In the presence of greatness

In the presence of greatness

Students remember Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik 20 years after his death

Rabbi Soloveitchik is flanked by Rabbi Dovid Lifshitz, left, and Rabbi Menachem Genack, right, at Genack’s wedding.

Rabbi Jacob Schacter was 5 years old when he first met Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Orthodox scholar and teacher who died 20 years ago at the age of 90.

Schacter was accompanying his parents on a visit to patients at the hospital.

“As we walked to the main entrance, coming to us was a tall distinguished-looking gentleman surrounded by five adults,” Schacter recalled this week.

“My father excitedly whispered to me, ‘That’s Rabbi Soloveitchik, that’s Rabbi Soloveitchik.'”

Schacter, a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University, will be speaking about Soloveitchik at a program Sunday at Yeshiva University, where Soloveitchik taught Talmud and ordained thousands of rabbis over a 45-year career.

Schacter’s father, Rabbi Herschel Schacter, was the first rabbi ordained by Soloveitchik. (The senior Schacter, who died last month at 95, at one point led the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations but was most notable for his role as an Army chaplain, where he was the first rabbi to visit the liberated Buchenwald concentration camp.)

Already, at 5, Jacob recognized the name his father whispered.

“I remember knowing who that was, that that was a very special person.

“My father introduced me to Rabbi Soloveitchik. He said, ‘Rebbe, this is my son.’ Rabbi Soloveitchik leaned down and gave me a caress on my cheek.

“At this point, one of the gentlemen leaned down and said to me, ‘Don’t wash your face for a whole week.”

For a child whose mother reminded him to wash his face every night, this was a shocking – and memorable – command.

“Metaphorically, I can still feel the caress on my cheek, as the influence of Rabbi Soloveitchik continues to be profound on my life,” he said.

Schacter is hardly alone in feeling that influence. From the beginning of Soloveitchik’s career at YU in 1941, when he replaced his father, Rabbi Moses Soloveichik, who died mid-semester, on the rabbinic school’s faculty, until he retired from teaching and public appearances in 1986 as Parkinson’s disease made teaching and weekly travel from his home in Boston too difficult, Soloveitchik was the leader of Yeshiva University’s variety of college-educated Orthodoxy. He was mostly referred to simply as “the Rav” – meaning the rabbi.

Locally, it was his students who first filled the pulpits and then filled the pews as Bergen County’s Orthodox community grew.

It is no surprise, therefore, that four of the 13 speakers at a day-long commemoration Sunday at Yeshiva University live in Bergen County, as does one of the speakers at an event held this week at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the “open Orthodox” rabbinical seminary in the Riverdale section of the Bronx that opened in 1999.

In many ways, the young Schacter’s first experience of Soloveitchik, which included both a loving caress and a mysterious command, proved to be an early introduction to the Rav’s religious message. Soloveitchik’s worldview combined a belief that halachah, or Jewish law, is the central principle of Judaism with a strong conviction that the commandments reflected God’s love for man.

“He referred to our relationship with God as a romance, something very real, something very emotional, very experiential,” Schacter said.

“He would say, ‘We are not robots.’ A robot can also shake a lulav, but as human beings, we need to engage the totality of our humanness in our relationship with God. It’s necessary but insufficient to do the act; we need to do so with the humanness that is at our very core.

“Rabbi Soloveitchik was obviously very insistent on the proper and appropriate mitzvah performance.

“In our world today, sometimes there’s an emphasis on the exactitude of behavior to the exclusion of the emotional connection. Sometimes there’s a focus on the emotional and the spiritual to the exclusion of the practicality of the law. The combination of the two is a very important message,” Schacter said.

Soloveitchik was born in present-day Belarus in 1903. The bulk of his early education was in the Talmud and traditional texts – but his mother, Peshka Feinstein Soloveichik, introduced him to the writings of Ibsen, Pushkin, and Bialik as well. (The younger Soloveitchik did not spell his name as his parents spelled theirs.) He was tutored in secular subjects; his first formal secular education began when, at 22, he entered the University of Berlin. It was there that he met Tonya Lewitt, whom he married in 1931. She died in 1967.

