Soloveitchik, Joseph Baer
Soloveitchik, Joseph Baer
SOLOVEITCHIK, JOSEPH BAER
SOLOVEITCHIK, JOSEPH BAER (1903–1993), U.S. rabbinic scholar and religious philosopher, preeminent spiritual leader of Modern Orthodoxy in the last half of the 20th century. Scion of a distinguished Lithuanian rabbinical family, Soloveitchik was born in Pruzhana, where his maternal grandfather, Elijah Feinstein, was the rabbi. Soloveitchik spent his formative years in Khaslavichy, Belorussia, where his father Moses served as the rabbi from 1913 until after the Communist takeover in 1918. The Khaslavichy community included a large number of Lubavitcher Ḥasidim. Soloveitchik later integrated their lifestyle and theological stance into his own philosophical lectures and publications. Until his family's relocation to Warsaw, Poland, in 1920, Soloveitchik devoted himself almost exclusively to the study of the Talmud and the Codes. Under his father's tutelage, he mastered his paternal grandfather's (see Hayyim *Soloveitchik) "Brisker Derekh." This method of rabbinic study stressed incisive analysis, exact classifications, critical independence, and emphasis on Maimonides' Mishneh Torah.
In his late teens, Soloveitchik received the equivalent of a high school education from private tutors. In Warsaw, he entered the Free Polish University in 1924, studying political science. In 1926, he commenced his studies at the University of Berlin. Soloveitchik majored in philosophy and was attracted to the neo-Kantian school. In 1932, he received his doctorate, after the acceptance of his dissertation on the epistemology and metaphysics of Hermann Cohen.
In his dissertation Das reine Denken und die Seinskonstituierung bei Hermann Cohen (Berlin, 1933), Soloveitchik analyzes Cohen's cognitive idealism, according to which objective existence has only cognitive being. The extra-cognitive world, represented by the senses, exists only chaotically and lacks order; its function is to present problems and questions to cognition. Cognition, in turn, creates objects within itself, generating them from the infinitesimal to their objective existence. It should be noted that objective existence in cognition means the existence of scientific objects, subject to Newtonian causality. Soloveitchik expands on these determinations and discusses their development in the thought of his own doctoral advisor, Heinrich Maier, and Paul Natorp, who followed in Cohen's footsteps.
In 1931 Soloveitchik married Tonya Lewit (1904–1967). Her background was similar to that of her husband, in that she had been raised in eastern Europe (Vilna), and sought higher education in western Europe. She received a doctorate in education from Jena University and was to ably assist her husband in all his endeavors until her death. In 1932 they immigrated to the United States, where Rabbi Moses Soloveichik had been the head of the talmudic faculty of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in New York City, since 1929. A few months after his arrival, the younger Soloveitchik became the rabbi of a segment of the Orthodox Jewish community of Boston. This city was to remain his home until his death.
In 1937 he founded the Maimonides School, the first Jewish day school in the New England area. With the influx of European yeshivah students during the late 1930s, Soloveitchik organized the Heikhal Rabbenu Haym ha'Levi and Yeshivath Torath Israel. On May 13, 1941, he succeeded his father as professor of Talmud in New York City at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, which achieved university status in 1945 and became known as Yeshiva University. riets, or the Yeshiva, as it was popularly known, was an integral subdivision of the school. Soloveitchik also lectured at the university's Bernard Revel Graduate School, where he served as professor of Jewish philosophy. He was to continue his weekly Talmud lectures at the school until illness forced his retirement in 1985. Soloveitchik gradually became the dominant spiritual personality on the Yeshiva University scene. He was popularly designated "The Rav" or the rabbi par excellence. In this setting he remained the quintessential rosh yeshivah, and his lectures were in the classic Brisk tradition. Essentially, the Talmud, Maimonides, and the basic early commentaries were the core of his classes in the yeshivah for 44 years. The Rav thus became the spiritual mentor of the majority of the American-trained Orthodox pulpit rabbis. His position at Yeshiva University was paramount in projecting Soloveitchik into prominence upon both the national and international Jewish scenes. From 1953, Soloveitchik also exerted a decisive influence on Orthodoxy, in his capacity as chairman of the Halakhah Commission of the Rabbinical Council of America. Among his rulings was his unequivocal opposition to mixed seating in synagogues. He went so far as to prohibit listening to the shofar on Rosh Hashanah in such synagogues. The Rav advised praying at home without hearing the shofar rather than worshipping in such a synagogue. Nevertheless, he did not advocate a total break with the Reform and Conservative movements. Soloveitchik differentiated between "external affairs" and "internal issues." On issues involving relations with the non-Jewish world, he held that cooperation with all Jewish organizations was desirable. Regarding internal matters such as halakhah and synagogue ritual, there was less capacity for joint viewpoints.
