The Radical Role of the Halachic Personage: Part One



In Biblical Hebrew, the word ish can refer to a “man”; however, as the Midrash explains, it can also refer to a “personage” –a righteous and distinguished human being (Genesis Rabbah 30:7). Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a noted 20th century sage, wrote an acclaimed work which describes the Ish Ha-Halacha – the Halachic Personage – a righteous person who lives in accordance with the halacha, the detailed steps of the Torah path. The Rav explains that to live in accordance with the halacha means that one diligently studies and comprehends the halacha in order to apply it to “this” world, and as a result, writes the Rav, “A lowly world is elevated through the halacha to the level of a Divine world.” The Halachic Personage is willing to strive for this goal, explains the Rav, because he has the following pure worldview:


Ish Ha-Halacha does not chafe against existence; rather he reads with the simplicity and innocence that is typical of him, the verse in Genesis, ‘And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good’ (1:31).


Dear Friends,


As Rav Soloveitchik explains in his book, Ish Ha-Halacha, the Halachic Personage seeks to radically transform “this” world. He recognizes the Divine source of this world and its sacred potential; thus, he is different from the secular ideologue who is “unconcerned with transcendence and totally under the sway of temporal life.” The Rav adds that the Halachic Personage is also different from the romantic mystic found in some other religious traditions who seeks to escape this world. (The Rav uses the following Latin term for this mystic: homo religiosus.) There is, however, writes the Rav, a certain similarity between Ish Ha-Halacha and the homo religiosus:


Ish Ha-Halacha is also a homo religiosus in all his loftiness and splendor. His soul too, thirsts for the living God, and these streams of yearning surge and flow to the sea of transcendence to ‘God Who is concealed in the beauty of secrecy’ (from a poetic kabbalistic prayer which is sung at the third Shabbos meal).  


Despite this similarity, their approach differs, and the Rav writes:


“The only difference between homo religiosus and Ish Ha-Halacha is a change of course – they travel in opposite directions. Homo religiosus starts out in this world and ends up in supernal realms; Ish Ha-Halacha starts out in supernal realms and ends up in this world.


Homo religiosus, dissatisfied, disappointed, and unhappy, craves to rise up from the vale of tears, from concrete reality, and aspires to climb to the mountain of God. He attempts to extricate himself from the narrow straits of empirical existence and emerge into the wide spaces of a pure and pristine transcendental existence.


“Ish Ha-Halacha, on the contrary, longs to bring transcendence down into this valley of the shadow of death – ie., into our world – and to transform it into a land of the living.”

 “…When his soul yearns for God, he immerses himself in reality, plunges with his entire being into the very midst of concrete existence, and petitions God to descend upon the mountain and to dwell within our reality - with all its laws and principles. Homo religiosus ascends to God; God, however descends to Ish Ha-Halacha.”


Regarding the goal of the Halachic Personage, the Rav teaches, “The ideal of Ish Ha-Halacha is that the Shechinah – Divine Presence – should rest here in this world.” This teaching reminds us of the following Divine proclamation to our greatest Halachic Personage, Moshe Rebbeinu – Moses, our Teacher: “They shall make a Sanctuary for Me, so that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). The ancient Aramaic translation of the Torah, known as Targum Onkelos, translates these words in the following manner: “They shall make before Me a Sanctuary, and I will rest My Shechinah among them.” Within this verse, we find a clue as to the role of the Ish Ha-Halacha, thus, the Rav writes:


“He (the Ish Ha-Halacha) brings down the Shechinah into a Sanctuary bounded by twenty boards, holiness into a world situated within the realms of concrete reality, the Absolute into the relative and conditional. Transcendence becomes embodied in a human being’s deeds, deeds that are shaped by the lawful physical order of which the human being is a part.”


The Rav also explains the halachic perspective on holiness:


“ The idea of holiness according to the halachic worldview does not signify a transcendent realm completely separate and removed from reality…Holiness, according to the outlook of halacha, denotes the appearance of a mysterious transcendence in the midst of our concrete world, the descent of God, whom no thought can grasp, onto Mount Sinai, the bending down of a hidden and concealed world and lowering it onto the face of reality…An individual does not become holy through mystical adhesion to the absolute nor through mysterious union with the infinite, nor through a boundless, all-embracing ecstasy, but, rather, through his whole biological life, through his animal actions, and through actualizing the halacha in the empirical world.…Holiness consists of a life ordered and fixed in accordance with halacha, and finds its fulfillment in the observance of the laws regulating human biological existence, such as the laws concerning forbidden sexual relations, forbidden foods, and similar precepts. And it was not for naught that Maimonides included these prohibitions in his Book of Holiness.


“…The most fervent desire of Ish Ha-Halacha is the perfection of the world  under the dominion of righteousness  and lovingkindness – the realization of the a priori, ideal creation whose name is Torah (or Halacha), in the realm of concrete life. The halacha is not hermetically enclosed within the confines of cult sanctuaries; it penetrates into every nook and cranny of life. The marketplace, the street, the factory, the house, the meeting place, the banquet hall, all constitute the backdrop for the religious life.… The true sanctuary is the sphere of our daily, mundane activities, for it is there that the realization of the halacha takes place.”


In a related teaching, the Rav points out that the Halachic Personage recognizes that the Divine path of halacha gives us the power to transform this world. He therefore resists all pressures to weaken or compromise the halacha; moreover, he uses the power of the halacha to protect the poor and weak members of the community from the oppression of the rich and the powerful. As the Rav writes:


Ish Ha-Halacha implements the Torah without any compromises or concessions, for precisely such implementation, such actualization, is his ultimate desire – his fondest dream. When a person actualizes the ideal halacha in the very midst of the real world, he approaches the level of that godly human being, the prophet – the creator of worlds. Therefore, the ideals of righteousness, which the Torah first introduced to the world, are implemented, actualized, and concretized by halachists in all their purity and resplendent brilliance. The Halachic Personage cannot be cowed by anyone. He knows no fear of flesh and blood, for is he not a creator of worlds, a partner of the Almighty in the act of creation? And precisely because he is free from fear of flesh and blood, he neither betrays his own mission or profanes his holy task. He takes up his stand in the midst of the concrete world, his feet planted firmly on the ground of reality, and he looks about and sees, listens and hears, and publicly protests against the oppression of the helpless, the defrauding of the poor, the plight of the orphan.”


The Rav then shares with us what he heard about his grandfather, Rav Chayim of Brisk, a leading halachic personage:


“My uncle, Rav Meir Berlin, told me that once Rav Chayim of Brisk was asked what the function of a rabbi is. Rav Chayim replied: ‘To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor.’


In the next letter, with the help of the Compassionate One, we will discuss how Rav Chayim of Brisk fulfilled this courageous role.



Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)


Related Comments:


1. The book “Ish Ha-Halacha” was written in Hebrew. There is an English translation of this book by Lawrence Kaplan.


2. In previous letters of our current series, My Firstborn Child, we discussed how the Shechinah is meant to dwell with us on this earth. For further information, review the following letters which appear in the archive of our current series which is found on our website: “Our Reunion with the Shechinah” and “The Universal Shechinah”:

Hazon - Our Universal Vision