The Rav: Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik
By Drew Kopf
On Sunday, April 14, 2013, corresponding to 4 Iyar, 5773, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary an affiliate institution of Yeshiva University and its Center for the Jewish Future held a symposium at the University's Wilf Campus in Washington Heights to commemorate the 20th yahrtzeit, the annual remembrance, of Rabbi Joseph Ber (Yosef Dov, Yoshe Ber) Soloveitchik (1903 - 1993), zt"l, which was funded by a generous grant from Rabbi Max N. Schreier and his family and a substantial number of community leaders, educators and rabbis who knew or were students of the man referred to affectionately as the Rav.
This well organized and extremely well attended event came a little less than a year after a very sparsely attended day-long seminar held at the same location, which had also focused on the Rav and his thinking, his teaching and his accomplishments and that ended with an appeal by one of the organizers made to the forty or so who had stayed to the conclusion for suggestions on how to bring the great works of the Rav and his message to us all on how to get the absolute most out of every day and every moment of one's life out to the masses of people who would stand to benefit from them.
Someone must have come up with the answer to the appeal made at that first session, at least in part, because in excess of two thousand people showed up at Yeshiva College's Lamport Auditorium to memorialize Rabbi Soloveitchik in April and articles and books about the Rav disseminating examples and summaries of his thinking and teaching gleaned from his unpublished writings and the tapes and notes made by his "talmeedeem", his students, during his "shiurim", classes, are now being made available more than ever before.
The April Symposium was an amazingly moving and thoroughly engaging day for anyone who devoted that Sunday to the concentrated absorption of the Rav's take on "Halacha", the Torah driven way of life through the observance of it's Mitzvos, Commandments, and where and how mankind can and must relate to the L-rd to find meaning and joy on earth. With so much pain and suffering almost every where we point our eyes in the world today, the observations and directions of Rabbi Soloveitchik can come as a welcome ray of hope to anyone willing to work to get his or her arms around the concepts the Rav put forth and to work them into their lives so that they may be a comfort to them as they endeavor to make sense of the world and our place in it.
Surely, if you were the first person to fly, your name will be remembered. In the realm of Torah study, those who learned and contributed to the ongoing dialog that explains and brings the meaning of the words forward have become part of the great fabric of the "Meforsheem", Talmudic commentators, who will stay alive through their words and "Halachic" concepts, Jewish legal concepts surrounding the Torah way of life, as the generations of student who learn Torah and teachers who teach Torah keep doing so and doing so from one generation to another.
This actually became a moving and powerful point made by Rav Soloveitchik himself in an audio tape played for the attendees at the symposium with subtitles provided to help compensate for the roughness of the recording made in 1974. It was played just prior to the last speaker before the luncheon break and will be described more completely below.
Good things come in small packages was the by word of the day. The President of Yeshiva University spoke for just a few moments but captured the Rav very well and quickly: He said the Rav made Torah into a story and that if you asked almost anyone who knew the Rav they would tell you that they were really the closest to him; he just had a way of making people feel so very special.
Rabbi Julius Berman, Chairman of the Board, of the RIETS - Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, helped further by explaining how he felt so often about the Rav and about his own father; if he could just have 15 minutes with him ... terrific feeling he captured for so well and again so quickly.
The Dean of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Rabbi Yona Reiss talked about the many versions of the Rav there seemed to be, which was helpful as he introduced each of the main presenters.
Dr. Atarah Twersky, former Chair of the School Committee at Maimonides School, the Rav's daughter, told of her memory of her father, who she nearly always referred to as the Rav none the less. Her capturing of him was delightful. She recalled, as was done often that day, that the Rav saw himself as a "Malamud", a teacher, but that after all these years she now sums him up as a "Bal Emunah", a Master of Faith (in G-d), rather than just a Malamud. Dr. Twersky ended with a small but heart wrenching story of a person who had come to the Rav for some kind of relief from a strict interpretation of a particular Halacha, Jewish religious rule of law. The person left telling her, "Your father is a remarkable man" even though there had been no solution to the person's problem, the Rav had offered the person sympathy and support, which had apparently made a great deal of difference to the man all while maintaining the position and value of the Torah.
