Twenty-five years ago this past April (20 Nisan 5753), thousands of Jews, their affiliations ranging across and beyond denominational lines, boarded buses for the Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts. There, they paid their final respects to a figure known to his students and followers as “the Rav”—the rabbi, the rabbi without peer. His name was Joseph Ber (in Hebrew, Yosef Dov) Soloveitchik, and he was at once a titan of Talmudic learning, an original theologian, a communal leader, and a master teacher. As we confront the spiritual and cultural challenges of this new century, Jews and Christians may turn with profit to the Rav’s life and teachings. We may draw many lessons—some in common, others particular to one community or the other.
Yosef Dov Soloveitchik was born in Pruzhany, White Russia, in 1903 (between 1918 and 1939, formative years in the young Yosef Dov’s life, Pruzhany was part of Poland, a fact that was never lost on him), a scion of rabbinic dynasties on both his father’s and his mother’s sides. He spent much of his youth under the tutelage of his grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk—founder of the analytical (“Brisker”) school of Talmudic learning—and his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik. In addition to this Lithuanian-style training, the young Talmudist was fruitfully exposed to Chabad Hasidism, the most intellectual school of the mystically inclined branches of Judaism, which was to inform some of his later theological thought. In another departure from the exclusively religious curriculum that was the legacy of his father’s home, he briefly studied history, political science, and economics at the Free Polish University in Warsaw, before moving to Berlin to take up doctoral studies in philosophy. He earned his PhD with a thesis on the epistemology of Hermann Cohen, the Marburg Neo-Kantian, in 1932. In Berlin, Soloveitchik also met Tonya Lewit, a teacher with a PhD from the University of Jena, who was to become his wife, his most important colleague, and perhaps his only true peer.
Preceded by his father, Soloveitchik moved to America in 1932 and settled in Boston, where he and Tonya would found the Maimonides Day School in 1937. Though he lived and ministered in Boston, he made his institutional home at Yeshiva University in New York City, where he would teach for nearly half a century. A 1962 cover story in Time, “What It Means to Be Jewish,” dubbed Soloveitchik “Orthodoxy’s most brilliant interpreter in the U.S.” By the early 1970s, he had ordained more than two thousand seminarians and was both the theological and halakhic leader of Modern Orthodoxy worldwide. He had penned essays on both perennial and pressing issues of Jewish life, law, and practice—from faith, prayer, and repentance to Jewish history (including the meaning of Israel and of the Holocaust), the uses and abuses of technology, and relations between Jews and Gentiles.
After a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, Soloveitchik passed away in Boston during Passover 1993. For almost a decade prior, the Modern Orthodox world had been adjusting to the prospect of losing its mentor and guide; twenty-five years later, no one has yet replaced him.
The Rav identified several points of tension in contemporary American life and culture, especially within the American Jewish community. As Jews assimilated into the American dream, he feared the possibility of a religious coarsening, a diminution of the full encounter with the divine and its replacement by a soulless behaviorism. “Even in those neighborhoods made up predominantly of religious Jews,” he wrote,
[one] can no longer talk of the “sanctity of Shabbat.” True, there are Jews in America who observe Shabbat [by refraining from the forbidden categories of labor]. . . . But it is not for Shabbat that my heart aches; it is for the forgotten erev Shabbat (Sabbath eve). There are Shabbat-observing Jews in America, but there are no erev Shabbat Jews who go out to greet Shabbat with beating hearts and pulsating souls. There are many who observe the precepts with their hands, with their feet, and/or their mouths—but there are few indeed who truly know the meaning of the service of the heart!
But in warning against behaviorism, Soloveitchik did not derogate observance of the religious law as such. Indeed, his vindication of the religious law in terms compelling to the modern temper is one of his great achievements.
