Episode 107: Rabbi Meir Soloveichik on connecting to other faiths through scripture and shared principles
As Latter-day Saints study the Old Testament, Jewish Rabbi Meir Soloveichik shares insights into the Hebrew Bible, religious liberty and being light kindlers
Episode 107: Rabbi Meir Soloveichik on connecting to other faiths through scripture and shared principles
As Latter-day Saints study the Old Testament, Jewish Rabbi Meir Soloveichik shares insights into the Hebrew Bible, religious liberty and being light kindlers
As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints around the world study the Old Testament in 2022, this episode of the Church News podcast focuses on the Old Testament — called the Hebrew Bible by those of the Jewish faith — and scriptures and doctrines shared by members of the Jewish and Latter-day Saint faiths.
Featured is guest Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik, senior rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel, known as the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue of New York, the oldest Jewish congregation in America established in 1654. Rabbi Soloveichik has lectured internationally to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences; he hosts the daily podcast “Jerusalem 365” and is director of the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.
He offers his scholarly and spiritual insight into the importance of scriptural records, religious freedom and connecting across faiths.
Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik: So, in the midst of some very distressing aspects of what is occurring in our society, this is one of the wonderful phenomena that we can really celebrate, which is that precisely as much of larger culture has grown hostile to a great deal of what people of traditional faith hold dear, different faith communities have found each other. And they found each other, not by denying the real differences between them, but on the contrary, in the realization that we truly believe that truth, capital “T” truth, matters. And that visionary belief of truth is one of the most profound agreements that we can have. And our connection to scripture is one of the most profound connections that we can have. And so, the one real blessing of the many challenges that we, as people of faith, face in society today is the way we have found each other.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
This year as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints study the Old Testament, we dedicate this episode of the Church News podcast to the Hebrew Bible. Today, we welcome Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, a Jewish writer and educator and influential and important world religious leader. He is the senior rabbi of congregation Shearith Israel, known as the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue of New York, the oldest Jewish congregation in America. He is also director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University. Rabbi Soloveichik has lectured internationally to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He hosts several podcasts, including a daily podcast titled “Jerusalem 365,” which tells the story of Jerusalem in one year. You can find his writings and podcasts on his website, meirsoloveichik.com. Rabbi Soloveichik, we are so grateful you would take the time to join us today.
Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik: Thank you so much. It really is an honor.
Sarah Jane Weaver: We really appreciate you being here, especially as members of our faith have committed so much time this year to the study of the Old Testament. And I just want to jump in and have you tell us, is there something about the Old Testament that people often miss in their study?
Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik: So I think the most important thing to stress about studying what we Jews would call the Hebrew Bible or, in Hebrew, by the acronym Tanakh. Tanakh stands for Torah Neviʾim Ketuvim Tanakh. The Pentateuch Neviʾim, the prophets and Ketuvim are the writings and that refers to books, such as Ecclesiastes, and the Psalms and others. When it comes to the Hebrew Bible, or the Tanakh, the one thing, above all, that I would like to stress, is that this is not just a story delivered by revelation about the past. It is, of course, a story that is delivered by revelation about the past, but it’s not only that. The wonder of studying the Hebrew Bible, is that you are reading the story of a people. And that story is continuing today.
There’s a book by a scholar at University of Scranton, Maria Poggi Johnson, who authored a small, very eloquent volume about her experience living in Scranton, next to Orthodox Jews. And she begins the book by describing how she had been asked to teach a course on, I think the course was called “The Old Testament,” and this is not her area of expertise. And she had chosen to focus on it as a work of literature, as a story. And she would have her students study it the way you would study any other story. And so, she would read about Moses, and Aaron, and David, and their parents, figures with names like Joseph and Zipporah. And then, as she writes, she would go home and she would hear her [neighbors] just yelling out in the backyard, in the front yard to their kids playing outside, saying things like “Joseph put that down,” or, “Zipporah, be careful.” And using the same name, the same Hebrew words, from the very same text she was teaching. And she said that, paraphrasing what she wrote, she said, “The surprise and the strangeness of it jolted me out of my ‘Bible as great literature’ phase.” And then she adds the following, “The story, very obviously, was alive and well. You don’t run into the descendants of Oliver Twist, or find yourself living down the road from people who trace their ancestry back to Anna Karenina or Huck Finn. The Bible was a wonderful story, great literature to be sure, but it was a lot more besides.” Those are her words.
