Joseph Soloveitchik

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Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik

Joseph Ber (Yosef Dov) Soloveitchik (Hebrew: יוסף דב סולובייצ'יק) (1903-1993) was an American Orthodox rabbi, Talmudist and modern Jewish philosopher. He was the descendant of the Lithuanian Jewish Soloveitchik rabbinic dynasty.

As Rosh Yeshiva of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University in New York City, The Rav, as he came to be known, ordained close to 2,000 rabbis over the course of almost half a century. He advocated a synthesis between Torah scholarship and Western, secular scholarship as well as positive involvement with the broader community.

He served as an advisor, guide, mentor, and role-model for tens of thousands of Jews, both as a Talmudic scholar and as a religious leader.


Location of modern Belarus.
Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik was born on February 27, 1903 in

Pruzhan, then in Poland (now part of Belarus). He came from a rabbinical dynasty dating back some 200 years: his grandfather was Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, and his great-grandfather and namesake was Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, the Beis HaLevi. His great-great-grandfather was Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (The Netziv). His father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik (note different spelling of last name), preceded him as head of the RIETS rabbinical school at Yeshiva University.

Early years, education, and immigration

Soloveitchik was educated in the traditional manner at a Talmud Torah, an elementary yeshiva, and by private tutors, as his parents realized his great mental powers. According to a curriculum vitae written and signed in his own hand,[1] in 1922 he graduated from the liberal arts `Gymnasium' in Dubno. Thereafter he entered in 1924 the Free Polish University in Warsaw where he spent three terms, studying political science. In 1926 he came to Berlin, Germany and entered the Friedrich Wilhelm University. He passed the examination for supplementary subjects at the German Institute for Studies by Foreigners and was then given full matriculation at the University. He took up studies in philosophy, economics and Hebrew subjects, simultaneously maintaining a rigorous schedule of intensive Talmud study.

According to the CV, among his "highly honored" teachers in university, "Geheimrat", were Professor Dr. Heinrich Maier and Professor Dr. Max Dessoir, along with Professor Dr. Eugen Mittwoch and Professor Dr. Ludwig Bernhard.

Contrary to most biographies, which erroneously state that in 1931 he wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the epistemology and metaphysics of the German philosopher Hermann Cohen and received his degree that same year, he actually passed his oral doctor's examination on July 24, 1930, but graduated with a doctorate only on December 19, 1932. Documents exist to support this assertion, possessed and publicised by the late Manfred Lehman.

In 1931 he married Tonya Lewitt (1904-1967), who had earned a Ph.D. in education from Jena University. He studied the work of European philosophers, and was a lifelong student of neo-Kantian thought.

During his years in Berlin, Soloveitchik made the acquaintance of another young scholar pursuing a similar path to his own - Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner who would become the rosh yeshiva of the Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin also in Brooklyn, New York . Both of them developed a system of thought that bridged the Eastern European way of traditional scholarship with the new forces of modernity in the Western World. It is suggested that he also met with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, during this time. However, Soloveitchik's son, has denied that they ever met in Berlin.[2]

In 1932, after his 1931 marriage to Dr. Tonya Lewitt (1904-1967), he immigrated to the United States and settled in Boston.


Soloveitchik would refer to himself as "The Soloveitchik of Boston". He pioneered the Maimonides School, one of the first Hebrew day schools in Boston in 1937 where he originally intended to settle and resided there when not teaching in New York. When the school's high school was founded in the late forties, he instituted a number of innovations in the curriculum, including teaching Talmud to boys and girls studying in classes together. He involved himself in all manner of religious issues in the Boston area. He was at times both a rabbinical supervisor of kosher slaughtering - shchita- and gladly accepted invitations to lecture in Jewish and religious philosophy at prestigious New England colleges and universities. His own son-in-law was on the faculty of Harvard University.

New York

File:Rabbi Soloveitchik and class 3x2.jpg
Rabbi Soloveitchik, right, teaching Talmud to advanced students. Sitting next to Soloveitchik in the front row is Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein

Joseph Soloveitchik followed his father, Rabbi Moses (Moshe) Soloveichik, to become the head of the RIETS rabbinical school at Yeshiva University in 1941.

