'Raise up many disciples': Remembering Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik

Remembering Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, whose students ran the gamut of Orthodox Jewry, and whose 25th yahrzeit is this Tuesday, 18 Nisan. A fascinating and enlightening memoir of a Torah luminary and intellectual genius.

Prof. Itzhak D. Goldberg, MD FACR,

Prof. Itzhak D. Goldberg
Prof. Itzhak D. Goldberg
INN:IG

Several years ago, while reminiscing with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein Z”TL, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik ZT”L’s son-in law, about the thrilling Brookline days of yore, he highlighted the unique Shabbat sessions with the Rav held between Mincha and Maariv at the Maimonides School Synagogue in Brookline. It was during these short interludes that a small group of lay and professional congregants would assemble around the Rav and ask questions on the weekly Torah portion or any topic of choice. Occasionally during these rare moments, the Rav would share an anecdote, a recent conversation or a meeting he had attended.

One Shabbat afternoon in the early 1980’s the Rav shared with us the following story:

It was the Rav’s annual custom to visit his wife’s grave in West Roxbury Massachusetts on Erev Yom Kippur. At the cemetery he was approached by a family who did not recognize him and assumed he was the “cemetery rabbi”. They requested he recite memorial prayers and patiently obliging he was dragged to various family graves despite the time constraints of that nightfall’s hallowed importance. Weeks later the family discovered the identity of their uber gracious “cemetery rabbi” and made a generous donation to the Maimonides School in Brookline, the Jewish Day School founded by the Rav and his wife, Tonya in 1937.

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The Rav educated, nurtured and “raised up” thousands of students. He encouraged his students to be free and independent thinkers. Ergo, his students represent a broad range; from Haredi Orthodox to left of center liberal Orthodox. An early student of the Rav stated in his introduction to a book about the Rav’s philosophy: “my loyalty and love for him as my teacher never interfered with my own intellectual independence and critical appreciation of his writings”.


As a result of the varied religious development of his students the Rav is referred to and portrayed in these publications in vastly different ways...some quote him, but expunge his name entirely.
A quarter of a century after the Rav’s passing his teachings, which during his life were mostly confined to student notebooks and limited tape recordings, have received unprecedented exposure through dozens of books and websites published by his actual and “virtual” students. These publications shed a bright light on the Rav’s brilliant oeuvre.

Commentaries are now available on the Chumash, Talmud, Siddur, Machzorim, Grace After Meals,  Haggadah and Tisha B’av Lamentations.  In the academic sphere numerous manuscripts on the Rav’s Torah and philosophy have been published and a student’s classroom notes from the 1950-51 Rav’s class on the Guide to the Perplexed has been edited and released. A Habad Hasid wrote a 375-page book entitled “The Rav and Rebbe” specifically highlighting the warm relationship and similarities between the Rav and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

What is unprecedented is that as a result of the varied religious development of his students the Rav is referred to and portrayed in these publications in vastly different ways. Some of his Haredi writers refer  to him as the head of the “Boston Beis Din”, disregarding the Rav’s doctorate in Philosophy and decades long leadership as the Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University. Others, while still quoting his teachings expunge his name entirely.

Yet, there are students who actively expose the Rav’s Torah to the Haredi community. A Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University distributes free copies of the Rav’s commentaries on the Talmud to the Lakewood Yeshiva in New Jersey and the Brisk Yeshiva in Mea Shearim in Jerusalem. While the Rav once stated that were he to visit Israel he would be greeted by Haredi demonstrators, today, in fact,  the Rav’s books sell very well in most Jerusalem neighborhoods.

On the other end of the religious spectrum some of the Rav’s students criticize him for not being more liberal or “progressive” in certain areas of Halakha. An early student of the Rav wrote about the Rav opening “two doors”; pointing to new paths but not walking through them. A rabbi living in Jerusalem who never met the Rav but claims to be familiar with his writings stated that the Rav was not a “Chadshan , a Halakhic innovator, and that his students admire him excessively.

In a recently published complex psychoanalytical and philosophical book on the Rav a professor at a major university in Israel  provides rationale as to why he prefers to refer to the Rav as Soloveitchik, rather than referring to him as The Rav or Rabbi Soloveitchik. “ That I refer to the subject of this book as Soloveitchik and not “ the Rav,” or even R. Soloveitchik, serves a double purpose, to relate to him from a more critical scholarly perspective, but also to accord him the status he deserves as a figure within the intellectual history of the past century….”

In Germany, a Jesuit priest has published his Ph.D thesis on the Rav called “The Human Condition”. This, despite his thesis advisor’s lack of enthusiasm for this project, in no small matter due to the Rav’s well known objections to inter religious dialogue with Christianity.

