It is without question that one of the most impactful components of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchk’s legacy, even if he did not necessarily live to see its blossoming, was his uncompromising support for women’s torah study. Famously, he offered Talmud to high school women at Boston’s Maimonides School and delivered the inaugural Talmud class at Yeshiva University’s Stern College For Women, sparking an initiative whose reverberations are still being felt. That is why it always looks strange to see public discussions of Rabbi Soloveitchik and his Torah conducted almost entirely by men. For example, this past Sunday, Yeshiva University and the Orthodox Union celebrated the publication of a new volume of the “Chumash Mesoras HaRav,” featuring a commentary adapted from the teachings of Rabbi Soloveitchik, with an event that featured 5 speakers, all men middle-aged and older.
JOFA responded with indignation to the lack of female representation, seeing it as yet another instance of institutional Modern Orthodoxy failing to reflect the times. In particular, they pointed out that Yeshiva supports, in this case in the breach, the “Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community” pledge to include female representation in every Jewish communal discussion and educational program.
In the ensuing online discussion, some asked whether female family members Drs. Tovah Lichtenstein or Atarah Twersky could have spoken. Neither was available, but the suggestion misses the point by positing that only a small group of women is qualified to speak to Rabbi Solovetichik’s life and legacy — and they by dint of familial relationship. Another suggestion, made online by JOFA, to include a woman who had attended the landmark lecture at Stern College misses the point in a similar fashion. To have an all-male panel may feel wrong, but to insinuate that the only women capable of speaking to Rabbi Soloveitchik’s legacy are those who can recount the experience of having happened to have been in a class he taught 40 years ago is deeply problematic. After all, one can speak about the living legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. without having marched with him at Selma.
The problem really is in the framing. If a panel is framed as “Remembering the Rav,” the pool of expert speakers is rather limited — and male. It is certainly true that, as a Rosh Yeshiva and Jewish communal leader of his era, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s closest and most significant students were almost exclusively men – including the participants in this past Sunday’s program.
In this case, the speakers included Rabbi Julius Berman, Chair of OU Press, publisher of the Chumash Mesoras HaRav, and Dr. Arnold Lustiger, its editor. “Personal Experiences and Reflections of the Rav,” were offered by Rabbis Kenneth Brander and Lewis Wienerkur, both of whom served as personal aides to Rabbi Soloveitchik. Words of Torah were presented by Rabbi Hershel Schachter, perhaps Rabbi Solovetchik’s most significant living student and acclaimed halakhic leader of both Yeshiva University and the OU, and closing remarks were offered by Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of OU Kosher and a prime collector and publisher of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writings.
In contrast, if the event had been framed as a discussion of how to best present Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Torah to the new generation of students or areas where his teachings (particularly those preserved in the Chumash Mesoras HaRav) are particularly relevant to contemporary issues, the pool of speakers would expand greatly. In today’s Modern Orthodox world, there is no shortage of female educators, writers and professionals who study and teach Rabbi Soloveitchik and have a stake in his legacy. This sort of reframing is happening all across the Jewish world. As AWP puts it on their website:
Must the panelist be the CEO of a veteran organization or senior rabbi of a 5,000-person congregation? What about the CEO of an innovative start-up or the founder of a new spiritual community? Must the scholar-in-residence bring decades of teaching experience? What about the younger academic bringing a well-reviewed book and accolades by her peers? Like AWP, our male allies believe that, if the category is so narrow as to exclude women, expand the criteria or change the category.
Another benefit of a more thoughtful framing is bringing younger generations into the conversation. Rabbi Soloveitchik died in 1993, my freshman year of high school. Even people 10 years older than I am had no real personal connection to him when he was in his intellectual and personal prime, to say nothing of those who have come of age since.
It is natural to assume that those best equipped to speak about the legacy of a great leader are the students who experienced him day after day for years, who called him with their questions and who still lead our communal institutions according to the guidance he imparted to them. At the same time, though, there is an entirely new generation of Modern Orthodox Jews who represent the world they created — one that looks different in many ways from their own, yet claims their teacher as totemic pillar and guiding star.
We are familiar with the personal recollections of those who knew and studied from Rabbi Soloveitchik from the many, many programs, books, lectures, and archives that have been dedicated to this purpose in the decades since his decline and passing. The launching of a new collection of his teachings, though, should be a forward-looking statement about the continued meaning of his work in the community it created, rather than a nostalgic look back to the time when it was first produced.