Thursday, September 07, 2006

Revisionism and Rav Soloveitchik

In light of the comments to this post, I want to make a few things clear:

Revisionism of the Rav's Life and Legacy comes from both the Right and the Left. Both, in my opinion, are fundamentally wrong. The Rav, as יבלחטו"א Rav Lichtenstein wrote, was sui generis (in our generation, at least). While there is absolutely no question that his primary loyalty was to lehrnen, and that he defined himself primarily as a,תורה מלמד , it is also true that he told people to become למדנים 'in the widest sense of the term,' which included general studies. [ I strongly doubt whether the Rov would have agreed with the Rambam that גדולי תורה who lack a philosophical education earn a lower rank in גן עדן than those who do (cf. Guide III, 51 and Kesef Mishneh ad Hilkhot Yesode HaTorah IV, 13 (end).

It, therefore, behooves us to let him be who he was, in all of his dazzling complexity. The same person who adamently opposed Women's Tefillah Groups (and any liturgical innovation, as made patently clear by the Letters published by Natty Helfgott), also adamently advocation women's study of Talmud. The same person who had magisterial command of כל התורה כולה, possessed an awesome command of Philosophy, Literature, Physics, Higher Mathematics, Psychology, Economics and Philology. As Professor Twersky noted, he brought these to bear ad majorem Dei gloriam, both for their intrinsic value and because he deemed them to be critical in order to teach Torah today to sophisticated Westernized Jew.

It has been said, on more than one occasion, that the Rav's fate is identical to that of the Rambam. Joseph Ibn Kaspi tried to make him a philosopher נטו and the Talmudists summarily ignored his achievements in the sciences, mathematics, medicine and metaphysics. Both were fundamentally wrong.

The same is true of the Rav's revisionists.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

You are correct, but I understand the tendency to downplay the Rav's interest in Secular Studies. The point is that the Rav did not have a dual allegiance- one, to being a Torah Jew, and the other, to being knowledgeable, modern etc...
He was kol kulo devoted to Torah. As part of the realization of a fuller Torah life, he felt that secular studies could play a helpful but secondary role, in every sense of secondary.

It is because people lose sight of this that the desire to clarify the Rav's true priorities leads to overstating the case.

By the way, everything I said here of the Rav is true of Rav Lichtenstein, y"lc, as well.

Anonymous said...

That the Rav was sui generis bedoro I can well understand, and fully agree with you that we should let him be who he was in all his complexity.

But to claim that he had "magisteral command of Philosophy, Literature, Physics, Higher Mathematics, Psychology, Economics and Philology" is an imprecise exaggeration, to say the least. Higher mathematics, for example, contains many branches and even accomplished mathematicians would not claim to have "magisterial command" of. Ditto literature and physics.

Also, the Rav's opposition to women's prayer groups was different from his approval of women learning gemara. My sense is that his advocation of women learning gemara was a response to modernity -- we simply cannot have a generation of women who are sophisticated and knowledgable in various subjects but are ignorant of their own culture's literature. (I would not go so far as to say he felt it was a bediavad though.)

Furthermore, I have to agree with the sentiments of the first poster. The Rav dedicated a large majority of his life to mastering Torah. Of course, he brought all his knowledge and wisdom, from whatever the source, to bear when learning (to do otherwise is something short of blasphemy). But the great bulk of his career is defined by being a classic RY.

Jeffrey said...

1) OK, my use of magisterial was a bit much. However, his mastery of many.many disciplines was dizzying. See Professor Twersky's eulogy in Tradition and the memoirs in 'Memories of a Giant.'

2)Who said that the two women's issues were commensurate? I said that his opposition to women's tefillot was based in his overall liturgical conservatism. His advocacy of Learning for women may have been fostered by a recognition of the type of secular education women were receiving. OTOH, where did he ever say he'd like to roll the tide back? Would you close Bes Yaakov because the Hafetz Hayyim thought times had changed?

