3. His Life and Thought, Part 2

  • Rav Reuven Ziegler

Yeshivat Har Etzion


by Rav Ronnie Ziegler

LECTURE #2: His Life and Thought, Part 2



Originally published shortly after the passing of Rav Soloveitchik's son-in-law, Rav Yitzchak (Isadore) Twersky zt"l of Boston, this lecture is dedicated to his memory. A man of many talents, great commitment, and deep piety, Rav Twersky possessed a unique personality capable of bridging the gap between the worlds of chassidut and mitnagdut, yeshiva and academia, thought and action. Scion of the Talner chassidic dynasty, he served as a rav and mechanekh for many years. As a professor at Harvard University, he was regarded as one of the world's leading experts in Jewish intellectual history. His particular field of expertise was the study of the Rambam, and his monumental "Introduction to the Code of Maimonides" stands as testament to his mastery of that field. A devoted son-in-law, he was instrumental in publishing many of Rav Soloveitchik's works and took care of the Rav with great dedication during the Rav's years of illness. Yehi zikhro barukh.





The Rav's most important and fateful encounter in Berlin was that with his wife, Dr. Tonya (Lewit) Soloveitchik (1904-1967). A student at the University of Jena, where she obtained a Ph.D. in education, she was introduced to Rav Soloveitchik by her brother, a fellow student at University of Berlin. Although a scion of the illustrious Soloveitchik family was expected to conclude a match with the daughter of a prominent rabbi or at least a successful businessman, Rav Soloveitchik fell in love with Tonya Lewit and married her in 1931 despite her family's undistinguished lineage and lack of means.


As mentioned in the previous lecture, the Rav's relationship with his wife was one of the two most significant relationships in his life. He had unlimited esteem for her - his dedication of "The Lonely Man of Faith" reads: "To Tonya: A woman of great courage, sublime dignity, total commitment, and uncompromising truthfulness." He respected her opinion and heeded her advice, both in practical and in intellectual matters. It was on her advice that he changed the topics of his annual Yahrzeit (memorial) lectures for his father, which attracted thousands of listeners, to matters which non-scholars could relate to (such as prayer, Torah reading, and holidays). [The halakhic portions of some of these lectures are collected in the two volumes of Shiurim Le-zekher Abba Mari z"l.] In a poignant passage in a teshuva lecture delivered after his wife's death, he recounted how he used to consult her before speaking:


"The longing for one who has died and is gone forever is worse than death. The soul is overcome and shattered with fierce longing... Several days ago, I once again sat down to prepare my annual discourse on the subject of repentance. I always used to discuss it with my wife and she would help me to define and crystallize my thoughts. This year, too, I prepared the discourse while consulting her: 'Could you please advise me? Should I expand this idea or cut down on that idea? Should I emphasize this point or that one?' I asked, but heard no reply. Perhaps there was a whispered response to my question, but it was swallowed up by the wind whistling through the trees and did not reach me." (On Repentance [Jerusalem, 1980], p. 280)


Rav Soloveitchik's wife was his best and perhaps only real friend. His natural proclivity towards loneliness, which we will encounter repeatedly in his writings, was heightened in his philosophy to an ideal, which expresses itself in an invigorating sense of one's own uniqueness. One can be lonely even, or perhaps especially, when surrounded by friends, colleagues, and family. This is a constructive force which propels a person toward his individual destiny, while also propelling him to seek a depth-connection with God and with his fellow man. Aloneness, as opposed to loneliness, is a disjunctive emotion - it is a sense of lacking companionship, of being abandoned and forlorn. The passage above highlights the Rav's almost unbearable sense of aloneness following his wife's death in 1967 after a long struggle with cancer. He is reported to have said, "After my father's death, I felt like a wall of my house had fallen down. After my wife's death, I felt like the entire house had collapsed." 1967 was an extraordinarily trying year for the Rav; within the space of three months, his wife, mother and brother all passed away. Although he did manage to return to a productive career of teaching after this period of crisis (and in fact said that it was the study and teaching of Torah which had helped him overcome his crisis), echoes of it reverberate throughout his later writing.


Many attribute to this period a significant change in the Rav's temperament. In an address at Yeshiva University at the conclusion of the Rav's sheloshim (thirty-day mourning period), his son Dr. Haym Soloveitchik related his different experiences in the Rav's Talmud shiur. In the 1940's and 50's, the Rav had been "a volcano, a storming lion in the classroom ... he could crouch like a tiger and leap at the slightest error that a student would make." However, when he entered his father's shiur in 1969, he was shocked to find him "gentle, forbearing; very little upset him." Why the change?


