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Modern Judaism 24.3 (2004) 251-271

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Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Abraham Joshua Heschel on Jewish-Christian Relations

Brandeis University

From the 1940s through the 1970s, the two most consequential religious thinkers on the American Jewish scene were Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), the former a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and the latter a professor and Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University. By the late 1950s each had emerged as the major theological voice of his respective institution and movement.1 Indeed, they were probably the only theologians read by students of both institutions. Each had an international following.2

By 1960 R. Abraham J. Heschel was the most widely read Jewish theologian in America, whereas R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik was the most widely accepted ideologue of "Integrationist Orthodoxy."3 "Integrationist Orthodoxy" is preferable to "Modern," because it reflects better its ideological tenor. For it, along with its ideological mentor, believes in integrating Orthodoxy and the university, Orthodoxy and the State of Israel, and Orthodoxy and the Israeli Army. It not only exists in modernity or takes its cue from modernity but also relates toit by encounter or dialogue, as opposed to by rejection or capitulation.4

Rabbis Heschel and Soloveitchik had much in common: both were scions of illustrious East European families. R. Heschel, a direct descendant of his namesake, the Apter Rav, was related to many of the great Rebbes of the Hasidic movement including Dov Baer of Mezeritz, the successor of the Baal Shem Tov. R. Soloveitchik, a direct descendant of his namesake, the Beis Halevi, was related to the giants of Lithuanian Talmudic scholarship including R. Hayyim of Volozhin, the successor of the Gaon of Vilna. Both were child prodigies who in their twenties broke with family tradition and started their general education in Warsaw only to continue in Berlin—1925 for R. Soloveitchik and 1927 for R. Heschel—at the University of Berlin, where both earned their doctorates in philosophy in the early 1930s.5 Indeed, in their dissertations both thanked the same neo-Kantian professor of philosophy, [End Page 251] Max Dessoir.6 R. Heschel and R. Soloveitchik met first in Berlin and subsequently in New York.7

Both R. Soloveitchik and R. Heschel struggled with the epistemology of Kant, admired Kierkegaard, and enlisted Bergson, Otto, Dilthey, Scheler, Husserl, Hartmann, and Heidegger, among other persons, in Europe as well as Reinhold Niebuhr in America in their expositions of Judaism.8 To buttress their argument, they relied on physicists and philosophers of science such as Newton, Planck, Einstein, and Whitehead.9 Enamored of Rambam, they extensively cited and significantly modeled their lives after him.10 Indeed, R. Heschel at age twenty- eight wrote in seven months a commissioned biography of Rambam, published in 1935, in honor of his 800th birth anniversary. In their major works, they cited the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Schneur Zalmen of Liadi, at crucial places in their arguments.11 Both were masters of the full gamut of the Jewish tradition. They not only knew their Bible and its exegesis, the full panoply of Rabbinic literature, Jewish medieval philosophy, Kabbalah, Hasidism, Mussar, and modern German Jewish thought, but also articulated illuminating reformulations of much of them.12 Indeed, their mastery of the depth and breadth of the Jewish tradition along with much of the rest of the Western intellectual tradition and Christian theology may be unparalleled among twentieth-century theologians.13

Both saw prayer and the Sabbath as defining religious experiences in Judaism and penned penetrating works on their meaning.14 Together they fought the intellectual trivialization of Judaism and defended the halacha as a concretization of religious experience.15 They expounded Judaism in terms of religious anthropology and presented it as a response to the problems of, indeed the conflicts inherent in, human nature.16 Both focused on the religious consciousness, depicted religious experience as part of the human response to the mystery of existence, understood the religious life as a response to the reality...


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