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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Transcripts of Personal Conversations with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
By Rabbi David Holzer
Published by the author
No price indicated
Imagine if you were Albert Einstein's chauffeur or Harry Truman's or some other famous person's. And imagine that while you drove him about, you were able to ask this famous person whatever questions you wanted. And imagine he gave you permission to tape your discussions with him. What a valuable document you would have for future historians to study.
This is the premise behind Rabbi David Holzer's book. For many years he served as the assistant and the driver for Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Along the way, he was able to ask the Rav many questions - not only about Jewish law but about his worldview. And now he has edited and published the transcripts of these conversations.
I have heard that some of the Rav's disciples have objected to the publication of this book. They feel that it is a violation of the Rav's privacy to record and reveal the opinions he expressed in casual conversations. But since Soloveitchik knew that he was being taped, I see no problem, and I am grateful that we have this collection of the Rav's thinking on many topics.
It is ironic that Soloveitchik published so little during his lifetime and has seen so many of his essays and lectures published since his death. But each book that comes out is a welcome glimpse into the mind of one of the major Jewish thinkers of our time, and should therefore be welcomed.
Many sides of the Rav's personality come out in this collection. I love the dvar Torah in honor of the bride and groom that he gave at the sheva brachot for Holzer and his wife. I am fascinated by the story he tells of how, when he met his father in New York after years of separation, his father simply shook his hand. An outsider watching the scene might have thought that Rav Moshe was a cold person, but the Rav says that he understood that there was a volcano inside him. It was just not the way of the family to show their emotions in public.
The book contains some fascinating material that the Rav recounts about members of his family, going back several generations. Much of this material has never been written down before, and so historians who want to learn something about the relationships of the Brisk dynasty with Samson Raphael Hirsch, Rabbi Meir Berlin and others will find valuable information here.
Let me share five surprises revealed in this book.
I was surprised to learn that Soloveitchik loved Bach, and could listen to his works over and over again.
Many people will be intrigued by the fact that Soloveitchik knew the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Berlin, and that he says that he introduced him to the Brisker method of Talmud study.
Those who think of the Rav as the central spiritual figure within Yeshiva University will be surprised to learn that he came there on a one-year contract, for $20 a week, and that there were some within the power structure who were hoping that he would turn down this offer so that they would not have to have him there.
The Rav expresses himself very clearly in these conversations against the use of the state to enforce religious observance in Israel. He says that this has to be harmful, both to religion and to the state.
And he says that, if it were up to him, he would give the Arabs sovereignty over the mosques on the Temple Mount - something that would shock many of the religious zealots in Israel today.
There are some other surprises in this book. For example, the Rav respected those who wanted to make aliya, but he says here that before making that decision, a person should weigh carefully where he can accomplish more good, and if he determines that he can do more for God and Torah outside Israel, then this is where he should live.
I was moved by the Rav's explanation of why he was opposed to interfaith dialogue. He says that the relationship between a husband and a wife is intimate, and one does not discuss its secrets with strangers. And so it is with the covenant between God and Israel. To discuss or debate its merits with others, he says, is simply immodest and unbecoming. I don't agree with that answer. I do believe that there is much we can share with those of other faiths, that there is much that unites us as well as much that separates us, but nevertheless I find his answer significant.
Which brings me to the essential difference in spirit between the editor of this book and this reader. I am impressed by the enormous respect that this student shows to his teacher. There is never a challenge to his authority or a debate with his viewpoint. It is clear that the student who edited this book would feel it was presumptuous for him to disagree with what his teacher says. He only raises questions for the sake of understanding, but it is clear that he would not think of disagreeing. I cannot think of any figure in the non-Orthodox world, no rabbi and no academic who is so revered that a student would not presume to challenge or disagree.
And that is the difference between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox worlds and between their ways of studying. My friend, Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz clarified the differences to me recently when he said: "There was a time when people came to the class in order to listen to the sage on the stage. Now people prefer to have a guide at their side instead of a sage on the stage."
He meant by that that in the non-Orthodox world, the teacher is meant to be a valuable resource and a spiritual mentor, but not an unquestioned authority. And that may be the key difference in the way that the two movements study Torah.
But this point aside, this book is a valuable contribution to understanding the Rav, and it gives us many insights into his views on some of the controversial questions of the day, as well as some important recollections of his family's heritage and a demonstration of the charisma with which he inspired so many of his students. Would that we could have some more such books that could give us a chauffeur's perspective on some of the other great minds of our time. n
The writer, a rabbi, is the coeditor of So That Your Values May Live: A Treasury of Modern Jewish Ethical Wills and the editor of the three volumes of The World of the High Holy Days.