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Obituary: Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik

Hyam Maccoby
Wednesday 14 April 1993 23:02 BST

Joseph Soloveitchik, rabbi, philosopher: born Pruzhen, Poland 1903; married 1931 Tanya Lewit (died 1967; one son, two daughters); died Brookline, Massachusetts 8 April 1993.

THE INFLUENCE of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik was profound not only on the Orthodox Jewish community, of which he was a leader, but also on almost all other sectors of Judaism. His philosophy of halakhah (Jewish law) gave a new phenomenological depth to the age-old Jewish preoccupation with religious law.

Soloveitchik was a member of a celebrated family which had played a central role in Lithuanian Orthodoxy. His grandfather was Hayyim Soloveitchik (1853-1918), of Brisk (Brest-Litovsk), who founded the 'Brisker' method of Talmudic study. Joseph Dov Soloveitchik learnt this method of study through personal tuition from his father, Moses. Though not a strictly philosophical discipline, it was an excellent training for a philosopher of law, for it taught him to search continually for the principles underlying legal distinctions.

Soloveitchik was born in Pruzhen, Poland, but spent his early years in Hasloviz, Belorussia, where his father was rabbi. He was also given an excellent secular education at the hands of tutors, and at the age of 22 he entered the University of Berlin, where he studied philosophy. The combination of Jewish learning with secular culture was characteristic of the family tradition, and formed an important ideal in his mature philosophy. Solveitchik was attracted to the Neo-Kantian school of philosophy, especially as expounded by the Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen, whose views on epistemology and metaphysics he made the subject of his doctorate thesis in 1931. Also in 1931, he married Tanya Lewit, herself a graduate and doctor of Jena University. She was his able partner and adviser until her death in 1967.

In 1932, Soloveitchik emigrated with his wife to the United States, where he settled in Boston as rabbi of the Orthodox Jewish community. In 1941, he became Professor of Talmud at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University, in New York, succeeding his father in this post. He also acted as Professor of Jewish Philosophy at the same university's Bernard Revel Graduate School.

At Yeshiva University, Soloveitchik exercised great influence over many generations of American Orthodox rabbis, and was regarded as the leader of those who wished to follow the Orthodox path without withdrawing from the modern world.

Soloveitchik, indeed, was active in Jewish-gentile relations. He took a prominent role in the project initiated by the Yeshiva University Institute of Mental Health to explore, together with Harvard and Loyola Universities, the contribution of religion to psychological problems. This inter-religious project was typical of Soloveitchik's approach. He approved of co-operation between religious communities on a practical level, but strongly disapproved of any attempts at mutual theological examination. He considered each religion's revelational experience to be unique and impenetrable by those of a different faith. This attitude has been followed by most other Orthodox leaders. It severely limits ecumenical activity, and rules out, for example, inquiry by Jews into the responsibility of Christian doctrine for anti-Semitism.

Soloveitchik was a highly gifted speaker, both in English and Yiddish, and his lectures and public discourse became legendary. He had the ability to combine lucid exposition of complex legal topics with philosophical insights of a startling and original kind. Every year, on the anniversary of his father's death, he would give a discourse at Yeshiva University which was attended by thousands, and was regarded as the principal academic event of the Orthodox year. He was regarded with love and veneration, and was known popularly simply as 'the Rav'. Yet he had none of the personal charisma associated for example, with Hasidic rabbis, relying instead on the power of ideas and the play of intellect, in the self-effacing tradition of Lithuanian Talmudism.

Following his family's tradition, Soloveitchik published little. His few writings, however, have been read with avidity and much discussed and commented on. In his Halakhic Man (first published in Hebrew in 1944; English translation, 1983), he gave an existentialist picture of man's predicament - nurturing ambitions of 'majesty' in the face of extinction and the slavery of 'habit' - and argued that the halakhah, while in one way exacting submission, liberated human energies to fashion a meaningful life of action.

In his book Qol dodi dofeg (1969, 'The Sound of My Beloved Knocking', see Song of Songs v,2), he explored the implications of the Holocaust and the State of Israel. He was a keen religious Zionist, but regarded the advent of Israel as an Exodus which must be followed by another manifestation of Sinai.

Joseph Dov Soloveitchik will be chiefly remembered for his powerful answer to the charge of Kant and others that Judaism is subservience to law, and stifles human freedom and responsibility. In contrast Soloveitchik presents Judaism as a continual communal process of legislation in which humanity can work out its future through an ever-renewed programme of action.

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