And so, that’s what I would hope people would bear in mind as they study the Hebrew Bible. It’s a revealed story about the past, but that story is also continuing in the present. And of course, the very same text makes profound predictions about the future. It makes profound predictions about the future, some of which have been fulfilled at our present time, and some of which have yet to be fulfilled. I had the great privilege of visiting BYU and speaking there about Orson Hyde, who journeyed to the Mount of Olives to pray for the promised return of the Jews to the Holy Land, a return, that at the time of Orson Hyde’s age, was promised and predicted, but had not yet occurred, and which our day has occurred. And so, I would hope as men and women of faith who study Hebrew scripture, in whatever language they’re studying it, that they focus on both the story itself, but also on the wonder of the fact that that story is continuing in our own age.
Sarah Jane Weaver:
Well, I love that idea, that something of ancient origins has daily relevance. What can we do to incorporate these teachings into our daily life?
Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik: So, I think the first and most important teaching that is put forward in the Bible is one that actually has enormous relevance to every day that we live. What are we told about right at the beginning? We’re told, of course, about the beginning, about the creation. And we’re told about man and woman being created in the image of God. Now, why does the Bible begin this way? I actually co-taught a course, I think was called “Biblical Anthropology,” when I was a grad student at Princeton, and I began by telling the students, you know, we’re supposed to teach the creation story. What can you teach about the creation story, in one class? What could you tell them about? And I said, actually, the most striking part about the creation story is how short it is, right? Because if you actually think about it, and this is a point made by my late, wonderful friend, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Let’s think about it in the following way:
How many verses does the Bible take to describe the creation of the universe, some tens of verses? How many verses does the Bible take in the book of Exodus to describe the creation of a tabernacle, by the Israelites in the desert? Over 600 verses. So, for God to create the universe, it just takes, you know, not that long, and to create, as Rabbi Sacks jokingly said, “One synagogue in the desert, that takes 600 verses. Why?” And he jokingly said, “Because the human-building projects are done by committees, so that makes everything take longer.” But, the point is actually much more fundamental and profound. And I’m extrapolating from what Rabbi Sacks says.
The point is as follows: God can tell us in 600 verses about the creation of the universe. We still wouldn’t really understand what it means for the Lord Almighty to create a universe that wasn’t there before. Rather, God is telling us something profound about us and something which reflects the most revolutionary idea that Hebrew scripture gave to the world, which is the following. The pagan world believed that Gods were, themselves part of nature, and that nature is divine. And part of that system is that the gods, themselves, were not free. Fate ruled everything. Whereas the Bible begins by telling you that there was a God who is outside the universe, and who existed before the universe came into being and who freely chose to create the universe. That means he is free. And, and here comes the next revolutionary step, also something which is an absolutely new idea at the time when the Hebrew Bible was written. We, as human beings, are created in God’s image. Which means, first and foremost, that we are free, that we are free to build our lives, how we choose. And yet of course, we are called to recognize our obligations toward the other, who was also created in God’s image. And the striking thing is that, today actually, as Rabbi Sacks oft noted, a lot of these ideas are being challenged on a daily basis, both the moral anthropology of the Hebrew Bible, as well as the approach to nature into the world of the Hebrew Bible. And so, the Hebrew Bible can guide us in so many different ways. But even its very first and most revolutionary teaching, is something that, actually both under assault today, and is one that that really should guide every moment in which we live.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And as you mentioned, we are living in sort of a tenuous, stressful, divisive time, not just in, in this nation, but in the world. What are some of the lessons or values from the Old Testament that, if implemented, could heal our nation or heal society?
Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik: So, here we quote and build on what I just said before by citing another wonderful book. And this is a book which I would really recommend, because it’s seeking to answer this question itself. And I have to sort of describe the background here, of why this is so interesting. This is a book called “Civility.” And it was written by Stephen Carter, who was an African American professor at Yale Law School. It’s a worthy book in its own right, but I’ll just add that, if I’m allowed to brag on the podcast, and…
Sarah Jane Weaver: You’re allowed to do anything.
Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik: With some of the, well this is intentional with the very biblical virtues that I’m, that I’m, that I’m praising, but, but I’m not bragging about myself and bragging about my wife, so I think it’s okay. If you look at the preface, he will also thank a student at Yale Law School, who says he learned a great deal from, but with the unusual name Layaliza, and that’s my wife. So, the book has a special place in my heart, aside from the larger virtues as the volume tells, but the story if you look in the book, this is a non-Jewish professor at the law school. And he quotes Jewish texts based on biblical teachings throughout. He is clearly very inspired by Judaism. So why? So he tells the story that when he was a young boy, he and his family, an African American family, moved into an all white neighborhood in Virginia. And he felt very alone. And he says, and as soon as they moved in, a woman came by and greeted them with a cheerful welcome and offered around, and this is clearly the fact that he remembers this decades later is striking, offered them all cream cheese and jelly sandwiches. And, and he writes how this woman’s name, who was a Jewish woman, by the name of Sarah Kassebaum, who was very religious, by his description, that she was very spiritually inspired, came to welcome them purely because she saw fellow human beings created the image of God. And he basically dedicates this entire book to her. This is one experience with a woman of faith, from outside his own faith community and from outside his own ethnic community, who, who’s very genuine love, changed his life.
And then decades down the road inspires this scholar and law school professor, to write this book about how we can restore civility in America. And this is what he writes, I’m just going to quote you from a small section of the book. He says, “Faith is not strictly necessary to civility. There are plenty of people who lack faith in God who are civil, there are plenty of people who profess faith in God who are not. But he continues, “I think it is likely that only a resurgence in all that is best about religious faith will rescue civility in America. For there is no more profound vision of equality than equality before God. And then he adds, I’m just quoting a few sections, “A life without faith is a life without the most powerful language of sacrifice and aspiration the human race has ever known. In the Western religious traditions, faith in God provided a justification” — and this is the critical point — “in the Western religious traditions, faith in God provides a justification for the equality that liberal philosophy assumes and cherishes, but is often unable to defend. In the absence of that language of loving sacrifice, that connection to the transcendent, civility, like any other moral principle, has no firm rock on which to stand.” So that’s the quote. And so essentially, what that means is that I’m not always optimistic about a bridging of divisions in America, but I do believe that it can only come with the restoration of the scriptural understanding of the human person. And because that, I think, is, as he says, the only secure foundation for the values that a modern, classically liberal society assumes and cherishes, as he puts it, but itself without scripture, unable to defend.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, it’s so important that we can talk about civility. But I actually love this idea that we reach that by getting to know one another and respecting one another. I was in New York City earlier this year, covering the Latter-day Saint ministry of Elder Quentin L. Cook and we happened to be there for Shabbat and had the opportunity to, to visit your synagogue on the Jewish Sabbath. And that was such an important and powerful experience for me for so many, many reasons. But I also really enjoyed observing your friendship with Elder Cook. I remember he actually complimented you on your hat.
Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik: Maybe I’m not, I don’t want to give away too much, but about our friendship, but actually, my hat store is in London and I know that Elder Cook was in London this summer, visited my hat store on m recommendation. So that was the highest honor that he actually listened to my hat store recommendation. I don’t know if he purchased a hat. But he did go to my favorite hat store, which is older than America itself, and maybe even older than my congregation, which is older than America. So, our friendship, which is an amazing friendship, is not based only on hats, but that is part of it.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And you know, Elder Cook has actually said that those who feel accountable to God, as obviously all of us do, that we should work together. Why is this concept so important?
Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik: So in the midst of some very distressing aspect of what is occurring in our society, this is one of the wonderful phenomena that we can really celebrate. Which is that precisely as much of larger culture has grown hostile to a great deal of what people’s traditional faith holds dear, different faith communities have found each other. And they found each other, not by denying the real differences between them, but on the contrary, in the realization that we truly believe that truth, capital “T” truth, matters. And that this very belief in truth, which is also the foundation of some of our disagreements, this very belief in truth is one of the most profound agreements that we can have. And our connection to scripture is one of the most profound connections that we can have. And so, the one real blessing of the many challenges that we, as people of faith, face in society today is the way we have found each other. I don’t know that I would have imagined, had I been growing up, you know, an earlier generation, coming as an orthodox rabbi, to speak at Brigham Young University. It just might not have happened. It just wouldn’t have, I don’t know if it would have come up. And now, we understand that we face many similar challenges. And that has led us to each other.
You know, one of the visits I made to BYU was with the president of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman This was right after he became the president. We have Yeshiva University, which is YU. There’s BYU and YU. And so I said to Rabbi Berman, “I was at BYU at a wonderful time. You should really go down and just see it, because it’s important. You run a religious university, and there is an incredible religious university in Provo. We can learn from each other.” And so I went with him and we journeyed down to Provo, and spent the day, meeting the elders in Salt Lake City also. And it was an incredibly inspiring trip. And then, just a couple of weeks ago, I met in New York, my friend, Elder Clark Gilbert, because he had come to meet at Yeshiva, to visit Yeshiva, to see the president there and to give us his wisdom. And so, again, this would not have happened 40, 50 years ago, and yet, we are genuinely friends and we are learning from each other and we are helping each other. And, in the midst of some very distressing changes within our culture, this is a change that I think could be genuinely celebrated.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And so many of us right now are worried about religious liberty and we seem to be talking so much about it, especially within religious circles. Help us understand why this matters so much.
Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik: So, in order to understand why it’s so important, we have to understand what the American vision of religious liberty is. We’re not at a point in America where I think we have to worry in the way an ancestor of mine might have been worried that a synagogue or church will be shut down. But the American version of religious liberty is not only about freedom of worship. It’s not only about your freedom to pray within the confines of a house of worship. Freedom of exercise, religious free exercise, is something much larger and much more robust. And this is very important to me because it’s precisely the United States of America that offered this promise to Jews. As you mentioned in my bio, I’m the Rabbi of the oldest congregation in America. We don’t like to talk about that except pretty much every day.
But, but what is the story of the early Jews in America? One of the early Jews in America that I talk about all the time, which I encourage your listeners just to Google and look up, is a man by the name of Jonas Phillips. Jonas Phillips was a member of my congregation. He moved to Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War after the British took Manhattan. And this was someone who was friends with some of the American Founding Fathers. And he wrote in 1787, a letter to the Constitutional Convention. And he was writing, because at that time, to serve in the state legislature in Pennsylvania, one had to take a religious oath that a Jew could not take. It was an oath that violated Judaism. And so he wrote to say, “We are patriots. We fought for America.” The way he puts it is that, “The Jews have been true and faithful Wigs, and we have fought and bled for liberty which we cannot enjoy.”
On the one hand, it’s a very striking thing to say, because the Jews of early America are a lot better off than the Jews living in the pale of persecution in Eastern Europe. He’s saying they have fought and bled for liberty, which we cannot enjoy. And what he’s saying is that true equality means that we recognize that the heart of faith is a system of values and beliefs, which when you leave your home, when you enter the public square, or when you enter the legislature, or wherever you go, you don’t check it at the door. It’s part of you wherever you go and it guides you wherever you go. And he’s essentially saying, “If I can’t come and serve in the legislature, not only as an American, but as a Jew, then I’m not truly free.” And the Jews of America understood that the United States was unique in the end in offering them this version of religious freedom. In France, after the Emancipation, the Jews were also welcomed in the name of freedom. But that freedom was, in the name of, at least initially after the revolution, a secular public square, where one would strip one’s religious identity from oneself. And that vision guides the French notion of equality and liberty today, but that is not the American version of religious liberty.
