The most prominent dynasty of rashe yeshivot (rectors of Talmudic academies) in modern times. This exceptional Lithuanian Misnagdic family has produced outstanding rabbinical scholars in every generation over the last two centuries. The family traces its ancestry to the close disciple of the Gaon of Vilna, Ḥayim of Volozhin, himself the scion of a long line of rabbis. Inspired by his master, Ḥayim established a yeshiva in 1802 in Volozhin, where he was rabbi. Although yeshivas had flourished in Eastern Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for various reasons they had all but disappeared during the eighteenth century. The yeshiva in Volozhin marked the beginnings of an efflorescence of Lithuanian yeshivas with which the Soloveichik family is so closely identified.
The Volozhin yeshiva was founded in opposition both to the Hasidic movement and to the Haskalah. Ḥayim maintained that the center of Jewish religious life was the constant study of the Talmud. The aim was not to train rabbis, who probably would constitute only a small fraction of the students, but rather to educate devout laymen who could continue to study the Talmud in their private lives.
Ḥayim attracted hundreds of students from Lithuania and Belorussia. The Volozhin yeshiva became the model for all subsequent Lithuanian yeshivas, including those at Slobodka, Kovno, Mir, Telz, Baranovitch, Slutsk, Ponevezh, and Kletsk. They lasted until the outbreak of World War II. Holocaust survivors who came to Israel and America proceeded to revive the yeshivas with the old place names.
A characteristic that distinguished these Lithuanian academies from their early modern antecedents and similar institutions elsewhere was that these yeshivas were no longer maintained by the local community, nor was the community’s rabbi necessarily the head of its academy. Rather the yeshiva—a new, supercommunal institution supported by regional fund-raising—now became the private domain of its rosh yeshivah. When the rosh yeshivah died, one of his children—if not a son, then a son-in-law—would inherit the mantle. Thus new rabbinic, or more accurately nonrabbinic, yeshiva dynasties were established.
Accordingly, when Ḥayim died in 1822, he was succeeded as both rabbi and rosh yeshivah in Volozhin by his son Yitsḥak (known as Reb Itchele), and when Yitsḥak died in 1849, his son-in-law, Eli‘ezer Yitsḥak Fried (1809–1853), who was also a grandson of Ḥayim, succeeded to what was by then the two separate posts. When Eli‘ezer died within a few years, Reb Itchele’s other son-in-law, Naftali Tsevi Yehudah Berlin (1816–1893), known by his acronym as Netsiv, inherited the position. For a brief time he was challenged by Yehoshu‘a Heshel Levin, who had married a granddaughter of Reb Itchele. But Levin was soon edged out by another competitor, Yosef Dov Ber ha-Levi Soloveichik (1820–1892), a great-grandson of Ḥayim, who compelled Netsiv to share the post with him. The two did not see eye to eye, and it soon became clear that only one could rule the yeshiva. In the end, it was the mild-mannered Netsiv who manuevered his more volatile cousin, Yosef Dov, to leave the yeshiva in 1864.
The two had opposite personalities. The erudite Netsiv was tactful and friendly to his students, while Yosef Dov, sharp and quick-witted, treated others with disrespect. Yosef Dov was more profound and was considered the foremost Talmudic scholar of his time. His three volumes of responsa, Bet ha-Levi (the Soloveichik family are Levites), made a deep impression on all rabbinic scholars. He also wrote a homiletic commentary on Genesis and Exodus, also called Bet ha-Levi; among its most provocative interpretations was his reading of Genesis 32:12: “Save, me, I pray, from my brother, Esau, for I am afraid that he may come and destroy me, sparing neither mother nor child.” Yosef Dov understood it thus: if Esau (the symbol of Christianity, persecutors of Jews) comes as a brother, he will try to assimilate me, wanting to destroy me and my family.”
