Thousands Take Part in Day of Learning and Reflection
On April 14, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Rabbinical Theological Seminary (RIETS) and Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) commemorated the 20th yahrtzeit [anniversary of death] of “the Rav,” Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l, Torah luminary and YU Rosh Yeshiva, with a full-day learning program that took place in the Lamport Auditorium on YU’s Wilf Campus. Thousands attended in-person or followed the event online to gain insight into the Rav’s life and legacy through lectures, discussions and presentations given by his family and closest students.
“I experience a sense of déjà vu standing in this room today, for in this very room we waited with baited breath for the Rav to enter and deliver his famous shiurim on his father’s yahrtzeit each year,” said Rabbi Joel Schreiber, Chairman of the RIETS Board of Trustees, in his opening remarks to the participants. “In this room thousands of men and women had their hearts, minds and souls lifted to unimaginable heights by the Rav.”
The program kicked off with “Multiple Faces of the Rav,” a panel that brought together Rabbi Soloveitchik’s daughter, Dr. Atarah Twersky, and several students of the Rav, including Rabbi Herschel Schachter, RIETS Rosh Yeshiva; Dr. David Shatz, YU professor of philosophy; and Rabbi Kenneth Brander, David Mitzner Dean of the CJF, to examine the many and varied roles played by the Rav during his lifetime.
Speaking about her father’s early career, after he arrived as a young man in Boston with limited English skills, no rabbinic experience and no knowledge of the American Jewish community, Twersky noted, “Many people—including my father himself—would later refer to the Rav as a melamed [teacher]. While I would call him this, too, if I had to find one word or phrase to describe him, it would be baal emunah – my father was a man of faith, and his faith inspired his role as a teacher.”
While Schachter and Shatz explored the depth and reach of the Rav’s philosophy, Brander, who served as his shamesh [assistant], touched on a more uncommon theme: the ideals of chessed [acts of kindness] Rabbi Soloveitchik inherited from his grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk. “When people think of Rav Soloveitchik, they describe his brilliance,” Brander said. “The Rav not only inherited Reb Chaim’s intellect, he had internalized Reb Chaim’s ideals of chessed. He truly felt the pain of others and was happiest when he could solve their dilemmas, pained when he could not, sleepless and steadfast when he had the opportunity to marshal his intellectual arsenal to help another human being.”
Brander added: “There is no Jewish community in the world that has not been touched by the Rav, his students or his writings.”
Rabbi Mayer Twersky, RIETS Rosh Yeshiva and grandson of the Rav, delivered the day’s keynote lecture, “Mesorah & Modernity: The Role of the Rav.” Discussing the interaction of Western ideals and the Rav’s hashkafa, Twersky argued that his self-identification as a teacher of Torah provided Rabbi Soloveitchik with the means to reconcile any conflict arising between the two—without compromising on his religious beliefs.
“Torah is not always in sync with the tempo of the times,” Twersky said. “The force of the Rav’s majestic, charismatic personality, his brilliant shiurim and his projection of the vitality and multidimensionality of halakha, the confidence which he represented and radiated in our mesorah [tradition], all distilled the message of this melamed par excellence into a simple phrase well known to all of us and a message that his and our generation very much needs to hear: ‘Moshe emes v’soraso emes– Moses is true and his Torah is the truth.’ ”
Breakout sessions during the afternoon portion of the programming enabled audience members to join in the conversation. Sessions in the first time slot included a discussion of the Rav’s unique Derech Halimud [approach to learning] led by Schachter and RIETS Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Menachem Genack; exploration of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s thoughts and rulings on interfaith relations led by Shatz and Dr. David Berger, dean and Ruth and I. Lewis Gordon Professor of Jewish History at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies; and the reflections of Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought and senior scholar at the CJF, on the importance of the Rav’s teaching in modern society.
In the second time slot, Rabbi Shalom Carmy, YU assistant professor of Jewish philosophy and Bible, and Rabbi Michael Taubes, head of school at Yeshiva University High School for Boys, delved into the Rav’s philosophy on prayer, while Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, rabbi emeritus at Young Israel of Kew Garden Hills, and Rabbi Julius Berman, RIETS Board of Trustees chairman emeritus, took an in-depth look at the Rav’s policies on relating to and engaging with other denominations in the Jewish community.
“Events like these make me realize how much I would have learned from the Rav himself,” said Leba Winter, a recent graduate of Stern College for Women. “His philosophy really emphasizes the idea of time and Torah having a sense of direction, carrying messages from the past to the way we live our lives today.”