When American Judaism Was Yiddish

Rav Soloveitchik Spoke to the People

By Lawrence Grossman

Published August 26, 2009, issue of September 04, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Yiddish Drashos and Writings
By Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, edited by David E. Fishman
Ktav Publishing House, 355 pages, $29.50.

There was a time when American Jews of very different ideological perspectives would talk, and listen, to each other.

Soloveitchik’s Watershed: In 1960 he switched to English when he realized many of his students could not understand Yiddish.
COURTESY OF YESHIVA UNIVERSITY
Soloveitchik’s Watershed: In 1960 he switched to English when he realized many of his students could not understand Yiddish.

One Sunday in 1949, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the leading Orthodox Talmudic scholar in America, addressed the Boston chapter of the outspokenly secular and leftist Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring in Yiddish, the mother tongue of both speaker and audience. The rabbi used his assigned topic, tzedakah, as a springboard to discuss how the classical sources of Judaism addressed socioeconomic issues. He concluded by ruefully recalling his own youthful interest in pacifism — he had read Tolstoy, Romain Rolland, Franz Werfel, Stefan Zweig and the Yiddish writer Chaim Zhitlovsky — and explaining how the crimes of the Nazis made him appreciate the Torah’s wisdom in recognizing the need to combat and destroy those who spread ideologies of hate.

It is hard to imagine a leading Orthodox rabbi speaking to a secular Jewish audience — or a secular leader to an Orthodox audience — today, since the two Jewish worlds have moved so far apart. Orthodox Talmudists lack the breadth of secular education and cultural sophistication possessed by Soloveitchik, who had a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Berlin, and secular Jews have little familiarity with the Orthodox traditions that many in the 1949 audience still remembered from their grandparents’ homes. And even if they did remember them, Yiddish has long ceased to function as the lingua franca of Ashkenazic Jewry.

Soloveitchik’s talk 60 years ago might have been entirely forgotten if not for the publication of the original Yiddish text in this volume, along with transcriptions of several other of his Yiddish manuscripts that either appeared in newspapers or were delivered orally between 1949 and 1958, all expertly edited, with footnotes and an illuminating introduction (in Yiddish and English) by David E. Fishman, a professor at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

Soloveitchik, who taught Talmud at Yeshiva University for more than four decades until illness forced his retirement in the mid-1980s, was the role model for the Torah U’Madah outlook of Modern Orthodoxy, which taught that involvement in secular concerns and an understanding of all spheres of knowledge (madah) was not only compatible with Orthodox Judaism, but also broadened and deepened its religious message (Torah). Since Soloveitchik’s passing from the scene, American Orthodoxy has turned increasingly insular and his legacy has come under question.

Some argue that Soloveitchik, for all his intellectual openness, was far more cautious about secular society and closer to traditional Orthodoxy than previously assumed. The issue is not easy to unravel, as the unsystematic nature of his thought, his tendency to assess issues from multiple perspectives and the continually changing circumstances that he addressed over a long public career make it hard to pin down his innermost convictions. These Yiddish writings and speeches give voice to considerable ambivalence on many matters.

A good example is his complex relationship with Zionism and the State of Israel. Soloveitchik affiliated with the non-Zionist Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America until World War II, when he shifted allegiance to the Religious Zionist movement. This volume picks up the story in 1949, a year after Israel’s creation, with Soloveitchik declaring that Israel’s victory in its War of Independence was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Over the next decade, however, he criticized the hostility of secular Zionism toward Jewish tradition and warned that nationalism divorced from the Jewish heritage was idolatry, even while he expressed doubts about the wisdom of legislating religious restrictions and advised the Orthodox elements in Israel to shift their energies to education from politics. He was a Religious Zionist, but hardly a conventional one.

This collection also provides invaluable information for historians of American Judaism, especially the 10-part series of essays reprinted from the Tog morgn zhurnal (the Forverts’ major competitor at that time), where they were published in 1954–55. Here we get Soloveitchik’s less than enthusiastic evaluation of the “religious revival” of the 1950s and his sober analysis of the effect of suburbanization on the synagogue.

He was particularly disturbed by changes in traditional practice made by the growing Conservative movement, such as mixed seating of men and women, the cantor facing the congregation and redefining of the role of the rabbi as august authority figure/master of ceremonies. He worried that Orthodox synagogues were adopting these changes, too. Soloveitchik believed that these innovations turned the prayer experience into a cheap ceremony and public spectacle. At the time, his words had little effect; today, ironically, not only Orthodox and Conservative congregations but many Reform, as well, have moved away from formal ceremonials and brought the rabbi down from the pulpit in an effort to promote personal, spiritual prayer.

This collection will evoke nostalgia among the dwindling number of former students who recall Soloveitchik in his prime, conjuring up for them a vision of the man and even the distinctive sound of his voice. It was through Yiddish, the language in which he felt most comfortable, that his rhetoric — by turns erudite, dramatic, plaintive, sarcastic and soaring — interpreted biblical and rabbinic sources; wove in philosophic, scientific and literary motifs, and drew contemporary lessons.

The 1950s marked the last decade in which Yiddish was widely spoken by American Jews. Symbolically, Soloveitchik switched the language of his class at Yeshiva University to English in 1960, when he saw how many of the students could not understand Yiddish. The next year he wrote a letter, appended to this book, suggesting that although Yiddish was not intrinsically holy, it maintained a degree of derivative holiness from its use as a language of Torah study and as the linguistic vehicle for ordinary Jews over the centuries to express their Jewish faith and loyalty.

For readers able to understand the Yiddish and attuned to the complex vision of its author, this volume will convey similar traces of holiness. Is it too much to hope that it also might encourage steps toward renewing respectful dialogue between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews?

Lawrence Grossman is editor of the American Jewish Year Book.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?








You may also be interested in our English-language newsletters:













We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.