Slain Rabbi Was Scion of Two Celebrated Jewish Families

Rabbi Moshe Twersky, descended from the father of Modern Orthodoxy and from the Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty, was heir of Jewish traditions that often seem contradictory.

AFP

Rabbi Moshe Twersky who was murdered this morning (Tuesday) in the synagogue attack in Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood, along with three others, was a scion of two of the most celebrated families in the Orthodox community in the United States.

On his mother's side he was the grandson of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, probably the most prominent religious Jewish philosopher of the later part of the 20th Century outside Israel and, to many, was the spiritual father of "Modern Orthodoxy." He was also a descendant of the Chernobyl hasidic dynasty. His father had the unique distinction of being both Professor Isadore Twersky of Harvard University and Rabbi Yitzchok, the Tolner-Boston Rebbe.

Rabbi Twersky, who like his father and grandfathers, was an educator and rabbi, was the incredible heir of Jewish traditions that often seem contradictory. On his Soloveitchik side he is descended from the severe Brisk tradition, which emphasized great vigor in Torah learning while rejecting Zionism as heretical and secular learning as dangerous to religious piety. His grandfather, called by his followers simply "Ha'Rav" and sometimes affectionately (but not to his face) J.B., continued this rigorous attitude towards learning but controversially embraced Zionism as well as studying in German and Polish universities before emigrating to the United States.

Soloveitchik and his son-in-law were pioneers of a Jewish religious stream that believed it could combine Talmudic learning with modern academia and adapt an Orthodox, mitzvah-observant lifestyle to post-war America, without the necessity of rebuilding a spiritual ghetto as the Haredi communities did. Soloveitchik's copious writing explored the dilemmas of a man of faith living in modern society. For many young yeshiva students are still today, 21 years after his death, these writings are fundamental guides to interpreting an often muddling world and for navigating between their study hall and outside lives.

The two rabbis were also staunch proponents of encouraging serious study of both Torah and secular disciplines by women, a controversial belief among their ultra-Orthodox contemporaries.

The synthesis they created between traditional Jewish learning, modern academia, Hasidism and intellectualism, Zionism and Diaspora community-building, devoutness, openness and worldliness, is both unprecedented in Judaism and also constantly under challenge by many in the Orthodox (and secular) communities who believe that these values and ideologies are incompatible. However, many are still inspired by them to try and live with the contradictions.

It is too early to contextualize the murder of their son/grandson Rabbi Moshe, killed while at prayer in Jerusalem before starting his day at Yeshivat Torat Moshe, a yeshiva he headed which catered mainly for overseas Anglo students, or to ponder on the poignancy of his being a victim in what is rapidly beginning to look like a religious war.