20 10 2013

It is the evening of the third of Shevat, the yahrtseit of the Rav’s father, Rav Moshe, zt”l, and we are in Lamport Auditorium at Yeshiva University awaiting the arrival of the Rav to deliver his annual Yahrtseit Shiur. Some of us have been sitting for a few hours, having come early to obtain seats as close as possible to the Rav. The auditorium is now packed and overflowing. Suddenly, as if an electric current has run through the room, the entire audience, as one, rises: the Rav has arrived!

Sitting in front, we do not immediately see the Rav, for he enters from the rear, and must traverse the entire length of the auditorium to reach us. Everyone is standing, blocking our view; yet the feeling of his presence pervades the room. Finally, the Rav emerges from the crowd, walking briskly, manuscript in hand, steps onto the stage and sits down behind an empty table to begin the shiur.

Then the journey starts. The Rav, usually focusing on one or more halakhot of the Rambam, ticks off one question after another that reflect obvious difficulties in the halakha – at least they are obvious after the Rav sets them out in his clear, lucid and inimitable manner of exposition. Then, after developing each of his questions – superlative pedagogue that he is – he reviews in summary form all of them, to assure that we understand what the problems are that will now be clarified.

That phase of the shiur concluded, the Rav goes on to develop a concept – the hiddush of the shiur – traversing a plethora of passages in the Talmud, commentaries (mostly Rishonim), Midrashim, and others. We watch, listen, and many of us avidly write notes, trying to keep up with the Rav’s rapid-fire delivery as he lays out the hiddush, brick by brick by brick, reconciling all the varied and seemingly contradictory texts.

Now that the foundation has been set and the text reconciliation completed, the Rav returns to the original series of questions. Each is repeated, and then almost summarily disposed of through application of the hiddush, one after the other, after the other. It is more than two hours later and the circuit has been completed; the first portion of the shiur is concluded.

– excerpted from “Dedication”, by Julius Berman. Pages vii-ix of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik: Man of Halakha, Man of Faith (ed. Menachem D. Genack; Ktav Publishing House, 1998).




5 responses

20 10 2013

I can see why such an intellect, able to find intricate connections and make a skilled, shaped presentation of them, would be attractive, revered, and electric to people. Something I’ve been wondering though about is the role of personality in Judaism. People get put on super high pedestals, especially in chassidus where tzaddikim are considered not only great role models, but personally a help in letting simple people connect with Hashem. I’m trying to find out how this fits with the idea of not letting anything in creation become the end of your attention in itself, but that the most holy things are the humbled, see-through ones. The holy places, times, things, ideas, people, and experiences are the ones that point the most clearly to the creation and the goodness, truth, and ‘generosity’ upholding reality. So a person could be respected for doing that in a great way, and then he or she could thus become an object of focus, an *irreplaceable* intermediary? There’s a tension there, I guess. And perhaps that’s the context in which some people’s legal ability is not only appreciated as part of a group effort, but revered in itself. I would love to understand better the understanding of the students about these things.

21 10 2013
Simon Holloway

Hi Annelise. I should think that the phenomenon that you describe is one common to all societies, and certainly to all denominations of Judaism. Without a doubt, the way that hasidim relate to their rebbeim is different to the manner in which, for example, the Rav’s followers relate to his memory, but that a man who did not “follow” anybody might acquire followers of his own is no longer surprising.

That said, I’m not sure what you mean when you speak of somebody being respected for finding holiness in the mundane? Myself, I probably couldn’t care less about how religious somebody is. To me, what makes people like Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik great is his astonishing intellect: his remarkable grasp of a wide spectrum of Torah, and the incredible sharpness of his analytical mind. I would hold him in no less esteem were he a chemist and I interested in that discipline instead.

23 10 2013

I guess I was just reflecting that in a religious context, the respect given to a great mind (as you described) could become a distraaction from the whole reason why they are (to be) articulating the concepts to begin with.

23 10 2013

That is to say, everyone can appreciate such a thing however they want for their own purposes and interests. But since the interest being promoted is one of serving Hashem (i.e. Torah).

23 10 2013

(And likewise the loose connection drawn with the making of a tzaddik into an object of focus.)

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