Rabbi Hershal Shachter, Rosh Yeshiva, or Dean of Talmudic Studies, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, described the Rav's life as a kind of love song with "Torah shel Beal Peh", the Oral Torah, i.e. the Mishnah and the Talmud. He shared a personal "confession of the Rav where he admitted that he felt he was ineffective in conveying the right attitude on to his "talmeedeem", students, regarding humility in that too many become "chutzpadic", intellectually arrogant when it comes to their learning.
Rabbi David Shatz, Professor of Philosophy at Stern College of Yeshiva University, spoke of the Rav capturing the attention of the larger world and the blending of optimism and faith. He presented a detailed summary of the Rav's thinking on the dialectic of man regarding man as having been created to conquer the earth and, at the same time, man having been also created as a covenantal partner of the L-ord, which is covered in several of the Rav's books. Rabbi Dr. Shatz talked of how the Rav saw the Passover Seder as a teaching tool; i.e. "Talmud Torah", the studying of Torah. He summed up the Rav as having been a person who Impacted history and inspired thousands.
Rabbi Kenneth Brander, Dean of the Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future, helped those who were not privileged to have attended the "shiurim", classes, given by the Rav. There were a few moments when he gave us a peek at the Rav in a very rare and personal way; his mentioning of the Rav's housekeeper, Mrs. O'Shea, and how he treated her and really everyone who came into his orbit was very revealing about the Rav as a man; as a person, and how genuinely kind and respectful he was towards people.
The rough but discernable tape recording, mentioned earlier, of the Rav when speaking at a "Pidyon HaBain" ceremony, which is when a first born son is symbolically redeemed from what would have been his destiny to have been a priest in the Holy Temple and to serve the people and G-d in that way. When Aaron and his decedents were dedicated as a family forever to serve as priests in the Holy Temple, it alleviated the firstborn sons from that responsibility and as a gesture or reminder of this, a Kohain, a priestly descendent, is given a certain token amount of money by the young boy's father to symbolically redeem his son from what would have been the child's lifetime responsibility; i.e. to serve G-d.
The Rav first explained the very special relationship that a grandfather has with his grandchild. He explained that the relationship between grandfathers and their grandchildren actually transcend the relationship between parents and their children and that it is the grandparent-grandchild relationship that is fundamental for the "Messorah" community, the Jewish communal heritage community through which customs, historical experiences and the essentials of the covenantal relationship with G-d are passed on from generation-to-generation, but really which makes all generations, early and late, become one large and contiguous community.
The "uniting of generations" as the Rav described it is greater than just the idea of it. It is a feeling as well. That is when he filled out for those present what he felt almost always took place shortly after he entered his classroom to conduct a "shiur", Talmud class. When he first entered he confessed he always felt so very very old compared to the young twenty-two year olds who are his students. He was all wrinkled and they were all bright and effervescent. He felt pessimistic and depressed about the prospects of being able to bridge the age gap that so evident. How could he interest them in anything that he might have to share? But, then, quietly the door reopened and an even older looking gentleman than the Rav entered the room. It was the grandfather of the Rav, Rab Chaim Briska; then, another even older than he; from the 17th century; the Shach. Then, from the 11th century. Then the 12th century and the 13th century; Rashi, Rambam, Ramban, the Rasbaw, and all speaking the same language with the dialog running from one of the Rav's students defending one of the Meforsheem and another student attacking him, even if in an inappropriate manner, which the Rav waded in to correct in a soft but still a scolding way But one vision, the Messorah; marching through the centuries and between the generations, which, as the Rav said, will bring about the redemption of the Jew.
The Rav asked, "Why should a modern Jew care anything about Israel?" There is a silent communication between the generations regarding survival as a nation, the importance of the Land of Israel and of the importance of Torah.
At the end of these "shiureem", classes, the Rav reported that he comes out of the room younger; younger than his students. He has defeated age and oldness.
The Pidyan Ha Bain ceremony is symbolic of the blending of the generations. He helped put it in perspective by reminding his audience of the Haftara of the First Day of Rosh Hashanah where Hannah says "about this young boy for whom I had prayed" i.e. referring how long she had prayed to the L-rd that she might conceive and then finally gave birth to Samuel.
Listening to the tape from 1974, gave those who did not know the Rav an insight into the way he developed an argument and wove together the fabric of his message that his students, whether they be guests at a family function or rabbinical candidates in the highest level class in the seminary, could take away and use immediately and pass on to others when the situation might repeat itself someday. He taught not for the moment but for forever.
