Kenneth Brander
Kenneth Brander
President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone
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The never-ending goal of unity without uniformity (Parshat Balak)

Why Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik wasn't chosen to be the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv (Balak)

TRANSCRIPT

It was the summer of 1935.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the young Lithuanian-born-and-raised heir apparent to a legendary rabbinical dynasty was making his first – and as it turned out, his only – trip to Eretz Yisrael.

Rav Shlomo Aronson, the widely beloved Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, had passed away in March, and Rav Soloveitchik, who had earned a PhD from the University of Berlin and who was then a community rabbi in the city of Boston, was hoping to succeed him in that position.

During that visit, the 32-year old Rav Soloveitchik was invited to deliver a shiur at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, the spiritual home to the vision and teachings of the legendary Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook.

This provided an opportunity for Rav Soloveitchik to meet with Rav Kook, the ailing Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael who would pass away a few months later.

After the visit and the shiur, Rav Kook recalled his own experience as a student attending the shiurim of Rav Chaim Brisker, Rav Soloveitchik’s grandfather, at the Volozhin Yeshiva, and commented that “The power of the genius of the grandfather now resides with the grandson.”

As a candidate for chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, that Shabbat Rav Soloveitchik presented a drasha on the parsha, which was the same as this week’s portion: Parshat Balak.

In retrospect, we know that Rav Soloveitchik – the man who Rav Kook described as a genius and who went on to become a seminal figure in Modern Orthodoxy – did not receive the position of Tel Aviv chief rabbi.

As a curious student, I once asked Rav Soloveitchik why he thought they didn’t choose him.

He explained that he believed it was due to the drasha that he delivered.

With a bit of further prodding, the Rav  shared that the drasha he delivered focused on the verse:

מה טובו אוהלך יעקב משכנותך ישראל

How beautiful are the tents of Jacob, the dwellings of Israel (Numbers 24:5)

And he cited these words to express his hope that the various tents of Israel should soon be able to dwell together: Ashkenazim and Sephardim, the religious and secular.

To try to achieve unity even without uniformity.

In the aftermath of his not receiving the position, Rav Soloveitchik realized that the community was not ready to hear and internalize such a message.

With the 20/20 hindsight of history, perhaps it was fortunate that Rav Soloveitchik never became the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv and instead remained in the United States in order to help shape world Jewry using both the community of Boston and Yeshiva University as an incubator for his creative thoughts and to become “the Rav,” the greatest teacher of his generation.

Yet, as we revisit this parsha, some 86 years later, we see clearly and sadly that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s message remains unrealized.

We are responsible to continue to strive toward actualizing the dream of מה טובו אוהלך יעקב משכנותך ישראל

We must all extend ourselves to ensure that there is more achdut, more unity amongst the Jewish people.

We must be respectful in how we talk to each other and about each other.

To accept and respect Jews who observe Judaism differently from us.

Jews who have different customs and traditions, who hail from different descents.

To accept and respect one other – even when we don’t agree with the practices or beliefs of the other.

The capacity for us to show God that we are a people that even though we may not be uniform, we are nevertheless committed to unity, so that we can merit the blessing of מה טובו אוהלך יעקב משכנותך ישראל

Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 30 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He is the rabbi emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue and founder of the Katz Yeshiva High School. He served as the Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University and has authored many articles in scholarly journals.
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