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The Art of the Rav: A Documentary

Chana Wiznitzer

Posted: 2/12/07

Anticipation thrums through the air, an electrical current racing from one person to the next. Lamport Auditorium is packed; the audience is stirring excitedly, eagerly awaiting the New York premiere of the documentary on the Rav, "The Lonely Man of Faith: The Life and Legacy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik."

Having been warned by one of the introductory speakers that the documentary is "about the Rav" rather than the Rav's actual teachings and philosophy, we shift our attention to Ethan Isenberg, filmmaker. He begins by wishing us a good week, and a "happy birthday to your trees." He describes the process through which one makes a film distinct "in the annals of Rabbinic film history," explaining that he himself is not a disciple of the Rav, nor a disciple of one of the Rav's disciples, but a man fascinated by the Rav nonetheless. He thanks YU for having him, and expresses his gratitude toward those who guided him in the making of the film, most notably Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, distinguished scholar and lecturer with regard to the Rav. He then goes on to thank those who were so generous with their time and who allowed themselves to be interviewed via phone and in person for the film, and those who contributed photographs or other documents for the film. He informs us that we will be viewing a formerly undiscovered snippet from a lecture of the Rav, filmed by Tzvi Fishman, and explains that the movie on a whole is "not a comprehensive guide to the Rav's teachings," but rather is meant to give those who did not know the Rav a "taste" of what he was like, and "hopefully inspire people to learn about him, his teachings, his lomdus, and allow people insights into the Rav's personality."

Last but not least, Isenberg informs us that "this film was entirely funded by a private sponsor who prefers to remain anonymous," but clarifies that it was not paid for by YU or the Maimonides School. He offers up his tremendous gratitude, and the entire audience joins him in applause.

On this note, we settle back in our seats, having been told that we have the privilege of seeing the film in Lamport Auditorium, where the Rav actually gave shiur many times. We have been asked to be patient with the echo or any other oddities that might occur during the showing. Imagine our surprise, then, when at first there is no sound at all- the movie seems to be playing on mute! Rabbi Kenneth Brander amusingly takes the microphone and says "We're trying to deal with the echo," as we burst into laughter.

But finally the movie begins, and it is stunning. The constant theme is that of loneliness, the Rav's ontological loneliness as an individual and a man. We are informed that the Rav was "revered by many, resented by some," but his "religious mind was unsurpassed in his time." The movie begins with his childhood, describing the way in which R' Moshe, his father, tutored him himself, specifically utilizing the Brisker method, which features careful analysis and understanding of texts. Various photographs of the Rav pass by, the music is soft and soulful or quickening in tempo depending on the words spoken. We learn about the differences between the Soloveitchik and Feinstein background; the Soloveitchiks favored total immersion in Torah while the Feinsteins opted for secular studies as well, whether this take the form of Russian literature or other important works of a similar nature.

The film moves chronologically through the Rav's life. Theodore Bikel acted as the voice of the Rav, quoting passages and quotes from his many works. Snippets of interviews are amply sprinkled throughout the film, each time providing commentary or a new viewpoint upon the matter at hand. The film makes much of his parting from his father, describing how the two of them did not kiss each other goodbye, describing how the Rav was taught to restrain his feelings and indeed, was told by his father that "the holier the feeling, the more intimate it is, the more it needs to be kept in the depths" of one's emotions. Interestingly, the fact that the Rav believed this to be the European approach, and that a different, more open approach to one's emotions ought to be utilized for American Jewry, was not mentioned.

The documentary contains many witty incidents and exchanges between the Rav and his contemporaries. In one clever story, the Rav wrote his father to tell him that he planned to marry Dr. Tonya Levitt, and his father responded by stating that the family had not met the girl, how could the Rav do this, and so on and so forth. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik answered by quoting a law that states that when a person wants to marry an upstanding religious woman, and his parents don't approve, he is able to do as he wishes, also citing an idea of 'tz'ar b'gufo' where his own personal pain comes before all else. R' Moshe was so pleased with this response, that he read it, quote included, to his class of students, stating, "My son is right, my son is right."

The film continues by describing how Rabbi Soloveitchik came to Boston, contrasting the type of place Boston had been before his arrival to how it was after he had revitalized it. Marc Gopin stated that the assimilation of American Jewry was tremendous, while Abraham Shonfeld explained that there was a definite need for someone to liven up the Boston community. With the Rav's arrival, and his determined decision and achievement of founding the Maimonides School, this occurred. It was not easy. People at the time did not want an institution that would make them feel different or separate them from others. Rabbi Reuven Cohn, who attended the Maimonides School, recalls that "people I knew to be Jewish would make snide comments" about the fact that he was wearing a kippa, making it visible that he was a Jew. The Rav, he states, allowed "us to hold our heads high." The Rav brought back pride in Judaism, pride in one's religion and beliefs.

