From Tradition to Transition

Rigid conservative or innovator? Yeshiva head or religious philosopher? On the centenary of the birth of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, an international conference on his influences on Judaism is being held next week.

Dr. Tova Lichtenstein, the daughter of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, does not like being asked about the main features of her father's philosophical doctrine. "My father engaged in philosophical thought, and also taught it," she says, "but in the end, it was not the center of his world. It was not critical to his personal or experiential agenda. What engaged him most was his role as rosh yeshiva (dean of the religious seminary), as cultivator of generations of rabbis."

Lichtenstein touches on one of the roots of the argument over the image of Rabbi Soloveitchik, the quintessential leader of modern Orthodoxy in the United States in the 20th century: Was he mainly a rabbi and head of yeshiva, or a religious philosopher? After all, Soloveitchik was busy in both realms. He raised an entire generation of rabbis, heading for half a century the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, the yeshiva division of Yeshiva University - flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy in the United States. Yeshiva University combines religious seminary study with academic study and is considered the main institution for the training of non-Haredi Orthodox rabbis. At the same time, Soloveitchik developed a religious philosophy that absorbed modern Western philosophy - a philosophical doctrine in which Kierkegaard, Kant and others are every bit as influential as Maimonides and Rashi.

This is only one of the questions that will be discussed next week at an international scholarly conference on the influence of Soloveitchik, to be held at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, marking the centenary of his birth.

"The dispute is especially acute in the United States, where immediately after his death in 1993 a revisionist point of view began to develop, which saw him as the classic head of yeshiva," comments Prof. Yaakov Blidstein of the Department of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University, who studied with Rabbi Soloveitchik.

Nevertheless, at least as far as religious Zionism is concerned, Soloveitchik is primarily identified with a philosophical doctrine, the only one that created an alternative of equal weight and rabbinical status as the philosophical doctrine of Rabbi Avraham Hacohen Kook.

Without a doubt, it is of overriding importance that Soloveitchik was a scion of one of the most important families in ultra- Orthodox Judaism of the past 200 years. His great-grandfather, for whom he was named, served as head of the Wolozhin Yeshiva, considered the dominant Lithuanian yeshiva of the 19th century (the academies of Lithuania were noted for their rigorous scholarly approach, as opposed to Hasidic yeshivas, where spiritual striving was given at least equal weight to intellectual erudition). Soloveitchik's grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, also headed the yeshiva until it was closed in 1892, at which time he replaced his father as the rabbi of the city of Brisk, which explains how he came to be known as Rabbi Chaim of Brisk. It was Chaim Soloveitchik who cultivated the analytical academic study techniques, the "Brisker" method that is still practiced in the Ashkenazi yeshiva world. He was vehemently opposed to both secular education and Zionism. His uncle, Rabbi Ze'ev Soloveitchik, escaped from Brisk during the Holocaust, immigrated to Jerusalem (his wife and several of his children chose to stay, and were murdered by the Nazis) and became one of the most zealous leaders of anti-Zionist Judaism.

Joseph Ber Soloveitchik was born into this well-connected and zealous family in Poland in 1903. Until he himself became a rosh yeshiva, says his daughter, "he never once stepped foot in a yeshiva." As a child, he studied in the cheder of a Habad rabbi who was not especially learned. His appalled mother took him to his grandfather, Rabbi Chaim of Brisk, who was not particularly impressed with his knowledge. The grandfather urged his son, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik, to take his grandson under his wing and teach him at home. From that point on, Joseph Ber did not attend any school or yeshiva. At 22, he went to Berlin to study philosophy and mathematics, and completed a doctorate on the doctrine of Hermann Cohen, a Reform Jew who was decidedly anti-halakha (Jewish law). His daughter says that it was his mother who pushed him in this direction, as she believed in the importance of a general education.

In the late 1920s, his father immigrated to the United States, where he was asked to serve as the head of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. A few years later, after he completed his doctorate, the younger Soloveitchik also moved to the U.S. and settled in Boston, where he had a pulpit. Upon the elder Soloveitchik's death in 1941, Joseph Ber succeeded him as the rosh yeshiva, a position he held until his death.

After the Holocaust, Joseph Ber Soloveitchik left Agudas Israel - a non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox movement - and joined Mizrachi - the leading religious Zionist movement. This step, along with the academic education he had already acquired, was too much for the Haredi world in which he was raised.

"He was ridiculed by the yeshiva world," relates his student, Rabbi Prof. David Hartman. "They wouldn't even call him `the Rav' [Rabbi, in Hebrew], but rather used his first initials, `J.B.'" Conversely, Tova Lichtenstein says that within the family he was still respected. "They respected him and he respected them. Their relationship was based on scholarship, not ideology."

