Rabbi Soloveitchik

A teacher, writer, and community leader who helped to shape modern Orthodoxy in America.


Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik was the outstanding figure of modern Orthodox Judaism in 20th century America. Yet his precise recipe for synthesizing Orthodoxy and modernity remains a matter of controversy. His brother, Aharon Soloveitchik, among others, argued that the Rav (as Joseph Soloveitchik was known) was a traditionalist Rosh Yeshiva in the Eastern European mold who utilized modern philosophical language purely to enable his words of Torah to reach a wider, more sophisticated audience.Joseph Soloveitchik

On the other hand, figures at the liberal end of modern Orthodoxy–such as Yitz Greenberg and David Hartman–have understood Soloveitchik’s thought as an attempt to explicate Judaism in terms of universal philosophical and religious ideas.

Noteworthy Lineage

Soloveitchik’s biography lends itself to either of these interpretations. He was born in 1903 in Pruzhan, Poland, into an illustrious rabbinical family. From his paternal grandfather, Rabbi Haim Soloveitchik of Brisk (Brest-Litovsk), innovator of the analytical “Brisker” method of Talmud study, he inherited a rigorously intellectual approach to Judaism, uncompromising in its devotion to Torah.

Soloveitchik’s mother, Rebbetzin Pesia, was a Feinstein (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the greatest halakhic authorities of the 20th century, was her first cousin). His mother’s family exposed Soloveitchik to a warmer, more tolerant version of Judaism, no less committed to Torah but open to science and non-Jewish culture. Soloveitchik himself wrote that whereas his father bequeathed to him an intellectual-moral tradition of discipline and authority, his mother exposed him to the living experience of God’s presence.

Soloveitchik’s Jewish learning (acquired not at a yeshiva but through intensive Talmudic studies with his father, Rabbi Moshe) was matched by a systematic secular education. Soloveitchik received his doctorate in 1931 from the University of Berlin.

Soloveitchik chose to write his dissertation on an unlikely topic for an Orthodox Jew: the epistemology and metaphysics of Hermann Cohen, the leading neo-Kantian philosopher of the Marburg school, and later the chief exponent of a decidedly non-Orthodox (and non-halakhic) conception of Judaism as a religious articulation of universal rationalist ethics.

Influential Leader

Upon immigrating to the United States in 1932, Soloveitchik became Chief Rabbi of the Orthodox community of Boston. There he established the Maimonides School, the first Jewish day school in New England and one of the first institutions in which girls studied Talmud.

In 1941 he was appointed the head of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in New York, where he trained an entire generation of Orthodox rabbis. Soloveitchik chaired the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Council of America and served as honorary president of the Religious Zionists of America (Mizrachi).

The tension between modernity and Orthodoxy manifested itself in every area of Soloveitchik’s public life. He staunchly defended the authority of the rabbinate, fought against unwarranted halakhic change (for example, he led the campaign against mixed seating in synagogues), and opposed theological dialogue with Reform and Conservative rabbis and with the Church.

Yet he pioneered Talmudic education for girls, abandoned the Brisker family tradition by supporting Zionism, and advocated cooperation with the non-Orthodox–and even with Christians–in the pursuit of social justice and security for the Jewish people.

Soloveitchik, then, cannot be exclusively categorized as a modern philosopher or a traditionalist rabbi. Yet reconciling these radically different worldviews is a difficult, if not impossible, balancing act. Did either take priority in Soloveitchik’s mind?

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Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.

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