A Portrait of The Rav

Courtesy of Yeshiva University Archives

 

Throughout the year 5778, which marked the twenty-fifth yahrtzeit of the Rav, we have sought to present different facets of his complex and brilliant personality to the broader public. As the year closes, Rabbi Dr. Stanley Boylan recalls the fundamental role the Rav played in his life and learning.

At the entrance to my home, there hangs a portrait of my rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, with which my wife surprised me a number of years ago. This portrait of the Rav depicts him more or less as I remember him when I was his talmid, his eyes peering out of thick glasses with an inquisitive but demanding look. His image watches me as I come and go, and reminds me of things that I have yet to learn and of the role he played in my life and learning. At my office at Touro College, there is a different portrait of the Rav, a computer-generated image from an earlier photograph. While I can clearly discern the Rav’s features in this portrait, the photograph on which it is based was not taken during the period when I was his talmid. In this portrait, the Rav appears as ever, masterful, and here, too, I am inspired by the intellectual majesty and moral integrity radiating from his penetrating gaze, but I have more difficulty recognizing my beloved rebbe in it.

At this twenty-fifth yahrtzeit of the Rav, there are indeed various portraits being drawn of him, many of them true to the vision and experiences of the individuals composing them. Some are even written by individuals from a new generation—the “dor asher lo yada et Yosef”—who experienced the Rav’s brilliance only from his writings or from his recorded lectures; other portraits are composed by those who never truly recognized him at all, “v’heim lo hikiruhu.” Some portraits may actually distort the image of the Rav and what he stood for, so those of us who had the zechut (privilege) of learning directly from the Rav have an obligation to present our vision of this great man and his personal impact. The impact that a rebbe has on his talmidim is ultimately much greater than the individual chiddushei Torah he taught. It is the unique personality of the rebbe as he approaches the learning process and the challenges presented to him that etch themselves into the talmid and change his thinking and his life.

There is great value in preserving before oneself the image of one’s teacher, of one’s rebbe. The Gemara in Eruvin 13b states:

Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi said: “The fact that I am more incisive than my colleagues is due to the fact that I saw Rabbi Meir mei’achorai, from behind. Had I seen him from the front, I would be even more incisive, as it is written, ‘And your eyes shall see your teacher.’”

The image of Rabbi Meir, even from the back, transformed Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi and made him Rebbe, the teacher of all generations. We all know that Yosef HaTzaddik, when confronted with great temptation, was similarly saved by the image of his father Yaakov, which appeared before him (Sotah 36b). Interestingly, the Rav quotes this passage from Sotah as the preamble to his magnum opus, Ish Ha-Halakhah (Halakhic Man), where he sketches an image of his own great teachers and forebearers.

His Torah and teaching are being learned mainly without exposure to the force of his personality, which itself left such an indelible impression; without his sense of humor; without the intensity of his passion. Of course, we learned from the Rav’s Torah, but being exposed to his own persona was a limud in itself.

The Rav himself, in a hesped that he delivered over a gadol who had passed away, described the difficulties in presenting a full picture of the niftar (the deceased) by referring to a passage in the Talmud (Moed Katan 25a). When Rav Huna, the great Amora, passed from this world, the aron (coffin) in which he had been placed was too wide to pass through the door of Rav Huna’s house. Various attempts to solve this problem were rejected, including transferring him to a narrower aron, as it was regarded as being disrespectful to the deceased. Finally, they simply broke down the doorway to enable the aron to exit. So too, the Rav explained, when a gadol passes away, those entrusted with conveying his essence through well-defined passageways, the windows of their own soul through which they perceived the gadol, somehow fail to encompass the true greatness of the individual. The attempt is made to contain the gadol within the routine categories within which we define other individuals and ourselves, resulting in making the gadol appear smaller. If one wishes to have access to the essence of the gadol, to appreciate his greatness, one must break down one’s individual narrow vision and see the gadol in the entirety of his contributions and his personality.

