Twenty years after his death, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the beacon of the Modern Orthodox movement and rosh yeshiva of the rabbinical school of Yeshiva University, is still mourned and remembered not only for his towering intellect and Talmudic teachings but his willingness and ability to blend a life devoted to Torah study with a full appreciation of the blessings of modernity.
His life was a fulfillment of Yeshiva’s motto, “Torah U’Maddah,” Torah and secular studies, and his character was one of deep commitment to moral and ethical values.
This past Sunday many hundreds of people came to Yeshiva, and thousands more watched and listened via live streaming, as leaders of the movement paid tribute to the man known simply as The Rav (The Rabbi), recalling his teachings. One unspoken message was that more than a quarter-century after he stepped down from his teaching position, the debates go on among his followers as to how he might have ruled on contemporary issues and practices. His voice is still yearned for, and no one has filled the position of authority he held in the Orthodox community.
Indeed, in recent days that community has been embarrassed by the words and actions of several prominent rabbinic figures. The chief rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, resigned his position after it became public that he did not have the high philosophy degree he claimed and that he had plagiarized another author’s work in his book. After first dismissing the allegations, he admitted the truth and stepped down.
Closer to home, Rabbi Michael Broyde, a leading thinker in the Modern Orthodox world whose legal and ethical views were often sought by colleagues, announced “an indefinite leave of absence” as a member and judge of the Beth Din of America, the most respected court of its kind in the Modern Orthodox community, affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America, from which Broyde also withdrew. The decision came after it was learned that he had created and for many years used a fake, alternative identity to infiltrate a rival rabbinic organization, often praising his own works. Broyde, a pulpit rabbi in Atlanta and professor of law at Emory University, initially denied the allegations stemming from an investigation by The Jewish Channel, but later acknowledged his actions.
The Bernheim and Broyde episodes are sad and troublesome on many levels, and though the circumstances differ, they no doubt reflect the pressures — from the outside or self-imposed — on leaders in the spotlight. These two rabbis have been forced to acknowledge and apologize for their misdeeds publicly, and perhaps after time they will find their way back to forgiving communities. Teshuva, after all, is a key element of Jewish belief.
Another Orthodox rabbinic leader in the glare of media attention of late is Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University. With his encyclopedic knowledge of the Talmudic teachings of his mentor, The Rav, he has a large and deeply devoted following of young rabbis and rabbinic students. But he has, over the years, and in recent days, made public statements reflecting insensitivity — racially and politically — that are a source of embarrassment to Yeshiva and its community.
Each of these episodes reminds us that even our leaders struggle with human frailties and inconsistencies. “Teach us to apply our hearts to wisdom,” the Psalmist prayed, referring not only to intellect but to character and conduct. Certainly Rabbi Soloveitchik was deeply attuned to these issues. Among his best-known writings is his book, “The Lonely Man Of Faith,” which deals with man’s ongoing effort to blend his humanity with his connection to the Divine. Each of us is at times that “lonely man,” and while it is easy for us to condemn those who stumble, we should strive for the compassion with which we would want to be treated were we the one to have fallen.