Lecture #22a: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on the Holocaust (Part 1)

  • Rav Tamir Granot



The Holocaust unquestionably had a considerable effect on the teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. In fact, many believe that he became one of the ideological leaders of the Mizrachi movement because of the influence of the Holocaust on his views. In this lecture, we will examine several aspects of his teachings on the Holocaust and the commonality between them, as well as their relevance to his philosophy as a whole.


A.        Biography


Rabbi Yosef Dov ha-Levi Soloveitchik (1903-1993) was a Talmudic scholar, religious philosopher, and a spiritual leader of American Orthodoxy. In his own eyes, however, he was primarily a "Halakhic Man."




Rabbi Soloveitchik was born in Poland on 12th Adar 5663 (1903). He was the grandson of Rabbi Chaim of Brisk, who studied at the yeshiva of Volozhin and developed the method of Talmudic study known as the "Brisk approach." He was also descended from the Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin – the Netziv. His early years were spent in the town of Choslavitch, which was home to a large Chabad community. During this period, when his schoolteacher had forsaken Gemara study and instructed students instead in the works of Chabad, especially Sefer ha-Tanya, his father began tutoring him privately.


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 Rabbi Soloveitchik had no formal secular education in his youth, but, following in his mother’s footsteps, he read the works of Alexander Pushkin, Chaim Nachman Bialik, and others. Towards the end of his teenage years, he undertook concentrated high-school studies, and at the age of 22 he began his studies at the University of Berlin. He studied mainly philosophy, with special emphasis on neo-Kantianism. He wrote his dissertation on the teachings of Hermann Cohen, and was awarded his doctorate in 1932. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, later the Lubavitcher Rebbe, studied together with him at the university. Rabbi Soloveitchik also spent one year studying at the rabbinical seminary in Berlin, where he was exposed to the "Torah with Derekh Eretz" approach of German Jewry.


Activity as Rabbi and Leader


In 1931, Rabbi Soloveitchik married Dr. Tonya Lewitt, and in 1932 they moved to America. In Boston, they established the Maimonides School, which eventually encompassed grades 1-12.


In 1935, Rabbi Soloveitchik visited Eretz Yisrael, met with Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, and gave a lecture at Yeshivat Merkaz ha-Rav that was attended by the elders of the Volozhin yeshiva and even the students of Yeshivat Chevron. Rabbi Moshe Zvi Neria described that shiur in the following words: "The memory of Volozhin rose up and stood before us in all its splendor and glory… With expansiveness, with confidence, he embarked on his questions on the Gemara, on the Rambam… indeed, the [scion of the] 'Beit ha-Levi' did not disappoint."



  Microgaphic image (by Moshe Shapira)



At the time of this journey, Rabbi Soloveitchik was proposed as a candidate for the position of Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, but Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel, one of the ideologues of Religious Zionism, was ultimately appointed. This was Rabbi Soloveitchik’s sole visit to the country. In 1959, he refused to submit his candidacy for the position of Chief Rabbi of Israel, although his election was assured.


Following the death of his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik, on the 3rd of Shevat, 5701 (1941), Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik replaced him as head of Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan at Yeshiva University, where he taught Gemara for more than forty years. In addition, he was a professor of Jewish Philosophy and became the spiritual leader of American Jewry, many of whose leaders were his students. Rabbi Soloveitchik was aware of the changes that had taken place within Jewish society, and in 1960 he began lecturing in English instead of Yiddish. He was very active in the Rabbinical Council of America, and in 1953 was appointed as head of the body’s Halakhic Committee.


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Rabbi Soloveitchik gradually became the exclusive leader of "modern Orthodoxy," with a huge following and extensive influence. Thousands would attend his annual yahrzeit lecture in memory of his father, which would go on for four or five hours.  Many of these lectures are collected in his two-volume work, Shiurim le-Zekher Abba Mari z”l.


Rabbi Soloveitchik passed away on Erev Shabbat in the middle of Pesach, 18th Nissan 5753 (1993).


Among Rabbi Soloveitchik's works are Ish ha-Halakha (Halakhic Man), U-Vikkashtem mi-Sham (And From There You Shall Seek), and The Lonely Man of Faith, and many of his essays have been compiled in Be-Sod ha-Yachid ve-ha-Yachad and Divrei Hagut ve-Ha’arakha, as well as in other books.  Additionally, nine volumes of his manuscript writings have come out posthumously.


B.        Zionist ideology and the Holocaust


In a lecture presented at a Mizrachi conference, "And Joseph Dreamt a Dream,"[1] Rabbi Soloveitchik describes the conflict between Yosef and his brothers. The brothers represented a conservative approach, while Yosef understood that changes were taking place and that it was necessary to plan and prepare accordingly. Yosef acted with a modern consciousness – he took note of innovation and change and responded positively. In Rabbi Soloveitchik’s view, this position – sensitivity to the changing reality – is what characterizes the Mizrachi movement, and Religious Zionism as a whole, in the modern era.