Not satisfied that young Orthodox women were granted the opportunity to study at Stern College for Women, the women's affiliate of Yeshiva University, Soloveitchik advocated more intensive textual Torah study for Jewish women, giving the first class in Talmud inaugurated at Stern College. With his enlightened outlook, he attracted and inspired many young men and women to become spiritual leaders and educators in Jewish communities worldwide. They in turn went out with the education of Yeshiva University to head synagogues, schools and communities, where they continue to influence many Jews to remain committed to Orthodoxy and observance.

Philosophy and major works

Torah Umadda synthesis

During his tenure at Yeshiva University in addition to his Talmudic lectures, Soloveitchik deepened the system of "synthesis" whereby the best of religious Torah scholarship would be combined with the best secular scholarship in Western civilization. This has become known as the Torah Umadda - "Torah and Science" the motto of Yeshiva University. Through public lectures, writings, and his policy decisions for the Modern Orthodox world, he strengthened the intellectual and ideological framework of Modern Orthodoxy.

In his major non–Talmudic publications, which altered the landscape of Jewish theology, Soloveitchik stresses the normative and intellectual centrality of the halakhic corpus. He authored a number of essays and books offering a unique synthesis of Kantian existentialism and Jewish theology, the most well-known being The Lonely Man of Faith which deals with issues such as the willingness to stand alone in the face of monumental challenges, and Halakhic Man. (See [1] and [2].)

The Lonely Man of Faith

In The Lonely Man of Faith Soloveitchik reads the first two chapters of Genesis as a contrast in the nature of the human being and identifies two human types, Adam I and Adam II - representing "majestic man" and the "man of faith": Soloveitchik shows that both are fulfilling the will of the Creator.

In the first chapter, Adam I is created together with Eve and they are given the mandate to subdue nature, master the cosmos, and transform the world "into a domain for their power and sovereignty." Adam I is majestic man who approaches the world and relationships--even with the divine--in functional, pragmatic terms. Adam I, created in the image of God, fulfills this apparently "secular" mandate by conquering the universe, imposing his knowledge, technology, and cultural institutions upon the world. The human community depicted in Genesis 1 is a utilitarian one, where man and woman join together, like the male and female of other animals, to further the ends of their species.

In chapter two of Genesis, Adam II, on the other hand represents the lonely man of faith - bringing a "redemptive interpretation to the meaning of existence". Adam II does not subdue the garden, but rather tills it and preserves it. This type of human being is introduced by the words, "It is not good for man to be alone" - and through his sacrifice (of a metaphoric rib) he gains companionship and the relief of his existential loneliness - this covenantal community requires the participation of the Divine.

Halakhic Man

In Halakhic Man Soloveitchik propounds the centrality of halakha in Jewish thought. His theological outlook is distinguished by a consistent focus on halakha, i.e., the fulfillment and study of the divine law. He presents the halakha as the a priori basis for religious practice and for the theological foundation for Jewish thought. Soloveitchik emphasizes halakha's "this-worldly, here-and-now grounding", as opposed to religious approaches that focus on the nature of the transcendent realm. This work argues that Jewish piety does not, therefore, fit familiar models of Western religiosity, and presents a phenomenology of this religious type. Here, "Halakhic man", as a result of his study of Torah and his observance of the commandments, develops a set of coherent attitudes towards intellectual activity, asceticism, death, esotericism, mysticism, creativity, repentance, and providence. He also underscores the necessity for individual self-creation as the divinely assigned task of the human being.

Other views and controversy

Soloveitchik became a "lightning rod" of criticism from two directions. From the religious left, he was viewed as being too connected to the Old World of Europe, while for those on the religious right, he was seen as legitimizing those wanting to lower their religious standards in the attempt to modernize and Americanize. Despite this criticism, Soloveitchik remained steadfast in his beliefs and positions throughout the years of his leadership.

