By Rabbi Kenneth Brander
When most people think of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, they tend to focus on his brilliance. I do not have the ability to expound on the Rav’s intellectual greatness. However, as someone who, from age nineteen through twenty-three, was not only in the Rav’s shiur but also was one of his shamashim (assistants), I was blessed to be able to observe the Rav closely, spending more time with him than I did with my own parents.
I got the position of shamash because my chavruta, who was one of the Rav’s shamashim, was leaving Yeshiva University (YU) for medical school. He suggested me as someone who could take his place; soon after, the Rav’s son, Dr. Haym Soloveitchik, asked me to serve as the Rav’s shamash. Initially, I turned down the position. The thought of being in the Rav’s presence, on a daily basis for long periods of time, was too intimidating. However, Rabbi Yosef Blau, the mashgiach of YU, encouraged me to reconsider; listening to Rabbi Blau was one of the best decisions of my life.
Rav Moshe Feinstein was fond of saying that the Rav was the melamed of our time. In shiur, the Rav was at home with any sugyah in Shas, any issue in halachah and any philosophical idea. His philosophy of Judaism was often articulated with language found in Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard and Cohen, but his ideas were predicated on the ideals found in Rambam and Ramban. He used all of his knowledge to be an effective teacher, and every shiur introduced us to another color in the tapestry of Torah. I remember the Rav once explaining why hotza’ah (carrying on Shabbat) was categorized by Tosafot as a melachah geruah, an inferior creative act Biblically forbidden on Shabbat (Shabbat 2a, s.v. yeziot haShabbat). While melachot forbidden on Shabbat are normally creative in nature, hotza’ah lacks a creative aspect. To explain the difficulty the rabbis had in classifying hotza’ah, the Rav drew an analogy to the Communist party. He described how the Communist leaders tried to show how every type of workers’ union was productive, but they had difficulty articulating the productivity of the transportation union. Unlike every other union that created a product, the transportation union simply moved goods from one location to another. Just as the union did not easily classify as being productive, hotza’ah, said the Rav, did not easily classify as a forbidden category of work.
The Rav was at home with any sugyah in Shas, any issue in halachah and any philosophical idea
The Rav’s clarity, charisma and intellectual integrity made shiur exciting, and his classroom became a gathering place for all types of people—from young semichah students to veteran roshei yeshivah. Immediately after Sukkot or during the first week of Nisan, when YU was in session and other yeshivot were on vacation, the Rav’s shiur would be attended by many guests who just wanted to see and hear the Rav.
Often at the end of the shiur, there would be questions on what was taught, and the Rav would answer them all. One time, a younger student asked a question. The Rav answered the question and ended shiur. As I was leaving, the Rav asked me if I knew where that particular student ate lunch. I told him I thought at a restaurant called Mc’Dovids. The Rav indicated that he wanted to go there. As we entered the place, the students from MTA (YU’s high school), who were playing pinball, recognized the Rav and froze. Even the non-Jewish man flipping hamburgers behind the counter knew who the Rav was and froze as well. The Rav went over to the student, who was trying to digest his hamburger, and indicated that he would base the following day’s shiur on the young man’s question.
The Rav’s classroom became a gathering place for all types of people-from young semichah students to veteran roshei yeshivah.
At one point, due to the Rav’s health, his shiur had to be limited to two hours. During shiur, I typically sat next to the Rav. I devised a technique to deal with the time limit. I would slip pieces of paper to the Rav depicting the passage of time. The first day the system worked like a charm. I handed the Rav the sheet indicating that two hours had passed, and he ended shiur. Everyone in the shiur was shocked. The next day, however, after signaling the Rav, he continued to teach. How does a twenty-year-old deal with the fact that the gadol hador is not following his medically prescribed time limit? All the students had their eyes fixed on me to see how the situation would unfold. After another forty-five minutes passed, I rose, closed the Rav’s Gemara and announced that shiur was over. The entire room was quiet. The Rav turned to his students and said, “Even the Satan doesn’t have as good an assistant as I do.” All the students laughed, and shiur was over. Rather than engage in conversation, I walked silently with the Rav to Morgenstern Dormitory. He asked me what was wrong. I told him that I had not ended the shiur of my own accord. I was just following instructions. I would have loved to sit in shiur for an extra hour. The Rav responded, “Kenny, you know that when I wake up in the morning, I am in pain, and in the afternoon many times I am in pain. But when I deliver a shiur, I am pain free. You know better than the doctors. You know that when I am teaching I have no pain.” How true that statement was. Often the Rav entered shiur with blurred vision, yet he would read the gemara, Rambam and Rashi as if his sight was fine. Sometimes he would ask me to open the Gemara to the daf he was teaching. He would point to the gemara as if he was reading the gemara from the text, but I knew that he wasn’t; he was reciting it by heart.
