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 David Lilienfeld contributed writing.

  • ms2676

    I had no idea that the president-elect came from such royalty. May his presidency be filled with great ideas, and only good things for Yale.

  • theantiyale

    It is this type of distinguished intellectual accomplishment which points to the root of anti-semitism: Envy.

    When I was sixteen I asked a Jewish girl next door to a dance at the New Haven Country Club. Her late late father had a distinguished Yale affiliated psychiatrist. Her mother a counselor. She refused my invitation, saying the Country Club’s membership policy was anti-semitic.

    I was so naive, I had to ask my mother what “anti-semitic” meant.

    It has puzzled me for over half a century. Why would people hate Jews?

    Yale has come a long way from its quota system (fear of being over-run by those who could ‘outsmart’ the WASP gentiles?).

    Best wishes to Mr. Salovey.

    I hope the Country Club has changes its admissions policies since 1961.

  • theantiyale

    “had [been] a distinguished . . .”
    “changed” not “changes”

  • Cynic

    Edit: David Lilienfeld below provides the explicit link I’d requested. I still think the notion of ‘three branches’ diverging is a decided stretch, and remain unconvinced by the idea of the Saloveys as avatars of secularism. But I’ll withdraw the balance of the comment. Thanks, David.

    • dlilienfeld

      Prof. Salovey’s great-great grandfather was the brother of Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (Beis Halevi). He has a family tree in his office. I hope this helps.

      • Max

        If Peter Salovey is a dendent of the Beis Halevi’s brother then he is not from Chaim of Volozhin and has nothing to do with Brisk or the Brisker method.

        • nsz

          that is only partly true. the beis halevi and his uncle were the progeny of reb chaim of volozhin. you are correct regarding the methods in learning though.

      • Nisan Hershkowitz

        What is the explicit link that Yoni (“Cynic”) mentions? Could you kindly re-post it ? Is it a copy of the “family tree in his office ?”

  • salovey

    My Friends,

    Here’s how the family tree grows, as I understand it:

    First there was Joseph Ha-Levi Soloveitchik of Slobodka and Kovno. He had a son Isaac. Isaac had two sons, Moses and Abraham. Moses had a son, Joseph, who was the rabbi of Kovno and was married to the daughter of Chaim Volozhin. Joseph had two sons, Isaac Zeev and Elijah Zevi. Isaac Zeev was the father to Joseph Ber (Beis Ha-Levi). His son was Chaim Brisker whose sons included Velvele Brisker and Moses. Moses was the father of The Rav, Joseph Dov (Ber) Soloveitchik.

    Meanwhile, back to Elijah Zevi. He had a son Simcha (The Londoner), who had a son Zalman Yosef, who had a son Yitzchak Lev (Isaac Louis, my grandfather, who changed the name from Soloveitchik to Salovey when he immigrated to this country from Jerusalem), who had a son Ronald (Azreal), who fathered three children, one of them me!

    So, my great-great-great grandfather (Elijah Zevi) and Joseph Dov (Ber) Soloveitchik (The Rav)’s great-great grandfather were brothers.

    That should clear things up, no?

    My sources for this are the Encyclopedia Judaica; Shulamith Soloveitchik Meiselman’s excellent book, The Soloveitchik Heritage: A Daughter’s Memoir; and family legend.

    Thanks for the interest in my family.


    Peter Salovey

    • Jeanne Swack

      I remember you explaining to me that you were a Soloveitchik branch at the grad student “unofficial” table one erev Shabbat at the Kosher Kitchen (for you young folks, this was off campus, in the basement of a former soup kitchen. Mazel tov, Peter!!

    • BethesdaDog

      Why the name derived from singing in the Jerusalem Temple? Because you are Levites and were supposed to sing in the Temple? Did some of your ancestors have a propensity for singing? There’s a Yale student with a similar name, Sarah Solovay, and she is supposed to be a very talented singer.

  • pintele

    yiddish proverb: ‘der vos barimt zikh mit zayn yikhus iz glaykh tzu a bulbe – di beste tayl ligt in dr’erd’

    translation: ‘he who brags about his lineage is like a potato – the best part’s in the ground’

    I think Provost Salovey, despite that long clarifying comment he seems to have left, made it clear at the Hillel Channukah Banquet that he finds all this a little heavy. I for one, wouldn’t want my family’s secular or religious achievements (or lack thereof) projected onto my upcoming administration. What if he had sprung from an illustrious line of Jewish anarchists? Would Jewish students write glowing accounts of how well that yikhus bodes for Yale? Some might hope so, but I doubt it 😉

  • Joseph Schachner

    Peter Solevy may be a great president, I wish him well, he certainly descends from good stock. It does not increase my opinion of his abilities to know that he represents the “stream of Jewish Americans who involved themselves in contemporary society, as their traditional Jewish observance waned.” It does increase a thought I have had about Yale, that they would proudly add that phrase.

    And I have to wonder, if Yale had elected as president a person whose grandfather had been a famous Christian leader and thinker – perhaps a decendent of MLK – would they identify him as an example of the stream of Christian Americans who have involved themselves in contemporary society, as their traditional church-oriented observance waned? Even though it is indisputably true there is such a stream, I highly doubt Yale would say that as a point of pride. Maybe we have to wait another few decades for that.

    Personally, I strive to be viewed as an example of the stream of Jewish Americans who involved themselves in contemporary society in part specifically because of our Jewish ideals and the lessons of our traditional observance which, for us, has not waned.