Rabbi Mayer Twersky, the Leib Merkin Distinguished Professorial Chair in Talmud and Jewish Philosophy at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) of Yeshiva University, focused on the Rav as a Malamud, a teacher, and his, the Rav's faith. Rabbi Twersky reminded his audience that the Rav never made excuses for Yahadus, Torah based and Torah driven Judaism, even in the face of popular philosophical systems and ways of interpreting the world. He concluded that the Rav's generation and our current one are in need of hearing the Rav's message. His conclusion might appear at first blush to be a positive one. However, as observed earlier, though some one may have come up with a way to increase the number of attendees at a program about the Rav from the forty or so the summer before to more than two thousand in the spring, the question posed by the final speaker during the summer program nearly a year earlier; i.e. how to bring the great works of the Rav and his message to us all on how to get the absolute most out of every day and every moment of one's life out to the masses of people who would stand to benefit from them, still stands.
The breakout sessions after lunch gave attendees several opportunities to zero in on aspects of the Rav's life of achievement in areas of specific interest to them.
The entire day was terrific in every sense of the word. It was jam-packed with so much information and insight about the Rav, the way he thought, what he taught and how he felt about Judaism and its importance to mankind that anyone who knew him or knew of him would have come away with a tremendous feeling of having honored the man's memory as he himself would have wanted; i.e. as a way of teaching and learning Torah. But, the day was also terrific in a much less positive sense of the word; i.e. "full of terror," because when one considers the condition of the world, by which we mean the myriad of people in it and how they interact and relate to one another, it is clear that the world is in very deep trouble. There is angst and disharmony everywhere. Even among the Jewish People there are factions upon fractions upon fractions. Everyone makes Shabbas for themselves is an old phrase that comes to mind.
One can only guess what might be the effect of getting the Rav's way of thinking out to there; and not just for Jews, but for everyone.
Another phrase that comes to mind is: The wheels of progress grind slowly.
The Rav died twenty years ago. There may have been similar such symposia along the way, but how and to whom they were made known must have made them quite limited in scope. The availability of the Rav's written and spoken word has been becoming more prevalent thanks to the growing interest among those who knew and those who knew of him and, more, to those who had kept their notes from his classes, or who had made tape recordings of his shiurim, Talmud classes, and to those in charge of the Rav's personal documents and notes and who have been structuring and organizing them into a usable format for others to gain access and know.
But, with all of that, the message of the Rav has been preached mainly to the choir; to those who are already committed to his way of thinking. Though when that is said it does not necessarily include those who just are committed to the way of thinking but who may not act accordingly; and to the Rav, as his daughter Dr. Atarah Twersky, stressed at the opening of the day, action was a must. There are many who say one thing but who act in another way when it comes to accepting those outside their affiliated group. Whether they are being reached by the voice of the Rav even if they know his message word for word is highly doubtful and perhaps even more difficult to accomplish. Overcoming such arrogance and obstinacy in the garb of self-righteousness is nigh onto impossible.
How do the words of the Rav get to people who would benefit from knowing him and his message? His wisdom may be in the books being published, but his words will remain on the pages in those books and unread unless something drastic is done and done soon. If something is not done to broadcast the message of the Rav beyond the target audience currently being addressed, it is possible that his words will remain one of the best kept secrets there is.
The mission may seem truly impossible. But, in the same way that the Rav was, in the words of his daughter, a Bal Emunah, a Master of Faith, his devotees, anyone within the sound of his voice, needs to adopt that very kind of Emunah, faith, and attack the problem with whatever means may be at their disposal. His wisdom and guidance for living a happy and rewarding life are clear and for all of us; not merely for the Jewish People, but everyone. He was diametrically apposed to religious arrogance and discrimination. There is so much of that today it is more the norm than not.
How does that get remedied? The Rav spent his life honing his understanding of the Mesorah, the Jewish generational unanimity and bringing it in sync with modern times so that it can be appreciated generally. He did what he could. It is up to the rest of us to take things to the next level. It is the right thing to do. How can anyone who knows the joy of living the life of faith outlined by the Rav justify keeping it a secret in any way from anyone else? The program at Yeshiva University to memorialize the Rav will continue to accomplish its objectives to the extent that the Rav's lessons continue to be taught to the uninformed. It can only be hoped that others may come up with ways to finally accomplish the Rav's noble and faithful objectives. May it be so.