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Prominent, Provocative Rabbi Comes to Bergenfield

Bergenfield – Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik is coming to Bergenfield on February 21-22, 2014, as the Scholar-in-Residence at Congregation Beth Abraham (396 New Bridge Rd).

 

A leading Jewish thinker, theologian and public intellectual, Rabbi Dr. Soloveichik is perhaps best known to national audiences for both his last name and for delivering the invocation at the opening session of the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. Part of his prayer: “We Americans unite faith and freedom in asserting that our liberties are your gift, God, not that of government.”

 

The grandson of the late Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik and the great nephew of the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (“The Rav” of Modern Orthodoxy), Soloveichik has firmly established himself as a prominent and sometimes provocative figure in both the Jewish world and the public sphere, typically combining the two.

 

Following his participation in a pro-life march on Washington in 2000, protesting the 20th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, for example, Soloveichik penned an essay—”A Yarmulke at the March”—for the Human Life Review. In that essay, an early foray for the then YU rabbinical student, Soloveichik reflected on the passing of New York Cardinal John O’Connor, the significance of his visibly Jewish presence in a crowd of Christians, and the role of the yarmulke in enhancing Jewish identity. “I continue to dream,” wrote Soloveichik, “of a day when my skullcap will not stick out so much” and “of … a sea of yarmulkes at the march: Jews and Christians united in defense of innocents.”

 

More than a decade later, testifying before the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee in 2012 on a panel with Catholic, Lutheran, and Baptist Christian clergy, Soloveichik spoke passionately against the federal government mandate that Catholic institutions be required to provide coverage of birth control in their health care plans: “Benefiting from two centuries of First Amendment protections in the United States, the Jewish “children of the stock of Abraham” must speak up when the liberties of conscience afforded their fellow Americans are threatened and when the definition of religion itself is being redefined by bureaucratic fiat.”

 

Last year, Soloveichik held a public dialogue on religion and democracy at Yeshiva University with Cory Booker, then Newark’s Democratic Mayor. Soloveichik introduced Booker as an “inspiring leader and national hero.” A month later, Soloveichik was interviewed to replace Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks as Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. Published rumors in the Anglo and American Jewish media persisted that Soloveichik was on the shortlist for the job, with Sacks’ active behind-the-scenes lobbying. That next month saw Soloveichik address the GOP convention.

 

A frequent contributor to such publications as First Things, The Forward, Commentary Magazine, the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal, part of Soloveichik’s broad appeal lies in his jovial, sometimes humorous, gently self-effacing, and typically forthright style.  At a 2006 lecture on torture at the University of Scranton, for example, Soloveichik began his remarks: “Professor [Marc] Shapiro seems to only bring me in for specific subjects—he had me first here in the religious department to defend hate, and now he has me here to defend torture. Next time, cannibalism, I think.” Later in that same lecture he elucidated his often iconoclastic, seemingly out-of-sync posture: “I do work a lot on arguing that things which people assume are always wrong are not necessarily so and indeed can often be right.”

 

Known for intellectually stimulating, often contrarian thinking, Soloveichik—nicknamed “Solly” by his friends, dubbed a “theocon” by his detractors—has argued for greater public engagement by Orthodox Jews (“the tradition-loyal segment of American Jewry”), especially as a corrective force. “Regrettably,” he has written, “others, in the name of a liberal version of Orthodoxy, have begun to embrace aspects of the counterculture whose moral tenets are anything but traditional. Never has there been a greater need for a Judaism that is both unapologetically Orthodox and passionately engaged in the intellectual debates of American life, willing to put forward to American Jewry—and to the world—the case for addressing the issues facing modern man by looking first to the ancients.”

 

Soloveichik has made waves with some of his theological writings as well. With essays like “The Virtue of Hate” extolling the moral judgment to, at times, hate the sinner, not merely the sin, or “How Not to Become a Jew” on the meaning of conversion and Jewish identity. Or “No Friend in Jesus”, in which Soloveichik argues that the surest foundation for Jewish-Christian engagement “should not…focus on the nuts and bolts of our relation to Jesus but rather on what traditional Jews and Christians have in common… Because they believe in truth, traditional Jews … can find a friend in followers of Jesus …founded on our mutual resistance to relativism.”

 

Whatever else one thinks of such discourse, “there is,” as one critic put it, “a great deal of learning in everything that he produces.”

 

Rabbi Dr. Soloveichik’s lecture topics for Congregation Beth Abraham include: “The Yiddish Letter and the Declaration” (during the Friday night Oneg at 8:15 pm), “Shatnez at the Nobel Prize: A Reflection on Faith and Reason” (Shabbat morning), “Purim Drinking: A Less than Sober Reflection” (before Mincha), and “The Yibbum of Henry VIII” (after Mincha).

 

Soloveichik received his rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University and a doctorate in religion from Princeton University. Currently, he is the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan and director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.

By Joshua E. London

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