Final Exam in Jewish Philosophy of Dr. Joseph Soloveitchik, 1936
by Nathaniel Helfgot
An interesting detail of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l’s biography, not widely known or discussed (for example, it is not mentioned in the important biographical essay on the Rav that opens Rabbi Aaron Rakaffet’s two volume The Rav: The World of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik nor in the important work of my dear friend, Rabbi Dr. Seth Farber “An American Dreamer on the early years of the Rav in Boston) is that before he became a Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS in 1941 upon the death of his father, R. Moshe Soloveitchik zt”l, he served as an instructor in Jewish philosophy at the fledgling Yeshiva College from the Spring of 1936-to the fall of 1937.
The Rav traveled to New York every other week to deliver lectures in Jewish philosophy, during the period between his unsuccessful run for Chief Rabbi of Tel-Aviv in 1935 and the opening of the Maimonides School in 1937 and the Heichal Rabbienu Hayyim Ha-Levi, an advanced yeshiva for Torah study and rabbinic training that opened in 1938/1939 in Boston by the Rav with the encouragement and support of his father Rav Moshe.
During my research for the volume I edited, Community, Covenant and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Ktav, 2005) I came across a copy of the Rav’s final examination for the spring semester of 1936 in the archives of Yeshiva College stored at the Yeshiva University library on the Washington Heights campus. It is reproduced below.
This exam gives us a window into the areas of study and concern that engaged religious philosophers, and particularly Jewish philosophers of that era. In addition it is fascinating, on an intellectual-forensic level, to note how many of the questions reflecting what the Rav taught in that course would make their appearance (e.g. Taamei Hamitzvot, Approach to the nature of the religious act, nature of repentance) in the philosophical works that he penned only a few years later in the early 1940′s such as Ish ha-Halakhah, The Halakhic Mind and U-Vikashtem Misham. This exam gives us a small window into the works in progress that were developing in the Rav’s mind that would find written expression within a few short years.
FINAL EXAMINATION JUNE 5, 1936
JEWISH PHILOSOPHY DR. JOSEPH SOLOVEITCHIK
I. a. What is the basic idea of the “Intellectualist Theory” of the religious act?
b. What are the conclusions? Criticism.
II. a What is the Jewish attitude on the problem of the normative, affective, and cognitive approach to the religious act?
b. What is the approach to God through the reality (being)? Contrast this with the approach to reality through the recognition of God.
c. How does the consciousness of the ego-reality change according to the method of approaching God?
III. a. How can we explain the two contradictory phenomena in our religious consciousness – dependence and freedom?
b. What is the rational and what is the irrational element in Tshuva? Explain the phenomenon.
IV. a. The Problem of “Taame Hamitzvoth”. Explain in connection with the subjectivity and objectivity in the religious consciousness.
b. Explain Maimonides’ theory of the negative attributes. Does the negative theology conform with the Halakhic standpoint?
V. a. What does the autonomy of the religious act mean?
b. Describe the main characteristics of the religious world-interpretation.
c. How is religious recognition of the being possible?
d. The practical religious norms and philosophy of religion.
e. The problem of specific categories of the religious consciousness.
(Ed note: This post was updated on Oct 25 to correct a couple of copy errors from the original exam.)
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