Hesped in honour of Rav Yosef Soloveitchik (L’Eylah)

Published 10 September 1993
rav soloveitchik

Issue 36 – printed Sept 1993

The Talmud states in the name of R. Yirmeyah bar Abba: ‘Al yippater adam mechavero ella mitokh devar halakhah’ – when one comes to take leave of a friend one should do so by communicating to him a halakhah ‘shemitokh kakh zokhrehu’ – because through that halakhah which you have taught him, the friend will always remember you.

What exactly did Rav Yirmeyah bar Abba mean? Our lives are constructed out of relationships. We live amongst friends and above all amongst teachers. But every human relationship is fragile: people part, they move on, they separate. How then do we construct permanence out of these relationships? The answer, of course, is through memory. People leave but we remember them, they stay in our hearts. But memory too is impermanent. After yud-bet chodesh, even according to halakhah, after a gap of 12 months a person fades into oblivion.

What then is the only permanent form of memory? The answer is a devar halakhah. Because a halakhah is not just something that we remember. A halakhah is something that we live. When somebody has taught us a halakhah, he has taught us something that changes our lives: we know that this we must do or this we must not do, and we know it because of him. Patt of us has changed and therefore something of that person lives permanently in us. Halakhah is the one bond which is permanent and the one memory that endures. Harav Hagaon Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik has taken his leave of us and of this world, and we, whether we met him or not, whether we knew him or not, are bereaved because we are not merely his chaverim, his friends, but we are also called living – and he will always live in our minds.

It is impossible to do any kind of justice to his teaching and I will not even try. I have written about his work and there is much more, of course, still to be said. But I just want to say two things this evening, a kelal and a perat, a general and a specific point.

Let me begin with the perat and with two personal memories. I had the privilege of meeting the Rav twice. The second occasion was exactly ten years ago when I was invited to be the rav of what was a shul in his own area, the Young Israel in Brookline. Interestingly enough the burning issue in Brookline was making an eruv and the success of any rav depended upon his ability to construct an eruv. As a result I had to be taken to meet the rabbanim in Boston to see it they had faith that I could make an eruv.

I went to see the Bostoner Rebbe, the Talner Rebbe (Rav Soloveitchik’s son-in-law, Reb Yitzchok Twersky), and of course I was taken to see the Rav himself. He was then already over 80 and had been unwell for some time. In fact those who were present at that gathering told me it was one of the last occasions on which he recovered his full vigour.

The reason was very simple and the family told it to me. We had our daughter Gila with us, she was then six months old, and although the Rav was an exceptionally austere personality, he loved little children. He took my daughter on his knee and kept her there throughout the entire conversation. He loved new life, and his spirit revived when he experienced it.

He wanted me to come to Brookline and be a Rav there and he said something of great interest. I can still remember the words and the tone of voice in which he said them. ’40 years ago,’ he said, ‘when I came to America, congregations in America were vulgar. And if you wanted to succeed as a rabbi you had to be vulgar as well.’ But today congregations are completely different. They want to learn and they want their rabbi to learn and they want their rabbi to be able to teach. ‘To be a rav today,’ he said, ‘is something dignified’. In fact the extent of the transformation of America in 40 years astonished him. It was as if he could hardly believe what had happened. 40 years ago when he came to Boston, America was a treifene medinah and yet in 40 years exactly it had become a mekom Torah, a place of learning. In fact he said to me, ‘the hatmadah’, the devotion to learning of young American Jews, ‘is greater than it was in the great days of my late grandfather zt’l, Reb Chayyim of Brisk. The quality,’ he said, ‘I won’t talk about. But the quantity is greater.’

And I came away understanding what Chazal meant when they said ‘Nittenah Torah bishloshah devarim: be’esh, bemayim uvemidbar’ – the Torah was given with three things, with fire, With water and in the wilderness. In the 1940s America was only a Jewish wilderness. But the Rav proved that if you give Torah with esh, with fire, and with mayim, with a thirst and a thirst-quenching capacity, then even in a midbar you could create Torah. But of course I realised something that he in his anavah, his self-effacing humility, would not even have thought, let alone articulated. The transformation of a country in 40 years from a midbar to a mekom Torah was largely due to one person, to him.

There are very few leaders in the history of Am Yisrael, very few Gedolim to whom it was given to change the contours, the very character of an entire Jewish community, an entire country – but Rav Soloveitchik did it. He did it for the United States, the largest Jewish community in the world. There were others undoubtedly who played a part in that development, who built schools and yeshivot but mainly within a limited circle of their own talmidim. Rav Soloveitchik did it across the country, in depth, at the grass roots. That was the second time I met him.

