The Rav Thinking Aloud
On the Parsha Sefer Bereishis
Transcribed and Supplemented by David Holzer
Laor Ltd., 2010, 472 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - November 22, 2010
Many books about Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) have been published recently; Holzer cites twenty-two in this volume. Many Orthodox rabbis feel it is de rigueur to mention Rabbi Soloveitchik's opinion when they discuss a Jewish subject. The rabbi is so admired that most Jews refer to him simply as "The Rav," the rabbi, par excellence. Some of the attributions of what he said are the result of poor memory and contradict others. David Holzer has overcome this difficulty by transcribing The Rav's own words. And he has done so on subjects that all readers will find interesting, Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, The Rav offering his views of the weekly Torah portion.
The Rav was the scion of a famous scholarly family. He, his father, and grandfather, emphasized a thorough analysis of the Talmud. He was awarded a Ph.D. in his youth from the University of Berlin. He served as Rosh Yeshiva, head scholar, of Yeshiva University for many years; taught Talmud and other subjects in the University's Judaic department as well as philosophy to graduate students. He was the advisor to the Orthodox organization of rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America. He lectured in Boston, New York, and other places; and was sought by many rabbis for his decisions for his views on halakhah, the rules of daily living. Many of his lectures and "off the cuff" conversations were recorded. Holzer, who served as The Rav's shamash, his assistant, for some years offers his readers the personal voice of The Rav on between several to over a dozen selections on each of Bereishis' twelve Torah portions, over thirty in all. Holzer also includes some of his own ideas, based on The Rav's thoughts, and carefully identifies these additions by placing them in a gray background.
The Rav is quoted in this volume saying that the method of study developed by his grandfather made it possible to teach the Torah to youngsters "who are trained scientifically…. It is a method of conceptualization, definition, clarification, in particular to look for unity in Halachah. Not to be satisfied with words, but to understand that each word represents an idea." His focus was the problem, not the solution: "Important is not the kasha (the question relating to a specific detail - Holzer footnote), important is not the teretz (answer, solution), important is the problem (identifying the underlying problem of the entire subject or discussion – Holzer footnote)."
Many readers will be surprised to learn that while The Rav focused on the writings of the rationalist Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) frequently in his talmudic lectures, he took the diametrically opposite approach in his study of the Torah. He considered the mystical Moses Nachmanides (known as Ramban, 1194-1270) as the best Bible commentator (the underline is in the book). "In my opinion, the Ramban has contributed much more to the philosophy of religion, to the Jewish world formula" than Maimonides' book on philosophy, Guide of the Perplexed. Maimonides, he continues, was "over-educated and over trained…. The Ramban (Nachmanides) used more intuition than logic."
Some readers may dislike The Rav's views that Jews should spend time disclosing problems rather than seeking solutions, and his view that Ramban's approach to the Torah was superior to that of Maimonides, and his insistence, like Ramban, that Jews must have faith, rather than using reason. This feeling does not detract from Holzer book. In fact, it prompts readers to read the entire volume to see how The Rav develops his views, and then decide if his analyses support his positions.
Readers will find discussions on ideas in this volume such as the following:
"Of course, science has no right to say anything on this topic (whether God created the world from nothing). It is a metaphysical topic. And my opinion is just as big as the opinion of Einstein about it."
"I totally disagree …that Jews always placed emphasis on deeds but not upon thought. It's not true."
"The very moment a person begins to ask questions, he forfeits his faith. Faith means not only to believe, but not to ask any questions."
Maimonides stated that the human soul (for Maimonides, this was the intellect) was created, and he insisted that God is not corporeal. However, Nachmanides contended, and The Rav agrees, that the soul is "a spiritual being, a sublime being, he resembles God, yes there is a resemblance, a similarity." God bestowed "the spirit from the mouth, from His own mouth, the mouth of the Almighty. He blew into his nostrils a living soul. What is important, the Ramban says? To unify spiritual man with natural man. Soul is not created. Soul is a part of Divinity."
Like Nachmanides, The Rav seemed to accept midrashic statements as the truth. Thus, why does the Torah tells us that the sister of Tuval Kayin was Naamah? Nachmanides says "this is the beautiful woman who persuaded everybody," resulting in the flood during the days of Noah. "She precipitated the sin of the defilement of man." She persuaded the men to create "a permissive generation, [which] surrendered to beauty and to carnal pleasure, to comfort, to convenience." The Rav elaborates, "The main sin of this pagan society consists in its exploiting nature for the sake of man's enjoyment without the latter accepting responsibility for every act he enjoyed."
Similarly, contrary to Maimonides who interprets many parts of the Torah allegorically, The Rav denies that Maimonides does so and insists that: "Anyone who entertains in his mind that any part of the Torah is an allegory is undermining one of the yesodei emunah" (a fundamental principle of faith).
God is, as Nachmanides, but not Maimonides, teaches, involved daily in all that transpires on earth, and influences it. With this in mind, The Rav asks, "why did the Hashgachah (the involved God) arrange matters in such [an] unnatural and unique way?" (Making Rachel acquiesce in fooling her beloved Jacob and allowing her sister Leah to deceitfully take her place.)
Holzer quotes The Rav's opinions on these subjects in full, and readers will have the opportunity to understand them and to decide whether they agree. For The Rav is certainly correct that Nachmanides' teachings have been accepted by many, if not most Orthodox Jews, and now readers will have the chance to evaluate them.