Hashem presents us with a variety of incredible opportunities. Our challenge is to seize these moments and not let them slip by. Fortunately, I recognized the fabulous opportunity Hashem presented to me during 1983-1985, when I served as an assistant to Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, the last two and a half years that he taught at Yeshiva University. I planned well for the time I would spend with the Rav carefully considering which issues I should discuss with him. Following the times I spent with the Rav, I recorded in a notebook his thoughts as thoroughly as possible. Although many of the conversations are not appropriate to share in this forum, the following ten selections are appropriate fare for a broader audience. May this presentation serve as an honor to the Rav’s Neshamah on the occasion of his forthcoming seventeenth Yahrtzeit on the eighteenth of Nissan.
Tallit before Marriage
By the time I served as an assistant to Rav Soloveitchik, many of his Halachic rulings were well-known among his circle of students. One such example is the Rav’s opinion that a young man should begin to wear a Tallit beginning from the time he becomes Bar Mitzvah and not wait until he marries, contrary to the common custom of Jews from Eastern Europe. Indeed, I saw two of Rav Soloveitchik grandsons, Rav Meir Lichtenstein and Rav Moshe Lichtenstein, wearing a Tallit before they married.
Although my father (a Jew from Poland) a”h told me that he did not wear a Tallit until his wedding, the Rav’s opinion and the Mishnah Berurah’s hearty concurrence with the Rav’s approach caused me to wonder as to whether I should continue my family tradition. When I asked Rav Soloveitchik as to whether I should follow his opinion or my family practice, his response was immediate and resolute: One should honor his family Minhag (custom) regarding this matter.
This taught me the great importance of honoring family Minhagim, especially since the basis for refraining from wearing Tallit until the wedding is not particularly compelling, as noted by the Mishnah Berurah (17:10, who argues “why should one refrain from the Mitzvah of Tzitzit until marriage?”). Rav Soloveitchik made a similar comment at a conference of the Rabbinical Council of America, that he honors his family custom to refrain from wearing Tefillin on Chol HaMoed even though he believes the more compelling approach would be to wear the Tefillin but not recite the Berachah (since it is an unresolved dispute among the Rishonim).
We should clarify that the Rav did not always endorse following debatable family Minhagim. One example in his view was the practice of some men to wear a “double daled” knot on their Tefillin Shel Rosh (cited in Rav Hershel Schachter’s Nefesh HaRav pp.105-106; see, though, Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 9:9 who presents a defense of this practice). Rabbinical guidance is often necessary to evaluate as to whether one should maintain a controversial family custom.
A Question from a Giyoret (female convert) – the Moral Infrastructure of Judaism
People who heard that I was serving as one of Rav Soloveitchik’s assistants would ask me to present their questions to the Rav. A young female convert requested that I ask the Rav as to how she should relate to her biological parents (who did not convert). Her concern stems from the Gemara (Yevamot 62a) that compares a convert to a newborn and thus all prior biological relationships are severed.
Rav Soloveitchik responded that even though technically speaking the Halacha of Kibbud Av VaEim (honoring parents) does not apply to her parents, nonetheless there is an ethical obligation to honor her parents. The Rav explained that just as Hashem shows kindness to all human beings so too we must be kind to all of humanity, basing his position on Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 10:12) which states that the obligation to support poor Nochrim emerges from Tehillim’s (145:9) description of Hashem as “having pity on all of His creations.” Similarly, though noting that there are those who disagree, he felt that a convert maintain an appropriate relationship with his/her parents as an expression of our obligation to imitate Hashem (Shabbat 130b) and show kindness to all. I should clarify, however, that this matter is often quite delicate and complicated. Hence, competent and sensitive rabbinic guidance is needed to help navigate this potentially challenging issue.
Teaching Youngsters who Attend Conservative Synagogues
In 1985 I began teaching at a Sunday Torah learning high school program together with an entirely Orthodox staff. The program was housed in a Conservative temple in Morris County, New Jersey and almost all the students were members of Conservative congregations located in the surrounding area. An older relative of mine criticized my teaching at that school, arguing that I was preparing the next generation of leaders for the Conservative movement.
I sought Rav Soloveitchik’s guidance regarding this matter. The Rav’s reply was immediate and resolute – one must teach Torah to all Jews. Once again, I must clarify that teaching in such an institution often is fraught with Halachic complications and proper advice from appropriate Rabbanim must be sought.
