Once, when Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik was a young man living in New York, he was waiting for the subway when a woman pushed him and herself into the tracks. A train was approaching, and he struggled to get not only himself out of harm's way, but her as well. So taken with his kindness was a nearby priest that he asked Rabbi Soloveichik to bless him on the spot.
Such concern for all human beings and for morality in everyday life marked the life of Chicago's rabbinic statesman and member of one of Jewry's most renowned rabbinic dynasties. Revered Torah scholar Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, dean of Yeshivas Brisk in Chicago, died Oct. 5 at the age of 84 after suffering a heart attack.
His was a life punctuated equally by kindness and scholarship.
"My father's role as teacher, rabbi and leader was not separate from his role as father," said his son Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik, associate dean of Yeshivas Brisk. "He was a father to his students and a teacher to his children. The two were intertwined for him."
Rabbi Soloveichik, or Rav Ahron, as he was commonly known, was born in 1917 in Khaslavichy, Russia, where his father, Rav Moshe, was the town rabbi and another link in a long line of rabbis who revolutionized the study of the Talmud. At the age of 13, the young Ahron emigrated with his family to New York, where his father taught at Yeshiva University, a role that was later continued by Rav Ahron's older brother, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik, known simply as "the Rav" and considered one of the leading rabbinic luminaries of the 20th century.
Rav Ahron earned rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and a law degree from New York University. He spent 20 years teaching in yeshivot in New York before moving to Chicago in 1966 to become dean of the Hebrew Theological College. In 1974, he founded Yeshivas Brisk, a high school and yeshiva dedicated to study in the Brisker method introduced by his ancestors ― a scientific, rigorous study of the Talmud that gives pride of place to primary sources, especially Maimonides, and is now the norm at most yeshivot. He is the author of two books, Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind and The Warmth and the Light, and numerous volumes in Hebrew.
Unlike his brother, who was known mainly as a Jewish philosopher, Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik was regarded as a leading expert in halakha, Jewish law. Many in Chicago and abroad looked to him for guidance in making religious decisions and in issuing psakim, religious decisions.
"To him, every decision in life was based on halakha," said Rabbi Louis Lazovsky, who received ordination from Rabbi Soloveichik and is the spiritual leader of Kesser Maariv synagogue in Skokie. "There's none who can replace him; when he died, I felt like my father died."
It was this emphasis on Jewish law that informed Rabbi Soloveichik's views, according to those who knew him. He was against the Vietnam War on moral grounds, feeling that it endangered the lives of innocent people. Similarly, he felt that the U.S. atomic attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was racially motivated, a stand that literally drove him out of his synagogue in New York.
Yet, the rabbi defied categorization as a liberal. He was a strong opponent of the Oslo accords between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
"My father's stands on issues had nothing to do with political affiliation; they had to do with moral sensitivities," said his son Moshe, who is also rabbi of congregation Beth Sholom Ahavas Achim in Hollywood Park. "For him, nothing stood in the way of human life. He cannot be labeled, because for him, each issue was evaluated on its own merits."
Rabbi Soloveichik took great interest in Israeli politics, and he was consulted by the country's prime ministers, whom he didn't hesitate to call to voice his views. He often visited Israel, where two of his children live, and had a home in Beth Shemesh.
He was equally knowledgeable of American life, a fact that made an impression on his student Rabbi Asher Lopatin, spiritual leader of Anshe Sholom Bnai Israel in Lakeview.
"His American patriotism was very powerful," said Lopatin, who consulted Rabbi Soloveichik weekly on issues relating to Jewish law. It is precisely this realm of living a halakhic life in the modern world that made Rabbi Soloveichik such a giant, according to Lopatin. "He tried very hard to make sure his psak [religious ruling] worked within that rabbi's particular community," he said.
Despite suffering a debilitating stroke in 1983, which left him partially paralyzed and in great pain, Rabbi Soloveichik continued a grueling schedule of teaching in Chicago and traveling to New York weekly to teach at Yeshiva University, a role he took upon the death of his brother, who had previously been the school's dean. It's a routine he maintained until just before his death.
Rabbi Soloveichik's wife, Ella Shurin, died several months ago, a fact that has not gone unnoticed. Those who knew them say theirs was the ideal marriage.
"There was no doubt that he was incomplete without her, and she was incomplete without him," said Lazovsky. "She was half his soul."
Lopatin remembers the rebbetzin lovingly packing several days worth of the rabbi's favorite food and worrying about him while he was in New York each week. "They were incredibly dependent on each other," he said.
Rabbi Soloveichik was involved in the larger Jewish community, taking up causes long before they were popular. An early and passionate advocate of education for special needs children, he was regularly consulted by the leadership of Keshet in Chicago and was active in the founding of a school for special needs children in New York.
"Rabbi Soloveichik was in many ways the moral and religious presence of the Chicago Jewish community," said JUF/Jewish Federation President Steven B. Nasatir. "He was a giant from a family of giants and we were blessed to have him in our midst for as long as we did."
He is survived by six children -- sons rabbis Moshe and Eliyahu, who live in Chicago, and Yosef and Chaim, who live in Israel, and daughters Rochel Leah Marcus, who lives in Toronto, and Tova Seigal of Newton, Mass. -- and almost 40 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He is also survived by two sisters in Jerusalem. He was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
Memorial donations may be made to Yeshivas Brisk, 3000 W. Devon Ave., Chicago, IL 60659.