Departure from the traditional Brisker view of Zionism

Soloveitchik was proud of his connections to the Soloveitchik rabbinic dynasty, speaking fondly of his "uncles" and chiding them from time to time in public. To his relatives and namesakes who now lived in Jerusalem where they had established their own branch of the anti-Zionist Brisk Yeshiva, he was respected for his genius in Talmudic scholarship which few could challenge or disparage. However, Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik (the "Brisker Rav") and his followers still viewed him as their wayward cousin who had departed from the family Haredi tradition.

Debate over world view

Many of Rabbi Soloveitchik's students became leaders in the Modern Orthodox community. These students tend to espouse very distinct world views, often attributing their own views to Rabbi Soloveitchik himself. These students include Rabbis Avi Weiss and Yitz Greenberg, who represent more liberal Modern Orthodox institutions such as Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Edah. Many students of Rabbi Soloveitchik represent a centrist approach to Modern Orthodoxy (which Rabbi Norman Lamm has coined "Centrist Orthodoxy") such as Rabbis Aharon Lichtenstein, Shlomo Riskin and Norman Lamm. Further to the right in the spectrum of Orthodoxy lie Rabbis Yehuda Parnes and Abba Bronspiegel, both of whom resigned from teaching positions in Yeshiva University to form right-wing alternative Lander College. Some of Rabbi Soloveitchik's students even identify with the Haredi world, such as Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, Rabbi Soloveitchik's nephew. Rabbi Meiselman has claimed that only he, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, and Rabbi Hershel Schachter truly understood Rabbi Soloveitchik.[citation needed]

Integration with secular society

Soloveitchik accepted Samson Raphael Hirsch's philosophy of Torah im Derech Eretz, the philosophical basis of Modern Orthodox Judaism. Since his death, interpretations of Soloveitchik's beliefs have become an ongoing debate. Haredim and many on the right wing of Modern Orthodoxy believe that Hirsch only wanted Jews to combine an observant Jewish lifestyle with learning the surrounding gentile society's language, history, and science, so that a religious Jew could earn a living in the surrounding secular society. There exists a fringe position among scholars of Soloveitchik's philosophy that states that this pragmatic approach was adopted by Soloveitchik as well. According to this view, neither Hirsch nor Soloveitchik approved of Jews learning secular philosophy, music, art, literature or ethics, unless it was for the sole purpose of obtaining a livelihood.

In contrast, most scholars believe that this understanding of Soloveitchik's philosophy is misguided. This issue has been discussed in many articles in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought, published by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). In this view, both Hirsch and Soloveitchik approved of more than merely the study of the surrounding secular society's language, history, science. They also believed that it was permissible and encouraged for Jews to learn secular philosophy, music, art, literature and ethics for its own sake. Both Hirsch and Soloveitchik studied secular philosophy, ethics and literature themselves, a testament to their positive approach toward such study.

Own criticism of his students

Soloveitchik stated that although he felt that successfully transmitted the facts and laws of Judaism to his students, he felt that he failed in transmitting the experience of living an authentic Jewish life. He stated that many of his students "act like children and experience religion like children. This is why they accept all types of fanaticism and superstition. Sometimes they are even ready to do things that border on the immoral. They lack the experiential component of religion, and simply substitute obscurantism for it....After all, I come from the ghetto. Yet I have never seen so much naïve and uncritical commitment to people and to ideas as I see in America....All extremism, fanaticism and obscurantism come from a lack of security. A person who is secure cannot be an extremist." (A Reader's Companion to Ish Ha-Halakhah: Introductory Section, David Shatz, Yeshiva University, Joseph B. Soloveitchik Institute)


