The Last Rab­bi: Joseph Soloveitchik and the Tal­mu­dic Tradition

William Kol­bren­ner
  • Review
By – December 8, 2016

The Last Rab­bi: Joseph Soloveitchik and the Tal­mu­dic Tra­di­tion, is a deep dive into the psy­che, phi­los­o­phy, and halachic think­ing of the wide­ly acknowl­edged thought leader of Mod­ern Ortho­doxy, Rab­bi Joseph Soloveitchik. The author, William Kol­bren­ner, a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty, weaves his inter­ests in Jew­ish thought and lit­er­a­ture into his pow­er­ful exam­i­na­tion, pro­vid­ing read­ers with a thought biog­ra­phy” that chal­lenges us to con­sid­er Rab­bi Soloveitchik as the reluc­tant modern.”

In his pref­ace, the author shares that The Last Rab­bi is not the book he orig­i­nal­ly envi­sioned writ­ing. Kol­bren­ner intend­ed to place Soloveitchik’s phi­los­o­phy with­in a plu­ral­is­tic and lib­er­al world­view, while also empha­siz­ing con­ti­nu­ity between his var­i­ous works as well as between him and his rab­binic antecedents.” Instead, The Last Rab­bi argues that Soloveitchik’s world­view is equal­ly, and para­dox­i­cal­ly, a tra­di­tion­al­ist response to the destruc­tion of Euro­pean Jew­ry and a rad­i­cal embrace of the plu­ral­ism of modernity.

The Last Rab­bi is divid­ed into two parts, the theme of each drawn from Freud’s 1917 work Mourn­ing and Melan­choly. Part One, enti­tled Tal­mu­dic Tra­di­tion: Mourn­ing,” explores the author’s claim that mourn­ing is fun­da­men­tal to the rab­binic craft­ing of Jew­ish tra­di­tion. Part Two, enti­tled Joseph Soloveitchik: Melan­choly,” inter­prets Soloveitchik’s thought as a prod­uct of his melan­choly, his uncon­scious grief for the loss of the Brisk tra­di­tion he can­not ful­ly com­pre­hend. It is in Part Two that Kol­bren­ner tack­les Soloveitchik’s think­ing on repen­tance, law, gen­der, and ethics. To ful­ly appre­ci­ate this sec­tion, a famil­iar­i­ty with psy­cho­analy­sis, lit­er­ary the­o­ry, and Soloveitchik’s key writ­ings are ben­e­fi­cial, if not required.

The final chap­ter, titled Con­clu­sion: The Last Rab­bi and Tal­mu­dic Irony,” brings togeth­er the mul­ti­fac­eted por­trait of Soloveitchik as the inno­va­tor of Mod­ern Ortho­doxy who, at the same time, faced an almost incon­ceiv­able trau­ma of loss on both a per­son­al and col­lec­tive lev­el. How Soloveitchik nego­ti­at­ed this ten­sion as a Jew­ish leader, and how Judaism can learn from the Rav’s strug­gles to fash­ion a post-trau­mat­ic Jew­ry of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, is where the author ends his explo­ration. Kol­bren­ner writes that the great achieve­ment of his [Soloveitchik’s] work for the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion may help to inform attempts to revive the hermeneu­tics of mourn­ing, which remained for Soloveitchik only a fan­ta­sy…” In his hope­ful con­clu­sion, the author makes the strug­gles of Soloveitchik an oppor­tu­ni­ty for reflec­tion and growth.

Relat­ed Content:

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions