Thousands of students and disciples gathered in Boston on Sunday to pay respect to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the central intellectual and religious figure behind American Orthodox Judaism.
Soloveitchik, 90, died of heart failure April 8, at the end of the third day of Passover.
A master of the worlds of Jewish law and Jewish thought, he was almost universally referred to as “the Rav,” the rabbi and teacher par excellence.
Born into Europe’s most prominent dynasty of Talmudic scholars, Soloveitchik trained generations of American rabbis as the leading professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University from 1941 until his retirement in 1985.
The holder of a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Berlin, he demonstrated that modern culture and intellectual thought are not incompatible with total observance of halachah, or Jewish law. He thereby enabled Orthodox Judaism to establish at last a secure foothold in America.
In his lectures and writings, he charted out a philosophy of Judaism rooted firmly in halachah, yet as fully aware of the soul’s inner conflicts as any existential philosopher or psychologist.
His career, in the words of one student, was a “constant and determined effort to draw the individual Jew to a life of intellectual adventure and religious excellence.”
Soloveitchik was born Feb. 27, 1903, in Pruzhany, in what is now Belarus. The bulk of his early education was in the Talmud and traditional texts.
But as a child, he studied briefly under a Lubavitcher Hasid, which gave him an appreciation for Hasidic texts rare in his family’s circle of “Lithuanian” Orthodoxy. Later, his mother introduced him to the writings of Ibsen, Pushkin and Bialik.
He was tutored in secular subjects, with his first formal secular education coming at age 22, when he entered the University of Berlin. It was there that he met Tonya Lewitt, whom he married in 1931. She died in 1967.
LESSONS FOR LAYMEN DREW THOUSANDS
In 1932, they emigrated to Boston, where he founded in 1937 the Maimonides School, the first Hebrew day school in New England. It was at the school that his funeral was held on Sunday, with the main hall packed and the crowd overflowing into the classrooms.
In 1941 he succeeded his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik, as professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in Upper Manhattan. He maintained his Boston residence, commuting to Yeshiva University each week until his retirement in 1985, when he became incapacitated by Parkinson’s disease.
He told his rabbinic students that the only way for Orthodoxy to capture the American Jewish community was through the intellect and through ethical propriety.
As a teacher, he kept his students in awe of his wisdom and in fear of his rebuke. When he first came to Yeshiva, students began skipping secular college classes to attend his lectures.
Soloveitchik’s weekly lessons for laymen attracted thousands from all over the New York area, as did his annual Talmudic discourses on the occasion of his father’s yahrzeit.
But citing a family tradition against publishing while still alive, and in keeping with his perfectionist nature, Soloveitchik’s writings were few and far between, with several yet to be translated into English.
The fate of perhaps hundreds of unpublished manuscripts in his possession will presumably be determined by his will. Only in recent years have his works, originally published in small journals, been reprinted.
Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf of a Reform congregation in Chicago wrote of Soloveitchik: “If I am not mistaken, people will still be reading him in a thousand years.”
Soloveitchik identified himself as a Zionist, despite a family tradition that has led some of his cousins to become leaders of Israel’s anti-Zionist Orthodox community.
In 1935, he campaigned for the post of chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, though in 1959 he declined to join Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, not trusting the mixture of religion and politics it entailed.
As titular head of Mizrachi, the religious Zionist movement in America, he gave rabbinic sanction to the Orthodox community’s acceptance of the State of Israel, of the singing of Hatikvah and the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day.
PIONEERED STUDIES FOR WOMEN
For decades, he headed the halachah committee of the Rabbinic Council of America and was essentially its only member. But he was reluctant to assume authority, and his written halachic opinions are few, but significant.
One of them barred ecumenical dialogue with other religions. This position prevented the sending of a Jewish delegation to the Second Vatican Council and even today keeps theology out of the interfaith discussions between Jews and Catholics.
In an essay published at the time, he explained that the “distinctiveness and individuality” of each religious community made theological dialogue impossible.
But his respect for the Jewish community as a whole also led him to permit Orthodox groups to remain within umbrella bodies such as the Synagogue Council of America.
While other Orthodox authorities warned that such bodies would legitimize non-Orthodox Judaism, Soloveitchik felt that to pull out of such bodies would be a divisive move.
Soloveitchik pioneered advanced Jewish studies for women, believing that only study of the sources of halachah could ensure its observance.
When Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women began offering Talmud study two decades ago, he silenced the controversy that arose by delivering the inaugural lecture.
Soloveitchik’s skill as a Talmudist won him the begrudging respect of the more traditionally Orthodox elements, who vehemently opposed the secular education that he accepted.
Through some of his more liberal students, his ideas and vocabulary, such as the description of the Jewish people as “a covenantal community,” have begun to influence the way the non-Orthodox world of Jewish federations and the United Jewish Appeal sees itself.
Of all his traits, his students recall most a fierce piety that led one disciple to say, “I forgot many of his classes, but having had the privilege of spending the Passover seder at his home, I will never forget how he recited Hallel.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.