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.