Joseph Soloveitchik

From Academic Kids

Joseph Ber (Yosef Dov) Soloveitchik (1903-1993) was an Orthodox rabbi, Talmudist and modern Jewish philosopher.

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Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University.


Over the course of almost half a century he ordained close to 2,000 rabbis who took positions in Orthodox synagogues across America; they were able to relate to their less traditional congregants, drawing them closer to traditional Jewish observance with quite a few becoming religiously observant. He served as an advisor, guide, mentor, and role-model for tens of thousands of Modern Orthodox Jews as their favorite Talmudical Scholar and religious leader.

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Rabbi Soloveitchik, right, teaching Talmud to advanced students.

Rabbi Soloveitchik inherited his father's, Rabbi Moses (Moshe), position as head of the RIETS rabbinical school at Yeshiva University in 1941 . Scion of the famous Soloveitchik Lithuanian rabbinical dynasty going back some 200 years. Grandson of the renowned rabbinical scholar Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, grandson as well as name-sake, of his great grand-father Rabbi Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik known for his work as the Bais HaLevi on Talmud and great-great-grandson of Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (The Netziv).

Early years

Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik was born on February 27, 1903 in Pruzhan (which is now part of Belarus), Poland. He was educated in the traditional manner at a Talmud Torah, an elementary yeshiva, and by private tutors as his parents realized his great mental powers. At the age of 22, he moved to Berlin in Germany where he remained for almost a decade studying at the University of Berlin, simultaneously maintaining a rigorous schedule of intensive Talmud study.

In 1931 he wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the epistemology and metaphysics of the German philosopher Hermann Cohen. In that same year he married Tonya Lewit (1904-1967), who had earned a Ph.D. in education from Jena University. He studied the work of European Philosophers, and was a lifelong student of neo-Kantian thought.

During his years in Berlin, he made the acquintance of two other young scholars pursuing similar paths to his own. One was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson who was destined to command the Chabad Lubavitch movement centered in Brooklyn, New York and the other was Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner who would become the Dean of the Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin also in Brooklyn, New York . Each developed a system of thought that bridged the Eastern European way of traditional scholarship with the new forces of modernity in the Western World. In 1932, after his 1931 marriage to Dr. Tonya Lewitt (1904-1967), he immigrated to the United States and settled in Boston.

Philosophy: Synthesis

During his tenure at Yeshiva University in addition to his Talmudic lectures, he deepened the system of "synthesis" whereby the best of religious Torah scholarship would be combined with the best secular scholarship in Western civilization. This has become known as the Torah Umadda - "Torah and Science" the motto of Yeshiva University.

He authored a number of essays and books offering a unqiue synthesis of Kantian existentialism and Jewish theology, the most well-known being The Lonely Man of Faith which deals with issues such as the willingness to stand alone in the face of monumental challenges, and Halakhic Man. (Needs expansion.)

Through public lectures, writings, and his policy decisions for the Modern Orthodox world, he strengthened the intellectual and ideoligical framework of Modern Orthodoxy.


In his early career in America he joined with the traditional movements such as Agudath Israel of America and the Agudat Harabanim - the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of North America. However as he became entrenched in the Modern Orthodox outlook, he removed himself from the former organizations, and instead joined with the Mizrachi Religious Zionists of America (RZA) and the centrist Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), where many of his students were to be found in leadership positions. Whilst he was bound scholastically and through family connections to the more Haredi Agudath Israel group, his world-view had placed itself at the center of Modern Orthodox Judaism, with its stress on excellence in secular studies,the professions, and active Zionism .


He thus became a "lightning rod" of criticism from two directions: From the religious left he was viewed as being too connected to the Old World of Europe, while for those on the religious right, he was seen as legitimizing those wanting to lower their religious standards in the attempt to modernize and Americanize.

Soloveitchik was proud of his connections to the Soloveitchik rabbinic dynasty, speaking fondly of his "uncles" and chiding them from time to time in public. To his relatives and namesakes who now lived in Jerusalem where they had established their own branch of the anti-Zionist Brisk Yeshiva, he was respected for his genius in Talmudic scholarship which few could challenge, yet they saw him as their wayward cousin who had departed from the family Haredi "party line".

Soloveitchik accepted Samson Rapahel Hirch's philosophy of Torah im Derech Eretz, the philosophical basis of Modern Orthodox Judaism. Since his death, interpreations of Soloveitchik's beliefs have become an ongoing debate. Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) and those on Modern Orthodox's right wing hold that Hirsch only wanted Jews to combine observant Jewish lifestyle with learning the surrounding gentile society's language, history, and science, so that a religious Jew could earn a living in the surrounding gentile society; they also hold that this is true of Soloveitchik. In this view, neither Hirsch or Soloveitchik wanted or approved of Jews learning gentile philosophy, music, art, literature or ethics. In this view, their philosophy existed solely to allow Jews to obtain a job.