His grandfather, Rabbi Chayim Soloveichik, had been his generation’s most prominent Talmudic scholar, and the Rav often felt a gap between his old-world experience and that of his American-born students.

He felt “that he was very successful in conveying to his American yeshivah students the complexity of the halachic system in all its richness, but was not as successful in conveying what it felt like as a little boy with his father and grandfather on Yom Kippur,” Schacter said.

Now it is Schacter and his colleagues’ turn to try to convey the emotional feeling of their own religious mentor. The youngest of Soloveitchik’s students are now approaching 50; half of YU’s undergraduates were born after his death. And where once he was able to demarcate clear lines for the Orthodox community he led, now his one-time students disagree on “what would the Rav have said.”

With Sunday’s daylong commemoration of Soloveitchik, “we hope to give those who ‘did not know Joseph,’ to draw from a biblical verse – who did not have a primary direct connection with him – some sense of the complexity and multiplicity and genius of this extraordinary human being,” Schacter said.

At the heyday of his career, the Rav would pack a hotel ballroom with 1,500 people, who had come to listen to a four-hour talk on repentance or a Talmudic passage. He would give such public lectures two or three times a year.

“He was so charismatic,” recalled Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the Orthodox Union’s kosher certification service, rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Englewood, and editor of some of Soloveitchik’s lectures.

When he was a student at Yeshiva, even before he advanced to the level of Soloveitchik’s top-level Talmud class, Genack would attend the Rav’s weekly Tuesday night class at a Manhattan synagogue. He started going to those classes in 1964; he continued studying with Soloveitchik as long as he taught.

Genack said what captivated him about Soloveitchik was “his extraordinary pedagogy.”

He would discuss a Talmudic passage and ask a question that “seemed so devastating. Then the solution he presented seemed so obvious.

“The experience of being in his shiur [class] was so unique. You knew you were in the presence of historic genius,” Genack said.

Genack will speak about Soloveitchik’s method of Talmud study on Sunday.

In discussing a Talmud and Jewish law, the question would not be why God commanded a particular mitzvah, Genack said. “God’s reasons are beyond explanation,” he quoted Soloveitchik as having told listeners.

Instead, there would be a focus on the “what” of a commandment – and in analyzing the subtle ways later commentators understood it differently.

Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of YU Center for the Jewish Future, which is organizing the Sunday event together with YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, first encountered Soloveitchik when he was in 10th grade. His father took him to one of the public lectures.

“I don’t remember much about it; just the throngs of people who were there,” Brander said.

“It was intriguing to watch the engagement with his audience, when people tried to give answers to the questions the Rav threw out, and then the Rav basically dissected the answers.”

In organizing the conference, “We’re trying to not just focus on the philosophy of the Rav, but on the Rav as a person. Most importantly, one of his daughters, Atarah Twersky, is going to speak,” Brander said.

“We want to make sure the next generation doesn’t just know the Rav’s torah, but also the Rav’s personality, that part of his romantic relationship with Hakodesh Baruch Hu” – the Holy One Blessed Be He – “was not just his knowledge of all of Torah and all of philosophy, but really was his concern for humanity and the Jewish people,” Brander said.

As a student at Yeshiva, Brander served as one of the Rav’s assistants. That gave him a chance to view the personal side of his teacher, who would fly to New York from Boston on Tuesday morning and spend two nights in a private apartment in one of the student dormitories before returning to Boston after teaching class on Thursday. Brander would share meals with Soloveitchik, organize his calendar, take dictation, and stay overnight in the apartment with him.

Brander will speak on the Rav as “ish hachesed” – a man of kindness.

“As a teacher, he had pretty rigorous demands of his students within the classroom,” he said. “Outside the classroom, I witnessed a Rav who was not only charming and warm, but always concerned with the needs of the individual as he interacted with students, heads of state, other gedolei Torah, and lay leaders or rabbis from various communities. He felt the pain of other people.

“The Rav cared about every single person, whether Mrs. O’Shea who cleaned the apartment, or Menachem Begin who was on the phone. His depth of caring was consistent,” Brander said.

