No family since that of Rashi in the 11th and 12th centuries can boast as many influential Torah scholars as the Soloveitchik family. This unparalleled dynasty reimagined our approach to Jewish thought and redefined the way we study and understand Talmud. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, known to thousands of students around the world simply as “The Rav,” was a product of this great legacy having acquired a deep understanding of Jewish texts and a love for learning from his father, Rav Moshe, his mother, Pesia Feinstein, and his revered grandfather, Rav Hayyim.
The Rav’s clarity, charisma, excitement, and intellectual integrity made his daily shiurim, learning sessions, exciting and attracted many different types of thinkers and scholars. Young rabbinic students and veteran yeshiva deans alike hung on to his every word. Talmudic scholars came from yeshivot and theological seminaries across the globe to learn from this great master. While his philosophy of Judaism was often articulated through the ideals of Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Cohen, it was predicated on the ideals of the Rambam, the Ramban and the Rav’s own family tradition. Virtually every Jewish community in the world has been indelibly, positively impacted by the Rav, his students, or his writings.
While I believe I lack the Torah knowledge or capacity to expound on the Rav’s greatness in learning, I can share a few observations from the time I was lucky enough to spend with him.
In the Rav’s classroom, a student’s age, experience and family name were all but irrelevant. All that mattered was the truth. At times, the Rav would dismiss a veteran scholar’s thesis in favor of a young student’s suggestion. I will never forget the time the Rav responded to several questions at the end of a two and a half hour lecture that was focused on presenting a specific idea. The Rav answered each question in a clear and precise manner. When the lecture was over, the Rav asked me to call over one of the boys who had asked a certain question. The Rav told him, “You were right and I was wrong. Tomorrow, we will restudy the topic based on the question you raised.”
It was also clear that the Rav loved to teach. We were once informed that due to the Rav’s health, our classes would be limited to two hours. On the first day after we were told of this medically imposed limit, I drew clock signs indicating how much time had elapsed and slid them onto the Rav’s desk at the one hour, hour and a half, and two hour marks. That first day, my notes worked perfectly. To everyone’s astonishment, the Rav actually concluded our class after two hours. The next day, however, my notes were not as effective. After passing the Rav a note at the two hour mark, he continued to teach. I found myself in a very difficult predicament. How is a twenty-year-old to respond when the greatest Torah luminary of the generation ignores a medically prescribed limitation? All eyes were on me as everyone was curious to see how this dilemma would unfold. After an additional forty-five minutes had elapsed, I stood up and announced that shiur was over. The Rav turned to me for a moment and then to the shiur and said, “Even the Satan does not have as good of an assistant as I do.” The boys laughed and class was adjourned.
After class, I walked the Rav back to his apartment for lunch. The Rav noticed that I was very quiet during our walk and lunch together and asked me what was wrong. I explained that I was not acting on my own accord in the classroom, but that I was simply following instructions. He responded that he was often in pain in the mornings before class and in the afternoons following class, but that he was never in pain while teaching. His love for teaching eased the pain, and he was simply trying to extend that pain-free period. The next day in class, I decided not to remind the Rav when to stop. However, an hour and a half into class, the Rav turned to me and asked how much time was left.
Many people still talk about the Rav’s reputation for being tough on his students. But they always add that it was abundantly clear that his demands were made out of love for his students and his commitment to helping them reach their personal bests. And outside of the classroom his demeanor was always welcoming, gentle and kindly. I remember how often people left the Rav’s apartment with a sense of comfort, either because the Rav had a solution to their problems or simply because he had listened so intently.
He was unique in that he truly felt the pain of others and was genuinely happy when he could help solve their dilemmas. In fact, he would not sleep until he found a way to put his halakhic arsenal to work for those he was certain he could help. Whether it was a visiting Rosh Yeshiva, a Head of State, or Ms. Oshea who cleaned his apartment (more due to the mess created by his students than the Rav himself), the Rav treated everyone like royalty, even when he was experiencing extreme physical pain and discomfort.
Now, twenty years after his passing, I am still in awe of the fact that in his search for a personal romantic relationship with God, the Rav intellectually explored all aspects of our covenant with Him. Yet, in the Rav’s existential journey, he concerned himself solely with the human condition. The Rav expressed this clearly through his personal interactions, the way he approached teaching, and his writings, in which he professed that it was our responsibility as Torah Jews to care for and advance society at large.
For the Rav, being a “Halakhic Man” also meant being a man of compassion and true loving kindness. May his wisdom and his great example continue to guide and inspire us for generations.