From a personal perspective, Rabbi Soloveitchik revealed that he comes from the rabbinical tradition that had opposed Zionism, and whose love of Eretz Yisrael had never been garbed in political garments, preferring instead the language of Torah and prayer. Why, then, did he adopt the Zionist position, thereby severing himself from his family tradition? Because, as he testifies, "I feel that Divine Providence ruled like Joseph and against his brothers" (Five Addresses, p. 36). This "ruling" found expression mainly through two historical events:


a.                      the Holocaust fulfilled Herzl's  forecast for Jewish existence in exile and the dangers of anti-Semitism and revealed the error of the ultra-Orthodox leadership; and

b.                      the establishment of the State of Israel, the ultimate purpose of the entire Zionist program, as well as its success, unmistakably testify to God’s approval.


In other words, the Holocaust and the State together demonstrate that Zionism, which addressed the challenges of the new reality and evaluated them correctly, was in accordance with the Divine will.


Rabbi Soloveitchik offers no metaphysics or philosophy of history to support Zionism a priori in its confrontation with ultra-Orthodoxy. On the contrary, he certainly understands the opposition to Zionism – and particularly, as we shall see below, the opposition of halakhic personalities to Zionism. How can Halakha – or “halakhic men” – justify a historic program and national movement whose activity is of an entirely secular nature? What religious value can apply to a Jewish state in which Halakha enjoys no status and which has no religious agenda? We know that Zionism – and particularly Religious Zionism – are right only post facto; in other words, only because the historical events are decisively convincing in that direction. Post facto we understand that the Religious Zionist decision to relate to the change taking place in the world was correct, since Divine Providence ruled in its favor.


It is of great significance that the Zionist path turned out to be correct only by virtue of history’s outcome, which is also God’s will. Indeed, for Rabbi Soloveitchik, assertion of Zionism is not part of the historiosophy of redemption, and he is not certain of the significance of the process. He is certain only concerning one thing: that "God does not perform miracles in vain,"[2] and that God’s will is revealed within historical events.


C.        "Fate" vs. "Destiny" and their relevance to the Holocaust


Rabbi Soloveitchik speaks of two fundamental modes of response to suffering: the experience of "fate" and the experience of "destiny" (Kol Dodi Dofek)[3], or “thematic Halakha” (parallel to fate) vs. “topical Halakha” (paralleling destiny) (Out of the Whirlwind, pp. 95-105). One could also present the options as the metaphysic of suffering (fate) vs. the ethic of suffering (destiny) (ibid.).


Thematic Halakha accepts suffering in a passive, submissive manner, and deals with it by creating metaphysics. This, according to Kol Dodi Dofek, is a response that is related to the experience of fate. Reality, including all of its suffering, is accepted as given, as a fact concerning which nothing can be done. The only response that allows man to maintain his sanity and allows society to organize its beliefs and values is one that brings the suffering within a familiar system of metaphysics. Metaphysics has two main movements in relation to suffering: justification (within the framework of some conception of reward and punishment – i.e., theodicy) or denial (e.g., emphasizing the importance of eternal life, the World to Come, as immeasurably greater than temporal life in this world).  Either way, there is no intention of responding to evil or waging war against it.


Topical Halakha – that is, the response that is connected with the experience of destiny – sees suffering as a challenge and a destiny. First it tries to fight against the suffering – by winning the war, by healing the illness, by fighting poverty, or by capturing criminals. In this approach, one becomes convinced that suffering cannot be abolished, so he asks: what can be done about it? If, for example, it is impossible to heal the patient, perhaps something can be done to make him happier or more comfortable, to take care of his children, etc. Rabbi Soloveitchik views this mode of response – the desirable and proper one, to his mind – as an expression of the approach that typifies Halakha: pragmatism, concreteness, attention to the isolated situation (and even the individual person) with no metaphysical pretensions, and - most importantly – direction of one’s attention to the action that is required, rather than the passive, observing thought.


What, then, is the proper response to the Holocaust? Neither metaphysics nor denial, but rather action. Rabbi Soloveitchik consistently opposes any attempt to explain the Holocaust – both because of his opposition to this approach to suffering in general and because he believed that the Holocaust was an event that cannot truly be understood. In his view, we see only the inverse side of the tapestry that God fashions out of history, full of ugly knots and tears; it looks to us like a creation that is deficient. It is beyond our ability to turn that tapestry around so as to see the right side. We therefore must adopt a response of "destiny" rather than one of "fate": we must act, not explain.


What is the act that is required of us in the wake of the Holocaust? According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, history – along with common sense – point to the Zionist enterprise as the proper manner of response.


From the above it becomes clear that the Zionist response is similar, from the formal perspective, to the halakhic response. Zionism is the decision to wage war against Jewish suffering on the national level, to transform anti-Semitism from fate into a challenge. The lack of faith in Zionism shown by the ultra-Orthodox Jewish leadership arose not only from skepticism as to the movement’s ability to succeed, and not only as a result of the movement's secularism. It arose also from their inability to accept this activist mode of response. Adoption of Zionism is, conceptually, a halakhic conclusion; Halakha does not establish that one must be a Zionist, but acting in accordance with the nature of Halakha requires that one view the Holocaust as a challenge to which one must respond. This is, in fact, the Zionist conclusion that Rabbi Soloveitchik drew from the Holocaust.


To be continued next week.



Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1] Five Addresses (Jerusalem, 1983), p. 11.

[2]      See Berakhot 58a and Penei Yehoshua, Kiddushin 38a.

[3]      The article Kol Dodi Dofek has been translated into English twice, under the titles Fate and Destiny and Listen – My Beloved Knocks.