Rabbi David Holzer acknowledges that he may have tried the patience of his mentor and teacher Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik at times while serving as his shamash, or personal assistant.
He badgered the aging rabbi with questions when he probably would have preferred to rest, Holzer recalls. While driving him to various events and appointments, Holzer frequently got lost and arrived at the destination late. And once, while taking dictation, he realized after a half-hour that he had neglected to push the record button on the tape recorder so the rabbi had to start again from the beginning.
“Yet in all the years, I never witnessed any feeling of annoyance, only patience and understanding,” said Holzer, who served as Soloveitchik’s assistant from 1972 to 1979. “These are the qualities of a true gadol [revered rabbi], which I was fortunate to have been able to observe first hand.”
Holzer shares many of these observations in his recently published book, “The Rav Thinking Aloud: Transcripts of Personal Conversations with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.”
The book has created quite a stir in Bergen County, where many of the rav’s former students and admirers live. Some readers said they were uncomfortable with the publication, questioning whether Holzer should have published it without permission from Soloveitchik’s family. Others wondered whether the rav would have wanted his private conversations made public, particularly since some included seemingly negative comments about such revered figures as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and the Lubavitcher rebbe.
Holzer, a native New Yorker now living in Miami, earned his rabbinic ordination from Soloveitchik and – as his assistant – was permitted at times to tape their personal conversations. Much of the book is based on those tapes as well as on written transcripts of the rav’s discussions and lectures. His primary motivation for publishing the book, said Holzer, was to give readers a stronger sense of who Soloveitchik was as a person so that they might develop a greater appreciation for him.
“The rav has been portrayed as a great halachist, philosopher, [and] intellectual giant, but the personal side and sensitivity is sometimes less apparent,” he said. “I wanted to share that side that I was able to experience.”
Soloveitchik (1903-1993) was the major rabbinic leader of Centrist Orthodoxy in America for much of the 20th century. During his nearly 50-year tenure as a Talmud teacher at Yeshiva University, he trained hundreds of American Orthodox rabbis and served as a chief architect in shaping the communal policy of the Orthodox movement. His philosophical writings, particularly “Halakhic Man” and “Lonely Man of Faith,” have also had a substantial impact.
Holzer noted that concerns about not getting the blessing of the Soloveitchik family are unfounded, since most of the books published about the rav are not authorized by them.
“There are countless books and articles expressing opinions [attributed to the rav] on many issues and we have no way of knowing if the rav would approve of any of them,” he said. “If the objection to my work is that I have greater accuracy since I was allowed to tape the rav, I think this is a positive feature, not a negative one.”
Still, the overwhelming response to the book has been positive, said Holzer, with several former students, some from our area, reporting that the book captures the feeling of what it was like to be with the rav.
Rabbi Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck, who studied with him from 1969 to 1973, said the book brought back wonderful memories.
“The book is by an insider and for insiders. A lot of the casual talk that the rav probably thought was off the record reminded me of the conversations that I had with him in the car on the way to the airport,” said Zahavy, who often drove Soloveitchik from Yeshiva University to the airport when the rav traveled to his home in Boston.
“It is quite a charming and idiosyncratic account. It certainly adds a less formal dimension to the previous literature that puts the rav high up on a pedestal,” said Zahavy, adding that he was particularly moved by the story of how the rav struggled with what prayers are appropriate for Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.
Rabbi Michael Taubes of Teaneck, who studied with Soloveitchik in the late 1970s and early 1980s and was an editor of the Rav Soloveitchik Machzorim for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (published by the Orthodox Union in 2007 and 2006, respectively), said that he found many things in the book particularly interesting.
“There were a number of things … in the book that I didn’t know and that I think only someone who had day-to-day contact with and access to the rav throughout the day could have known,” he said, adding that this is what makes Holzer’s book different.
But Taubes also wondered whether some quotations included in the book will give readers the wrong impression about certain things.
“Before drawing any definitive conclusions, one needs to consider the question of context. I personally would be very curious about both the broader and the specific context of certain remarks because it is known that the rav did say different things at different times about a topic depending on the circumstances.”
Holzer hopes that the book will open a new window for those not familiar with Soloveitchik or who would like to learn more about his human side. It includes, for example, his teaching that the expression “light unto the nations” is not about the kosher laws but rather about honesty in monetary dealings. In addition, Soloveitchik tells his own story, recalling his days as a student in Berlin – where he studied in university alongside the Lubavitcher rebbe – and including recollections of his grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk.
Holzer said that his unique position gave him entrÃ©e to an experience he felt he had an obligation to share. Serving as the rav’s shamash, Holzer said, was “exhilarating…. I appreciated that I was standing at a moment in history and was always afraid of wasting that opportunity.”