The American version of religious liberty understands that our faith guides us as we create universities, as we create hospitals, as we work with doctors, or as lawyers, or how we serve the poor, or when we are working to better society. Faith does not only guide us in our moments of worship. It guides us as profoundly elsewhere. And to some extent, one could argue that it’s even more important to emphasize that as we explain our faith, because it’s our faith that drives us to help those beyond ourselves, and to sanctify society beyond ourselves. And so when, now, we see threats to religious liberty, what’s essentially being threatened is the very nature of religious identity and faith itself. Because when we hear things like freedom of worship, not religious free exercise, when we hear that, just to cite the way things have been described in religious liberty controversies over the past 10 years, but when we hear things like “a hospital that is formed by a safe community that serves the larger community cannot be a religious institution, because it’s serving everybody.” Or when we hear things like “a university that serves the country and dedicates itself to studying subjects beyond the Bible itself cannot be a religious university.” What’s happening is both an assault on religious liberty, on American religious liberty, but also the redefinition of religion itself. Because it’s attempting to wall up faith within the home, and within the synagogue, and the church, and the prayer room, and the chapel, and to take it out of the public square. And that’s really what’s at stake in our debates about religious liberty today in America.
Sarah Jane Weaver: That’s super helpful and very interesting. I remember a few years ago, you received the Canterbury Metal from Beckett. And in that address, you said something that I thought so much about, you said “The soul of man is the candle to God.” And so, I’m hoping we can just talk a little bit about how each of us can be light kindlers.
Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik: Sure. So, to give the context of that citation, thank you so much for mentioning it, the citation was from the Hebrew Bible. It’s from the book of Proverbs. In Hebrew, “Ner Hashem Nishmas Adam,” which can be read today as, “The soul of man is the candle of God,” probably slightly more accurately rendered, as “The soul of men is the lamp of God,” because in the biblical period, they use lamps to illuminate, rather than candles. But today we could say “The soul of man is the candle of God.” So what does that mean? And what does it mean to say that as candles of God we can kindle our world, we can light our world? So for me speaking as a Jew, the way I would approach it is by looking at the profound spiritual symbolism of the two most famous Jewish rituals involving lamps or candles. And your listeners have to, I think, as Jews do, when we discuss this, we have to sort of imagine the power of these rituals in a pre-electric age, when the light of one candle could actually provide so much illumination.
So, the two rituals involving candles that we have, there are others, but the two most famous are the following. The first and most often is the Sabbath candles, which is that as we greet the Sabbath on Friday night, right before the sunset. We would not light candles once the sun sets. But right before the sun sets, candles are lit within the home. And this is one of the most cherished rituals of traditional Judaism performed by the mother of the family. And many women, and my wife included, will light one candle for every member of their home. So that in a, almost literal application of that verse in Proverbs, the candles, that Friday night, represent the souls of the members of that family: mother, father, and children. And my wife uses the candlesticks that were given to her by her grandmother, which she used to kindle candles. And so they’re very, very special to her. It’s actually people who will come and visit our home, you know, they’ll see these beautiful modern candlesticks for the candles for the children. But then there are two candlesticks, which are old and brass, and they may wonder, like, “That doesn’t fit. Why are they there?” And, of course, they’re there because they’re, their true splendor lies not in, in their design, but rather to whom they belong to. And so they would light candles, paralleling every child, and husband/father, and wife/mother. So I have, thank God, six children, so we have eight candles burning on a Friday night. But in the pre-electric age, that was the only source of light in the home. So if you have an enclosed home, and homes were smaller, originally, than they are now, the light would illuminate the home. And so, what the poetry of the ritual of the speaketh, of course, is father and mother, parents as the kindlers, the souls of their children, the sustainers, and teachers of the souls of their children. It’s because the candle’s flame is, on the one hand, so sensitive and on the other hand, it has such untapped power in it. So it reminds us to see our children as candles of God, to ponder the power that is in their soul, but also our responsibility to safeguard their souls. And of course, the home being filled with light, will highlight how the joint illumination of the family spiritually sustains the home within, from a world of darkness, without. The focus is on the separation between the home and that which is outside, the spiritual safety of the home, and the spiritual dangers that are outside. That’s the first ritual.