Shortly after the Rav's passing, Rabbi Norman Lamm, President of Yeshiva University, in a eulogy for the Rav delivered on April 25, 1993, urged his auditors to "guard...against any revisionism, any attempts to misinterpret the Rav's work in both worlds [the world of Torah and the world of Madda(Science)]. The Rav was not a lamdan who happened to have and use a smattering of general culture, and he was certainly not a philosopher who happened to be a talmid hakham, a Torah scholar.... We must accept him on his terms, as a highly complicated, profound, and broad-minded personality.... Certain burgeoning revisionisms may well attempt to disguise and distort the Rav's uniqueness by trivializing one or the other aspect of his rich personality and work, but they must be confronted at once." (Lawrence Kaplan Revisionism and the Rav: The Struggle for the Soul of Modern Orthodoxy, Judaism, Summer, 1999)

Relations with non-Orthodox Jews

Soloveitchik did not approve of many of the beliefs and practice of Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism. He believed that where these groups differed from Orthodox Judaism, the non-Orthodox groups were in significant error. One of the major differences debated was the existence of a mechitza in the synagogue, a divider between the men's and women's section of a synagogue. In line with the traditional rabbinic understanding of this issue, Soloveitchik ruled that it was forbidden to pray in a synagogue without a separation between the sexes. As such, he effectively forbade people from praying in all Reform synagogues and in many Conservative synagogues. His responsa on this issue was also aimed at the small number of Orthodox synagogues that were adopting mixed-sex seating.

Soloveitchik believed that Reform and Conservative rabbis did not have proper training in halakha and Jewish theology, and that due to their decisions and actions could not be considered rabbis as Orthodox Jews normally understood the term. He was a lifelong critic of all forms of non-Orthodox Judaism. On the other hand, in practice he often granted non-Orthodox rabbis some level of validity (see the examples below).

Soloveitchik developed the idea that Jews have historically been linked together by two distinct covenants. One is the brit yi'ud, "covenant of destiny", which is the covenant by which Jews are bound together through their adherence to halakha. The second is the brit goral, "covenant of fate", the desire and willingness to be part of a people chosen by God to live a sacred mission in the world, and the fact that all those who live in this covenant share the same fate of persecution and oppression, even if they do not live by halakha. Soloveitchik held that non-Orthodox Jews were in violation of the covenant of destiny, yet they are still bound together with Orthodox Jews in the covenant of fate.

In 1954 he wrote a 1954 responsum on working with non-Orthodox Jews, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews in the United States: Second article in a series on Responsa of Orthodox Judaism in the United States. In this responsa he recognized the leadership of non-Orthodox Judaism as Jewish communal leaders (but not as rabbis in the Orthodox sense of the term), and concluded that participation with non-Orthodox Jews for political or welfare puposes is not only permissible, but obligatory.

The Haredi Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Yisroel countered with a ruling that such cooperation with non-Orthodox Jews was equivalent to endorsing non-Orthodox Judaism, and thus was forbidden. In 1956 many Yeshiva leaders, and two Modern Orthodox rabbis from his own Yeshiva University signed and issued a proclamation forbidding any rabbinical alumni of their yeshivot from joining with Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism rabbis in professional organizations.

Soloveitchik refused to sign it outright, maintaining that there were areas, particularly relating to problems that threaten all of Judaism, that required co-operation regardless of affiliation. His refusal emboldened other Modern Orthodox rabbis, and the Rabbinical Council of America and Union of Orthodox Congregations then joined the Synagogue Council of America, a group in which Orthodox, Reform and Conservative denominations worked together on common issues. (The Synagogue Council of America ceased operating in 1994.)

In the 1950s Soloveitchik and other members of the RCA engaged in a series of private negotiations with the leaders of Conservative Judaism's Rabbinical Assembly, especially with Rabbi Saul Lieberman; their goal was to create a joint Orthodox-Conservative Beth din (rabbinic court) which would be a national beth din for all Jews in America; it would create communal standards of marriage and divorce. It was to be modelled after the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, where all the judges would have been Orthodox, while it would have been accepted by the larger Conservative movement as legitimate. For a number of reasons (such as the Conservative movement not wanting to lessen the legitimacy of their own rabbinate), the project did not succeed. (Bernstein, 1977)

