The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition

The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition

The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition

The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition


Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993) was a major American Orthodox rabbi, Talmudist, philosopher, and theologian. In this new work, William Kolbrener takes on Soloveitchik's controversial legacy and shows how he was torn between the traditionalist demands of his European ancestors and the trajectory of his own radical and often pluralist philosophy. A portrait of this self-professed "lonely man of faith" reveals him to be a reluctant modern who responds to the catastrophic trauma of personal and historical loss by underwriting an idiosyncratic, highly conservative conception of law that is distinct from his Talmudic predecessors, and also paves the way for a return to tradition that hinges on the ethical embrace of multiplicity. As Kolbrener melds these contradictions, he presents Soloveitchik as a good deal more complicated and conflicted than others have suggested. The Last Rabbi affords new perspective on the thought of this major Jewish philosopher and his ideas on the nature of religious authority, knowledge, and pluralism.


That is what the highest criticism really is, the record of one’s own soul. It is
the only civilized form of autobiography as it deals not with the events but
with the thoughts of one’s life … the spiritual moods and imaginative passions
of the mind.

—Oscar Wilde, “The Critic as Artist”

This book began in disillusionment.

That all scholarship is personal—that academic inquiry is never strictly “objective”—informs the argument of this book on Joseph Soloveitchik, namely that what philosophers and historians of science call the constraints of subjectivity and objectivity are always mutually defining, and the insistence on “objectivity” a fussy remnant of an older scholarship. Not only is the scholarly born out of the personal, indeed, as Wilde writes, even “the highest criticism” is born out of the “passions of the mind.” the current work, which evolved from an earlier, in retrospect idealized, perspective on Soloveitchik, aspires to meet Wilde’s criteria of “high criticism” while remaining a deeply personal work.

My first book, written nearly twenty years ago on the historiography of the English poet John Milton’s critical reception, was informed by the disciplinary languages of early modern literary studies. But Milton, as I have told skeptical Israeli undergraduates in pedagogical efforts to license a critical encounter with the author of Paradise Lost, has never been a normative figure of authority for me; he is not, as I tell them, “a Rebbe.” By contrast, the subject of this book, Joseph Soloveitchik, the scion of the Brisk dynasty of Talmudists, did occupy a version of that role for me, as he was for many others, though unlike them, I met him only through his writings. Prefacing the current work with an acknowledgment of a personal engagement with Soloveitchik serves neither as disclaimer nor confession but a disclosure of the personal investments that brought me to writing The Last Rabbi.

Indeed, my engagement with Soloveitchik’s work over several decades reflects more than a conventional scholarly commitment. the composition of this book over those years spanned significant changes in my life, including a turn to Jewish observance and study in yeshiva, both enabled through institutions administered by talmidim (students) of Soloveitchik. That I refer to the subject of this book as Soloveitchik and not “the Rav,” or even R. Soloveitchik, serves a dou-

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