Soloveitchik questioned aspects of the dialogue initiated by the Catholic Church with Jewish leaders as part of the Church's ecumenical movement during the 1960s.
He encouraged Jewish-Christian dialogue on social, political and ethical issues – even terming it "essential" ("Statement on Interfaith Relations," in Record of Rabbinical Council of America (Feb. 1965)). Soloveitchik himself delivered his most famous religious paper, "The Lonely Man of Faith," to an interfaith audience at a Catholic seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts, and he later stated that all discussions of ethics and social values are necessarily "religious." In his essay "Confrontation" (Tradition 6:2, Spring–Summer 1964) he espoused a nuanced position regarding interfaith dialogue on religious matters (Eugene Korn, Modern Judaism (October 1965), 290–315).
Soloveitchik was originally a devotee of Agudath Israel and served as the chairman of the national executive committee of its American branch. He also was a member of its initial Council of Torah Sages, which was constituted in 1941. As the tragedy of European Jewry became known, the Rav became an advocate of the Mizrachi movement. Following World War ii, he became the honorary president of Mizrachi, which was later renamed the Religious Zionists of America. In 1935, Soloveitchik journeyed to Palestine, in what was his only visit to the Holy Land, where he was a candidate for the post of Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Tel Aviv. He was not selected. In 1959, Soloveitchik declined to be a candidate to succeed Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog. At the time, the Rav's election was assured since he enjoyed a wide spectrum of support.
Soloveitchik represented the entire Jewish community as a member of the advisory committee on humane slaughter of the United States Department of Agriculture, established 1958. In 1958–59 he delivered a series of classes on Jewish social philosophy to a group of social workers in New York. Soloveitchik also was the principal Jewish representative in Yeshiva University's Institute of Mental Health Project, undertaken in 1960, in conjunction with Harvard and Loyola Universities. Its goal was to study religious attitudes toward psychological problems. The lectures delivered to these groups later served as the basis for a portion of his published philosophical writings, particularly "The Lonely Man of Faith." Soloveitchik conducted weekly classes at Congregation Moriya on the upper west side of Manhattan. He also taught in Boston and every Saturday night gave a public lecture on the Torah portion at the Maimonides School. Sunday mornings he conducted a Talmud class under the auspices of the Hevra Shas of Boston. In addition, there were the Rav's annual Teshuvah lectures, delivered under the aegis of the Rabbinical Council of America. There were also a large number of discourses delivered before the Rabbinical Council and the Yeshiva University Rabbinical Alumni. The high point of every annual convention and midwinter conference was generally the Rav's lecture. At these venues, the themes varied and stressed halakhic, philosophical, theological, homiletical, and aggadic insights.
In addition, Soloveitchik's broad knowledge of general culture – philosophy, mathematics, science, literature – was integrated into these public discourses.
Soloveitchik was regarded by the Jewish world as the unchallenged leader of what has been designated as Modern Orthodoxy. Although never totally at home in the world of American Modern Orthodoxy, it was in this universe that the Rav's leadership was widely accepted. While Soloveitchik's brilliant scholarship was acknowledged in all Torah circles, his influence on the masses was through his disciples and the rabbis who followed his teachings. In addition, his public lectures and discourses enabled a wider audience to be inspired by his instruction. As a talmudic and halakhic expositor, the Rav possessed unusual dexterity in exploring difficult technical concepts. He was a remarkable orator in his native Yiddish, and an effective speaker in English and Hebrew. The annual halakhic and aggadic discourse which the Rav delivered at Yeshiva University, on the anniversary of his father's death, attracted thousands of listeners. These Yahrzeit derashot lasted from four to five consecutive hours. They were regarded as the major yearly academic event for American Orthodoxy.
Soloveitchik was reluctant to publish due to his family's tradition of perfectionism. Albeit, he wrote much, since all his public lectures were delivered from and preserved in manuscripts. For many decades his main publication was a lengthy essay "Ish ha-Halakhah" ((1944), 651–735) which was later translated into English by L. Kaplan and published as Halakhic Man (Jewish Publication Society, 1983).
