It’s as if you were in the room.
Rabbi David Holzer, the personal shamash of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the “Rav”) from 1972-1979, has just penned a book,The Rav Thinking Aloud (self-published, HolzerSeforim.com), with scores of unedited transcripts of Rav Soloveitchik’s personal conversations on topics ranging from Chabad and Zionism to birth control and women’s hair covering.
According to Holzer, Rav Soloveitchik on occasion allowed him to tape his conversations. Section I of the book is based on these tapes and on Holzer’s notes; Section II contains a 60-page-long transcript of a discussion between Rav Soloveitchik and his students regarding Zionism, aliyah and Yom Ha’atzmaut; and Section III loosely reconstructs, based on notes, a lecture series Rav Soloveitchik delivered in the 1950s on “The Religious Definition of Man.”
The Jewish Press recently spoke with Holzer about his new book.
The Jewish Press: What inspired you to compile this book?
Rabbi Holzer: I’ve been thinking about doing this for a long time. I’ve seen the Rav presented in many different lights and very often I’ve heard people say, “The Rav contradicts himself.” So I felt there was a need for a certain clarity because the Rav had very clear views, except that unfortunately people sometimes – intentionally or unintentionally – reflect their own views in how they understand the Rav.
Also, there’s the personal side. When you study somebody, if all you have is his intellectual ideas, you don’t develop a close emotional bond with the person. With a book like this, by the time you get through it, you feel a closeness to the Rav himself. You start feeling like the Rav is close, warm. You appreciate the person more.
Your book publicizes some of Rav Soloveitchik’s private conversations. Would he have approved?
This is something that I struggle with all the time; it’s something I don’t rest easy with. However, I felt that it’s such an important contribution for people to experience the personal side of the Rav – to really get a closer feeling and appreciation of him. And so far, people who have read the book have told me they appreciated it and have felt inspired.
What was it like being Rav Soloveitchik’s shamash?
For me it was glowing. It was more like having a zeide who takes care of you at the same time you’re supposed to be taking care of him. It was a very close, warm relationship. He was someone you could confide in, discuss things with, and learn a derech ha’chaim. You see the way he acts, the way he talks. It’s on a different level of existence.
Back to the book. You report a conversation in which Rav Soloveitchik sounds pretty categorical in his position that married women must cover their hair. Rabbi Irving Greenberg, on the other hand, claims that during a private conversation with him in the 1950s Rav Soloveitchik said the opposite.
That’s why I try being very careful. I’ll only put down what I actually heard from the Rav. I remember the conversation; it happened in the car. I remember that he was very emphatic: the hair has to be covered. He didn’t even want to go into details.
Rav Soloveitchik refers to Chabad and the Lubavitcher Rebbe several times in this book – sometimes positively, sometimes negatively.
I would say that’s probably exactly right. Everyone has positive and negative traits, and the Rav called a spade a spade. For this topic I was careful only to put down what I have on tape [and not the material I have in my notes].
Based on the time you spent with Rav Soloveitchik, would you say these
excerpts reflect his general attitude toward Chabad?
Yes. It’s an accurate representation of what I heard.
Some readers who view Rav Soloveitchik as a moderate, 20th-century posek may be surprised to read that he took a fairly strict view on such halachic issues as birth control and women singing at the Shabbos table.
I was surprised too. When I brought up the issue of spacing children the Rav said there’s no such thing. He was very clear that things that people think are just fine are not just fine. On the other hand he says there are good reasons for birth control, but only in the right context.
As far as women singing, that question was personal, because I was just starting a seminary in Israel. I started mentioning different bases for heterim, but the Rav said: I know all the heterim, there’s no basis to allow this. The Rav had no reason to be stringent or lenient on me. He just felt in a straightforward fashion: This is the way I analyze the halacha, this is the way I see it.
In one conversation Rav Soloveitchik speaks to you about his grandfather Reb Chaim Soloveitchik’s opposition to the formation of Agudath Israel. Can you elaborate?
That’s a dynamite issue. For that part, I was really nervous. My son and I listened to the tape over and over to make sure we got it right, especially when the Rav quotes the letter Reb Chaim sent to his father. We listened to that part probably 20 times. It’s fascinating. As for the details of Reb Chaim’s views I’d rather the book speak for itself. The Rav goes into detail.
Are you planning to publish more volumes of The Rav Thinking Aloud?
Hopefully,im yirtzeh Hashem. I have a lot more material in the areas of halacha, minhagim, chumash, hashkafos. I can definitely see at least another two or three volumes. I think they will captivate the imagination.