The Rav

My Teacher, My Master

Original photo courtesy of Yeshiva University Archives, Public Relations People Photograph Collection

Rav Elchonon Wasserman once posed the following question to the Chofetz Chaim: How does one know when a particular period, a tekufah, has concluded? How, for example, was it known that the period of the Tanaim or the Amoraim ended? Did someone enter the Beit Midrash, bang on the shtender and announce that the period of the Tanaim had come to a close?

The Chofetz Chaim responded that upon the demise of an individual who had surpassed those of his own genera­tion, as well as those of the prior genera­tion, we know that an era has concluded. Such was the case upon the passing of the Gaon of Vilna, said the Chofetz Chaim. And with the passing of Hagaon Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik on the night of the eighteenth of Nissan, an era closed.

The Rav was many things: teacher, theologian and philosopher; but at his core he was a halachist. The Rav be­lieved that the halachah, the body of Jewish law, is the ultimate prism through which we can glimpse God’s mind and his design for mankind and the universe. To the study of Torah, he brought his rigorous, analytical methodology, incul­cated in him by his father, who recog­nized his son’s prodigious talents and personally taught him from an early age.

The Brisker methodology has, I be­lieve, a theological root. The Rav would often say that the “why” question as related to Torah study is invalid. We must only ask “what.” God’s will is self- justifying and beyond human compre­hension. We can never pierce the barrier of the Gezerat Hakatuv; what is left to us is to define and understand the given law.

God’s essence is hidden behind many veils of transcendence. The existential loneliness that stalked the Rav is inherent in the human condition and to the religious experience, which seeks to know God and to cleave to Him. Alas, that quest is frustrated, in that God is totally other and beyond our reach. We are incarcerated in our finitude. Even the master prophet, Moses, was denied his request to know God. Mortal man can never know God. The drama of the uni­verse remains largely hidden from man and we can only relate to it through the instrumentality of the halachah. This precipitated in the Rav an almost poetic appreciation of the mysterious and a deep sense of humility. In the midst of the swirling forces which William James called “the reality of the unseen” what right does mortal man have to be proud?

The Rav rejected facile speech or the trivialization of profound concepts or relationships. Much in life is hidden, enigmatic. That which is most holy is most concealed. It is in that context that the Rav spoke of the intense relationship between himself and his father, which did not have to be confirmed by a kiss or outward expression of affection, because it was so deep a love. The Talmud tells us that Rav Yochanan referred to his garments as michubadie (my dignity). We are digni­fied, the Rav commented, in that our essence remains hid­den, unexposed. That may be why part of Kovod Shabbat requires that the table which is symbolic of the altar in the Temple be covered.

When I speak of the Rav’s humility, I do not mean that he was meek. He set high stan­dards, and woe to the student who asked a foolish or irrel­evant question or broke the Rav’s trend of thought. Rather, I mean that he had a sense of perspective about our limited capacity and recognition of human frailty, and strove to grasp the full range of possi­bilities accessible to man—both in relation to understand­ing a sugya as well as matters of the religious spirit.

One summer, the Rav gave some shiurim in Likutei To­rah, a work on the last three books of the Pentateuch composed by Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the famed author of the Tanya and founder of Lubavitch Chassidism. He commented that in order to properly appreciate the grandeur of Rosh Hashanah it was important to study Likutei Torah. For the Rav, it was important to communicate both the logic and the passion of Torah.

He was enormously generous in his judgment of people, and forgiving al­most to a fault. He never held a grudge even towards people who tried to hurt him grievously. He was an instinctive baal tzedakah and his munificence knew no ideological constraints. He would remind his students that rabbis are also obligated to give tzedakah.

The breadth and depth of the Rav’s grasp of Torah in all its diversity—Tanach, Talmud, Rishonim, Poskim, Aggadah, Piyut—was dazzling. Con­cerning R. Yosef Ibn Megash, the Rambam writes that “his mind was fright­ening and awesome.” So may it be said of the Rav. A mind like the Rav’s appears only rarely in each century. His impact on peoples’ thinking was powerful and many who heard a single shiur were dramatically influenced. Great lomdim and laymen alike were captivated by the force of his logic and presentation which left a permanent mark on their future study.

