The 18th of Nissan marks the 25th yahrzeit of Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, “the Rav.” I never met or even saw the Rav, yet he was still one of the most influential people in my life. Here is why:
The Rav was the rebbe of my rebbe’im; he was the rebbe of many of my friends; and since I was a talmid in Yeshiva University/RIETS in the mid-1980s and beyond, he was the rebbe of almost all that transpired around me.
I entered YU during the Rav’s last year teaching there. As I routinely ate dinner in the cafeteria with older talmidim who were in the Rav’s shiur at the time, I constantly heard updates on his condition: Did the Rav give shiur today? Was he able to make it to New York this week? Initially, I had no idea that these friends of mine were to be the last talmidim of one of the greatest Torah giants who ever lived, but as the weeks passed, I became incredibly curious, and then envious, since these young men were blessed to be in the shiur of a legend.
My years in Yeshiva were permeated with “This is how the Rav did it,” “The Rav advised me such and such,” “The Rav would only allow this and not that,” etc. Statements and personal anecdotes about the Rav infused discussion and shiurim; the Rav was almost like our lifeblood, looming large in all Torah thought and practice. Rabbi Menachem Genack, a close talmid of the Rav, once said that seeing the Rav was in itself a life-changing event. Such was the Rav’s impact.
My initial exposure to the Rav came when I was a first-year talmid in the shiur of Rav Shlomo Drillman, zt”l. Rav Drillman – an early and close talmid of the Rav – shared with us numerous personal stories and insights from his two great rebbeim: Rav Elchonon Wasserman, Hy”d, and the Rav. Once, he told us, the Rav ended shiur without having resolved a difficult Rashba. At 3 a.m. or so, as Rav Drillman and his fellow talmidim were asleep in the dorm, the Rav hurriedly came knocking on the doors and proclaimed:
“Please get up. I just figured out the Rashba, and we need to go through it right now. I could not sleep with it unresolved, and I cannot understand how any of you boys could be asleep when we ended shiur without having understood that Rashba!”
Rav Drillman related that in the early years, the Rav once decided to drive from Boston (where he lived) to give shiur in New York rather than take the train (as was his normal practice). Rav Drillman and his classmates were waiting when the time for shiur arrived, but the Rav was nowhere to be seen. Finally, the Rav arrived at Yeshiva and explained to the talmidim: “As I drove, I started thinking about a Raavad, and before I knew it, I crashed into a tree.” Such was the Rav’s hasmadah.
Dr. Tovah Lichtenstein, the Rav’s daughter, noted that Orthodox rabbis in America in those early years were either European talmidei chachamim – who were not conversant with American culture and language and thus unable to have a great impact – or Americanized college graduates who were not really talmidei chachamim. But then came the Rav. He was a doyen in lomdus – a rosh yeshiva of towering caliber in the European tradition – but also distinctly conversant in worldly matters and able to engage the American scene. Such a rabbi, a highly-educated master Litvisher talmid chacham with strict halachic standards who could relate to contemporary culture, was an anomaly.
The Rav’s leadership in American Orthodoxy came at a time of immense challenge; in the mid-20th century, the Conservative movement was growing, and it seemed like a perfect fit to some of those on the edges of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy, in fact, lost many people in those years – for who could compete with the allure of the non-Orthodox movements? But the Rav was blessed with the qualities and skill set to do it, as he inspired his talmidim and laymen with his piercing erudition and eloquence and instilled in the masses pride in being steadfast Torah Jews. The Rav was able to insist on firm geirus standards, mechitzos for all shuls, and yeshiva education for all Orthodox children in a manner that appealed to those who otherwise would have drifted to the Conservative movement.
I once asked a very close talmid of the Rav what the Rav’s greatest accomplishment was. This talmid was steeped in learning, so I expected him to respond by extoling the greatness of the Rav’s shiurim. Instead, he replied, “The Rav’s most significant accomplishment was that he saved a generation of Orthodox Jews from becoming Conservative.”
The Rav was never bothered by Biblical or Talmudic criticism; the Rav maintained that analyzing the Torah with the lenses of a secular academician was meaningless since the Torah has its own system and logos and only using that system and logos can yield proper understanding. To do otherwise would be like applying the principles of psychology or history to the study of math and physics.
The Rav also stressed that Torah must be learned in accordance with our mesorah, which tells us how it is to be learned, which sources should be emphasized, how Jewish society is to be structured – including the unique but different roles of men and women – how mitzvos are to be observed, and which values must be clung to. He was staunchly opposed to changing any prayer texts or synagogue practices; all are part of the mandated Torah tradition, he said.
During a 1973 shiur at the Rabbinical Council of America convention, the Rav said: “When people talk of a meaningful halacha, of unfreezing the halacha, or of an empirical halacha, they are basically proposing Korach’s approach. Lacking a knowledge of halachic methodology, which can only be achieved through extensive study, they instead apply common-sense reasoning which is replete with platitudes and clichés.”