But it was the first time I met him that I discovered the basis for what he achieved. The first meeting took place 15 years earlier, 25 years ago, in 1968 when I was a student. It took place in the corridors of Yeshiva University. The Rav was accustomed to sit and prepare his Gemara shiur or sit in with his talmidim as they prepared the Gemara shiur. And he said, ‘For you, I will come outside.’ I remember sitting on the bench with him just outside the room, in the corridor, for two hours, and in those two hours he taught me about halakhah.

In order to realise what Rav Soloveitchik taught a whole generation about halakhah we have to understand what halakhah was before Rav Soloveitchik, before he suceeded in being machazir hatorah leyoshnah, in restoring its former glory.

For generations of Jews halakhah was hamaaseh asher yaasun: it was Jewish law, the dos and don’ts, the arbaah chelkei Shulchan Arukh, lamed-tet melachot of Shabbat, issur vehetter, it was the Shakh, the Taz, the Magen Avraham. And for generations of Jews that was enough. It was more than enough. That was the ‘ahavat olam beit Yisrael ammekha ahavta’, that was the everlasting love through which Hakadosh Barukh Hu gave us ‘Torah umitzvot chukkim, umishpatim otanu limmadta’ and taught us all these laws. And therefore ‘venismach bedivrei toratekha uvemitzvotekha leolam va’ed’ – we rejoiced in them – ‘ki hemchayyeinu ve’orekh yameinu’ – because in those laws were our lives and the length of our days.

But, in fact, for at least a century before Rav Soloveitchik halakhah was munachat bekeren zavit­ halakhah was dethroned in one community after the other. It did not speak of the spirit of the age. For a century Jews outside a very narrow circle of shomerei mitzvot were not interested in the Shulchan Arukh. They were interested in ethical monotheism, universal brotherhood, in tolerance, in peace. They loved the words of the prophets, at most they read Pirkei Avot. The late Gershom Scholem once pointed out that Martin Euber wrote two volumes called The Tales of the Chasidim, and that you can read through the entire work without ever discovering that Chasidim kept halakhah! That was an elevated intellectual level, the level that you and I remember from the generation of our parents.

It was very simple – God does not mind if you carry on Shabbat, so long as you are a good human being. That was halakhah. A davar gadol was maaseh bereshit, the great things were the philosophical ideas. The davar katan was talmudic study. The Gemara was a relatively small thing, overlooked. Halakhah was legalistic, casuistic, concerned with minutiae. If you read the books and sermons published in English between 1840 and 1940, you will note how rarely the word halakhah occurs or indeed any particular halakhah. They are almost totally absent. What Rav Soloveitchik did was therefore remarkable and unique. He transformed the thinking of a whole generation. Today, my publisher in America tells me that if you want to sell a book in America, it has to have the word halakhah in the title. There are hundreds of books and periodicals on halakhah. Even the people who do not believe in halakhah have halakhah! There is Conservative halakhah, even Reform halakhah. Rav Soloveitchik was not only the ish halakhah, the halakhah personality par excellence, but he restored devar halakhah, the word of halakhah, to the language of Jewish thought.

How did he do it? He explained this to me, in the corridors of Yeshiva University 25 years ago. When I first saw Rav Soloveitchik there, I understood better the passage in the Torah where it refers to Moshe Rabbenu when he descended from Mount Sinai: ‘veto yada Mosheh ki karan or panav – he did not know that his face was shining – vayyireu migeshet elav – and people were scared to approach him.’ I was terrified of Rav Soloveitchik. I was terrified to approach him. He had burning eyes. He was obliviously a ‘lonely man of faith’ – and yet when we started talking about halakhah, he started shokeling, he became animated, he put his arm around me, he was what Elie Wiesel calls ‘a soul on fire’.

And what he said was very simple and fundamental. Yet it had never been said before. He said, ‘In the past, Jewish philosophy­ machashevet Yisrael – and halakhah were two different things. They were disconnected.’ ‘In truth,’ he said, ‘they are only one thing and that one thing is – halakhah. The only way you can think Jewishly and construct a Jewish philosophy, is out of halakhah.’ He gave me one example.

He said, ‘you have read Prof A. J. Heschel’s book called The Sabbath?’ I said, ‘yes’. He said, ‘it’s a beautiful book, isn’t it?’ I said, ‘yes’. And he said, ‘what does he call Shabbat? – A sanctuary in time.’ He said, ‘this is an idea of a poet, it’s a lovely idea. But what is Shabbat? Shabbat,’ he said, ‘is lamed-tet melakhot, it is the 39 categories of work and their toladot ‘and it is out of that halakhah and not out of poetty that you have to construct a theory of Shabbat.’ That was his example.

