The Master Talmud Performer: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

In honor of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's 20th yahrzeit we present this excerpt from our 2011 book - God's Favorite Prayers...

The Master Performer

et me give some background about my mentor, Rabbi Soloveitchik. His followers extolled him with a reverent nickname. They called him the Rav, simply the Master. I consider the Rav to be a master performer par excellence of the synagogue liturgy (when on occasion he led the services), a great pedagogue in the classroom, a scholar of note and interpreter of the substance of the performances of the synagogue. And finally, he was an amazing beginner.
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. And he was one of the great Orthodox rabbis of the twentieth century. He was born into a rabbinic family in Eastern Europe. After mastering all of rabbinic literature, he studied philosophy at the University in Berlin. He was known not just as a rabbi but also as a Gadol—a title reserved for person of the greatest stature in Torah learning and highest authority in Jewish religious matters.
As a Yeshiva College senior, I started four years of learning in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Talmud shiur. In my three post-graduate years of study with the Rav, I earned my ordination and became a rabbi.
I received in those four years so much from the Rav: a methodology of learning the Talmud, a theology of Judaism grounded in philosophy, and some secrets of exceptional pedagogy.
Let me expand on this last point. The Rav would sometimes, in an occasional moment of gently deprecating and surprising self-reflection, refer to himself as a poshutte melamed, the Yiddish description of a simple teacher of beginners. That statement puzzled me. Surely the Rav was the greatest Orthodox Talmudic sage of his generation. How could he represent himself in this ordinary way?
One day, I accidentally discovered what he might have meant. We rabbinical students convened at the fourth floor of the college building in an oversized classroom for our shiur, to begin studying a famous Talmud passage that was a discourse about the laws in Tractate Shabbat. That day, I was using a Talmud volume from a small, bound set that my uncle Rabbi Noah Goldstein had used when he studied in the Rav’s shiur. I found interleaved in this hand-me-down book a page of my uncle’s notes from the Rav’s discourse on this same Talmud passage, fifteen or twenty years earlier.
As we started reading the text, the Rav sat at his desk at the front of the class, as usual, with books of the Talmud arrayed all around him. He opened to the page for the day and began to perform the pedagogic magic in which he was so skilled. He started the class: “All right. Where were we?” 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. Every answer and each explanation that he examined in the medieval commentators, Rashi or the Tosafot, he made appear to us as if it were new to him—a complete surprise.
Over the course of a class that lasted more than two hours, the Rav dramatically unfolded a complex and intricate exposition of the sugya, the text and its topic—and each stage of the discourse seemed so original and alive. Yet, as I followed along and read my uncle’s notes, I saw that the Rav was repeating—in order—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 all of us students in the room convinced that he had just newly 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 where I write, 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 echoed that sentiment in his teaching and learning and, certainly, in his praying.
The Rav’s ability to find the freshness in learning and in praying inspires this book. In part, in this extended discourse, I try to present content for fresh solutions to the frustrating issue of how to escape the monotony of the repetitive rituals of prayer. Indeed, it is a challenge to rediscover meaning and insight continually within the routine. It’s easier said than done—to be a beginner.
I try here in this volume to present as new my humble discoveries of voices and personalities in the prayer book to satisfy my own need to find what is fresh in what I repeat daily, weekly and annually. And in the spirit of my teacher the Rav, I aspire throughout this volume to provide you, the reader, with insights that will allow you to discover your own ways to always be a simple beginner in the appreciation and practice of your own praying.
To help us appreciate an important representative example of the expression of the artist-poet-musician archetype in the synagogue services, I now turn to a sample of the Rav’s comments on a few of our liturgy texts.

A Shofar Opera Libretto

ere, then, is the traditional libretto of a shofar opera in three acts. These texts are more familiarly known as the foundational High Holiday prayers in the Musaf Amidah. I interleave into the prayers below a selection of a few basic examples of the insights that the Rav and other interpreters of the past have taught about the Rosh Hashanah Additional Service.
In fact, this is not a complicated section of the Jewish liturgy. To expand on what I said just above, the Kingship-Covenant-Revelation liturgy—Malchiyot, Zichronot and Shofrot—accompanies the sounding of the ram’s horn in the additional service on Rosh Hashanah, as follows.
Act 1: The prayer opens with the Aleinu, a text that characterizes the dramatic archetype whom I call in this book the celebrity-monotheist.
Historians of the liturgy believe that the Aleinu originally found its way into Jewish prayer as this inaugural segment of the Malchiyot—Kingship prayers. Later, it was appropriated into the daily prayers and became the closing liturgy of every service.
