Tuesday, May 09, 2006

JO vs NYT on the Rav

On the Main Line has posted the obituary The Jewish Observer published in 1993 for Joseph B. Soloveitchik. As many have noted, both on Fred's comments and on Hirhurim where Gil picked it up, the JO obituary, written by Nissan Wolpin, is a hatchet job, one that did no justice to the Rav's illustrious career - but that's about what I'd expect from a publication lauded by people who cheerfuly refer to a YU ROsh Yeshiva as "J.B"

What follows is the Solivetchik obituary the NY Times ran on April 10, 1993. I think it's safe to say that the Ari L. Goldman, the irreligious Jew who wrote it, demonstrates more respect for Rabbi Solivetchik's legacy and also a better understanding of the man's career.

[FWIW, this is my favorite anecdote about the Rav, told to me, ironially, but an admiring Haredi. [Note: This is an anecdote. I have no dea if it's true]

After the Rav was deep in the grips of his final illness, his day-to-day care was provided by his daughter. Once the Rav, who by then had lost his memory, was impressed with the level of care he received and said to the daughter he no longer recognized: I don't know who you are, but I can tell your father was a talmid chacham.]


Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, a major Jewish philosopher who shaped Orthodox Judaism in America through his writing and lectures and his ordination of more than 2,000 rabbis, died on Thursday at his home in Brookline, Mass. He was 90.

Sam Hartstein, a spokesman for Yeshiva University, where Rabbi Soloveitchik taught for more than four decades, said the cause was heart failure.

Rabbi Soloveitchik, known popularly as "the Rav," an affectionate Hebrew name for teacher, was widely accepted as the unchallenged leader of mainstream Orthodoxy and was also respected by the more traditionalist wings, who regarded him as a great teacher and decider of Jewish law.

Orthodox rabbis around the world called him with queries about how to apply Jewish law to modern problems. The rabbi's annual discourses, which he delivered on the anniversary of his father's death, attracted thousands of listeners and were regarded as the major annual academic event for American Orthodoxy. Opposed Theological Dialogue

Although much of his work involved reconciling traditional Judaism with the modern world, Rabbi Soloveitchik opposed Jewish-Christian dialogue on a theological level. He argued that such conversations should be restricted to issues of social policy like the needs of the poor and race relations.

For years, Rabbi Soloveitchik addressed his fellow rabbis at the annual meeting of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest of the country's Orthodox rabbinical organizations.

Sometimes sitting with his feet crossed in front of a table bearing an open volume of the Talmud, a few bulky reference works and a glass of milk, he spoke in a relaxed, rather informal manner, waving his hand in the air to make a point and asking frequent questions of his audience.

A genial man with gray hair and a squared-off beard that fell about three inches below his chin, Rabbi Soloveitchik came from a long line of distinguished Talmudic scholars on both sides of his family. His grandfather, Hayyim Soloveitchik, was the rabbi of Brest-Litovsk and brought about a revolution in the methods of Torah scholarship. His father, Moses, was also a great scholar in Europe and later at Yeshiva University in New York. A Cryptic Figure

Despite his accomplishments, Rabbi Soloveitchik was not well known outside Orthodox Jewish circles, and even within them he remained a somewhat cryptic figure. The main reason was his reluctance to publish during his lifetime, a practice that was something of a family tradition, and which admirers attributed to a quest for perfection. In the 1970's, his published bibliography listed fewer than half a dozen major articles.

But for years he gave major lectures, which lasted two to five hours, drew overflow crowds and were described as an American version of the classical rabbinic legal lesson taught by the master of a European academy.

He described himself as a shy person and denied that he was an authority in the usual sense of the word. "I have many pupils," he said, "I have many disciples, but I never impose my views on anyone."

Rabbi Soloveitchik outlined his basic theological position in a lengthy essay, "Halakhic Man," first published in the Hebrew journal Talpiot in 1944. The essay was published in English in 1983 by the Jewish Publication Society. God and Man Together"Xx

As summarized by the Encyclopedia Judaica, the rabbi argued in the essay that man becomes master of himself when he lives in accordance with Jewish law, known as halakha. Then he is no longer a creature of habit, his life becomes sanctified and God and man are drawn into a community of existence that Rabbi Soloveitchik termed "a covenantal community." This community, he argued, brings God and man together into an intimate relationship. It is only through the observance of the halakha that man attains this goal of "nearness to God."

Among the rabbi's other major essays were "The Lonely Man of Faith," first published in the journal Tradition in 1965 and republished as a book by Doubleday in 1992.

In addition, many of his students, some of them frustrated by his reluctance to publish, compiled some of Rabbi Soloveitchik's Talmudic and philosophical lectures, giving full credit for the ideas to "the Rav."

Rabbi Soloveitchik was born in 1903 in Pruzhany, in what is now Belarus, where his father, Moses, served as rabbi. Until his early 20's, he devoted himself almost exclusively to the study of the Talmud, the library of Jewish law, lore and wisdom. At 22, he entered the University of Berlin, where he majored in philosophy and was attracted to the neo-Kantian school.

In 1931, he received his doctorate for a dissertation on epistemology and metaphysics. The same year he married Tonya Lewitt. She died in 1967.

In 1932 the couple immigrated to the United States, where he became the rabbi of the Orthodox Jewish community of Boston and founded the Maimonides School, the first Jewish day school in New England.

In 1941, he came to Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, where he remained the pre-eminent teacher in the Talmud until he became ill in the mid-1980's. He held the title of Leib Merkin professor of Talmud and Jewish philosophy.

In his years at the seminary Rabbi Soloveitchik ordained over 2,000 rabbis, leading Yeshiva to claim that he had conferred the title more often than any other American seminary teacher. Rabbi Soloveitchik ordained an entire generation of Orthodox leadership, including Rabbi Norman Lamm and Rabbi Israel Miller, the president and senior vice president of Yeshiva University, respectively; Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, the chancellor of Bar Ilan University in Israel, and Rabbi Soloveitchik's two sons-in-law, Rabbi Isadore Twersky, a professor at Harvard, and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein of Jerusalem.

He is survived by three children, Atarah Twersky of Brookline, Tova Lichtenstein of Jerusalem and Rabbi Haym Soloveitchik of Riverdale, the Bronx; two sisters, Shulamith Meiselman and Anne Gerber, both of Brookline, a brother, Rabbi Aharon Soloveichik of Chicago, and several grandchildren and great grandchildren.

A funeral is scheduled for 10:30 A.M. Sunday at the Maimonides School in Brookline.

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