Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the late leader of the Modern Orthodox movement, was known for, among other qualities, his rigorous scholarship and intellectual honesty. Citing an example of both the other day, Rabbi Kenneth Brander, who now leads a large congregation in Boca Raton, Fla., recalled an incident that took place some two decades ago when he served as one of several personal assistants to the Rav (simply, the Rabbi), as he was widely known.
As the two walked from class toward the Rav’s apartment across the street from Yeshiva University, where he was rosh yeshiva, or dean, of the rabbinic seminary, the Rav asked young Brander who the young man was who had posed an answer to a difficult Talmudic passage that day in shiur, or class. The Rav, legendary for demanding thoughtful responses from his students, had dismissed the proposed solution out of hand.
Brander told him who the student was, one of the youngest in the class, and the Rav asked where he could find him. Brander said he would probably be having lunch in a small kosher luncheonette up the block. “Take me there,” the Rav said.
When the students and workers in the luncheonette saw the Rav walk in, Brander said, everyone froze. A dignified, scholarly man, he was not known to frequent such establishments, but he made his way over to the startled young man and said, “You were right today. I was wrong. Tomorrow we will use your approach” in analyzing the difficult Talmud passage.
“That was the Rav,” Rabbi Brander told a hushed audience of some 700 people attending a special program at the conclusion of the Orthodox Union’s biennial national convention at the Rye Town Hilton on Sunday. The commemoration, featuring remembrances and presentations by eight prominent former students on the Rav’s impact, marks the 100th birthday of Rabbi Soloveitchik, and the 10th anniversary of his yahrzeit, both of which will take place in 2003.
Almost a decade after the Rav’s death, the issue of who he was — where he stood on halachic issues and on the relationship between Torah and modernity — continues to roil as rabbis debate what their religious leader said or meant about any number of issues. His death left a void that has yet to be filled in the modern/centrist Orthodox community, and as his authority becomes more legendary with the passage of time, the struggle among various factions seeking to lay claim to the Rav’s legacy continues to grow.
Some say that as a brilliant and dedicated Torah scholar, he was more traditional in his approach to halachic issues than many realize.
Others note that with his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Berlin, he not only appreciated secular knowledge but saw holiness in it as well, all part of the overall framework of God’s creation.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the OU, noted in an interview this week that the organization needs to decide who its halachic authority is — a position the Rav filled, unchallenged, for decades. Since the Rav’s death, he said, the organization has grappled with “what did he say and what would he have said” about any number of issues.
By contract, halachic decisions for the OU are to be made by the Rabbinical Council of America, its rabbinic arm. In practice, this was rarely done in the last decade until Rabbi Weinreb became the OU’s chief professional last January. Relations between the two groups have improved and consultation is ongoing, but there is no one rabbinic authority. Instead, various rabbis are brought in on issues that deal with their area of expertise. But many speak longingly of the depth of knowledge and religious integrity of the Rav.
Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, dean of The Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Institute in Brookline, Mass., a cosponsor of Sunday’s program, presented a loving biography of his mentor’s life. Born into a prominent family of Talmudic scholars, young Joseph would sit on his bed, as a child of 5 or 6, and listen to his father and other scholars study the Talmud and quote Maimonides, the towering 12th century sage, Rabbi Schacter said. Many years later, the Rav wrote that when he studies the Talmud, he feels that he is seated in a room with scholars of the past like Maimonides and Rashi.
“They look at me with fondness,” he wrote. “They work the text out with me, and like a father, they encourage and strengthen me.”
Other highlights of the OU convention, which was held from Dec. 26-29, included a session on “areas of challenge in setting the Orthodox national agenda.”
Stephen Hoffman, president and CEO of the United Jewish Communities, spoke of efforts made by federation leaders “to reach the traditional community in striving for Klal Yisrael,” the participation of all segments of the community. “We seek your engagement, nationally and locally,” he said. “We need to overcome the image that the Orthodox community only cares about its own schools and concerns.”
Hoffman said federations have become more sensitized to issues like kashrut and funding for yeshivas and day schools, and urged the Orthodox leaders to be more willing to participate with other segments of the community, namely the Conservative and Reform. “Mutual respect doesn’t always imply approval,” he said.
Any opportunity for real dialogue was lost due to the way the session was structured since the four other panelists addressed internal needs in the Orthodox community, and Hoffman had to leave before the program concluded.
Rabbi Howard Zack of Columbus, Ohio, called for young couples to move to “out of town” communities, away from major metropolitan areas.
He said they would not only be helping to assure the survival and growth of these communities but would be living more spiritually fulfilling lives by assuming responsibility for the religious and other activities of the town.
Shira Reifman, interim director of operations of NCSY, said much needs to be done to attract young people to become lay or professional leaders of the OU, starting with skills, salary and respect.
For more on the OU convention, see Between The Lines, “The OU, Revisited,” page 7.