The Rav loved the idea of paradoxes because they convey that reality is not so simple that it can be reduced to one dimension. Since reality is complex, one cannot flatten it into a yes or no binary; one must recognize that there is truth in a multiplicity of perspectives. And in many ways, the Rav was himself a great paradox—his genius and his persona defy conventional categorizations. What follows are some reflections on the paradoxes of the Rav.
While the Rav was an aristocrat both by birth, born into one of the most distinguished families in Judaism, and by his extraordinary talents, he was not an elitist. The Rav was a firm believer in the importance of education for every Jew. Thomas Jefferson wrote that, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” The Rav believed that for American Jewry to survive, the key was a community that is Jewishly educated, attuned to the nuances of the foundational texts of our mesorah; he did not consider this a goal for the elite alone but for every Jew.
The Rav believed in the significance of each individual, and the root of that belief was theological. When we speak about man having been created in the image of God, “betzelem Elokim” – for the Rav, this refers foremost to man’s uniqueness, even more than to man’s intellect. “Just as each individual’s visage is different from another’s, so too their personalities are different” (Yerushalmi, Berachot 9:1). This reflects the divine image of God Himself who is completely unique, alone, and separate. The human personality contains elements that one can never divulge, even to himself, and that mystery enhances a person’s dignity. The Gemara (Shabbos 113b) tells us that Rabbi Yochanan referred to his clothing as “my dignity.” Unlike the Greeks, for whom the human body was beautiful and should be exposed, according to Jewish tradition human dignity requires that the human body – and indeed personality – be concealed. The unique persona of each individual can never be completely understood; it must remain shrouded in mystery.
The Rambam is known for his “negative theology,” namely, that we cannot describe God’s attributes using positive terms but only through what He is not, because God is infinite, totally other, beyond human comprehension. And therefore, when we speak about God’s attributes, when we say that God is merciful, what we mean to say is only that He lacks the negation of mercy, but we cannot claim to understand His infinite mercy. That unknowability, that mystery that we never completely comprehend, is something that, to some extent, each human shares with Him—the individual too cannot be fully known.
Despite the Rav’s extraordinary genius, he always recognized that there are things beyond human comprehension. Some were critical of his leadership style because of his refusal to impose his own view upon others—but this was because he understood that ambiguity is inherent to the nature of man, and that, therefore, tolerance of other views is a necessity. When he gave a shiur, he always posed questions, and not all questions were answered. He would often quote the introduction to the teshuvos of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, one of his great heroes, written by his children, which states that their father did not despair from a question nor did he rejoice over an answer. Often, Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s most important contribution to understanding the sugya is simply pointing out the questions. This exemplified the Rav: Questions are part of life; things are not as simple as they might seem, and we need not have all the answers. Since not knowing all the answers is part of being human, intellectual humility is always required.
Some additional paradoxes, ironies, and counterpoints that the Rav represented: He was born and raised in Eastern Europe, but he nevertheless understood very well the American mindset. The Rav opposed interfaith dialogue because he believed that one’s faith commitments are incommunicable to an outsider, and he was a particularist—after all he was the halakhist par excellence, which requires a unique mindset and methodology. But at the same time, he communicated with a universal audience. The Rav’s daughter, Dr. Atarah Twersky, told me once that after the Rav died she received a condolence letter from the archbishop of Boston, who wrote to her that he had read and been inspired by the Rav’s works, including The Lonely Man of Faith and Halakhic Man. The Rav was firmly rooted in a particularist tradition, but through his particularism he found a universal language.
The Rav was a great orator, but he had a slight stutter; he was a magnificent communicator before crowds, but he was a shy and private person. As a leader of the community, his real belief was in the rights of the individual. The Rav’s expertise extended to current events, including the latest scientific developments. I once set up a meeting with an oncologist who wanted to discuss the situation of Soviet Jewry with the Rav. When he came out of the meeting, the doctor told me that while speaking to the Rav he felt like he was speaking to a colleague—the Rav wanted to know about new treatments, the exact toxicity of drugs, their impact, etc. He was amazed at how up to date the Rav was in cancer treatment.
Yet while the Rav was a very current person, he was also a contemporary with Avraham Avinu, with Moshe Rabbeinu. At his father’s seder, he used to say, he could remember exactly where the Rashba and the Rambam sat; they were constant guests. On the 750th anniversary of the Rambam’s death, when many events were held to commemorate the Rambam, the Rav commented that this was the first he had heard that the Rambam was no longer alive. He wrote that as a young child he would overhear his father discussing a dispute between the Rambam and the Raavad, and as he was going through different phases of the dispute, the Rav would become exhilarated when the Rambam was victorious, and when the Rambam’s position was found difficult, he would become distraught. His mother would comfort him and tell him not to worry; it would work out for the Rambam in the end.
Anyone who attended the Rav’s shiur will always remember their first encounter with the Rav because the impact that he had was so immense. I first heard a shiur from the Rav in 1963, when I was a sophomore in high school. I came to a teshuva derasha, which was one of the great events for New York Jewry in those days—the two occasions on which the Rav spoke publicly were his teshuva derasha and his father’s yahrzeit. I was immediately struck by the Rav’s eloquence, how after he explained the Rambam, it all seemed so simple. He made such an impression on me that I decided right then that I wanted to be his talmid.