To his own Modern Orthodox community, the Rav held out a spiritual ideal comprising equal parts subjective emotion and strict adherence to objective law (halakha). In one of his early works, Halakhic Man (1944), he draws a sharp contrast between purely subjective religiosity, shorn of commandments and the law, and the fullness of the halakhic way of life:
A subjective religiosity cannot endure. And all those tendencies to transform the religious act into pure subjectivity . . . will in the end prove null and void. The power of religion . . . is in force only when the religion is a concrete religion, a religion of the life of the senses, in which there is sight, smell, and touch, a religion which a man of flesh and blood can feel with all his senses, sinews, and organs, with his entire being. . . . A subjective religiosity comprising spiritual moods, emotions and affections, outlooks and desires, will never be blessed with success.
Soloveitchik thus saw in Orthodox Judaism, with its embodied form of religious life and attention to the totality of human existence, the ultimate response to the great chasm in philosophy between objective and subjective, inner and outer, that had bedeviled modern thought from Descartes to Heidegger. Far from the regressive purview of a despised people, halakha becomes for Soloveitchik the master key to the intellectual problem that had plagued European culture for half a millennium.
He traced the intellectual history of the West in The Halakhic Mind, a dense monograph that was written, like Halakhic Man, in 1944, but remained unpublished for four decades. In The Halakhic Mind, the Rav describes halakha as effecting a reconciliation of objectivity and subjectivity: “[Halakha] is the crystallization of the fleeting individual experience into fixed principles and universal norms. In short, Halakha is the objectifying instrument of our religious consciousness. . . . Rabbinic legalism, so derided by theologians, is nothing but an exact method of objectification, the modes of our response to what supremely impresses us.”
In prayer, for instance, the “worship of the heart”—the inner subjective sense of devotion, gratitude, penitential solemnity, or prayerful petition—is embodied in the concrete language and forms of the traditional liturgy. Inner conviction without outer form would be too “fleeting” and ethereal, mere “spiritual moods, emotions and affections”; at the other extreme, rote recitation is like a dead body without an animating soul, the behaviorism against which Soloveitchik warned. But when liturgy and subjectivity are reconciled by the “objectifying instrument” of ritual properly observed, they form a unified religious act, prayer that is normative and efficacious. The Halakhic Mind illustrates this dual dimension of the commandments using examples drawn from halakhic data. In this manner, Soloveitchik illustrates and vindicates repentance and mourning laws, joyous celebration in the Temple, the teaching of the Exodus story, the honoring and reverencing of parents, and many other commandments.
But Soloveitchik viewed the integrated nature of halakha as much more than an answer to a philosophical problem. Orthodox Jews, from our earliest years, are educated to love the Law. Culture reinforces that love, as Orthodox Jews are overwhelmingly brought up within local communities that, in their adherence to the Law, cultivate certain norms of behavior and experience, habits of mind and emotion. According to the Rav’s own testimony, his most prized accomplishment was the founding of the Maimonides School. The attention to the exigencies of daily life and the building of faithful communities of practice characteristic of the Maimonides School and of hundreds of Jewish day schools across the country are the products of this halakhic worldview. Gentiles likewise can admire institutions that cultivate and are cultivated by the Law, forming communities that protect and advance their traditions.
Soloveitchik loved America, his adopted home, and believed in its promise. A small example: Most years in the third week of November, he cut short his schedule of daily Talmud lectures in New York to return to Boston for Thanksgiving dinner—hardly common practice among Lithuanian-trained heads of yeshivas. (Some suggest, in talmudic fashion, that his early departure for Thanksgiving allowed him to spend more time with his grandchildren, and the federal holiday merely facilitated the early reunion. Both readings are illustrative.) More significantly, America was connected in Soloveitchik’s mind with human dignity, for him a supreme religious value—a potent expression of the human will to imitate G-d and partner with him in improving creation. Writing in the 1960s, Soloveitchik saw America’s victory over the Soviets in the “space race” as a symbol of this dignity, a testament to the power of human ingenuity and ambition directed toward a noble universal cause.
Yet he was realistic in diagnosing America’s spiritual pathologies, and reserved some of his most incisive criticism for the problems arising from its hyperextended forms of freedom, individual conscience, and creativity—values he championed, albeit dialectically, more than any Orthodox Jewish thinker in the twentieth century. Above all, the Rav posed an existential question to his followers, and to all persons of faith: Can we, in today’s America, live up to the standards of religious law—entailing both exacting performance and existential depth—in our daily existence?
