The Soloveitchik Who Loved Jesus
A Yale president’s forebear was an enigmatic and pro-Christian member of the famed rabbinic dynasty
Peter Salovey’s recent appointment to the presidency of Yale University, founded by Congregationalist ministers, was cause for celebration for those who admire the Soloveitchik dynasty, an illustrious family of rabbis from Lithuania that includes Rabbi Hayyim Soloveitchik of Brisk (1853-1918), one of the most creative and important Jewish sages of modern times, and Rabbi Joseph Dov Ber Soloveitchik (1903-1993), known simply as “the Rav,” the leader of Modern Orthodoxy in America. In a breathless column, a writer for the Yale Daily News reported on the new president’s rabbinic lineage—under which Salovey himself commented, proudly affirming his place in the family tree as he had come to understand it.
But what went unmentioned in the celebratory genealogy is that Salovey’s forgotten forebear, R. Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik, was forgotten for a reason: his love of Jesus Christ. Indeed, Rabbi Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik (aka Elias Soloweyczyk, 1805-1881), the grandson of R. Hayyim of Volozhin, was an enigmatic traditional rabbi who in the middle decades of the 19th century wrote a commentary to parts of the New Testament (Mark and Matthew) and a book, Kol Kore, which argues for the symmetry between Judaism and Christianity and claims that there is nothing in Christianity that is alien to Judaism.
Much of what we know about R. Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik is contained in the work R. Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik: The Man and His Work [Hebrew] (Jerusalem 1995) written by Dov Hyman, a British-born dermatologist who lived for many years in New York before emigrating to Jerusalem in the 1970s. Hyman’s father and grandfather both studied in the yeshiva in Volozhin. After finding R. Elijah Zvi’s work cited in an obscure “messianic” journal he came upon in the library of the Great Synagogue, Hechal Shlomo, in Jerusalem, Hyman collected everything he could find on the man and his work and published it in this book. Because of the delicate nature of the subject he printed only 50 copies and distributed them to scholarly friends, family, and those who helped him in his research. (I was given a copy, and provided information about the author, by my good friend Menachem Butler, through the generosity of one of Dov Hyman’s sons.)
Rabbinic writing about Jesus was very popular in the mid 19th century, especially by liberal and Reform rabbis arguing for Jewish emancipation. What is striking about R. Elijah Zvi’s work is how different it is from that of reformers such as Joseph Salvador in France, Abraham Geiger in Germany, Claude Montefiore in England, and Kaufmann Kohler, Isaac Mayer Wise, and Joseph Krauskopf in America. Many of these rabbis were quite critical of Christianity and focused largely on the historical Jesus to argue that Judaism was the religion of Jesus while Christianity was the religion about him—implying that Christianity and the teachings of Jesus need to be viewed as distinct. In fact, for most of them, their positive appraisal of Jesus was a veiled critique of Christianity.
It wasn’t until Joseph Klausner’s Hebrew Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times, and Teaching was published in 1923 (English translation, 1925) and Martin Buber’s famous declaration of “Jesus as my brother” in Two Types of Faith in 1945 that Jews began to take Christianity (and not just the historical Jesus) seriously in relation to Judaism. But these works too, while sympathetic, were critical of Christianity’s doctrinal commitments.
R. Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik, the traditional rabbi from Lithuania, pre-dates most of these men and is actually more sympathetic to Christian doctrine, even the doctrine of the Trinity, and much more positive about the symbiosis between Judaism and Christianity than almost all of the rabbis mentioned above. He was not primarily interested in the historical Jesus but in Christianity itself. He wrote his work on Judaism and Christianity, Kol Kore, in Hebrew and first published it in French, English, German, and Polish translations before publishing the original Hebrew version in 1879-1880. The English version appeared as The Law, The Talmud, and the Gospel (1868), and he gave it to a Protestant publishing house on the condition they publish it without his name. Obviously written for a Christian as well as a Jewish audience, his work attracted a large readership among Christians, many of whom reprinted his writings and viewed his work as vindicating Christianity from centuries of Jewish polemical critique. He writes in his introduction to his commentary on Matthew that he wrote the book “to show everyone that the New Testament only comes to show that the root of existence is in the unity of God (ahdut ha-Bore) … and also to strengthen the law of Moses (Torat Moshe).” More than that, he continues, “I publish this commentary (to Matthew) in Hebrew for Jews, to introduce them to the New Testament who, until now, have not recognized its beauty (eynam makirim ’et yofya).” It seems he wanted Christians to understand their scripture anew through sympathetic Jewish eyes and to educate his Jewish readers about their misunderstanding of Christianity.
R. Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s interest in Christianity seems to pre-date Kol Kore. In 1846 he published a Hebrew commentary to the philosophical sections of Moses Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Code of Jewish Law), including “Laws on the Foundation of the Torah.” It is well-known that Maimonides is a major figure in the Soloveitchik dynasty. The Brisker Rav uses him as the centerpiece of his analytic method and Talmudic analysis, but R. Elijah Zvi seems to use him for a different purpose entirely. Interestingly, he publishes his commentary to one section of Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Idolatry,” separately. It is here where Maimonides delineates the erosion of the natural state of monotheism to idolatry via a series of unfortunate errors whereby humans mistakenly substitute the glory of God’s creation for autonomous divinities. Could it be that R. Elijah Zvi, this traditional Lithuanian Jew from the Soloveitchik dynasty, wanted to suggest that Maimonides’ description of idolatry as a veil that conceals a true belief in God’s unity is precisely what is presented in Christianity?
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