This essay describes the dynasty of Brisk-method scholars. Written during the Shoah, the essay thus manifested a double purpose. First, to constitute a memorial to the type of yeshivah scholarship which was destroyed, and second, to describe this scholarly archetype in modern philosophical categories, so that it might be reconstituted in America. The term "halakhah" as used in this essay means primarily scholarship in the Brisk method of study, and not halakhah in its practical application. Soloveitchik describes the "Halakhic man" as cognitive man – a mixture of homo religiosus and scientist. A careful reading, however, reveals that halakhic man is essentially cognitive man. His cognition is described in line with Hermann Cohen's cognitive idealism, and in accordance with the conventionalistic trend in the philosophy of science. It should be noted that the halakhah is not merely a substitute for the laws of science. In the view of the halakhic man (i.e., the rosh yeshivah), yeshiva scholarship includes knowledge of scientific law. Since halakhic man's cognition is pervaded by Cohen's neo-Kantianism, and for him the only objective existence is that of the halakhic objects of cognition, it cannot be tolerant of other cognitions. The only experience halakhic man recognizes is the experience of scholarship and the emotions it arouses. Some critics claim, with a large degree of justification, that Soloveitchik himself did not identify with the image of the rosh yeshivah described in "Halakhic Man," but that he personally identified with the mixture of scholarship and religious experience, as suggested by his two other great works of this period, "The Halakhic Mind" and "U-Vikashtem mi-Sham."
"The Halakhic Mind" (which is understood as depicting Soloveitchik's own orientation), written in 1944 but published only in 1986, differs completely from "Halakhic Man" (which is understood as depicting the rosh yeshivah of Brisk) and its cognitive-halakhic idealism. In "The Halakhic Mind," Soloveitchik employs the method which would characterize his writings for the rest of his life: phenomenology of the religious mind. Soloveitchik sought by this approach to point to the need for essentialist research of religious consciousness in general, and of Jewish religious consciousness in particular. His working assumption is cognitive pluralism: just as, for example, there is scientific cognition, so there is also religious cognition. He therefore ignored historic and ontological existence. God's immanence, for instance, is of interest not from a factual perspective (God is or is not immanent), but from its being a factor of the religious mind. Soloveitchik made use of diverse and contradictory sources (philosophy, Kabbalah), because they all construct the essential religious consciousness mind. From this time on, Soloveitchik focused only on research of the religious mind. He added to the phenomenological method another method: reconstruction, namely, that in order to uncover the depths of the religious mind, one must reconstruct its practical and normative dimension. In his terminology, in order to reveal the subjective, one must reconstruct it out of the objective. Soloveitchik divided the Jewish religious mind into three parts: the subjective part (emotions and intellectual or mystical theories); the practical objective part (actions and behavior, such as performing the Torah's commandments); the normative objective part (norms underlying actions and behavior). The subjective part should be reconstructed out of the practical and normative objective parts. Soloveitchik especially emphasized the halakhah as a structured component of the religious mind. Accordingly, the halakhic man, namely the rosh yeshivah whose cognition is constructed in accordance with cognitive idealism, does not regard the subjective dimension as significant, nor does he recognize cognitive pluralism.
"The Halakhic Mind" thus calls for research into the Jewish religious mind and establishes guidelines for the phenomenological method, but does not fully apply these guidelines, especially not in the relatively small section dealing with Judaism.
The application would come in another work from the same period, namely "U-Vikashtem mi-Sham," written in 1944 but only published in 1978. Here Soloveitchik presented, step by step, the construction of the Jewish religious consciousness mind, in three stages. The first two stages are characterized by dialectic, and the third stage by a resolution of the dialectical tension. In the first stage, there is a tension between scientific accomplishments, which empower the person, and divine revelation, which undermines his self-confidence. In the second stage the tension is between love and fear of God. In the third and highest stage, the tension disappears, and is replaced by cleaving to God, in Maimonides' Aristotelian epistemological terms of the unity of intellect, intellection and intelligized object, which Soloveitchik compares with Hermann Cohen's cognitive idealism. Soloveitchik reconstructed these three stages out of the halakhah, thus reinforcing his position that the phenomenology of Judaism cannot be separated from Judaism's practical foundation, the halakhah.
In 1956 Soloveitchik delivered a sermon in honor of Israel's Independence Day, which was then published as a Hebrew essay, "Kol Dodi Dofek" ("Hark! My beloved is knocking" – cf. Song of Songs 5:2). Originally published in 1961 (in Simon Federbush (ed.), Torah u-Melukhah, 11–44), this essay was republished many times and was translated into several languages. Here, for the first time, Soloveitchik presented an overtly existentialist approach. Thereafter he would write in an existentialist style, such as his "Lonely Man of Faith," while at the same time continuing to write phenomenological works. The two kinds of works differ regarding the role of distress, metaphysics, the other and the purpose of the work. Regarding suffering, in his phenomenological writings, suffering is one of the dialectical poles, but in his existentialist writings suffering is the central point. Moreover, in the phenomenological writings the dialectical tension is resolved and the suffering disappears, but in the existentialist writings the polarity and suffering remains, but the person learns to live with it and endow it with meaning. Regarding metaphysics, in Soloveitchik's phenomenological works religious metaphysics is of interest and exists as a component of consciousness cognition, i.e., theoretical approaches are important because they reflect the structure of religious "cognition." Conversely, in the existentialist works metaphysics is no longer of interest. The problem of the other first arises in Soloveitchik's existentialist writings. The purpose of his phenomenological works was intellectual curiosity and religious need, but the purpose of his existentialist works is, first and foremost therapeutic: the very act of writing them eased his distress.