In contrast, many historians of Judaism and most Modern Orthodox Jews say that this understanding of Soloveitchik's philosophy is misguided. This issue has been discussed in many articles in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought, published by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). In this view, both Hirsch and Soloveitchik approved of more than just the study of the surrounding gentile society's language, history, science. They also thought that it was permissible, and even productive, for Jews to learn gentile philosophy, music, art, literature and ethics for its own sake. Both Hirsch and Soloveitchik studied gentile philosophy, ethics and literature.

Soloveitchik was by no means on the religious left-wing of Orthodox Judaism; those outside of Orthodoxy saw him as more stringent than Orthodoxy's left-wing, and more theologically liberal than those in the right-wing. From the 1960s onward, Orthodoxy strengthened in numbers and in the commitment of its members. There a move towards greater insularity from the non-Orthodox Jewish world, from the surrounding gentile culture. This "turn to the right" involved ever stricter interpretations of Jewish law and custom, a tendency to limit Jewish principles of faith to a narrow set of permissible options, and the growing acceptance of beliefs that some Orthodox Jews viewed as superstition.

Soloveitchik stated that although he felt that successfully transmitted the facts and laws of Judaism to his students, he felt that he failed in transmitting the experience of living an authentic Jewish life. He stated that many of his students "act like children and experience religion like children. This is why they accept all types of fanaticism and superstition. Sometimes they are even ready to do things that border on the immoral. They lack the experiential component of religion, and simply substitute obscurantism for it....After all, I come from the ghetto. Yet I have never seen so much naïve and uncritical commitment to people and to ideas as I see in America....All extremism, fanaticism and obscurantism come from a lack of security. A person who is secure cannot be an extremist." (A Reader's Companion to Ish Ha-Halakhah: Introductory Section, David Shatz, Yeshiva University, Joseph B. Soloveitchik Institute)

Lawrence Kaplan, a historian of Orthodox Judaism writes that there is a tendency for some to rewrite Soloveitchik as not being modern Orthodox, but rather as being Haredi. For example

Shortly after the Rav's passing, Rabbi Norman Lamm, President of Yeshiva University, in a eulogy for the Rav delivered on April 25, 1993, urged his auditors to "guard...against any revisionism, any attempts to misinterpret the Rav's work in both worlds [the world of Torah and the world of Madda(Science)]. The Rav was not a lamdan who happened to have and use a smattering of general culture, and he was certainly not a philosopher who happened to be a talmid hakham, a Torah scholar.... We must accept him on his terms, as a highly complicated, profound, and broad-minded personality.... Certain burgeoning revisionisms may well attempt to disguise and distort the Rav's uniqueness by trivializing one or the other aspect of his rich personality and work, but they must be confronted at once." (3)
Lawrence Kaplan Revisionism and the Rav: The Struggle for the Soul of Modern Orthodoxy, Judaism, Summer, 1999

Relations with non-Orthodox Jews

Soloveitchik did not approve of many of the beliefs and practice of Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism. He held that where these groups differed from Orthodox Judaism, the non-Orthodox groups were in significant error. One of the major differences debated was the existence of a mechiza in the synagogue, a divider between the men's and women's section of a synagogue. In line with the traditional rabbinic understanding of this issue, Soloveitchik ruled that it was forbidden to pray in a synagogue without a separation between the sexes. As such, he effectively forbade people from praying in all Reform synagogues and in many (today, most) Conservative synagogues. (His responsa on this issue was also aimed at the small number of Orthodox synagogues that were adopting mixed-sex seating.)

Soloveitchik believed that Reform and Conservative rabbis did not have proper training in halakha and Jewish theology, and that due to their decisions and actions could not be considered rabbis as Orthodox Jews normally understood the term. He was a lifelong critic of all forms of non-Orthodox Judaism. On the other hand, in practice he often granted non-Orthodox rabbis some level of validity (see the examples below.)

Soloveitchik's philosophy allowed him to work with religious Zionists (considered heretics by many Orthodox Jews) and with non-Orthodox Jews. Soloveitchik developed the idea that Jews have historically been linked together by two distinct covenants. One is the brit yiud, "covenant of destiny", which is the covenant by which Jews are bound together through their adherence to halakha. The second is the brit goral, "covenant of fate", the desire and willingness to be part of a people chosen by God to live a sacred mission in the world, and the fact that all those who live in this covenant share the same fate of persecution and oppression, even if they do not live by halakha. Soloveitchik held that non-Orthodox Jews were in violation of the covenant of destiny, yet they are still bound together with Orthodox Jews in the covenant of fate.

