The Rav, Reb Chaim of Brisk, & Socialism!
To many Americans, the term “socialism” conjures immediate feelings of suspicion and paranoia. For much of the population, socialism is a threat to the fundamental economic system that the United States is founded upon: capitalism and free enterprise. Yet, from philosophical and socio-economic standpoints, socialism is ideologically complex and includes a significant range of differing philosophical theories and political frameworks. In other words, there is no one entity called “socialism,” but a cornucopia of ideas that falls under a greater umbrella of thought that has shaped the world for the last several centuries.
For example, in his 1924 edition of the Dictionary of Socialism, Angelo S. Rappoport discussed no fewer than forty potential definitions of the term. Indeed, one way to understand the term is as a comprehensive movement that contrasts itself with the perils of unregulated capitalism. If we see capitalism as production controlled by a class of people and determined by supply and demand, socialism wants to give those who produce, the workers control of the means of production, helping to make sure that all are being taken care of according to their needs.
While there are endless discussions about how to accomplish this goal, what it means to “take care of needs” and who is in charge of this task, this does not necessarily correspond to “communism” or a form of socialism where the state—as a representative of the working classes—takes over the means of production, controlling it and equalizing the salaries and benefits of all, as was attempted in the Soviet Union. Even President Franklin Roosevelt, in his 1944 State of the Union address, remarked that, “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” For Roosevelt, creating a more equitable distribution of wealth was vital to the future health of America. When he passed just over a year later, these ideas were not pursued by succeeding administrations.
There are other strategies such as the kibbutzim in Israel or the European welfare state where sub-groups work to ensure the wellbeing of their constituents while still competing in the global market. As a result of the Cold War between Communist Russia and Capitalist America, however, these categories were often conflated and seen as an antithesis to the American brand of capitalism.
Where does this political and ideological conflict leave us today? Despite the fact that the Berlin Wall fell over three decades ago, socialism (and the general notion of communism that gets lumped with it) continues to be seen as an anathema to many, especially in the Orthodox community. For a variety of reasons relating, it is also common to declare socialism as anti-American and the antithesis of what makes this country a formidable economic power. All the more so in the Orthodox community where the standards and expectations of living are increasing, becoming more ideologically aligned with “the white establishment,” making people less inclined to support the proletariat. Often, the opposition to centralized economic power has been in the form of asking for smaller government, reducing public services traditionally used by the poor as a safety net.
Yet, at the same time, there is Orthodox support for socialism, at least in theory. Foremost in the support is Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1903-1993). Despite his death nearly thirty years ago, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, one of the most prominent Modern Orthodox thinkers of all time (and who still has a disproportionate legacy at Yeshiva University and amidst other mainstream modern and centrist Orthodox institutions) explicitly condemned the excesses of materialism within his community and asked for dialogue with those of different faiths. While he appears to be less political in contrast to his brother, Rav Ahron who actively supported the Civil Rights Movement for example, “The Rav” proudly identifies his grandfather Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik—the esteemed Reb Chaim of Brisk—as a socialist. It’s a fascinating insight given the religious stature of his grandfather.
Unlike many American Orthodox Jews today, Rav Chaim, a prominent Talmud scholar and founder of the “Brisker method” of Talmudic analysis, lived in what is now Belarus (specifically in Volozhin, Slutsk, and Brisk) and was no stranger to the poverty of Eastern Europe; he often saw many of his students suffer from its vicious effects. In 1979 lecture, Rabbi Soloveitchik said in regard to his grandfather that:
I am more impressed by Reb Chaim’s heroism as far as social justice is concerned. If there was a real socialist, not a Marxist socialist… it was Reb Chaim. He possessed a most sensitive conscience and sensitive heart, along with unlimited courage… There was once a strike in Brisk. I am not trying to mislead you, since who could strike in Brisk? They did not manufacture anything. One article they did manufacture was, however: namely matzah. So those who worked in the matzah shops went out on strike. Reb Chaim supported them and collected money to feed the people who were on strike…Reb Chaim almost lost his rabbinate as a result, but he would not deviate (The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Volume 1, 198-199).
This was not a one-off idea for Reb Chaim. Rather, it was a deep Torah worldview that a person’s role is to reduce suffering for others and to advocate for a more just society. The Rav continues this thought in his writings:
My uncle, Rabbi Meir Berlin, told me that he once asked Reb Chaim…“What is the role of the rabbi?” Reb Chaim replied and said: “To prosecute the humiliation of the lonely and abandoned, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor.” Not teaching, not political leadership, but the realization of an ideal of justice… (Halakhic Man, pg. 80 in the Hebrew Version).
In an essay (“Tzedakah: Brotherhood and Fellowship, p. 137”), the Rav explains that Judaism goes even further than socialism:
“The metaphysical perspective rejects the concept of private property: a human being cannot own property or money. In this sense,Judaism manifests a distinct socialist strain, one that denies private property even more forcefully than does European socialism. The latter maintains only that the means of production must not be owned by private interests that exploit workers; however, what the individual attains through his toil, pursuant to the laws of the socialist regime, becomes his own property to which he has absolute title. Judaism, in contrast, asserts that the human being owns nothing at all, and there is no way a person can acquire property in this world. In truth, socialism acknowledges private property but insists on a just economic allocation of that property, one premised on labor as the generator of economic value. Judaism rejects the idea of human title to property, maintaining that everything belongs to God; He is the master of the world and its owner , in the simple legal sense. Human beings are merely borrowers and custodians of objects belonging to God, and the owner can appear at any time and reclaim His property. “Mine is the silver and Mine the gold” (Hag. 2:8); “Let not the rich man glory in his riches” (Jer. 9:22); “For all the earth is Mine” (Ex. 19:5); “For you are strangers and sojourners with Me” (Lev. 25:23).”
Every religious Jew doesn’t need to commit to being a socialist or even to leaning toward policies with socialist leanings; that would be ridiculous to suggest. On the other hand, there is a real need to commit to care for others, to do anything that alleviates the suffering of those around us. While socialism, however that is ultimately defined, may only be one way to do so, it should be taken seriously as an intellectual framework to achieve a vital end goal of peace and equity for all people. One cannot simply point to historic or contemporary social models that one deems a failure and claim the ideology is valueless.
Furthermore, if the Rav is indeed someone revered then it befits religious Jews who see themselves as his students to, at least, take socialism—even in its most innocuous forms—seriously and study the concepts and theories involved so that they can use it to combat suffering. Specifically in relationship to the America of 2020, it means that when there are politicians who are described as socialist that that label or epithet does not end the debate but, instead, deepens it. Rather than sit and discuss labels—whether they are meant supportively or pejoratively—we need to do the important work to think about how to combat injustice and oppression both within and outside our communities. May we be able to talk about socialism in a healthy manner and to create effective strategies and dialogue to achieve the honorable goal of eradicating suffering throughout the world.
 Rappoport, Angelo, 1924, Dictionary of Socialism, London: T. Fischer Unwin.
 A prime example of this is the British welfare state where organizations such as the National Health Service (NHS) are there to ensure the well-being of all British citizens regardless of their economic standing. England and other European countries actually established these measures to fight communism because they realized that with these measures, they could help alleviate the suffering of the poor while also preventing these poor from uniting and attempting to take over the government.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 18 books on Jewish ethics.
The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.