Scholars Ask, What Would the Rav Do?

By Alana Newhouse

Published January 03, 2003, issue of January 03, 2003.
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To mark the 100th birthday and 10th yarzheit of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, various institutions are mounting a number of events in the coming year to celebrate the memory and achievements of the 20th-century Jewish thinker and leader of Modern Orthodoxy. Indeed, the commemorations have already started. Two recent conferences regaled participants with tales, teachings and tchotchkes from Soloveitchik’s life.

At the Orthodox Union’s 2002 convention in New York last weekend, delegates received photocopies of “the Rav’s” application for American citizenship, the first page of his doctoral dissertation and a letter accepting an offer to contribute an article to a scholarly journal — “I cannot accept any limitation for my essay as to the amount of words… I will write as much as the full covering of the topic will require,” Soloveitchik wrote.

At the mid-December conference of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, which was co-sponsored by the Brookline, Mass.-based Joseph B. Soloveitchik Institute, participants attended workshops on Soloveitchik’s teachings on Jewish education, prayer and public policy.

At both conferences, speakers recounted Soloveitchik’s intellectual biography, such as how he moved away from the anti-Zionist views of his family to become a staunch supporter of the State of Israel, and addressed his advocacy of secular studies and complex views of prayer. Former students recalled his shiurs, or lessons, as both intellectually rigorous and great fun.

Beyond the memorabilia and memories, however, the conferences showed how the Modern Orthodox community is still searching for a leader who approaches Soloveitchik’s stature and influence. Soloveitchik was respected — and his voice heeded — by a large swath of American Orthodoxy. He left behind many unanswered questions, however, on such fraught subjects as women’s participation in synagogue services, advances in medical science and interfaith dialogue. Modern Orthodox Jewry still is seeking a voice as universally respected as his to address them.

“Not five days pass when I don’t say to myself, ‘I wish the Rav was alive so I could ask him this question,’” said Rabbi Jacob Schacter, dean of the Soloveitchik Institute. “We need such voices of clarity to help us proceed in very complicated areas.”

But how did Soloveitchik — by all accounts an inspired and inspiring teacher who ordained more Orthodox rabbis than any other rabbi in American history — leave a leadership void?

Schacter offered one explanation at the Boston conference, in a workshop on Soloveitchik’s theory of leadership. He began by referring to the “anxiety of influence,” an idea developed by Yale professor and literature critic Harold Bloom.

“If you have a teacher who is so powerful and so great — on the one hand, it’s wonderful because you can learn so much from them and they become such a tremendous role model,” Schacter said. “But on the other hand, they are so great that you feel like you are meaningless when you’re up against them. Whatever you do won’t measure up one iota to what your teacher is. That’s really to some extent, the problem with students of Rabbi Soloveitchik…. You become so overawed and overwhelmed that it squelches further creativity.”

“It’s fruitless and meaningless to ask, ‘What would Rav Soloveitchik have said?” Schacter added. Rather, he said, the community should nurture rabbis who will seek out their own answers, using Soloveitchik as a guide, rather than as an oracle.

Soloveitchik’s theory of leadership was drawn from a complicated vision of the world’s creation taken from Jewish mysticism. According to the theory, Schacter said, put forth in the 16th century by Rabbi Isaac Luria, in the beginning there was only Godliness. In order to make room for the world He wanted to create, God had to contract, an act known in Hebrew as “tzimtzum.” Then, according to Luria, God created vessels and sent creative beams into them, thus infusing every entity in the world with the essence of divinity — but unfortunately, according to the theory, the vessels couldn’t handle it all, so some of the divine sparks fell into the netherworld, where it is left for humankind to pick up the pieces and restore the Godhead.

Soloveitchik extrapolated two lessons in leadership from this Lurianic idea. First, as a leader, in order to create, one must first contract oneself; and, second, though contracted, one is still in a position to emanate creativity.

Leadership, according to Schacter, is “to give voice to other people. To support rather than control, to let others solve the problems… It doesn’t mean that the leader closes up shop and goes home… but the leader needs to withdraw in order to let someone else function creatively.”

Although the talk was designed as a lecture on leadership — in business, community, even family — it was hard not to apply the questions raised, and solutions offered, to the rabbinic leadership issues facing Modern Orthodoxy. In recent years, the community has experienced a decided shift to the right, influenced by the concept of da’as torah, a leadership model which places communal decisions — religious or otherwise — in the hands of the most revered talmudic scholars in the seminaries. Defenders of the system say it reflects a triumph of learning and a renaissance of a yeshiva world nearly wiped out in the Holocaust. According to liberal critics, the community has deferred to these powerful scholars at the expense of pulpit rabbis and lay leaders on the front lines of Orthodoxy.

What would the Rav have said? His students are still arguing over the answer.

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