Yitzhak Twersky (1930-1997) was one of the top scholars of the past generation. He was brilliant. He was a highly respected professor at Harvard University and founder and head of Harvard’s Center of Jewish Studies. Some of his books are classics, especially his monumental work on Maimonides, “Introduction to the Code of Maimonides,” and his intellectual portrait of Rabad of Posquiere. He was considered one of the outstanding Maimonides scholars of his time and master of medieval Jewish intellectual history, specializing in the relationship between Jewish Law and Jewish spirituality. Besides his scholarly work, he was also a Chassidic Rebbe in Boston. He was the son-in-law of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. His published articles are intellectual gems.
His book of five chapters, “Perpetuating the Masorah,” stresses the need to ensure Jewish values will not cease. It was published because of the desire of many to know what the Professor taught. It contains interesting information. The first four chapters focus on teaching Judaism, its laws, customs, and ideas. The fifth chapter is, in essence, a eulogy to his father-in-law.
Professor Twersky did not write the first four chapters. They are based on the recordings of lectures he delivered. Good writers, who were his students, made changes to make it appear as his writing. They did a good job. But one can still see the differences in style between the four and the fifth that he wrote. Yet, readers can learn much from the lectures.
He explains why morality must be anchored on religious values and norms; otherwise, morality will erode and collapse. He tells why the ancient ruling of Beit Shammai that one should only teach a wise, humble person of distinguished pedigree and affluent is wrong. He stressed instilling self-confidence in students. And much more.
Regarding the fifth, the eulogy, Professor Twersky praised Rabbi Soloveitchik highly but did not discuss his ideas, many of which are controversial. His emphasis on accepting many commands on “faith” is an example. It is contrary to the Maimonidean teaching in his “Guide for the Perplexed” that each Biblical command has a rational purpose of encouraging actions that help improve the practicing individual and society. Accepting the commands on faith, as Rabbi Soloveitchik teaches, leads to passivity.
Another example is Rabbi Soloveitchik’s ruling that the current situation of women whose husbands refused to give them a divorce and left them unable to marry should not be changed. This is called “Agunah,” meaning “chained women,” The long-held practice of simply trying to persuade the husband to give the divorce did not always work. It ruined the lives of hundreds of women. Rabbi Soloveitchik persuaded the Rabbinical Council of America not to change the practice. He based his decision on an ancient, no longer true principle of psychology that women would prefer to live even with an abuser than be left with no husband. This Talmudic notion ceased making sense when women were emancipated, could gain an education, work, and earn money that would not belong to their husbands.