Saturday, February 16, 2019

A Refreshing, Wider View of Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל

 I have long maintained that studies of Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל have long suffered from serious imbalance. Extensive attention has been afforded his writings in English and Hebrew, while his shiurim and Hiddushim in Talmud and his essays in Yiddish have been largely ignored. I assume that this is a result of the fact that most academics are proficient in neither. This is unfortunate, in extremis , because one cannot take the full measure of any writer without acquaintance (if not mastery) of their total oeuvre. This is especially the case with someone like Rav Soloveitchik who was, in line with Jewish literature for over two and a half millennia, highly inter-textual. Like Maimonides, before him, his full persona only emerges when he is taken in light of his total output.  [This includes recordings of of his shiurim, which often provide critical supplementary insights into his overall thought. Indeed, sometimes, the latter contain discussion that are often noted as lacking. For example, the Rav is reputed to have never addressed the question of the interaction between Judaism and General culture head on (w/ the possible exception of an essay called 'רמתיים צופים.') However, it emerges that he did address the a talk on Parshat Ki Tetzeh, which was delivered in Yiddish at the Moriah Synagogue.] In addition, the use of his Yiddish writings takes on added importance in light of Prof. Haym Soloveitchik's observation that anyone 'who didn't really know him in Yiddish, didn't really know him.'

I was, therefore, very excited and please to see that Prof. Ariel Evan Mayse has published a studious and perceptive study of one of the Rav's neglected Yiddish essays, 'יחיד וציבור.' The author deftly summarizes and characterizes Rav Soloveitchik's argument, translates the relevant passages, and places them in the context of many of his better known essays. In the process he discovers one of the rare cases wherein the Rav strives to harmonize the antinonies with which he works, rather than leaving them to remain in ongoing dialectical tension. The result is a tour de force that enriches our understanding of the Rav and the development of his thought, while implicitly and explicitly pointing out new directions for further study.

Withal, I did encounter a few points which I feel require attention, sharpening or correction. In the interest of convenience, I've followed the printed text.

1) Note 18: Many more recordings of the Rav's Yiddish talks are found at the Bergen County Bet Midrash ( ).

2) Ibid. The Rav only shifted from Yiddish to English in the 1960's, not the mid 1950's as stated.

3)  S.v. The formulation- The Rav's use of shitah is more emphatic and precise than 'meaning' or 'opinion.' In Talmudic discourse, a shitah is a well-founded legal position that that transcends individual context and reflects the understanding of a Talmud-wide principle.

4) Note 27 - R. Naphtali Zvi Yehudah Berlin was Rav Soloveitchik's great-great grandfather. Not only is there no doubt that he was familiar with Haameq Davar, a review of Rav Soloveitchik's Humash lectures shows the former's deep and abiding influence upon him.

5) Note 59- The author should, by rights, have referred to 'From There you shall Seek' (ובקשתם משם), a homily organized around the Song of Song and fraught through with echoes of Divine Love.

6) Note 68 - The use of poetic imagery, and of natural descriptions is not only not rare in Rav Soloveitchik's is very common. See, again, the opening to 'From THere you shall seek'. In addition, dozens of recorded lectures contain digressions like the one noted.

7) S.v. When comparing -  the author's psychologizing is unconvincing. Halakhic Man  was properly published in one of the few Hebrew journals that were appropriate at the time. The journal, Talpiot, was published by Yeshiva University and the essays came out just as the Rav's standing at YU was beginning to firm up. The choice of venue was both wise and justified. Given Haym Soloveitchik's comment above, I think the author is reading too much into the difference in language.

8) S.v. Thinking Beyond - I am surprised that the author did not connect the Rav's critique of Yeshiva education with the more extensive discussion in 'Al Ahavat Ha-Torah u-Ge'ulat Nefesh Ha-Dor' which was published less than a decade later.

9) S.v. But I suspect- William Kolbrenner's reading of Rav Soloveitchik is fetching and adds new dimensions to our appreciation of him. Again, though, especially in light of the intensely confessional aspect of his thought, one cannot ignore the fact that the Rav went through two serious personal crises that reoriented him both personally and ontically. First, there was his own bout with cancer in 1959/60. Then, and likely more seriously, the illness and passing of his wife (1964-1967), which devastated him. Indeed, it has more than once been noted that 'The Lonely Man of Faith' is something of a eulogy (certainly a testimonial) to his wife. (Even as Halakhic Man is a eulogy to his father and the world that he represented.)
This is not to say that he did not feel a sense of failure. He did, insofar as the impact he thought his thought was having. As it turned out, he was much ahead of his time in many ways (despite his heavy reliance on philosophic trends from the 20's and 30's of the last century).

10) All biographical and textual evidence shows that Rav Soloveitchik never hoped to be an ivory towered intellectual. His drive to teach is evidenced from his late twenties on. This is born out, in spades, in Seth Farber's biographical study of his early career in Boston.