Many of the Rav’s devotees owe their rabbinic and academic prominence to the Rav’s brilliant teachings.

Indeed, the Rav raised up many disciples.

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To the generation that did not know the Rav; “did not know Joseph” let me introduce two students from the Rav’s beloved Maimonides community in Brookline, Massachusetts, the Rav’s home.

Mr. A was born into an illustrious rabbinic family. His brother and father were rabbis and his uncle was a famed halakhic authority. At an early age he decided to pursue a business career and became very successful. He lived with his wife and young family in Hartford, Connecticut. In the early 1960’s he attended a convention in Washington D.C. where Rabbi Soloveitchik delivered a shiur. It was instantly apparent to Mr. A that Rabbi Soloveitchik was a consummate Torah giant and a singularly gifted teacher. He immediately resolved to relocate his family to Brookline. He became one of the Rav’s closest friends and companions.

Mr. A cut an elegant figure. He was tall, stylishly clothed, assertive, an avid tennis player, and well spoken. In concert with his wife they warmly welcomed young members into the Rav’s small community, embracing them. In later years Mr. A served as the Board Chairman of the Maimonides School and the leader of the Maimonides Synagogue. Above all, Mr. A was devoted to the Rav; he became the Rav’s confidant and personal assistant, regularly chauffeuring the Rav to and from the Maimonides School. He made sure the makeshift lecture hall was set up each Saturday night for the hundreds who came to listen, activated the recording equipment and occasionally hosted the Rav for kiddush in his home on Shabbat after services.

Reciprocally the Rav was privy to Mr. A’s business decisions. While the Rav was very reluctant to have his lectures recorded he allowed Mr. A to make copies of all the Saturday night Bible and Sunday morning Talmud classes. His acumen was not simply indisputable in business; he was sharp and insightful and actively participated in the Rav’s various Torah discourses.

Among the members of this small congregation of mostly academicians (some of international renown) and businessmen was an older man. This Eastern European Jew was of moderate height but seemed strong, with thick white hair, heavy reading glasses, and a determined look. During the late Mincha-Maariv Saturday afternoon interregnums, Mr. Z sat to my right on the second bench, directly in front of the Rav. I clearly remember his laborer fingers, thick and short as he grasped a large Chumash some of whose pages were folded down. He consistently prepared a list of questions related to the weekly Parsha. With his body tensely leaning forward over the bench he made sure he was first to present his queries once we were all seated. His questions were mostly simple. At times they elicited a puzzled look from the group and occasionally he would turn to fellow congregants and ask, “what is so funny?”

Mr. Z was a peddler. He sold linens and dry goods out of a station wagon. He did not have a higher education but he loved Torah and was most eager to learn. Where else would he have had the opportunity to ask one of the leading Torah luminaries his questions? The Rav was very attentive to Mr. Z and his genuine queries. Unflappable and good natured, the Rav answered his inquiries time and again, sometimes reformulating them for better coherence.

The Rav often spoke about his childhood in Chaslawitch; a predominantly Habad Hasidic community consisting of simple, poor, religiously devout and spiritual people. The Rav was convinced that most of the Jews who came to listen to his father’s (Rav Moshe Soloveitchik ZT”L) annual Teshuva and Shabbat Hagadol drashot had only a minor understanding of what his father was teaching. But they came and stood and listened intently, for hours.

In the Rav’s commentary on Pirkei Avot he states:” The strenuous efforts made to indulge in the study of the Law, the arduous work associated with Torah, the sacrifices and renunciations for its sake, are the most important aspects of Talmud Torah. The comprehension, accumulation, assimilation, creativity and remembrance are of secondary order. The study itself as an ethical engagement is important.”

“Agra de-kallah duhka” (Berakhot 6b) - the reward of Torah study is proportional to the discomfort the pupil endures.

At the Maimonides Synagogue as well the Rav “raised up” many students…

After the Rav’s passing Mr. A. would relive the shiurim, listening in his home to the Rav’s tapes he had collected and could be spotted walking the boardwalk in Florida listening to a Rav shiur.

Years later while visiting the Rav’s grave in West Roxbury, I was stunned to spot Mr. Z. at the cemetery gate. He was offering to recite the Kaddish for families visiting the graves of their relatives.

Had Mr. Z become the “cemetery rabbi” for the now bereft Maimonides Community?

Postscript: Mr. Z has passed on. His son, a rabbi with a doctorate lives in Jerusalem.

Itzhak David Goldberg is a professor of clinical radiation oncology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the CEO of Angion Biomedica Corporation.


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