On “Reflections on the Influence of the Rov on the American Jewish Religious Community” by Dr. Tovah Lichtenstein

Notes by Tzvee Zahavy on "Reflections on the Influence of the Rov on the American Jewish Religious Community" by Dr. Tovah Lichtenstein

Dr. Tovah Lichtenstein, the daughter of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rov) wrote an essay, "Reflections on the Influence of the Rov on the American Jewish Religious Community." (TRADITION 44:4, 2011, Rabbinical Council of America, pp. 7-22.) In it she is up front in her self-assessment and thus characterizes her observations as opinion. She says at the outset, "I hope that my understanding of the Rov's influence on the community in which he lived will ring true to those who knew him and who wish to appraise his contributions to the American Jewish religious community."

She further limits her scope to appraising her father's,
a.       impact upon the religious community
b.       its commitment to Halakha
c.       its public stance in relation to the general society
d.      its self-image

This limited range is disappointing. We would prefer from the daughter of a noteworthy figure some new inside knowledge, perhaps about her father's self-appraisal of his successes or failures. A daughter's mere opinions about abstract issues concerning her father can be highly personal and more than likely they are biased.

Dr. Lichtenstein's agenda is also a bit vague in its four bullet point goals because we don't have rigorous definitions for them. We don't know what metrics if any measure a person's "impact on" a community. We don't know the parameters of the "community", who is in and who is out. We don't know how to measure the sweep of a community's "commitment to Halakha". We don't know what a community's "public stance" entails. We don't know what "general society" means and we don't know how to determine a community's "self image". Ambiguities abound in the statement of the mission for this essay, making it hard to impossible to assess the success of the exercise.

Be that as it may, we do appreciate the intellectual vigor of the opening paragraphs including the notion that the writer explored hypotheticals in thinking about her father's career.

Sometimes, I entertain myself by playing "What if" games. What would have happened had my father been elected as the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv in 1935? As is widely known, he was a candidate for that post, but was not chosen. Had he been selected, and had he appeared on the Israeli stage immediately after Rav Kook's passing, what, I often wonder, would the Religious Zionist community be like today? And, I continue the game – what would the non-haredi Orthodox community in America be like today, if the Rov had left the United States in 1935?

In answering her last "what if" scenario, Lichtenstein concludes that, "Without him, the overwhelming majority of this community might have disappeared, absorbed into the Conservative movement."

Contrary to Lichtenstein's assertion, we believe that this did in fact happen. Although no one disappeared a large number of Jewish families affiliated with Conservative Judaism as it grew substantially from 1935 to 1985, deriving most of its membership from the ranks of the liberal Orthodox community.

Employing a battleground rhetoric, Lichtenstein next explains, "The Orthodox community in the 1940s and 1950s was under threat from the religious left, which demanded reforms." In the academic history of the religion, the more usual narrative of the emergence of Conservative Judaism was not one of threat and response. Sociologists recount the postwar population shift to the suburbs and the adaptation of synagogue and ritual to the new forms of social organization and to the practical needs of the times.

The next claim that Lichtenstein makes with certitude assures us that, "The current existence of a thriving and dynamic community of Torah scholars, of ba'alei battim involved in the general culture and deeply committed to Talmud Torah and shmirat mitsvot, may be attributed, in no small measure, to the influence of the Rov."

In order for us to assess the validity of this statement we need to know how the author arrived at it. The writer tells us that the Rov exercised his influence on the community through several prominent themes and characteristics of his teaching and personality which she labels:

1.       confidence in the truth of Torah
2.       supremacy of the Halakha
3.       pride in the tradition
4.       participation in general culture
5.       translating the Jewish experience into philosophical categories
a.       sacrifice
b.       the creative aspect of Torah study
c.       the religious experience
We do agree that these notions, moods and motivations are found in the work of the Rov and could serve as inspirations to members of a community. Still it is not clear to us how any part of the Rov's religious teaching and opinions reached the public and how it is known to the essay author that it was these five themes, to the exclusion of all other factors, which had a preservative affect on the "current existence" of the community. Lacking any expert opinion connecting the dots, we are left at best with a few well-intentioned and respected personal opinions.

At the conclusion the author asks, "What is the long-term influence of my father, the Rov…?" For the Israeli community she cites actual data, "Four of the Rov's books have been translated into Hebrew, including Family Redeemed, which has sold more copies in Israel than in the United States. His writings are quoted in high school textbooks, and courses are given in institutions of higher learning that deal with aspects of the Rov's thought."

Regarding the Rov's "lasting influence" in the United States, Lichtenstein observes a few imprecise new trends in Orthodox circles, such as these two:

·         A "shying away from general culture and a commitment to Zionism"
·         "…those who are turning to the left, having lost their confidence in the truth of the Torah"

Lichtenstein sees a serious challenge of the current day as follows expressed by those who say that, "The Torah in the 21st century needs to accommodate itself … to the New Age, with its demand for sexual freedom and egalitarianism." And indeed these may be looming tests to a traditional culture's sexual mores and gender assumptions. Yet we do not see how Lichtenstein connects these to the work of her father in the past generation.

We feel personally vindicated to read the concluding section of this essay which characterizes the Rov as a persistent and partially successful performer of Judaism. In writing our recent book, God's Favorite Prayers (Teaneck, 2011), we struggled long and hard to find the dominant archetype for the Rov in our scheme of the ideal theological types that we find in the prayer book. We ended up setting him in the "performer" archetype, that form of expression and personality that carries the Torah-traditions forward in dramatic ways in the synagogue.

Lichtenstein laments that her father was not able to transmit sufficiently his performative qualities to his students. As the Rov wrote, "I did not see great success in my work on the experiential plane." ("Al Ahavat ha-Torah u-Geulat Nefesh ha-Dor," 420) Lichtenstein assesses, "While many speak in his name, few disciples are able to integrate and implement his way. Perhaps his message is too complex and demanding."

Yes, the Rov left a complicated legacy. We think that overall it would benefit him greatly if he was appreciated mainly for what he was best: a truly masterful interpreter of Torah and great dazzling performer and breathtaking artist of Jewish theology.

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