In this Rosh Hashanah context, the Aleinu announces the theme of God the King and the section after it provides us with our first set of selected biblical passages:
It is our duty to praise the Lord of all things, to ascribe greatness to him who formed the world in the beginning, since he has not made us like the nations of other lands, and has not placed us like other families of the earth, since he has not assigned unto us a portion as unto them, nor a lot as unto all their multitude. For we bend the knee and offer worship and thanks before the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be he, who stretched forth the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth, the seat of whose glory is in the heavens above, and the abode of whose might is in the loftiest heights. He is our God; there is none else: in truth he is our King; there is none besides him; as it is written in his Torah, “And you shall know this day, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord he is God in heaven above and upon the earth beneath: there is none else.”
We therefore hope in you, O Lord our God, that we may speedily behold the glory of your might, when you will remove the abominations from the earth, and the idols will be utterly cut off, when the world will be perfected under the kingdom of the Almighty, and all the children of flesh will call upon your name, when you will turn unto yourself all the wicked of the earth. Let all the inhabitants of the world perceive and know that unto you every knee must bow, every tongue must swear. Before you, O Lord our God, let them bow and fall; and unto your glorious name let them give honor; let them all accept the yoke of your kingdom, and do you reign over them speedily, and forever and ever. For the kingdom is yours, and to all eternity you will reign in glory.
The theme of the Aleinu announced above is that God is King, he is One, there is no other and that all the peoples of the earth will come to acknowledge that. I will explain at length below, in the chapter called “The Celebrity’s Prayers,” that this prayer speaks for a particular archetype of the synagogue. The viewpoint and personality it communicates believes in the coming of an age of struggle that will see the ultimate victory of the Israelite people over all the nations, of the Lord over all the contending gods.
And, now, let us see how the liturgy writer makes the ten assembled verses that follow in the New Year prayer try to articulate this theme.
The Rav observed that the verses, as we shall now see, are drawn first from the Torah, then from the Writings, then from the prophets. He asked why this is so, considering that the canonical Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible as we have it today, is ordered Torah, Neviim (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings). To answer, he says simply that the prayer writer wanted to address God’s actions in chronological order, past (as found in the Torah), present (as found in the Writings) and future (as foretold in the Prophets).
The first three verses from the Torah do not express the complete idea of the liturgy. In fact, the idea of a King-God triumphing over other gods and the coming of an ultimate era where all peoples will worship him is not found in the Torah. Instead, the verses pick texts that have echoes of God called “King” or of his “reign.”
[1] As it is written in your Torah, “The Lord shall reign forever and ever (Exodus 15:18).”
[2] And it is said, “He has not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither has he seen perverseness in Israel: the Lord his God is with him, and the trumpet shout of a King is among them (Numbers 23:31).”
[3] And it is said, “And he became King in Yeshurun, when the heads of the people were gathered, the tribes of Israel together (Deuteronomy 33:5).”
The next three verses from the Writings do express more of the ideas of the complete narrative embedded in the liturgy. In fact, the idea of a King-God ruling over other nations is a present theme in the Psalms. Yet the story of the coming of an ultimate era where all peoples will worship God is not found there. The verses again pick texts with echoes of God called “King” or of his “reign.”
[4] And in your Ketuvim it is written, saying, “For the kingdom is the Lord’s, and he is ruler over the nations (Psalms 22:29).”
[5] And it is said, “The Lord reigns; he has robed him in majesty; the Lord has robed him, yea, he has girded himself with strength: the world also is set firm; that it cannot be moved (Psalms 93:1).”
[6] And it is said, “Lift up your heads, O you gates, and be you lifted up, you everlasting doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who, then, is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O you gates; yea, lift them up, you everlasting doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who, then, is the King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory. (Selah.) (Psalms 44:7-10)”
The last of the Psalms citation is actually four verses. The Rav notes that they express a single kingship theme, a “challenge to humanity to voluntarily recognize the dominion of God.”
The next set of three verses is from the Prophets. They do express the complete idea of the liturgy because the idea of a King-God triumphing over other gods and the coming of an ultimate era where all peoples will worship him is derived from the prophetic works of ancient Israel. The verses from the books of Isaiah, Obadiah and Zechariah directly support the notion of the ultimate triumph of our one true God over the others after a day and time of judgment over the nations of the earth.
[7] And by the hands of your servants, the prophets, it is written, saying, “Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God (Isaiah 44:16).”