Purchasing a German-made Automobile
A relative of mine was fond of German-made cars and asked me to seek the guidance of the Rav regarding the propriety of such a purchase. The Rav told me that he was conflicted about this issue. On the one hand, he noted that the Torah commands us to destroy Amalek and its property (Devarim 25:19 and Rashi ad. loc.); he famously considers the Nazis as Amalek, due to their baseless hatred of the Jewish People. Rav Shalom Carmy even told me that the Rav instructed American soldiers stationed in Europe after World War II to avoid patronizing German stores on the basis of this Pasuk. On the other hand, Rav Soloveitchik observed that the Torah states (Devarim 24:16) that children should not be punished due to the sins of their parents. In practice, the Rav believed that since the matter is unclear, the decision is left to each individual depending “on his moral sensitivities.”
A Kohein Attending Medical School
A seventeen year old young man requested that I ask the Rav if his being a Kohein precluded his enrolling in medical school. The Rav very sternly forbade it, and was even very annoyed at me for merely asking this question. The young man heeded the Rav’s ruling and went on to be quite successful in business.
Knowing a Rav’s Limits – Responding to a Question from Eretz Yisrael
The Rav received large numbers of letters of inquiry to which his assistants helped him write responses. In one case, a sensitive question was submitted by a resident of Eretz Yisrael. Rav Soloveitchik refused to answer the question, emphatically noting that it is appropriate that the question should be directed instead to Rabbanim who live in Eretz Yisrael. I surmise that the reason for this approach is that one cannot rule from afar as one is unaware of the environment, practices, and concerns of that area, all of which impact the decision rendered by the Posek (Halachic decisor). Interestingly, a few years later I posed a highly sensitive question to the Rav’s disciple and son-in-law, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (who lives in Israel), and he told me that only a Rav who actually lives in the United States is capable of rendering an appropriate decision on that issue.
Teaching Torah to a Nochri
A Nochri professor at Yeshiva University blessed with an exceptionally fine ethical personality and very positive disposition to Torah and the Jewish People asked me to sit next to him during a public lecture on a matter of Torah Hashkafah (worldview) delivered by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and translate the Torah terminology he employed. I asked Rav Soloveitchik if it was permissible for me to do so in light of the prohibition to teach Torah to a Nochri.
The Rav responded that I was permitted to facilitate the professor’s understanding of Rav Lichtenstein’s presentation since “it enhanced the prestige of the Jewish People.” The Rav understood that this is a rabbinic prohibition instituted in an attempt to prevent Torah falling into the hands of those who would use the information to defame our People. Interestingly, Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg adopts a somewhat similar approach in his Teshuvot Seridei Eish (2:90). Rav Soloveitchik told me on a separate occasion of his affinity for Rav Weinberg’s rulings. Rav Carmy informed me later that the Rav and Rav Weinberg developed a close relationship during the years Rav Soloveitchik studied in Berlin, where Rav Weinberg headed the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary. As we noted regarding other issues, the prohibition to teach Torah to Nochrim is a highly sensitive area which often requires proper guidance from a Rav.
Responding to another’s Greetings
The Gemara (Berachot 6b) condemns those who do not respond to another’s greetings as a Gazlan (brazen thief). I asked the Rav why the Gemara employed such harsh language. He explained that every individual is owed respect, although the quality of the greeting obviously varies depending on the depth one’s relationship with that individual. When one withholds a proper response to another’s greeting, he is guilty of withholding something that he owes that person.
Rav Shlomo Goren during his service as the chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces introduced a singular prayer text that would combine Ashkenazic and Sephardic practices (Nusach Acheed) so that the soldiers of the varying communities would be able to pray together using one liturgy. Rav Goren thought this would serve to unify the various segments of the Jewish community. Rav Soloveitchik told me that he strongly objects to this effort since “the beauty of Tefillah lies in its versatility” and that each community expresses themselves in a different manner to the Ribbono Shel Olam (see Teshuvot Yechave Da’at 3:6, where Rav Ovadia Yosef also objects to Nusach Acheed).
Encouragement to Enter the Field of Torah Education
Those who are considering entering the Rabbinate and/or Torah education often deliberate as to whether the field is right for them. I shared my career plans with the Rav and he told me that I should enter the field because “you are [intellectually] curious and have a sense of involvement”. These words should serve as a guiding light to those contemplating entering this holy life’s work.
How privileged are those who had the opportunity to engage in conversation with the Rav and benefit from his great wisdom, piety, and spirituality. Although the window of this opportunity has sadly closed, the Jewish community is blessed with many of the Rav’s students who reflect their Rebbe’s teachings as the moon reflects the light of the sun (see Bava Batra 75a). Moreover, the Rav has left a legacy of numerous manuscripts, so many of which have been published since his departure from this world and allow us to continue to learn from a role model of Torah greatness whose words remain astonishingly fresh, decades after he wrote them. Our challenge is to seize the opportunity to study these works and grow in our relationship with Hashem, our ethics, dedication to the Jewish People, and the Torah’s commands and values.