Digging out the Rav’s Torah insights

Digging out the Rav’s Torah insights

Edison editor (and scientist) unravels Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s wide-ranging interpretations on the weekly portions

Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, philosophical leader of Modern Orthodoxy blogs.yu.edu
Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, philosophical leader of Modern Orthodoxy blogs.yu.edu

When he was a sophomore at Drexel University in Philadelphia and an active member of the campus’ Hillel chapter, Arnold Lustiger spotted a notice about an upcoming Jewish lecture at the nearby University of Pennsylvania in 1975.

He had not heard of that night’s speaker, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, the venerated head of Yeshiva University’s (YU) rabbinical seminary, and was not planning to attend.

Then, a Hillel director, who had attended YU, suggested that Lustiger, who was interested in advanced Jewish learning and was a graduate of a black-hat Orthodox day school in Philadelphia, go to the lecture. “You’re crazy if you don’t go.”

“I had no expectations” about the lecture, but “it was life-changing,” Lustiger told NJJN. “It opened up an entire new world to me.”

Lustiger, 65, a resident of Edison who works as a senior research scientist for ExxonMobil, specializing in the properties of plastics, said he was intrigued by Soloveitchik’s talk. In the lecture, which lasted “a good three hours,” the rabbi ranged from the minutia of halacha to esoteric philosophy and psychology. “I had never heard anything remotely like it. There was a charisma to him.… You were drawn to his words.”

The lecture by Soloveitchik, the Belarus-born scion of a prominent rabbinic family who was recognized as the philosophical leader of the Modern Orthodox movement and known simply as “The Rav” (The Rabbi) in those Religious Zionist circles, presented an integrated approach to understanding fundamental Jewish beliefs that Lustiger had previously not learned, he said. The rabbi’s lecture, which combined classical Jewish sources with current events and observations on secular culture, opened Lustiger’s eyes, he said, to a new way of understanding Torah, studying text, and practicing as an observant Jew.

Arnold Lustiger of Edison, author of a series on Soloveitchik’s teachings

That night led Lustiger on a years-long journey to flesh out the insights of that initial lecture. He began attending more of the rabbi’s lectures and speeches, and read all of the few books that Soloveitchik had written. He tracked down the rabbi’s cited sources and located a fellow disciple of The Rav who had collected tapes of all of Soloveitchik’s public lessons. He bought a copy of the entire collection, translated and edited the rabbi’s words from English and Yiddish, and compiled the rabbi’s erudite spoken thoughts and written essays into five books. And over the last dozen years, he has edited Soloveitchik’s remarks about the Five Books of Moses, largely delivered as part of lectures on Talmud and other Jewish topics at public forums and rabbinical conferences, into the rabbi’s first-ever Torah

Soloveitchik — who lived in Boston, retired in 1985, and died in 1993 at 90 — never wrote a systematic commentary on the Torah.

Lustiger set out to bring Soloveitchik’s largely oral legacy to the printed page. He’s already brought out commentaries on the siddur and the High Holy Days liturgy based on The Rav’s words.

The fifth and final volume of Chumash Mesoras HaRav (OU Press), a Torah commentary, has just appeared. The book follows in the tradition of scholars who in recent decades have collated and collected the works of earlier prominent rabbis on subjects related to Passover, publishing them as Haggadah commentaries; Lustiger has shaped The Rav’s disparate insights on various areas of Torah into a comprehensive work, arranged according to the Torah’s 54 weekly parshiot. (Chumash, Hebrew for five, is how the first five books of Jewish scripture are commonly known.)

The “Neuwirth Edition” of the commentary bears the name of the philanthropic Neuwirth family, who financially supported the publishing project.

The book features on each page the Torah’s Hebrew text and the Hebrew-language translation-cum-commentary of Onkelos, the standard Chumash commentary of Rashi in Hebrew, and Soloveitchik’s words in English.

The rabbi’s commentary succinctly explains the meaning of Torah passages, often in ways not obvious to the casual reader. On Joseph’s encounter with his brothers, while he was serving as viceroy in Egypt — “Joseph recognized his brothers” (Genesis 42:8), in parshat Miketz — Soloveitchik states, “Although his brothers thought they had come to Egypt to procure food, Joseph ‘recognized’ the subtext of their visit. Their arrival was the first step in the fulfillment of the great Divine plan” — that God had revealed to the Patriarch Abraham.

“The Rav methodically and clearly developed a central thesis” on each theme he was discussing, Lustiger writes in the introduction. “He buttressed this key idea meticulously through a series of questions and answers.… Ultimately, at the end of his presentation, he had built a dazzling and impenetrable edifice.”

Lustiger reproduces in an appendix a lengthy lecture on these apparently prosaic words that Soloveitchik delivered in June 1972. The contents could not be boiled down to a few paragraphs, Lustiger said. “It was brilliant.”
Typical of The Rav’s style, he took words that appear not to be distinctive in the Torah, which are usually overshadowed by the subsequent listing of commandments, and cast them in a new light, Lustiger said.

The series, which spans from Genesis to Deuteronomy, he said, is designed to introduce Soloveitchik — and his unique method of explaining Torah — to generations of Jews who never had the chance to listen to The Rav’s speeches in person or hear his speeches in cassette tape or now digitized form. It is likely to become a classic, an easily accessible commentary along the lines of the Soncino “Hertz Chumash” and ArtScroll’s “Stone Edition Chumash,” which have become the standard for at-home study or reading along with the Torah chanting in synagogue.

Lustiger devoted an hour or two each day after work to his project, also listening to The Rav on tape or MP3 or iPod while driving to work. “I didn’t go to many parties.”

Why, in this high-tech, Kindle era of easily discarded ideas, spend all one’s  time and energy producing on a figure who died a quarter-century ago?

“There is a tremendous reverence — in the Orthodox community and among outsiders with an interest in Torah study — for gedolim [literally, ‘the great ones’],” respected leaders whose deeds of piety matched their academic accomplishments, Lustiger answered.

Lustiger said his training as an empirically oriented scientist complements his understanding of Soloveitchik’s breadth of Torah and secular knowledge. Just as scientific principles are not simply a series of theories, but a “way of thinking,” the same applies to halacha, Jewish law, he said.

Ironically, Lustiger, who now ranks as one of the leading experts on The Rav’s life, did not have a face-to-face encounter with Soloveitchik. “I never spoke with him.”

Lustiger is now at work on bringing to the public a major lecture The Rav delivered on aspects of repentance.

Though Soloveitchik was a public figure, he was also self-effacing; he wrote few books, Lustiger said. The Rav’s family, recognizing the importance of continuing to disseminate the rabbi’s teachings, has acquiesced to what he was done, Lustiger said. “They appreciate people hearing The Rav.”

How will Lustiger consider his Rabbi Soloveitchik Torah commentary a success?

If the commentary sparks readers’ interest in The Rav, he said. “If they say, ‘I want to read more.’”

Lustiger said his ultimate goal is to make people feel the excitement he felt when he first heard Soloveitchik speak in 1975. “I want people to reproduce my experience.” 

Steve Lipman is a staff writer at The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

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