By: Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm  | 

From the Archives (April 28, 1993; Volume 58 Issue 12) — “Only the Rav Could be Maspid the Rav”

This selection is an excerpt from Rabbi Lamm’s hesped delivered at Sunday’s azkara.

“Sar V’Gadol nafal hayom b’yisroel — sar hatorah v’gadol Yisrael” 

Surely, such a prince and such a giant, who became a legend in his own lifetime, deserves an appropriate eulogy. 

I therefore begin with a confession. I feel uncomfortable and totally inadequate in the role of a maspid for my rebbe, the Rav. Only one person could possibly have done justice to this task, and that is — the Rav himself; everyone and anyone else remains a maspid shelo kihalacha … Nevertheless, we owe it to him to try our best. And so I ask your — and his — forgiveness at the very outset. 

His genius was recognized while he was still in the crib. At age six, his father had hired a melamed to come to the house to teach him … At the age of 10, he presented his father with his written chidushei torah. His father was so impressed that he showed them to his father, Rav Chaim Brisker, who was so impressed that he sent it to his dayan, Rav Simcha Zelig. And, of course, he prophesied greatness for his precocious grandson. 

The Rav’s development continued unimpeded and fulfilled and exceeded the hopes of father and grandfather… 

His most characteristic form of analysis in his philosophic essays and oral discourses was the setting up of topological conflicts, of theoretical antithesis: Adam I and Adam II; Ish ha-Halakha and Ish ha-Elohim; the covenant of fate and the covenant of destiny; majesty and humility… And ultimately, conflict and dissonance make for alienation and loneliness. 

He saw not wholeness but conflict, chaos, and confrontation in the very warp and woof of life. Man was constantly beset by a torn soul and a shattered spirit, by painful paradoxes, bedeviled by dualities and each day was forced to make choices, often fateful ones, in the confrontation of savage contraries, of the jarring clash of claims and counter-claims in both conception and conduct. 

Permit me to relate a story that I have told elsewhere as well. It was my second year in his shiur, and I was intimidated and in awe of him as was every other talmid — that is, almost everyone else. There was one student, the youngest and one of the brightest who was clearly the least frightened or awed. The Rav had been developing one line of thought for two or three weeks, when this talmid casually said, “but Rebbe, the Chidushei HaRan says such and such which contradicts your whole svara.” The Rav was stunned, held his head in his hands for three agonizingly long minutes while all of us were silent, then pulled a sheaf of papers from his breast pocket, crossed out page after page, said that we should forget everything that he had said, and announced that the shiur was over and that he would see us the next day.

I learned two things from this remarkable episode. First, we were overwhelmed by his astounding intellectual honesty. With his mind, he could easily have wormed out of the situation, manipulated a text here and a thought there, maybe insulted the chutzpidik talmid, and rescued his theory and ego. But the Rav did nothing of the sort! He taught by example the overarching goal of all talmud Torah as the search for Truth. Bakashat ha-Emet was of the essence of his activity in Torah, and we witnessed it in action. He encouraged independent thinking by his pupils as a way to ensure his own search for the truth of Torah. The Rav was authoritative but not authoritarian. No mussar shmuess could have so successfully inculcated in us respect for the truth at all costs. 

The second lesson came with the anti-climax to the story. The very next day, it was a Wednesday, the Rav walked into class with a broad, happy grin on his face, held out his copy of the Chidushei HaRan, and said to the talmid, “Here — now read it correctly!” The Rav had been right all along. 

What we learned was a secret of his greatness and success as a teacher, namely, his attention to preparation. I always thought that there was a vast difference between his formal drashot and his shiurim in class. The former were finished, polished, conceptually and erratically complete products, a joy to behold, each of them a marvel of architectonics. The shiurim he gave in class were of an altogether different genre. They were dynamic and stormy, as formulated ideas, experimenting with a variety of sevarot, testing, advocating and discarding, proving and disproving, as he brought us into his circle of creativity and forced us to think as he thinks, and thus learning his methodology in practice. A shiur by the Rav was always a no-holds-barred contest, a halakhic free-for-all, and open-ended process instead of a predetermined lecture. 

Well, this incident proved otherwise. The Rav actually pulled out of his breast pocket his hand-written notes for this shiur! We were confounded: It was all prepared in advance! Yet his greatness was that, on the one hand, he prepared assiduously for every shiur, leaving as little as possible to chance. On the other hand, despite this careful preparation, the shiur indeed was open-ended because he listened carefully to any serious challenge by even the youngest of his students and was ready to concede and error. And all through this, so successful was he in engaging us in the act of creation, that we never realized that he had thought it all out ahead of time! Attending his class, I always felt, was like being present at the moment of creation, like witnessing the act of ma’aseh bereishit in all its raw and primordial drama, as conceptual galaxies emerged from the chaos of kushiyot, as mountains collided and separated … as finally, a clear and pellucid light shone upon us, bringing forth new and exciting words. He combined preparation and openness, determination and freedom, the fixed and the fluid. What a master pedagogue! 

