Commemorating the 20th Yahrtzeit of the World's Faithful Melamed

By: Atara Arbesfeld  |  April 29, 2013

He was known as the Talmudic scholar, the philosopher, the communal leader, and also the lonely man of faith. On Sunday April 14, thousands commemorated the 20th Yahrtzeit of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, fondly known in Modern Orthodox circles as simply “the Rav.” In a conference sponsored by RIETS/CJF, Yeshiva University students of past and present were able to commemorate and learn about the Rav’s greatness. The conference was also streamed live online for those who could not be there to celebrate the life of a person who lived by a complex dialectic of adhering to tradition in a modern world. Above all, this influential figure in American Orthodoxy during the twentieth century had described himself as a simple melamed, a teacher who was passionate about his craft, his relationships with his students, and especially the Torah that he imparted to the world through his books, lectures, and the education initiatives he organized. In terms of Jewish education, the influence of the Rav was far-reaching: he founded the Maimonides School in Boston, taught the historic first Gemara shiur at Stern College, and spent many years as Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS.

“Many people—including my father himself—would later refer to the Rav as a melamed,” explained Dr. Atarah Twersky, a daughter of the Rav who spoke as one of the panelists during the program’s morning session. “While I would call him this, too, if I had to find one word or phrase to describe him, it would be ba’al emunah – my father was a man of faith and his faith inspired his role as a teacher.”

The Rav’s influence as a melamed had also paved the way in Jewish education for Orthodox women. “Rabbi Soloveitchik really launched the entire notion of teaching Talmud to women and for women to be able to receive a Jewish education on the highest level,” noted Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the David Mitzner Dean of the Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) and once a shamash, assistant, to the Rav, when asked by The Observer to comment on the day’s event. “He did this when he established the Maimonides School and insisted that Stern College and Yeshiva University (through Revel) made the highest level of Torah education available to women. Look at the founders of the early seminaries for women’s education: the vast majority were students of Yeshiva University. The Rav’s public classes were always available to women.” Continued Rabbi Brander, “He could have easily ‘delegated’ the teaching of the first class to any of the Rabbis at YU but went himself – for as he told me he never wanted anyone to think that this was done without his knowledge or approval. He wanted all to know that he was very supportive of women studying Torah at the highest level.”

The panelists alongside Dr. Twersky and Rabbi Brander were Dr. David Shatz, editor of the Torah U’Madda Journal and professor of philosophy at YU, and Rabbi Herschel Schachter, Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS whose well-known close relationship with the Rav dates back several decades. Each of the panelists spoke at great length of the Rav’s erudition in Torah, philosophy, his acts of kindness, and his stately, gentlemanly presence. Rabbi Schachter called the annual yahrtzeit sermons dedicated in memory of the Rav’s father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik, “love songs to the Torah She Baal Peh.” Many of the speakers’ addresses were replete with references to the Rav’s famous philosophical works, including his magnum opus The Lonely Man of Faith.

“In the face of evils,” proclaimed Dr. Shatz, explaining the Rav’s approach to the concept of tikkun olam, “we can draw upon our Divinely endowed creative power to develop…in all areas of human endeavor, in all efforts of Adam the first in The Lonely Man of Faith. We can harness that in the battle of suffering and death of all evil”. Continued Dr. Shatz, “We can be partners in creation and we have no right to tell the world – [the following are the words of the Rav] that famine, disease, war, oppression, materialism, permissiveness, pollution – we have no right to tell the world that these problems are exclusively theirs.”

Students who have encountered the Rav’s books were especially appreciative of these references. “Being in Dr. Raffel’s Readings of the Rav class this semester enhanced my experience at the conference,” said Chaya Kanarfogel, a sophomore at SCW. “Not only did I have a working knowledge of the Rav’s writings that were referenced, but that I was also able to connect between comments made by speakers about the Rav’s personality and his works. It was gratifying and empowering to see that the Rav’s writings reflected not only his philosophy but that it was a system of beliefs that he actually lived by.”

For Sarina Miller, a SCW senior, the conference shed light not only on the Rav’s Torah and philosophy but also on the way he dealt with his deep relationships with his students and colleagues. “I was really touched by the personal stories from his talmidim about their experiences with the Rav and how moved they are by those experiences so many years later,” Miller explained. “I don’t know if students of our generation have the same kinds of relationships with their rabbeim, and I think because of that we’re missing something. I can only imagine what kind of effect it must have had on Rabbi Brander to serve as his shamesh.”

Shortly after the panel, the audience listened to an audio clip of a speech the Rav gave at a pidyon haben ceremony in 1974, titled “The Uniting of Generations,” in which the Rav gave eloquently vivid descriptions of feeling that when he gave shiur, it rejuvenated him from his old age as he connected with his younger students and felt many deceased rabbinic commentators suddenly become palpably alive. “Hearing a recording of the Rav booming through Lamport, I could try to conjure up what it must have been like for him to stand there speaking in person in front of a packed auditorium as he did for so many years,” said Miller. “The way he was able to bring the greats of our mesora[, Jewish tradition,] to life in the classroom is an inspiration to try and bring life into our own Judaism in a real way.”

After the audio recording, Rabbi Mayer Twersky, Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS and a grandson of the Rav, presented the program’s keynote address, “Mesorah & Modernity: The Role of the Rav.” “The force of the Rav’s majestic, charismatic personality, his brilliant shiurim and his projection of the vitality and multidimensionality of halakha, the confidence which he represented and radiated in our mesorah [tradition],” explained Rabbi Twersky,  “all distilled the message of this melamed par excellence into a simple phrase well known to all of us and a message that his and our generation very much needs to hear: ‘Moshe emet v’Torato emet– Moses is true and his Torah is the truth.’ ”

After lunch, two breakout sessions followed during the afternoon segment of the conference. Sessions in the first time slot included three options: the first, a conversation on the Rav’s distinctive derech halimud [approach to learning] led by RIETS Roshei Yeshiva Rabbi Menachem Genack and Rabbi Schachter; the second, a discussion led by Dr. Shatz and Dr. David Berger, Dean at Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and  Ruth and I. Lewis Gordon Professor of Jewish History at the school, on the Rav’s decision on interfaith relations based largely on his essay “Confrontation”; and the third, musings on the significance of the Rav’s teachings in contemporary society given by Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schachter, professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought at YU and senior scholar at the CJF.

In the second time slot, Rabbi Michael Taubes, head of school at Yeshiva University High School for Boys, and Rabbi Shalom Carmy, assistant professor of Jewish philosophy and Bible at YU, talked about the Rav’s ideas on prayer, while Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, rabbi emeritus at Young Israel of Kew Garden Hills, and Rabbi Julius Berman, RIETS Board of Trustees chairman emeritus, gave a detailed discussion on the Rav’s policies on interactions with other denominations within the spectrum of  American Jewry.

In the second session, Rabbi Berman related a story told by Rabbi Walter Wurzberger. During a hospital visit the Rav was making, a doctor came over to him, thanking him profusely. When the Rav was later asked what he had done to make the doctor so grateful, the Rav explained, “This is a Catholic doctor who is so involved with death after death after death with little kids who never had an opportunity to really live – dying and disease and all that.  He was losing his faith. So it was my job to restore that faith. Not as a Jew, but as a religious person.”

Ever the melamed, the Rav was a teacher to all.