The Soloveitchik Who Loved Jesus
A Yale president’s forebear was an enigmatic and pro-Christian member of the famed rabbinic dynasty
Understood this way, Christianity becomes a mirror of Judaism. In fact, R. Elijah Zvi says as much in his introduction to the English translation of Kol Kore, The Law, the Talmud, and the Gospel. “But our object is not to comment. … We desire to institute an inquiry into the causes of an existing misunderstanding. For since the fire of dispute has been kindled in the camp of our Hebrew brethren, it has divided the worshippers of God into two sections, the one Jews, and the other Christians.” R. Elijah Zvi continues in Kol Kore to cite Maimonides’ Thirteen Principals of Faith, widely considered to be the doctrinal framework of Judaism, and then proceeds to explain how each one of Maimonides’ principles is upheld by Christianity, juxtaposing Torah and New Testament verses to support one another. In one footnote in the English translation he deals with the doctrine of the Trinity as follows: “As to the doctrine of the Trinity to which the modern Jew so much objects (which was a doctrine really held by many of the most learned of the Rabbis) it is a very sublime thing, more extended than the circumference of the earth, and more expanded than the sea, and has many sublime principles depending on it, and truly does the Apostle say: ‘Great is the mystery of Godliness’; for not everyone can fathom the depth of that mystery.” The ostensible division of the Holy Trinity as a compromise to true monotheism is, for R. Elijah Zvi, as well as many for Christians such as Thomas Aquinas, simply an error of interpretation.
Lest one think Kol Kore was the product of some obscure and marginal figure, in the renowned Jewish bibliographer Moritz Steinschneider’s (1816-1907) personal copy of Kol Kore there is a page with a commendation of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), the founder of neo-Orthodoxy in Germany. Yet one may still understandably question why this traditional Jew from a rabbinic dynasty would engage in this kind of scholarship. There were many like him who converted to Christianity and wrote similarly. One example would be Immanuel Frommann (d. 1735), who wrote a kabbalistic commentary to the Gospel of Luke examined in a recent essay by Elliot Wolfson. But as far as we know, R. Elijah Zvi remained a devout Jew. While in Paris in 1870 he explained that he believed that the New Testament had been misunderstood and that he had achieved the correct understanding. He thus wanted to illustrate to the church that since there are no contradictions between the Christianity and Torah, Christian anti-Semitism should cease. In addition, he hoped his work would correct the negative appraisal Jews had of New Testament, which is why he published it in the original Hebrew after various translations already appeared in print. In retrospect we can surely see the naiveté of this observation, but in its time—that is, in the decades preceding and following emancipation—it was not such an unrealistic hope.
Finally, it is also worth noting that the more well-known Soloveitchik, R. Joseph Dov Ber (the Rav), published an influential essay titled “Confrontation” in 1964 where, in response to the Second Vatican Council, he attempted to significantly limit ecumenical discourse between Jews and Christians. In his essay he argued, “[T]he confrontation should not occur at a theological, but at a mundane level,” claiming that the “great encounter between God and man is a wholly personal affair incomprehensible to the outsider—even to a brother of the same faith community.” While the underlying reason for the Rav’s counseling against serious ecumenism is matter of scholarly debate, it is interesting that his position stands in complete opposition to that of his cousin R. Elijah Zvi.
Another Soloveitchik, R. Meir Soloveichik (b. 1977), great nephew of R. Joseph Ber, just completed a dissertation at Princeton on the Orthodox theologian Michael Wyschogrod’s work on divine election that also deals extensively with Christianity and its relationship to Judaism. R. Meir Soloveichik’s position on Christianity is aptly expressed in his essay “No Friend of Jesus” that appeared in First Things in 2008, largely a review of Jacob Neusner’s A Rabbi Talks to Jesus. Very much in line with his great-uncle, perhaps even more dismissive of the possibility of substantive theological dialogue, R. Meir Soloveichik’s position exhibits a sentiment that is worlds away from R. Elijah Zvi—both in substance and in tone. Neusner argues that even as he rejects the basic premises of Jesus as divine he can still engage with Christianity “with great respect and reverence.” Soloveichik counters that since Jesus presents himself as God (an idea that is hotly contested among New Testament scholars) there is nothing more to be said, and “respect and reverence” is simply a “polite hedge” (citing C.S. Lewis) that by definition undermines Judaism’s basic foundation. The most that believing Jews and Christians can do is present a united front to battle the nasty secularists or progressive religionists because it is only the traditionalists, Soloveichik suggests, who still believe in “truth.” Given such a position it is surprising, or perhaps not so surprising, that R. Meir Soloveichik was honored with giving the benediction at the 2012 Republican National Convention.
I have no idea whether either of these modern-day members of an illustrious rabbinical dynasty knew of their lost forebear’s work on Christianity and the New Testament, but it is surely the case that Orthodoxy has not taken the path suggested by R. Elijah Zvi. But it seems that there is more than one approach to Christianity among the Soloveitchiks. This is all to say that while Peter Salovey’s rise to the presidency of Yale University may indeed be cause for celebration for those who have a connection to the Soloveitchik dynasty, the Soloveitchik who would likely be most pleased may be the forgotten cousin, R. Elijah Zvi, the Soloveitchik who loved Jesus.
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