This is not to say that the Rav went unchallenged. In a sad and painful incident having to do with a kashrus controversy over certain meat that was being sold as kosher but truly was not, the Rav was maliciously and slanderously accused of "racketeering, taking money from under the table, not paying his taxes," said Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff. "His character constantly came under attack;" it was an awful time for him, compounded by the death of his father soon afterwards. Rabbi Soloveitchik eulogized his father, comparing the relationship between himself and his father to the one between Elisha and Elijah, giving himself over to the desperate cry, "Father, father, teacher, teacher, where are you? But he is no more," he concluded.

Upon the death of his father, Rabbi Soloveitchik wished to succeed him at the R' Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He was accepted on a contract of one year, provided he could prove his usefulness. And this the Rav did.

The Rav was a teacher par excellence, very exacting, "a holy terror" in the words of Rabbi Norman Lamm. Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff related a particularly amusing story- apparently, when a student raised his hand in class, the Rav wrote the word "yada" meaning "knows" next to his name. If the student did not raise his hand, the Rav wrote the words "lo yada," "he does not know" next to his name. And if a student raised his hand but did not know the material to the Rav's satisfaction, he wrote "shakran," "liar," next to his name.

Rabbi Hershel Schachter described the Rav's shiur by stating that, "Before shiur everything was like a jungle-afterwards, everything fell into place." The Rav's words clarified difficult matters, helped them seem logical and clear. "When I was younger, I used to feel like the angels were coming from heaven to listen to his shiur," Rabbi Schachter continued, "it was like a symphony orchestra- out of this world."

The documentary stressed the Rav's personal relationships with other gedolei hador, relationships that persisted even though he differed with them on various matters. In all matters, he acted upon his principles, not based on how others would judge him. He was a strong man, a man of character and charisma. He was also a rare performer. He used to give Saturday-night shiurim, and one of his friends noticed he was always very tense. When this friend once asked him what made him so tense, he answered that this was Saturday night and he was in competition with the movie-houses, so he would have to entertain in order to capture the audience's attention!

The Rav's love for his wife, Dr. Tonya Soloveitchik, was also movingly described. He respected her, loved her and was devastated over her death. But when he spoke- when he eulogized her- he was in perfect control of himself, able to honor her before all.

The Rav's personal sadness or thoughts were also addressed; sometimes he felt as though his students focused on the intellectual side of Judaism while not counting the experience as being worthwhile. Rabbi Lichtenstein described it by stating that, "He didn't wear the mantle of a kind of superficial religiosity they would have liked to see." Rabbi Shalom Carmy added to that while explaining why the Rav left so many of his works unpublished, "the public claimed he was a perfectionist and on a few occasions he told me he felt there was no interest…" The Rav did not feel there was an audience for his writings.

Upon his death, especially now, there is indeed an audience. We are dazzled by the Rav, fascinated by his philosophy, moved by his compassionate and humane words. The last words of the documentary focus on the fact that the Rav believed that God appoints us all with a mission and purpose during a fixed time, concluding with the line that, "God wills me to act" and the time is "right here and now."

We reacted with thunderous applause, moved by this depiction of the Rav and by all that he meant to so many people.

After the documentary, there was a panel featuring Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rabbi Menachem Genack and Rabbi Mayer Twersky, all of whom answered questions about the Rav posed to them by Rabbi Kenneth Brander. They added a personal outlook to the movie, helping to clarify that the Rav was actually a very warm individual; he used to crack jokes, tell stories, and was a very leibidik person. When questioned as to how to understand the "potential conflicting typologies, the Rav of Brisk versus the Rav of Berlin," Rabbi Twersky responded that everything that the Rav studied "coexisted harmoniously with him-his roots were deeply implanted in Torah, and he was free to accept or draw upon what he found to be consistent and compatible with the Torah in his presentation," but also remarked upon the fact that often the Rav would bring in Western sources or philosophy in contrast to an idea he was expressing. Rabbi Genack told over a story of an oncologist who met the Rav and was "shocked by how much he knew about research in cancer," very specific information that Rabbi Soloveitchik was aware of due to the fact that he was a very curious man, very interested in these ideas. Rabbi Genack explained that many see the Rav as being "such a revolutionary" but in truth his approach was enormously conservative. He was "using modern tools to preserve Torah" but his reverence for the Torah itself was unchanged. Rabbi Schachter, the last to answer, said it simply, "The Rav didn't feel that you have to be afraid of secular studies. God gave all the chachma (wisdom) in the world," the intimation is that all of it can be used well.

Rabbi Brander ended by stating that there is "one more question I'd like to ask- the final question is to Rabbi Twersky and then everyone else-what was the Rav like as a grandfather, at the end of the day, tell me, who was the Rav, how should he calibrate our souls and what do you think his legacy is?" The response to this supposed "one" final question was the uproarious laughter of the audience; we were fascinated, of course, but this was hardly one question, and how could it possibly be answered, even were there no set time limit?