I think that he may have felt constt·ained from giving what he regarded as the prime example, as is very clear from his writings. The prime example was Rambam. There were in a sense two Rambams. There was Rambam who was the ish halakhah, the greatest halakhist of ilie Middle Ages, who wrote the Mishneh Torah. And there was Rambam the great philosopher, the author of the Moreb Nevukhim, of The Guide of the Perplexed. They are two different Rambams. They speak a different language. Indeed, there is an argument amongst scholars as to which is the real Rambam.

The Rav was critical of the philosophical Rambam. He writes in The Halakhic Mind that Rambam’s philosophy was influenced by the ancient Greeks, by medieval Arabic thinkers, the Islamic neo­ Artistotelians, none of whom were Jewish. When Rav Soloveitchik philosophised, shivviti lenegdi tamid, the man he put in front of him eternally was the Rambam, but never the Rambam of the Moreb Nevukhim, always the Rambam of halakhah, of the Mishneh Torah. What was the difference, the paradigm shift that the Rav brought about, which is truly revolutionary in the history of Jewish thought?

The easiest way I can explain it is simply this. The phrase taamei hamitzvot, has two connotations. It means the reasons for commandments and reasons are external to a mitzvah. Reasons deal with things that happen before the mitzvah or after the mitzvah. The Rambam in the Guide, as a philosopher, deals with the mitzvot and he explains their historical background, (what went on before) and their consequences (what happens after their performance).

Thus for Rambam, the taamei hamitzvot are external to the mitzvah.

However, the phrase taamei hamitzvot could mean something completely different. Taam not only means a reason, it means a taste. Taamu ureu ki tov – the taste of the mitzvot. What does the mitzvah feel like, not externally but internally, not before and after, but bishat maaseh, while you are performing it?

The Rav actually believed and proved in all his works that when you carried out mitzvot you entered a world of thought that was quite distinctive – the world of Jewish philosophy. The Se/er Hachinnukh says ‘Acharei hapeulot nimshekhu halevavot’ – how you act affects what you feel. The Rav said in effect, acharei hapeulot nimshekhu hamochot, hasikhliyyot- what you do affects how you think. Halakhah is not merely a way of acting, it is a way of seeing the world. In one obvious sense, we see things in halakhah that do not exist in physical space. In relation to a sukkah, for example, the halakhah recognises certain imaginary constructions – gud assik, gud achit, dophan akumah, – which count as walls, mechitzot, as far as the laws of sukkah are concerned, but which are not physical walls. They exist in halakhah. But they do not exist in the world of the senses. A casual observer who knew nothing of halakhah could not see such walls.

But to the person who knows the law, they are as real as constructions of brick or stone. The ish halakhah – the person whose mind is shaped by the halakhah – sees things in a different way.

Rav Soloveitchik profoundly meditated on this, in the most general and systematic way. Some of his deepest reflections relate to Hilkhot Teshuvah, the section of Rambam’s code in which he deals with the laws of repentance. Here, the Rav discovered the halakhah’s deepest insights into the human personality. By being an ish teshuvah, a person of teshuvah, your whole personality and way of thinking about yourself changed. A person of teshuvah was constantly bringing about personal renewal. The Rav loved chiddush, and believed that the greatest chiddush was in the self. Thus when you study carefully Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuvah, you understand that the mitzvah of teshuvah is to be mechaddesh et atzmo, to renew yourself.

So we can now understand what the Rav did for a generation who thought halakhah was dull and detailed and dry. He made it vivid, he made it vast. ‘Miyom shecharev Beit Hamikdash ein lo le-Hakadosh Barukh Hu be’olamo ella dated amot shel halakhah bilvad, ‘said Ghazal – From the day the Temple was destroyed the Holy One Blessed be He only has in His world the four cubits of halakhah.’ Rav Soloveitchik turned it around and in effect said that it is within the four cubits of halakhah that you find the infinity of Hakadosh Barukh Hu. It was as if the Rav had found halakhah ‘afar min haadamah,’ dry dust, ‘vayyippach be’appav nishmat chayyim’ – and he breathed into it the breath of life – ‘vattehi halakhah lenefesh chayyah ‘ – and he made halakhah come alive.

So when the Rav left us a devar halakhah, he left us the devar halakhah, a renewal of our whole understanding of halakhah. That is the kelal.

