While a student in Yeshiva University’s R.I.E.T.S. semicha program, I attended Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s shiurim during the years 1971-3. Like so many others, I have considered myself his talmid ever since.
Whether recalling memorable moments during his lectures, listening to tapes of various presentations recorded over half a century ago, or reading his prolific and varied writings, I continue to be thrilled and moved by his brilliance and insights, and have found myself quoting the Rav’s ideas repeatedly over the course of my career in day schools and synagogues.
The Rav’s Torah continues to resonate within me whenever I have the opportunity to reflect upon his teaching, and therefore I have enthusiastically welcomed each newly published volume, journal article, and personal recollection that brings to light additional ideas he articulated over the course of his long life. He is one of the personalities that for me wonderfully manifests the sentiment expressed by R. Yochanan in the name of R. Shimon bar Yochai (Yevamot 97a): “With regard to any Torah scholar in whose name a matter of halacha is said in this world, his lips mouth the words in the grave, as though he is talking.”
In the latest collection of previously unpublished articles, made available by the Toras HaRav Foundation, Halakhic Morality: Essays on Ethics and Masorah (ed. Joel B. Wolowelsky and Reuven Ziegler, Maggid Books, Jerusalem, 2017), the Rav addresses several issues that lie at the very core of the Jewish religious experience.
Over the course of my own study of and reflections about Judaism, I have been drawn to emphasize what I consider “meta-principles” within Jewish tradition so that practitioners will have a clearer understanding of what sort of person the system of Torah and mitzvot is intended to produce. In my opinion, each of the Rav’s essays in this book contributes profoundly to the clarification of these specific types of ideas.
The Rav notes repeatedly that moral teaching cannot be objectified in the same manner that halachic norms can. Therefore, rather than being formally taught, the sensitivities and attitudes associated with ethical behavior must be cultivated via observation by the student of his spiritual mentor, followed by conscious emulation of the examples he has seen, a rationale for the value of “shimuch talmidei chachamim” (personally serving Torah scholars on an ongoing basis). Not only does the successful student acquire information and skills from his teacher, but “Discipleship is equivalent to an act of repersonification, or reincarnation of the teacher’s personality.”
This is also what the Rav means when he discusses the need for each individual to develop his own religious “style,” suitable to his particular nature and predilections, as a result of having closely observed his teacher.
The Rav, in a number of instances over the course of the book, reassuringly notes that people are simply different, and what can be reasonably expected of one, even when carrying out the dictates of halacha, will not per force pertain to another, hence the qualifying phrase “in accordance with his own nature.” He articulates this assumption with great clarity while discussing the mitzvah of Tzedakah, distinguishing between one who gives begrudgingly without impugning the dignity of the recipient and someone whose actions are cruel and insensitive:
“It may be impossible for a person to transform himself from a miser into a philanthropist, but it is certainly possible to exercise restraint and avoid acting angrily toward a poor person and causing him pain…”
Consequently, the moral stance of even an observant individual is not a “zero-sum game,” but rather evolves within the range that his personality and character allow. It would therefore stand to reason that such an assumption applies to other subjective aspects of various Commandments, as well.
The Rav stresses how a strong belief in God will not only serve to instill proper humility within the observant individual but that clearly understanding how all property in the world is His contributes mightily to a person’s inclination to give generously to those in need. Further, the centrality of the idea that all human beings are created in the Image of God should lead us to the conclusion that we should support every poor individual as a sign of our identifying all others as sharing in the common human condition.
However, he continues: “Sadly, universal brotherhood remains only an abstract idea, never realized in all of human history, and it is impossible, therefore, to base the idea of tzedakah on that principle. Instead, it must be confined to the historical brotherhood of the people of Israel.”
Particularism then is a “de’diavad” (a posteriori) position that can hopefully be broadened to a “le’chatchilah” (a priori) level as part of the Messianic future.
Even if one was never privileged to listen to the Rav’s shiurim in person, reading his lectures, even when some of them have been reconstructed from individual manuscripts, serves to significantly deepen each of our religious experiences, and therefore should not be missed.