The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition, by William Kolbrener

A study offers a new perspective on one of the most important yet elusive Jewish thinkers of the past century

November 10, 2016
Joseph Soloveitchik
Enigmatic figure: William Kolbrener arrives at a portrait of Joseph Soloveitchik as an irreconcilably torn theologian

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-93) has long been considered the spiritual and intellectual leader of American Modern Orthodoxy in the 20th century. His extensive command of the Talmud, Jewish codes and Jewish philosophy, coupled with a doctorate from the University of Berlin (now Humboldt University of Berlin), made him the natural figurehead of a movement that identifies with the currents of both modernity and tradition. Soloveitchik’s concurrent loyalty to Jewish orthodoxy on the one hand, and rigorous modern philosophic thinking on the other, has spurred much debate regarding where his “true” allegiances lay.

While the vast majority of scholarship on Soloveitchik critiques or defends inconsistencies in his various works, or focuses on the neo-Kantian strand within his thought, The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition provides a refreshingly new and different understanding of this enigmatic figure. William Kolbrener blends psychobiography with textual analysis and, using the lens of psychoanalysis and gender, arrives at a portrait of Soloveitchik as an irreconcilably torn theologian. In much of his work, Soloveitchik valorises the “halakhic man” who relies exclusively on reason and champions advanced Talmudic study as a religious ideal. However, in other works, he describes religion as necessarily fraught with turmoil and uncertainty. Kolbrener understands this dual nature of Soloveitchik’s work to be a product of a tension Soloveitchik faced his entire life, which was his psychological need to choose between his father and his mother.

The Last Rabbi focuses on an anecdote Soloveitchik shares in And From There You Shall Seek, an essay written in the 1940s and published in 1978. As a child, Soloveitchik bore witness to his father’s ardent attempts to defend Maimonides’ positions on various legal matters to his students. At times, his father managed to successfully explain Maimonides, but at other times he failed. Excited at his father’s victory or saddened by his failure, Soloveitchik would run to his mother to share the news. Kolbrener points out that Soloveitchik describes his father using classically masculine terms: he is uncompromisingly rational, “bold, brave, and triumphant”, and “aggressive” in his “interpretive mastery”. According to Kolbrener, Soloveitchik cannot fully accept his father’s masculinity and for this reason he runs into the arms of his consoling mother who provides an outlet for his emotive self. It is with his mother that he finds “sympathy in the presence of the feminine”. The imagery of Soloveitchik running back and forth between his father and mother, according to Kolbrener, reverberates throughout his theological teachings.

Kolbrener describes Soloveitchik as a “melancholic modern” owing to the fact that he cannot fully embrace his father’s heritage and, to this end, Kolbrener reads The Lonely Man of Faith, one of Soloveitchik’s most celebrated works, as a confessional diary. Because Soloveitchik promotes religious femininity, he feels estranged from his father and from the traditionalism that he represents. Soloveitchik’s proclamation that “I am lonely”, as Kolbrener puts it, is really an admission that “I am not my father.”

Kolbrener invokes an array of thinkers ranging from Hans-Georg Gadamer to Jacques Lacan to buttress this reading. Although much of Kolbrener’s foray into Soloveitchik’s psyche is speculative, it does provide an innovative and fascinating new perspective on one of the most important, yet elusive, Jewish thinkers of the past century. For those interested in Jewish thought, this is certainly a thought-provoking read.

Zalman Rothschild is Julius-Rabinowitz fellow at the Julius-Rabinowitz Program in Jewish and Israeli Law, Harvard Law School.

The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition
By William Kolbrener 
Indiana University Press, 246pp, £38.00
ISBN 9780253022240 and 2325 (e-book) 
Published 19 September 2016

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