Nevertheless, his outlook on Zionism and the State of Israel differed from that of the Rabbi Kook school of thought. He did not see any religious value in the state in its own right, but rather a practical value, as a political asylum for the Jewish people. Nor did he hesitate to harshly criticize the secular image of the state, employing terms that might have been used by a Haredi rabbi from the same background in which he was raised. He himself visited Israel only once, before the declaration of statehood. In 1935, Soloveitchik came for a few weeks, to run in the elections for the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, in which he lost to Rabbi Avigdor Amiel. In 1959, upon the death of Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, Soloveitchik was courted by religious Zionist leaders, who offered him the post, but the Rav refused.

"He understood the political involvement of the functioning of the religious establishment in Israel, and wasn't interested in it. He wanted to focus on his scholarly and rabbinical activity in the U.S., without pressures from politicians," says his daughter.

As a Jew living in the United States, he was not one to pressure members of Mizrachi, or its Israeli political counterpart, the National Religious Party, to adapt their political platform to his beliefs. Thus, although he personally held dovish opinions, he did not push the NRP to adopt his beliefs. "He thought that as someone living in America," Lichtenstein reports, "he did not have the right to press for the policy to be adopted in Israel, and in general, what concerned him was the rabbinic world. His dramatic influence was on an entire generation of rabbis that he cultivated at Yeshiva University, and on the American Orthodox world, as chairman of the Halakha Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, the umbrella organization of Orthodox rabbis.

Dual personality

Soloveitchik never wrote a systematic book of his philosophy, but his philosophical contribution is expressed in a handful of published essays and public sermons that exist in print. To this day, these essays are remarkable not only for their content, but also for their most un-rabbinic literary style. For instance, in his essay "Man of Halakha," when he describes the ideal of seeing all of reality through halakhic eyes, Soloveitchik writes: "When the Man of Halakha approaches reality, he comes with his Torah, given him at Sinai, in his hand ..."

This excerpt encapsulates the duality of Soloveitchik's personality. One the one hand, zealous halakhic content - reality has no meaning aside from its halakhic significance - and on the other, form and style expressed by an individual who has been exposed to literature and to modern rhetoric. His other essays address the basic tension of the religious person faced with questions about death, loneliness in the world and modern reality; all of these are fundamental philosophical questions that few Orthodox rabbis have chosen to confront, and even fewer while quoting from the leading lights of Western philosophy.

This duality is reflected in Soloveitchik's range of rabbinic activity. On the one hand, he gave expression, in a modern philosophical style, to the Orthodox worldview, and also encouraged his students to engage in general studies.

"He gave Torah scholars an opportunity to feel comfortable with Western culture," explains Hartman.

Soloveitchik's pragmatic approach to the world around him was distinctly conservative, close to the Haredi world from which he came. He opposed any interreligious dialogue between Jews and non-Jews, and nearly with the same intensity opposed dialogue between the different movements in Judaism. However, he did permit cooperation of this sort for purposes of joint struggles when Jewish interests were on the line, but he was also known for his halakhic ruling that it is better not to hear the shofar blown on Rosh Hashanah than to hear it in a Conservative synagogue (not to mention Reform).

Soloveitchik's duality is also the focal point of the dispute that has developed over the years between his students, some conservative, some radical. The best-known dispute, at least in Israel, is between his son-in-law Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, the head of the Har Etzion hesder yeshiva (which combines Torah study with army service), and Hartman, the founder of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

The Hartman Institute, as opposed to Soloveitchik's stand, not only carries on dialogue between religious and secular, it also facilitates inter-religious dialogue, and primarily scientific research of the Jewish sources. Conversely, Lichtenstein, who like his father-in-law has a strong academic background - having completed a doctorate in English literature - is also a strong opponent of any shift from the traditional character of the yeshiva, such as his own students taking up Judaic studies at university.

"Rabbi Soloveitchik," says Hartman, "did not create a halakhic outlook that permits innovation, because he did not recognize the vitality of secular Judaism, as it exists in Israel. The Jews that he knew always needed religion for the existence of Jewish life. He also lived in a world of ideas and did not see the problematic aspects of the ideas in practical life. He thought in terms of philosophical change, but did not think that changes in halakha were necessary."

On the other hand, Lichtenstein says, "The identification between openness to the world and halakhic changes is deceptive. Rabbi Soloveitchik is a Haredi Jew, is loyal to tradition."

Not coincidentally, Dr. Avinoam Rosenack, head of the academic committee of next week's conference, says that the conference will not focus on the image and teachings of Soloveitchik himself.

"Almost everything has already been said about that. We want to focus on influences he had on Jewish thought and education." In other words, to what degree Soloveitchik caused the rigidity of conservative positions, or whether his philosophical doctrine nevertheless enabled breakthroughs, even if he himself was not a party to them.

Rosenack also has his own opinions on the subject: "In spite of everything, it is not in my opinion coincidental that the changes now being made in the Orthodox world - in terms of both thought and practice - are largely focused on his students and his students' students." In other words, in the historic perspective, Soloveitchik evidently functioned as a transition figure, necessary for the enaction of a process, even if he did not complete it. The stature and legitimacy he gave to educational openness enabled the scholarly integration of the yeshiva world and the scientific world.