What I Couldn’t Learn Anywhere Else (Vol. 58, Issue 12)
Bereft of the Rav’s influence, I would almost certainly have turned my back forever on organized religion. I became a baal teshuva, to a significant degree, through study with the Rav's talmid muvhak, my revered teacher R. Aharon Lichtenstein, and by hearing the Rav’s public shiurim and reading his work.
What did I learn from the Rav that I could not learn anywhere else? Conventional religion tends to edit reality, to soft-pedal existential conflict, to make the ugly aspects of reality disappear behind a rosy glow. More than any other Jewish thinker, the Rav’s memorable and sometimes brutal honesty taught us what both conventional piety and fashionable liberalism seemed intent to conceal: that religion is no escape from conflict, but the ultimate encounter with reality. Facing reality, for the Rav, meant striving to penetrate the meaning of Torah and the challenges of human existence, not distracting oneself from these tasks by cultivating doubts about the reality. The Rav radiated a quiet, unyielding, persistent confidence in the truth of Torah. He emancipated us from the burden and the temptation of becoming intellectual Marranos, anxious to curry favor with the regnant academic, cultural and social powers that be.
He once translated the Talmudic query Tsippita li-Yeshua as “Did you suffer with dignity?” Beginning in 1976, I had the privilege of spending many hours in the Rav’s apartment, where I saw other things I could not have learnt without shimmush. I recall, for instance, helping him light the Hanukkah menorah, two of us holding him upright because standing unaided and extending his arm were no longer possible simultaneously. He enunciated each word, the berakhot and ha-nerot hallalu, distinctly and attentively. How wonderful it was — that concentrated eye-on-mitzva look! This was reality, not mere frumkeit; this was the kind of reality that can be described only in the words of Tehillim 119 that we recited last week at the Levaya. The Rav faced the ravages of illness and insult with dignity.
Another face of the Rav’s quest is not much in evidence in Halakhic Man, with its exaltation of intellectual assurance; nor does it play a major role in the “existential” Rav, where the mi-maamakim themes take the foreground. On almost every occasion that I was privileged to consult the Rav on matters that touched upon life, whenever his attention settled on the real-life ramifications of his guidance, he invariably reminded me to act and to speak “with dignity and humility, as befits a ben Torah.” Such advice appears obvious to the point of triviality, but what immense reserves of self-knowledge and commitment are required to take it seriously!
Rabbi Carmy is a professor of Philosophy and Bible and is currently teaching a course entitled "Philosophy of the Rav"