Judeo-Christian spiritual unity: the Soloveichik who loved Jesus


I have written many papers on the Ten Commandments and the Torah in general as the mutual spiritual foundation of Judaism and Christianity. And I pointed out that we the Jews shall consider the Christianity as a result of our “Chosen mission” efforts aimed at helping non-Jews to understand the Torah and live in accordance with Torah Commandments – not in accordance with the religious rules of Judaism that we the Jews had developed but in accordance with the religious rules of Christianity that have the same Torah-based spiritual foundation.

I found references to some rabbis currently supporting the idea of mutual Judeo-Christian spirituality. And finally, here is a reference to one of the great rabbis of the past – a rabbi from the great rabbinical dynasty of Soloveichiks who supported the same idea of Judeo-Christian spiritual unity.  

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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

By Shaul Magid|December 14, 2012

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.

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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 KoreThe 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 intotwo sections, the one Jews, and the other Christians.” R. Elijah Zvi continues in Kol Koreto 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.

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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 evenmore 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 withgiving the benediction at the 2012 Republican National Convention.

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About Vladimir Minkov

Vladimir Minkov Ph.D. is a nuclear scientist, published author and writer. He is the co-author of "Nuclear Shadow Boxing", a scientific history of the nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and USA during the cold war and is the author of "The Jews and Their Role in Our World", which explores his personal journey to discovering Jewish identity. Having lost much of his family in the Holocaust and finding his search for spiritual development stifled in the Soviet Union, Vladimir migrated to the United States in the late 1970s.

Posted on December 16, 2012, in English-language posts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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