By: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik  | 

From the Archives (May 5, 1976; Volume 41 Issue 12) — Rav Delivers Belkin’s Eulogy, Analyzes the True Individual

The following are excerpts of the eulogy delivered by Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik at Dr. Belkin’s funeral, April 20, 1976 in Lamport Auditorium. The excerpts were selected from a WYUR recording of the Rav’s remarks at the discretion of the Editors. All errors in transcription and selection are those of the Editors. A full transcript will soon be available from the Alumni Office. 

There are two books, the open book and the Sefer Hachasum. The two books are concerned with two different questions, the Sefer Hagalul, the public book, the open book asks a very simple question. What did this particular individual do? What did he accomplish for society? What are his accomplishments? The private book, the Sefer Hachasum, asks a very different question. It doesn’t ask what did man do for society; it asks, who was he; not his accomplishments, but who was the individual himself? 

The private book of Dr. Belkin remained a Sefer Hachasum, a sealed mysterious book. The first question of the private book is, “Who was he?”, not what did he accomplish; who was he? I don’t know … I would like to use a certain verse from Sefer D’varim, Deuteronomy, in order to portray Dr. Belkin. It is a verse consisting of five words, but I believe those five words tell the story of Dr. Belkin. 

We just read those four, … five words in the haggada; “Arami ovaid avi vayered mitzraima.” I will interpret it in accordance with the ibn Ezra. A straying, wandering restless Aramean was my father and he went down to Egypt. Let me paraphrase this pasuk. A restless Lithuanian yeshiva talmid, student, who was my friend, Dr. Belkin. He also dreamt. He also became a visionary. Whenever I entered his room unannounced (I didn’t do it frequently) I used to find him dreaming. I simply saw the dream in his eyes. His gaze used to be fixed on something far: it was something unknown, to me at least. 

Now the question is, what did he dream about? He was an arami ovaid, a restless Lithuanian. What did he dream about? He dreamt of a generation of young American Jews who combined the good components of both an excellent secular and Torah education. Let me tell you, Dr. Belkin’s standards of lamdus, of halachic scholarship were very high. I repeat, he dreamt of a generation of young American Jews who would combine both an excellent Torah education with the capability of participating in the scientifically oriented and technologically minded complex American economy. 

However, Dr. Belkin, the restless spirit, the arami ovaid, the restless nomad, had another dream. And this second dream was bolder, more daring than the first dream. This was his original dream. No one shared his opinion, not even people who were very close to him … He wanted to show the Jewish, as well as the non-Jewish community that the Orthodox Jew is as capable of establishing scientific, educational institutions as the non-Jew or the secular Jew is. 

He told me once, when he presented the plan of a medical school under the auspices of the Yeshiva, to an internationally known Jewish abdominal surgeon, that the latter became so indignant that he said the whole project is not only impractical, but arrogant as well. And perhaps he was right, the surgeon. It was arrogant. Well let me tell you, the restless Yeshiva student of Lithuania was indeed …  tough, tough and arrogant. However, his arrogance was translated into reality. And isn’t a Jew an arrogant person, defying for thousands of years the whole world? And isn’t little Israel an arrogant nation, defying the united nations of the world? 

… Who was he? Answer number one: He was a restless, arrogant, impudent student from Lithuania. He dreamt of moons and suns, of heaven and earth. 

Let me give you the second answer. The arrogant dreamer, the restless Yeshiva bochur, the arami ovaid, was a great teacher, a rosh yeshiva … I spent my life in teaching, I know teachers. He was a magnificent teacher. He was, perhaps, the teacher par excellence … His disciples were the best trained boys in the yeshiva… 

He always moved in a straight line. He knew neither of angles nor of curves nor of corners. His thinking was two-dimensional. His code, so to say, his coat of arms. His lamdus, the symbol od his lamdus was the geometric plane. He did not engage in so-called analysis of depth. He had no trust in the thin abstractions of three dimensional thinking. But whatever he said, it was logical, it was plain, it was understandable… 

He is responsible for the fact, only he, that Yeshivas Rav Yitzchak Elchanan, now, as of today, is a great center of Torah, and that as far as the attainment of lamdus, good, real genuine scholarship is concerned it is the best place in the United States. You don’t have to believe me, just take a look at the young roshei yeshivas who sit right over there to my right. They were trained right here. They are the finest roshei yeshivas any institution, here or in Israel, any institution, now, at present or a hundred years ago… 

Answer number two to the question who was he. He was a restless dreamer, who was an excellent teacher and who was in love with Torah. He had a romance with Torah. 