The Rav also stressed surrender to the divine will. We do not try to second-guess Hashem, he said. We don’t rationalize mitzvos so they make sense to the limited human mind or change any mitzvah, custom, or Torah value so that it is more appealing to modern man. We accept Hashem’s will and His Torah as they were presented and passed down to us.
In a 1968 address to RIETS Rabbinic Alumni, the Rav noted that the Torah records that the patriarchs erected altars, but usually omits mention of any sacrifice being offered. The Rav explained:
Apparently, the mizbe’ach of the avos was not for the purpose of offering a live sacrifice. The mizbe’ach symbolized submission, their own surrender. Because the highest sacrifice is not when you offer an animal. It’s very easy when you offer an animal. The highest sacrifice is when man offers himself…
And that’s what Avraham taught himself, and he taught others. … Whom did he sacrifice? His own independence, his own pride, his own comfort, his own desires, his own logic, his own reason.
The Rav was adamant on this point. In 1975, when Rabbi Emanuel Rackman suggested nullifying marriages without a get by use of a novel mechanism that dispensed with one of the chazakos of the Gemara in light of modern psychology, the Rav forcefully responded at the RCA convention:
I want to be frank and open. Do you expect to survive as Orthodox rabbis?…
To speak about changing the halachos of Chazal is, of course, at least as nonsensical as discussions about communism at the Republican National Convention. It is discussing self-destruction, a method of self-destruction and suicide. I know, you don’t have to tell it to me – b’sochacha ani yoshev – I don’t live in an ivory tower or in a fool’s paradise. I know that modern life is very complex. I know your problems; many of them are passed on to me. … We feel, and I sometimes feel like you, as if we are swimming against the tide; the tide is moving rapidly, with tremendous force, in the direction opposite of the way in which we are going.…
However, if you think that the solution lies in the reformist philosophy, or in an extraneous interpretation of the halacha, you are badly mistaken.…
I come from a rabbinic house; it is called Bais HaRav, the house into which I was born, and believe me, Reb Chaim used to try his best to be a meikil. However, there were limits even to Reb Chaim’s skills. When you reach the boundary line, it is all you can say: ‘I surrender to the will of the Almighty.’
The Rav interestingly was a political conservative. He voted for Eisenhower, supported the Vietnam War, and did not refrain from expressing “right-wing” views. But he felt firmly that these views were mandated by the Torah, even as he avoided politics. For example, regarding moral norms, the Rav stated in a 1972 lecture in Boston:
Now it becomes an American tradition that if you teach some norms, religious norms, Jewish or Christian norms, so you get no support from the government…
Sometimes when you listen to that, you begin to think it’s not Washington, it’s not New York – it’s Moscow. In certain respects they become very close, I must say. Their fear of religion, or the awe in which they stand before the constitutional separation of state and religion, is reminiscent – this awe is so absurd – that it is reminiscent of Moscow. There is no wonder you have crime in the streets…
Anyone who reads the Rav’s derahsos is inspired by his faith, conviction, and commitment to the mesorah. And anyone who studies the Rav’s shiurim is bedazzled by his breathtaking depth, insights, and clarity. Thank God, numerous firsthand transcripts and notes from the Rav’s derashos and shiurim have been published. Readers are advised to study these works – and the sefarim of the Rav’s closest talmidim – and at the same time to be wary of works “based on” the ideas of the Rav in which the editors’ personal agendas can color the message.
One cannot learn “about” the Rav. Those of us who were not privileged to be his personal talmidim must instead connect to the Rav through the mesorah of his own close talmidim and transcriptions and notes from the Rav’s own words. Due to the Rav’s profound depth and complexity, one can glean diametrically opposite ideas about the Rav if one tries to learn “about” the Rav rather than to connect “to” the Rav by the means stated above.
For example, some have interpreted the Rav’s endorsement under very specific circumstances of co-ed education and women learning Gemara as an unlimited expression of support for these endeavors. Those who were close to the Rav when these issues arose, however, know the crucial “Torah Shebe’al Peh” explanations the Rav provided at the time. Only those who know this “Torah Shebe’al Peh” can claim to know the Rav’s position on these matters – and so many others.
The Rav used to give summer shiurim in Boston to talmidim from RIETS. This later developed into the YU-RIETS Boston Summer Kollel program, which was led by other rebbeim, as the Rav was by that time too ill to give shiurim. I was a participant in this program almost 30 years ago, and I recall how one time we passed by the Twersky home, where the Rav was living and being cared for by his daughter and son-in-law.
I remember at the time being suddenly struck with both pain and sadness; I was pained that one of the gedolei ha’doros was ill when the Jewish world so desperately needed his teaching and direction, and sad that I was so close to the Rav physically – some hundred or so feet away – yet I never got to see him or sit at his feet as a direct talmid.
The legacy of the Rav will endure forever – for it is the legacy of Sinai and of the unbreakable chain of mesorah that connects and guides us from Moshe Rabbeinu to the Mashiach, may he come soon.