In The Lonely Man of Faith (1965), the Rav distinguished the loneliness endemic to late-modern capitalist culture from the ontological loneliness built into the being of each human person. His analysis employs a typology extracted from the contrasting accounts of Adam’s creation in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. The two chapters presented (in the Rav’s nomenclature) Adam I, “majestic man” or the striving man of culture, and Adam II, “covenantal man” or the man of faith. The man of faith bears a message “of defeat instead of success, of accepting a higher will instead of commanding, of giving instead of conquering, of retreating instead of advancing, of acting ‘irrationally’ instead of always being reasonable.” He must bear this message to the man of culture, “in spite of the incompatibility of this message with the fundamental credo of a utilitarian society.” Then “the tragic event occurs,” as the man of culture rejects the man of faith. In modernity, this rejection has reached a crisis point:
Majestic Adam has developed a demonic quality: laying claim to unlimited power—alas, to infinity itself. His pride is almost boundless, his imagination arrogant, and he aspires to complete and absolute control of everything. Indeed, like the men of old, he is engaged in constructing a tower whose apex should pierce Heaven. He is intoxicated with his own adventures and victories and is bidding for unrestricted dominion. . . . Western man diabolically insists on being successful.
In the 1960s, to Orthodox American Jews migrating from the immigrant enclaves and inner cities to the promised land of suburbia, these were sobering and bracing words. Surveying today’s Orthodox community, one might say that, to this extent, it has heeded the Rav’s call to inwardness and devotion—with the possible qualification that, in doing so, it may sometimes have confused pristine religiosity with a form of cultural behavior aesthetically or socially dressed up for synagogue.
The relevance of Soloveitchik’s critique to the twenty-first-century American landscape may seem a more complicated matter: The mid-century culture of technological mastery and conquest has given way to a culture of complaint, grievance, resentment, and retreat. With his directness of manner and speech, impatience with ceremonialism, and uncompromising passion for truth, one suspects Soloveitchik would have had little patience for political correctness, safe spaces, and trigger warnings. These causes have taken on a corporate feel, and the emboldened rhetoric of the disenfranchised sounds more like that of majestic Adam I than that of community-seeking Adam II. The perennial rift in man between the drive for mastery and the acceptance of defeat undoubtedly plays out in particular, contingent, and historically inflected ways; the culture wars suggest that we’re still struggling with this essential split.
It may be tempting to picture the Rav as a hopelessly idealistic elitist or a pie-in-the-sky scholar. But that would be a reductive account of a complex figure. A comment from the early 1980s demonstrates the diversity and breadth of Soloveitchik’s thought: “The experience of G-d is not a businesslike affair. Only the child can breach the boundaries that segregate the finite from the infinite. Only the child with his simple faith and fiery enthusiasm can make the miraculous leap into the bosom of G-d.”
How to reconcile the Rav’s intellectualism with his counsel of “simple faith”? Perhaps not propositionally. But in the person of the pious sage, the Rav believed, such opposites can indeed coincide: “The giants of Torah, when it came to faith, became little children, with all their ingenuousness, gracefulness, simplicity, their tremors of fear, the vivid sense of experience to which they are devoted.” In the person of Soloveitchik himself, a modern Torah sage, we find that polarities are fruitfully sustained, if not actually reconciled. The dialectical thought so essential to his worldview becomes a gauge of his complex thinking—neither liberal nor conservative, neither progressive nor nostalgic—and a sign of his intellectual and spiritual sobriety.
In another sign of that sobriety, Soloveitchik insisted that, much as the American Jew may feel at home in this regime of freedom and opportunity, he remains a ger v’toshav, a “resident alien.” Glossing the biblical exchange between Abraham and the inhabitants of Canaan in Genesis 23:4 (“I am a stranger and a sojourner with you”), Soloveitchik proposes Abraham’s non-triumphalist identity as paradigmatic of the Jew’s relationship to the broader world. The Jew must live among the city’s inhabitants, pray for and promote her welfare through advances in industry, trade, and science, fight in her (just) wars, combat her diseases both biological and social, and break bread cautiously, but never for a moment believe that through this human fellowship he has shed his particular identity as a Jew, a member of the people overwhelmed by G-d’s grace, or his calling as one destined for something very different, something Other. Decades before Stanley Hauerwas or the Benedict Option, Soloveitchik diagnosed, with clarity and without sentimentality, a reality that now also confronts our Christian brothers and sisters.
