Audio Roundup: 20th Yahrtzeit Special Edition

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by Joel Rich

Warning: If you are of a certain age and spent time late in the evening with the night bird (hamechunah Alison Steele may she rest in peace) rather than with the little songbird (translation of Soloveitchik), be prepared with tissues for the “tears of the clown” and towels for the “blood on the tracks” from the old wounds that reopen.

I miss Daniel Patrick Moynihan for many reasons. “Defining deviancy down”, an essay of his was subtitled “How We’ve Become Accustomed to Alarming Levels of Crime and Destructive Behavior.” I find this a paradigm for many changes in society. IMHO in our society we’ve seen “Defining gadlus down” “How We’ve Become Accustomed to alarming levels of every rabbi/leader is a gadol and they are all basically the same”. I have a lot in my heart on this topic but I will just say that IMHO The Rav was sui generis and leave it at that.

  • Rabbi Julius Berman -Introduction to Rav Soloveitchik 20th Yahrtzeit Tribute
  • Mrs. Atara Twersky-Multiple Faces of the Rav
  • Rabbi Hershel Schachter -Multiple Faces of the Rav
  • Dr. David Shatz-Multiple Faces of the Rav
  • Rabbi Kenneth Brander-Multiple Faces of the Rav
  • Rabbi Mayer E. Twersky -Mesorah & Modernity: The Role of the Rav
  • Rabbi Dr. Jacob J Schacter-The Importance of the Rav’s Teachings in Modern Society
  • Rabbi Menachem Genack, Rabbi Hershel Schachter -Derech Halimud of the Rav
  • Rabbi David Berger, Dr. David Shatz -Rav Soloveitchik On Interfaith Relations: Guidelines, Limitations, and Controversies
  • Rabbi Shalom Carmy, Rabbi Michael Taubes -Prayer: Privilege and Practice
  • Rabbi Julius Berman, Rabbi Fabian Schoenfeld -Relating to Non-Orthodox: Engaging the Reform and Conservative
  • Introduction and Multiple Faces of the Rav

    I liked R’J Berman’s intro – very touching from one who was close.

    Dr. Atarah Twersky was outstanding in painting a picture of how the Rav’s unwavering emunah (faith) allowed him to succeed in the parched Jewish sands of Boston and in the besieged orthodoxy of YU. While in retrospect his success seemed inevitable, when he was doing it, it took an iron will and unwavering faith to see “meirachok” (what could be down the road). Money quote from the Rav to an individual describing the success of his local Jewish community, “There is one problem, the people in your community don’t know they are in Galus” (R’IH – this one stands the test of changing times).

    R’HS talks of the excitement of The Rav’s shiurim and his love song to the TSB”P and his strong tradition in learning, psak (law), Hashkafa (philosophy) and attitudes (e.g. gotta know when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em – oops – I mean when to be stringent and when not). He could use his halachic intuition because he was one of the yichidei segulah (chosen ones?).

    Dr. Shatz discusses the place of the Rav’s philosophical words in the general philosophical community. His ability to intersect traditional halachic analysis with philosophy at the highest level made him unique and timely. His uncompromising fealty to truth and faith made religion the ultimate encounter with reality and he was not afraid to deal with “inconvenient facts” head on.

    Rabbi Brander reflects on the Rav’s mesorah of chesed (loving-kindness) from his grandfather (R’Chaim) as well as his acknowledged (by other gedolim) brilliance. He tells personal shamash (assistant) stories in order to demonstrate The Rav’s dedication to truth, teaching and chesed. He brought Torah to the community and to general society.

    Then they played the famous symposium of generations clip (always worth listening to!).

    Rabbi Twersky then recounts the brilliant Brisker shiurim as part of The Rav’s rare holistic view of all knowledge which to him was a seamless web – because there was no one at his level, he gave over to each audience what he felt that the audience could receive. Examples are provided. The bottom line was he was confident in the mesorah, no apologies needed. (me – no need to be afraid when you know you have the real deal)

    Afternoon Sessions

    Derech Halimud of The Rav

    R’HS spoke about The Rav’s dedication to transmitting Torah to all at the level they could understand it. His ability to explain with clarity made you wonder why you didn’t see it that way to start with. (me – I always use the lightning strike analogy).

    By focusing on what various opinions agreed on, you can get a clearer view of the basis of disagreements. Other themes that were applied to multiple cases were tartei dsatrei by bein hashmashot (dusk has elements of day and night) and kol dtakun rabbannan (rabbinic ordinances follow a pattern set by Torah).