This insight certainly applies to the Rav, who defied easy categorization because of the richness of his spirit, the brilliance of his intellect and the moral integrity of the true man of faith. He encompassed simultaneously an abiding dedication to the mesorah of his distinguished forebearers as well as his vision of chiddush (original interpretations) in Torah as a primary creative exercise. And so, we find profiles of the Rav by those who approach him from a single line of vision—either seeking to emphasize the modern at the expense of the mesorah, or confining the Rav to areas in which he was, indeed, most comfortable, within the daled amot of halachah. Twenty-five years after his passing, we who experienced the Rav’s brilliance on a continual basis, primarily within the context of the give and take of Talmudic exposition, still learn of and learn from the breadth of the Rav’s vision and teachings.

The Rav defined himself as a melamed—a term of honor, since it is the term used with regard to Hashem in Birkat HaTorah (“Hamelamed Torah l’amo Yisrael”)—and talmud Torah was the very essence of his purpose in life. He would quote a family maxim: “In order to be a gadol, you had to grow up among gedolim.” (Needless to say, the Rav’s talmidim, by and large, did not grow up among gedolim.) The Rav had a great and unique mesorah of Torah Shebe’al Peh from his father, Rav Moshe Soloveichik, and his grandfather, Rav Chaim Brisker, whose chiddushei Torah were inevitably expressed in virtually every shiur. While other students of Rav Chaim had also broadly mastered the fundamentals of applying the Brisker derech, in the hands of the Rav it was the methodology of a genius applied by another genius. The Rav felt that man was commanded to be creative, just as Hashem is a Creator, and that this creativity could be expressed through talmud Torah and the power of chiddush. In teaching Torah, the Rav was also literally creating and transforming talmidim; he applied the principle of “Uman koneh b’shvach keli—the craftsman is given dominion over the object he creates” to the rebbe who forms and transforms his students.

The Rav at a luncheon by the faculty of RIETS. From left: The Rav, then-YU President Dr. Samuel Belkin and YU Rosh Yeshivah Rabbi Mendel Zaks. Courtesy of Yeshiva University Archives

And the Rav was a master craftsman. During the period of my sojourn in the Rav’s shiur, our class consisted of many of the Rav’s leading talmidim who would ultimately transcribe his Torah teachings and give it over to future generations of talmidim; others would later assume the leadership of American Orthodoxy.1 One of the secrets of the Rav’s masterful pedagogy was an abiding openness to new approaches to a sugya, both from himself and even from talmidim. The Rav would start with a seemingly fresh look at a sugya or text, with no preconceived explanation, but of course his approach inevitably fell within the overall Brisker framework. He would solicit or insist on answers from talmidim; the Rav would not always agree with a student’s formulation, but not being prepared for or involved in the shiur was a fatal flaw, to be avoided at all costs. On one occasion when the Rav’s discussion was especially intense, he called upon me, and I told him that I had a totally different peshat in the sugya. To my surprise, the Rav simply allowed me to learn it differently. On other occasions, he would seriously examine approaches that differed from his own. On the other hand, when I offered a routine peshat (“cheftza-gavra”) the Rav rejected it as too facile for the problem being discussed. For the record, the Rav did not allow any so-called “secular” knowledge to impact on the shiurim that he gave, which were purely Torah.

The Rav venerated intellectual honesty and elevated the desire for amito shel Torah (the truth of Torah) above all else. In transmitting Torah, he sought to teach his students not merely to know the Torah text that he was teaching, but to know how to think about the text, how to examine the nuances, the difficulties and the seeming paradoxes in the explanations provided, even those that he himself advanced. A shiur might start with the Rav’s rendering of Rav Chaim’s peshat in the sugya, truly brilliant in itself, then expand upon it to question which cases the explanation might truly apply to and whether there were approaches intimated by the Rishonim. Living with the great mesorah of Brisk, the Rav interpreted that mesorah to incorporate the exploration of new approaches to be subsumed in a future mesorah that he and his talmidim might create.

At the end of the shiur, the Rav would seek to encapsulate the lesson by asking, “What did we learn today?” Since he was only in New York three days a week, each shiur could run for multiple hours before he would ask this question, and, in reviewing the shiur, the Rav might experience difficulty with an explanation or principle that he had elucidated and might well decide that it needed another formulation. This could turn into another shiur, but he would not give up until he was satisfied, and, on rare occasions, he would pronounce the principle “amito shel Torah.” On other occasions, he might return to the sugya the following week, until he was truly satisfied. After all the discussions and deliberations, the Rav wanted to make sure that the final lesson would be as he had anticipated, or that it would be defined with sufficient rigor to meet his standards.

