2. His Life and Thought, Part 1

  • Rav Reuven Ziegler

Special Holiday Shiur
Yeshivat Har Etzion


by Rav Ronnie Ziegler

LECTURE #1: His Life and Thought, Part 1


Often, especially in the yeshiva world, we study a thinker's ideas without reference to his biography or even to the historical context in which he lived and wrote. I think this is inadvisable with regard to Rav Soloveitchik zt"l for several reasons. Firstly, his philosophy revolves around human experience and, naturally, the experience he is most familiar with is his own. According to Rav Soloveitchik, the Halakha places God at the center of man's existence and demands unqualified commitment to Him; nevertheless, it focuses its attention on man and his problems. This is what he means when he calls the Halakha "theocentric but anthropo-oriented." The same characterization can be made of Rav Soloveitchik's philosophy as a whole.


This orientation is expressed in many ways. Unlike medieval philosophers who, for example, explain that evil does not exist from God's perspective, Rav Soloveitchik treats evil as an undeniable human experience. He is not interested in describing the attributes of God, but rather man's relationship with God; not the effects of Torah study on the supernal metaphysical realm, but rather its influence on the human personality. Since he examines issues from the human perspective, beginning with his own, an understanding of his life is quite pertinent to an investigation of his thought.


In fact, Rav Soloveitchik's writings are often explicitly autobiographical; they frequently veer from philosophic or halakhic analysis into intimate and touching personal confession. We are almost embarrassed (but fascinated) to be reading something so private. Such passages are quite rare among the writings of Gedolei Yisrael, especially when they appear in articles meant for publication. In later lectures, we will enumerate several reasons for the inclusion of such passages. At this point, it is important to note merely that the subjectivity of many of his writings does not detract from their relevance, brilliance, or originality; rather, it often enhances them, charging his writing with a power that it would have lacked had it been more detached and objective.


Another reason to study his biography is that, as a communal leader, the Rav addressed current events and the contemporary social and religious scene. [Note: Rav Soloveitchik's students often referred to him respectfully as "the Rav," the master, the teacher par excellence; we will adopt this usage.] As we will see, he was an astute observer of societal trends, and a sharp critic of contemporary religiosity in general and of the religious stance of many members of American Modern Orthodoxy in particular. Since he lived such a short time ago, his observations are still quite pertinent.


An understanding of the Rav's predecessors, both in terms of his family tree and of the sources (Jewish and general) he drew from, can help us appreciate his intellectual and emotional background. This is especially important regarding his self-perception as heir to the Brisker tradition (to be discussed below), which was central to his self-definition.


Additionally, it has been claimed that insight into the Rav's life can help us understand the seemingly different tones of his early and late essays, and may help us understand why he addressed certain issues and not others. We will test the merits of this thesis.


Finally, it is important for us to know about the Rav's life because, beyond his masterful and creative halakhic scholarship and philosophic thought, it is the image of the Rav himself, heroic and yet human, which so captivates us.




Rav Joseph Baer (Yosef Dov) Halevi Soloveitchik (1903-1993) was born in Pruzhan, Poland. Named after his great-grandfather, the "Beit Halevi," who had headed the Volozhin Yeshiva (the "mother of yeshivot"), he counted among his forebears almost all of the most prominent scholars of Lithuania - Rav Chayyim of Volozhin, the Netziv, etc. His father, Rav Mosheh (1876-1941), was the son of the illustrious Rav Chayyim Soloveitchik of Brisk (1853-1918), founder of the "Brisker" method of Talmud study. His mother, Rebbitzen Pesia (1880-1967), was the daughter of Rav Eliyahu Feinstein of Pruzhan (1842-1929), a prominent scholar and disputant of Rav Chayyim on many matters of public policy. [The great halakhic decisor of our generation, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt"l, was the Rav's first cousin once removed. Interestingly, he was not related by blood to Rav Eliyahu Feinstein; Rav Moshe Feinstein's father and Rav Eliyahu Feinstein were married to two sisters. In fact, Rav Eliyahu was a Levi and Rav Moshe was a Yisrael.]


In many ways, the Soloveitchiks and the Feinsteins were a study in contrasts. The Soloveitchik family was known for its rigorous intellectualism, self-discipline and ideological extremism. (Rav Soloveitchik takes pains to modify or to round out this portrait in some of his writings, such as "Halakhic Man" and "Be-seter U-vegalui.") Although the Soloveitchiks were also renowned for their extreme acts of kindness, they were known primarily for their refusal to compromise, their almost single-minded devotion to Torah study, and their unyielding opposition to secular studies and to Zionism. The Feinsteins, on the other hand, although no less committed to Torah study, were known for their warmth, openness and tolerance; their home was host to Jews of all kinds and their children were encouraged to study languages, literature and science.


The Rav was thus exposed to two very different influences within his home. Although in his writings the Rav repeatedly stresses his Soloveitchik heritage, we must bear in mind that he was a Feinstein as well. While cognizant of the different temperaments and backgrounds of his parents, he did not attribute these differences to their upbringings so much as to a general difference between what Mishlei (1:8) labels as "mussar avikha" and "torat imekha" (the instruction of your father and the teaching of your mother):


"We have two massorot, two traditions ... Father teaches the son the discipline of thought as well as the discipline of action. Father's tradition is an intellectual-moral one... What kind of a Torah does the mother pass on? ...Most of all I learned from [my mother] that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience. She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to the mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life - to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive." ("A Tribute to the Rebbitzen of Talne," Tradition 17:2 [Spring 1978], pp. 76-77)


As this passage reveals, the Rav placed great emphasis on both the intellectual and experiential aspects of Judaism; in fact, it is the fusion of thought, action and emotion in his philosophy which endows it with much of its considerable potency.




