Cre­ative lone­li­ness of Amer­ica’ s ‘last’ Rav

The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Tal­mu­dic Tra­di­tion Wil­liam Kol­brener, In­di­ana Univer­sity Press, £47

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM - RE­VIEWED BY RABBI HAR­VEY BELOVSKI Wil­liam Kol­brener is lec­tur­ing on “Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Strug­gle with Moder­nity” at LSJS, Fe­bru­ary 14 8pm

THIS REV­O­LU­TION­ARY work of­fers a pow­er­ful lens through which to read the writ­ings of the pi­o­neer­ing 20th-cen­tury tal­mud­ist and Jewish philoso­pher, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, the driv­ing force be­hind Amer­i­can mod­ern Or­tho­doxy.

Pro­fes­sor Bill Kol­brener of the English de­part­ment at Bar-Ilan Univer­sity por­trays Soloveitchik as the “last rabbi”, the self-pro­fessed lonely sur­vivor of his fam­ily’s il­lus­tri­ous tra­di­tion. Kol­brener deftly weaves lit­er­ary tropes from his na­tive dis­ci­pline with com­plex midrashic themes, con­tem­po­rary cul­tural ref­er­ences and psy­cho­anal­y­sis, per­sua­sively cast­ing Soloveitchik as a man whose epis­te­mol­ogy and hermeneu­tics are stirred by ex­is­ten­tial loss and lone­li­ness.

Com­mand­ing an ex­tra­or­di­nary range of sources — where else might Freud, Corinthi­ans, Donne and Adam Phillips share a page in a book about an Or­tho­dox rabbi? — the author ( who is a long­stand­ing friend of mine) demon­strates that his tran­si­tion from English pro­fes­sor to poly­math is com­plete.

While not pos­si­ble to do jus­tice to this rich, dense work in a brief re­view, cer­tain themes stand out. I was struck by the nod to Al­lan Bloom in Kol­brener’s sug­ges­tion that the “re­open­ing of the Jewish mind” might be achieved by em­brac­ing tal­mu­dic irony, ig­nit­ing the “cre­ative act” of re­pen­tance, a fo­cus in Soloveitchik’s writ­ings.

In­deed, Kol­brener pre­sumes that the leit­mo­tif of Soloveitchik’s work is the con­stant re­cre­ation of the self in re­sponse to “per­sonal de­feat” and melan­choly.

For Kol­brener’s Soloveitchik, the “hermeneu­tics of mourning” pro­vides the con­di­tions within which “in­ter­pre­ta­tion and tra­di­tion” will flour­ish.

Kol­brener’s work musters a daz­zling panoply of Jewish and gen­eral sources to re-ex­am­ine the life and works of the most in­flu­en­tial Amer­i­can tal­mud­ist.

The Last Rabbi is a chal­leng­ing, yet re­ward­ing, read, and iron­i­cally raises the thresh­old for fu­ture stud­ies of Soloveitchik to the ex­tent that this work may it­self be the “last”.

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