Much has been made of the choice of Rabbi Meir Soloveichik as the invocation speaker at the opening of today’s Republican National convention. In part this is because Meir Soloveichik is the scion of a storied rabbinic family whose patriarch, a student of Rabbi Elijah Gaon of Vilna, established one of the great Lithunian Yeshivot in Brisk (Brest-Litovsk) in the eighteenth century. The unbroken continuity of that rabbinic line yielded one of the greatest rabbis, talmudists and Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century—Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, known to his students as “the Rov” or simply the Rabbi.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik made the cultural-religious journey from Brisk to Berlin where he earned a doctorate in philosophy writing about the neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen. After emigrating to the United States and becoming a communal Rabbi in Boston and founding the Maimonides School, a modern Orthodox Day School, he took over the religious leadership of Yeshiva University from his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik. Rabbi Soloveichik himself mainly taught Talmud in the method of his ancestors (“the Brisker method”), however, he also taught classes in philosophy. While this embrace has always been contentious, even within the halls of Yeshiva University itself, it has endured and YU has educated generations of Orthodox men and women (at Stern College) who have more or less embraced an Orthodox lifestyle which also embraces the scientific and humanistic learning of the greater world.
Meir Soloveichik is a grand nephew of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitichik, and an accomplished and learned rabbi himself—ordination from YU, doctorate from Princeton, rabbi at one of the leading modern Orthodox congregations in New York, candidate for the Chief Rabbi of Britain, and outspoken conservative polemicist on issues ranging from abortion to gay marriage to the Affordable Care Act. Perhaps most memorably, he testified on a panel with four Christian clergy at a well-orchestrated House Judiciary committee hearing denouncing the fact that under the ACA, employers must provide insurance plans that include contraception for women at no cost. Notably, the panel did not include a single woman.
It is because of his political conservatism that Meir Soloveichik’s ascendance to erstwhile Rabbi-in-Chief of the Republican party, as one pundit has labelled him, does hold some historic significance. It is not that there have not been Orthodox conservatives before. The official arms of both the so-called “ultra-Orthodox” (Agudath Israel) and the “centrist Orthodox” (the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America) have taken positions on school vouchers, for example, which have been historically conservative positions. However, at the same time, Agudath Israel does not take a position on the death penalty and the Orthodox Union is on record supporting a moratorium on the death penalty. The seeming uniqueness of Meir Soloveichik’s position as a Modern Orthodox rabbi is that he is an across the board conservative, as it were, and justifies his position through his reading of Jewish law (halakha).
The philosopher Richard Rorty once remarked that he wished there was a conservative deconstructionist so that people would fully grasp that deconstruction was a philosophical tool and not a set of values or political ends. Meir Soloveichik makes public an analogous notion about modern Orthodoxy. It has been known among the cognoscenti, or at least the readers of the journal First Things, that there has been a small coterie of Orthodox conservative thinkers, mostly students of J. B. Soloveitchik. This has not, however, risen to the level of public discourse. In part, this was because Soloveitchik the elder was far more interested, at least in his writings and public pronouncements, in theological reflection than in political action. Despite his leadership role in the Religious Zionists of America, his writings on Israel are few and are not overtly political. (On the other hand, the “oral Torah” of his opinions abounds.)
Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik’s students seeded institutions in the U.S. and Israel which occupy varied positions on the political continuum from center-left to far right. Meir Soloveichik’s ascendance comes at the same time that the first explicitly modern Orthodox rabbinical school (founded by a student of the Rov, and led academically by a student of the next generation of YU) is also gaining popularity. Yeshivat Chovevei Torah has a social justice track in its curriculum and two of its graduates started a Jewish social justice organization.
Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s vision for modern Orthodoxy seems to be to embrace the literary and philosophical tools of intellectual discourse in the service of a program which ultimately oppresses the poor, marginalizes women, erases gay and lesbian people, and criminalizes undocumented immigrants. It is the task of those who would be the heirs of the ancient Rabbis who institutionalized social justice and the modern theologians who articulated a vision of a community whose basis is obligation toward the stranger to lay bare the ominous undercurrents of this new sophistry.