In 1954 he wrote a 1954 responsa on working with non-Orthodox Jews, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews in the United States: Second article in a series on Responsa of Orthodox Judaism in the United States. In this responsa he recognized the leadership of non-Orthodox Judaism as Jewish communal leaders (but not as rabbis in the Orthodox sense of the term), and concluded that participation with non-Orthodox Jews for political or welfare puposes is not only permissible, but obligatory.

The Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Yisroel countered with a ruling that such cooperation with non-Orthodox Jews was equivalent to endorsing non-Orthodox Judaism, and thus was forbidden. In 1956 many Yeshiva leaders, and two Modern Orthodox rabbis from his own Yeshiva University signed and issued a proclamation forbidding any rabbinical alumni of their yeshivot from joining with Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism rabbis in professional organizations.

Soloveitchik refused to sign it outright, miantaining that there were areas, particularly relating to problems that threaten all of Judaism, that required co-operation regardless of affiliation. His refusal emboldened other Modern Orthodox rabbis, and the Rabbinical Council of America and Union of Orthodox Congregations then joined the Synagogue Council of America, a group in which Orthodox, Reform and Conservative denominations worked together on common issues. (The Synagogue Council of America ceased operating in 1994.) No Haredi Orthodox groups ever joined the SCA.

In the 1950s Soloveitchik and other members of the RCA engaged in a series of private negotiations with the leaders of Conservative Judaism's Rabbinical Assembly, especially with Rabbi Saul Lieberman; their goal was to create a joint Orthodox-Conservative Beth din (rabbinic court) which would be a national beth din for all Jews in America; it would create communal standards of marriage and divorce. For a number of reasons, the project did not succeed. (Bernstein, 1977)

Until the 1950s Jews of all denominations were generally allowed to use the same communal mikvaot (ritual baths) for the purposes of converting to Judaism, following the rules of niddah in regards to the Jewish laws of family purity, kashering dishes, etc. However a growing trend in Orthodoxy was to deny the use of mikvaot to non-Orthodox rabbis for use in conversions. Soloveitchik counselled Orthodox rabbis against this practice, insisting that non-Orthodox have the option to use mikvaot. (Wurzburger, 1994)


Since he was accepted as the pre-eminent leader of politically conscious pro-Zionist modern Orthodox Judaism, out of respect for this, many leaders and politicians from Israel sought his advice and blessings in state affairs. He was reputedly offered the position of Chief Rabbi of Israel, such as by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, but he quietly and consistently refused this offer. Ironically, despite his open and passionate love for the modern State of Israel, he never visited the State. (He did visit Israel in the 1930's, before the state was established.)

The Rav

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The Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993) in his later years

He unfailingly captured the adoration of his students. He was known as the "Rav", he became the greatest leader of Modern Orthodoxy in the twentieth century, often espousing relatively very liberal positions on educational, political, and social issues within the Orthodox world. His ordination of over 2000 Orthodox rabbis at Yeshiva University, during forty years at the helm, attests to his power and efficacy as well as his consistency and determination.


He would refer to himself as "The Soloveitchik of Boston".He pioneered the Maimonides School,one of the first Hebrew day schools in Boston in 1937 where he originally intended to settle and resided there when not teaching in New York. When the school's high school was founded in the late forties, he instituted a number of innovations in the curriculum, including teaching Talmud to boys and girls studying in classes together. He involved himself in all manner of religious issues in the Boston area. He was at times both a rabbinical supervisor of kosher slaughtering - shchita- and gladly accepted invitations to lecture in Jewish and religious philosophy at prestigious New England colleges and universities. His own son-in-law was on the faculty of Harvard .

An enlightened outlook

Not satisfied that young Orthodox women were granted the opportunity to study at their own academic college (Stern College of Yeshiva University),he advocated more intensive textual Torah studies for Jewish women, giving the first class in Talmud inuagurated at Stern College, the women's division of Yeshiva College - University. With his enlightened outlook, he attracted and inspired many young men to become rabbis and educators, together with their wives coming with similar education and values .They in turn went out with the education of Yeshiva University to head synagogues, schools and communities, where they influenced many Jews to remain Orthodox.He attracted many others to the cause of Orthodoxy. Among his alumni are Rabbis Nachman Bulman, Shlomo Riskin, and Ephraim Buchwald and many others who became leaders of the Baal teshuva movement.

Family and last years

His children married prominent academics and Talmudic scholars, his daughter Tova married Rabbi Dr. Aaron Lichtenstein, Dean of Har Etzion Yeshiva in Israel (with a PhD from Harvard University), his daugher Atarah married the late Rabbi Dr. Isadore Twersky former head of the Jewish Studies department at Harvard University (also served as the Talner Rebbe in Boston ), and his son Rabbi Dr. Haim Soloveitchik is a professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University. His siblings include Dr. Samuel Soloveitchik (d. 1967), Rabbi Aharon HaLevi Soloveitchik (1917-2001), Mrs. Shulamith Meiselman, and Mrs. Anne Gerber. His granchildren have maintained his heritage and also hold high scholarly positions. As he got older he suffered several bouts of serious illness. Family members cared for his every need and distinguished people came to visit him in his last years in Boston, where in 1993 he was laid to rest at the age of ninety.


