The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
By Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff
Ktav Publishing House, Inc.
Hoboken, N.J., 1999
Two volumes, 596 pages
Reviewed by Rabbi Philip Weinberger
The appearance of Rabbi Dr. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff’s The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik focused my attention on a paradox that confronts me every time a new book or article appears about the saintly Rabbi Soloveitchik, zt”l. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the Rav was one of the most outstanding rabbinic titans, teaching and leading the Jewish people. A master of communication, orally and in print, he left behind multitudes of devoted students and admirers who still hang on his every word. Yet the Rav seems to have left a legacy that is unclear and misunderstood, despite his gifted powers of communication.
There are many critical questions that were left unsettled, relating to halachah as well as religious outlook and attitude. Among the numerous questions, debated passionately by those who represent themselves as knowing the Rav’s authentic thinking, are: what was the Rav’s view toward secular education; Torah u’Madda; new religious practices by women; reciting Hallel on Yom HaAtzma’ut; and Religious Zionism?
Because of this alleged unclarity with regard to the Rav’s positions, there is a raging battle among his followers as to who may legitimately and authentically present the Rav’s opinions, thoughts, ideas and teachings. Approximately a year after the passing of the Rav, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a distinguished and highly respected rosh yeshivah and rosh kollel at Yeshiva University, wrote a masterful and comprehensive intellectual biography of the Rav entitled Nefesh Harav. The book records hundreds of pesakim, teachings and attitudes of the Rav. It also portrays the Rav as a traditional gadol with enormous gifts of chiddush (creative and innovative insights in Torah), originality and virtuosity. Subsequently Professor Lawrence Kaplan distributed a paper stating that Rabbi Schachter’s Nefesh Harav “tends to flatten the Rav’s profile.” On that occasion, and in other forums since, the question continuously arose: Who has the right to speak on the Rav’s behalf?
There are, of course, many other examples of this continuing debate. What is striking however is not only the substance of the debate, but rather the fact that the Rav left so much room for the battle to proceed. How could so careful a teacher, who could literally spend hours at a time in shiurim defining with precision the meaning of a particular word or phrase, be misunderstood on so many basic and critical issues?
Upon reflection, however it is not all that surprising that this tragedy of miscommunication has occurred after the Rav’s passing. The Rav himself, despite his best efforts, was misunderstood and misquoted in his lifetime by able people who presumably had the best of intentions. In fact, one passionate and beautiful essay written by the Rav addressed misunderstandings by contemporary journalists. In an essay entitled Al Ahavat Hatorah Veguelat Hanefesh, printed in B’sod Hayachid V’hayachad, the Rav responds to an article printed in Hadoar written by Moshe Meislish. Mr. Meislish’s criticism of the Rav was based upon statements attributed to him by a journalist named Weisel who had interviewed the Rav. In his essay, the Rav states that although the journalist in question was distinguished and well intentioned, the views presented were the journalist’s misunderstanding of the Rav’s statements. The Rav then proceeded to present, and explain with precision, his ideas on the State of Israel, chinuch, the relationship between the intellectual and emotional aspects of limud hatorah and the element of suffering in the religious experience, among other subjects.
The Rav illustrates that he was misunderstood by journalists because of their lack of familiarity with the Rav’s precise use of language and terminology, and because the Rav’s thoughts, ideas and speech were extraordinarily nuanced, delicate, subtle and sophisticated. Is it surprising that after the Rav’s passing there is disagreement over the Rav’s positions?
I am pleased to note that Rabbi Rakeffet’s book avoids, for the most part, recasting the Rav’s positions, because it is largely a presentation of selections of the Rav’s own words — not the reworking by the author of the Rav’s statements. The book presents a brief biography of the Rav and then presents insights, traditions, reflections, stories and observations from the Rav and about the Rav in more than 20 areas of interest. A partial list of subjects includes: Lithuanian lore; Chassidism; the Volozhin Yeshiva; rabbinic ancestors; Jewish life in Brisk, Khaslavichy, and Pruzhana; reflections on American Jewry; Zionism; the Holocaust; teaching; and Yeshiva University. The book has the benefit of the talented editing of Rabbi Joseph Epstein and contains enchanting and inspiring photographs of the Rav taken and collected over a 50-year period by Rabbi Irwin Albert.
