Nietzsche, Soloveitchik and Contemporary Jewish Philosophy

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Daniel Rynhold, Michael J. Harris
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , June
     2018.
     288 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781107109032.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Daniel Rynhold and Michael J. Harris’s new book, Nietzsche, Soloveitchik, and Contemporary Jewish Philosophy, is a thoughtful, meticulously researched attempt to do what seems on its surface to be impossible: to reconcile the thought of one of Judaism’s most notorious and vociferous critics with that of one of its most thoughtful and eloquent advocates. If, at the end, Nietzsche seems a bit too Jewish and Soloveitchik a bit too subjectivist to be plausible, if it is not for lack of skillful argument by the authors, who expertly make their case with sustained reference to the relevant sources.

The book is organized topically, comparing and contrasting the writings of Nietzsche and Soloveitchik in several key areas: truth, morality, asceticism, creativity, repentance, suffering, and elitism. The writers admirably throw themselves into their project. Drawing impressively on the full corpus of both thinkers (including that which was not published in their lifetimes), they do not hide from the texts that highlight the contrasts between Nietzsche and Soloveitchik: Nietzsche’s nihilistic atheism and Soloveitchik’s ethical monotheism are both on full display here. 

The authors are careful to emphasize that they do not intend to suggest that Nietzsche and Soloveitchik are entirely compatible, but merely that there are sufficient points of similarity that Soloveitchik’s Judaism is immune to the sting of Nietzsche’s most important critiques of Abrahamic religion. For example, in answer to Nietzsche’s claim that Judaism presents a “slave morality” that is hostile to creativity, health (which for Nietzsche is bound up with strength), and life, the authors argue that Jewish values actually largely coincide with Nietzsche’s own, and that Soloveitchik’s Judaism in particular endorses precisely the sort of creative, life-affirming path that Nietzsche longs for. It is only in some “specifics” of applied ethics (such as euthanasia) where the authors see a real conflict between Nietzsche and the Jewish tradition as interpreted by Soloveitchik.

As cogently as their project is argued, there are places where their conclusions strain plausibility. For example, they do their best to reconcile Nietzsche’s claim that nothing is “true” except from particular points of view with Soloveitchik’s monotheism. To do this, they end up claiming that Soloveitchik’s commitment to the reality of the one God is bound to his particular perspective, and that this God has neither epistemological nor ontological privilege over gods believed in from other perspectives; that is, it is not the case either that other people “should believe” in the one God of Judaism, or that this God is more real than other gods independent of the Jewish point of view. Such a claim may reflect a belief that is amenable to Nietzsche’s critiques of Judaism and Christianity, but it is difficult to call that belief monotheism. Indeed, to say that multiple gods are valid, as Rynhold and Harris do, is to endorse polytheism (or more technically, henotheism). It is difficult to believe that Soloveitchik would have tolerated this description of his views.

It is in places like this that the almost complete lack of reference to Soloveitchik’s Marburg Neo-Kantian heritage is most keenly felt. The authors acknowledge that this is an important element for understanding Soloveitchik and one that they omit merely in order to be able to focus on the relationship between him and Nietzsche. But this omission makes their project seem considerably smoother than it ought to be. The elements that Rynhold and Harris take to indicate a Nietzschean “perspectivism” can, I believe, be much more plausibly understood in the light of Hermann Cohen than Nietzsche, and in this way preserve Soloveitchik’s overt monotheism from being undermined by attributing to him a radical Nietzschean perspectivism. Neglecting to even consider this possibility weakens their argument significantly.

That said, anyone with any interest in Soloveitchik or Nietzsche will benefit from this book. It is filled with careful, interesting interpretations of both Soloveitchik and Nietzsche, shedding new light on familiar texts. Nietzsche and Soloveitchik may not be as close as the authors argue, but one will certainly learn about both along the way.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benjamin Ricciardi is a graduate student in Religious Studies at Northwestern University.

Date of Review: 
October 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel Rynhold is Professor of Jewish Philosophy at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, Yeshiva University, New York. He has published on various topics in Jewish philosophy, including the problem of evil, Nietzsche and Jewish philosophy, and the thought of Moses Maimonides and Joseph Soloveitchik. He has been published in journals including Harvard Theological Review and Religious Studies, and is the author of Two Models of Jewish Philosophy: Justifying One's Practices (2005), An Introduction to Medieval Jewish Philosophy (2009), and co-editor of Radical Responsibility: Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (2012).

Michael J. Harris is Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, Research Fellow at The London School of Jewish Studies, and Rabbi of The Hampstead Synagogue, London. He is the author of Divine Command Ethics: Jewish and Christian Perspectives (2003) and Faith Without Fear: Unresolved Issues in Modern Orthodoxy (2016). He co-edited Radical Responsibility: Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (2012) and has published at the interface of philosophy and Jewish thought in journals including the Harvard Theological Review, Religious Studies and The Torah U-Madda Journal.

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