Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik, z"l, 90 Years Old
His Father's and Grandfather's Testimony
It is startling to think that the Rov passed his 90th year! All those who have had the privilege of meeting him throughout his long life have only the recollection of a young, vigorous man, and it is only right that this be the image which we should always preserve in our memory.
I first had the privilege of meeting the Rov when he was a mere 37, in 1940, the first of many meetings and close encounters. That year, in Boston, the Rov was surrounded by a small group of yeshiva students who had recently arrived from Europe. It was his hope to establish there a permanent yeshiva, with that group as an initial nucleus. This plan was never realized, perhaps in part because shortly after ward, his father, Reb Moshe, of blessed memory, passed away, and the Rov was destined to take his place at Yeshivat Rabbenu Yitzchak Elchanan in New York. He did, however, succeed, together with his unforgettable wife, Rebbetzin Tonya Soloveitchik, in establishing a Day School, the Maimonides School, first in Dorchester and later in Brookline, which has prospered and grown over the years and which is a worthy monu ment to their joint sacrifices for Jewish education and scholarship.
I have written about my experiences with the Rov in a past article, but today I wish to present a most historic portrayal of the Rov—by his own father! I had the great good fortune to acquire some years ago the original 6-page letter which Reb Moshe wrote about his son in 1935, in which he also quotes what the Rov's grandfather, the famed Reb Chaim of Brisk, had to say about him. Both portrayals have, over the years, proven totally accurate, and even prophetic.
The letter, dated Elul 19, 5695 (1935), was addressed to Mr. Jacob Joshua Bauminger, secretary to the Religious Council of Tel Aviv, whose committee was to decide on the choice of the next Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, after the death of Chief Rabbi S. Ahronson. The main contenders for the post were Rabbi Soloveitchik of Boston and Rav Amiel of Antwerp. Rabbi Soloveitchik had visited Eretz Yisrael shortly before the letter was written—his only visit ever to the Jewish Land. As we all know, the vote, two months later, fell on Rav Amiel, and it was through this historic decision that Providence saved the Rov for America. Orthodoxy in America was thereby totally reshaped, for which we must be profoundly grateful. A revealing feature in the letter is the news that the Rov, over 50 years ago, had written a complete work on all parts of the Rambam.
This work has not yet been published!
Here is the translation of Reb Moshe's letter:
"Although I do not know you personally, I have heard your name, which permits me to turn to you. Since my son, the true Gaon, Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik, Chief Rabbi of Greater Boston here in America, travelled this summer to Eretz Yisrael and stayed there several months, and he is an official candidate for the position of the Tel Aviv Rabbinate, which is now on the agenda, I am writing to you regarding this matter.
"He is not in need of descriptions, praise or recommendation, because, as I have noted in the newspapers of Eretz Yisrael, his Torah and wisdom preceded and publicized him, and he is already recognized as one of the great men of our generation. But in my opinion, this alone does not sufficiently gauge his true dimensions and weight. Also, a brief recognition cannot be compared with a long-term recognition, and who is better equipped to make that assessment than myself, his father, who has known him from birth till now.
"Normally, a father cannot legally testify about a son, but it is different in the case of something that is evident and clear for all eyes to see. So I do not come as a witness, because the sun in the sky does not need a witness. I merely come to point out with my finger his personality and qualifications. He is a unique species which requires preparation to understand. A gem for the Jewish people. From childhood on he proved an enormous genius which only rarely appears.
"My father and master, the saintly teacher of all Israel, of blessed memory, prophetically pronounced that my son was born for greatness and would grow into a giant tree—because, while he still lived, he saw a handwritten work by him of divrei Torah, and his excitement over his words cannot be described. Reb Chaim confirmed that his grandson's words were the true Torah.
"His later development in Torah and scholarship progressed with giant and rapid steps. That is how he advanced until today, when he stands a giant with whom all of Israel prides itself. In previous generations it was believed that Torah and worldly sciences could not be combined, but in this generation, we do encounter this. In the case of my son, this combination has an unusual dimension. If he is unique in the worldly wisdoms, there can be no doubt that he is unique in the understanding of the Torah. His knowledge is such that his opinion is decisive in all parts of Jewish law, whether in minor or critical cases. Already, some years ago, the head of the Beth Din in Kovno wrote that the halachah is as he decides in every case. And now that he is growing older, his mind matures even more.
