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  • “Like Pebbles on the Seashore”:J. B. Soloveitchik on Suffering
  • Rochelle L. Millen (bio)

The Jews are buffed by suffering and polished by torments Like pebbles on the seashore

—Yehuda Amichai, "The Jews"

Rabbinic sources relate three instances of controversy regarding the final canonization of the Hebrew Bible. The sages debated whether Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Esther should be included in the complete text.1 Should the themes of erotic passion, existential despair, and God's invisible hand in history be made explicit through these ancient books? After all, the narratives of Tobit, Judith, and the Wisdom of Solomon, together with other books, became part of the Apocrypha; even Maccabees I and II, recording events that form the historical context for the holiday of Chanukah, were rejected.2 Yet the decision made was that the texts that illuminate passionate love (Song of Songs), human despair (Ecclesiastes), and God's ways in history (Esther) would be considered holy and suitable for inclusion in biblia, the books of the Bible.

No such dispute is recorded in regard to the Book of Job. For Scripture to fail to deal directly with human suffering would be like a person lacking a leg; all religious systems, even with a subtle theology as is found in rabbinic formulations, must confront what is perhaps the central question of monotheism: evil. Otherwise, it is unbalanced and cannot stand firm. Speculative attempts to cope with the problem of evil--surely there is no resolution--tend to occur with particular vigor after a tragedy has occurred. The destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. as well as the Second Temple in 70 C.E. occasioned rabbinic philosophical theories and literary discussion. Didn't Deuteronomy 32:4-5 proclaim God a God of faithfulness?3 Hadn't God reassured Job as the divine voice emanated from the whirlwind?4 The earthquake of Lisbon in 1755 led Gottfried Leibniz to defend God and create the term theodicy in his attempt to vindicate the ways of God in the face of natural disaster.5 In the post-Holocaust era, Jewish thinkers have grappled with the enormity of loss, atrocity, silence, and suffering that occurred from 1933 to 1945. Eliezer Berkovits, Steven [End Page 150] T. Katz, Irving Greenberg, Emil Fackenheim, and Richard Rubenstein are among those who have struggled to make sense, on some level, of the unimaginable, even when "making sense" means protest.

This essay explores the views on suffering and the Shoah of Joseph Dov Soloveitchik.6 Scion of a renowned Lithuanian rabbinic family, Soloveitchik came to the United States in 1932 after completing his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Berlin. The attainment of this high level of general studies was unusual in his family. Settling in Boston and later becoming Rosh Yeshiva and professor of Talmud at the seminary of Yeshiva University in New York, Rabbi Soloveitchik became known to his many students, as a sign of reverence and affection, simply as the Rav (the Rabbi), a term I will sometimes use here. Rabbi Soloveitchik died in 1993.

The uniqueness of the Rav's approach is not only mastery of the entire rabbinic corpus but also a particular methodology of analysis developed by his grandfather.7 Upon and with this methodology, the Rav superimposed and integrated the eternal questions of ancient, medieval, and modern philosophy, especially Kant and the existentialists. Thus, his perspectives on suffering in general and on the Holocaust in particular call on the richness of Jewish thinking, with its roots in the Bible and Talmud, as well as the sweep of the Western philosophical tradition.

Students of the Rav's thinking have debated many questions about his methods, emphases, outlook, and connections to modernity. Did he truly believe in the synthesis of general knowledge, especially philosophy, and the halachic or traditional Jewish way of life?8 How did he understand the role of science, which seems to devalue the transcendental? What was--and is--the role of the person of faith in a modern world increasingly materialistic and egotistical? The most formative influence on Soloveitchik's development was the study of halakhah, the corpus of legal literature integral to rabbinic...


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