[8] And it is said, “And saviors shall come up on Mount Zion to judge the Mount of Esau, and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s (Obadiah 1:21).”
[9] And it is said, “And the Lord shall be King over all the earth: in that day shall the Lord be One and his name One (Zechariah 14:9).”
The final verse is again culled from the Torah, a bookend closing off the set of ten. It cites one of the best-known verses of the Torah and a centerpiece of the liturgy itself, the first verse of the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4. That passage also does not express the complete idea of the liturgy because, while, in fact, it does declare the monotheistic unity of one God, it does not relate a struggle with the other deities or hint at a coming age when the oneness of God will be realized for the whole of the earth. For the purposes of this kingship liturgy, it appears to be enough that the verse declares God to be one. Specifying literally that God is King is not a necessary component for the inclusion of the verse.
 [10] And in your Torah it is written saying, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One (Deuteronomy 6:4).”
The Rav says that the tenth proof text verse in each of the three sections is part of the closing appeal of the liturgy. The first part concludes with a reiteration of the basics of the main story line, and a “request” that God will reveal his reign as king over all the earth. The closing petition of the prayer then continues:
Our God and God of our fathers, reign you in your glory over the whole universe, and be exalted above all the earth in your honor, and shine forth in the splendor and excellence of your might upon all the inhabitants of your world, that whatsoever has been made may know that you have made it, and whatsoever has been created may understand that you have created it, and whatsoever has breath in its nostrils may say, the Lord God of Israel is King and his dominion rules over all.
[Our God and God of our fathers, accept our rest.] Sanctify us by your commandments, and grant our portion in your Torah; satisfy us with your goodness, and gladden us with your salvation: [and in your love and favor, O Lord our God, let us inherit your holy Sabbath; and may Israel, who hallow your name, rest thereon]. O purify our hearts to serve you in truth, for you are God in truth, and your word is truth, and endures forever. Blessed are you, O Lord, King over all the earth, who sanctifies [the Sabbath and] Israel and the Day of Memorial.
[And then the shofar is blown.]
Act 2: The next theme of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf to be announced is Zichronot, that God remembers his covenants with Israel. This theological statement begins with a liturgy that states an underlying assumption of the High Holidays, namely that an all-knowing God will judge all nations and all individuals on this day, the day that he created the world. God also knows all the thoughts and merits of each individual and judges them. And then the prayer switches abruptly to Noah as the example of one man who was spared the harsh judgment brought upon the earth and whose covenant with God protects us from destruction:
You remember what was wrought from eternity and are mindful of all that has been formed from of old: before you all secrets are revealed and the multitude of hidden things from the beginning; for there is no forgetfulness before the throne of your glory; nor is there anything hidden from your eyes. You remember every deed that has been done: not a creature is concealed from you: all things are manifest and known unto you, O Lord our God, who looks and sees to the end of all generations. For you will bring on the appointed time of memorial when every spirit and soul shall be visited, and the multitudinous works be remembered with the innumerable throng of your creatures.
From the beginning you did make this your purpose known, and from aforetime you did disclose it. This day, on which was the beginning of your work, is a memorial of the first day, for it is a statute for Israel, a decree of the God of Jacob.
Thereon also sentence is pronounced upon countries—which of them are destined to the sword and which to peace, which to famine and which to plenty; and each separate creature is visited thereon, and recorded for life or for death. Who is not visited on this day?
For the remembrance of every creature comes before you, each man’s deeds and destiny, his works and ways, his thoughts and schemes, his imaginings and achievements.
Happy is the man who forgets you not, and the son of man who strengthens himself in you; for they that seek you shall never stumble, neither shall any be put to shame who trust in you. Yea, the remembrance of all works comes before you, and you enquire into the doings of them all.
Of Noah also you were mindful in your love, and did visit him with a promise of salvation and mercy, when you brought the waters of the flood to destroy all flesh on account of their evil deeds. So his remembrance came before you, O Lord our God, to increase his seed like the dust of the earth, and his offspring like the sand of the sea.
The Rav finds in the liturgy several themes. First, God’s dominion over humankind crosses all of time from the beginning to the end of days. Second, God sees all and remembers all, every act of every individual. Third, God relates uniquely through the covenant to the Jewish people.
And, now, let us see how the liturgy writer makes the ten assembled verses in the prayer try to articulate the themes. The first three verses are from the Torah. They do not express the complete idea of the discursive liturgy but appear to focus on God remembering his covenants with Noah, and with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
[1] As it is written in your Torah, “And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that were with him in the ark: and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters subsided (Genesis 8:3).”