    Rabbi Genack discussed the Brisker construct methodology and understanding that HKB”H’s will is self-justifying with its own internal logic. One needs a breadth of knowledge (i.e. cover ground) in order to have an opinion. Great analogies between Einstein (me – better example would have been Newton) and Brisker thought experiments/visualization. Also includes my favorite Sam Danishefsky story (I knew Francis Crick, he was no Rabbi Soloveitchik).

    The Importance of the Rav’s Teachings in Modern Society

    The themes that R’JJ Schacter still finds helpful –
    *Centrality of halacha and Torah (example – no change to the text of Nacheim because Jerusalem is still “charuv” if no beit hamikdash).
    *One needs a living, emotional romance with HKB”H in addition to an intellectual one.
    *Be aware of the frailty of majesty and the majesty frailty (self-awareness of failure).
    *Use multiple perspectives (e.g. Rambam for some purposes, Kuzari for others)
    *Pain and suffering – ask what do I do? (what does HKB”H want from me?) rather than why did it happen?
    *We need to interact with the outside world.

    Rav Soloveitchick on Interfaith Relations

    Dr. Shatz starts out with an introduction to non-extreme pluralism (extreme is you’re ok, I’m ok and who cares anyway) and some basic questions: 1) Do other religions have some truth mine doesn’t have?; 2) Is my religion the only path to salvation for all?; 3) What does eschatology (end of days) look like for me? For you?; 4) What does social interaction look like? (converts, interfaith dialog, proselytizing (?) ….). Then on to possible reasons for interaction. Practically, with globalization, interaction is far fallen and can lead to amicable relations and solidarity and working together for mutual public policy goals. On a theological basis, it can help you learn about “the other” as well as yourself and your religion. OTOH the slope can be slippery and the plane can crash(platitudes provided by me).

    Dr. Berger (interesting on the flyer how some are Rabbi, some are Dr. and some are Rabbi Dr.) points out that most of these ends can be attained (although some not as much) without interfaith theological dialog and one must analyze the costs vs. the benefits. Then onto a review of The Rav’s concerns in “Confrontation” and analysis that they still exist, if not as obvious and severe.

    Relating to Non-Orthodox

    Rabbi Schoenfeld discusses The Rav’s classic “Confrontation” differentiation between klappei pnim (intra-Jewish relations) vs. klappei chutz (relations with the outside world). The Rav was strong in his opposition to non-Orthodox movements, but it was never personal.

    Rabbi Berman gave some fascinating background to the whole SCA imbroglio and R’Moshe’s and The Rav’s practical/political direction. Lesson learned from The Rav – 1) If you have a problem, deal with it; 2) Go through the front door (me – it’s usually easier to tell the truth – you don’t have to keep track of all the lies you told!).

    Prayer: Privilege and Practice

    Rabbi Carmy focused on focus (as we say in the shop – if you focus on everything, you focus on nothing) – pay attention to what you are saying and what you are (me – be “mindful”). The Rav would (and so should you!) show how the words and the halachot surrounding prayer help you understand what prayer is all about (examples from psukei dzimra, birchat hamazon and Yom Kippur prayers). People too often focus on the Rav’s insights to petitional prayer in the “real world” of crisis (which he certainly did focus on) and forget about the joy/thanksgiving which The Rav also discussed. The main thing is to think! (me – good general rule; not as Ira Miller used to tell me “the main thing is not to worry)

    Rabbi Taubes recounts how the Rav would look the text of the Siddur as a text to be eplicated . He spent much effort justifying minhagim – they all need to be based on a kiyum of halacha and he would explain each this way.

    Examples in prayer include when we stand/sit, what’s left out if we are late? required intent, Shofar blowing and duchening. The Rav on tfilat hatzibbur as a tfila of the whole tzibbur. My favorite was aleinu as a matir to leave shul!

    If you can only listen to one, go with Dr. Atarah Twersky!

    About Joel Rich

    Joel Rich is a frequent wannabee cyberspace lecturer on various Torah topics. A Yerushalmi formerly temporarily living in West Orange, NJ, his former employer and the Social Security administration support his Torah listening habits. He is a recovering consulting actuary.


    1. Thanks for your critique. In general when discussing any important gadol there maybe an attempt even if subconscious to use terms like midbar when in IMO the term might be misleading-thus RAK went to Lakewood NJ not because it was a midbar but a Rav at the time in Lakewood who was a student of RAKs father-in-law RIZMeltzer got his baal batim to support RAK. The Rav came to Boston and certainly was instrumental in improving Jewish life there but for starters I believe the late R Levi Horowitz and Rabbi Isadore Twersky were both born in Boston and grew up before Maimonides existed.