Works by Joseph Soloveitchk

  • Three letters by Soloveitchik on seating in the synagogue are contained with The Sanctity of the Synagogue, Ed. Baruch Litvin. The Spero Foundation, NY, 1959. An expanded third edition of this book is Edited by Jeanne Litvin. Ktav, Hoboken, NJ, 1987.
  • Confrontation, Tradition 6:2 p5-9, 1964. Reprinted in "A Treasury of Tradition", Hebrew Publishing Co, NY, 1967.
  • The Lonely Man of Faith, Tradition, vol. 7#2, p56, 1965. This essay was published as a book by Doubleday in 1992 and reprinted by Jason Aronson in 1997.
  • Sacred and Profane, Kodesh and Chol in World Perspective, Gesher, Vol. 3#1, p5-29, 1966. This article has been reprinted with expdanded notes in Jewish Thought, Volume 3 #1, p55-82, 1993
  • Shiurei Harav -- A Conspectus of the Public Lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Ed. Joseph Epstein. Hamevaser, Yeshiva University, 1974.
  • The Community, p7-24 ;Majesty and Humility, p25-37; Catharsis, p38-54; Redemption, Prayer and Talmud Torah, p55-73; A Tribute to the Rebbetzin of Talne, p73-83 are all printed in Tradition 17:2, Spring, 1978.
  • Severeal of Soloveitchik's responsa for the RCA Halakha commission are contained in Challenge and mission: the emergence of the English speaking Orthodox rabbinate, L. Bernstein, Shengold, NY, 1982.
  • Halakhic Man Tranbslated by L. Kaplan, Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia PA,1983
  • Fate and Destiny: From Holocaust to the State of Israel Ktav Publishing, Hoboken NJ 1992 and 2000.
  • The Voice of My Beloved Knocketh translation by L. Kaplan in Theological and Halakhic Responses on the Holocaust, Eds. Bernhard H. Rosenberg and Fred Heuman. Ktav/RCA, Hoboken, NJ, 1993

Legacy of his hashkafa (worldview)

  • Rabbi Norman Lamm A Eulogy for the Rav, Tradition 28.1 1993
  • Rabbi Walter S. Wurzburger Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik as Posek of Post-Modern Orthodoxy, Tradition Volume 29, 1994
  • Joseph Soloveitchik, article in the Encyclopedia Judaica, Keter Publishing
  • Seth Farber Reproach, Recognition and Respect: abbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Orthodoxy's Mid-Century Attitude Toward Non-Orthodox Denominations American Jewish History, Vol. 89,#2 193-214, 2001.
  • Zvi Kolitz Confrontation: The Existential Thought of Rabbi J.B. SoloveitchikKtav, Hoboken, NJ, 1992
  • Simcha Krauss, The Rav on Zionism, Universalism and Feminism Tradition 34:2, 24-39, 2000
  • Alan Todd Levenson, "Joseph B. Soloveitchik's 'The Halakhic Mind'; a liberal critique and appreciation", CCAR Journal 41,1 55-63, 1994
  • Aharon Ziegler, Halakhic Positions of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Jason Aronson Inc., 1998.
  • Aharon Ziegler Halakhic Positions of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Vol II Jason Aronson Inc., 2001
  • Aviezer Ravitsky Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik on Human Knowledge: Between Maimonidean and Neo-Kantian Philosophy, Modern Judaism 6:2 157-188, 1986.
  • David Hartman Love and Terror in the God Encounter: The Theological Legacy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001
  • Ed. Moshe Sokol, Engaging Modernity, Rabbinic Leaders and the Challenge of the Twentieth Century, The Orthodox Forum, Jason Aronson, 1997

Cooperation with non-Orthodox Jews

  • Rabbi Norman Lamm, Seventy Faces, Moment Vol. II, No. 6 June 1986-Sivan 5746
  • Rabbi Mayer E. Rabinowitz Comments to the Agunot Conference in Jerusalem, July 1998, and on the Learn@JTS website.
  • Rabbi Louis Bernstein The Emergence of the English Speaking Orthodox Rabbinate, 1977, Yeshiva University
  • Rabbi Emmanuel Rackman, letter in Jewish Week May 8, 1997, page 28.
  • Joseph Soloveitchik Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews in the United States: Second article in a series on Responsa of Orthodox Judaism in the United States, 1954
  • Jack Wertheimer, Ed., Tradition Renewed: A History of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Vol. II, p.450, 474, JTS, NY, 1997

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