Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Lichtenstein, Prof. Weidhorn, Prof. Flatto, Prof. Levy: My Five Greatest Teachers at Yeshiva University

I have realized over the years since 1970 when I graduated from Yeshiva College that so many of my teachers there imprinted upon me indelible lessons for life and learning. I have chosen here to recall five special teachers. I apologize to the many other wonderful teachers that I have omitted. I especially beg the forgiveness of those that I have chosen to so briefly and inadequately remember. Nothing that I say can do them justice.
[Annual re-post -- to celebrate these great teachers.]

Manfred Weidhorn: Indelible Humanist

I knew the first day that I sat in Professor Weidhorn's Composition and Rhetoric class that this teacher was different from many of the others. He stood at his lectern with organized notes and a clear agenda. He obviously loved his work, He was organized and confident, yes, even excited about his teaching and about ideas.

But that was not what set him apart. I did not know at the time that this course offered me my first chance to study with a thoughtful, productive and creative scholar of the humanities who would teach me so many indelible lessons and serve as a model for me throughout my career.

Dr. Weidhorn taught me how to feel language and words. He taught me how to craft sentences and paragraphs. He taught me how to create arguments and positions. He taught me that you haven't proven to yourself or to anyone that you really know a subject unless and until you have written about it clearly, critically and analytically.

Dr. Weidhorn also taught me how to study great philosophy. We students were in the class to learn the skills of writing. In reality, we did much more than that. We read The Portable Nietzsche and then wrote themes about it. Imagine that. Me, a freshman at YU, reading Nietzsche! I loved every minute of it.

Dr. Weidhorn taught me how to read a great novel and make it come alive. We read Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. What a great book. I recall sitting on the uptown subway on the way to class reading my assignment when suddenly as I read the book, it was as if the character Anna had leaped out in front of our subway train. I jumped up from my seat. And of course, we wrote themes about this too.

As the course progressed we moved on to study some serious humanistic scholarship. We read an anthology of critical articles about the Shakespeare authorship controversy. Each learned expert in the collection argued his case for whom he believed was the true author of the works of Shakespeare and why the conflicting views were wrong. And as we read this book, we wrote essays about the controversy.

Three and a half decades later, I have to thank Dr. Weidhorn for imprinting upon me for the first time what it meant to be a humanist and a scholar. Because of the indelible model that he was and the discipline that he taught me, every page of the seven books that I later published as a professor and scholar was clearer and more logical. Every argument in the articles I wrote was more convincing and concise. And every analysis that I advanced in my reviews of other scholars' work was brighter and sharper.

R. Aharon Lichtenstein: Indelible Theologian

I had the privilege of studying in R. Aharon Lichtenstein's Talmud shiur for two years (1967-9). Each year he invited us talmidim to his house for latkes on Hanukkah. There in his apartment we sat with his little kids and his wife, daughter of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik. The latkes were good and the Lichtensteins appeared to be a regular family. For some reason, that surprised me.

Once during the years that I was in his shiur, while I was out with some of the guys playing basketball on the courts between the dorms, R. Aharon came by. One of us asked him to join the game. He did and he played aggressively, and just like a regular guy. For some reason, that blew my mind.

And one year, in our YC student Purim shpiel, I played the role of R. Aharon. In my performance I hemmed and hawed and exaggerated my rebbe's mannerisms much more than I should have. And there in the audience sat my rebbe, laughing along with us. For some reason, that really blew my mind.

These three anecdotes aside, R. Aharon imbued me with three indelible lessons that I took with me throughout my life.

R. Aharon taught me that you could be a humanist and a lamdan. He clearly loved English literature which he had studied at Harvard. He often would quote Milton or Spencer freely. He happily contrasted the ideas of the enlightenment with those of the Torah. But all the time it was clear to me that literature was his avocation and learning Torah was his true vocation.

R. Aharon taught me that you could critically study and deeply love the hashkafah of the Torah. Each week we read and discussed a chapter in Rav Bar Shaul's treatise, Mitzvah Valev. Using that work, R. Aharon taught us that the cognitive understanding of a commandment needed to be joined to the emotional commitment of one's heart. His lessons had a profoundly powerful and positive impact on my faith.

Finally, R. Aharon taught me that you could be a vitally creative pedagogue even in the most traditional subject of learning. He had to give us exams in Talmud. So he used that as an opportunity to teach us more. He would give us thought-questions. Based on something we learned previously, he would ask us to resolve a new scenario. Or he would give us text-questions. Related to something we learned before, he would give us a text and ask us to comment on it. We had to decide what commentary he had plucked the text from and then explain why we came to that conclusion.

That is how R. Aharon taught me that an exam could do more that ask a student to regurgitate what he had learned. He tested my knowledge and my thinking powers at the same time. I happily confess that I used R. Aharon's methodology of thought-questions and text-questions in many of the Talmud and Jewish Studies courses that I taught over the years at the University of Minnesota and elsewhere.

Leopold Flatto: Indelible Mathematical Mensch

Professor Flatto taught me Projective Geometry. After 35 years I honestly must say that I do not remember any of the details of the theorems, corollaries or equations that we studied. But I certainly used to say for years and years that when I was a math major at Yeshiva College, my favorite course was Projective Geometry. I now will explain just a little bit of why this was so.

