Thursday, November 16, 2006

Rabbi Soloveitchik and the Hindu Elephant Problem

I just sent back the galleys of a very long article entitled 'In Search of the Rav," that is slated to appear in the next issue of the journal BaDaD. The article, which is cast as a review essay of a series of books by and about Rabbi Soloveitchik, attempts to highlight places where I believe the regnant understanding of the Rav, his life and his teachings have been stuck, or insufficiently understood. Instead of carping, as many do, I suggest additional avenues of investigation and frameworks of interpretation. When the book from the Van Leer Conference on the Rav's teachings is published, I'll have more to say on the matter, as well. (For those with patience, the substance of the article is declaimed here.)

I mention this, because lately I've become more aware of the fact that not only is there a far-flung controversy concerning the Rav's life and teachings (hence the reference to the Blind Men and the Elephant), but something of a closed shop seems to have developed a canon around the right to express an opinion on the matter. Discussions of Rav Soloveitchik invariably involve the same coterie of individuals, who have created an exclusive de facto 'Rav Soloveitchik Gild.'

Rav Soloveitchik had many disciples, and interacted with many people. It seems to me unfortunate that relatively few of these have recorded, much less published, their thoughts and/or reminiscences. Ironically, many who were closer to the Rav and more attuned to the nuances of his teachings have not written, while others have. This is especially true of the members of the Boston Jewish Community who new the Rav most intinmately. Important efforts have been made in this direction (e.g. Seth Farber's book on the Maimonides School and the booklet published by Maimonides.) I am firmly of the opinion that such people have an abiding moral responsibility to stand up, record and be included in the creation of the record of our amazing teacher, our Rav Muvhaq.

[In that connection, I have to applaud the efforts of the YU Commentator to solicit and publish reminiscences of the Rav, both in the YUdaica project (of the indefatigable Menachem Butler) and the Legacy series presently under way, under the aegis of Eitan Kastner.]

13 comments:

Eli said...

see also
davening with the Rav by Gopin

Memories of a Giant also has many nice stories

So the situation is not as bad as portrayed

Jeffrey said...

Yes, the situation is as bad as portrayed. Much of the material in MOG is repetitious, and often trivial. The trend to keep returning to the same people, who rarely add anything of substance gets stronger with time. While Marc Gopin is a wonderful exception, there are others whose voices are required to balance the present state. If you're interested, I'd be happy to provide a list off line.

As long as I'm on the topic, I might add that the same coterie has a nasty habit of torpedoing the inclusion of others in programs devoted to the Rav.

Anonymous said...

Um, exactly what is the point of examining every nuance of this complicated individual under a microscope?
And if this is truly an important endeavor I would expect a _critical_ study of him, complete with warts and all. Otherwise it borders on hagiography. Not that there is anything wrong with hagiography, but let's call a spade a spade.

Jeffrey said...

I'm not speaking of hagiography. I am referring to the publication of memoirs and evaluations by a wider range of individuals than is presently doing so. This material, valuable per se, will then become the grist for the historians' mills. Whole areas of his activity remain undocumented, which is why I highlighted the Boston angle.

In addition, the guild to which I referred, tends to carefully censor uncomfortable material (in their view). The broader the range of sources, the better to understand the subject. Mutatis mutandis, both of Procopius' histories are required to understand Justinian.

We are still able to collect oral histories, personal notes of classes and lectures and all sorts of other sources. That's the work that needs to be done. In addition, as with the blind men in the Buddhist parable, the usual experts do not see the full picture, as trenchent and profound as their grasp of their 'areas' are.

Anonymous said...

I still fail to see why this is a crucial endeavor.

Jeffrey said...

OK. Yevusam Lekha.

Ben Bayit said...

For those of us who are confused, I think you need to clarify what you mean by the coterie or the gild. You're speaking in code that makes no sense to most people

Jeffrey said...

I don't think it's appropriate to name names, especially since I am not advocating excluding but rather widening the circle of those who are entitled to an opinion. I will name people who I think should be included: (Rabbis) Hillel Furstenburg, Henoch Millen, William Millen, Marc Gopen, Yosef Blau, Joseph Abelow, Dr. Nicole Katz, Dr. Elihu Schimmel, members of the Solomont Family...

Anonymous said...

You like the new legacy series of the commentator, yet you claim that the content in Memories of a Giant "is repetitious, and often trivial. The trend to keep returning to the same people, who rarely add anything of substance gets stronger with time." Is it not the same with this legacy series (your article and Larry Kaplan's article, of course, excluded). In The Commentator series from two years ago, though there was not much discussion about Rav Soloveitchik, when there was, it was at least fresh and new material. --ef

Anonymous said...

You forget R. Herschel Schechter.

Jeffrey said...

In response to 'ef': The Legacy series has added new names to the list (e.g. R. Robert Blau), as did some of the entries in My Yeshiva College (which started with YUdaica).

In response to anonymous: I was listing people who have not been heard from,or who have been insufficiently heard from. I scarcely think that mori ve-rabbi Rav Schechter is in that category when it comes to the Rav.

Anonymous said...

U think your general idea has merit. Your Boston list includes many whose closeness to the Rav was frankly they were major contributors of his, or of personal friendship . Would be of interest-but much more important would be to get info from practicing Rabbis and Halacha lemaaseh answers he gave-and BTW most important his work as Chairman of the RCA Halachic Commission. It is important to get info soon-many Rabbonim who were close to the Rav are now in the Yeshiva Shel Maalah with the Rav-survivors are getting older quickly.

Ben Bayit said...

I've thought some more about this. The reality is that we - and even his close students such as you - have little control as to how history will view a person. How many people today know that the Maharal spent most of his "career" as Rav in Nikolsburg in Moravia - and not in Prague in Bohemia? How many people are familiar with the philosophical and hashkafic works of the Rem'a (most of which aren't even in print)? these are just some examples. there are many more.