Until the 1950s Jews of all denominations were generally allowed to use the same communal mikvaot (ritual baths) for the purposes of converting to Judaism, following the rules of niddah in regard to the Jewish laws of family purity, kashering dishes, etc. However a growing trend in Orthodoxy was to deny the use of mikvaot to non-Orthodox rabbis for use in conversions. Soloveitchik counselled Orthodox rabbis against this practice, insisting that non-Orthodox have the option to use mikvaot. (Wurzburger, 1994)


Soloveitchik was accepted as the pre-eminent leader of politically conscious pro-Zionist modern Orthodox Judaism; out of respect for this, many leaders and politicians from Israel sought his advice and blessings in state affairs. He was reputedly offered the position of Chief Rabbi of Israel, such as by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, but he quietly and consistently refused this offer. Ironically, despite his open and passionate love for the modern State of Israel, he never visited the State. (He did visit Israel in the 1930's, before the state was established.)

Affiliated organizations

In his early career in America Soloveitchik joined with the traditional movements such as Agudath Israel of America and the Agudat Harabanim - the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of North America. However as he became entrenched in the Modern Orthodox outlook, he removed himself from the former organizations, and instead joined with the Mizrachi Religious Zionists of America (RZA) and the centrist Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), where many of his students were to be found in leadership positions. Whilst he was bound scholastically and through family connections to the more Haredi Agudath Israel group, his world-view had placed itself at the center of Modern Orthodox Judaism, with its stress on excellence in secular studies, the professions, and active Zionism.

Family and last years

The Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993) in his later years

Soloveitchik's children married prominent academics and Talmudic scholars: his daughter Tovah married Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel (with a PhD from Harvard University); his daughter Atarah married the late Rabbi Dr. Isadore Twersky, former head of the Jewish Studies department at Harvard University (who also served as the Talner Rebbe in Boston). His son Rabbi Dr. Haym Soloveitchik is a professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University. His siblings include Dr. Samuel Soloveitchik (d. 1967), Rabbi Ahron HaLevi Soloveitchik (1917-2001), Mrs. Shulamith Meiselman, and Mrs. Anne Gerber. His grandchildren have maintained his heritage and also hold high scholarly positions.

As he got older he suffered several bouts of serious illness. Family members cared for his every need and distinguished people came to visit him in his last years in Boston, where in 1993 he was laid to rest at the age of ninety.


Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik unfailingly captured the adoration of his students. Known by all as "The Rav", he became arguably the greatest leader of Modern Orthodoxy in the twentieth century, often espousing innovative positions on educational, political, and social issues within the Orthodox world. His ordination of over 2,000 Orthodox rabbis at Yeshiva University, during forty years at its helm, attests to his power and efficacy as well as his consistency and determination.

