The life of a great man

The ascendancy and power of the modern Orthodox world of North America, as well as its many emigrants to Israel, is a direct result of the power and singular persona of Rabbi Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik.

April 4, 2013 12:08
2 minute read.
THE RAV delivers the first Talmud class at Stern College for Women.

Rabbi yeshiva seminar (black and white) 521. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik was the rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva University’s rabbinical seminary from 1941 until 1986, during which time he ordained close to 2,000 rabbis.

Born in 1903 in Pruzhan, Russia, into the great rabbinic Soloveitchik dynasty, he received his PhD in 1932 in Berlin, moving that year with his wife, Dr. Tonya Lewitt, to Boston. In 1937, the Soloveitchiks founded the Maimonides School in Boston, one of the earliest Jewish day schools in America.Succeeding his father as rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University in 1941, the Rav, as he was both affectionately and deferentially known, traveled from Boston to New York weekly for the next 45 years.

The Rav was a towering intellect, brilliant in analysis and a masterful teacher and orator. He was recognized for his profound mastery of Talmud and Jewish classics, delivering a daily Talmud class in Yeshiva University that was attended by his students as well as rabbinical leaders from across New York. In addition, he taught a broader audience in Manhattan’s Moriah Synagogue, as well as on Saturday evenings in Boston, focusing on the Torah portion or upcoming holidays. He combined all the intellectual disciplines in presenting Jewish thought that was conceptual and compelling.

Thousands of people attended the yahrzeit (memorial) lectures on the anniversary of his father’s death, and his sermons on the subject of repentance during the High Holy Days season. His yearly addresses to the convention of the Rabbinical Council of America and Mizrachi shaped the rabbinate, inspiring and uplifting the listeners and in turn influencing, through its leaders, the modern Orthodox world of North America. He served as the chairman of the RCA’s Halacha Commission and was the halachic authority to thousands of its rabbis.

THE RAV’S own published works were few in light of the thousands of public lectures he delivered. He put out the halachic work Shiurim L’zecher Aba Mari, as well as conceptual works The Lonely Man of Faith, Halachic Man and Halachic Mind.

Since his death on 18 Nisan, 1993, dozens of books of his thought and of his halachic works have been published. Boxes of his handwritten manuscripts have been edited and published through the Toras HoRav Foundation, as have dozens of works on Talmud and Halacha from the handwritten notes of students or transcribed tapes of lectures. As such, in the absence of his presence, his influence endures through his words.

The Rav changed the Orthodox world of North America. Thousands of Jews, struggling with the faith of their fathers and the seductive power of the open culture of the founding fathers, found their thoughts and struggles reflected in the Rav. Upon him they could lean, an articulate voice of their desire to be loyal to the richness of traditional Judaism while being citizens of this new world. He was the rebbe to those not seeking a rebbe – the modern rabbinical figure to those for whom following a spiritual leader did not fit into their worldview.

The ascendancy and power of the modern Orthodox world of North America, as well as its many emigrants to Israel, is a direct result of the power and singular persona of Rabbi Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik.

It is to his profound influence that these articles are presented on this, his 20th yahrzeit.

The writer is the director of the RCA, the Rabbinical Council of America in Israel. He served as a rabbi for 23 years prior to his aliya from Toronto.

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