The Rav

The Great Musician Takes His Leave

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

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.

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