In the Forward this week, Lawrence Grossman reviews a new book about Rav Soloveitchik, Rabbi in the New World: The Influence of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik on Culture, Education and Jewish Thought, edited by Avinoam Rosenak and Naftali Rothenberg.
Grossman's review, "Modern Orthodoxy's Human Pillar: Evaluating the Role of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik" is an essay in its own right on the Rav. Grossman is a major Jewish thinker and disciple of the Rav.
He makes a polite yet firm assessment of the collected essays in the book. He calls some of the articles "least important" - those that speculate on the influence of other theologians on the Rav. We agree that showing surface similarities between the Rav's theology and other who preceded him doesn't get us far in understanding the Rav's ideas and methods.
In surprising honesty, Grossman refers to the "contradictions, or at least inconsistencies" in the Rav's political activities within the Jewish community and towards the outside world.
What is even more jarring in this review is the description of the Rav's activities as an "intellectual juggling act". That may be an accurate high level label of the many years of the complex career of a talmudic scholar and religious diplomat. It just does not sound that positive in the context of a short review. Much more needs to be added to show that the Rav was a "juggler" and then to ask how good was he at the art of juggling?
Grossman ends his review with a summary of the evaluation by the Rav's daughter, Tovah Lichtenstein, of her father's legacy. She laments that in contemporary American Jewry, "...few follow his path" and that "her father's form of Orthodoxy is in danger of disappearing in America."
Our take away from the review (we have not yet read the book of essays) is that both Grossman and Lichtenstein may be on to something important in their characterizations of the Rav.
In our new book, God's Favorite Prayers, we positioned the Rav as an epitome of the "performer" archetype in the synagogue liturgy. That is the personality who brings the Torah forward into the congregation and performs it according to the accepted modes, but with his own interpretations.
The Rav indeed was a great charismatic and dramatic performer. Dr. Grossman adds flavor to this picture by invoking the image of the "juggler" in the mix. And the Rav's daughter laments that the art of the Rav may be "disappearing in America."
Indeed, like all the art of juggling in general, the art of theological juggling, may be waning if not vanishing from the religious scene in our community.
That does not mean the Rav's influence is lost. Our new book, for instance, is built around a variation of his theology. We seek in it to establish analytical categories and construct from them new theological insights. That too is an ongoing part of the Rav's legacy. For sure, we could not have attempted such writing or thinking without having sat at the feet of Rav and without having tried to imbibe his Torah.