In the presence of greatness

In the presence of greatness

What the Rav means for non-Orthodox Jews

Many of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s students followed in his footsteps and devoted their careers to teaching Talmud. Such students dominate the senior cohort of Yeshiva University’s rabbinic faculty. A few took the teaching outside Orthodox walls; among them is Rabbi Michael Chernick of Teaneck, who teaches Talmud at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in Manhattan.

Asked to summarize the importance his teacher represents for his own students – and for the broader non-Orthodox community – this is what he wrote:

The Rav was a thinker who deeply probed issues of the interface between modernity and tradition, issues with which every contemporary Jewish denomination struggles. Any Jewish thinker who sensibly explains the value of traditional observance, and provides a deeply moving and intellectually satisfying rationale for it, is valuable to the thinkers and committed members of Orthodox and non-Orthodox movements alike. Since the Rav was a master of rationalizing tradition in the most eloquent and persuasive terms, he is important to all Jewish movements as they seek their own way of engaging tradition.

Reform Judaism no longer defines itself by its negation of the claims of tradition. Rather, in its present-day form it is ready to give tradition, usually meaning Jewish ritual observance, a vote but not a veto. Contemporary Reform Judaism In its most committed form asks its serious adherents to have knowledge of the tradition, to observe it at least on a conditional basis, and then to choose it if it has spiritual meaning or reject it if it does not. The Rav’s Jewish thought is important to that process, though clearly the Rav would under no circumstances have tolerated the “choice” aspect of this program. After all was said and done, the Rav considered halachah as binding, and it was for him the sole prism through which the full spiritual potential of a Jew could be attained.

Nevertheless, for any thoughtful Jew of whatever stripe the Rav’s Jewish thought – not only his brilliance when dealing with halachic sources – is a tool for deeply considering what his or her Jew

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