“Penetrating Analysis and Endless Creativity” (Vol. 58, Issue 12)
As appreciations of the Rav are written and eulogies uttered, we are reminded of the gravity of our loss for the Rav was the Maspid capturing the essence of his uncle Rav Velvel and his mentor Rav Chaim Heller. The term Gadol Hador truly describes the Rav; not only the greatest of his generation but the biggest and broadest as well. In an era of specialization, he was expert in all areas of Jewish knowledge (even that phrase is inadequate) and the master of each. As students, we glimpsed part, absorbed what we could, and hopefully didn’t confuse it with the whole.
Here are three brief examples which highlight the Rav’s uniqueness.
On behalf of Yavneh, the national religious Jewish student association, I invited the Rav to speak on interfaith dialogue. The Catholic church was actively promoting ecumenism and the non-Orthodox Jewish community responded enthusiastically. A select audience, including professors of philosophy and religion, came to Earl Hall at Columbia University to hear the Rav, many for the first time. For over two hours the Rav mesmerized a skeptical audience, displaying extraordinary erudition (quoting in Greek, Latin and German) and incisive analysis, effectively ending interfaith theological dialogue while protecting the unique nature of a faith community.
Above all the Rav was the great Rosh Yeshiva or, as he preferred, Melamed-teacher. Awed by his precise, penetrating analysis and endless creativity, I didn’t realize the breadth of knowledge that enabled the Rav to be at home anywhere in Shas. One summer in Brookline, I studied Talmud with a Harvard mathematics professor known to be an Ilui (a Talmudic prodigy). Extremely quick, he wouldn’t linger on a problem and moved on to the next topic. I was bothered by all the unanswered questions. Each Shabbat morning, after praying at Maimonides we walked the Rav home and listened as he systematically clarified all unresolved issues without a moment's hesitation.
Dr. Daniel Tropper, founder of Gesher, a movement to foster understanding between religious and secular elements in Israel, was offered a position in the Ministry of Education. The opportunity to dramatically increase his ability to run programs was balanced by the problems created by the loss of independence. He asked me to arrange an appointment with the Rav. As Dr. Tropper described their conversation the Rav seemed to find the risks too great. Sensing Dr. Tropper’s disappointment, the Rav commented that he was an elderly man and therefore cautious but a younger man should seize the opportunity. When Dr. Tropper then asked for direction in facing the problematic areas, the Rav reminded him that he had given him semicha and trusted his judgement. As he was about to leave, the Rav assured him that if really felt the need for advice, he should call and gave Dr. Tropper his private phone number.
Rabbi Blau is the Mashgiach Ruchani of Yeshiva University.