Re-writing the Biography of Rav Soloveitchik
With the demise of the "Rav," many books have appeared describing the richness of his Talmudic and philosophical discourses. Less has been published about the basic facts of his biography. If one checks in the Encyclopedia Judaica, references to his childhood and early manhood are very sketchy. It reports that "until his early twenties, Soloveitchik devoted himself almost exclusively to the study of Talmud and halachah (Jewish law)."
As to his secular education, it reports that "in his late teens Soloveitchik received the equivalent of a high school education from private tutors, and at the age of 22 he entered the University of Berlin. He majored in philosophy and was attracted to the neo-Kantian school. In 1931 he received his doctorate for his dissertation on Hermann Cohen's epistemology and metaphysics ... In 1932 he and his wife emigrated to the United States."
Whoever wrote this failed to research the career of the Rav, which was very different from this outline. A curriculum vitae I have, written by the Rav and signed in his own hand, gives a totally different biography:
"I, Josef Solowiejczyk, was born February 27, 1903, in Pruzna, Poland. In 1922 I graduated from liberal arts `Gymnasium' in Dubno. Thereafter I entered in 1924 the Free Polish University in Warsaw where I spent three terms, studying political science. In 1926 I cam to Berlin and entered the Friedrich Wilhelm University. I passed the examination for supplementary subjects at the German Institute for Studies by Foreigners and was then given full matriculation at the University. I took up studies in philosophy, economics and Hebrew subjects.
I wish to express my sincere and hearty thanks to my highly honored teachers, "Geheimrat," Professor Dr. Heinrich Maier and Professor Dr. Max Dessoir. Furthermore, my thanks go to Professor Dr. Eugen Mittwoch and Professor Dr. Ludwig Bernhard."
We here have evidence that the Rav studied at the University of Warsaw, a fact totally unknown until now. His father Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, lived in Warsaw and headed the Tachkemoni School there. It would, therefore, seem to me that the Rav divided his time between secular studies and Talmudic studies in private with his father.
He spent almost six years in Berlin, contrary to all available biographies, which say that he wrote his doctoral dissertation in 1931 and received his degree the same year. Instead, he passed his oral doctor's examination on July 24, 1930, but graduated with a doctorate only on December 19, 1932. I now have documents which evidence step by step how the Rav reached the point of getting his doctorate.
While the biographies only mention his studies in philosophy, we now know three additional secular subjects he studies: political science in Warsaw; and economics and Hebrew subjects in Berlin.
It is reported that the Rav would have liked to write his dissertation on Maimonides and Plato, but since no experts in these subjects were available in Berlin, he chose a field of pure philosophy, tempered with mathematics.
His chosen field was the philosophy of Hermann Cohen, the famous Jewish philosopher of the so-called neo-Kantian school of the University of Marburg. For this study his main teacher was Professor Heinrich Maier, the greatest expert in Cohen's philosophy at the time. Maier's curriculum vitae shows a great variety of philosophical subjects, which he had mastered before specializing in Cohen's philosophy. As a result, the Rav's dissertation of 110 pages deals largely with Professor Heinrich Maier's own interpretations of Cohen, rather than with Cohen himself. Its title is as esoteric as its contents: "Das reine Denken and die Seinskonstituierung bei Hermann Cohen." ("Pure Thought as the Constitution of Being in Hermann Cohen's Philosophy" -- my free translation).
In going through this dissertation it striked me that not a single Jewish word or source appears in it. It was almost as if the Rav for the purpose of his thesis had cut himself off from all the deep Jewish studies of his previous years.
This is particularly surprising because Hermann Cohen was a staunch defender of Judaism and published books on Jewish themes, such as "Love for One's Neighbor in the Talmud." He glorified the Jewish concept of history as G-d's way to achieve unity of mankind and to establish the Kingdom of G-d on earth. The Rav could have found, therefore, even in Cohen's philosophy, strong Jewish elements.
While Professor Heinrich Maier was a pure philosopher, Professor Ludwig Bernhard's special field was political science, and Professor Max Dessoir was a specialist in aesthetics and the history of art. These two seem to have had little connection with the Rav's thesis. The more interesting personality among his teachers was Professor Eugen Mittwoch (1876-1942), the only Jew among them.
Professor Mittwoch was classified in German academic circles as an "Orientalist," but he had a fine Jewish upbringing and education and was strictly Orthodox. He studied at the Rabbinerseminar in Berlin and devoted much of his life to charitable work in the Jewish communities in Germany. He was one of the first German Jews to master modern Hebrew. He took a special interest in the Falashas of Ethiopia, whose existence had only been discovered at the end of the 19th century.