Works by Joseph Soloveitchk

  • Three letters by Soloveitchik on seating in the synagogue are contained with The Sanctity of the Synagogue, Ed. Baruch Litvin. The Spero Foundation, NY, 1959. An expanded third edition of this book is Edited by Jeanne Litvin. Ktav, Hoboken, NJ, 1987.
  • Confrontation, Tradition 6:2 p5-9, 1964. Reprinted in "A Treasury of Tradition", Hebrew Publishing Co, NY, 1967.
  • The Lonely Man of Faith, Tradition, vol. 7#2, p56, 1965. This essay was published as a book by Doubleday in 1992 and reprinted by Jason Aronson in 1997.
  • Sacred and Profane, Kodesh and Chol in World Perspective, Gesher, Vol. 3#1, p5-29, 1966. This article has been reprinted with expdanded notes in Jewish Thought, Volume 3 #1, p55-82, 1993
  • Shiurei Harav -- A Conspectus of the Public Lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Ed. Joseph Epstein. Hamevaser, Yeshiva University, 1974.
  • The Community, p7-24 ;Majesty and Humility, p25-37; Catharsis, p38-54; Redemption, Prayer and Talmud Torah, p55-73; A Tribute to the Rebbetzin of Talne, p73-83 are all printed in Tradition 17:2, Spring, 1978.
  • Several of Soloveitchik's responsa for the RCA Halakha commission are contained in Challenge and mission: the emergence of the English speaking Orthodox rabbinate, L. Bernstein, Shengold, NY, 1982.
  • Halakhic Man Tranbslated by L. Kaplan, Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia PA,1983
  • Fate and Destiny: From Holocaust to the State of Israel Ktav Publishing, Hoboken NJ 1992 and 2000.
  • The Voice of My Beloved Knocketh translation by L. Kaplan in Theological and Halakhic Responses on the Holocaust, Eds. Bernhard H. Rosenberg and Fred Heuman. Ktav/RCA, Hoboken, NJ, 1993
  • Family Redeemed: Essays on Family Relationships, Edited by David Shatz and Joel B. Wolowelsky. Ktav, Hoboken, NJ, 2004.
  • Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Mourning, Suffering and the Human Condition, Edited by David Shatz, Joel B. Wolowelsky and Reuven Ziegler. Ktav, Hoboken, NJ, 2004.
  • Worship of the Heart: Essays on Jewish Prayer, Edited by Shalom Carmy. Ktav, Hoboken, NJ, 2004.
  • Emergence of Ethical Man, Edited by Michael Berger. Ktav, Hoboken, NJ, 2005.
  • Community, Covenant and Commitment - Selected Letters and Communications, Edited by Nathaniel Helfgot. Ktav, Hoboken, NJ 2005.
  • Festival of Freedom: Essays on Pesah and the Haggadah, Edited by Joel B. Wolowelsky and Reuven Ziegler. Ktav, Hoboken, NJ 2006.

Legacy of his hashkafa (worldview)

  • Rabbi Norman Lamm A Eulogy for the Rav, Tradition 28.1 1993
  • Rabbi Walter S. Wurzburger Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik as Posek of Post-Modern Orthodoxy, Tradition Volume 29, 1994
  • Joseph Soloveitchik, article in the Encyclopedia Judaica, Keter Publishing
  • Seth Farber Reproach, Recognition and Respect: abbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Orthodoxy's Mid-Century Attitude Toward Non-Orthodox Denominations American Jewish History, Vol. 89,#2 193-214, 2001.
  • Zvi Kolitz Confrontation: The Existential Thought of Rabbi J.B. SoloveitchikKtav, Hoboken, NJ, 1992
  • Simcha Krauss, The Rav on Zionism, Universalism and Feminism Tradition 34:2, 24-39, 2000
  • Alan Todd Levenson, "Joseph B. Soloveitchik's 'The Halakhic Mind'; a liberal critique and appreciation", CCAR Journal 41,1 55-63, 1994
  • Aharon Ziegler, Halakhic Positions of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Jason Aronson Inc., 1998.
  • Aharon Ziegler Halakhic Positions of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Vol II Jason Aronson Inc., 2001
  • Aviezer Ravitsky Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik on Human Knowledge: Between Maimonidean and Neo-Kantian Philosophy, Modern Judaism 6:2 157-188, 1986.
  • David Hartman Love and Terror in the God Encounter: The Theological Legacy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001
  • Ed. Moshe Sokol, Engaging Modernity, Rabbinic Leaders and the Challenge of the Twentieth Century, The Orthodox Forum, Jason Aronson, 1997

Cooperation with non-Orthodox Jews

  • Rabbi Norman Lamm, Seventy Faces, Moment Vol. II, No. 6 June 1986-Sivan 5746
  • Rabbi Mayer E. Rabinowitz Comments to the Agunot Conference in Jerusalem, July 1998, and on the Learn@JTS website.
  • Rabbi Louis Bernstein The Emergence of the English Speaking Orthodox Rabbinate, 1977, Yeshiva University
  • Rabbi Emmanuel Rackman, letter in Jewish Week May 8, 1997, page 28.
  • Joseph Soloveitchik Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews in the United States: Second article in a series on Responsa of Orthodox Judaism in the United States, 1954
  • Jack Wertheimer, Ed., Tradition Renewed: A History of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Vol. II, p.450, 474, JTS, NY, 1997

See also


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External links