Friday, May 02, 2008

Damning the Rav with Faint Praise

The Jewish Observer (JO) obituary of Rav Soloveitchik (The Rav) has been talked to death since it first came up at his passing in the early nineties. But there seems to be lingering questions about what makes it so bad. I do not recall addressing it in detail in a single essay. I will do so now in what I hope will clarify my own perspective on the issue, if not that of others. I doubt that I will even scratch the surface of the depth of hurt that insult has caused. But I hope at least to explain why it continues to linger on the psyche of the Rav’s Talmidim and admirers like a festering cancerous wound that refuses to heal.

So why is there is so much outrage? If one reads it without context it doesn’t seem all that bad. In order to understand the deep level of insult – context is everything. Furthermore Rav Soloveitchik was a complex individual and the half truths and distortions they said about him end up being lies without a proper analysis of his life.

The most significant insult is in the form of a missing letter: the letter T which stands for Tzadik in the acronym ZTL which – in the Charedi world - follows the name of any deceased Torah personality. One should not minimize that missing letter. In JO-speak it is an all significant one which they apply only to those they feel deserve it. When they purposely leave it out the message is - that man was no Tzadik – no righteous person he!

It is code for them and meant to remove him from that lofty category. One they rather freely put just about any other Rav into. It was a purposeful slam to keep him at a lower status than hundreds of others that do not come to the Rav’s toes in brilliance, Torah knowledge, Hasmada, Midos, and Yiras Shamayim. They are Tzadikim. The Rav – not a Tzadik!

This is beyond an insult in JO lingo. But since it is code the average person doesn’t get it that way. It doesn’t sound so bad: Zichrono L’Vracha. – May his memory be for a blessing. What’s wrong with that? I’ll tell you what’s wrong with that. In Lingua JO it is insulting Chutzpah!

The JO editor was asked about this by a mutual friend of ours – an Agudah insider. He was told that he did it on purpose. The Rav was never accepted by them and after further consulting with Agudah Gedolim he decided to stand by his obit. No regrets. No apologies.

As for the rest of that obituary -Why is it so bad? Let’s put it this way. If it had been written by the New York Times it would have been fine. But it was written by a magazine that fawns all over its Gedolim. Anyone who reads the JO regularly will never see an obituary written like that for anyone else. They make Tzadikim out of every Rav they write about. Forget Tzadikim. Saints! There was never a word about any controversy that ever surrounded any of them. For example when the Lubavitcher Rebbe – no friend of Agudah - died, he was called a Tzadik. But not a word about the Moshiach controversy he stirred up late in his life of which we are still feeling an impact.

When it came to the Rav – hidden insults in JO code: He quit Agudah to become head of (the rejected) Mizrachi. He went to (forbidden) university thus veering from the Torah path. He is responsible for the mass confusion of his students who quoted opposing Halachic and Hashkafic opinions in his name. He was a professor of philosophy (a forbidden subject). He founded the (forbidden co-ed) Maimonides in Boston. To JO/Agudah people these are all Treif, Chazir. They did not come to praise him with these words but to damn him.

For example sentences like the following are not meant to be flattering:

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s legacy took many forms. Many of his works revealed a strong tension between the Brisk of his youth and the Berlin of his early adulthood.

Many forms? Was their anything good in those forms? Or was it just about conflict between (the Apikursus of) Berlin’ and the Torah of Brisk? Does anyone think they meant this as a compliment? They meant it as a disparagement!

Here is more:

…synthesizing Torah, classic literature and modern philosophy, in admitted departure from the Torah world from which he came. In effect, these works offered an eloquent portrayal of a turbulent inner struggle.

He was a man with a turbulent inner struggle. Message: He did not posses the clear Torah vision of ‘true’ Gedolei Yisroel. He was confused. Compliment?

Is saying he departed from the Torah world - a compliment? And is there any doubt as to what they think of modern philosophy and classic literature?

Attaching a word like eloquent into one of the paragraphs does not mitigate these disgusting insults. What this obituary did is perpetuate their antipathy toward him and what he stood for into eternity. That is his legacy they grant him. Not the Torah or Hashkafa he contributed.

The overall message of that obituary is negative and overrides the lip service they paid by saying he gave popular and well attended Shiurim. That does not lessen these major ‘flaws’ they saw in him. His controversial status remains – now cemented into rock forever.

Rightousness? That’s reserved for some little Rebbe in Boro Park. The Rav left the fold – departing from the Torah world. Then they compound that statement by saying that he intended it that way!

After the JO was harshly criticized by the Rav's Talmidim and admirers, one Charedi Rav wrote a defense of the JO obit in a Yiddish paper. It apparently incuded a scathing attack against the Rav. I never read that article. But my Rebbe, the Rav’s brother Rav Ahron did. He responded with one of his strongest condemnations against that writer I have ever seen… and by inference the JO obit. Rightly so.