Soloveitchik rejected any metaphysical solution to the problem of suffering. The halakhah does not pretend to solve the problem; indeed, any solution would be an illusion. What the halakhah does is to endow suffering with meaning, thus enabling the suffering person to control his fate, rather than to be controlled by it. This is also the significance of Soloveitchik's dealing with the Shoah and the State of Israel in the same essay: the question of the reason for the Shoah is meaningless, and the only question worthy of discussion is that of meaning. "Kol Dodi Dofek," one of Soloveitchik's Zionist homilies, emphasizes the existential foundations of the State of Israel and the exclusive question of meaning. Only the halakhah can simultaneously endow with meaning the national catastrophe of the Shoah and the national revival of sovereign statehood.
Soloveitchik's existentialist approach is also reflected in several other works published in a pamphlet "Out of the Storm," but the apex of his existentialist writing is his "Lonely Man of Faith," which focuses on the problem of the other. In the modern world, faith is unique and subjective. Only divine intervention can make communication between two lonely people possible, and at a later stage, create a community. The suffering of loneliness does not disappear, but community life makes it possible to live with suffering and to endow it with meaning.
During the last decade or so of his active endeavors, Soloveitchik softened, somewhat, his resistance to the publication of his works. Subsequently, many volumes appeared under his name, including some that the Rav authorized and others that were edited from his public discourses. This trend intensified after Soloveitchik's death, as students and family published many volumes dedicated to both his Talmudic novellas and philosophical discourses. His son established the Morasha Foundation and his daughters inaugurated The Toras HoRav Foundation. Both were devoted to the publication of their father's manuscripts. Since thousands of recordings and many manuscripts remain unpublished, definitive studies of Soloveitchik and his era will wait for decades.
Soloveitchik was unique among his contemporary rabbinical colleagues. While continuing the intensive Torah scholarship, exemplary piety and dedicated leadership of his forebears, he additionally embraced western civilization. While there was no synthesis between these divergent visions, they co-existed harmoniously in his personality and lifestyle. In a lecture delivered to the Yeshiva University Rabbinic Alumni in 1956, the Rav contrasted his outlook with that of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. The latter advocated a greater synthesis between Torah and the civilization of a given epoch. Soloveitchik viewed them as separate disciplines and held that each world would lose its uniqueness if integration were attempted. He praised Yeshiva University since the yeshivah division continued the traditions of the classic Lithuanian yeshivot. Alongside the yeshivah, the university operated as a separate academic institution. Soloveitchik felt that both divisions functioned without synthesis and compromise.
Soloveitchik has remained the dominant spiritual leader for the Modern Orthodox world in the years since his death. No single rabbinical figure has emerged to inherit the Rav's mantle of leadership. Often many divergent and even contradictory viewpoints were ascribed to the Rav by his numerous disciples. Few perceived the totality of the Rav's spiritual gestalt. His lack of synthesis and the harmonious coexistence of numerous disciplines and quests that characterized his outlook added to the quandary.
The Soloveitchiks had three children. The eldest, Dr. Atarah Twersky, was chairman of the school committee of the Maimonides School, and thus continued the tradition established by her mother. Her husband, Rabbi Dr. Isadore *Twersky, was both a professor at Harvard University and The Talner Rebbe of Boston. Dr. Tovah Lichenstein resided in Jerusalem and taught at Bar-Ilan University's School of Social Work. She was married to Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut. The youngest, Rabbi Dr. Haym Soloveitchik, was professor of Jewish history at The Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University.
A. Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1999), 2 vols.; S.S. Meiselman, The Soloveitchik Heritage: A Daughter's Memoir (1995); M.D. Genack (ed.), Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik: Man of Halacha, Man of Faith (1998); A. Sagi (ed.), Faith in Changing Times: On Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik's Thought (Heb., 1996); D. Schwartz, Rabbi Soloveitchik's Philosophic Thought (Heb., 2004); M.D. Angel (ed.), Exploring the Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1997); D. Hartman, Love and Terror in the God Encounter: The Theological Legacy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (2001); L. Kaplan, "Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's Philosophy of Halakha," in: The Jewish Law Annual, 7 (1987), 139–97; Z. Kulitz, Confrontation: The Existential Thought of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchick (1993); R. Munk, The Rationale of Halakhic Man: Joseph B. Soloveitchik's Conception of Jewish Thought (1996); A. Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1999); D. Singer and M. Sokol, "Joseph Soloveitchik: Lonely Man of Faith," in: Modern Judaism, 2 (1982), 227–72.
[Aaron Rothkoff and
Dov Schwartz (2nd ed.)]