|Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik was a charismatic lecturer.|
Forty years ago, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the head of Yeshiva University’s rabbinical seminary, made a rare trip to Philadelphia to speak at the University of Pennsylvania.
That began a chain of events that will culminate on Sunday night in a book launch for the second volume of a Torah commentary collecting Rabbi Soloveitchik’s teachings.
The author and editor of the commentary, Dr. Arnold Lustiger, was a student at Drexel University in Philadelphia in 1975. Intrigued by the chance to hear the famous rabbi, he attended the lecture.
“It was a tour de force,” he remembered this week, “I had never heard anything remotely like this in my life. Here was someone who speaks the language of halacha” – of Jewish law – “but at the same time has the ability to place it in a philosophical and homiletical context.”
Dr. Lustiger was a graduate of the Philadelphia Yeshiva, where rabbis and students wore black hats and Rabbi Soloveitchik “was viewed with cognitive dissonance.” The rabbis at the Philadelphia Yeshiva had to admit that Rabbi Soloveitchik was a brilliant Torah scholar – but where they generally counseled avoidance of non-Jewish studies, Rabbi Soloveitchik embraced the encounter with the non-Jewish world.
So too did Dr. Lustiger, whose academic studies would lead him to a doctorate in materials engineering and his present position as a senior research scientist for Exxon. (He lives in Edison and his research specialty is polymer science – in other words, plastics.)
“I resolved to find out everything I could about the Rav,” he said, using the Hebrew word for rabbi. That’s how Rabbi Soloveitchik was referred to by his disciples – including more or less all the rabbinical students who passed through Yeshiva University, some 2,000, for the 43 years until his retirement in 1985 – and in turn by their disciples.
In Philadelphia in the 1970s, there weren’t a lot of ways to learn more about Rabbi Soloveitchik. Dr. Lustiger did travel to New York a handful of times, to go to one of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s weekly public lectures, and he even sat in on Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Talmud class at Yeshiva University for a couple of days. Little trace of Rabbi Soloveitchik could be found on the printed page. Rabbi Soloveitchik, for all his prodigious teaching and speaking, famously was a perfectionist when it came to publishing. By 1975, only a couple of carefully crafted essays had appeared in the journal of the Rabbinic Council of America, and there was a thin volume summarizing some lectures written and published by students at Yeshiva.
Over the years, though, a stream of publishing began. Then, following Rabbi Soloveitchik’s death in 1993, the floodgates opened. Tapes of his lectures began to be distributed. When Dr. Lustiger discovered that a man in Queens was selling copies of 100 different recordings of Rabbi Soloveitchik, “I bought up his entire collection.”
And Dr. Lustiger discovered that the books that had come out in the intervening decades represented only a fraction of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s thought.
So he began to transcribe and edit lectures into books.
Then he started preparing a commentary for the Yom Kippur Machzor, which was published by the OU Press. In 2013, the OU Press published the first of his planned five volumes of commentary on the Torah.
Now, the second volume, on Exodus, has been published. On Sunday night, its release will be marked by an event in Teaneck that will feature, in addition to Dr. Lustiger, Rabbi Steven Weil of the Orthodox Union and Rabbi Yossi Adler of Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck. Rabbi Adler is a noted disciple of Rabbi Soloveitchik and author of a Passover haggadah collecting Rabbi Soloveitchik’s teachings.
The new Torah commentary was not written by Rabbi Soloveitchik, of course. Instead, it brings together remarks from Rabbi Soloveitchik on the Torah collated from hundreds of recorded lectures. Most of the lectures focused on Talmud and halacha, but many included a few minute discussion of the weekly Torah portion. Other times a verse would be explained on the way to making a larger point. Dr. Lustiger has extracted such comments and brought them to the verse to which they refer. The result is some verses have many notes, from many talks, highlighting the different perspectives that Rabbi Soloveitchik would bring to the Torah.
“All of the approaches to the text are in the commentary at one point or another,” Dr. Lustiger said. “I wanted to give people an idea of the breadth of the Rav.”
The comments on the opening verses of this week’s portion, Terumah, illustrate this, with references to the Talmud, Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed, and one of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s 18th century ancestors, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin.
With 300 tapes spanning 20 years, almost every Torah passage shows up in Dr. Lustiger’s Soloveitchik library at least once (though Dr. Lustiger has yet to find a reference to the leprosy of houses, a topic that shows up in the Leviticus volume on which he is now at work).
For other passages of the Torah, the Rav had a great deal to say about very few words. Few people pay attention to the verse that precedes the Ten Commandments in Exodus: “And God spoke all these words, saying:” (Exodus 20:1). In June 1972, however, Rabbi Soloveitchik gave a lecture explaining those seven Hebrew words. It comes to 10 pages in the book, placed in the back as an appendix.
One of the recurring themes in the commentary, Dr. Lustiger said, is the philosophical paradox of how an infinite God can reside among finite men. Why does God command the building of a tabernacle? How is prayer possible? How does God choose a people and decide that this nation has the merit to build his house for him?
Dr. Lustiger hopes “to some small extent” to duplicate for readers the sense of awe and discovery he felt when he first heard Rabbi Soloveitchik speak all those years ago – with the strong caveat that “to write about and summarize the Rav is absolutely nothing like hearing him and the charisma that he had.”
But to his satisfaction, he has found that the experience gets through.
“I just heard of a shul in Flatbush, a yeshivish shtiebel, where they sold off all of their ArtScroll machzorim and they’re using the Rav machzor,” he said. “They read it and they said we have got to have it.”
|Save the date|
|What: “Chumash Mesoras HaRav – Sefer Shemos” book launch
Who: Rabbi Steven Weil, Orthodox Union senior managing director; Rabbi Yosef Adler, dean of the Torah Academy of Bergen County and rabbi of
When: Sunday, February 22, at 8 p.m.
Where: Congregation Rinat Yisrael, 389 West Englewood Avenue, Teaneck