"He knows the whole Torah, from beginning to end, with a profound and clear knowledge. He has learned everything—that which is applicable in our days and that which is not applicable anymore, like "Zeraim, Kodashim, Taharot, or the fixing of the new moon. His mind is like a cemented well that does not let a drop escape. He is a great and original innovator in his learning. He has written a work on all parts of the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam which will soon be published. His words open up the eyes and gladden the hearts, as when the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai. Through his original interpretations everyone is convinced that his words represent the truth. He is like an active spring which pours forth water without interruption. He absorbs and emits Torah all the time, both in its outer and inner meaning.
"He was a genius as a child, and now the whole Torah is engraved in his heart and he is qualified to teach and to judge in any legal matter, like one who is fully qualified by the Sanhedrin. But he does not only master one subject. He has also acquired deep knowledge of the wisdoms at the periphery of the Torah. He obtained his Doctor's degree from the University of Berlin, with highest distinction, and the University professors were enthusiastic about his unmatched genius and the width and breadth of his understanding. He has produced very original theories in these academic subjects, as the outstanding genius of our times, and has printed some works in German all in a perfectly religious spirit.
"His fear of G-d precedes his wisdom. His whole being is filled with the fear of G-d—he is a tzadik and full of piety in his conduct. He is like a live 'Mussar Sefer,' and can serve as an example and model in his Torah, wisdom and piety. He is a born leader of Jewish leaders. He is active in communal matters, and has accomplished great things in this field. His character is filled with excellent qualities and he always shows courtesy to his fellow man. He is modest and incorruptible. He receives everyone with a pleasant demeanor and has deep understanding for each person through his psychological insight.
"G-d has blessed him with a phenomenal speaking talent. His speeches are full of pearls of wisdom, and he can speak fluently in various languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, German, English. He has a vast knowledge of Jewish history and literature (Chochmat Yisrael). He speaks with an authority which comes from competence and the ability to express himself lucidly. He captures his audience and commands their love and respect.
"I would like now to come to the subject which moves me to write to you. A city like Tel Aviv has many factions. It must have a leader who speaks in popular language and in terms that all can understand, someone who can influence all parties. All of the Jewish nation looks up to Tel Aviv and takes note of what happens there. Of course, its Rabbi must be the greatest man in our generation, someone truly outstanding and exceptional, whose influence can also reach the Diaspora.
"My opinion, and the opinion of all who know my son, this giant of a man, is that he is the only one fit for this position. He is the only one who can be the central support of all, from one extreme to the other; he can unite all camps. Who can compare himself to him as the true shepherd of our brethren, the Jews of Tel Aviv? He is the man who personifies all that is required—a giant in Torah, a senior authority and a genius in all the other wisdoms. He is the most gifted among the Jewish people of today, a man with enormous influence, with the greatest energy and success. He is the man who will capture the Land spiritually and materially. His home will be the setting of the councils of the wise, and he will influence all parties. Some will derive Torah from him, others will derive worldly wisdom. But all will flock to him and be captivated by his speeches, out of love, honor and respect, as practical experience has already shown.
"I have heard that some say that he is too young. Firstly, this is not so. He is, thank G-d, between 30 and 40 years old—an age which in previous generations produced great geniuses and scholars, true leaders of their generations, who were chosen to hold the greatest and most honored positions in the Jewish nation. Their opinions were decisive in everything that affected the Jewish people. Those much older in years would bow to their authority with love, respect and honor. On the contrary, this in itself is his greatness, that at this age he is already counted as an elder among elders. After all, 'Who is old? He who has acquired wisdom.' Reb Eliezer ben Azarya was elected Head of the Academy at a time when there were much older people to choose from, strictly because of his wisdom, and it was he who said 'I am like a 70-year-old,' and he had the benefit of ten previous generations, going back to Ezra, in his family lineage. In every generation it has been the wisdom of a scholar, not his age, which was definitive. That is how the assembly of Jewish people was built. At a moment when Reb Yochanan ben Zakai was allowed only one wish, he ignored all the attractions of the world, even the Temple itself, and only asked for Yavne and its scholars. That is how the Jewish people's existence is assured.
"My son is the greatest among the wise: all laws of the Torah have been weighed and measured by him with deep understanding and profundity.
"I take the liberty of asking you, and through you the others on the Committee, to evaluate your decision in a balanced manner. Then you will surely arrive at the conclusion that he is the only one who will bring honor to Tel Aviv in particular, and to the Land of Israel in general.
"May you be inscribed in the Book of the Righteous, speedily, for a long and good life.
"With friendship and respect,
Moshe Halevi Soloveitchik"
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