“The Greatest Rosh Yeshiva in the World”
I remember the first time I heard a shiur from the Rav. It was a “Teshuva D’rasha” that he delivered at the American Hotel in 1963. I was completely enraptured and it changed me for life. Though still only in high school, I was determined to become the Rav’s talmid.
Rav Avraham Shapiro, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, told me that when the Rav came to Israel in 1930, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook told him to make sure to hear every one of the shiurim that the Rav delivered because hearing him is like listening to Rav Chaim Brisker. When I visited the Pnovitzer Rav when he was convalescing in New York in 1967, he told me, “There is no one like Rav Soloveitchik. He is the Greatest Rosh Yeshiva in the world.” I quote only these two excerpts, but there was a universal recognition by genuinely great Torah scholars that the Rav was singular and unique. The Kovno Rav, Rav Avroham Shapiro, in his semicha to the Rav summed it up: “The Halacha should always be decided in accordance with his opinion.
… His commitment to teaching Torah was complete and all encompassing. On occasion, he would come into the “shiur” tired and exhausted and in the process of giving the shiur his voice would become strong and he would become animated and vibrant. At the end of the “shiur” he would collapse on his desk. He constantly gave shiurim and even in the summer a group of talmidim would come to learn with him. He suffered from chronic back pain and always wore a brace. During one summer when his back problem flared up, rather than cancel the “shiur” he called the talmidim to his room and gave shiur from his bed. He would often say that he was “just a melamed” but that’s not so bad because even G-d is called a “melamed” as it states in the blessings on the Torah.
And that was really the key - his total commitment to teach Torah transposed and exposition of reason, of exhausting all logical possibilities, into an ecstatic religious experience as if the “shechina” itself bent down to hear what was being said.
To the Rav, Rabbi Akiva, Abaye and Rava, and the Rambam were not ancient figures but viral and alive. The Rav would say that until various Haskala groups celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Rambam’s death, he never thought of the Rambam as anything but a contemporary figure, teacher and friend.
Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld told me that when he was a talmid in the Rav’s shiur he would occasionally drive the Rav to various appointments. Once, he took the Rav to meet a wealthy man on the West Side of Manhattan who he was meeting in order to solicit on behalf of some tzedaka. While he was there, the man asked the Rav a shayla. The Rav asked him to bring him a Rambam. The man did not move. Again the Rav asked, “Bring me a Rambam.” Red faced, the man had to admit that he had no Rambam. The Rav looked at him in absolute astonishment, “Vie lebt a yid on a Rambam?” (How does a Jew live without a Rambam?”)
In the deep recesses of the Rav’s soul was his abiding love for the Rambam. When I would visit him in these last years, though debilitated, he would quote sections of the Rambam by heart. The story is told that Rabbi XXX who was one of the early heads of Yeshiva Rabbi Yaakov Yoseph, visited Rav Moshe Soloveitchik in Chaslavitch, and told him a D’var Torah related to a certain Rambam. Rav Moshe told him that he was mistaken in his quotation of the Rambam. “No,” said Rabbi XXX, he was certain that he was correct and he suggested that he send the young Yoseph Dov, who was barely Bar Mitzva, to fetch a Rambam to confirm the correct reading. Rav Moshe responded that that was not necessary. “My son knows the entire Rambam,” and the Rav proceeded to quote the Rambam by heart.
The Rav was much more than merely the godfather of American orthodoxy with its constituency, but rather his extraordinary intellectual and pedagogic talents preserved the tradition of torah and expanded its realm in America, thereby allowing an ancient tradition to speak to and prosper in a new otherwise secular and inhospitable environment. The Talmud tells us that a Bedouin once told Rabba bar Barchanna that he would take him to the place where heaven and earth embrace in a kiss. It is that existential kiss imbued with the sense of responsibility of transmitting the echo of G-d’s words at Sinai, logic fused with passion, which animated the Rav and his entire life.
The Rav once said that at his father’s Seder the Rambam would sit on one side and the Rashba on the other and the Shagat Aryeh and Rabbi Akiva Eiger were all invited distinguished guests. Now the Rav has joined them in the “Yeshiva Shel Maalah”.
--Excerpted from a longer article
Rabbi Genack is the head of Kashrut for the Orthodox Union and the Editor of Mesorah Publications.