The Rav was raised mainly in Khoslavitch, Belorussia, a town which, though populated primarily by Chabad (Lubavitch) chassidim, nevertheless employed a "Lithuanian" rabbi. When his mother detected that in cheder he was being taught far more Tanya than Talmud, she complained about this to her husband and later to her father-in-law, who recommended that Rav Mosheh assume personal responsibility for his son's education. (Incidentally, the Rav maintained a lifelong fondness for the writings of Chabad, based on this early exposure.) The following formative period in the Rav's development is described by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (Rav Soloveitchik's son-in-law) as follows:


"During the next twelve years, young Soloveitchik dedicated himself almost exclusively to the study ofJewish law. Under Rav Mos's tutelage he was trained in the 'Brisker' method with its insistence on incisive analysis, exact definition, precise classification and critical independence. Gradually, the acute dialectic of Halakhic logic - so rigorous and yet so subtle; so flexible and still so firm - became second nature, and Soloveitchik emerged from this period thoroughly imbued with the religious and intellectual discipline of the Halakha." ("R. Joseph Soloveitchik," in S. Noveck, ed., Great Jewish Thinkers of the Twentieth Century [NY, 1963], p. 283)


(Some of the fruits of these years of joint study were published several years ago under the title "Chiddushei Ha-Gram ve-haGrid al Inyanei Kodshim," with the impression of more volumes to follow.)


Although we will examine the Brisker method at greater length when studying "Ma Dodekh Mi-dod," the Rav's eulogy for his uncle Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik (1888-1959), it is worth noting at this point the characteristics pinpointed by Rav Lichtenstein above. The Brisker method innovated by Rav Chayyim Soloveitchik quickly conquered most Mitnagged yeshivot. Although it had intellectual precursors (such as the 18th-century Ketzot Ha-choshen and the 19th-century Minchat Chinukh) and often presented itself as merely uncovering the logic of the Rishonim (medieval commentators), it was widely viewed as having wrought a revolution in Talmud study, which the Rav himself compared to the Newtonian revolution in physics. Its denigrators referred to it as "chemistry," due to its penchant for breaking down concepts into their component parts and its transformation of Halakha from a series of dicta into an abstract system of interlocking legal concepts.


At the heart of the Brisker enterprise is the attempt to understand all the possible conceptual approaches to a Talmudic issue, rather than adopting one position and trying to defend it against attack. In "lomdish" parlance, this can be described as "trying to answer a difficult Rambam without making the Ra'avad look like an am ha-aretz (ignoramus)." Classic Brisker learning usually identifies two basic approaches to an issue (with numerous hybrid or median opinions possible), both of which are necessary to understand an issue in its entirety. The distinction between these two approaches is referred to as a "chakira." The power of this analytic methodology is nicely described by Rav Jonathan Sacks (Tradition in an Untraditional Age [London, 1990], p. 39): "[By] drawing out the conceptual presuppositions of the Halakha, apparently unrelated arguments could be seen as instances of an overall pattern of disagreement. As a hermeneutic tool, it was a powerful method of extracting universal themes from a literature which had hitherto seemed utterly concrete and case-specific." While this pluralistic approach may not be very conducive to reaching practical conclusions, it does sensitize one to the complexity of issues, the legitimacy of different approaches, and the frequent need to maintain opposing concepts in dialectical tension or balance.


The Rav's early immersion in "Brisker lomdus" affected not only his Talmud study, but his entire method of thought. All of his philosophical essays revolve around dialectical pairs of ideas: cognitive man vs. religious man, Adam I vs. Adam II, majesty vs. humility, the natural religious consciousness vs. the revelatory religious consciousness, etc. These dialectical pairs can be viewed as the sides of a chakira, both of which are legitimate and necessary, and both of which are required for a proper understanding of an issue in its entirety. The Rav extended this method even into the reading of biblical texts, most notably in his reading of the two accounts of the creation of man. He was not afraid of a contradiction, and in fact believed that the whole truth can be attained only through the dialectical interplay between conflicting approaches. Among the hallmarks of his thought are its complexity and honesty, and its eschewing of simplistic solutions to complicated problems.


The emphasis in his philosophical writings on a phenomenological approach, on the study of pure ideal types, derives from Brisker lomdus no less than from German idealistic philosophy. Furthermore, while (as noted above) Brisk transformed Halakhic dicta into an abstract system of legal concepts, the Rav took this approach a step further and derived philosophic concepts from the sources of Halakha. Finally, the critical independence of the Brisker approach played no small role in fostering the Rav's independence of thought and fearlessness of expression.


Apart from mastery of the Brisker method and of large sections of the Talmud, this period was crucial to the Rav's life because it cemented his bond with his father and gave rise to his conception of the ideal rebbe-talmid (teacher-student) relationship. The Rav's relationship with his father was one of the two most central relationships in his life, the other being that with his wife; three of his major published philosophical works carry dedications, one to his father and two to his wife. He keeps referring back to these relationships in many of his essays. In fact, the essays "Halakhic Man" and "Be-seter U-vegalui" can both be read as eulogies for his father (as we will explore in later lectures).


Surprising as it may seem to some today, the Rav never attended a yeshiva and his only rebbe was his father. The identification of father with teacher was crucial for the Rav; not only is a father supposed to be a teacher, but a teacher must be a father as well. Just as his father inducted him into the chain of Brisk, so must every teacher induct his student into the chain of the Massora (tradition). Teaching, for the Rav, is not just a meeting of minds