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Final Exam in Jewish Philosophy of Dr. Joseph Soloveitchik, 1936

Posted By Nathaniel Helfgot On October 21, 2009 @ 2:26 pm In Philosophy | 13 Comments

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.)


13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Final Exam in Jewish Philosophy of Dr. Joseph Soloveitchik, 1936"

#1 Comment By lawrence kaplan On October 22, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

A fascinating document. I should point out that most of the questions in the exam reflect the issues discussed in Halahkic Mind. Also, while I do not have it here in front me, in the letter to Rabbi Leo Jung, found in Community, Covenant and Commitment, from circa 1937(?) the Rav discusses an article on the philosophy of Halakhah that he was considering submitting to a volume to be edited by Rabbi Jubg, and it also sounds a lot like Halakhic Mind.

By the way, as I have pointed out elsewhere, the title “Halakhic Mind” was not the title given to the essay by the Rav. He called it “Is a Philosophy of Halakhah Possible?” I once, only half-jokingly, suggested that a more acurate, if rather Germanic, title would be “A Prologomenon to the Halakhah as a Source for a New World View: On the Method of Reconstruction in the Philosophy of Religion.”

#2 Comment By tzvee On October 22, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

What is the answer to question 1?
I. a. What is the basic idea of the “Intellectualist Theory” of the religious act? b. What are the conclusions? Criticism.

#3 Comment By J. Grossman On October 23, 2009 @ 4:47 am

Do you have a PDF file of the actual exam that you could post? I question the accuracy of the reproduction posted here, in view of the facts that in the reproduced question III.a. there is a hyphen rather than a dash between the words “consciousness” and “dependence,” that there appear to be other errors that I strongly doubt the Rav would have made, and that people in general make mistakes when they try to quote a lengthy passage. A missing or incorrect word or punctuation mark here or there makes a huge difference, especially in what was clearly a rigorously prepared and exquisitely formulated examination. Thank you.

#4 Comment By Ethan Isenberg On October 23, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

I’ve seen the document before. R. J.J. Schacter included it among his handouts in a series of lectures he gave for the now-defunct Soloveitchik Institute, in 2002. He may have gotten it from you, Nati.

[Comment edited]

In any case, the Rav was referred to by the title “Dr.” in both the Boston Jewish Advocate and, I believe, the YU Commentator during that period. One of the old-timers I interviewed — perhaps the late R. Israel Shurin — recalled that when RJBS’s name came up as a possibility to replace the recently deceased Bernard Revel in 1940, he overheard one of the rebbeim at RIETS say, “Oh, you mean DR. Soloveitchik…”, implying that he was viewed as being too secular for the Yeshiva by some.

And just to give things a typical Soloveitchik twist, there’s an alternate theory for why the Rav did not teach at RIETS in the ’30s. R. Bernie Lander, in the piece he wrote for “Mentor of Generations”, mentions a bizzare guest lecture the Rav delivered at the 1937 chag ha-semikhah, in which he disparages the school’s ideal of synthesis. According to Lander, this incident led Bernard Revel to deny the Rav a position at RIETS.

So there you have it: One person portrays the Rav as having been viewed as too secular, while another implies that he was seen as being too insular!

#5 Comment By Nathaniel Helfgot On October 24, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

Shavuah Tov. Mr. Grossman, Thank you for your post. Indeed, as is obvious from context, in III a. I intended to write a “dash” and not a hyphen, I am sorry for the inadvertent error.

I reviewed the document again tonight and I saw that there were two other small errors in my transcription that I am asking R. Brody to correct.

In III b, I inadvertently left out “the” before the word “irrational”

In V c- I inadvertently added a “the” before the word “religious”
Kol tuv,
Nati Helfgot

#6 Comment By G Field On October 25, 2009 @ 2:01 am

While the fact that Rabbi Soloveitchik served as a professor of philosophy is not mentioned in Rabbi Rakaffet’s 2 volumes on the Rav, he did mention it many years earlier in his work on Bernard Revel (of course he was called Rabbi Rothkoff when that was published).

#7 Comment By J.Gilmour On November 9, 2009 @ 9:31 am


A very insightful article which helps the academic reader in clarifying the relationship between the Rav’s articles.

J. Gilmour.

#8 Comment By Mark K. On November 11, 2009 @ 12:48 pm

Do the archives also contain a syllabus from the course?
It would be interesting to see what readings the Rav was assigning his students at that time.

#9 Comment By Dov Schwartz On February 16, 2010 @ 8:49 am

The examination shows that the Rav’s philosophical interest on that period focused solely in religious phenomenology (Scheler, Otto etc.). Existentialism appeared later, in the 50s.

#10 Comment By J. Gilmour On January 5, 2012 @ 2:04 pm

“a bizzare guest lecture the Rav delivered at the 1937 chag ha-semikhah, in which he disparages the school’s ideal of synthesis”

This lecture was in 1956.

#11 Comment By Yisrael Kashkin On November 18, 2012 @ 6:34 pm

I presume from the language of choice of the exam that the Rav gave the philosophy class in English. Does anyone know if that’s the case? This is interesting since he lectured in Yiddish in his Torah classes for some time after this.

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