July 23, 2024
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Rav Soloveitchik and His Relative Peter Salovey

In 2013 Peter Salovey became the president of Yale University. It turns out that he is a distant cousin of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik z”l.

Recently I came across an article by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l about Rabbi Soloveitchik and Peter Salovey. The article is in Rabbi Sacks’ book “Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas” (2020).

Rabbi Sacks tells the story of having met Salovey at Yale in 2015. He wondered “whether there was more than merely family connection between the university president and his great distant relative …Was there an intellectual and spiritual link also, however oblique?”

He concludes that there was and explains. I am now going to summarize.

Before he became president of Yale, Salovey was a psychologist. Rabbi Sacks writes that Salovey’s great contribution to the thought of our time is a concept he formulated together with another psychologist John Mayer in a 1989 article. The concept is “emotional intelligence.” (The article is in the journal “Imagination, Cognition and Personality,” issue 9, no. 3.)

Rabbi Sacks writes: “For many decades, intelligence as measured by IQ (intelligence quotient) tests was viewed as the best indicator of ability … These tests focused on a specific set of cognitive and reasoning skills as the primary measure of intelligence. It took another brilliant Jewish psychologist of our time, Howard Gardner … to break this paradigm and argue for the idea of multiple intelligences. Solving puzzles is not the only skill that matters.”

Rabbi Sacks continues: “What Salovey and Mayer did was to show that our ability to understand and respond not only to our own emotions but also to those of others is an essential element of success in many fields, indeed of human interaction in general. There are fundamental elements of our humanity that have to do with the way we feel, not just the way we think. Even more importantly, we need to understand how other people feel—the gift of empathy—if we are to form a meaningful bond with them.”

Rabbi Sacks explains: “This is what the Torah is referring to when it says, ‘Do not oppress a stranger because you know what it feels like to be a stranger’… (Ex. 23:9).”

“You know what it feels like to be a stranger” is Rabbi Sacks’ translation of the phrase: “ve-atem yedatem et nefesh ha-ger” in that verse.

Rabbi Sacks continues: “Emotions matter. They guide our choices. They move us to action. Intellect alone cannot do this. It has been a failing of intellectuals throughout history to believe that all we need to do is think straight and we will act well. It isn’t so. Without a capacity for sympathy and empathy, we become more like a computer than a human being, and that is fraught with danger.”

Rabbi Sacks then moves to the thought of Rabbi Soloveitchik and argues that the Rav made precisely this point in one of his most moving addresses, “A Tribute to the Rebbetzin of Tolne.” This was the eulogy that the Rav gave for Rebbitzen Rebecca Twersky, at the conclusion of the sheloshim for her, on Jan. 30 1977. The eulogy is printed in “Tradition” 17:2 (1978), pp. 73-83. She was the mother of his son-in-law Rabbi Dr. Isadore Twersky z”l.

Rabbi Sacks summarizes what the Rav said in this eulogy. The Rav said that people

People are mistaken when they think there is only one mesora … In fact, he said, there are two: one handed down by fathers, the other by mothers.” The Rav quoted Proverbs 1:8: “Listen my son to the instruction of your father and do not forsake the teaching of your mother.” The Rav explained that these are two distinct but interwoven strands of the religious personality.

From a father, he said, we learn how to read a text, comprehend, analyse, conceptualise, classify, infer and apply. We also learn how to act: what to do and what not to do. The father-tradition is an ‘intellectual-moral one.’

Turning to the teaching of your mother, I learned that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience. She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life- to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive.

The teaching of your mother—Torat imecha—is about emotional intelligence.

I have long felt that alongside Rabbi Soloveitchik’s great essay, “Halakhic Man,” there was another one he might have written called “Aggadic Woman.” Halakha is an intellectual moral enterprise. But Aggada, the non-halakhic dimension of rabbinic Judaism, is directed to the broader aspects of what it is to be a Jew … It invites us to enter the minds and hearts of our spiritual forebears, their experiences and dilemmas, their achievements and their pain. It is the emotional dimension of the life of faith.

I am disinclined to think of this in terms of a male-female dichotomy. We are all called on to develop both sensibilities.

(But he does cite some serious thinkers who made the claim that women have superior emotional intelligence.)

He also suggests that in Judaism the priest thinks in terms of rules and symbolizes the “teaching of your father.” But the prophet is more of a figure of emotional intelligence. “The prophet hears the silent cry of the oppressed, and the incipient anger of Heaven. Without the law of the priest, Judaism would have no structure or continuity. But without the emotional intelligence of the prophet, it would become, as Rav Soloveitchik said, soulless, dry and insensitive.”

Rabbi Sacks concludes: “If you want to change lives, speak to people’s feelings, not just to their minds. Enter their fears and calm them. Understand their anxieties and allay them…Humans are more than algorithms. We are emotion-driven beings. Speak from the heart to the heart, and mind and deed will follow.”


As to where Salovey fits in to the Soloveitchik family, here are the details. In the 1800s there were two Soloveitchik brothers, Eliyahu and Yitzchak Ze’ev. We are familiar with the descendants of Yitzchak Ze’ev, who are largely famous rabbinic figures. (The first was Beit Ha-Levi, 1820-1892. See the chart in the Encyclopaedia Judaica 15:127.) But Salovey descends from the line of Eliyahu. Eliyahu had a son named Simchah, who had a son named Zalman, who had a son named Yitzchak. Yitzchak is Salovey’s grandfather.

Eliyahu (1805–1881) was a Lithuanian rabbi and was a grandson of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin. I do not think Eliyahu’s descendants above were rabbis. For example, Zalman was a communal worker and pharmacist. (I am not sure about Simchah.)

Eliyahu was unusual in that he was a rabbi who wrote a commentary to parts of the New Testament and had a favorable impression of Christianity. (More on this can be found online.)


Salovey has a sister Devora Farrell who is Orthodox and lives in New Jersey.

The surname “Soloveitchik” comes from the word for nightingale in Slavic languages. It was chosen by the family, a Levitical one, because the primary duty of the Levites in the Temple was singing.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Shortly after Salovey became President of Yale, it happened that my son Daniel transferred there from Y.U. He assured us, jokingly, that he was still going to be in an institution under the auspices of the Soloveitchik family!

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