3) I never denied that the Rov spend most of his life as a Rosh Yeshiva (though he was far from classical). I think you're dead wrong if you think his use of secular studies was for window-dressing, apologetics. Read his programmatic statements for Maimonides and you'll se.

Anonymous said...

Part of the cause for confusion, it seems to me, is that the Rav (from what I've read and heard) openly preached the importance of learning Torah, but did not actively preach the importance of learning secular studies. He certainly felt secular studies to be important, but from what I understand he saw it his mission (or one of his missions) to inspire American Jewry to stronger devotion to talmud Torah, and that's what he did. He didn't seem to make a big deal about the importance of studying science the way yblchtv"a Dr. Lamm did by turning tu"m into the institution's motto.

What the practical upshot of that is, I'm not quite sure. But I think that the Rav's passionate emphasis on the centrality of talmud Torah gave rise to some confusion concerning his stance on the role of secular studies.

mycroft said...

I never denied that the Rov spend most of his life as a Rosh Yeshiva (though he was far from classical). I think you're dead wrong if you think his use of secular studies was for window-dressing, apologetics. Read his programmatic statements for Maimonides and you'll se

Agree


way yblchtv"a Dr. Lamm did by turning tu"m into the institution's motto.

Torah Umadddah was YU's motto from 5706 on-if my mathematics is correct-from approximately the time that Rabbi Normal Lamm was a freshman!!! He for better or worse was not the one who made tum the institutions motto, It predated his presidency by 3 decades!!!!!

Chana said...

I wonder whether people try to stretch the Rav's ideas and thoughts in order to make them fit their own personal views and philosophy, whether this is done innocently, or whether people really deliberately distort the words he spoke for their own reasons.

Logically and theoretically I agree with you that revisionism of any form is wrong, but words, translations and the very complexity of these words can also lead them to being misinterpreted. I wonder whether my understanding of 'Halakhic Man' and another's understanding of 'Halakhic Man' are the same. As long as I do not deliberately distort the truth, however, or claim the Rav believed in something he did not believe in, whatever it may be, a difference of personal feeling or impact seems fine...

You raise many good ideas. Thank you.

mycroft said...

I wonder whether people try to stretch the Rav's ideas and thoughts in order to make them fit their own personal views and philosophy, whether this is done innocently, or whether people really deliberately distort the words he spoke for their own reasons

For better or worse-the debaters on both sides believe the others are distorters. Thus those on the right would believe that RYG and RDH are intentional distorters and those on the left would believe RHS and RMM are intentional distorters of RYBS.

Anonymous said...

I believe Mycroft goes too far when he says that debaters on both sides accuse the other side of intentional distortion. Unintentional, ideologically motivated distortion wouud be more precise. FTR, I have argued that both the left and right distort the Rav, but that by far the greatest distorter is RMM. lawrence kaplan

mycroft said...

I believe Mycroft goes too far when he says that debaters on both sides accuse the other side of intentional distortion.

Greed what I should have written is "there are" thus:
For better or worse-there are debaters on both sides believe the others are distorters. Thus those on the right would believe that RYG and RDH are intentional distorters and those on the left would believe RHS and RMM are intentional distorters of RYBS.
There is of course "Unintentional, ideologically motivated distortion" in addition there is distortion based on one own experiences with the Rav-thus eg a Rosh Yeshiva whose experiences were as a talmid in shiur and a leading RY would have different experiences than those who dealt with him on issues of the day. Thus, sometimes those quoting the Rav may even inadvertently be quoting a chakira that he gave in shiur rather than his actual preference halacha lemaaseh.
Of course, when distorters routinely claim that he advocated different positions than he publicly maintained even in the Rav lifetime -it would at least raise questions about the person holding the position. In addition if someone claims something that no one else at the time period remembers the Rav having said -and brings it up 4 decades after the event happened-it raises questions.

mycroft said...

Obviously, the first word 3rd line of my 1011 PM post should have said Agreed-not greed. A single letter can make a big difference.