||Letter by R. Joseph Dov (Baer) Soloveitchik (1903–1993), U.S. rabbinic scholar and religious philosopher, preeminent spiritual leader of Modern Orthodoxy in the last half of the 20th century. Scion of a distinguished Lithuanian rabbinical family, R. Soloveitchik was born in Pruzhana, where his maternal grandfather, R. Elijah Feinstein, was the rabbi. R. Soloveitchik spent his formative years in Khaslavichy, Belorussia, where his father R. Moses served as the rabbi from 1913 until after the Communist takeover in 1918. The Khaslavichy community included a large number of Lubavitcher Hasidim. R. Soloveitchik later integrated their lifestyle and theological stance into his own philosophical lectures and publications. Until his family's relocation to Warsaw, Poland, in 1920, R. Soloveitchik devoted himself almost exclusively to the study of the Talmud and the Codes. Under his father's tutelage, he mastered his paternal grandfather's "Brisker Derekh." This method of rabbinic study stressed incisive analysis, exact classifications, critical independence, and emphasis on Maimonides' Mishneh Torah.
In 1931 R. Soloveitchik married Tonya Lewit (1904–1967). Her background was similar to that of her husband, in that she had been raised in eastern Europe (Vilna), and sought higher education in western Europe. She received a doctorate in education from Jena University and was to ably assist her husband in all his endeavors until her death. In 1932 they immigrated to the United States, where R. Moses Soloveichik had been the head of the talmudic faculty of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in New York City, since 1929. A few months after his arrival, the younger Soloveitchik became the rabbi of a segment of the Orthodox Jewish community of Boston. This city was to remain his home until his death.
In 1937 he founded the Maimonides School, the first Jewish day school in the New England area. With the influx of European yeshivah students during the late 1930s, R. Soloveitchik organized the Heikhal Rabbenu Haym ha'Levi and Yeshivath Torath Israel. On May 13, 1941, he succeeded his father as professor of Talmud in New York City at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, which achieved university status in 1945 and became known as Yeshiva University. RIETS, or the Yeshiva, as it was popularly known, was an integral subdivision of the school. R. Soloveitchik also lectured at the university's Bernard Revel Graduate School, where he served as professor of Jewish philosophy. He was to continue his weekly Talmud lectures at the school until illness forced his retirement in 1985. R. Soloveitchik gradually became the dominant spiritual personality on the Yeshiva University scene. He was popularly designated "The Rav" or the rabbi par excellence. In this setting he remained the quintessential rosh yeshivah, and his lectures were in the classic Brisk tradition.
R. Soloveitchik was originally a devotee of Agudath Israel and served as the chairman of the national executive committee of its American branch. He also was a member of its initial Council of Torah Sages, which was constituted in 1941. As the tragedy of European Jewry became known, the Rav became an advocate of the Mizrachi movement. Following World War II, he became the honorary president of Mizrachi, which was later renamed the Religious Zionists of America. In 1935, R. Soloveitchik journeyed to Palestine, in what was his only visit to the Holy Land, where he was a candidate for the post of Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Tel Aviv. He was not selected. In 1959, R. Soloveitchik declined to be a candidate to succeed Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog. At the time, the Rav's election was assured since he enjoyed a wide spectrum of support.
R. Soloveitchik represented the entire Jewish community as a member of the advisory committee on humane slaughter of the United States Department of Agriculture, established 1958. R. Soloveitchik also was the principal Jewish representative in Yeshiva University's Institute of Mental Health Project, undertaken in 1960, in conjunction with Harvard and Loyola Universities. Its goal was to study religious attitudes toward psychological problems. The lectures delivered to these groups later served as the basis for a portion of his published philosophical writings, particularly "The Lonely Man of Faith." R. Soloveitchik conducted weekly classes at Congregation Moriya on the upper west side of Manhattan. He also taught in Boston and every Saturday night gave a public lecture on the Torah portion at the Maimonides School. Sunday mornings he conducted a Talmud class under the auspices of the Hevra Shas of Boston. In addition, there were the Rav's annual Teshuvah lectures, delivered under the aegis of the Rabbinical Council of America. There were also a large number of discourses delivered before the Rabbinical Council and the Yeshiva University Rabbinical Alumni. The high point of every annual convention and midwinter conference was generally the Rav's lecture. At these venues, the themes varied and stressed halakhic, philosophical, theological, homiletical, and aggadic insights.
R. Soloveitchik was regarded by the Jewish world as the unchallenged leader of what has been designated as Modern Orthodoxy. Although never totally at home in the world of American Modern Orthodoxy, it was in this universe that the Rav's leadership was widely accepted. While R. Soloveitchik's brilliant scholarship was acknowledged in all Torah circles, his influence on the masses was through his disciples and the rabbis who followed his teachings. In addition, his public lectures and discourses enabled a wider audience to be inspired by his instruction. As a talmudic and halakhic expositor, the Rav possessed unusual dexterity in exploring difficult technical concepts. He was a remarkable orator in his native Yiddish, and an effective speaker in English and Hebrew. The annual halakhic and aggadic discourse which the Rav delivered at Yeshiva University, on the anniversary of his father's death, attracted thousands of listeners. These Yahrzeit derashot lasted from four to five consecutive hours. They were regarded as the major yearly academic event for American Orthodoxy.
R. Soloveitchik has remained the dominant spiritual leader for the Modern Orthodox world in the years since his death. No single rabbinical figure has emerged to inherit the Rav's mantle of leadership. Often many divergent and even contradictory viewpoints were ascribed to the Rav by his numerous disciples. Few perceived the totality of the Rav's spiritual gestalt. His lack of synthesis and the harmonious coexistence of numerous disciplines and quests that characterized his outlook added to the quandary.