      ” The Rav was strong in his opposition to non-Orthodox movements, but it was never personal. ”
      The Rav was strong in his opposition to accepting Halacha from those who don’t accept halacha-but one must reread the letter in R Helfgotts book to the President of R Shubows synagogue as to why he can’t attend a dinner inaugurating a new Conservative synagogue including words similar to you deserve credit for bringing Judaism to a part of Boston that hadn’t had it yet. I believe but not 100% sure that the Rav did not oppose letting Conservative Rabbis use a mikvah for their “gerus”
      The Ravs attitude to non Orthodox movements and discussions with non Jewish religions like much of the Rav was complex not one amenable to simple slogans.

    2. grew up before Maimonides existed-
      It would be more accurate to state that Rabbi Twersky went to Public School and Hebrew College.Maimonides existed not long after R Twersky started school.

    3. R’mycroft,
      from her talk, I think dr. a twersky would agree.

    4. lawrence kaplan

      I just listened to the talks of Mrs. Twersky, Dr. Shatz, and Rabbi Twersky. The talk of Mrs. Twersky was, as Joel Rich notes, outstanding. I would just add that the word “mei-rahok” as a sign of faith was applied by the Rav not only to Avraham, but also to Miriam who stood “mei-rahok.”

      Similarly, Dr. Shatz’s talk was excellent, as he eloquently showed how the Rav’s thought powerfully combines stark realism with indomitable faith and optimism. I was very moved to see how deeply and palpably Dr. Shatz was moved at the end of his talk by his own memories of the Rav.

      By contrast, the talk of Rabbi Twersky was, unfortunately, disappointing. His talk was billed as the keynote lecture, but despite several important insights on his part, R. Twersky did not, in my view, succeed in pulling the pieces of his talk together. In particular, he did not address and analyze the theme of his talk “Massorah and Modernity in the Thought of the Rav” in a sufficiently deep and serious way. I understand that R. Twersky is the grandson of the Rav and an outstanding Talmid Hakham in his own right–and he certainly deserved to be one of the speakers–but, again in my view, the keynote lecture should have been given by a person closer to the Rav and more expert in his halakhah or mahshavah, either Rav Shachter or Dr. Shatz or Rabbi J. J. Schacter or finally by someone whose presence at this Tribute I at least sorely missed and who indeed is in New York this year, Rabbi Prof. Yaakov Blidstein.

    5. “someone whose presence at this Tribute I at least sorely missed and who indeed is in New York this year, Rabbi Prof. Yaakov Blidstein”
      Of course similar to Rabbi Blidstein Prof Kaplan is a Professor who is a YU Grad and musmach who similar to Prof Blidstein participated in the 2003 Van Leer Conference on the Rav see ” Prof. Lawrence Kaplan, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith in Contemporary Modern Orthodox Thought” His views are always worth considering.
      Unlike the Van Leer Conference the YU 20th yahrzeit wouldn’t and probably even pretend to be a critical evaluation of the Rav.
      YU/RIETS correctly honored the Rav.

      “Similarly, Dr. Shatz’s talk was excellent, as he eloquently showed how the Rav’s thought powerfully combines stark realism with indomitable faith and optimism. I was very moved to see how deeply and palpably Dr. Shatz was moved at the end of his talk by his own memories of the Rav.”

      Dr Shatz in addition to being a mensch and a scholar is an excellent speaker-especially in tributes. I have been to a couple of shloshim where Dr Shatz was considered by the program to be an undercard but he spoke better than those who were even more famous than Dr Shatz.

    6. “Rabbi Berman gave some fascinating background to the whole SCA imbroglio and R’Moshe’s and The Rav’s practical/political direction. Lesson learned from The Rav”
      Why Rabbi Berman and not Rabbi Kaplan_ I don’t believe either makes their primary livelihood from being a Rav.
      R Berman opened the door a crack to at least hint at the serious attempt of many at the OU to leave the SCA. If I recall correctly and I may be wrong Prof Kaplan has written/blogged on statements of various people close to the Rav who the Rav assisted in strategy to stay within the SCA.
      Re Rav Moshe and the Rav one must remember they were close- but I believe the Rav in March 1967 refused to go along with Rav Moshe on pleading re interfaith relations-a time period when Rav Moshe had recently spoken at YU at the Ravs mothers levayah and the Ravs wife was very sick-she would die a couple of weeks later.

    7. lawrence kaplan

      I just listened to Rabbi J.J. Schacter’s speech, which was truly outstanding and succeeded magnificently in conveying the importance of the Rav to us today. The examples and texts he chose were all very apt and enlightening. In my view, his talk would have served very well as the keynote lecture. On a personal note, I was pleased to see that in his handouts he made use of my translation of Kol Dodi Dofek.

    8. r’lk,
      certainly in terms of utility, your R’JJS analysis is correct imho.

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