This non-triumphalist stance, most powerfully articulated in the 1964 essay “Confrontation”—the closest thing to an official Orthodox Jewish response to Nostra Aetate—has consequences for the Jewish community’s engagement with the Church. “Confrontation” stipulates the parameters of Jewish-Christian relations:
The current threat of secularism and materialism . . . makes even more imperative a harmonious relationship among the faiths. This relationship, however, can only be of value if it will not be in conflict with the uniqueness of each religious community. . . . Any suggestion that the historical and meta-historical worth of a faith community be viewed against the backdrop of another faith . . . [is] incongruous with the fundamentals of religious liberty and freedom of conscience and can only breed discord and suspicion.
All would agree, the Rav posited, that Jewish-Christian dialogue, in keeping with the dignity of each faith, must not be coercive, as were the medieval “disputations” imposed by force on the Jews. Equally important, and in conformity with modern, democratic conditions, both parties to the dialogue must face each other as intellectual and spiritual equals. For these reasons, the Rav proscribed Jewish-Christian dialogue on core doctrinal matters, though he welcomed cooperation between the faiths on cultural matters of shared concern. For Jews and Christians to debate the finer points of Trinitarianism, Christology, pneumatology, and Torah from Sinai was out of bounds, but for Jews and Christians together to tackle inner-city poverty, immigration policy, or even the moral dangers of secularism was not only permissible but almost always desirable.
Soloveitchik’s view of Jewish-Christian relations arose in part from his consideration of certain educational and pedagogic realities. For better or worse, the average American rabbi of the mid- to late twentieth century had been educated as a Talmudist, halakhist, and pastor, not primarily as a theologian or philosopher. Catholic clergy, at least in the teaching orders, were often better trained in theology and philosophy. The disjunction in education between Jewish and Catholic clergy would create adverse conditions for Jewish participants when matters of doctrine were under discussion. By contrast, communal or cultural matters were not only less problematic but increasingly urgent, given the challenges facing all biblically based, G-d-centered worldviews. In these areas, our theological commonalities were more important than our differences.
But can traditional Jews and Catholics speak of “theological commonalities” in a philosophically coherent way? Don’t traditional Jews and Catholics have radically different doctrines, belief systems, worldviews, and ways of speaking and being? Soloveitchik emphasizes the irreducible particularity of faith communities: “In the same manner as Adam and Eve . . . encountered each other as two separate individuals cognizant of their incommensurability and uniqueness, so also two faith communities which coordinate their efforts [in cultural matters] may face each other in the full knowledge of their distinctness and individuality.”
For Soloveitchik, the meanings of words—especially theological language, representing the most intimate and elemental aspects of our personhood—are so embedded in the deep structures of language, culture, ideation, and the ontologies they necessarily instantiate that it is virtually impossible to convey to a member of another faith tradition the full content and meaning of those indigenous theological concepts. Yet there are instances wherein the practical or conceptual commonalities are more profound than the differences. The attempt to “face each other in the full knowledge of [the different communities’] distinctness and individuality” is most promising when the focus is on a practical matter common to both communities. Wherever there is a shared moral conviction or a shared conception of personhood—namely, that all of humanity, Jew or Gentile, has been created in the image of G-d—antecedent to the accretion of the particular, revelation-inflected dimensions of our being, humility and goodwill can yield positive results.
Soloveitchik demonstrated this two-tiered approach to Jewish-Christian dialogue by delivering what would become The Lonely Man of Faith, a philosophical meditation on the nature of the human person, initially as a lecture to Catholic seminarians in Boston. The body of the lecture drew on Genesis 1 and 2, portions of the Bible that Jews and Christians share, yielding a philosophical anthropology as relevant for Christians as for Jews. The footnotes Soloveitchik later added to the published version of the lecture were full of rabbinic, midrashic, and even mystical references intended for a Jewish audience. In his revision of this text, we see that Soloveitchik could address his Jewish readers more fully and deeply than his Christian readers—while in its original, we see how seriously he pursued, and how greatly he valued, the conversation he could sustain with Christians.