The next day in shiur, I decided I was not going to remind the Rav when to stop. However, an hour-and-a-half into the shiur, the Rav turned to me and asked me how much time he had left.
The Rav had a reputation of being tough in shiur. The demands he made on his talmidim were due to the love he had for them and to his commitment to being the best melamed he could be. However, outside of shiur, his demeanor was welcoming and gentle. I remember many times people left the Rav’s apartment comforted, either because the Rav had a solution to their problems or simply because he had listened so intently. Hearing the pain of another Jew had an effect on the Rav. His meetings with people—whether it was with Menachem Begin or with a simple Jew—never became routine. After meeting with someone in distress, it would become harder for the Rav to walk, sleep and eat. Recognizing how the Rav internalized the pain of others, we made sure not to schedule consecutive appointments. The Rav cared about everyone, including Mrs. O’Shea, the Irish woman who cleaned his apartment, and the security guard in the Morgenstern hallway. He was a regal person and treated everyone with respect.
Toward the end of his tenure at YU, one of us shamashim would sleep in the Rav’s apartment. The Rav would always wake up early, but I remember once waking up around three o’clock in the morning and realizing that the Rav was not in his bed. He was sitting in his chair in the living room. I asked him what was wrong. Apparently, that afternoon, some individuals had asked him a halachic question. He told them to return the next day for the answer. The Rav said that he knew what the halachah was but that it would be heartbreaking for them. Therefore, he could not sleep.
There was a special camaraderie that the Rav shared with Rav Moshe, Rav Yaakov Ruderman and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Whenever Chabad came out with a new sefer, the Rebbe would send shelichim to the Rav to give him a copy. Rav Moshe, Rav Ruderman and the Rav would call one another before every chag.
On Ta’anit Esther of 1986, when Rav Moshe was niftar, the Rav was not feeling well. His family was concerned and asked us shamashim not to inform the Rav of the petirah (death). The next morning, The New York Times that was normally delivered to the Rav’s apartment was somehow not received, and the radio next to his chair, which was always tuned to News Radio 88, was broken. We thought we had done a great job of shielding the Rav from the news.
I rarely spent time in the afternoon in the Rav’s apartment. I was in Rav Hershel Schachter’s kollel, and therefore I was only in the apartment late at night and early in the morning. However, the week before Pesach, the Rav had one of the other shamashim call the third-floor beit midrash and ask that I drive him to the airport. This was clearly not the norm. Until this day, every time I travel on a certain stretch of the Grand Central Parkway, I have a hard time steering because I remember the Rav turning to me and saying, “Kenny, why didn’t you tell me that Rav Moshe Feinstein was niftar?” At the time, I did not know what to say. Eventually as we got closer to the Eastern Airlines shuttle, I turned to him and said, “Atara [his daughter] told us not to tell you.”
I thought we had done an incredible job of keeping this secret and wanted to understand where we had failed. “Rebbe, how did you find out?” I asked. He replied, “It was Rav Moshe’s turn to call me to wish me a good Yom Tov and there could only be one reason why he didn’t call.”
When I got engaged, I wanted my kallah to meet with the Rav, so I asked his permission to bring her to the apartment. He immediately said yes. Parkinson’s disease especially affected the Rav at night, and it was hard for him to walk. But when he heard that my kallah was at the door, he got out of his chair on his own, walked to the door, opened it and escorted her to the couch. Only after she sat did he take a seat.
It was a tremendous berachah that the Rav attended our wedding. Under the chuppah, he had several memorable exchanges with us. Tragically, it was his last public event.
Most people think that the Rav inherited Rav Chaim’s mind. The truth is that he also inherited Rav Chaim’s heart. I would like to conclude with the idea Rav Ahron Soloveichik, zt”l, stated at his brother’s funeral. When the Beit Hamikdash was burning, the pirchei kehunah (younger priests) went to the rooftop to surrender the Temple keys to heaven. Rav Ahron explained that this was not an act of greatness but rather one of cowardice. Even when the Beit Hamikdash was burning, no one had the right to surrender. And it was that surrender that doomed the Jewish people to a long and difficult galut.
Over the past fifty years or so, many of us have had the zechut of being students of the Rav. His passing is not a time to surrender or abandon his calling but to recommit ourselves to be both the students and teachers of his tradition. We must recommit ourselves to embrace not a Torah shaped by modernity but a modernity that is shaped by Torah. May Hakadosh Baruch Hu strengthen us and give us the capacity to move from being students of the mesorah, students of moreinu verabbeinu haRav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik to being teachers of his mesorah. Yehi zichro baruch.
This article is an edited transcript of a lecture delivered at a session in honor of the tenth yahrtzeit and one-hundredth birthday of Rabbi Soloveitchik, held at the National Convention of the Orthodox Union in December, 2002.
Rabbi Brander is the senior rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue and the dean of
the Community Kollel and the Weinbaum Yeshiva High School in Florida.