Above all, the Rav was a man of independence. He was a true heir of his great-great-grandfather, R. Hayyim Volozhiner, who held that in talmud Torah one must go after the truth no matter who stands in your way; respect no person and accept no authority but your own healthy reason. So, the Rav was his own man, and often went against the grain of accepted truths and conventional opinion. Once, after a particular original shiur, a stranger who was not used to such unusual independent creativity, asked him, “But Rabbi Soloveitchik, what is your source?” He answered, “a clear and logical mind…” 

He was an independent thinker not only in his Halakha and his philosophy but also in his communal leadership. He had great respect for some of his peers — eminent Rabbanim and Roshei Yeshivot of the generation — but he did not allow that respect to intimidate him … He was not afraid to be in the minority, and refused to be cowed by pressure of the majority. He was horrified by extremism and overzealousness as well as superficiality and phoniness in communal policy-making almost as much as he contemptuously dismissed them in “learning.” And if he sometimes seemed to waver in setting policy or rendering a decision in communal matters, it was because he saw all sides of an argument and was loathe to offend or hurt even ideological opponents. 

Thus, for instance, almost alone contemporary gedolei torah, he viewed the emergence of the State of Israel as a divine chesed; he saw its appearance as opening a new chapter in Jewish history, one in which we enter the world stage once again. He was not afraid — despite the opinions of the majority of Roshei Yeshiva and his own distinguished family members — to identify with the goals and aspirations of religious Zionism.

Perhaps the most significant area where he diverged from other gedolim and followed an independent way was with regard to limudei chol, to Torah U’Madda. The Rav was an intellectual colossus astride the various continents of human intellectual achievement and all forms of Jewish thought. Culturally and psychologically, as well as intellectually, this made him a loner amongst the halakhic authorities of this century. How many gedolim in the world, after all, have read Greek philosophy in Greek and the Vatican’s document on the Jews in Latin? A Ph.D. from the University of Berlin in mathematics and especially philosophy, he took these disciplined seriously, not as an inconsequential academic flirtation or a superficial cultural ornamentation, or as a way of impressing benighted and naive American Jewish students who did not know better. There is no doubt where his priorities lay — obviously, in Torah — but he did not regard Madda as a BeDi’eved or a de facto compromise. The Rav believed that the great thinkers of mankind had truths to teach to all of us, truths which were not necessarily invalid or unimportant because they derived from non-sacred sources. Moreover, the language of philosophy was for him the way that the ideas and ideals of Torah can best be communicated to cultured people, it is Torah expressed universally; and he held as well that his philosophic studies helped him enormously in the formulation of halakhic ideas. 

The Rav had no use for the currently popular transcendent parochialism that considers whole areas of human knowledge and creativity as outside the pale. We must guard, therefore, against any revisionism, any attempts to misinterpret the Rav’s work in both worlds — akin to the distortion that has been perpetrated on ideas of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch. The Rav was not a lamdan who happened to have and use a smattering of general culture and he was certainly not a philosopher who happened to be a talmid chacham. He was who he was, and he was not a simple man. We must accept him on his terms, as a highly complicated, profound, and broad-minded personality, and we must be thankful for him. Certain burgeoning revisionism may well attempt to disguise and distort the Rav’s uniqueness by trivializing one or the other aspect of his rich personality and work, but they must be confronted at once… 

But the most important to us — his students and their students and thousands who came under his or his students’ influence — is what he meant to us as our Rebbe. 

Despite the austere majesty and the irrepressible dynamism of his shiurim, and despite the fear of coming to a class of the Rav unprepared, we intuitively knew that we had a friend — a father, an older brother — in him. We invited him to our weddings, and later to our children’s weddings and he came. We consulted him on our personal as well as rabbinic problems and he listened and advised. We presented our sh’eilot and he taught us “et ha-derech asher yelchu bam.”

He exerted a powerful emotional pull on his students. I know so many, each of whom secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) knows that he was the Rav’s favorite disciple! Who knows? — perhaps all were, and then again, perhaps none was. He so profoundly affected the lives of so many of us — in the thousands — and yet remains somewhat remote, because hardly a one fully encompasses all of his diverse areas of expertise, let alone the acuity of his intellect. Those who were his talmidim in halakha generally were not fully informed or sensitive to his machshava, and those who considered themselves his disciples in philosophy hardly appreciated his geonut in halakha. So, he had many students, and no students … But cannot the same be said of the Rambam — some of whose students followed his halakha, and some his philosophy, and very few, if any at all, both?