of a synagogue and the human figures, made by an artist who specializes in church decoration, will most probably display some characteristic features of church paintings that will eclipse their universal meaning. The overall impression to the superficial observer will undoubtedly be one of religious nature.

Therefore, my recommendation would be not to agree to any representation of the human form in spite of its universal character.

In conclusion, I wish to take the liberty of giving expression to another aspect of the problem although I have not been consulted about it.

I strongly object to the use of an interfaith chapel. The Halakhah is unequivocally opposed to it and this prohibition is even more strict than that concerning human images. I understand, of course, what this statement implies in terms of public relations. However, I cannot help but be frank and outspoken about it. The idea of a common house of prayer is absolutely irreconcilable with the Judaic philosophy of worship. This attitude stems neither from intolerance or narrow-mindedness, nor from a feeling of superiority or dogmatic charism, but from a deep philosophical insight into the essence of worship. We identify ourselves with our Gentile neighbors in all matters of collective endeavor - social, political and cultural activities. There should be no retreat on the part of the Jew from the full participation in all phases of national life and we are committed to all American institutions. However, the worship of God is not a social or collective gesture but is a genuinely individual, most personal, intimate and tender relationship which cannot be shared with anyone else. That is why the use of a common chapel is objectionable from the Jewish viewpoint that insists upon the uniqueness and individuality of the form of service and the place in which we worship. Moreover, the Halakhah operates with the concept of the holiness of the synagogue. The main characteristics of holiness are: uniqueness, separateness, a state of being consecrated to, determined by, and directed upon a single goal - a specific mode of worship. The holiness of the synagogue, like the sanctity of the home, finds expression in our respect for its privacy and exclusiveness. To be dedicated to a plurality of cultic modes is a pure paradox. This paradox becomes more striking when we consider the discrepancy between the Jewish service and the Christian form of worship. The Christian Orthodox church sees in the act of worship a sacramental mysterious performance, which is fraught with otherworldliness and beatitude, and is rooted in the miracle of transubstantiation. The whole organization of the service and the arrangement of its surroundings, like the passive role of the audience, the soft music of the organ, the stained glass window and the Gothic style of the architecture, serve one purpose, namely the intensification of a feeling of super-naturalness, strangeness and meta-rationality. In contrast to this, the Jewish service is distinguished by its simplicity. It asserts itself in a dialogue between God and man on the level of this-worldliness and concreteness. It is conducted in an atmosphere of rationality, familiarity, and naturalness. Hence, I am unable to comprehend how it is possible to dedicate a chapel to two mutually exclusive ways of worship and how one could reconcile the Jewish service with alien architectural surroundings which symbolize the mysterium magnum of the Eucharist rite.

The halakhic law, like any other sound religious norm, insists upon worship keeping up with the original themes and motifs which reflect the living transcendental consciousness of the respective religious community. Standardization and communization of man's relationship to God, the most subjective, intimate and primordial experience, is as absurd as a similar attempt to standardize and communize human love, passion and romance would prove to be. The shibboleth of the religious act is its singularity.


Excerpted from Community, Covenant and Commitment by Joseph B. Soloveitchik Copyright © 2005 by Toras HoRav Foundation. Excerpted by permission.
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