Having said this, I want to add one point of detail. It is very striking that from his earliest published writings in the 1940s, the Rav was preoccupied with death. Time and again he returns to it in his writings. In Ish Halakhah, at various points he keeps coming back to it. He explains how the ish halakhah, the halakhic personality, is calm, serene, detached, like a mathematician, unfazed by anything because he comes to the world with his a priori categories, he has things mapped out in advance.

But there is one thing that troubles the ish halakhah, the fear of death. He tells stories several times about his late grandfather, Reb Chayyim of Brisk, who was terrified of death. He relates in the name of his father, Reb Mosheh, that when fear of death would seize hold of Reb Chayyim, he would immerse himself in the study of the laws of avelut and the laws of tumah and those laws of death and defilement would somehow or other cause his terror to subside. I lose count of the number of times he refers to it in Ish Halakhah.

If you look through his published writings, many of his most powerful statements are given in the form of hespedim. His great lectures on teshuvah were given on yohrtzeits, always in memory of someone who had died. Again and again he comes back to concepts of aninut and avelut. I know of no other Jewish writer who speaks of death so often and in very strange ways.

For instance, he gives several examples about the Vilna Gaon; I quote only one. In Ish Halakhah he states that when the Vilna Gaon’s brother died, upon learning about this on Shabbat, the Vilna Gaon showed no emotion at all. On Shabbat you cannot mourn. As soon as Shabbat was out and they had made Havdalah, the Vilna Gaon burst into tears. And this for the Rav was the zenith of ish halakhah, that you could control your grief.

Nonetheless, each time I read these passages, and there are several in the book, I have been troubled. But, ‘lo nittenah Torah lemalakhei hasharet’ the Torah was not given to angels. Human beings have emotions. Unlike angles we are moved by sadness, exhilaration, fear and joy. Even Moshe Rabbenu, as the Rambam points out, gave way on one occasion, to anger. Perhaps the deepest of all human emotions is grief – the devastating sense of loss when someone close to us is taken from us. How then could the Rav believe that it was the task of the halakhah to make us iMmune to grief? Not only does this verge on the impossible. It comes close to being inhuman. Precisely now, as we struggle to come to terms with our own grief at the loss of the Rav, we must ask this question of the Rav himself. Why was he so obsessed with death?

The answer, I suggest, is this: the Rav lived through the Shoah. His great works, The Halakhic Personality and The Halakhic Mind, were written while the Holocaust was taking place. And we have to understand that for the Rav the Shoah was not only the massacre of six million Jews. It was the massacre of the Torah itself, kivyakhol. The entire world of Torah from which the Rav stemmed, from which Torah derived, of Brisk, of Volozyhn, of Eastern Europe, had gone up in flames.

It is very striking that in neither work that he wrote while the Shoah was happening, although he knew that it was happening, does he mention the Shoah. The Shoah figures very little in his writings. And yet I believe the impact of the Holocaust on the Rav was immense. He was a person terrified and traumatised by death, let alone by this unprecedented destruction. Not only did the Shoah test his faith to its limits, but it left him in a real sense not just a survivor, but the survivor. He was the one link with the world of Brisk, he was the one who remained, the one on whom the mantle rested. He was one on his own. And he was one on his own in a land, in America of the 1940s, that was utterly insensitive and unreceptive to the values of the world. They had never heard of Brisk. The Rav frequently refers to his biblical namesake, Yosef. Like Yosef, he was a lonely man of faith, separated from a world that he had lost, on his own, in the highly technocratic hedonistic cosmopolitan world of Egypt, which was for the Rav the ancient equivalent of the USA.

The Rav’s first words in print, the introduction to Ish Halakhah, are a quotation from the Gemara in Sotah (36b) which refers to Yosef in Potiphar’s house and how he might have sinned had not the image of his father appeared before him at the crucial moment. Rav Yosef Soloveitchik felt all the time that he carried with him the image of that vanished generation. It was his source of life. When a person has lived through such an absolute tragedy, what they most want to do is forget. We know this because almost no one wrote about the Shoah for 20 years after it happened. We know this because Noach, ish tzaddik, having lived through a Shoah, through the mabbul, wanted to get drunk and forget everything. We know this from Yosef Hatzaddik himself who, having lived through the trauma of being separated from the world of his parents, also wished to forget. He called his firstborn Menasheh – ‘ki nashani Elokim et kol amali ve’et kol beit avi’ – for God has made me forget all my sufferings and my father’s house. That is the natural human reaction – to want to deny and forget.