Rabbi Twerksy answered simply, explaining that as a child, "the only thing I knew that was distinctive about my grandfather was that most people's grandfathers didn't commute to New York two to three times a week, and mine did!" He continued by describing the Rav's humble nature, describing that there was "nothing about his conduct that made you think he was different" from others. All three Rabbis on the panel agreed that the Rav's Torah knowledge and wisdom was the most important part of his legacy; Rabbi Genack compared him to Rabbi Akiva, who rebuilt Torah after the churban. Rabbi Schachter explained that the Rav believed that you "cannot just concentrate the religious Jews in Williamsburg, or Monsey, but that you need religious Jews everywhere" and the Rav's approach allowed for Jews to exist throughout the world, and not only in protected, sheltered communities. Indeed, the Rav's approach was "essential to preserving Yiddishkeit in America."

The evening concluded with Rabbi Charlop's words, tying in the parsha of the week, Beshalach, where he stated that here Moses takes the bones of Joseph up from Egypt and "this documentary, to my mind, what happened tonight, is another form of 'Moses taking the bones of Rabbeinu Joseph Soloveitchik' up from Egypt.

The evening in and of itself was beautiful, and the documentary was moving and truly allowed those who had not known the Rav insight into the kind of man he was. I had only a few qualms, and these for fear that those who had not studied the Rav's works or looked deeply into his philosophy might harbor the wrong impression about who he was as a man.

Firstly, the documentary focused very much on the Rav's loneliness throughout his life; this was the central theme tying the entire film together. While this was necessary and well-executed for the most part, it was sometimes a bit overdone, making it seem as though the Rav were a grave and serious individual, feeling himself totally alone and adrift in a world that did not understand him. As Rabbis Schachter, Genack and Twersky later stated, the Rav's loneliness was an "ontological loneliness, a philosophical loneliness, a theological loneliness;" he was actually a very joyous, witty individual who forged meaningful relationships with his family, students and friends, and found much pleasure in them. He was by no means a solitary, sad man, feeling saddened by the whims of fate.

Also problematic was the intimation that the Rav felt himself unable to communicate with modern man, and indeed was presented, to some extent, as being an elite kind of individual, unparalleled, exalted above all others, a child prodigy, a genius, someone so far above and beyond others that, as one quote near the very beginning of the movie claims, "when one speaks about the Soloveitchiks, we are dealing with geniuses; these are not ordinary mortals" and the Rav "had difficulty realizing that mortals do not deal on his level." While I believe that this impression of the Rav was given over only to do him honor, I also think it is flawed. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about the Rav is that he was approachable, that he did have faith in the American Jew, that he felt that modern man was someone to be proud of, to rejoice with, to love and to honor. The Rav was a man that many turned to with their problems, a man uniquely warm and caring, a mortal with a mortal's brilliant character traits and flaws. I believe it does the Rav more honor to see him as a human, someone to whom we can relate, a human with all of a human's trials and problems and dilemmas, and yet a man impassioned, a man thrilled and uplifted by his desire to fulfill his purpose, his desire to create and allow all of man to create alongside God. I believe that if we see the Rav as apart from us, a high and mighty and elite figure, we will be distanced from him, when in truth it is his very humanity and normalcy that brings us together. I am most inspired by the Rav because I see him as human, a person like me, someone I can emulate, not someone so different from me that I cannot even relate to him.

Lastly, I believe that if we desire to align ourselves with the Rav, and follow him on the path which he created for us, it does not do to always look back to the past. This documentary is valuable because it allows us insight into the Rav as he was, but I cannot find the approach that "we have lost our champion" and there is no one to replace him acceptable. The Rav's vision was of a unified, glorious Jewish community in America. Time and time again he expressed his faith in the American Jew. We cannot disappoint him. Rather than looking to the past to reminisce and to mourn over it, I motion that we look to the future, the future that awaits us all- the brilliant future that he helped to create- and to fulfill his legacy by looking forward and implementing his beliefs in our own lives. The challenge is to go forward, to take the Rav's ideas and build on them, grow with them. This documentary is meant to be a beginning, not an end. The Rav believed in recreating the destroyed worlds. He believed that our obligation was to the future. He believed that "the individual is responsible, not only for himself, but for the future. Perhaps his main responsibility is to the future and the countless generations that will come after him" ( from The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik by Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, Volume 2, 14) If we truly love Rabbi Soloveitchik, if we truly believe in his words, then we must go forward. We must continue in his path, build upon his words. We must fulfill his vision. And that- that- is where our energies must lie. Not in the past; the past is merely a foundation for the future. But in that future. Alongside the Rav, beyond him, building and conquering upon his words.
© Copyright 2007 The Commentator