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Review/Memoir by Tzvee of the film, The Lonely Man of Faith, by Ethan Isenberg
The inspiring film, "Lonely Man of Faith," is an homage to and biography of my revered teacher Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, known respectfully as the Rav.
I am hardly a neutral reviewer. I studied for four years in the Rav's shiur (Talmudic seminar) from 1969 to 1973 and I got to know him well outside of the classroom. I was not a full-fledged "shamash" of the Rav (a student personal assistant). But because I was a generous fellow and drove a nice Lincoln Continental, the Rav frequently asked me to drive him on Thursdays to the Boston shuttle at La Guardia Airport, sometimes with stops on the way. One such stop one day was to visit a cemetery, after which we were involved in an auto accident – a car rear ended my Lincoln. The Rav wore a neck brace for a few days after that and I was not at all happy.
On another occasion we stopped at the Fifth Avenue apartment of a wealthy stockbroker, Mr. Gruss, to pick up a five figure check for the Maimonides School. Other times in the car we discussed the shiurim (seminars) of the week, I asked a variety of shailos (religious questions) and the Rav would ask me about various and sundry topics.
During one ride he asked me to describe the character of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue which I often attended. I said, perhaps a bit too candidly, that it felt to me more like a private club than a shul. A few weeks later I heard the Rav repeat my exact characterization to a group of other folks (without attribution). After that episode, needless to say, I was more circumspect in what I said to him in the car.
About the title of the film. The Rav chose to describe himself as a "lonely man of faith." I think we need to be clear about what that means. Within the realm of religious thought, part of which he called "faith," the Rav was unique and a bit of a maverick. His embrace of, and range of expertise in Western philosophy made him a suspected outsider to the cloistered Yeshiva community. And his piety and mastery of the Talmud and codes made him an oddity to the mostly Protestant crowd of the leading philosophical-theological figures of his time.
Accordingly in the realm "of faith" (which anyhow is an overtly Protestant category formation) the Rav painted himself into a lonely existentialist corner. But only in that qualified dimension of his intellectual life…
As a teacher and as an academic figure and as a rabbi in a community, the Rav was no lonely man. He was constantly involved with many, many people, fascinated by them, ever trying to relate better with them and to understand what made them tick.
In the film, one interviewee, Maurice Wohgelernter overstated and mischaracterized the Rav, calling him the most profoundly lonely person he ever knew. Not true. In my four years of interaction with him in and out of the classroom, I never felt that the Rav was as a person, a lonely man.
He was sometimes formal and stiff in public. But that was a cultural affect that likely he picked up in Berlin. In his apartment in the YU dormitory in Washington Heights, he was relaxed and hardly ever alone or appearing to me to be "lonely."
Bottom line. Without that qualifier "of faith" – I deem that the Rav, in the time that I knew him personally, was very far from a "lonely" guy.
Now this is not a core criticism of the film at hand. Aside from one overstatement, the other speakers on the film's record present a balanced picture of this rich and complex religious leader. Sure, more than a few times the speakers refer to the "lonely" theme. But I write that off to their wanting to fulfill their assignments of being good interviewees for a film called, "The Lonely Man of Faith."
Okay now, what did I learn from this film that surprised me? First, I never knew that the Rav met his wife and fell in love with her at the U of B. I'd like to know more about that courtship and more about his wife in detail.
Second, I did not know before I saw the film how profoundly the Boston Kashrut scandal affected the Rav.
And what did I not learn from the film? I wanted to know more about the Rav's wrestling with the potential of his nomination to be chief rabbi of the State of Israel.
I'm glad the tensions between the Rav and Rav Aharon Kotler and the black hat Orthodox of Lakewood made it into the film. But I fear that chapter was filtered and sanitized a bit too much and that its impact will not be transparent to those who do not know more about the politics internal to the frum world.
And what about the cast of supporting characters in the film? There may have been too much of J.J. Schechter reciting platitudes. Jonathan Sarna, on the other hand, was quite effective in giving life and context to a number of key issues.
The interviews with the Rav's Boston neighbors and supporters provided much color to give texture to his personality. I found touching the narrative about the Rav and Ezra Lightman, a student in his class who was terminally ill. I remember Ezra's presence in the classroom and his tragic passing. I can corroborate in retrospect the film's depiction of the special connection that the Rav had with him.
There was not enough in the film from Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, the Rav's son-in-law (in whose class I studied for two years). The absence from the film of comments from the Rav's son and daughter was particularly noticeable.
Rabbi Yossi Adler spoke eloquently on a number of subjects. The first comment by Shalom Carmy seemed to suggest that another person's remark was tinged by sarcasm or cynicism. Another person's intention is not knowable, is it? Carmy's other statements were more helpful. Rabbi Herschel Schachter's comments lacked insight of any value to me.
The explanation in the film about the Rav's lack of publications during his lifetime fell back on the old "he was a perfectionist" excuse. My view is that this was the coded way of saying that the Rav himself knew he was not a great writer of the printed word. He knew his own strengths and weaknesses quite well. His writings were meant to be delivered orally. They were quite inspirational in those settings which he chose for them and orchestrated. These transcripts did not translate that well into print.
Some other small matters. The film clips in LMOF that gave color to the segments in Berlin and Eastern Europe would have benefited from additional subtitles. Same can be said for some of the opening comments by interviewees that could have used additional explanatory subtitles.
I did ask myself if some of the background video and music clips were perhaps a bit corny. Finally, half way through I found myself wondering who the woman narrator was.
Putting aside these quibbles, the film worked with power for me. It inspired me and made me appreciate the multiple layers of the life and work of a great man whom I knew and admired, my teacher, my rebbe.
My many thanks for the excellent production go directly to Ethan Isenberg. Yasher Koach Gadol.