A Jew subsequently denounced Yosef Dov as being against the reforms of Tsar Alexander II; he then had to leave Belorussia and spent several years in Warsaw and Lwów. Thereafter he was appointed rabbi in Slutsk, and in 1878 accepted the rabbinical position in Brest Litovsk (Yid., Brisk), where he died. He was opposed to the Ḥibat Tsiyon movement as long as the leadership was in the hands of secular men such as Lev Pinsker and Mosheh Leib Lilienblum, who did not direct the movement in a strictly religious mode. Yosef Dov powerfully championed the poor Jews of Slutsk and Brisk, and these communities admired him greatly. In 1892, the year he died, the Volozhin yeshiva was closed down by order of the government.
Earlier, in 1880, Netsiv had made peace with Yosef Dov and had appointed his son, Ḥayim Soloveichik (1853–1918) as a joint rosh yeshivah; Ḥayim married the granddaughter of Netsiv, the daughter of Rabbi Refa’el Shapiro. During the period 1880–1892, Ḥayim became the outstanding Talmudist of his age. His discourses were based on a detailed analysis of each sugyah or Talmudic theme, especially as understood by Maimonides. Since Maimonides never quoted sources, Ḥayim traced them and demonstrated that Maimonides and the Talmud were not in conflict. His method was opposed by many rabbinic authorities, but all admitted the profundity of his thinking; they called it the “new chemistry.” The only book he wrote was published posthumously as Ḥidushe Rabenu Ḥayim ha-Levi in 1937. It immediately became a rabbinic classic and has been frequently reprinted.
Among Ḥayim’s students were his two sons, Mosheh (1876–1941) and Yitsḥak Ze’ev (known as Reb Velvele; 1886–1960), both distinguished rabbis. Their paths parted: Mosheh became a leading figure in the religious Zionist movement, the Mizraḥi, while Yitsḥak Ze’ev sympathized with Agudas Yisroel. Mosheh moved to Warsaw and then the United States during the interwar years to head the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (later part of Yeshiva University), while Velvele succeeded his father in Brest Litovsk and in 1941 settled in Jerusalem, where he founded a Brisk kolel. Other outstanding disciples of Ḥayim were Yisra’el Yonatan Yerusalimski (1860–1918); Barukh Ber Leibowitz, the head of the yeshiva in Kamenets; Yosef Shelomoh Kahaneman, the founder of the Ponevezh yeshiva; Eli‘ezer Gordon, who established the yeshiva in Telz; and Yekhezkel Abramsky (1886–1976).
Mosheh’s eldest son, Yosef Dov (1903–1993), became the spiritual leader of modern Orthodoxy in America. A philosopher trained at German universities, he served as head of Rabbi Isaac Elchanon Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University. He was a brilliant essayist in both Hebrew and English who delivered Talmudic discourses following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Ḥayim, and served as the distinguished rabbi of the Boston Orthodox Jewish community. His essays aroused great admiration, especially his very idealized portraits of Ish ha-halakhah (Halakhic Man) and his Kol dodi dofek (about messianism and religious Zionism). His annual lectures at Yeshiva University attracted vast audiences. His brother, Aharon, was another distinguished scholar and a rabbi in Chicago; his son, Ḥayim, is a brilliant historian of medieval Ashkenaz, specializing in economic relations. A son-in-law, Isadore Twersky, was an outstanding historian of medieval Provençal Jewry at Harvard and the biographer of Avraham ben David of Posquières, the great critic of Maimonides. He wrote the standard work on Maimonides as a codifier.
The Soloveichik family is still very active rabbinically in Israel and in America. It is curious that the most famous rabbinic family of the last 180 years should carry a Slavic surname. (Soloveichik means a small nightingale.)
Immanuel Etkes and Shlomo Tikochinski, eds., Yeshivot Lita (Jerusalem 2004); Hayim Karlinski, Ha-Ri’shon le-shoshelet Brisk (Jerusalem, 1984); Shaul Stampfer, Ha-Yeshivah ha-lita’it be-hithavutah ba-me’ah ha-tesha‘-‘esreh, 2nd rev. ed. (Jerusalem, 2005); Shelomoh Yosef Zevin, Ishim ve-shitot (Jerusalem, 1966), pp. 38–85.