A few names come to mind, among them Maimonides, Crescas, Rashbatz—and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Genuine masters of Talmud, they mastered another discipline in Torah, which simultaneously was a common tongue with surrounding civilizations: philosophy. For Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “philosophy” had a denotation and a connotation. It denoted the discipline of thought whose basic texts in German, English, Latin and Greek he mastered in their original languages. It connoted something larger: the fields of human knowledge, from medicine to sociology, that located Jews in contemporary civilization. The insatiably inquisitive mind of Rabbi Soloveitchik came to expression through forums beyond his trenchant shiurim at Yeshiva University. For example, each Saturday night in Boston he taught Talmud or Tanakh, using the sacred text as a springboard for philosophical observation, personal reminiscence, stories from Eastern Europe, and social commentary.
One night in the late 1960s or early 1970s, he reflected on music. Nothing affected a human being more than music, he said. By happenstance, a person may hear a certain melody at a time of personal difficulty or joy, then let the melody pass from his mind as innocently as it entered. Years, even decades, later, the person may suddenly hear the melody only to be overpowered by the same emotional sadness or joy he experienced the first time. Music is powerful. It does not forget. Emotions are never dead, only dormant. A person’s link to his past is never severed. Memory never entirely recedes, and music may summon it. This is what “the Rav” was saying that night.
And now, this great musician is gone. His clefs were the pages of the Talmud. His quarter notes were the letters of the Torah. His melody was the Divine song embedded in the sheet music of Judaism. His power was the power to summon each Jew’s link to his past, to his history, to the Patriarchs and the martyrs, the heroes and the anonymous Jews who lived their lives humbly and then, as he would put it, withdrew from the Covenantal stage. He played his notes, he did. Each letter of the Torah, literally each one, resonated under his searing mental gaze. Uncovered for his listeners and disciples were strands of their own collective memory they did not know they possessed. This great melodist from Brisk, Berlin and Boston sounded the notes of the Torah in a way that one’s emotions as a Jew could never die. He cast a spell. He linked Jews to the glorious past and future of the “Covenantal community.”
Now it is the musician himself, taken from us, who is not to be forgotten. His students are perhaps more completely bereft than other students of Torah who, too, in the past few years have lost towering mentors. What a paradox, Rabbi Soloveitchik! Trained in the critical disciplines of the academy, insistent on independence of thought in his disciples, temperamentally unwilling to impose his views on others, respectful of individual decision, he now leaves a community of rabbis and readers so intimately linked to the memory of his Torah teachings, the melody of his Torah lessons, that the future seems uncharted and unable to be charted. What a dominating musician, he! What a link to the particular genius of his grandfather, the “Brisker method,” to the historic encounter of great Torah scholars with the West, to the “anonymous Jew” of the centuries with whom he had so much sympathy, to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs with whom he seemed on such intimate terms. What a link to the Holy One, Blessed be He.
His clefs were the pages of the Talmud. His quarter notes were the letters of the Torah. His melody was the Divine song embedded in the sheet music of Judaism.
What words do we summon for Rabbi Soloveitchik’s uniqueness? Awe? His pedagogic clarity, his photographic memory, his encyclopedic mastery of the Talmudic literature, were, taking the word literally, awesome. Enigma? Whether distant if articulate in the classroom, whether revelatory if removed in Saturday night lectures pouring forth personal feelings about his late wife or father or about his own subjectivities (on Hasidism, for example)—he was always a mystery. So revelatory in his teaching, so inaccessible in his being. Piety? His palpably communicative and submissive prayer, his exalted recitation of the Passover Haggadah, his exacting observance of the commandments, his fearsome dedication to Torah study, removed from this genius any trace of arrogance. Controversy? Precisely his mastery over the quarter-, nay, the eighth-, sixteenth- and even sixty-fourth notes of the Torah made his progenitors and like-gifted contemporaries wonder: What draws Rabbi Soloveitchik to the university? Why his attraction to and approval of secular studies? Why his independence from the Torah world that nurtured him? Why? Precisely his ability to sound the strings of tradition truthfully accentuated the controversy.
His legacy is intellectual honesty. He knew that he differed from much of his illustrious family on such matters as secular study, Zionism and the authority of the preeminent Talmudic scholar, and he never cloaked his views, no matter the price in personal relationships. He never shrunk from criticizing non-Orthodox Judaism for its halakhic and theological deviations, despite his desire for Jewish unity; he never shrunk from criticizing interfaith dialogue, notwithstanding his universalist existential understanding. He also did not shrink from critiquing his own following, notably but not exclusively for insufficient action during the Holocaust.
A posthumous word on Rabbi Soloveitchik is datum. Often terrifying in his clarity and definitiveness, often puzzling in his inner enigma and indecision, Rabbi Soloveitchik has attained the irreversible stature and criterion by which generations of Jews fix their masters: commentary. With each passing year, more studies, analyses, explications, critiques, and appreciations of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writings appear in journals, Jewish and general, across the world. He has become a fundamental datum of religious experience and philosophy.
His passing, however, leaves a more personal void. He bridged two worlds, but the bridge he embodied—his unique piety and perspective is not to be reconstructed because the worlds are gone. More salient, he himself—his brilliance and existential suffering, his commanding presence and private loneliness—is gone. What a paradox, Rabbi Soloveitchik! So much gone, irretrievable, even inscrutable. Yet so much sustained, communicated, even indelible. So much sacred music.
Rabbi Dr. Hillel Goldberg is the editor and publisher of The Intermountain Jewish News and a contributing editor of Jewish Action.
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