Commentary

Thriller

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William Kolbrener

Joseph Soloveitchik arrives in Boston at the end of 1932. The Great Depression is in full swing; FDR will soon be President; Fritz Lang’s ‘M’ had recently been released; Hitler will come to power in a month. In that year, two other great Jews of the century—Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud—begin a hopeful correspondence about possibilities for world peace, Freud from Vienna (where he had just written his New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis), and Einstein from his new home in the United States.

Freud and Einstein together create the new century—it is Soloveitchik, however, who creates a Judaism for the New World. In the articles that appear at the end of 1932 in non-Jewish publications, the European rabbi—just off the boat—describes an innovative Jewish pedagogy for America. In the Boston Herald, he is quoted as proclaiming that science and religion are not in conflict (an argument he will make most fully in Halakhic Mind); in the Boston Sunday Advertiser, he affirms that, as in Christianity, religious and secular studies can exist side by side (his published work of a lifetime is a testament to this). While the Herald provides details of the circumstances of the Soloveitchik family’s escape from Russia, the longer piece, for which Soloveitchik himself has the byline, articulates a vision of Jewish education for a modern world.

Soloveitchik’s penchant for self-narration in his published works—whether in the early description of the scene in his grandfather’s living room in Pruzhna in And From There Shall You Seek or his self-constructions in his later works as ‘lonely man,’ already shows itself in these brief articles.

The unnamed author of the Herald article, obviously taken by Soloveitchik’s narration of his past, describes ‘the flight and persecution’ of the family, not sparing details of ‘soldiers,’ ‘bandits,’ and ‘soviet commissars,’ as well as ‘travels on horrible roads’ through ‘quagmires of mud.’ The escape from ‘Jewish persecution that followed the war,’ the author writes, following Soloveitchik’s account, ‘would furnish material for the most exciting sort of an adventure story or a motion picture “thriller.”’ Soloveitchik would certainly not himself have seen ‘Rome Express’ or ‘The Most Dangerous Game,’ films released in the fall of 1932, but he borrows the language of that genre, as he relates his family’s escape: ‘it would take the pen of the most gifted descriptive writer,’ he offers, ‘to picture the hardships…endured.’ That escape from the Old World of persecution—a real-life version of the ‘Most Dangerous Game,’ ends in Roxbury, Massachusetts with the two PhDs, he and his wife, finding safety in the New World.

In the Advertiser article, the narrative told—this time in Soloveitchik’s own voice—parallels that of the Herald, though not describing the actual physical progress from Old World to New, but a historical narrative along a similar arc. Soloveitchik’s inclination towards typological figures can be seen inchoately here: there is ‘our old Jew’ for whom the Torah demanded all his ‘time and attention,’ and which, as a result of his engagement, would ‘envelop his very soul.’ But like the later ‘halakhic man,’ this figure is a relic—surely to be revered—not, however, keeping up with the times, or the demands of the new ‘thinking Jew.’

Although Soloveitchik first affirms that neither of the educational cultures represented by these two figures need come into ‘conflict,’ he concludes by saying that the educational pedagogy of the ‘Cheder’ will have to transform to accommodate the new American reality. Struggling against the ‘stream’ of history—the one that leads from Old to New World, the path from pogrom to ‘thriller’ escape—is, Soloveitchik writes, ‘fruitless.’

A month before the publication of two articles, Soloveitchik was given an official welcome to the United States in the traditionalist journal, Ha-Pardes. Here, Soloveitchik appears in the garb of the European rabbi, the young ‘genius,’ not presented as one flowing in the ‘stream of the times’ towards the future, but rather a product of, indeed still immersed in, a European past. When his father sends a notebook of Soloveitchik’s hiddushim to his grandfather, Rabbi Hayyim, the Ha-Pardes article recounts, the latter leapt from his sickbed with joy and ran through Minsk to show the notebook to his father-in-law, the Volozhin Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Raphael Shapira, exclaiming that their progeny, even before his bar mitzvah, was already providing hiddushim befitting an older scholar.

In similarly hyperbolic fashion, the 29 year-old Soloveitchik is praised for his mastery of Talmud, Rambam, and Halakhah. By the time Soloveitchik entered the University of Berlin, he was already ‘gadol ha-dor,’ and earned his PhD with, the article observes, little time or effort taken away from his more serious Talmudic studies.

Perhaps unsurprisingly—given this account, and the Soloveitchik family provenance—there were many Boston contemporaries who felt that the young “Old World” rabbi would be ‘transforming Boston Jewry into an Eastern European ghetto.’ In retrospect, it is easy to see that Soloveitchik knew how to play the role of both innovator and conservator. Perhaps the Ha-Pardes author already sensed Soloveitchik was not a conventional bearer of his family name, with the heaped-praise an attempt to will the young rabbi to adopt the persona that traditionalists wanted.

Soloveitchik may have imagined his negotiation between this traditional Boston community—the cohort of ‘old Jews’—and modern innovators as another dangerous game. Soloveitchik’s perspective in 1932 shows the older Jew and his culture to be on the defensive: the ‘secular world’ had already begun ‘to break through’ orthodoxy, with the resulting ‘collision’ demanding that the older Jewish pedagogy must change, indeed ‘suffer.’ Though there is a fantasy of ‘a harmonious blending,’ it is the secular culture that is making ‘great strides,’ creating a ‘necessity’ for ‘combining the study of Jewish religion with modern subjects.’

To this, Soloveitchik’s answer is that ‘our Jews must, instead try to coincide’—a cryptic misuse (or mistranslation) of the verb, later repeated: ‘I have seen Jews try to coincide these two different cultures.’ Indeed, in the course of the brief articles, multiple metaphors are employed to describe the possible relationship between the competing cultures: blending, combining, coinciding, conflicting—suggesting that Soloveitchik himself had not yet fully worked out the relationship between Jewish and Western traditions (though he arguably did the latter more in practice than any explicit proclamations).

For Soloveitchik, the future of education for American Jews emerges from between the two types. The ‘old Jew’ (who may remain as an ideal) and ‘the thinking Jew’ (who believes Jewish culture is comprised of the likes of Bialik or Sholom Aleichem alone) require a third type to resolve the opposition between them. For the former remains behind the ‘stream’ of the times, while the latter is left with only a desiccated ‘mechanical’ spirituality. The third type, not yet, in 1932, fully defined, will resolve the question: ‘What is Judaism?’ for the twentieth century. At this early age, Soloveitchik is not sure how the ‘Chinese Wall’ (another recent American idiom, a product of the 1929 crash) between modernity and tradition will be ‘penetrated.’ But no matter how forward-looking he may appear, Soloveitchik remains certain that the only way to ‘penetrate into the inner soul of man’ is through the study of Talmud and Jewish Law.

Freud and Einstein transformed the twentieth century (with, of course, Hitler, who their correspondence in some ways anticipates). Soloveitchik, influenced by those other two great Jews (the former acknowledged, the latter not) is a different kind of innovator, a ‘moral and spiritual and leader’ of the kind Einstein describes, creating a Judaism for modernity—one sees the genesis of this in the two articles—by creating the conditions for bringing the Judaism of the Old World into the New.

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William Kolbrener

William Kolbrener is Professor of English Literature at Bar Ilan University, author of Milton’s Warring Angels (Cambridge 1996), and Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love (Continuum 2011); his The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition was recently published by Indiana University