However, Rav Soloveitchik could not forget, because locked up in his soul and in his memory, was all that was left of that world and only his memory could keep it alive. So throughout hi$ life’s work we sense a profound meditation on the relationship between halakhah and death at three different levels. Firstly, there was the psychological level which he learnt from Rabbi Eliyyahu Pruzner and from the Vilna Gaon, that when you are terrified of death, you study halakhah; when you are terrified of the chaos, the abyss, you study order and that composes the mind. That was the first and least important level.

There was a second level. Rav Soloveitchik held that the halakhah actually changes our perception of time. We believe that what is past is past, what is present is here and what is future has not yet been. The Rav felt that the ish halakhah operates in a completely different framework of time. He says the consciousness of ish halakhah embraces the entire company of chakhmei hamasorah, the sages of our tradition. He lives in their midst, discusses and argues questions of halakhah with them, delves into and analyses principles in their company. All of them merge into one time experience. He walks alongside Maimonides, he listens to Rabbi A.kiva, he senses the presence of Abbaye and Rava.

I know this was something his talmidim felt – that he lived in the presence of the past generations of the Sages. Thus he explains assertions such as ‘David Melekh Yisrael chai vekayyom’ (King David is alive) or ‘Yaakov Avinu lo met’ (the patriarch Jacob did not die) to mean that the great sages of our past never died. There can be no death among the company of the sages of tradition. If you study halakhah you bring people who have died back to life again and by studying the halakhot of Brisk and that destroyed, murdered world he brought it back to life again. That was the second level.

But there was a third and deeper level still. In Kol Dodi Dofek he says something very profound. He says there are two responses to suffering. There is the ordinary human response and there is the halakhic response. The ordinary human response is to see yourself as an object. Why is this happening to me? It is happening to me, and I am an object. The halakhic response is to see it as a subject and the ish halakhah does not ask why is this happening to me but what shall I do? And the Rav knew what he had to do. ‘Haamidu talmidim harbeh’ – raise up a new generation of disciples that would replace those who were murdered in Eastern Europe.

The Rav constantly bore in mind the statement of Rambam in Hilkhot Auel that avelut is part of teshuvah, that mourning is part of the process of repentance and return. The Rav never forgot this. His mourning for a whole murdered generation took the form of bringing the next generation to teshuvah, to return to the halakhah which had been so devastated.

But even more profoundly still, the word teshuvah does not merely mean to return. Lashuv means to come back. But lehashiv means to bring back, to restore. Somehow, mystically and mysteriously, in that generation of disciples who had never before existed in America, the souls of those who had died were being restored, reborn. We touch here on a subject none of us can fathom, but which we can sense, obscurely. I believe that Rav Soloveitchik was engaged in nothing less than techiyyat hametim, bringing a dead world back to life.

I believe that between the lines of our conversation ten years ago, he was hinting at something vast and mysterious. Towards the end of his life he was in effect able to say that Brisk had been reborn in America. Halakhah had triumphed over death. The world of the yeshivot, that had been so cruelly destroyed, lived again.

If it did so, it was because of him. Rav Soloveitchik stood bein hametim uvein hachayyim, between the dead and the living, as the sole link between a generation that had died and one that had not yet been born. He was the ‘branch plucked from the burning’. And he replanted it so that it became again a tree of life.

Few people in Judaism’s history have achieved so much. The Rav did not give way to pride. He knew, more than most, the force of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s statement: ‘If you have learnt much Torah, do not claim credit for yourself, since it was for this that you were created’. But he lived through a tragic and epic time. Like Rabbi Chanina ben Taradyon he had seen the Sepher Torah set on fire: not just the Torah scroll, but community after community of saints and sages who were in themselves living Torah scrolls. Like Rabbi Chanina he saw ‘the parchments burning, but the letters flying upwards’. The physical parchment could be destroyed. But the letters could never be destroyed. It was Rav Soloveitchik’s greatness that he brought the letters down to earth again, reassembled them into sentences and chapters that could be understood by the next generation, and reinscribed them on their hearts.

‘Al yippater adam mechavero ella mitokh devar halakhah shemitokh kakh zokhrehu.’ Rav Soloveitchik taught us in the most dramatic way possible that halakhah keeps memory alive and by keeping memory alive keeps the Jewish people alive even when they have been overshadowed by death. We are overshadowed and overwhelmed by his death but because he taught us not just a halakhah but the halakhah we shall never forget him and he will live because he changed our lives.

‘Bin osim nefashot latzaddikim divreihem hem hem zikhronam.’ We make no monuments to the righteous other than this, that we take their words as their memory. Yehi zikhro barukh leolam va’ed. May his memory be blessed for ever.