Three North Jersey residents are involved in a major new Orthodox Union initiative to publish the teachings and commentaries of the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik the foremost talmudist and philosopher in the milieu of Yeshiva University and centrist American Orthodoxy, where he is respectfully called "the Rav."
Rabbi Menachem Genack, spiritual leader of Cong. Shomrei Emunah in Englewood and a former student and disciple of Soloveitchik’s at Yeshiva University, serves as general editor of the series for the OU Press.
Rabbi Soloveitchik remains a major influence in Orthodoxy.
Genack, also the CEO of the OU Kashrut Division, is co-editor of Mesorah, a journal expanding on the teachings of Soloveitchik, and "Shiurei HaRav," scholarly volumes based on Soloveitchik’s lectures as interpreted by his students. He serves on the board of the Toras HoRav Foundation, headed by Soloveitchik’s daughters Tovah Lichtenstein and Atarah Twersky, through which 15 English and Hebrew works have been published.
This new project, however, aims to make Soloveitchik’s insights available in the liturgical books that Orthodox synagogue-goers use regularly. OU President Stephen Savitsky said the new publications are in keeping with the organization’s objective "to bring all Jews closer to their heritage."
In conjunction with ArtScroll Publishers, two volumes already have been published the Rosh HaShanah Machzor and the Yom Kippur Machzor. Upcoming books with Soloveitchik commentary are to include a Haggadah, a Chumash (the Five Books of Moses), a birkat ha-mazon (blessings after meals "bentcher"), a kinot (book of elegies) for the Ninth of Av, a siddur (prayer book), and a Purim Megillah.
The kinot book is being edited by Englewood attorney Simon Posner, a former Soloveitchik student himself. The editor for the Birkat ha-Mazon work is Rabbi Daniel Besser, a Clifton resident and Judaic studies instructor at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck.
"I’m just putting the finishing touches on the Haggadah," said Genack in a recent telephone interview. "It’s been a process that has required listening to tapes and reading manuscripts and published works. There is a lot of material. The difficulty is figuring out what to fit into a volume so as not to overwhelm the reader, while wishing you could put more in. I suspect that this will not be the last Soloveitchik Haggadah."
He added that the forthcoming work is to be "very different" from the ‘008 "Haggadah for Passover with Commentary based on the Shiurim of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik" compiled from class notes by his friend and colleague, Teaneck’s Rabbi Yosef Adler.
"We’ve tried to incorporate many of the Rav’s own words from manuscripts," said Genack, "and also this will be more extensive [than Adler’s book]. We first thought about including only philosophical material, but so much halachic [legal] material is out there, too. The latter is meant more for a ‘YU crowd.’ The philosophical insights are in a rich and beautiful language that speaks to a broader audience."
That so many of those involved hail from North Jersey is no coincidence. "In Bergen County, and in Teaneck and Englewood especially, is where you find a large YU community and many of the people who learned with the Rav," said Genack.
Besser is an exception. Not only does he live in Passaic County, but he also attended Yeshiva University too recently to have known Soloveitchik, who died in 1993.
"I’m second generation," Besser said. "I had never heard the Rav lecture but learned about him from his talmidim [students]. There is an explosion of his material available to the public lately, which is a boon for people like me. When I was younger, most of the published works on the Rav were in Hebrew or in difficult academic writing, and with this new wave we are making it more accessible."
Aficionados of Soloveitchik responded to Besser’s e-mailed queries by pointing him in the direction of audiotapes, books, and lecture notes relevant to the text of a bentcher, which also typically includes kiddush and havdalah in addition to grace after meals. "Google also helped," said Besser, who worked as an attorney for six years before entering academia.
Posner said that the Kinot project brings together his interest in Soloveitchik’s insights and in Jewish liturgical poetry. Most of these elegies, traditionally chanted after Lamentations on the Ninth of Av (Tisha b’Av), were composed during the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. More recent ones commemorate pogroms as well as events during the Holocaust.
Posner is basing his work on transcripts of the Rav’s many annual lectures elucidating the elegies. Many of the tapes had already been edited and analyzed by Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter of Teaneck, previously dean of the Soloveitchik Institute in Boston.
"The kinot in and of themselves are hard to understand," said Posner. "They were written in very difficult poetic Hebrew, with numerous allusions to midrashim [rabbinic legends] and other rabbinic writings. The Rav has this incredible ability to distill the philosophical bases that the authors were trying to put forward, which are not readily apparent. And he is able to extract a lot of the themes of Tisha b’Av from the kinot in a way that is more easily accessible to the average reader. It’s an eye-opening experience and I have learned a huge amount personally in the process."
Genack reflected on why there is so much interest lately in Soloveitchik’s philosophical works, which tend to reflect "a more sober view of the human condition, with a touch of almost melancholy overtones."
"The idea of spreading his thoughts is not new; I spoke to the Rav himself about this when we started Mesorah," said Genack. "He was a towering intellectual figure for the modern Orthodox community and was extraordinarily eloquent. To the extent that we can capture some of his words for a broader audience, we can continue spreading them."