The former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Avraham Shapiro, told me that when the Rav came to Israel in 1935, Rav Kook told him to be sure to attend each shiur that the Rav delivered, because hearing him was like hearing Rav Chaim Brisker. When I visited the Ponovitzer Rav in 1967 he told me, “There is no one like Rav Soloveitchik. He is the greatest Rosh Yeshivah in the world.” I cite only two quotes but there was universal rec­ognition by great Torah scholars that the Rav was singular and unique. In the semichah that the Kovner Rav, Rabbi A.D. Kahana Shapiro, gave to the Rav he wrote: “The halachah should always be decided in accordance with his opinion.”

I remember the first time I heard a shiur by the Rav. It was 1963 and the Rav was speaking on teshuvah. I was still only in high school, but I was completely enraptured and was determined to become his talmid.

The Rav, who was ascetic by nature, found pleasure and joy only in Torah. Out of his generosity of spirit, and because joy is a shared ex­perience, he had to communi­cate the majesty of Torah to others. He was a master rebbe presenting concepts with ex­traordinary clarity, force and el­egance of style and thought. The Rav exercised great discipline in suppressing the torrent of his ideas and limited his exposition to what was necessary for the talmid to understand. Material which previously seemed ab­struse or even inchoate would be transposed via his shiur into an ordered universe with clearly defined categories that, after his exposition, would appear obvious.

He had a total commitment to imparting Torah. On occa­sion he would come into the classroom tired and exhausted, but in the process of giving the shiur he would become strong, animated and vibrant. Once the shiur was over, he collapsed on his desk. He suffered from chronic back pain and always wore a brace. One sum­mer, his back problem flared up, but rather than cancel the shiur, he invited his talmidim to his room and gave the shiur from his bed. He would often say that he was “…just a melamed,” but that wasn’t so bad, because even God is called a melamed, as stated in the bless­ing of the Torah.

And this total commitment to teach­ing Torah was the key to understanding him: it was nothing less than transposing a rational exposition where all logical possibilities were exhausted into an ec­static religious experience; as if the Shechinah itself bent down to hear what was being said.

To the Rav, Rabbi Akiva, Abaye and Rava and the Rambam were not ancient figures, but vital and alive. The Rav would say that until various groups cel­ebrated the 800th anniversary of the Rambam’s death, he always thought of the Rambam as a contemporary figure, teacher and friend.

Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld recounts that as a talmid in the Rav’s shiur he would on occasion drive him to various appoint­ments. Once he took the Rav to meet a wealthy man on the West Side of Man­hattan. While there, the man asked the Rav a she’elah. The Rav asked him to bring a Rambam. The man did not move. Again, the Rav said, “bring me a Rambam.” Red faced, the man had to admit that he did not own a Rambam. The Rav looked at him in absolute astonishment and exclaimed “Vie lebt a yid ohn a Rambam?” (How does a Jew live without a Rambam?)

The Rav had a profound, abiding love for the Rambam. During his last years, though debilitated, he would quote en­tire sections of the Rambam by heart. The story is told of a visit by Rabbi Yehuda Leib Kagan to Rav Moshe Soloveitchik in Chaslovitz (where Rav Moshe was serving as Rabbi). Rav Moshe maintained that Rabbi Kagan had erred in quoting the Rambam. Rabbi Kagan insisted that he was right and suggested that they send Yosef Dov, who was barely bar mitzvah, to fetch the Rambam and confirm the correct reading. Rav Moshe replied that this was not necessary: “My son knows the entire Rambam.” And Yosef Dov proceeded to quote the Rambam by heart.

The Rav’s extraordinary intellectual and pedagogic talents preserved and ex­panded the realm of the tradition of Torah and allowed for its expansion in America, thereby allowing an ancient tradition to speak and prosper in a new, otherwise secular and inhospitable envi­ronment. The Talmud tells us that a Bedouin once told Rabba Bar Channa that he would take him to the place where heaven and earth embrace and kiss. It was that existential kiss which imbued the Rav with a lifetime sense of responsibility for transmitting the echo of God’s word received at Sinai.

The Rav once said that at his father’s Seder, the Rambam would sit on one side and the Rashba on the other and the Shaagas Aryeh and Rabbi Akiva Eger were invited guests. Now the Rav has joined them in the Heavenly Yeshivah, in the Yeshivah Shel Maalah.


Rabbi Genack is the CEO of OU Kosher and a talmid of the Rav.


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This article was featured in the Summer 1993 issue of Jewish Action.
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