It may be precisely this which renders the Rav so unforgettable to his talmidim, because we either seek out his approach to a perplexing sugya, or in other instances, remember how he would encourage us to think creatively and explore other possibilities, always within the overall halachic structure of kol haTorah kulah, which was his given. There is a danger, of course, that talmidim who perhaps did not learn all that the Rav had to teach and did not absorb the lesson of amito shel Torah, might mistake his encouragement of openness for a disregard for the mesorah and the intellectual discipline and tension which accompanies it. That each individual section of Talmudic text could be mastered and understood in the context of a universal mesorah was his true lesson to us all. It is incredible that the Rav, who spent so much intellectual energy on deciphering and explicating so meticulously and articulately the opinions of the giants of Jewish tradition, might be cited as a source for those seeking to undermine the authority of that self-same tradition. Anyone using the Rav’s open approach to talmidim to advance his own personal agenda has failed to grasp the very core of the Rav’s methodology and values and may not have been a talmid at all.

As a student in Yeshiva College, it was my greatest desire to gain entrance into the Rav’s shiur, although entry at the time was limited to those students pursuing semichah (ordination). My chavruta and I, braver souls then than we are today, undertook to sit in on the Rav’s shiur. Having attended other shiurim based on the Brisker “canon,” I remember thinking at that first experience with the Rav’s shiur—the Rav was learning Kiddushin—that the experience was like a transformation from black-and-white to color, where a rainbow of possibilities and interpretations suddenly appeared before me. Unfortunately, I had to wait another year until the Rav’s shiur was opened up to Yeshiva College students. After recounting this experience, I received a call from an individual working with tapes of the Rav’s shiurim who was trying to date the Kiddushin shiurim. I realized that I could now, after all these years, finally hear the Rav’s shiurim on Kiddushin.

In some sense, the Rav is even more accessible today to talmidim and the broader public—via published reconstructions of shiurim and through recordings and media outlets. It is breathtaking to read the Rav’s brilliant formulations of ideas that he would explicate in the future, already referenced in the Iggerot HaGrid HaLevi and Iggerot HaGram v’HaGrid, which were based on his letters to his father and others. The Rav’s thoughts on the Yamim Noraim now elevate and inspire us and Klal Yisrael throughout those holiest of days, and his reflections on Kinot and on Chumash are now cogently and movingly presented for all to read. However, with the publication of such fine works, there have been striking, perhaps inevitable, changes in the manner in which the Rav is perceived for posterity. Learning in the Rav’s shiur or attending one of his public lectures, it was always clear to us that the Rav was a genius at interpretation, with great sensitivity to the nuances of the language of a text.

Courtesy of Yeshiva University Archives

Interestingly, we did not regard the Rav as a spokesman for himself but, rather, as a revealer of truths, sometimes received from his forebearers and sometimes uncovered by him through his koach hachiddush. The Rav would use his great bekiut and marvelous logical (and pedagogical) skills to present a persuasive argument. His teaching was not based on his own personal authority as a religious leader or spokesman, but rather on the sources that he brought to bear on a problem and the elegance of the solutions that he offered.

Over the years, the Rav himself has become the study of countless scholars, and his teachings seen as original thinking derived from his own religious sensibilities; however, although the Rav admitted to a keen halachic intuition, by and large he followed the minhagim (traditions) of his family (often minhag HaGra or the minhag of the yeshivot of Lithuania) in his own practice. As a teacher of generations, the Rav always sought to derive a position on a controversial issue from the sources of authentic Jewish authority. The Rav’s voice was an echo of the kol miSinai, advocating lamdut, not liberalization, addressed to modernity but not the call of a modernizer.

Following a family tradition, the Rav published relatively little, quoting the maxim, “Not everything that one thinks should one say, not everything one says should one write down, and not everything one writes down should one publish.”