He became a specialist in Ethiopic languages -- which in a unique way saved his life. For when Mussolini occupied Ethiopia -- then called Abyssinia -- in 1935, he needed an expert in the local languages. Professor Mittwoch was the right man for him, so Mussolini personally requested of Hitler that the professor, despite being a Jew, should be spared so that he could help Italy in its colonial policies!
All this was told to me by his grandson, Michael, who went briefly to school with me in England in 1939 and whom I visited some years ago in Kibbutz Lavi in Israel.
When the Rav's dissertation was approved by his professors, each one had to express in a handwritten note their opinion of his work. Professor Dessoir classified his work as "gut" ("very good"), and Professor Mittwoch noted that the Rav had been examined in the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel; the Song of Deborah; and Hebrew grammar. Professor Mittwoch's verdict: "sehr gut." In 1932 the Rav graduated with the Latin mark magna cum laude, which is a shade below summa cum laude.
I have copies of a great number of communications exchanged by the Rav with the University authorities starting on May 9, 1930, when he reported that his dissertation and his University work were finished and asked that he be allowed to submit his dissertation and undergo an oral examination. On the same day, the dean of the University agreed to receive the Rav's application for oral examinations.
The Rav had to affirm in writing that the dissertation was written without outside help and that it had not been published elsewhere. At this point the Rav lived in Berlin at the Pestalozzistrasse 105. On June 30 the dean turned to Professor Heinrich Maier with the request to fix a date for these examinations. The oral examinations took place, and on July 24 all of his professors gave their written approval.
On May 1, 1931, a letter -- 100 percent in the Rav's own handwriting -- pleads "financial reasons: why the dissertation could not yet be printed and requested a delay of one year. He also expresses his intention to "amplify" his thesis. On January 7, 1931, the dean writes the Rav -- who now lives in Vilna at Kijowsy 4/29 -- that the delay has been granted until January 1, 1932.
On November 1932, the Rav, already living in New York, signed a printed affidavit committing himself to honoring the doctoral diploma and protecting it from any dishonor and that "he will always seek and practice truth without regard to exterior considerations," He applied for a waiver of the requirement that he personally appear in Berlin to collect his diploma, and by letter of December 5, 1932, the dean -- writing to the Rav at 435 Ft. Washington, New York -- approved this request. Finally the diploma, written in Latin with the date December 10, 1932, is executed.
But the fact that it is still housed in Berlin, where I got the copy, might indicate that the Rav never received it, or that he got the original while a copy was kept in the Berlin file -- which, together with all other correspondence -- survived the war and the near-destruction of Berlin.
Of the Rav's fellow students, we know most about Alexander Altmann, who graduated from the University of Berlin in 1931 summa cum laude. He had also studied at the Berlin Rabbinerseminar and became a rabbi, first serving in Berlin and later in Manchester, England. It is reported that the Rav and Dr. Altmann took many walks together in Berlin's main park, the Tiergarten.
The Rav in later years demonstrated the same preference for walks in parks , taking many long strolls in Franklin Park in Boston. I have in a previous column described my walks with him there in 1942 and 1943. In retrospect I can, therefore, well picture in my mind his walks in the German park during his student years with his favorite fellow student, Alexander Altmann.
The Rav's friendship with Altmann continued when Altmann came to Brandeis University near Boston after a varied rabbinical career in England. At one time he was considered for the post of chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth but was disqualified, as some say, because the hatred for everything German was still so strong in Britain after World War II. Although he was born in Kashau, Slovakia, Altmann was identified because of his German accent as a German.
No doubt this new material sheds important light on the Rav's personality and especially on his exposure for so many years to German philosophy. A close friend to the Rav and a philosopher by training told me recently that it is in the Rav's best known work, Ish Hahalachah (Halachic Man), written shortly after his arrival in the United States from Germany, that the German philosophical influence is most prominently evident.
These new data in the Rav's biography add several dimensions to his early years. The multitude of influences and impressions -- through his schooling, teachers and fellow students -- were all part of that rich spectrum that produced the great mind and rich soul that we all found in him. Like the sunlight, which is broken up into a multitude of colors when viewed through a prism, the great men of our people -- once studied through all the stages in their lives -- offer riches of intellect and heart far greater than those of average men.
That is why a continued study of the Rav's life is so important. the more we learn about his life, the greater he becomes in our assessment. His immortality and relevance for all times is thereby enhanced.