And then we have a second ritual. And that’s on Hanukkah. Hanukkah, when we remember the story that’s described in the text that today is known as the book of Maccabees, which for us is not, for Jews, is not part of sacred scripture. But it is still a very important text for which we can learn about what occurred during the Second Temple period. And Hanukkah marks the assault of a pagan empire on Jerusalem and the salvation of Jerusalem from that pagan empire. And therefore, the very continuity of Monotheism, itself, because there would be no Monotheism, were it not for the story of Hanukkah. That’s why the story pertains, not only to Jews, but to all Biblical communities of faith. And there, to remember that miracle, and to remember the light of the temple that was restored, we light a Hanukkah lamp, which is, today, called by many the Menorah, which is, the Menorah is the word used in Hebrew in the Hebrew Bible to describe the candelabra in the tabernacle in the temple. And here, the interesting point is not just what we light, but where we light.
So the original instruction is to light, unlike the Sabbath candles, to light the candles outside the door to your home, not in the public square, but right outside your door. I still do this actually. I live in a townhouse in Manhattan and I think I may be the only person in Manhattan with my kids to do this. My wife and I, and my kids, we stand outside our home. You know, we have a little glass case. When we first moved into this house, the previous tenants had left a fish tank and my wife said, “Oh, we can get fish.” I said, “That’s not for fish. That’s for Hanukkah.” And we light outside and that’s what they do it, throughout much of Israel, also. Today, many in America, many Jews light in the window to their home, so that this way, the light is still heading outward, as it were, rather than, like the Sabbath candles, inward.
Now think, for a moment, and this is the point made by my great-uncle, Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik. If you think about the age before electricity, if you go outside, it will be incredibly dark outside. Suppose you light one candle. So, what will that look like? Will it illumin the area like lighting inside the home, like for the Sabbath? No, but precisely because it’s so dark outside, because we light in the evenings, it will be a beacon. And you could see it from afar. So, if the Sabbath candles, lit in the home, as my great-uncle said, are candles that illuminate the entire area, then the Hanukkah candles, representatives are the opposites. They are a beacon of faith in an, at times, an all too dark world. And so, if you think now what these two different rituals together teach us, if we take them in tandem, I think now we understand that the first obligation of faithful families is to create homes of light. And to kindle the candles that are their children, to raise them in a home that is spiritually safe, precisely because it is filled with light. But our faith is not only for ourselves. And there comes a time when we have to bring their faith outside the safe confines of the home to an all too dark world, and to serve as witnesses to our faith. To serve as beacons. We can only do that, if we kindle the souls of our children first within, and then they can make their own individual light, manifest without. That’s my understanding, or unpacking, of how Jewish ritual treats the soul of man as the candle of God. One of the incredibly beautiful verses in Hebrew scripture.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, wow, if it’s possible, I love that verse even more now, after hearing your really profound explanation of it. And I want to talk a little bit more about the second light, because I think in society today, there’s kind of an idea that anyone can be religious, but they want us to be religious privately, you know, “It’s okay to worship, just do it on your own.” And I want to talk about why faith matters in the public square, why we should be able to take our faith and our whole person with this wherever we’re participating in society.
Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik: Right. So that’s incredibly important and it’s important for several reasons. First, for the reasons that I’ve outlined, which is that the concept of lighting a Menorah right outside your door is a way of saying that when we leave our homes, we don’t check our religious identity at the door. And that the greatness of America, and this is emphasized in writing for some of the fathers, is that they realized that this was something we could not ask anyone to do without asking them to amputate the most essential part of who they are from themselves. And that, itself, is unjust. Or as my friend, Yuval Levin, one of the great, insightful political writers today, put it, “Religious freedom is not the freedom to do what you want. It’s the freedom to do what one must.” This is who we are. And so we can’t just check that part of ourselves at the door as we leave our homes or as we leave our houses of worship. But it’s also important, not just for the question of human identity.
