More Ashes on Fire

Old Traditions Adapt

These religious leaders truly fascinate. Of the five profiles here, all but one is Orthodox. Among the Orthodox, all but one is American. It’s tempting to label most of the Orthodox thinkers as fervent, for they accept the old traditions willingly, but fervent is now a political term rather than a way to describe someone’s piety. Rav Kook, for example, was known to and respected by the communist and socialist chalutzim, something that was unusual then and probably unheard of among Israel’s fervent Orthodox today; even the modern Israeli right have largely abandoned the old traditions.

Rav Soloveitchik, on the other hand, came from a fervent family and became the animator of American modern Orthodoxy, which struggles with the old traditions but won’t let them go.

The lone Conservative on our list is Louis Finkelstein.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), widely known as Rav Moshe, was one of the two most influential halakhic authorities of 20th century America. The other was his cousin, R. Joseph Ber Soloveitchik; see below.

Rav Moshe’s rabanut was Russian (1921-37) before it was American. His American rabbinate was solely as the Rosh Yeshiva of Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim, one of America’s leading rabbinical schools. He approached making halakhic decisions very carefully. His halakhot are collected and published in Iggeret Moshe. In his Introduction, R. Feinstein writes “…perhaps I should have refrained from rendering decisions and certainly from publishing them” but concludes that if one channels full intellectual capacity and yirat shamayim (Heavenly awe) in making the decision there is no need to arrive at the absolute truth, an attitude deeply rooted in the old traditions, which valued piety and questioned politics.

Rav Moshe was interested in the social challenges caused by strict halakhic observance in America and responded frequently to these types of questions in his responsa. He tended to be liberal in his decisions wherever possible but he neither anticipated nor accommodated modern trends in his method. His decisions were generally conservative in comparison to those of his cousin R. Soloveitchik.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook

Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook (1865-1935) was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel (then Mandate Palestine). Like many on these lists, Rabbi Kook was an iconoclast. His work, both published and in manuscript, remains vibrant and widely used. His body of knowledge is both mystical and rational; he is principally a moral ethicist.

A Zionist who regarded the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in Israel as an extraordinary theological event, Rav Kook was active among all types of Jews. Jewish religious liberals today feel free to access his body of knowledge. This is remarkable when you carefully investigate it – Rav Kook was uncompromising in his religious devotion and intolerant of those who were not. But he was aware of the huge numbers of non-observant Jews, and he envisioned a time of tshuva for both individuals and Judaism as a whole. He wrote poetically of the poet “of tshuva who would be the poet of life, the poet of renewal and the poet of the national soul waiting to be redeemed.” He wrote a great deal in Hebrew. Only a small part of this total is available in English.

Louis Finkelstein

Louis Finkelstein (1895-1991) was President (1940-51) and Chancellor (1951-72) of the Jewish Thelogical Seminary. He was possibly the single most influential Conservative leader of the 20th century. Finkelstein attended Columbia University and JTS at the same time – his PhD from Columbia was granted in 1918; he was ordained hatarat hora’a, the first JTS graduate so honoured, in 1919 by Louis Ginsburg, one of the leading American Talmud scholars of the 20th century. Finkelstein began teaching Talmud at JTS in 1920. History was an important subject at the Seminary and it served as a way for Finkelstein to connect traditional Jewish text study and Jewish practice. Finkelstein’s scholarship was deeply traditional and it informed his communal leadership. He believed that every American Jew was responsible for closing the gap between distinct Jewish and non-Jewish trends, between adapting old traditions and adopting them. He once said that the if the Anshé Khneset Hagdola was a bridge between Bible and Talmud, Conservative rabbis could be the bridge between Talmud and a future Judaism.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn was rebbe of Lubavitch (1920-1950). The rebbe arrived in America in 1940. He was physically weak from repeated jailings in Latvia and Russia when he arrived. On arrival he promised his followers a spiritual revolution. From his wheelchair, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak directed the establishment of an educational network. This included Yeshivah Tomchei Temimim, yeshivah dayschools, the Bais Rivka schools for girls, and after school programs for public school students. He established the Kehot Publication Society to publish halakha and Hasidic literature in English. Graduates of Tomchei Temimim became prominent rabbis, principals, and educators. Among these graduates were Shlomo Carlebach, and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who received their smilkha directly from the rebbe.

Joseph Ber Soloveitchik

Joseph Ber Soloveitchik (1903-1993), also known as Yosef-Dov Soloveitchik or Y.D. Soloveitchik, was a modern Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, and the foremost rabbinic educator of the 20th century. He was commonly called, simply, “The Rav.”

The Rav’s family was an established rabbinic dynasty begun in Lithuania and White Russia (modern Belarus) in the 18th century. His great grandfather, Yosef-Dov Soloveitchik, one of the eminent Eastern European rabbinic educators of the 19th century, authored the Beis Halévi Torah commentary. R. Haim Soloveitchik, his grandfather, was the rabbi of Brisk and a dynamic presence in the entire Jewish community there.

R. Soloveitchik studied philosophy and obtained his PhD at the University of Berlin. During the 40 years he headed the <!– Link –> Rabbi Isaac Elhonon Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University (YU) in New York City he ordained almost 2,000 students. His philosophical and rabbinic backgrounds combined as Torah U’mada [תערה וּמדע] <em>Torah and Science</em>, a distinct (if not unique) contribution to higher education under Jewish auspices in America.

The Rav was firmly centrist in his Orthodoxy. Advocating cooperation with Conservative and Reform rabbis on vital issues of Jewish interest, his centirst worldview and his Mizrachi Zionism was a departure from his family’s tradition. His relatives in Jerusalem established the anti-Zionist Brisker Yeshiva and remain active in Agudat Yisraél; see Political Judaism. He pioneered advanced Jewish education for women and gave the first Talmud class at Stern College, the YU women’s college. </p>

Old Traditions Adapt To Be A Jew Today Old Traditions Adapt Rav Moshe Feinstein Old Traditions Adapt Rav Kook Old Traditions Adapt Rabbi Louis Finkelstein Old Traditions Adapt Y.Y. Schneersohn, the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe Old Traditions Adapt Rav Soloveitchik