In 19th-century Europe, a Rabbinic dynasty arose that would change the face of Orthodox Jewry and the face in Woodbridge Hall. The dynasty’s name would become synonymous with both brilliance and leadership — the Soloveitchiks. Since the mid-19th century, each generation of the Soloveitchik family has produced, and continues to produce, distinguished scholars and important spiritual leaders.
The family traces its origins to Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821), founder of the Volozhin Yeshiva, a new and ambitious model in Jewish education, which effectively centralized and internationalized the Jewish academy. The academy endures as a model for present-day ultra-Orthodox institutions. Chaim Soloveitchik, his great-grandson, went on to become one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of the 19th century, renowned for his highly analytical, innovative and strict teaching of Jewish law, known as the Brisker method. His religious philosophy was profoundly insular, thriving in the isolated Jewish communities of Eastern Europe.
The most well-known of these great Rabbis was perhaps Chaim Soloveitchik’s grandson, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the former dean of Yeshiva University. His influence remains so immense that in some circles he continues to be referred to as simply “The Rav” (The Rabbi). He holds a place as the intellectual inspiration of the Modern Orthodox movement for his work on Torah Umadda — the synthesis of traditional Jewish law and secular knowledge.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Soloveitchik family fractured into three. One section of the family became leading proponents of ultra-Orthodox Jewry. They rejected modernity and formed Yeshivas in Israel and the United States which attract the sharpest minds of the ultra-Orthodox world. Another branch embraced Joseph’s ideology of synthesis — balancing the traditional with the modern.
A third branch of the family took a different approach. They embraced modernity and fully involved themselves in secular culture. They Americanized and changed their name — to Salovey.
With Peter Salovey’s ascendancy to the helm of Yale, this third branch of the family has reached its moment. They represent the stream of Jewish Americans who involved themselves in contemporary society, as their traditional Jewish observance waned. However, they also represent the historic, brute force of Soloveitchik brainpower in the academy. As Yale’s President-elect, Peter Salovey manifests his part in the familial triad, each branch paving out its fruition in different Jewish approaches to the modern era. The Soloveitchik family represents ultra-Orthodox, modern Orthodox and now, secular intellectual streams.
In many ways, the family is a microcosm of the American experience and the conflict between modernity and tradition. Yale also exists in a constant tension between the old and the new — the humanities versus the sciences, elitism versus egalitarianism, national versus international, athletic versus intellectual and well-born versus merit. As he inherits these current issues from President Levin, Salovey must determine where on the trajectory he will draw the line between tradition and progress.
It is certainly no easy task to live up to, filling the shoes of giants like Levin, Brewster, Stiles and Pierson, on the one hand, and Chaim and Joseph Soloveitchik on the other. Salovey represents the confluence of the old and the new, needing to perform a balancing act between heritage and change. As president he can draw upon the Talmudic genius and educational innovation of his namesake, along with an allegiance to the progress of modern psychology and institutional administration.
Yale should be proud it will have a president bearing this distinguished heritage and welcome the years to come with open arms. President Salovey should face the issues of our time with the merit of intellectual accomplishment he holds, and by the precedent of tradition and heritage that he bears.
Ahron Singer is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at email@example.com. David Lilienfeld contributed writing.