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The Soloveitchik Who Loved Jesus

A Yale president’s forebear was an enigmatic and pro-Christian member of the famed rabbinic dynasty

Shaul Magid
December 14, 2012
Rabbi Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik in Yahadut Lita: Temunot ve-Tsiyunim (Jerusalem: Mosad ha-Rav Kook, 1959). (Courtesy Menachem Butler)
Rabbi Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik in Yahadut Lita: Temunot ve-Tsiyunim (Jerusalem: Mosad ha-Rav Kook, 1959). (Courtesy Menachem Butler)

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?

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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Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible The Talmud and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.

Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.