Latest update: November 15th, 2011
This Sunday, Yeshiva University is honoring Rabbi Julius Berman for 50 years of community service. Currently the chairman of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, honorary president of the Orthodox Union, and chairman of the board of trustees of Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school (RIETS), Rabbi Berman has headed a dozen Jewish organizations over the last five decades while also working in the law firm of Kaye Scholer, where he has been a partner since 1967.
Aside from being the first Orthodox Jewish layman to head the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (1982-1984), Rabbi Berman is also well known for the close relationship he shared with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (popularly called “the Rav”), who ordained him in 1959.
The Jewish Press: How did you wind up in Rav Soloveitchik’s shiur in Yeshiva University?
Rabbi Berman: On the eve of my bar mitzvah, my father got a letter from his uncle in Israel, Rav Avraham Bender [whose grandson, Rav Yaakov Bender, currently heads Yeshiva Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway]. In the letter, he wrote two things: a) “I’m sending some sefarim for Yudl” – which is my Yiddish name – and b) “I’m making a commitment that when he gets into Rav Chazzan’s shiur [in Torah Vodaath] or Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik’s shiur [in RIETS], I’m going to send him a Shas.”
Well, I had never heard of the name Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik at that time, but sure enough, I went to Torah Vodaath for high school, to college in YU, and eventually ended up in the Rav’s shiur.
And you immediately developed a relationship with Rav Soloveitchik?
Well, I got into the Rav’s shiur when I was going for semicha. The class was overflowing because everybody wanted to get into the shiur. So a bunch of us – the ones who came for the first time – were sitting all the way in the back because you couldn’t get to the front. It probably was good because everybody was so frightened that if they would say something stupid, the Rav would tell them it was stupid.
After the first year, though, a whole group left the shiur because they were getting semicha. So we, the ones in the back, moved all the way up. I recall distinctly that we were all sitting there, waiting for the Rav to walk in for the first day of shiur. He walks in, we of course jump up, he sits down at a table, and almost the first thing he says is, “Ver vill sagen? – Who wants to say?”
Suddenly everyone put their heads down, avoiding eye contact, because they were so nervous about saying [the Gemara]. Rav Soloveitchik repeated, “Ver vill sagen?” Again, no contact at all. He started getting a little frustrated and started looking on his desk for the list of names of the people in the class. He couldn’t find it, and I felt for him, so I pointed to where the roll book was. He misunderstood me, though, and said, “Oh, du vill sagen? Sag! – You want to say? Say!” And day after day, since I was the only name he knew, he said, “Berman sag – Berman say.” So that was my “initiation” into the shiur.
Earlier this year, some Jewish Press readers – reacting to an article by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin – criticized Rav Soloveitchik for being so harsh and forbidding in the classroom. Others readers countered that Rav Soloveitchik’s shiur was a form of intellectual boot camp and that his harshness was designed to inspire excellence from his students. What’s your take on the issue?
First of all, as he got older, Rav Soloveitchik became a little softer. But it is true that in the 1950s and earlier, if the Rav heard something which made no sense, he would tell you it made no sense. But it was on an intellectual plane. He would never bear a grudge and within minutes he would forget about it.
In fact, I recall one incident where someone yelled out something which the Rav rejected forcefully. But this person was beaming. Why? Because in his mind, the Rav yelling at him was a status symbol. By the way, the Rav was mesader kiddushin at this person’s daughter’s wedding because, as I said, it was on a totally impersonal level. It’s just a standard of excellence that he wanted people in the shiur to develop. He pushed us and he pushed us, and hopefully he was successful.
Don’t forget, he wasn’t dealing with eight year olds. He was dealing with mature people who were going to be out in the world in a couple of years. And he wanted us to learn how to learn – that’s what he was really great at. Some roshei yeshiva take an issue, develop it through the Gemara, Rishonim and Achronim, and by the time you’re finished, you have a beautiful set of notes and you know everything – but your mind didn’t work. The Rav, however, never gave you [his chiddush] in the shiur. He developed it with you. That was the beauty of what he did.
After you left Yeshiva University, you developed a personal relationship with Rav Soloveitchik, becoming his unofficial “legal adviser” and helping him publish some of his works, among other things. You also often conferred with him about communal matters you were involved with. Can you relate an incident or two from the many years of conversations you had with him?
When I was chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, there was an issue that was coming up and I wanted to get Rav Soloveitchik’s views on the matter so that I could better decide what position to take on it. I’ve never forgotten his instruction to me. He said, “Listen, you don’t have to have a view on every issue. And if you’re going to have a view, you always have to make a secondary decision; namely, when to say it, to whom to say it, and how to say it.”
That really reflected the Rav’s attitude to public positions. He rarely spoke [on public policy], and therefore, when he did speak, it had great impact. For example, a few years ago, a group of cardinals came to visit Yeshiva University and there was a meeting between them and the leadership of YU. It was remarkable that every one of the cardinals knew, almost by heart, the essay “Confrontation” by Rav Soloveitchik in which he strictly limits interfaith dialogue. They knew what the boundaries were. Why? Because Rav Soloveitchik set them down.
Looking back on all your years of community service, what are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of the fact that an Orthodox Jew was able to be a leader in the overall Jewish world. We have a lot to contribute and we ought to be contributing as long, of course, as there is no violation of any halachic principles – whether it’s a question of yarmulke, Shabbos, etc.
I’ll give you an example. I remember I was supposed to meet with the late king of Morocco. It was a Friday afternoon in the winter, and I said that I can only be there for a certain amount of time and then I have to leave. [They said fine.] I’m sitting there, and I’m looking at my watch. A half-hour passes, then an hour, etc., and I suddenly realize that if you have an appointment with the king of Morocco, it’s like going to a Syrian wedding. You get there when it’s scheduled for, and the caterer isn’t even there yet. So I got up and went home for Shabbos.
Regarding wearing a yarmulke: I’ve never had any problems at all throughout all my years of communal work. In fact, just the opposite. I think they have more respect when you have it.
Even Minchah bizmanah. When I met President Mubarak in Cairo, I left the palace afterward and went to the American embassy to be debriefed. The first thing I did was daven Minchah because it was getting late. I’m not suggesting that I’m such a hero because I davened Minchah bizmanah. But I am suggesting that you can play a leadership role in the Jewish community – locally, nationally, and internationally – without violating any principle you stand for.
Any other insights from your years of community service?
The Rambam writes that every Jew must learn during the day and at night, and he quotes a verse from Yehoshua [as his proof text]: “And you shall meditate on them day and night.” Rav Soloveitchik asked: Why a verse from Sefer Yehoshua? Why isn’t there a clear verse in the Torah? He answered: Yehoshua was about to lead the Jewish people in a seven-year battle for the country followed by seven years of chalukas ha’aretz. If there’s anybody in our history who should’ve been able to theoretically say, “I don’t have time to learn,” it is Yehoshua. Therefore, Hashem told him specifically, “And you shall meditate on them day and night.”
No matter how much you’re involved in saving the world, there’s no excuse whatsoever not to learn a little bit every day. As the Rav once said so beautifully, if you learn a little in the morning and a little at night, you won’t accomplish anywhere near what 24/7 learning would. But you start off the morning with, what he called, “a rendezvous with Hashem.” Your day is different, and if you conclude your day with a little learning, that just rounds it all out.
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