[2] And it is said, “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob (Exodus 2:24).”
[3] And it is said, “Then will I remember my covenant with Jacob; and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land (Leviticus 26:42).”
The next three verses are from the Writings. They also do not express the full range of ideas of the introductory prayer. Each verse alludes to remembrance of a covenant:
[4] And in your Ketuvim it is written saying, “He has made a memorial for his wondrous works: the Lord is gracious and full of compassion (Psalms 91:4).”
[5] And it is said, “He has given food unto them that fear him: he will ever be mindful of his covenant (Psalms 91:5).”
[6] And it is said, “And he remembered for them his covenant, and repented according to the multitude of his loving-kindness (Psalms 106:45).”
The final set of three verses is from the Prophets. Again, each verse alludes to remembrance of a covenant:
[7] And by the hands of your servants, the prophets, it is written saying, “Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, Thus says the Lord, I remember for you the kindness of your youth, the love of your bridal state; how you went after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown (Jeremiah 2:2).”
[8] And it is said, “Nevertheless, I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish unto you an everlasting covenant (Ezekiel 16:60).”
[9] And it is said, “Is Ephraim a precious son unto me? Is he a caressed child? As often as I spoke against him, I earnestly remembered him. Therefore my heart yearns for him: I will surely have mercy upon him, says the Lord (Jeremiah 31:20).”
The Rav develops a homily based on the choice and order of the three verses above. The first two promise that God will remember Israel as innocent and worthy, as young people who have not yet become corrupt. This is like a father’s love, says the Rav. His compassion is aroused when he remembers when his children were young.
The nuance in the third verse is that Israel is depicted as though still a child. This is like a mother’s love, says the Rav. A mother can always vividly see her children as her babies and thereby have compassion for them more immediately.
The last verse, below, is again culled from the Torah, a bookend closing off the set of ten drawn from a chapter in Leviticus where the idea of the covenants is treated in detail. The verse is embedded in the closing liturgical statement, at the end of the paragraph that evokes the dramatic covenant of the Torah that God made with Abraham at the binding of Isaac on Mount Moriah:
Our God and God of our fathers, let us be remembered by you for good: grant us a visitation of salvation and mercy from your heavens, the heavens of old; and remember unto us, O Lord our God, the covenant and the loving-kindness and the oath which you swore unto Abraham our father on Mount Moriah: and may the binding with which Abraham our father bound his son Isaac on the altar appear before you how he overbore his compassion in order to perform your will with a perfect heart. So may your compassion overbear your anger against us; in your great goodness may the fierceness of your wrath turn aside from your people, your city and your inheritance.
Fulfill unto us, O Lord our God, the word in which you have bidden us trust in your Torah through the hand of Moses your servant, from the mouth of your glory, [10] as it is said, “But I will remember unto them the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 26:45).
For you are he who remembered from eternity all forgotten things, and before the throne of whose glory there is no forgetfulness. O remember the binding of Isaac this day in mercy unto his seed. Blessed are you, O Lord, who remembers the covenant.
[And then the shofar is blown.]
Act 3: The final section, Shofarot, blasts of the horn, deals with the notions of God’s revelations to Israel at Sinai. The Rav emphasized that Maimonides directly linked the shofar to repentance. Its sounds rouse the Jew from his slumber to recognize his sins and seek forgiveness. And recall that the shofar itself is bent, says the Rav. According to the Talmud, this symbolized a person humbly bent over in prayer.
You did reveal yourself in a cloud of glory unto your holy people in order to speak with them. Out of heaven you did make them hear your voice and was revealed unto them in clouds of purity. The whole world trembled at your presence, and the works of creation were in awe of you, when you did thus reveal yourself, O our King, upon Mount Sinai to teach your people the Torah and commandments, and did make them hear your majestic voice and your holy utterances out of flames of fire. Amidst thunders and lightning you did manifest yourself to them, and while the shofar sounded you did shine forth upon them.
The theme is clear and unambiguous. God revealed himself to Israel, and the shofar accompanied those events. The first three verses from the Torah spell this out:
[1] As it is written in your Torah, “And it came to pass on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunders and lightning, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the sound of the shofar exceedingly loud; and all the people that were in the camp trembled (Exodus 19:16).”
[2] And it is said, “And the sound of the shofar waxed louder and louder; Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice (Exodus 19:19).”
[3] And it is said, “And all the people perceived the thundering and the lightning, and the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they were moved and stood afar off (Exodus 20:15).”