It’s important for America itself, because we know that at the very heart of America is, on the one hand, the value of individual liberty, but also the understanding of the founders, that individuality itself is not enough to sustain a society and a country. And so the question, of course, is, “What sustains the country? What creates the in-between when it comes to abridging the individual and the state?” And the answer of course is given by virtue of insightful writers of America, insightful, all the more, perhaps because he was from outside America and studied America as a newcomer. And that was Alexis de Tocqueville on his book “Democracy in America.” And what he wrote is that whenever something needs to be done in America, it’s done by an association. And as he described the most important things that happen in America, happened to a faith community. Because it is they who are driven by Biblical values to make things happen in America. It you don’t have that, then you’re left either with a fragmented society of individuals, which will lead to the epidemic of loneliness that we see sweeping across certain societies today, because of that lack of belonging, and that lack of community. Or the other possibility, which is equally worrisome, is that everything will need to be taken care of, by the state. And then you lose freedom itself, and you lose the individual, or even at the very heart of the American experience. So, understanding that faith is something we bring with ourselves into the larger world is important both for the objective understanding of how faith is and why religious freedom is important, but it’s also essential to the very well-being of America, because it’s an understanding of how religion can actually impact lives. That has always marked the uniqueness of America itself in the West.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And that sort of brings us full circle, because I want to close and talk about covenant living, because the Old Testament is a story of individual and community covenant living. So how do we apply this today?
Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik: Yeah, this is, I think, one of the most important lessons that the Hebrew Bible has to teach us. And I hope that won’t bring the intellectual level of our conversation down if I, if I introduced this point with a sports metaphor. But if Herb Brooks, the coach of the U.S. hockey team in the Lake Placid Olympics, also a seminal moment, obviously, in foreign policy, the victory of the U.S. hockey team over the Soviets in 1980 in Lake Placid. But one of his famous statements, as he sought to mold a group of players into a team is that, I’ll clean this up a little bit, he said, “When you put on your uniform, you represent your teammates and your country, and the name on the front is a lot more important than the name on the back.” Now, that’s an interesting way of looking at things. When you play sports, and I like sports, I’m from Chicago before I was in New York.
I took my children to see my hometown baseball team, the Chicago Cubs play the New York Mets in New York, and the Cubs won. So a good time was had by, well not by all. A good time was had by the Soloveichik family and less all by the many tens of thousands of New Yorkers that were there. But when we actually went, we have in our family, Cubs jerseys, which have the Cubs on the front. And then, they’re made for us by one of our friends. It says Soloveichik on the back. Now, if we apply the metaphor, to say that “The name on the front is a lot more important than the name on the back” is not to say the name of the back is unimportant. It’s rather to say that we discover meaning as individuals, with our own, unique, respective talents that have been gifted to us by God when those talents are utilized as part of something larger than ourselves.
And the best book on the subject, which I would recommend to your listeners, is by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. … He wrote a book called “The Home We Build Together.” And he uses the tabernacle story in the book of Exodus as the metaphor for what he’s trying to teach. And the question he asked is, “Why is the tabernacle and its building in the book of Exodus itself?” The Tabernacle utilizes — it is built for the purpose, at least, one of its purposes is, for the cultic rites and rituals, offerings on the altar, incense, lighting of the candelabra. So, Leviticus is the book that discusses these rituals. Why is the building of the tabernacle in Exodus, which is the political book of the Hebrew Bible that describes the redemption of the Jewish people, of the people of Israel. And his answer is that it’s in the book of Exodus, because it’s the building of the tabernacle that allows the people of Israel to finally form into one people.
