"… if the State of Israel will become a secular kingdom without Torah, without sanctity, without the Sabbath, without Jewish education, without family purity, a State in which Jewish uniqueness will be erased, then the price we are paying for her in blood and tears is too heavy." Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (The Rav Speaks, pp. 138-9).

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

My Soloveitchik Tour

More than a decade ago, shortly after I had taken my first serious look at the religious thought of Rabbi Soloveitchik and found my entire understanding of life being revamped for the good, I went with my wife and son to Brookline, Massachusetts for a "Soloveitchik tour." We visited the Talner shul and strolled through the hallowed halls of the Maimonides School where I was stunned by the sight of his shtender. "JBS" it said on the embroidery in understated fashion. "That's where he stood, where he davened?" I whispered to an empty room, to the walls. It was a question. I couldn't believe it. Up to that point, the Rav had not been a real person to me. And that was a problem because his outlook is not dominant in the Orthodox Jewish world. It isn't even dominant at Yeshiva University. He even has detractors that actively push him to the side and try to discredit him. As in general we as a people "incline towards a majority" (Exodus 23:2), I needed the Rav to feel real to me so that I could pursue his perspective and counter the prevailing winds with confidence.

I was aware of and a little embarrassed by the irony of my trip. Here I was looking for concrete relics of a philosopher. Was this one of the dichotomies of life of which he often spoke? I wondered if the Rav would have understood. After reading his talks on the importance of making Judaism a living experience I concluded that he would have.

The trip ended with a visit to the cemetery on Baker St. in West Roxbury. Since I am a Cohen, my wife generously offered to hunt around the sizable cemetery to find the graves of the Rav and Rebbetzin. B'chesdas Hashem, they sit near the road from where I could see them. My wife and I both walked away in tears. I still draw inspiration from the memory of that afternoon.

Many people had the privilege of knowing the Rav in real life. Some are family, some are students. They could ask him the questions that troubled their minds. They could enjoy a Yom Tov with him. They could watch him daven on Yom Kippur. Can you imagine such a sight? Every year I try. They could hear a shiur from his very own lips. They could watch him formulate thoughts, propose arguments, and rejoice in the rendering of chidush in real time!

I will never have that privilege. I can never ask him a shilah. I rely on his students to conjecture what he might have said about this or that. Many times the this or that have been pressing concerns, major questions of faith, life decisions. I often suspect that those on whom I rely fail to get it quite right. I never had the pleasure of hearing the Rav utter my name. Does he know my name now that he sits in the Olam ha-Emes? I wonder about this sometimes. And I do what I can to make him real to me. For those who knew him, this may seem shallow. But that's easy for them to say. They had the privilege of knowing him.

Am I trying to turn him into a Chassidic Rebbe? Not really. The only thing that makes me a Chassid is my following of his rule that I should think for myself. This includes the right to criticize him, privately, in some of his public policy decisions. I carved out my own derech and the Rav helped me to get there. But first I had to make him real.

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