The next three verses from the Writings extend the theme of the prayer. The shofar is used in celebration and praise of the Lord, God the King. The set concludes with an added bonus set of verses from Psalms.
[4] And in your Ketuvim it is written, saying, “God is gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a shofar (Psalms 47:16).”
[5] And it is said, “With trumpets and sound of shofar shout joyously before the King, the Lord (Psalms 98:6).”
[6] And it is said, “Blow the shofar on the new moon, at the beginning of the month, for our day of festival; for it is a statute for Israel, a decree of the God of Jacob (Psalms 81:45).”
[6a] And it is said, “Praise you the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary: praise him in the firmament of his power. Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him according to his abundant greatness. Praise him with the blast of the shofar: praise him with the harp and the lyre. Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and the pipe. Praise him with the clear-toned cymbals: praise him with the loud-sounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise you the Lord (Psalms 150).”
The Rav explains that the verses above describe how revelation from God is not confined just to a past event at Sinai and a future messianic time. A more subtle form of revelation is accessible in the present to every Jew who can experience God’s presence and know that he is not alone. The Rav calls this need to find God in the here-and-now a “halakhic imperative”—a requirement of Jewish law. To pray properly, a person must feel he is in proximity to God.
The Rav adds that the last set of verses [6a] breaks the structure of the prayer. The verses are not just proof texts of the theological theme of the section. They are a burst of song in God’s presence. The Jew today must visualize himself as if he was at the Temple in the days of old in the presence of God. And, hence, he needs to break out in song.
The last set of verses from the Prophets extends the message. The shofar is not just a sign of God’s revelation to Israel. It heralds God’s ultimate, universal revelation to all the nations of the earth. In this manner, the final section here serves as a bookend to the opening section of the first part of the liturgy above in Malchiyot, where God’s dominion over the nations of the earth is announced.
[7] And by the hands of your servants, the prophets, it is written saying, “All you inhabitants of the world, and you dwellers on the earth, when an ensign is lifted up on the mountains, see you, and when the shofar is blown, hear you (Isaiah 18:3).”
[8] And it is said, “And it shall come to pass on that day, that a great shofar shall be blown; and they shall come who were lost in the land of Assyria, and they that were outcasts in the land of Egypt; and they shall worship the Lord in the holy mountain at Jerusalem (Isaiah 27:13).”
[9] And it is said, “And the Lord shall be seen over them, and his arrow shall go forth as the lightning: and the Lord God shall blow the shofar, and shall go with the whirlwinds of the south. The Lord of hosts shall be a shield unto them (Zechariah 9:14).”
So be a shield unto your people Israel with your peace.
Our God and God of our fathers, sound the great shofar for our freedom, lift up the ensign to gather our exiles; bring our scattered ones among the nations near unto you, and gather our dispersed from the ends of the earth. Lead us with exultation unto Zion, your city, and unto Jerusalem the place of your sanctuary with everlasting joy; and there we will prepare before you the offerings that are obligatory for us.
And again, the last verse is culled from the Torah, and embedded in the concluding liturgy, and extends and associates the shofar with the sacrifices of the Tabernacle.
The Rav points out that [8] implies at the end of days that God himself will sound the shofar. Hence, this suggests that the revelation of the future in the age of the messiah will replicate that of the past when God revealed himself with the sound of a shofar at Mount Sinai.
As is commanded us in your Torah through the hand of Moses your servant, from the mouth of your glory, [10] as it is said, “And in the day of your gladness, and in your set feasts, and in the beginnings of your months, you shall blow with the trumpets over your burnt offerings, and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings; and they shall be to you for a memorial before your God: I am the Lord your God” (Numbers 10:10).
For you hear the sound of the shofar and give heed to the trumpet-blast, and there is none like unto you. Blessed are you, O Lord, who in mercy hears the sound of the trumpet-blast of your people Israel.
[And then the shofar is blown.]
There’s much more to be said about the theology and artistry of the prayers. My purpose is to show, through the liturgy of the dramatic central part of the Rosh Hashanah additional service, how the performer—the artist-poet-musician—weaves Bible verses together to create from many Bible-strands some elaborate liturgy-fabrics, the cloth of the expressions of synagogue prayers. 
I discovered along my spiritual journeys that the other ideal people that I met in the synagogue took all of this biblical material and much more and performed it so as to express their inner—sometimes mystical—longings in accord with their distinctive, slightly otherworldly personalities, as we see on the next leg of our journey, when we meet the mystic and her prayers. 

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