In Projective Geometry this great professor, Dr. Flatto, taught me all about imagining, sensing changes, doing puzzles, reading graphs and generating surfaces. For every geometry problem, he taught me to use my whole brain: the left brain to calculate equations and the right brain to visualize, using my mind's eye, to manipulate concrete objects in my head. To me this was the greatest problem solving I had ever done. It seemed to me that to Dr. Flatto each problem was a challenge to his entire being.

Dr. Flatto taught me how to be a mensch towards problem sets in mathematics. He showed me by his example how to use my whole brain and yes, my whole personality to approach them, to respect them and to work with them.

I did not get to know Dr. Flatto very much outside of class. But his demeanor and his presence in the classroom obviously was strongly tangible to me. In the same way that he was a mensch towards his subject, he was a mensch towards each of us, his students.

Edward Levy: Indelible Melodies

In the sixties, the course Introduction to Music was a one-credit requirement at YC. On my first day in Professor Levy's section of this course he played for us an atonal modern piece and asked us to describe it. I impulsively volunteered my assessment that it was a chaotic cacophony without any form or structure. Professor Levy duly noted to the class my profound ignorance. So there I was. Confounded, confronted and challenged. I knew then that I just had to get an A+ in this course to prove to him that he was wrong about me.

Professor Levy deeply understood music and knew how to teach it. By the time of our final exam, my ear was sharpened and my mind was open to understand so much more. For the exam, he played to us a recording of a Mozart symphony and asked us to write a detailed description of it. I was able to describe every theme, phrase, transition and echo in the piece. I was pleasantly surprised with how well this professor had expanded my psyche and taught me how to hear and appreciate the melodies of music and to notice the rhythms of life.

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik: Indelible Beginner

In the fall of 1969, as a college senior, I started four years of learning in Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik's Talmud shiur. In my family we venerated the Rav above all other rabbis. We spoke of him with the utmost reverence that one would bestow only upon a truly saintly man.

I received in those four years so much from the Rav: a methodology of learning, a theology of Judaism and, above all, a secret of pedagogy.

Let me explain briefly this last point. The Rav would sometimes in an occasional moment of surprising self-reflection refer to himself as a "poshutte melamed," just a teacher of beginners. That statement puzzled me. Surely the Rav was the greatest sage of our generation. How could he represent himself in this ordinary way?

One day I accidentally discovered what he meant. We convened on the fourth floor classroom for our shiur - about to begin studying a famous sugya in Massechet Shabbat. That day I was using a Talmud volume from a small shas that my uncle had used when he studied in the Rav's shiur many years earlier, in the fifties. I found interleaved in this book a page of my uncle's notes from the Rav's discourse on this sugya fifteen or twenty years earlier.

As we started reading the text, the Rav began to perform the magic that he was so good at. He made it seem to us all as if he was looking at the text for the very first time. He made every question he raised appear as if he was discovering a problem afresh. He made every answer and explanation that he examined in Rashi or the Tosafot appear to us as if it was new to him - a complete surprise.

The Rav dramatically unfolded a complex and intricate exposition of the sugya - and each stage of the discourse seemed so new and alive. Yet as I followed along and I read in my uncle's notes, I saw that the Rav was repeating each and every element of the shiur exactly as he had given it years before, insight by insight, question by question and answer by answer. He had me convinced that he had just discovered every element of his learning. Yet I had proof in front of me to the contrary.

I saw that day how the Rav had the ability to make every act of learning a new, exciting and living revelation. I have striven to emulate him ever since to replicate this ability and to achieve as a learner and as a teacher some small element of this revelation.

Hanging over my desk as I write this I have a quotation from the great German Poet Rainer Maria Rilke:
"If the angel deigns to come it will be because you have convinced her not by tears but by your humble resolve to be always beginning: to be a beginner."
I believe the Rav would agree.

Dr. Tzvee Zahavy, YC '70, RIETS '73, is author of seven books and numerous articles about the Talmud and Jewish Liturgy. His books include three volumes, "The Talmud of Babylonia: An American Translation: Tractate Hullin." His recent article "Biblical Theory and Criticism: Midrash and Medieval Commentary," appeared in the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, 2nd Edition. He lives in Teaneck, NJ.


Tzvee said...

Manfred Weidhorn writes, "Now here is something eery, or at least amusingly coincidental, in your praise of the Rav. Not more than five minutes ago I was reading (in the current COLUMBIA COLLEGE TODAY) a eulogy by a Hebrew U. philosophy professor of the recently deceased Columbia Philosophy Professor, Sidney Morgenbesser: 'He always treated philosophical problems as though he were hearing them for the first time, the way a great rabbi relates to a Talmudic text.'"

Anonymous said...

Beautiful memories! Many others had similar experiences with these teachers.

Anonymous said...

Never heard of the "Rav", but he sounds like he was a great human being.

Bryce said...

Nice post! Thought you might like this:

It's an article from one of your five teachers.

Abbi said...

i had dr. levy at stern about 30 years later. At least at Stern, you were either "on the bus or off the bus" as they say. You were either in his coterie or not. I happened to be in, for reasons that are still mysterious to me.

I agree, he was a gifted teacher, though I didn't always agree with him. Loved his turtlenecks!