What made Rav Soloveitchik a simply great Talmud teacher

It's now 25 years since my renowned teacher, Rav Soloveitchik, passed away.

When I published this short essay in 2005 in the Commentator, the YU undergraduate newspaper, I was proud to extol my rebbe in the most glowing terms I could imagine. After further review, as they say in the NFL, I still feel that way. I republished this in honor of the Yeshiva University Chag HaSemikhah Convocation that took place on Sunday, March 19, 2017. I received my rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva in 1973. My father received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva March 19, 1942.

Here again is my meager and utterly inadequate tribute to a truly great man.

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 (i.e., Rabbi Noah Goldstein, my dad's brother) 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.

//repost from 8/2009//


Was Roger Bannister Jewish?

No, the first athlete to run a mile in under 4 minutes, Roger Bannister was not a Jew.

He died 3/3/2018 at age 88. British Prime Minister Theresa May remembered Bannister as a "British sporting icon whose achievements were an inspiration to us all. He will be greatly missed."

Note that Harold Abrahams, the timekeeper who recorded Bannister's first, was a Jew. Wikipedia reports. "Abrahams's father, Isaac, was a Jewish immigrant from Poland, then Congress Poland as part of the Russian Empire. He worked as a financier, and settled in Bedford with his Welsh Jewish wife, Esther Isaacs."

May 6, 1954: "Bannister crossed the line and slumped into the arms of a friend, barely conscious. The chief timekeeper was Harold Abrahams, the 100-meter champion at the 1924 Paris Olympics whose story inspired the film 'Chariots of Fire.' He handed a piece of paper to Norris McWhirter, who announced the time."

In 2011 there was some controversy over Abraham's role as timekeeper at the event.


My Jewish Standard Talmudic Advice Column for March 2018: Fighter for Gun Controls and Haggadah Hunters

My Jewish Standard Talmudic Advice Column for March 2018:
Fighter for Gun Controls and Haggadah Hunter

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I’m a high school student who was devastated by the recent deadly shootings in a Florida school and by so many other recent awful acts of gun violence in our country.

My friends and I are organizing activities to counter this terrible trend, but I’m afraid we will not succeed against the fierce tide of gun proponents.

What should we do to get some real traction and lasting results?

Fighter for firearms controls in Fair Lawn

Dear Fighter,

I am awed by the response of students after the latest tragic gun carnage in Florida. I especially was floored by the young speaker who made her displeasure with politicians clear, saying on TV, among other strong sentiments, “We call B.S.! Shame on you!”

How awful that our innocent schools and holy houses of worship have suffered violent attacks that resulted in multiple deaths. How utterly sad that venues of merry entertainment were attacked by perverse maniacs. What a dreadful day and age we live in.

I think about this contrast. Back in the 1950s my dad sat working during the day in his quiet rabbi’s study in the Park East Synagogue in New York City on East 67th Street, right next door to the local police precinct. The shul entrance was always unlocked as he worked alone in the big empty shul building.