Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik: A Legacy of Greatness

I never met him. But those who have read my bio above will know that one of my icons is Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, affectionately called the Rav by his students. He was also the older brother of my Rebbe, Rav Ahron. Yesterday was the first opportunity I had to see a documentary about his life entitled Lonely Man of Faith by filmmaker Ethan Isenberg.

I am happy to report that this was quite a satisfying film. While I already knew much of what was presented, it gave me additional insights into the Rav of which I was previously unaware. And perhaps most importantly it emphasized what I already know, that Rabbi Soloveitchik was as controversial as he was great.

The controversy stems from the near total rejection of him by his Charedi colleagues. Although one can speculate about which of their objections were most significant, I think it would be quite informative to see what some of those objections were. Here is a partial list as I understand it from both the film and my own perspective in encounters with Charedim with whom I discussed it:

1) His positive approach to secular studies. He viewed secular studies as a necessary component of our age in order to better understand and participate in the culture in which modern man finds himself. This is the reason, that he attended the University of Berlin and achieved a PhD in philosophy. This was at a time where going to university was a rare event for an observant Jew. He left home to do it and had very few observant peers in that environment.

In the Torah only world of Charedim this was anathema. It was seen at best as an utter waste of valuable Torah study time and at worst a place where heresy was taught as fact…and an environment of amorality.

2) His association with Yeshiva University. Charedi Gedolim saw university side of YU as mixing ’Berlin’ with Torah which they saw as Taruvos a meat- milk mixture which the Torah forbids. Thus they condemned the entire enterprise.

It should be noted here that not every Gadol took had this view. Rav Yitzchak Hutner and Reb Shraga Feival Mendelowitz famously almost succeeded in turning Yeshivas Chaim Berlin into an accredited university. But Rav Ahron Kotler nixed it. He was considered the Gadol HaDor and other Charedi Gedolim always deferred to his wishes even when they disagreed.

3) His conversion from having the traditional Charedi anti-Zionist views and rejection of a Jewish state, into becoming very supportive of the idea post holocaust. He felt that through the holocaust God had Paskin'd through history. And he accepted the position of titular head of Mizrachi, the American arm of Religious Zionism… a position he held for life.

Charedi Gedolim rejected Mizrachi and held fast to their anti-State ideology. They only relate to the Jewish state now because it exists. And they treat it as they would any secular government in any country.

4) Though he was opposed to any form of theological integration between the various denominations of Jews, he supported the Synagogue Council of America. The SCA was an organization of rabbis from every stream of Judaism created to deal with non religious issues affecting Klal Yisroel. Rav Soloveitchik felt that in matters not concerning theology - it was important to have a united front of all Jewry.

Charedi Gedolim - who had arrived from Europe during or just after the holocaust and were in the forefront of fighting heretical movements like the Reform - could not understand his decision to combine with them in any incarnation. They completely rejected such organizations as the SCA and forbade membership.

5) Teaching Women Torah. Rav Soloveitchik supported teaching women Torah at the highest levels, including any and all Gemarah. When YU’s Stern College for Women initiated the first such program for its students, Rav Soloveitchik gave the inaugural Shiur.

The Charedi Gedolim were opposed to it, if not appalled by it. This was unheard of historically. Women were never taught Gemarah and until the last century did not study Torah subjects at all, other than what they needed to know to be observant Jewish women.

This objection is based on the famous Mishna in Sotah (20A) where R. Eliezer states: One who teaches his daughter Torah it is as if he is teaching her ‘Tiflus’. The word ‘Tiflus’ is most often translated to mean immorality. Rav Soloveitchik believed that in the modern era, when women study all manner of subjects in universities and receive PhDs in them it would be ludicrous to say that teaching them Torah is akin to teaching them immorality. He argued that in our time, the opposite is true: Not teaching them Torah at advanced levels is akin to teaching them immorality.

The Charedi Gedolim disagreed. They do not allow any of their schools to teach woman advanced Torah studies.

Despite all of these differences Rav Soloveitchik had excellent personal relationships with Charedi Gedolim, most notably, Rav Aharon Kotler. They respected each other as Gedolim albeit with important differences.

Unfortunately what was true about Rav Ahron Kotler was not true of his students. Many of those who are today’s rabbinic leaders give virtually no respect to Rav Soloveitchik except perhaps grudging recognition of his great genius and knowledge of Torah. I rarely meet a typical Charedi Yeshiva student who - when the subject comes up - doesn’t have something negative to say about the Rav… often disparagingly referring to him by his initials, JB.

The first instance of this attitude occurred when Rav Ahron Kotler died. When the Rav attended the funeral and prepared a eulogy, Rav Kotler’s students denied him the podium. He sat quietly in the back. And of course the most public insult to the Rav’s memory is the infamous obituary in the Charedi magazine, the Jewish Observer.

By far the greatest legacy left by Rav Soloveitchik are his Talmidim during his tenure at Yeshiva University. His impact on modern Orthodoxy was enormous. He ordained more Rabbanim who now serve Klal Yisroel in a multitude of ways than any other single figure in America.

He taught thousands of students and came to be synonymous with YU. He influenced all who encountered him. His greatness was as much in his complexity as it was in all the areas of his expertise. What his students took from him - even when they both heard exactly the same words - was not always the same. In some cases they took away exactly opposite meanings. This is why Rav Hershel Schachter, Rabbi Saul Berman, and Professor Sholom Carmy can legitimately call themselves his Talmidim.

As Dr. Lamm pointed out, even though many of his students became great figures in their own right, none of them achieved what the Rav had. None of them have all aspects of the Rav’s integrated greatness. I don’t think we will ever see the likes of the Rav again.