Monday, August 14, 2006

Reb Chaim's Yahrzeit (21 Menachem Av)


Tonight marks the eighty-eighth yahrzeit of R. Chaim HaLevi Soloveitchik זצללה"ה, better known as Reb Chaim Brisker, who lived from 1853-1918. Without a doubt, he was one of the greatest scholars and leaders ever to have graced the Jewish People. The impact of his revolutionary method of Talmudic analysis on traditional Torah Study (lehrnen), while universally acknowledged, is only now being fully appreciated. (The Rov זצ"ל describes it, and its impact, here.)

Since the Rov זצ"ל was my rebbe muvhaq (and, in a deeper sense, the only rebbe I ever had), Reb Chaim was always I tangible presence in my life. As his grandson later observed, and as far as I am concerned, without his insights (even in a modified form) it is impossible to learn Gemora. (As you know, I'm not a fan of שיטת הרבדים in the context of מצוות תלמוד תורה.)

There are, however, other sides of Reb Chaim that are no less stunning than his truly massive intellect and breath-taking creativity and passion for learning and for truth. The Rov used to emphasize Reb Chaim's humanity, his great sensitivity, and his unparalleled moral greatness. In that connection, I recall that in a Motzai Shabbat shiur in Boston (in the mid-1970's) he quoted Dr. Yaakov Gromer, who had been a talmid of Reb Chaim and later worked with Albert Einstein. The Rov recounted that Gromer had once told him that while Einstein was often held up as a paragon of morality, he did not measure up to the moral greatness of Reb Chaim. Reb Chaim, he said, was a moral giant.

Intellect, is not enough to be a Gadol ba-Torah. One must strive to be compassionate, to transcend one's own kavod, to intuitively know the right thing to do, to be מחמיר in פיקוח נפש. Before leaving for his first position as the rabbi of Rasseyn, Reb Chaim told his son Reb Moshe זצ"ל, that one of the chief tasks of the Rov is to do חסד. Indeed, again according to the Rov, Reb Chaim's original tombstone bore the simple legend 'רב חסד.' (That is not the case with the current מצבה.)

This may have been his signature:However, חסד and אמת were his hallmarks and his legacy. Of whom can it better be said: אין להם נפשות לצדיקים דבריהם הן הן זכרונם?

4 comments:

mycroft said...

For a slightly different perspective than the usual about Rav Chaim see Shulamith Meiselman's
The Soloveitchik Heritage: A Daughter's Perspective, Ktav, Hoboken, NJ, 1995.
In it a she discusses Rav Chaim a lot-it seems at times that she is writing for her mother who was Rav Chaim's daughter-in-law.
Of course, there is a reason for the shvigger shver jokes-they in general reflect reality. Anyway worth reading for a different perspective thaqn one gets in Yeshivas.

Ben Bayit said...

I don't think it's fair to mention only revadim as the contrast to the Brisker method. That's a "loaded gun". There are real criticisms to be had for utilizing the Brisker method in the educational stream, without getting into religiously (and politically) charged issues. One can start with Rav Shagar's works. Also the Gerer Rebbe has all but abandoned lomdus in the Yeshivot of Gur. IMHO, with good reason. Also, the "shitat Ha"gra" method of bekiut is making headway both in the moderate lithuanian world as well as the RZ stream.

So I think rather than saying that it's only just starting to be appreciated, a fair and intellectually honest look at the facts on the ground suggest that their is real criticism of the method (and the underlying theology as developed by RAL) and the pendulum is swinging the other way towards a more balanced approach to learning - especially within the educational system

Jeffrey said...

You have a point. Notice, I mentioned 'modified' Brisk. Obviously, beqius needs to balance lomdus and the Rov himself (as I argue in a forthcoming article) saw that Lomdus breeds a type of spiritual barrenness. (I disagree with your evaluation of Ger, because there is a real battle going on as to its future direction. It appears to be based upon intellectualism versus anti-intellectualism.)

Ben Bayit said...

Thanks for the clarification.

Re: Gur, I have cousins in the system. You are correct, but the battle is also a political, family and educational battle that is going on. It's the result of Gur refusing to "split" as do other chassiduyot (and yeshivot). It's also more pronounced as Gur has always afforded the Admorim a measure of independence in changing - or even revolutionizing - from their predecessor(s) policies. So what may take one or two generations to happen in other chatzerot, yeshivot - or even the modern orthodox educational system - can happen overnight (literally) in Gur. But it can always swing back the other way - e.g. as this rebbe has lightened up on the "kedusha" (i.e. tzniut) stringencies that one of his predecessors put in place.

Gur is run the way the Saudi Royal family is run. Each king changes things and doesn't necessarily feel bound by the previous one.