The Rav concentrated the majority of his time, effort and talent on learning and analyzing the Talmud and its commentaries. In his lifetime, he presented his teachings in his thousands of shiurim and in a very limited number of printed chiddushei Torah. Many more of them now appear in print: some of his manuscripts have been published posthumously and many of his talmidim have begun printing the Rav’s chiddushim on various tractates of the Talmud and Rambam. In addition, the Rav also produced highly significant works on hashkafah and Jewish philosophy that are also available in print. Those who diligently study these works are richly rewarded.
Over a period of more than 40 years, the Rav embellished and flavored his lectures and writings with fascinating stories and brilliant insights about Torah, Torah personalities, Jewish life, Israel, Jewish history and destiny. These inspiring and captivating insights are now gathered together in Rabbi Rakeffet’s book.
The author makes no pretense that his book presents the Rav’s penetrating Talmudic analysis and insight (lomdut), nor does he purport to synthesize or analyze the Rav’s masterful philosophical works and creations. Rather, the volume offers classified insights and stories presented by the Rav over decades. The major contribution of the work lies in making available a systematic arrangement of many of the Rav’s ideas, insights and stories to the scholarly and non-scholarly Jewish world. Rabbi Rakeffet culled this material from hundreds of hours of painstaking research and listening, transcribing and often translating hundreds of the Rav’s lectures and shiurim as well as through interviewing students, contemporaries, family members and friends of the Rav. If not for this considerable effort, much of the Rav’s precious insights would have been lost to us.
However, the book, falls short, even on its own terms, in its failure to more deeply explore the complexity and nuances of the Rav’s thoughts and insights that were influenced by the religious, existential, and personal tensions that the Rav experienced and talked about. Similarly, the book does not treat much of the controversy that sometimes surrounded the Rav in a meaningful way. This work would have been enhanced had it explored and presented the Rav’s responses to these tensions and controversies. It would then have provided an even deeper appreciation of the Rav as a towering religious personality.
It is interesting to note that in a cassette lecture about the Rav presented by Rabbi Rakefett, and distributed by the Orthodox Union,* as well as in the book, Rabbi Rakefett repeatedly describes the Rav as standing 6 feet, 2 inches tall. The Rav’s actual height was much less. In a document “American Naturalization Declaration of Intention” signed by the Rav, his height is given as 5 feet, 8 inches.** It seems that Rabbi Rakefett sees the Rav, in his mind’s eye, as larger then life (as many talmidim see their own rebbe.) Rabbi Rakefett’s larger than life view influences not only his physical perception of the Rav, but permeates his view throughout the Rav’s biography.
For example, in the biographical section there is no acknowledgement of the how the Rav was inappropriately treated and often marginalized in the yeshivah universe because of his embracing secular studies and Religious Zionism (albeit in a disciplined and highly nuanced manner) and for his refusal to walk in step with and embrace every policy or idea maintained by other rashei yeshivah.
Because of the reluctance to acknowledge this aspect of the Rav’s life, some valuable material, offering highly interesting insights into the Rav’s personality and thought was omitted. For example, in a letter to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Shragai, reprinted in Ba’ayot Actualiot le-Ohr ha-Halachah, the Rav responds to those in Israel questioning the level of his commitment to the Mizrachi party. The Rav tells Rabbi Shragai that he is hurt by these accusations. Moreover, the Rav writes:
If I were to judge this matter (which party to associate with) based on pragmatic or political considerations or from considerations of convenience, devoid of meaning ,I would join the zealots who ask nothing of their members (not diligence in Torah study, not pure fear of Heaven, nor spending money on tzedakah, nor excessive care with regard to mitzvot) except to besmirch our movement. I could clothe myself with the mantle of a tzaddik and “fighter of the Lord’s battles.” I did not do this (and, God willing, will not do this.)[translation my own].
This and other letters to Rabbi Shragai show clearly what a man of principle the Rav was. He refused to make critical decisions based on petty considerations, notwithstanding the political consequences that he would suffer. There are, undoubtedly, other valuable sources omitted by Rabbi Rakefett in order to avoid difficult issues. Notwithstanding this flaw, The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik makes a major contribution to the continuing literature about the Rav and his teachings. Scholars and laymen alike are indebted to Rabbi Rakeffet for his vital work.
* For information, contact the OU at 212-613-8226, firstname.lastname@example.org or through the web site, www.ou.org.
** A copy of this document is printed in Larger Than Life, Volume II by Rabbi Shimon Deutsch, page 281.
Rabbi Weinberger is rabbi of the Young Israel of Teaneck (N.J.). He was a student of Rav Soloveitchik.