Sometime in the latter part of the 19th century, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, the Brisker Rav and great-grandfather of the Rav, showed samples of his son Chaim’s “Torah” (original interpretations) to Reb Yisrael Salanter. Reb Yisrael commented that in the future, this type of Torah would save the Torah world from the inroads of the Haskalah.
The 19th century was a time when the truth and eternity of Torah were being undermined and challenged from many directions. Not the least challenge came from the scientific and technological revolution, and in the words of Matthew Arnold: “The Sea of Faith was once, too, at the full . . . But now I only hear its melancholy, long withdrawing roar . . . .” To some within the Jewish world, the glorious tradition of Torah learning seemed to lose its luster as compared to the precision and supposed certainties of science and the scientific method. Reb Chaim Soloveitchik’s penetrating mind demonstrated that, in fact, undergirding the mass of Talmudic law was a profound, conceptual foundation. He showed that halachic thought is “no less intellectually creative, brilliantly analytical, subtly abstract . . . than the most abstract and exact sciences. On the contrary it exceeds them” (U’vikashtem Misham, p. 49). His new method gained respect for Torah and attracted some of the best young minds to Torah learning.
The Rav imbibed his grandfather’s method from early youth and developed that method to new heights of creativity. But the Rav did something else that Reb Chaim did not do, and perhaps was not necessary for his generation: The Rav confronted the predicament of modern man. His mastery of many areas of knowledge is not as important as the fact that he learned and experienced what it meant to live in the contemporary world.
It is frequently assumed that his awareness and knowledge of modernity reflected his approval or legitimation. In fact, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has shown, he actually recoiled from many of the values of Western life and civilization. But for those involved in contemporary life, he was a mentor and a guide. Many young men who might have been lost to the Conservative movement remained within Orthodoxy because of his example. How could one call Orthodoxy “old-fashioned” when this thoroughly modern giant was Orthodox and much more intelligent and knowledgeable than they in almost any field? Furthermore, contradictions and conflicts did not affect his unshakable faith and yirat Shamayim. The fact that he spent his time immersed in Talmudic studies not as an academic exercise, but as living and dynamic truth, reflected his profound faith in the Divine source of the Oral Law. This faith was communicated to his thousands of disciples who, in turn, established fresh links in the chain of masorah. And his internalized, instinctual yirat Shamayim is touchingly illustrated in the story of his bursting into tears upon realizing that he had accidentally switched on a light on Shabbat.
The Rav’s deep faith in the truth of Torah did not impede his search for and appreciation of general truth, and as a disciple of the Rambam he welcomed knowledge from whatever the source. He never feared truth even if he had unanswered questions. His anxieties and existential tensions arose from conflicts between the goals and values of society at large as opposed to the goals and values of Torah, not from perceived threats to his faith.
In his search for truth, he was unsparing of himself, as well as of others, and his approach was one of complete intellectual openness:
The Rav was scheduled to give two consecutive shiurim. During the first shiur a young man offered an interpretation that did not please the Rav. He proceeded to upbraid the student for his lack of understanding. After the shiur, the second class entered the room, but the Rav remained silent, obviously deep in thought. The class was puzzled. Suddenly, he arose and hurried out of the room with the entire class close behind. He strode out of the building and entered a luncheonette where the young man was eating. The young man looked appalled, and cringed as the Rav drew near, pointing his finger at him. But instead of additional rebuke, the Rav called out to him, “You were right and I was wrong! Tomorrow morning, I will explain!”
His thought was fresh and dynamic. A student once pointed out that he had contradicted something he himself had said earlier. He replied, “So what, I am not a Mishnah or a Tana.”
His approach was one of complete intellectual openness
He saw his role as teacher of all segments of the community, not only of advanced yeshivah students. His Saturday night Chumash classes and Sunday morning Talmud classes in Brookline were legendary, as were his heavily attended weekly Talmud shiurim in Congregation Moriya in New York. Dr. Yitzchak Twersky has pointed out that in view of the Rav’s awesome knowledge, his teaching frequently required a major effort of tzimtzum, or contraction, in order to make it appropriate for his particular audience.
The Rav wrote that “prayer is the continuation of prophecy . . . the difference . . . is . . . while within the prophetic community God takes the initiative—He speaks and man listens—in . . . prayer the initiative belongs to man: he does the speaking and God the listening” (The Lonely Man of Faith, p. 57). One may ask what vehicle served to replace prophecy’s role as communicator of the Divine voice to man?
The Ramban teaches us that after the period of prophecy, the prophetic spirit lived on in the chachamim (scholars) “who know the truth through the Divine spirit within them” (Ramban to Baba Batra 12a). The Rav’s life reflected his belief that God spoke to man through his immersion in Torah. Torah is an interactive, creative process between God and man. The Rogotchaver Gaon, Rabbi Yosef Rosen, once said that when he prayed, he spoke to God; but when he learned, God spoke to him. In the last analysis, our main contact with Divinity is via the Divine word expressed through Torah. Halachic man’s preoccupation with theoretical halachah in contrast to practical halachah reflects his longing for transcendence. According to the Zohar (3:80), our faith is derived from contact and immersion in Torah. And through Torah, covenantal man spans the generations; he finds redemption from his insecurity and transcends narrow historicist theories by living in the historical continuum of the masorah community (op. cit., p. 72).
The Rav passed through earth like a meteor, leaving us a radiant body of thought and life constituting a mighty demonstration of his faith in Orthodox Judaism and in the Divinity of Torah. His unquestionable greatness touched and elevated the lives of his thousands of students, as well as all those who were fortunate enough to have known him. But perhaps most of all, he was an indispensable link in the preservation of Torah in an era of unprecedented challenges.
Rabbi Matis Greenblatt is literary editor emeritus of Jewish Action. He lives in Jerusalem. This article first appeared in the summer 1993 issue, published shortly after the Rav’s death.