The philosophical roots of the Rav’s reticence toward theological dialogue were planted in The Halakhic Mind. Decades before Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, the Rav developed—on modern philosophical grounds—an epistemological pluralism that recognizes the non-foundational nature of rational accounts and the incommunicability, even incommensurability, of our most essential identities and claims. For Soloveitchik, every system of thought—biology, physics, mathematics, psychology, history, theology, and so on—has its own language and canons of validity, truth, meaning, and purpose, with every discipline seeking its own distinct objective. Soloveitchik cites John Henry Newman to the effect that, especially in spiritual matters, “egotism is true modesty.” Think locally, since the ambition to ground truth in universal and foundational terms is hubristic, a form of philosophical overreach. Soloveitchik did not merely theorize here; he saw the new physics of the early twentieth century as proof that the old Newtonian meta-narrative could no longer keep things coherent. When applied to the question of Jewish-Christian dialogue, his epistemological pluralism cautions modesty, substituting religious community lines for stark disciplinary divisions and adding the uniqueness of the particular revelatory encounter of each faith to the general opacity entailed in translation.
The Rav’s wariness of “dialogue” cut both ways: Just as it was illegitimate for Jews to tailor their convictions to the expectations of the majority community, so it was “impertinent and unwise” for Jews to solicit corresponding changes on the part of the majority community. Contemporary practitioners of Jewish-Christian dialogue would do well to heed the Rav’s strictures—while recognizing that those strictures are a sign of theological strength, not weakness.
In criticizing his generation, the Rav did not spare himself. He regretted his inability to penetrate the hearts along with the heads of his disciples, to influence them practically as well as intellectually: “While I have succeeded, to a great or small degree, as a teacher and guide in the area of [intellectual matters]—my students have received much Torah from me—I have not seen much success in my efforts in the experiential area. I was not able to live together with them, to cleave to them, and to transfer to them from the warmth of my soul.” No doubt he was too harsh on this score. He might have been comforted to witness the Modern Orthodox world twenty-five years after his death. At its best, it is both more literate and more experientially engaged than when the flight to suburbia began half a century ago. But by all accounts, the Rav was a man not easily satisfied or comforted.
I often think about my own religious life in the context of the Rav’s outsized influence and legacy. Twenty-five years ago this past April, I traveled on one of those buses to Brookline. Just married and newly minted as a rabbi, I needed to be at the Maimonides School that day, linking my vocation to the tradition of scholarship, theological boldness, and engagement with the world that Rabbi Soloveitchik had so daringly staked out. I had wanted to be his student, posing the questions that most vexed me and drawing from his wisdom and holiness. And though I had never met him—his Parkinson’s had brought him back from New York to Boston during my junior year in high school—nearly all my teachers and mentors had been his direct students and disciples.
In a sense, then, I too was his student—if the claims of our Masorah, the chain of tradition and transmission stretching all the way back to Sinai, mean anything at all. As the Rav wrote, “Whenever I start a lecture, the years play no role, centuries have no significance; generations, I mean, can communicate with each other. The door opens, and Maimonides enters. Soon another man walks in and sits down. . . . I introduce them to my pupils, and suddenly . . . a friendship, a comradeship, between old and young, a symposium of generations comes into existence.”
Still, standing among the thousands of mourners that day, I felt what greatness had been lost, how the cord to Sinai had been, if not severed, then weakened. Who would straddle our venerable Jewish tradition and what was true, good, and beautiful in the tradition of the West? Who now will sustain, challenge, and inspire us as servants of the Lord in a strange land? And yet the Rav would not want us to traffic in sentimentality. Perhaps his loss reminds us that there is greatness still to be had, spiritual excellence still to be sought. In pointing us to this greatness, Rabbi Soloveitchik remains our Rav, our peerless teacher and sage.
Rabbi Mark Gottlieb is senior director of the Tikvah Fund and a trustee of the Hildebrand Project.