December 11, 2018

The Complex Polarity of ‘The Last Rabbi’

It’s complicated. How many times have we heard someone say this? Whether with regard to relationships, politics, culture or (perhaps, especially) Jewish identity, it’s a common response when someone is reluctant to discuss something or simply doesn’t have the language with which to articulate it. We sometimes intuit that there are nuances to a subject, but often lack the capacity to confront them directly and flesh them out in a meaningful way.

In “The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition,” author William Kolbrener is not satisfied with Soloveitchik — one of the most important 20th-century American Orthodox rabbis, talmudists and philosophers — as simply the notorious “lonely man of faith” and the complexities of such a persona. Rather, he explores the ways in which Soloveitchik was consistently pulled between his radical and sometimes pluralist philosophy and the more traditional demands of his European predecessors.

Kolbrener calls on literary, philosophical and psychoanalytical means as he explores Soloveitchik’s seemingly divergent tendencies — an impulse that is somewhat uncommon in studies of the great thinker, but refreshing. Especially compelling is Kolbrener’s early disclaimer that his book begins “in disillusionment.” This very first line drew me in, for it acknowledges the degree to which some of the most insightful studies must come from personal, rather than intellectual, engagements with the subject matter.

Soloveitchik died in 1993 at the age of 90. He was born in Poland, into a family of multiple rabbis, including his  father, with whom Soloveitchik studied until he was 23. He later studied in Berlin, where he formed a lifelong friendship with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Chabad-Lubavitch fame.

In 1932, ahead of what would soon become one of the darkest moments in the history of European Jewry, Soloveitchik emigrated to the U.S. and settled in Boston, where he established one of the city’s first Hebrew day schools.

For many, Soloveitchik, the author of numerous books, is the most influential person associated with the spread of Torah in the United States. However, one of his most popular books, “Halakhic Man” (1983), still read widely in the Orthodox world but in many ways rejected as a model for Jewish law by most non-Orthodox communities, reflects the way he was consistently at the crossroads of Orthodox and non-Orthodox worlds. Even Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, while admitting Soloveitchik’s brilliance, criticized the book as depicting a Judaism that is a “cold, logical affair, with no room for piety.”

For the religious right, Soloveitchik was viewed as someone wanting to modernize Judaism, to Americanize it. For those on the religious left, he was seen as someone who was too much in the Old World.

For Kolbrener, he is more than a rabbinic figure to be studied and revered. This book was written over the years spanning critical changes in Kolbrener’s life, including his “turn to Jewish observance and study in yeshiva.” For Kolbrener, this book is about providing Soloveitchik with the status he has rightfully earned as a “figure within the intellectual history of the past century, a religious philosopher of consequence, independent of his rabbinic title” and institutional affiliations.

But such an agenda is not without its provocation, for Kolbrener’s disillusionment comes partly from the realization that Soloveitchik is not the idealized image perpetuated by his most loyal followers. It is this fact, or rupture, that opens up the possibility to see Soloveitchik as more than the “halakhic man” who thinks only of reciting the Shema when he bears witness to a gorgeous morning sunrise.

The idea of rupture is particularly important to Kolbrener’s understanding of both Soloveitchik’s work and the talmudic tradition. Indeed, it has been suggested by various scholars that tensions present in biblical and talmudic texts are necessary ruptures. Such breaks in textual or ideological continuity are, in fact, critical to ensuring an evolving dialogue about the subject or text in question.

The midrashim, for example, exist only because of such ruptures within the Hebrew bible. One might even say that these ruptures in the text — places where ellipses are privileged over densely detailed storytelling and absences are pushed to the forefront — are wounds of a kind. And certainly Soloveitchik was a man of wounds both buried and revealed.

In the introduction, Kolbrener reminds us that Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks once noted that the impact of the Holocaust on Soloveitchik was so enormous that he was consistently “terrified by death and destruction” and that all of his endeavors were focused on “bringing a dead world back to life.” Yet despite this constant terror, this focus on reviving the past in the form of halachah, Soloveitchik was also an “undeniable figure of transition.”

Like many survivors of the Holocaust and other collective tragedies, Soloveitchik stood in the worlds of both the living and the dead, giving him both the luxury and the curse of inhabiting the margins, residing both inside and outside. Kolbrener recounts the young Soloveitchik’s experience of sitting on his bed in the living room where his father, defender of the Rambam, gave daily Torah lectures. Soloveitchik was excluded from the group, but was at the same time part of it since his proximity enabled him to hear voices dissenting from the teaching of Maimonides, with the exception of his father.

As Kolbrener says, Soloveitchik would “remain in that liminal space for the rest of his life, cultivating his ambivalent identity as both insider and outsider to the group that he calls ‘halakhic men.’ ” Moreover, Soloveitchik would later suggest that he felt the presence of the Rambam, sitting there on his bed with him and listening to his father’s words.

Kolbrener calls this story a “contemporary midrash, an updated parallel to the talmudic midrash in which Moses sits in the back of a classroom” while he listens to Rabbi Akiva. Midrashic stories exist further to remind us of an inherent failure in the biblical text, the failure to tell the whole story. And with every failure — every disillusionment — comes also the responsibility to respond and to engage. Ellipses, ever present in the Hebrew bible, become opportunities for ethical response and openings for ongoing dialogue.

Kolbrener, it seems, takes this one step further, engaging the work of Freud and using it as a lens through which to read this “contemporary midrash” that becomes ultimately Soloveitchik’s “rehearsal of … his Talmudic primal scene” in which there is an “identification between his father and Maimonides.” In such a reading, Kolbrener finds that the identities of Soloveitchik, his father and Maimonides are blurred, consequently bringing together past, present and future in the figures of these three men.

Kolbrener’s midrashic reading of this “contemporary midrash” is a perfect example of the importance of midrashic thought to Jewish continuity. And he understands well the value of looking at every text from every angle through multiple lenses to reveal the life it conceals.

Even the structure of “The Last Rabbi” quietly reflects Soloveitchik’s own inner hybridity. Epigraphs from literary, philosophical and psychoanalytical greats such as Shakespeare, Adorno, Wilde, Cavell, Freud, Nietzsche and Kristeva lead chapters. And by the end of the first page of the first chapter, Kolbrener has woven in the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main St.,” and what he calls its own “unlikely midrash of the ‘face to face’ from Exodus, expressing an anxious response to lost presence and an impatience with language as compensation for that loss.”

One recalls the line: “Don’t wanna talk about Jesus, just wanna see his face.” It’s a surprising reference to discover in a book about Soloveitchik, but Kolbrener is right to include it given that it does, as he says, express the “desire to dispense with the trappings of language, the excrescence of the material that detract from — and veil — the unmediated truth.” Indeed, it’s complicated. And so was Soloveitchik. I’m glad for that. 

MONICA OSBORNE is a writer and scholar of Jewish literature and culture. Her book, “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma,” will be published later this year.