One of Century’s Great Jewish Teachers Is 80
February 11, 1983
A Column from “A Modern Orthodox Life.”
by Emanuel Rackman
This year world Jewry celebrates the eightieth birthday of one of the century’s greatest teachers of Judaism Talmudist, philosopher, educator and statesman Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Many essays about him have already appeared in Jewish periodicals and undoubtedly several Festschriften will be published as well.
At least two universities will dedicate to him days of study and appreciation. And the American Jewish Year Book will feature a brilliant and lengthy analysis of those of his writings presently available to the public. By comparison with all of this, a columnist’ s tribute may not be very significant. Yet there are several points which will not receive attention in the more learned presentations and perhaps they are worthy of consideration.
He appeared upon the American scene more than 40 years ago and almost immediately was recognized as the most brilliant and lucid teacher of Talmud that this generation had ever beheld. He so surpassed all of those similarly engaged that no one could suggest who else might be put in his class. Indeed, one would be hard put today to be his equal, even though he has trained many in his method.
That alone would have made him the giant in Orthodox circles. And since he taught thousands at Yeshiva University and almost as many in the Boston area who flocked to him, especially from the local universities, it was to be expected that his role as the Rov without peer would be assured.
However, when he appeared upon the American scene years ago he was a dramatic phenomenon. He was not only the great Talmudist, he was also the master of Western thought he knew science and philosophy, he had a profound understanding of literature and current events, and his gifts for expression and communication made the famous orators of the day seem like rank amateurs.
Indeed, here was a man! Many of the somewhat younger Orthodox spokesmen who in that period were struggling to accomplish what then seemed impossible recognized that he was virtually their savior. They were trying to achieve a synthesis between Torah tradition and modernity. They cherished their total heritage but they did not want to reject the new world of which they were a part. And in every area they had to cope with challenges scientific, philosophical, psychological, sociological, anthropological, archaeological, and certainly social and economic.
Some had decided to return to the ghettos, intellectually speaking. Others had decided to acculturate and assimilate. Few were they who were intent upon the synthesis the fusion of the new with the old the dream of the late Chief Rabbi Kook. To these few the appearance of the Rov was tantamount to the coming of a redeemer.
Well do I remember the first time I listened to one of his lectures for almost seven hours. I missed all the trains to Long Island that I had hoped to board and my family at home could not fathom what had happened to me. And for 40 years despite many differences and sometimes bitter ones and an occasional, momentary, disillusion my sense of awe for him never departed.
But I was not the only one. To all of us who espouse what is now called “modern Orthodoxy” he was the model. (If Jews were not so allergic to idolatry, I would have said the idol.)
Yet that does not mean that his own personal synthesis his way of living in his two backgrounds that of Brisk where he became a great Talmudist, and that of Berlin where he became the great philosopher of necessity became the way of those of us who revere him and cherish his every thought. He differed from many of us in that he was raised in Brisk and encountered Berlin at a later stage in his life.
In his intellectual development there was a period when there was a clash a confrontation between two ways of life and modes of thought. For some of his admirers and disciples there was no such clash. They grew up in both cultures simultaneously and the synthesis they sought and achieved was a gradual achievement over a long period of time, virtually from elementary school days through graduate study.
What little they achieved was not born altogether from anguish but more by the slow natural process of mental and emotional maturation. That is why they often part with the master in whose thought existentialism plays the major role. Moreover, they are often less timid with regard to the correctness of their views because their sense of security would appear to be greater than his. Perhaps they merit criticism for experiencing less “fear and trembling.” He is their Rebbe but unlike Hassidim, they are only deferential, not blindly obedient. Often that made him happy. They did what he would have liked to do but couldn’t get himself to do.
Last but not least, he has a profound understanding not only of modern trends of thought but also of the practical problems of worldwide Jewry, everywhere, and especially in America and Israel. In this area he prefers to be unseen and unheard but his views became known to disciples who not only express them but also act upon them in those establishment circles in which they play leadership roles.
However, one cannot help but be amazed that unlike the emotion-ridden Soloveitchik the philosopher, Soloveitchik the statesman like Soloveitchik the Halachist is brilliantly rational and empirical. Unfortunately the non-Orthodox world knows him principally as the philosopher. But his Orthodox disciples have had the blessing of his many faceted genius.
May he, like Moses, have another 40 years in which he may continue to lead many of us through the wilderness, which contemporary civilization now appears to resemble.