Dr. Belkin was a charming person. He radiated, I’ll use the Biblical expression for it, Chaine. Chaine is charm. The restless teacher, the lover of Torah, like Joseph of old, again, attracted people. He was, indeed, charming. He enchanted them with his magnetic personality even those who disagreed with him, and quite often I disagreed with him, quite often. Even those who disagreed with him succumbed to his powerful charm. 

The charisma Dr. Belkin possessed was precipitated by two basic virtues. Virtue number one, let me use the Biblical expression for it, he was a baal chesed, he was a man of lovingkindess. He was a kind person. And let me say his kindness was not due to character weakness. Sometimes people are kind because the are weak, or character softness. Sometimes people are kind because they are soft. Dr. Belkin was not a weak person. He was tough, I said before, and firm. He was a man who exercised power and he liked power. He practiced what the Talmud calls gemilus chasadim bimamono ubigufo. Kindness as far as money is concerned and kindness as far as physical efforts are concerned. If there was a person who was not appreciated by his own friends, this was Dr. Belkin. He was the most unappreciated restless dreamer, an excellent teacher and kind person. The most unappreciated in the world… 

… I’ll tell you something. He was, and this will come as a surprise to many of you in the hall, he was a saintly person. He possessed saintliness. I don’t say holiness, I say saintliness. Kindness alone does not generate or precipitate charismatic chaine, unless it is tightly knit with saintliness. And Dr. belkin was a saintly person. And I understand if you ask me in what manner, in what respect, did he manifest saintliness, I’ll tell you. He felt it in four respects. 

First, he was a soneh betza, he hated gain. You know the Biblical expression soneh betza, to hate gain, to hate profit, to hate money. The saintly person is a soneh betza. And, Dr. Belkin while he knew the importance of money as far as the institution was concerned, he had no concept of, he had no desire for money as far as he himself was concerned … He died a poor man. He died a poor man because he was a saintly man. He was a saintly man because he was a great man, and he died a great man. He simply was a soneh betza who raised so much money, who was a wizard, a wizard as a fund solicitor… 

Dr. Belkin was a saintly person for a different reason. Dr. Belkin lived a simple life. It’s very hard to find people nowadays who are satisfied with a simple life, plain simple life. Dr. Belkin lived a simple life because he was a simple man. A great man, but a simple man… There was a streak of asceticism in him, a streak of prisha min hachayim. He lived not to enjoy life, because he hardly enjoyed it, but to create, to serve and to sacrifice and to die on the altar of Torah. He had saintliness. He could live a life stripped of all manner of frills and petty, petty enjoyments. He hated the formalities. I know that some people misinterpreted, misunderstood it. He hated the formalities and the protocol and the public etiquette even though from time to time he had to go through it. But he never enjoyed it… 

Dr. Belkin was a saintly man for a third reason. He had, what shall I say? I’ll use the Hebrew term, a lashon nikiah, a dignified speech. Judaism has always emphasized the significance of the word. The latter, if uttered with dignity and sanctity may create a world. The latter, the word uttered with vulgarity, may destroy a world. Dr. Belkin’s speech wass clean and dignified. I’ve never heard him malign anybody, ANYBODY, or make some derogatory remarks about people. Enemies, who indeed wanted to destroy him, physically and spiritually, he never said a bad word about them. 

He was also a saintly person in his relationship to Yisroel. Dr. Belkin knew how to accept suffering; he suffered with dignity. Dr. Belkin knew, as I said, to suffer, how to meet crisis and how to confront disaster. He never complained. He never asked any questions. He never engaged in self-righteous monologues. Vayidom Aharon, and Aaron said nothing. A great man, a saintly man says nothing. He was silent, Dr. Belkin. A saintly man must possess the heroic quality of being mute at a time when one is ready to talk… 

… We prayed for miracles. Apparently we were unworthy of a miracle, it happened. We ask just, we bid you farewell. Lech Lishalom, visanuach bikaitz hayamim kechol chai. We promise thee that Yeshiva will be guarded by us and it will continue to be a great center of Torah. Your name will never be forgotten.