In the apartment, “it was a very relaxed, informal, respectful relationship.” Brander and the other assistants he shared responsibilities with “would do our homework in the apartment. Sometimes the Rav would just ask us what we were working on. He would make some comments and additions – it was always nice to be able to footnote a comment by Rabbi Soloveitchik in your history paper.”

Brander remembers bringing his fiancée to meet Soloveitchik. “I remember him getting out of his chair, walking to the door of the apartment in a very halting way – his illness challenged him – opening the door for Ruchie. He waited until my wife sat down to sit. We had a conversation together.

“When we asked the Rav if he would come to the wedding, his response was, ‘if he was invited.’ Thank God he joined us. The fact he made the effort to come to the wedding, although he was in a challenged state, was something very special,” Brander said.

That wedding was Soloveitchik’s last public appearance.

Another student from that era, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, recalls Soloveitchik as “very grandfatherly. You hear stories about the Rav in the ’40s and ’50s and how tough he was. In the ’80s, it was a very different kind of experience. ”

Helfgot is rabbi at Teaneck’s Congregation Netivot Shalom, head of the Bible department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and editor of a volume of Soloveitchik’s correspondence.

“He was a man tremendously devoted to Torah and teaching students – and that really gave him life” in the face of the illness that sapped his strength. “You definitely felt you were in the presence of greatness.”

Helfgot stressed that Soloveichik “wasn’t easily categorized.

“He was very passionate about Torah but very open to the world. He was someone who tried to engage the whole Jewish community yet at the same time was very committed to his values. He was a unique figure at a unique time in Jewish history: He was able to give Orthodoxy its backbone in the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s, when many people wrote it off as a vibrant movement. He really gave it intellectual respectability. He showed that Orthodoxy could function in the world and not have to be in the ghetto,” he said.

In his talk at Yeshiva Chovei Torah, Helfgot planned to deal with Soloveitchik’s role at a key moment in the relationship between Orthodoxy and the Conservative movement, when private negotiations in the mid-1950s explored the possibility of creating a national beit din – a rabbinic court – that would oversee religious divorces for both Orthodox and Conservative rabbis.

In the end, those talks failed.

“On the one hand, the Rav was a champion of Orthodoxy, making sure standards were held to, making sure people didn’t pray in a mixed-seating shul. He was strong in holding the line. On the other hand, practically, there were issues behind the scenes, where he tried to resolve some of the tensions” between the two streams, he said.

Helfgot said that one of the lessons he takes from the failed effort is “that it is important to try to find some common ground and trying to deal with every issue practically, to try to minimize conflict while not giving up on your own values.”

To the chagrin of the leaders of other, more traditionalist Orthodox institutions, Soloveitchik refused to join in their condemnations of Orthodox rabbis who cooperated with their Reform and Conservative peers in the Synagogue Council of America and the New York Board of Rabbis.

Within Orthodoxy, said Rabbi Michael Taubes, Soloveitchik did not try to persuade his students of the superiority of his own customs. Taubes, who heads YU’s high school for boys and leads Teaneck’s Zichron Mordechai congregation, will speak about some of Soloveitchik’s prayer practices on Sunday.

“He did certain things that are not necessarily the norm in most Ashkenazic communities, but have roots firmly in tradition,” Taube said.

For example: “Rabbi Soloveitchik felt that during the repetition of the Shmoneh Esrei prayer, one should not only stand, but stand with one’s feet together,” reasoning that communal prayer requires every member of the congregation to act as if he is praying.

Yet while his own practices often went back to his ancestors, who were among the students of the Vilna Gaon, the 18th century rabbi opposed the then-new chasidic movement, Soloveitchik was prepared to defend chasidic practices, even if he wasn’t convinced they were correct.

“For the most part, he encouraged his students to follow their family traditions,” Taubes said.

For his own high school students, he added, Soloveitchik “is someone they recognize and understand to be a great figure – but from the past.”

Sometimes, though, when Taubes teaches an explanation he heard from Soloveitchik, his teacher comes alive again.

“Part of the greatness of the Rav was that he was able to present things in such a clear and compelling fashion that you heard what he said and wondered why you didn’t think of that yourself,” Taubes said. “I’ve presented material from the Rav to my students and they say, ‘Oh, it makes so much more sense.'”

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