Given the Rav’s meticulous standards of excellence and attention to detail, many of those items published by talmidim and others in his name might well have been held back from publication by the Rav, largely to the detriment of the world of his talmidim and the Olam HaTorah. Because of the Rav’s particular derech halimud (methodology of learning), which incorporated new approaches specifically to open up the minds of his talmidim, we do not always know, and cannot know, the Rav’s final opinion, whether the chiddush or brilliancy captured by the talmid or the recorder reflected “sof da’ato,” whether it would have met his criteria in the review, “What did we learn today?” Ironically, the Rav’s Torah may now have a wider audience than in his lifetime, but with some uncertainty as to whether the Rav himself would have imparted this particular thought for posterity.

And if the Rav’s thought is, indeed, more present, his absence is also more profoundly felt, because his Torah and teachings are being learned mainly without exposure to the force of his personality—which itself left such an indelible impression; without his sense of humor; without the intensity of his passion. Of course we learned from the Rav’s Torah, but being exposed to his own persona was a limud in itself.

The impact that a rebbe has on his talmidim is ultimately much greater than the individual chiddushei Torah he taught—it is the unique personality of the rebbe as he approaches the learning process and the challenges presented to him that etches itself onto the talmid and changes his thinking and his life.

The Rav was not an isolated professor of Talmud delivering Olympian-style lectures, but a flesh-and-blood rebbe. He was often surrounded by devoted talmidim who developed close and lifelong relationships with him. There was a period during which the Rav lost his brother and his wife which was, indeed, a difficult period for him. We, all the talmidim of the shiur, traveled together to visit him for shivah in Boston. Subsequently, when he came back to Yeshiva, he learned Masechet Moed Katan and hilchot aveilut, which was his way of expressing his loss through the limud of Torah.

After a shiur, the Rav was often surrounded by loving talmidim looking for clarification on a part of the shiur or posing a new halachic question for resolution. On one occasion, one of his favorite talmidim brought his kallah to meet the Rav and asked for a berachah. This was not in the realm of usual requests, and the Rav shyly responded, “I am not a Chassidishe rebbe,” reflecting his Litvish upbringing. He gave the berachah which was sought, of course, and which bore great weight. When my son was of bar mitzvah age, I brought him up to Boston for a berachah from the Rav, who was then confined to his home. There was no protest from the Rav this time, and a berachah was forthcoming. (My son, now in Eretz Yisrael, has since mastered more Brisker Torah than I ever will). When possible, the Rav would also intervene for his talmidim for positions, when he could be helpful, and once even weighed in on a doctoral thesis defense on behalf of a talmid. The Rav was a berachah to all of his talmidim, even if he wasn’t a Chassidishe rebbe!

For those of us familiar with the personality of the Rav, reading his works captured in print can jog our memories and help us to re-experience the grandeur of his thought. My suggestion to those encountering the Rav solely through print would be to listen to some of his shiurim, now widely available online, to experience the dynamism and drama intrinsic in his personality in order to understand the problems that he addressed, rather than merely the answers recorded in writing. We are living in an age in which it is possible to capture somewhat the “achorai” of the Rav, if not to experience the full gamut of his personality. And to do so is certainly necessary if we are to try to be “omed al sof da’ato,” to know what the Rav might have expressed as his final opinion at the end of the shiur when he would reflect, “And what did we learn today?”

Note

1. Rav Hershel Schachter, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rav Menachem Genack and Rav Michel Shurkin are among his great talmidim and transcribers. Future maggidei shiur include Rav Abba Bronspiegel, Rav Moshe Yaged, Rav Mordechai Willig, Rav Yitzchak Ginsburg, Rav Aharon Kahn, Rav Chaim Ilson, Rav Ezra Bick, Rav Avishai David and many others. The Rav’s nephew Rav Moshe Meiselman also learned with the Rav at that time privately in Boston.

Rabbi Dr. Stanley Boylan received his BA and semichah from Yeshiva University and his PhD in mathematics from NYU. He has served as vice president of undergraduate education and dean of faculties at Touro College since 1981.

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This article was featured in the Fall 2018 issue of Jewish Action.
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