The Rav's father, Rav Mosheh Soloveitchik, had trained him with the assumption that everything was superable through effort. Indeed, contrary to most people's impression of a meteoric career, the first forty years of the Rav's life had been an endless overcoming of obstacles - war, poverty, antisemitism, politics, etc. Thus, both Rav Mosheh and the Rav believed that most intellectual error was a moral failure - a failure of will and effort. Rav Soloveitchik responded to error with fury because he believed it to be a mark of laziness and self-indulgence; if his students would try harder, if they would care more, then they would reach a better grasp of the material they were studying. (Of course, he held himself to the same high standard, devoting long and intense hours to preparation of his classes.) However, in the 1960's Rav Soloveitchik had to cope with his own, ultimately successful, bout with cancer, and his wife's, ultimately unsuccessful, bout with cancer. At this point, he discovered a sense of helplessness - not everything could be accomplished by sheer force of will. This caused a shift in his attitude to his students. He came to terms with human limitations and vulnerability.


This change in temperament may also reflect a shift in emphasis in the Rav's writings. Certainly, in the writings of the 1960's and 1970's the themes of surrender, humility, the heroism of defeat, and childlike dependence on God assume more prominence. (Some speak of a shift from Neo-Kantianism to Existentialism, or the influence of Crisis Theology.) We will leave open for now the question of whether these themes are not present in his earlier writings or whether they are present but not as central; we will also examine in later lectures the circumstances surrounding the writing of the Rav's major philosophical essays.




Soon after his arrival in the United States in 1932, Rav Soloveitchik was appointed Chief Rabbi of the Orthodox community of Boston. Even after succeeding his father in 1941 as head of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in New York, he retained his position in Boston, shuttling back and forth every week for over forty years. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (loc. cit., p. 285) depicts the Rav's approach to the rabbinate as follows:


"Bred in a tradition that emphasized the intellectual, rather than the pastoral function of the rabbinate, it was Rav Soloveitchik's conception that the rabbi is aall a student, scholar and teacher. , therefore, dedicated himself to the task of disseminating a deeper knowledge of Torah Judaism. He set out to encourage a general awareness of the values of traditional Judaism and their relevance to modern life. Thus, periodic derashot - lengthy public discourses combining halakhic, homiletic and philosophical material - his weekly halakhic shiurim (lectures) on the lay level, and his own, richly philosophic understanding of human nature, won for him an ever-growing reputation for wisdom and scholarship."

This is not to say that he neglected the common functions of the rabbinate - deciding halakhic questions, counseling, performing weddings and funerals; he just did not see these as his focus. Each aspect of his varied career - teacher, scholar, synagogue rabbi, communal leader - gave added depth and breadth to every other aspect.


Rav Soloveitchik's greatest impact was as a teacher at Yeshiva University, where he taught from 1941 until 1985. In this capacity, he trained thousands of advanced students. His reputation for creativity, clarity and insight brought people from around the world to hear him. His students, many of whom today hold rabbinic and teaching positions throughout America and Israel, continued to regard him as their mentor long after they had left yeshiva, thus spreading his influence even farther.


The Rav's Talmud shiur was not only the focal point of all his activities; it was the prism through which he viewed everything else. He frequently defined himself as "simply a melamed," a teacher, noting that this is also a description of God ("ha-melamed Torah le-ammo Yisrael"). To a large extent, his philosophy flows from this basis. Although his thought has universal dimensions, it is based squarely within Halakha and explores Halakha's role in mediating man's relationship with God, with the world, and with himself. In fact, much of Rav Soloveitchik's thought constitutes an attempt to draw out the philosophy implicit within the sources of Halakha, as opposed to imposing externally-conceived ideas upon Halakha. This attempt can only be made after rigorous study of Halakha, using its own autonomous methods of analysis - and this study is what the Rav devoted himself to in his shiur. A staunch advocate of Torah study for its own sake (Torah lishmah), he did not believe that its value depended on its contribution toward attainment of any other goal, such as formulating a Jewish worldview. Nevertheless, Rav Soloveitchik viewed Torah study as far more than just one of the 613 commandments: it is our main source of insight into the will of God; it gives us knowledge about ourselves and our world; it inducts us into the Massora community; and it allows us to encounter God on an experiential level.


The Rav also taught Jewish Philosophy for many years at Yeshiva University's Bernard Revel Graduate School. Quite technical in nature, these lectures often revolved around the philosophy of the Rambam. In these and other lectures, the Rav attempted one of his boldest but most overlooked moves: saving the Rambam's philosophy from obsolescence. Although it might seem that the Aristotelian framework in which the Rambam's philosophy is conceived would render it irrelevant to modern Jewish thought, Rav Soloveitchik set out to reinterpret certain doctrines of the Rambam so as to preserve their contemporary relevance. In our discussion of "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham," we shall note several instances of this.


Directing his prodigious talent and energy not just to training scholars, the Rav devoted great efforts to educating laymen as well. He spoke about the weekly Torah reading to broad audiences every week in Boston and New York, and his annual Yahrzeit lectures (for his father and later for his wife) and teshuva discourses attracted both learned and unlearned alike. In English, Hebrew and Yiddish, he was a dramatic and engaging speaker who could hold an audience spellbound for hours. He also had the rare ability to address a variety of audiences (adults and children, scholars and laymen, Jews and Gentiles), each at its own level. This resulted from his exposure to a wide variety of people (he was not closed off in an ivory tower), his sharp psychological insight, and his innate pedagogical and rhetorical ability. What makes this skill more striking is the fact that he learned English as an adult, as his fifth or sixth language!


