Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik and NCSY—An Appreciation

On Sunday evening, January 29th, 2012, NCSY’s Ben Zakkai Honor Society will be honoring the legacy of Rabbi Ahron and Rebbetzin Ella Soloveichik. Why, you may rightly ask, should Ben Zakkai be the venue for the Orthodox Union to celebrate this remarkable couple’s extraordinary contributions?

February 1966, Manhattan’s West Side: The Ben Zakkai Honor Society was hosting its first meeting and the guest speaker was Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, a young rosh yeshivah from Yeshiva University, a brilliant graduate of New York University Law School, who had been asked to discuss our halachic responsibilities toward non-observant and non-Jews. He began by quoting from the Rambam’s laws of Kiddush Hashem:

The entire House of Israel is commanded to be mekadesh Hashem . . . What is kiddush Hashem? . . . When the enemy orders you to violate one of the mitzvot of the Torah on threat of death—you should violate the mitzvah and not die . . .

But if the enemy commands you to worship idols or commit adultery or murder, you must give up your life . . .­1

Rav Ahron asked the teenagers in the room to consider the Rambam’s sense of priorities. Shouldn’t the order of the halachot be reversed? Shouldn’t dying as a Jew al kiddush Hashem, by sanctifying the Divine Name, have pride of place in Hilchot Kiddush Hashem? The Rambam, Rav Soloveichik suggested, is teaching us a profound lesson—it is a wonderful thing to be prepared to die as a Jew al kiddush Hashem, but you can obviously only do that once in your life. A far more significant challenge is to live every minute of your life in a way that sanctifies the name of Heaven.

Kiddush Hashem: Living every minute in a way that makes others think more about Torah and its Divine Author. There, in two words, is the essence of the majesty and magic of Rav Ahron Soloveichik’s epic legacy. The fifty-eight years of profound Talmud shiurim in the classic Brisker derech of his father and grandfather, Rabbis Moshe and Chaim Soloveichik, zt”l; the half-century of remarkable moral issues raised in the hashkafah shiurim on every imaginable topic, from the wars in Vietnam and Biafra to his fervent opposition to capital punishment and apartheid; the heroic decade and a half when he overcame a devastating stroke to travel every week from Chicago to New York after his brother, the Rav, became too ill to give shiurim “because my mother and my brother would have wanted me to do it.” All this, and more, can be summarized in two words: Kiddush Hashem.

March 1965, New York City: A public school NCSYer from Buffalo, New York, was visiting Yeshiva College. An NCSY advisor brought him to Rav Ahron’s daily Gemara shiur. The teenager was introduced to the rosh yeshivah before class and Rav Ahron asked him about his Jewish education. He had never studied Gemara. Rav Ahron then delivered a remarkable two-and-a-half-hour shiur in which every term was translated and explained in extraordinary detail.

The shiur ended. A talmid told the visitor, “Please come again, that was the first time I ever heard all those terms and concepts explained.” The visitor replied, “It was great. Gemara is really easy to understand.” Today he is a rosh yeshivah in a major American Torah center.

Fall 1968, Chicago: An NCSY leader from a small Midwestern community left his public school and enrolled in the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois. He had problems adjusting and soon fell in with the wrong crowd. One morning a dorm counselor discovered his collection of inappropriate magazines, and he was summoned to the office of the rosh yeshivah, Rav Ahron Soloveichik. The NCSYer was angry; yeshivah is clearly not for him. This is the last straw. He should never have come here in the first place. Let them throw him out; he couldn’t care less.

He entered Rav Ahron’s office. The offensive magazines were on the rosh yeshivah’s desk.

“Are these your magazines?” Rav Ahron asked.

“Yes,” the talmid answered defiantly.

“May I have your permission to destroy them?”

“My what? . . .” the stunned teenager responded.

“Your reshut,” Rav Ahron replied. “If it’s your property then I need your permission to destroy it. Otherwise it would be gezelah on my part.”

The young man (who would rather not be identified) is today a respected lay leader in his local Orthodox community.

July 1975, Camp NCSY, Big Bear, California: Dozens of NCSYers were waiting in line to have an opportunity to meet privately with the rosh yeshivah. Twin boys from a non-observant home shared with him the details of their struggle to keep Shabbat in a fiercely hostile environment. Rav Ahron began to cry. “I wish I had your strength,” he told these twelve-year-old NCSY public schoolers. “I wish I had your courage. May Hashem help you change your parents’ attitude toward your shemirat Shabbat.”

October 2001, Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel: Rabbi Chaim Soloveichik was sitting shivah for his father, Rav Ahron, in his home. His son’s rebbe came to pay a shivah call and mentioned that, a quarter of a century earlier, he was one of the twins in Camp NCSY who had brought tears to Rav Ahron’s eyes. Both are now rabbanim in Israel. Their parents are Sabbath observers. Rabbi Chaim cried.

June 1985, Chicago: Five hundred teenagers cheered and sang as Rav Ahron and his rebbetzin slowly made their way across the hall at NCSY’s National Convention banquet. It was one of the rosh yeshivah’s first public appearances since his massive stroke two years earlier. He struggled to walk with the aid of a walker; every step was seared with pain. It took him fifteen minutes to get from the door to the dais, but no one cared—Rav Ahron was back! He spoke for forty minutes. The lines and creases left his face; the painful steps were forgotten. He was with his NCSYers, and he was teaching them Torah.

Rav Ahron told us that every Friday night we quote the pasukAsher barah Elokim la’asot,” and explained that “a perfect God deigned to create an imperfect world, and dared to create an imperfect creature, and gave that creature—you and me, Jew and non-Jew—the daunting task of perfecting his imperfect world.”

Rav Ahron slowly made his way out of the hall. Every step seemed to take forever. The teens were singing and dancing in his honor. Tears were flowing. A public school girl approached the rosh yeshivah and shyly handed the rebbetzin a note:

“Rabbi,” she wrote, “I did not understand most of what you said, but I will always remember that you were here tonight—with all of us.”

July 1989, Old City, Jerusalem: Rav Ahron met with the teenagers on NCSY’s Michlelet program, as he met with the members of many NCSY summer programs during his visits to Israel. A young woman from a small town in Maryland spoke to him about the problems she was facing in public school. Rav Ahron urged her to transfer to a yeshivah high school. “Rabbi,” she blurted out, “I’m going into my senior year; it’s just not possible.” The group left. Rav Ahron called a talmid whose wife was involved in NCSY and asked the couple to follow up. He called them twice more that week. An NCSY regional director was called. A month later, the girl who said she could not leave public school was enrolled in a yeshivah.

November 1995, New York City: It was the Wednesday night after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Rav Ahron had asked to meet with the members of Ben Zakkai to discuss the tragedy. He was deeply pained. It was his only public remarks on the subject. He reminded us that the Torah is compared to the sneh, the Burning Bush, because “fire gives heat, light and devours fuel, but the light of Torah must only give warmth and light, love and hope; it must never be used to destroy or kill. This is not Torah; it is a perversion of Torah.”

Rav Ahron met with NCSY and Ben Zakkai groups dozens of times during his decades as a rosh yeshivah. His brother, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, once declared: “Ahron is the conscience of our family.” He was, and remains, the conscience of our extended family, NCSY and Ben Zakkai.

Dr. David Luchins, a talmid of Rav Ahron, is a senior vice president of the Orthodox Union and founding dean of Touro College’s Lander College for Women.

  1. Hilchot Yesodei Torah 5:1, 2.
This article was featured in the Winter 2011 issue of Jewish Action.