How Not to Remember Rav Soloveitchik on his Yahrzeit

Six years ago I wrote the post below. It's now 24 years since the Rav passed away.

I have many memories of him and I revere his intellectual and spiritual impact on me, on my family and on our community.

My critique from 2011 of the story of one of my colleagues follows here:

It's eighteen years on Friday since the passing of my revered teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Rav.

One of his students, Rabbi Steven Riskin, has published a recollection of the Rav drawn from a book that he has written, called, Listening to God: Inspirational Stories for My Grandchildren (Koren Publishers). It was originally published in The Jewish Press and is copied here from the YU News web site.

This article concludes with a story that we think should be forgotten, not remembered. It is not inspirational to us, it makes us cringe. It illustrates the interpersonal shortcomings of the rabbi, his raw edges and abrupt classroom mannerisms. It depicts a person who cannot apologize for an emotional outburst -- an explosion -- by simply saying that he is sorry. In our humble opinion, there is nothing good to be learned from the story and we are sorry to read it and to see that it has been published.

Rabbi Riskin recounts as follows at the end of his article:
I remember exactly what we were studying when the incident occurred: Masechet Pesachim, the topic of tesha chanuyot. It is a complex portion of the Talmud, and it’s very difficult to understand exactly what the Gemara is trying to get at. It deals with the laws of presumption. Rav Soloveitchik had presented a whole construct as to how he thought the Gemara should be interpreted, and then he reversed himself completely and gave a wholly different understanding. I was very excited about the second way in which he was explaining the repartee within the Talmud; this new interpretation was truly novel and eye-opening.

Toward the end of the Rav’s new explication, my protégé – we’ll call him Cohen – now sitting right behind me, whispered a question in my ear. I thought it was an excellent question, even a devastating one to the Rav’s construct. So I encouraged Cohen to ask his question out loud, and he did.

Rav Soloveitchik exploded. “How could you ask such a foolish question? How could you ask me something like that? You shouldn’t be here anyway. You’re here because Riskin brought you in.”

And with that, he ended the class. I was devastated; Cohen was smashed to the ground.

During those years Rav Soloveitchik gave two classes back to back. One was in Talmud, for the younger students, and the other was in Codes (Yoreh De’ah) for the older students who were soon to receive their rabbinical degree. Although I still had a good deal of time for my rabbinical degree, I took both classes, as did a coterie of faithful students. So I stayed in the room after the Rav’s explosion.

Usually the Rav switched from topic to topic with barely an interruption. This time, Rav Soloveitchik sat at his desk with his head on his arm, Masechet Pesachim still open before him, for at least twenty minutes.

There was absolute silence. No one spoke. As long as the Rav remained silent, all of us continued to wait in silence. Then Rav Soloveitchik looked up at me and said, “Riskin, what’s his name, the one who asked me the question?”

I said, “Cohen, Rebbe.”

He said, “Yes, yes, Cohen. Take me to him. Where is he now? Take me to him.”

I assumed Cohen was eating. There was a restaurant right across the street called Tov Me’od, but we all called it the Greasy Spoon. So I said, “Rebbe, I think he’s at the Greasy Spoon.”

“Take me to him!” he repeated.

The Rav had a rather distinctive walk. He walked very quickly and his hands swung on both sides. He rarely went into any of the restaurants; occasionally, he would eat in the Yeshiva cafeteria, but generally the Rebbetzin would prepare his food in their dormitory apartment.

When the Rav entered the Greasy Spoon, palpable shock waves went through the tables of diners. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Cohen, who was eating a scrambled egg and hash-brown potatoes with ketchup. I can see his plate in front of my eyes as I retell the story.

Everyone immediately jumped to attention, including Cohen. He had just begun to recapture some color on his face, but at the unexpected sight of the Rav his face turned a stark white. Rav Soloveitchik set his gaze on the hapless questioner: “Cohen, you’re right and I was wrong. Your question was a very good question. It undermines my complete thesis. I have to give a whole different interpretation next week. Thank you, Cohen.”

And with that he walked back with me across the street and into the classroom.

I understood at that point what intellectual honesty was all about. I also understood that Rav Soloveitchik was mindful of the fact that he was training future rabbis – future congregational leaders, future decisors of Jewish law. To his mind, a rabbinical student, no less than a medical student, couldn’t afford to make a mistake. The mesorah, the tradition the Rav was giving over to our hands, must be treated with the same precision necessary in medicine. A mistake in a mesorah was as dangerous as a medical mistake.
We are dismayed that Rabbi Riskin would publish such a story and that he would consider it "inspirational". This is a story that is best not remembered at all. It shows us how not to conduct a class, how not to cultivate relations between students and mentors, how not to make amends for an improper emotional violation of academic etiquette.

We do not find this story worthy or necessary to report in any publication. Clearly the event in question was dramatic to Rabbi Riskin. Yet the traumatic events of one's educational life as a student need not be cast out to the public for examination. We chastise Rabbi Riskin for doing so and on behalf of our beloved teacher, we feel embarrassed by this narrative.

For the information of Rabbi Riskin's grandchildren, a teacher to be emulated does not ever emotionally explode in his classroom. And if he does so in a moment of human weakness and later realizes his violation of professional behavior, he seeks to apologize in clear and personal terms saying, "I am sorry for my actions which were wholly inappropriate. Please forgive me."

This published memoir tells us with utter clarity that bad behavior by a religious leader will leave a traumatic emotional imprint that will last a lifetime. That is what Rabbi Riskin could have tried to convey by retelling this unfortunate story, and underlining its devastating effects on those who witnessed it. This story could serve as a cautionary tale to all those who are entrusted with the education of our youth, all those who are positioned to serve as role models for our future leaders. But that is not how Rabbi Riskin presents it. Accordingly we feel it is better that the whole story be forgotten.


Israel Wahrman said...

But - I just found this story to be very interesting. It humanizes the Rav, does it not? He was a rather abrasive teacher, was he not? But he was also intellectually honest and admitted intellectual mistakes, it appears. I am glad that Rabbi Riskin told it and that you, through your comments, made the story and your commentary on it, available to those who had not heard this tale.

noachide101 said...

A similar story to that reported by R. Riskin is reported in Mentor of Generations:

"One time, a younger student asked a question. The Rav answered the question and ended shiur. As I was leaving, the Rav asked me if I knew where that particular student ate lunch. I told him I thought at a restaurant called Mc’Dovids. The Rav indicated that he wanted to go there. As we entered the place, the students from MTA (YU’s high school), who were playing pinball, recognized the Rav and froze. Even the non-Jewish man flipping hamburgers behind the counter, who knew who the Rav was, froze. The Rav went over to the student, who was trying to digest his hamburger, and indicated that he
would base the following day’s shiur on the young man’s question."

I just thought I should mention this.

Eliezer Eisenberg said...

The Soloveichiks, and many others, believe that the study of the Talmud is a war, and that if you publicly challenge the Rebbi during the shiur, you'd best gird your loins. In my classes, where the students are all adults, they know that they get two or three freebies. If they continue to ask questions that evidence intellectual laziness or lack of focus, they know they're going to get flayed.

Tzvee Zahavy said...

I've had many good Talmud teachers who do not share that view and would never do anything of the sort in any classroom and who would not condone treating any educational environment like a war zone or flay any student.