Rav Soloveitchik as a Posek

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Not long after R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik passed away, I think it was within a few weeks, there was a big gathering in Lamport Auditorium at Yeshiva University where R. Norman Lamm, R. Hayim Soloveitchik and R. Isadore Twersky eulogized their teacher, father and father-in-law, respectively. I was there in Belfer Commons, watching what must have been a video feed (standing next to a now-convicted pedophile who was sobbing uncontrollably throughout the whole event). On the dais were various rabbinic figures, albeit very few from the “Yeshiva World” due to a reported but unconfirmed unofficial boycott of all things Soloveitchik. The only exceptions were Rabbis David and Reuven Feinstein, who were generally considered exempt from this alleged boycott due to being cousins of Rav Soloveitchik. Anyway, back to the event. I distinctly recall that Dr. Lamm, in his eulogy, referred to Rav Soloveitchik as the preeminent posek in America. A friend of mine said that he was sure that, at that point, Rabbis Reuven and David Feinstein gave each other “looks”. Was Rav Soloveitchik really such a big posek or was his primacy, compared to his colleagues, as a teacher? (There is no question that Rav Soloveitchik saw himself primarily as a teacher.)

This issue was recently resurrected in Jewish Action. In the latest issue, R. Hillel Goldberg disagrees with an earlier article in which R. Simcha Krauss objected to claims that Rav Soloveitchik was not really a posek for Orthodoxy. Let me be clear: I like R. Goldberg and take anything he writes seriously. But in this case, I find the debate to be a bit meaningless and, regardless, think he is wrong.

R. Goldberg lists seven reasons why he thinks R. Krauss is wrong. Let me list them and respond to each one:

1. Rav Soloveitchik had little influence on certain segments of Orthodoxy.

No posek has influence on every segment of Orthodoxy. All agree that R. Moshe Feinstein was a great posek. But he was largely ignored, and at times outrightly opposed, by certain groups. The same goes for R. Ya’akov Kamenetsky, R. Yoel Teitelbaum and R. Aharon Kotler. I challenge anyone to name a posek who had influence across the board in Orthodoxy. There is no one like that.

2. Rav Soloveitchik left few publishable responsa.

Rendering halakhic rulings is not necessarily an exercise in writing. How many written responsa did R. Ya’akov Kamenetsky leave? For that matter, is not R. Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor the greatest proof? He was unquestionably the leading European posek of his time yet he left very few responsa.

The simple truth is that on thousands of occasions, Rav Soloveitchik was asked questions and rendered halakhic rulings. For hundreds of rabbis, Rav Soloveitchik was the highest halakhic figure and they regularly called him or visited him in person.

When I was a teenager, just about every halakhic discussion began with “The Rav holds…” My teachers, principal and rabbi were almost all students of Rav Soloveitchik and his rulings were considered final on all issues.

3. Rav Soloveitchik kept an important responsum private.

Big deal. He rendered an important communal decision but kept his involvement private. In the end, he was the one who made the final halakhic decision.

4. Most of his writings were only published posthumously.

See above, number 2.

5. Rav Soloveitchik was only active as a posek in his earlier years.

My understanding is that throughout the fifties, sixties, seventies and early eighties, Rav Soloveitchik’s students and colleagues would constantly bring him their most difficult halakhic questions. These questioners were, generally, leaders of many parts of the Orthodox community.

6. Rav Soloveitchik was not a confident, unwavering individual.

Let me relate a story that R. Yaakov Klass told me about a week ago that he heard directly from the rabbi involved. Decades ago, R. Philip H. Singer was faced with the following dilemma. A church in his neighborhood wanted to have a memorial ceremony for the holocaust in its hall (and not its sanctuary) and invited R. Singer to come as a representative of the Jewish community. R. Singer was uncomfortable attending a church and decided to ask Rav Soloveitchik how to handle the situation, fairly certain that Rav Soloveitchik would instruct him not to attend. Rav Soloveitchik told him that he had to go, out of a sense of hakaras ha-tov (gratitude) to the Catholic Church. Not only did Rav Soloveitchik insist that R. Singer attend, but the day after the event, R. Soloveitchik called him and asked: “Singer, did you go?” Does this sound like someone whom R. Goldberg describes as lacking “sustained, consistent certitude and leadership as a posek“?

Here’s another episode, from R. Avi Weiss’ Women at Prayer, p. 112 n. 39:

For this writer, the distinction between public policy and a binding halakhic opinion became clear in a related discussion I had with Rav Soloveitchik concerning the carrying of the Sefer Torah by women through the ezrat nashim (women’s section). In conversation with the Rav I asked whether he felt this was prohibited. I remember the Rav’s response with great clarity: “Don’t do it.”

There is much more to say about that conversation (see here), but the point is that Rav Soloveitchik was unequivocal in his (nuanced) stance and made his opposition crystal clear, objections by those who wish it were otherwise notwithstanding (see here).

7. Making Rav Soloveitchik into the perfect human being makes it impossible for other rabbis to strive to reach his level.

He was what he was. No one is claiming that he was perfect but he was great. Our job is to be as great as we can be. When I get to heaven, I’m not going to be asked why I wasn’t as great as Rav Soloveitchik. I’ll be asked why I wasn’t as great as I could have been.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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