There are several steps. The exodus from Egypt is an important step. The covenant at Sinai is, of course, an important step. But the true, true completion of that covenant comes when the people of Israel build something together, and they build a house of God together. And if you read the story of the tabernacle, you see that what’s striking about it is A: It’s coming through volunteering. B: It’s coming through unique gifts. Some have precious stones. Some have the gift of weaving. Some have the gift of artisanry. Some have gold. Some have silver. It’s, as the Bible says, “All who give from their hearts.” And so what the tabernacle represents, as Rabbi Sacks puts it, is “integration without assimilation.” Because we’re different, we each have something that we can give. But on the other hand, we note, our individuality is expressed by continental living, which is contributing to something that is much larger than the sum of its parts, and thereby, to our becoming part of something much larger than ourselves. And so there are many forms of covenantal living in America. Of course, the two primary ones are the family, of course, marriage and family is a covenant. And then the faith community. And both of those are important because at the heart of covenants is the feeling that we are not just part of something larger than ourselves like a club, but that we are part of an intergenerational chain. One of the most beautiful descriptions of covenants is given by Moses at the end of his life. And he says, “This bĕriyth,” bĕriyth is Hebrew for covenant, “making not only with you, but for those that are here today, and with those that are not here today.” Meaning we’re making a covenant now but it’s going to stretch onward into the future. And we can do that because, of course, at the heart of covenants is God and God is beyond time itself. That’s why, unlike a contract, covenants are intergenerational. And so, covenantal living is essential to a life of meaning in our world. And I think it’s precisely the breakdown of covenantal living, for so many, especially the breakdown of the family and the losing of membership in a faith community, that is at the heart of much of the loneliness and lack of meaning from which many are suffering in America today. The solution to the restoration of American vitality is a rediscovering of the Hebrew Bibles concept of covenants.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And Rabbi Soloveichik, this has been such an important conversation for us, I’m so thankful you would be willing to take some time for us today. On this podcast, we have a tradition, and we always have our guests answer the same question and we always give them the last word. And so I’m going to just turn the mic over to you and have you answer the question, “What do you know now?” And so what do you know now after your study of the Old Testament?
Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik: So my answer is that through my study of the Hebrew Bible, some of the most inspiring and religiously profound moments that I’ve had, have taken place, beyond the synagogue itself, and sometimes even more profound than in the synagogue. Now, this may make me sound like a terrible rabbi. So, let me just explain what I mean. Before my daughter became a Bat Mitzvah, which is when she is 12 she became obligated in all the laws of covenant. So I had studied all of the Hebrew prophets with her in advance, from Joshua, through Samuel, the Book of Kings, Judges, and then John, we looked at Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and then Zachariah, all Hebrew prophets. Then I had to go to Europe for a rabbinic trip. So my wife and I took her and we went to London, and I took her into the British Museum. And we went to the Asyria section. And they have, in the British Museum, the actual walls of the Palace of Sennacherib, the emperor of Assyria, who led an assault on Judea, and then ultimately, on Jerusalem.
And of course, if you read the Book of Kings, and Isaiah, you’ll learn that it was through Assyria that the northern kingdom of Israel was lost. Ten out of 12 tribes was lost. And so this was one of the greatest enemies that the Jewish people have ever known, and had Assyria succeeded in destroying Jerusalem, because what they would do is forcibly exile and then forcibly assimilate all of the captives. That would have been the end of Judaism…. But we know from the Bible that Jerusalem was saved in one of the greatest miracles in the Hebrew Bible itself.
Now, I’m standing there, looking at the remnants of what was once the mightiest empire on Earth, that is gone. And I’m standing there with my wife and daughter and we’re planning to go soon after to Jerusalem, the very same Jerusalem, to mark her entry into Jewish adulthood, and the continuity of the covenant. And had I not studied carefully the Hebrew prophets, I would have still been a religious Jew. But now, I can’t tell you how many different visits to museums around the world have highlighted for me the very miracle of what it means to be a descendant of the people whose story you read in the Hebrew Bible.
And so I think the best summary of this, would be, would come from, and I quote this all the time, would come from the American writer, Walker Percy who wrote the following, and then this basically sums up what has, thanks to my study of the Hebrew Bible, become really a foundation of my own faith, I think I speak personally. When people ask me, “Why do you believe” and “What is the source of your faith?” Well, this is really part of it. And here’s what he says, he says as follows, “Where are the Hittites? Why did no one find it remarkable that in most world cities today, there are Jews, but not one single Hittite, even though the Hittites had a great, flourishing civilization, while the Jews nearby were weak and obscure people. When one meets a Jew in New York, or New Orleans, or Paris or Melbourne, it is remarkable that no one considers the event remarkable. What are they doing here? But it is even more remarkable to wonder, ‘If there are Jews here, why are there not Hittites here? Where are the Hittites?’ Show me one Hittite in New York City.” And so, I live in New York City today. I thank God that I live in a Jewish community in New York City today. But for me, to ponder the miracle of Jewish eternity, one has to truly learn the Hebrew Bible, and then I think, whether one is Jewish or not, one will find one of the great arguments for faith in our time.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests, to my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on The ChurchNews.com.