…. The stroke that afflicted me wrought a spiritual metamorphosis in my whole Weltanschauung…when a person becomes afflicted by a stroke…a minute looseness takes effect in the well-integrated pattern and harmonious blend of soul and body. Consequently, the afflicted person is able to perceive the biological sensation of being sustained and carried by the soul within him….
Reprinted from an article by Rav Ahron Soloveichik that appeared in the fall 1984 issue of Tradition.
By David Luchins
Rav Ahron HaLevi Soloveichik was an extraordinary link between the Torah of Brisk and Lita and the contemporary complexity of American and Israeli life. He defied easy descriptions and simplistic stereotyping; he was nurtured in his grandfather Reb Chaim’s derech by his father and rebbi muvhak, Rav Moshe, and was an honors’ graduate of New York University School of Law; he was tutored in Talmud as a boy by Rav Yitzchak Hutner, and was taught English Literature as a new immigrant to the United States by Rav Avigdor Miller.
For almost half a century, Rav Ahron’s clarity of vision inspired the Torah world with an emphasis that was uniquely his. From marching for civil rights and opposing apartheid, to calling on aid for Biafra and opposing American military involvement in Vietnam; from unstinting opposition to the death penalty to outspoken views on the peace process and religious pluralism; he was rarely reticent and rarely equivocal. Blessed with an exceptional mind and a compassionate heart, he had an unmatched gift for addressing contemporary issues through the timeless prism of Torah hashkafah.
I first met Rav Ahron at the 1965 Orthodox Union dinner. Several months later, I entered his shiur at Yeshiva University and was privileged to be one of the thousands of talmidim that he shaped during his decades of teaching.
To walk into a shiur of Rav Ahron was to be propelled into a unique world where Blackstone and Bismarck might be summoned to help make a point. But proof–all proof–always came from the sources of our tradition. Even after a debilitating stroke robbed him of physical vigor, his mental capacity and analytical skills were still a wonder to behold.
Rav Ahron was far, far more than an accomplished talmid chacham and darshan par excellence. He was at the very cutting edge of those who helped elucidate how Orthodox Jews should deal with the last half century’s two great gifts to Klal Yisrael: American democracy and Medinat Yisrael. On issue after issue, Rav Ahron was the defining voice of Torah reason in a world clamoring for answers to increasingly complex questions.
Not that Rav Ahron was predictable or easily pigeonholed. His Brisker background assured a complex and far-flung worldview.
His legendary brother Rav Yosef Dov, with whom he enjoyed a remarkable relationship, was wont to refer to Rav Ahron as “the conscience of our family.”
The Rav’s words certainly applied to the Orthodox Union family as well. For over 40 years Rav Ahron was a beloved mentor and friend of the OU, keynoting four national conventions (one in each of four decades, he noted in 1992); reviewing and often rewriting virtually every national convention resolution since 1970, providing valued halachic and hashkafic guidance to generations of OU leaders. He even chose to publish his definitive 1966 piece on Torah Jews’ obligations towards non-observant Jews and non-Jews in Jewish Life, the predecessor of Jewish Action.
Rav Ahron was a particular champion of our National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) and its affiliated Ben Zakkai Honor Society, which he helped create in 1965 (addressing our founding meeting, reviewing our bylaws, and answering she’eilot about membership standards through the years).
For over a third of a century, Rav Ahron was a rebbe, posek and friend to the young people of NCSY. He addressed dozens of NCSY events, faithfully answering written and telephoned questions from innumerable teenagers, providing inspiration, solace, and timeless Torah wisdom.
Rav Ahron’s first public appearance after his stroke was to keynote an NCSY national convention in Chicago, where his stubborn 15-minute progress with a walker across a ballroom with 400 cheering teenagers was the most dramatic event I have witnessed in my over 40 years in NCSY. When the Jewish world was reeling from the shock of Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination, Rav Ahron asked to address the leadership of NCSY and came, in his wheelchair, to the OU’s national office to deliver a powerful message of collective responsibility that subsequently made front-page headlines in newspapers around the world. He could have chosen any audience he wanted. He chose to speak to the NCSYers!
Even in the last years when his body was wracked with constant pain, he would devote entire afternoons during his summer trips to Eretz Yisrael to personal meetings with the participants of the NCSY summer programs, answering their questions on everything from shalom bayit to free will.
In the summer of 1975, Rav Ahron visited NCSY’s Camp West in Big Bear, California. He spoke for hours to the teenagers, several of whom spoke of their personal problems practicing Yiddishkeit in not fully observant homes. After the last boy with a particularly difficult struggle left the room, the Rosh Yeshivah began to cry. When I asked him what was wrong he said, “their courage, their strength–I don’t know if I could be as brave as they are.”
Looking back at Rav Ahron’s life, our eyes fill with tears; we can only say the same about his courage, his strength, his bravery, his example. Yehi zichro baruch.
A postscript–I recounted the above story to Rav Ahron’s youngest son, Chayim, during the shivah for the Rosh Yeshivah, and added that the young man mentioned had become fully observant (as had his entire family). Having made aliyah, he was now the head of a yeshivah in Israel. To our astonishment we realized that Chayim’s oldest son–Rav Ahron’s grandson–was a talmid in the yeshivah headed by the boy who once brought tears to Rav Ahron’s eyes!
Dr. Luchins is chairman of the Political Science Department of Touro College and senior advisor to NY State Comptroller H. Carl McCall. He has served as a vice president of the OU since 1976. He and his wife Vivian were charter members of NCSY’s Ben Zakkai Honor Society in 1965, and have long served as chairmen of the annual Ben Zakkai dinner.