A Yale president’s forebear was an enigmatic and pro-Christian member of the famed rabbinic dynasty
Peter Salovey’s recent appointment to the presidency of Yale University, founded by Congregationalist ministers, was cause for celebration for those who admire the Soloveitchik dynasty, an illustrious family of rabbis from Lithuania that includes Rabbi Hayyim Soloveitchik of Brisk (1853-1918), one of the most creative and important Jewish sages of modern times, and Rabbi Joseph Dov Ber Soloveitchik (1903-1993), known simply as “the Rav,” the leader of Modern Orthodoxy in America. In a breathless column, a writer for the Yale Daily Newsreported on the new president’s rabbinic lineage—under which Salovey himself commented, proudly affirming his place in the family tree as he had come to understand it.
But what went unmentioned in the celebratory genealogy is that Salovey’s forgotten forebear, R. Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik, was forgotten for a reason: his love of Jesus Christ. Indeed, Rabbi Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik (aka Elias Soloweyczyk, 1805-1881), the grandson of R. Hayyim of Volozhin, was an enigmatic traditional rabbi who in the middle decades of the 19th century wrote a commentary to parts of the New Testament (Mark and Matthew) and a book, Kol Kore, which argues for the symmetry between Judaism and Christianity and claims that there is nothing in Christianity that is alien to Judaism.
Much of what we know about R. Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik is contained in the work R. Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik: The Man and His Work [Hebrew] (Jerusalem 1995) written by Dov Hyman, a British-born dermatologist who lived for many years in New York before emigrating to Jerusalem in the 1970s. Hyman’s father and grandfather both studied in the yeshiva in Volozhin. After finding R. Elijah Zvi’s work cited in an obscure “messianic” journal he came upon in the library of the Great Synagogue, Hechal Shlomo, in Jerusalem, Hyman collected everything he could find on the man and his work and published it in this book. Because of the delicate nature of the subject he printed only 50 copies and distributed them to scholarly friends, family, and those who helped him in his research. (I was given a copy, and provided information about the author, by my good friend Menachem Butler, through the generosity of one of Dov Hyman’s sons.)
Rabbinic writing about Jesus was very popular in the mid 19th century, especially by liberal and Reform rabbis arguing for Jewish emancipation. What is striking about R. Elijah Zvi’s work is how different it is from that of reformers such as Joseph Salvador in France, Abraham Geiger in Germany, Claude Montefiore in England, and Kaufmann Kohler, Isaac Mayer Wise, and Joseph Krauskopf in America. Many of these rabbis were quite critical of Christianity and focused largely on the historical Jesus to argue that Judaism was the religion of Jesus while Christianity was the religion about him—implying that Christianity and the teachings of Jesus need to be viewed as distinct. In fact, for most of them, their positive appraisal of Jesus was a veiled critique of Christianity.