Two luminaries in one giant

A unique thinker who mixed academic, hassidic approaches

THE WORK discusses biblical stories, including Rebecca at the well. (Wikimedia Commons) (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE WORK discusses biblical stories, including Rebecca at the well. (Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
There are two distinct sides to the rare breed that was Rabbi Prof. Yitzhak (Isadore) Twersky. He simultaneously personified being a conqueror of Torah truths to hungry academicians at Harvard University, as well a marketer of Torah ideas to his flock in his Boston Shteibel/Beit Midrash (synagogue/study hall) as the Talner Rebbe. In a word, Rabbi Twersky was essentially two luminaries in one giant.
In recent months, two very different types of books have appeared, both designed to preserve the Torah wealth and wisdom of Rabbi Twersky. One could never have imagined that the author of the first book was also the author of the second book.
The first book, K’Ma’ayan Hamitgaber, (edited by Rabbi Prof. Carmi Horowitz), is an anthology of 31 scholarly articles dealing with medieval intellectual Jewish history (Maimonides in particular), written by the Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature & Philosophy at Boston’s prestigious Harvard University.
The second book, Torah of the Mind, Torah of the Heart (edited by Rabbi David Shapiro), is a reconstruction of the Torah thoughts as presented by the Talner Rebbe at his weekly Seudah Shlishit (third Shabbat meal). These two editors – devout students of Rabbi Twersky – have pointed out that in each respective book, one absorbs and senses the flavor of the “other” Rabbi Twersky as well.
For those academically inclined and possessing serious scholarly knowledge of medieval Jewish history, K’Ma’ayan Hamitgaber is an absolute gem. This 700-plus-page masterpiece has bridged the decades of Rabbi Twersky’s scholarly activities from 1962-1997. The reader is treated to an in-depth analysis of Rabbi Twersky’s biography and literary activities. It becomes apparent that Rabbi Twersky not only integrated his academic presentations with deep messages in morality and spirituality, but he internalized this seeming contradictory duality into his wholesome personal life. Rabbi Twersky’s Talner Rebbe side silently hovered over his Harvard persona.
My personal favorite essays are the sixth chapter (published posthumously) dealing with Maimonides’s unique position throughout Jewish history, and the final chapter, Rabbi Twersky’s towering eulogy (published in 1996) for his father-in-law, the Rav, (HaRav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik). Rabbi Carmi Horowitz deserves much acclaim for his outstanding contribution to the world of intellectual Jewish history in general, and to Rabbi Twersky’s eternal legacy in particular.
Yet, Rabbi Twersky was not content with educating and guiding only the brightest of Harvard’s students. He regarded his spiritual/Torah mission as appropriate for the general audiences as well. As the functioning Talner Rebbe (succeeding his saintly father, Rabbi Meshulam Zusha), Boston’s Talner Beit Midrash provided the appropriate venue to promulgate deep ideas to the masses delivered in regulated and measured doses.
TRADITIONALLY, GREAT hassidic leaders utilized group gatherings connected to the late afternoon Shabbat meal to disseminate their teachings to their flock. Rabbi Twersky, in his Talner Rebbe role, was no different. However, his brief talks on these occasions were markedly and qualitatively different from any other known hassidic rebbe. Not to be forgotten, he was also the Harvard professor speaking! Rabbi David Shapiro did us all a tremendous service by reconstructing these weekly talks in Torah of the Mind, Torah of the Heart – Divrei Torah of the Talner Rebbe.
The Torah taught by Rabbi Twersky emanated from two symbiotic wellsprings of knowledge and experiences. The intellect and the spirit must necessarily go hand-in-hand. This fusion existed in his wife’s family – the Soloveitchiks. In a 1954 letter, Rabbi Twersky’s father-in-law, the Rav, wrote, “A touch of Hassidut is hidden in me.” In 1991, the Rav’s younger brother, Rabbi Aharon, published Logic of the Heart; Logic of the Mind, a book title strikingly similar to that of Rabbi Shapiro’s book on the Talner Rebbe.
Unlike the classical vertlich (sermons) delivered by hassidic masters that were usually brief, relatively superficial and occasionally witty, the Talner Rebbe, while brief due to time constraints, always encapsulated very sophisticated and philosophical points relating to ethics and morality issues, challenges in Jewish law and spiritual values. Subjects touched upon by Rabbi Twersky included the challenges of avoiding routinization in our religious life, the need to develop sensitivity to God’s role in our daily encounters, the centrality of sanctity (kedusha), along with one’s responsibility to generate it in society. He also stressed that commandments are to be performed with awareness, joy and enthusiasm.
Furthermore, the wide range of sources utilized by Rabbi Twersky is absolutely mind-boggling. The entire corpus of rabbinic literature is drawn upon to augment his thoughts. Rabbi Twersky is completely at home with all the hassidic masters, along with the philosophical giants of all the ages. One can sense the Harvard professor hovering over the Talner Rebbe’s tisch (gathering to sing traditional Jewish songs).
A particular Talner Rebbe favorite of mine is found in the Torah portion of Chayei Sarah. In Genesis 24:21, we find Abraham’s servant wondering whether he had been successful in locating an appropriate match for Isaac.
The Torah states, “The man was astonished by her [Rebecca]; he remained silent, to know whether God had granted him success or not.” Eliezer, the servant, was stunned; he remained silent and contemplative.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (founder of the Chabad movement) noted that the cantillation note above the word maharish (“silent”) causes the Torah reader to pause momentarily before continuing to read the next word, lada’at, (“to know”). The idea thereby conveyed is that the way to acquire knowledge of something is to take time and contemplate it silently. Rabbi Twersky then applies this thought to the Ethics of the Fathers (Ch. 3), “The boundaries protecting wisdom are silence.” We are, indeed, indebted to Rabbi Shapiro, who worked laboriously to recreate the talks in a way for the reader to “hear” Rabbi Twersky’s actual delivery. The book, however, remains incomplete, covering only the sections of Genesis and Exodus. We anxiously await the completion of the entire set.
The writer is the rabbi of Ohel Nechama Community Synagogue in Jerusalem.
By Yitzhak (Isadore) Twersky, edited by David Shapiro
Urim Publications
197 Pages; $26.95