The Rav sought to communicate not only the intellectual methodology of Torah but also how the Torah should form a religious persona. The Rav would often say that when he would
learn, he could almost feel the presence of the Shechinah above him, as if God were looking over the Gemara together with him and saying, “What do you say, Reb Yoshe Ber, about this dilemma?” In his year of triple aveilus, when his mother, his brother, and his wife passed away within a short period, he said that had it not been for that relationship that he had with the Torah, he would have been crushed. “Unless Thy law had been my delight, I should then have perished in mine affliction.” For the Rav, Torah study was an ecstatic experience because it was a form of avodah. Like prayer, it transports one to God’s presence. The Sifrei includes not only prayer but also Torah study as part of the mitzvah of avodah shebalev – worship of the heart. Through the Torah, finite man can glimpse the infinite mind of God. And the Rav bemoaned the fact that he had been successful in communicating the intellectual aspect of Torah to his talmidim, but less successful in communicating the religious feeling, the awareness of the Shechinah’s presence, to the next generation.
Yet while our Judaism lacks the depth and richness of the faith of Pruzhany and Chaslavitch and Brisk and Warsaw and Vilna, the fact that there is Orthodox Judaism at all in Boston and New York and Chicago and Miami and Los Angeles is, in large part, due to the Rav. When I was young, Look magazine featured the obituary of the Orthodox Jew as a cover article. The endurance of Orthodox Jewry in America was highly uncertain. While the world of European Jewry that was destroyed could not be recreated in America, the Rav was uniquely qualified to construct a model of Orthodoxy that is relevant to a modern, professional, sophisticated American Jew.
A cornerstone for the Rav was that the Jew must live a heroic existence. There are two berachos that we recite in the morning which seem to be identical: Ozer Yisrael bigeveruah, “Who girds Israel with strength,” and Hanosein la’yaeif ko’ach, “Who gives strength to the weary.” What is the difference between the two? The answer, the Rav said, is that ko’ach means physical strength, while gevurah refers to heroism or courage. These are not the same; in fact, there is often an inverse relationship between the two. Throughout almost all our existence as Jews, we were bereft of power, prestige, and influence. But a heroic existence does not require power but denial; it need not wield political influence but rather it must manifest the courage to withdraw; it does not consist of conquest but of standing firm in maintaining our traditions and beliefs. The Rav demonstrated that Judaism could remain engaged with the world and yet hold fast when confronting an onslaught of ideologies antithetical to the Jewish worldview.
A final paradox which encapsulates the Rav: The most important day for the Rav was Yom Kippur, a day of repentance, introspection, and even terror, but paradoxically also a day of great joy. How can Yom Kippur be a day of both joy and terror? The Rav pointed out that whenever the Torah refers to simcha, it invariably states that the joy takes place “Lifnei Hashem” – in God’s presence.
Genuine joy flows from basking in His warm embrace. Thus, on Yom Kippur, when we stand in judgement before God, terror is accompanied by true simcha. In many ways, the Rav personified the sanctity and singularity of that day. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein once told me: If you ever wanted a favor from the Rav, the time to request it was after Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur because the Rav was then in such an extraordinary mood.
Before each Yom Kippur, the Rav would teach the seder ha’avodah – the Yom Kippur Temple service. He said that he had studied it so many times that had he lived in the times of the Beis Hamikdash he would have been able to substitute for the Kohen Gadol. For us, the Rav was like the Kohen Gadol. The Torah describes the Kohen Gadol as “the greatest among his brethren,” an apt description of the Rav. Just as the Kohen Gadol entered the Holy of Holies alone, the Rav was alone in the inner sanctuary of his unparalleled genius and religious passion. The appearance of the Kohen Gadol is referred to (in the piyyut Mareh Kohen) with the same terms as the prophet Ezekiel describes the splendor of the Shechinah – “As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain,” etc. The Kohen Gadol was able to reflect the image of the Shechinah; this too was the Rav. Ashrei ayin raasa eleh.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, outstanding rabbinic leader of the last century, served as an inspiring teacher for generations of students, as well as a venerated mentor for generations of leaders in the Jewish world. Reverently known as the “Rav,” with dazzling brilliance and profound wisdom, he revealed new layers of clarity and understanding in every realm of Jewish learning and experience which he addressed, ranging from halacha, Talmud, Tanach, Midrash and Jewish philosophy to interpersonal and family relations and communal concerns.
Scion of an illustrious European rabbinic family, the Rav came from a tradition infused with Torah scholarship, piety, intellectual depth, and dedication to mesorah, conveying the message of Torah from one generation to the next. The Rav embodied this tradition with nobility, and with his extraordinary talents was able to relate those traditions to the American scene in a unique manner.
In this excerpt from The Seder Night: An Exalted Evening, The Rav captures the essence of the Haggadah and the Seder:
“Vehiggadta l’vincha, and you shall tell your child,” is haggadat edut, a formal act of testimony by an eyewitness who testifies before beit din about an event he personally witnessed. Hence, we use the term Haggadah.
The halacha requires that in each generation a person is obligated to view himself as if he himself left Egypt. It is the overpowering experience of the Exodus that compels one to act in a way that testifies to his great fortune and joy, and to demonstrate, without restraint, his happiness and enthusiasm. He becomes a witness to the Exodus; the events that did not occur to another, but to himself. The entire Haggadah becomes eyewitness testimony.