Rav Soloveitchik also devoted considerable attention to childhood education. Soon after his arrival in Boston, he founded the Maimonides School, the first Jewish day school in New England. He and his wife applied themselves wholeheartedly to ensuring the school's success, both in terms of fundraising and educational guidance. The Maimonides School has been quite influential as a model for the day school movement, particularly in the importance it assigned to girls' Torah education.


Although initially a member of the non-Zionist Agudas Yisroel, the Rav changed his mind on this issue and became honorary president of the Religious Zionists of America (Mizrachi) in 1946. We will discuss the Rav's views on Zionism when we analyze his essay "Kol Dodi Dofek." Let us just note here that his only visit to Israel was in 1935, when he unsuccessfully applied for the position of Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. (On that occasion, he met Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook, the other seminal thinker of the Modern Orthodox or Dati Leumi community. We shall address the contrast between these two great figures when studying "Kol Dodi Dofek.") In the 1960's, the Rav was offered the position of Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, but he turned it down.


The Rav also exerted great influence in the public arena as chairman of the Halakha Commission of the Rabbinical Council of America. He was responsible for the formulation of several guiding policies of the Modern Orthodox rabbinate, such as the staunch opposition to mixed seating in synagogues (see B. Litwin, The Sanctity of the Synagogue [NY, 1959]) and to interfaith dialogue on matters of creed, as opposed to matters of social justice (see his essay "Confrontation," Tradition 6:2 [Spring 1964]; reprinted in N. Lamm, ed., A Treasury of Tradition [NY, 1967]). However, his primary influence derived not from any official position he held, but rather from his outstanding scholarship, piety, and charisma.




It has been suggested that the Rav's works as a whole constitute a spiritual and intellectual autobiography. Thus, as we set out to explore the Rav's thought, we will be embarking on a journey as exciting and dramatic as the Rav's own turbulent soul. Before making our way to Rav Soloveitchik's major works, we will examine several shorter and more accessible essays: "The Community," "Majesty and Humility," and "Catharsis." The critical concept of catharsis will lead us to an excursus (drawing on many of the Rav's works) concerning the interrelationship between action, emotion and thought in the Rav's philosophy. This discussion will raise many of the central themes in the Rav's thought – sanctity and the physical life, the need for inwardness, the experience of knowledge, etc. - which we will see amplified in his major works. Next week, we will commence with "The Community."


I would like to conclude this lecture with a quote from Rav Lichtenstein ("The Rav at Jubilee: An Appreciation," Tradition 30:4 [Summer 1996], pp. 50-51) which beautifully portrays a major aspect of the Rav's legacy.


"W.B. Yeats once commented that a person writes rhetoric about his struggles with others and poetry about his struggles with himself. As an orator, the Rav had no peer in the Torah world. But it is the poet in him which has so touched and enthralled us. He has opened for us new vistas of spiritual experience, vistas within which the drama of human existence, in the form of confrontation with oneself, the cosmos, and above all, the Ribbono Shel Olam - all within the context of halakhic existence in its most rigorous Brisker formulation - is charged with hitherto unperceived force and meaning. It is noas if we had engaged in the quest of 'U-vikkashtem Mi-sham' and had falt. We had simply never thought in those categories. It is not as if we had felt tremulous anxiety as lonely men and women of faith mired in the pursuit of mundane daily concerns of faith - but in a minor chord. Most of us had simply never confronted that reality. The Rav did. What we have missed, he experienced - in terms of the dichotomy so cherished by him - at both ends of the scale: gadlut ha-mochin, the depth and force of a powerful mind mastering its environment and impacting upon it, and that of katnut ha-mochin, the simplicity of the child - not as the epitome of intuited holistic existence idealized by the Romantics, but as the archetype of a helpless humble spirit groping towards his Father and seeking solace in Him and through Him.


"Something of that experience he, through various channels, communicated to us; and, in so doing, he has sensitized us to the need for a fuller dimension of our own avodat Hashem. Flashes of what he saw and showed both engage and haunt us; chords of what he heard and said resonate in our ears; strains of what he felt palpitate in our hearts. Beyond detail, however, we have been gripped by demut diyukno shel Rabbenu - magisterial but sensitive, winsome and yet, ultimately, inscrutable - and his spiritual odyssey. At home, we have, hanging, one picture of the Rav with an engaging smile on his face; another, of him, bent over pensively, with a somber, almost brooding expression. In looking at the latter, I am frequently reminded of Wordsworth's portrayal 'Of Newton, with his prism and silent face, the marble index of a mind forever / Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.' Only not just a mind, but a soul, not just thought but experience, and above all, not marble, but a passionate human spirit."



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