Creative loneliness of America’ s ‘last’ Rav
The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition William Kolbrener, Indiana University Press, £47
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”.