Machzor Mesoras HaRav on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
Edited by Dr. Arnold Lustiger
The Kasirer Edition
K’hal Publishing in conjunction with the Orthodox Union
New York, 2006/2007
I was born in a year that provided a unique opportunity that those a few years older and younger than I missed. People from my general age group never had the opportunity of seeing or studying under Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav), but we did learn under those who were his direct students. Now, as my generation has increasingly filled the ranks of rabbis and teachers, students are becoming distanced from the Rav by a further generation. However, while I shared the experience of learning from the Rav’s students with those directly older and younger than I, I was learning at Yeshiva University during the terrible year in which we lost three great teachers-Rav Shraga Feivel Paretsky, Rav David Lifschitz and the Rav.
Shortly after the Rav’s passing, there was a period of time when eulogies for him were delivered almost nightly by roshei yeshivah at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS). This was their opportunity to commemorate their distinguished mentor’s accomplishments, as well as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students like me to gain multiple and sequential insights into the Rav. The differences in these respective portraits were, however, striking. In one rosh yeshivah’s description, the Rav seemed like a misunderstood halachist who had strange practices based on unique halachic rulings. From another’s perspective, he was a fiery ba’al musar. One rosh yeshivah portrayed him as an abstract lamdan and another as a religious conservative who opposed halachic change except when absolutely necessary and halachically justifiable. And so on.
In some respects these varying perspectives were quite amusing, because each speaker emphasized a facet of the Rav that was most reflected in the speaker himself. Clearly, the speaker concentrated on those aspects of the Rav that he found most compelling. Yet, the very fact that so many different people could find an exemplar of different disciplines in the Rav was the most revealing discovery. Initially, I was confused about these widely varying descriptions, but eventually I realized that they are, in fact, all true. The Rav was simply a proverbial “Ish Ha’eshkolot,” a man who mastered many different and varied subjects.1 The Rav was at the same time an abstract lamdan, a creative philosopher, an expert posek, a master orator, a religious conservative, an advocate for necessary and appropriate religious change and much more.
I occasionally hear people complaining today that the Rav is quoted too often in Modern Orthodox circles. Are we obsessed with him? My response is that the same tendency can be found among the students of the Rambam, the Vilna Gaon, the Chazon Ish and other towering figures in Jewish intellectual history. The depth and originality of the Rav’s scholarship combined with the breadth of his scholarly reach made him a unique figure in Jewish history whose impact will be felt for centuries to come.
The multiplicity of perspectives on the Rav’s scholarship and personality has made it exceptionally difficult to capture who he was.2 Books published about him tend to reflect only one aspect of his multi-faceted personality. Clearly, it is extremely difficult for authors and editors to encapsulate the Rav’s broad intellectual achievements into a single volume. However, perhaps inadvertently, an important step towards doing so has been taken in a surprising format: the Machzor Mesoras HaRav on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Dr. Arnold Lustiger, together with Rabbi Michael Taubes and with the help of a number of other distinguished contributors, has published machzorim for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with a commentary adapted from the teachings of the Rav. The concept is fairly simple. The Rav spoke and wrote extensively about the High Holidays, and the themes of prayer and repentance, in particular, played an important role in his view of the role of man in this world. Dr. Lustiger compiled hundreds of comments from the Rav’s published writings and other assorted sources, and formatted them into a running commentary on the machzor. Again, not a complex idea. However, the execution of this plan is simply remarkable. Dr. Lustiger scoured the increasingly voluminous canon of published works by the Rav and his students. His search was so broad that he even included the notes of a student in Rav Soloveitchik’s graduate class in the early 1950s and recent articles in the Yeshiva College newspaper.
Furthermore, no genre of the Rav’s thinking was omitted from the commentary. The machzorim are replete with lamdut,3 practical halachah,4 philosophy,5 inspiring stories,6 homiletical interpretations,7 kabbalah,8 studies in the structure of prayer9 and more. The best representation of what I understand to be the Rav’s intellectual breadth to date can be found in the commentary to these machzorim. The Rav demonstrates that we need to study the text of the prayers for all layers of depth, including lamdut, aggadah, grammar, and literary themes.
Understandably, the format of such a commentary cannot accommodate the Rav’s depth. Certain philosophical insights of his are almost impenetrable without consulting the text from which they were taken. For example, the statement that God “is truthful because His thought is identical with reality” (Yom Kippur Machzor, 83) is indecipherable without looking up the source of this quote in The Emergence of Ethical Man (p. 140) and reading the prior two pages. Similarly, the statement, “We are compelled to thank and praise God for all the wonders that He does on our behalf despite the fact that He transcends all song and praise” (YKM, 316) compels one to look up the source in Shiurim LeZecher Abba Mori (vol. 2, p. 19) and to learn the full halachic background to this insight. But this observation is not to be taken as a criticism of the commentary; quite the opposite. It is remarkable how much depth Dr. Lustiger was able to include in these works, which due to the limitations of the machzors’ format must necessarily be brief. It is as if these two volumes contain so much material that they are bursting at the binding.
Students of the Rav’s teachings will be amply rewarded by the commentary. The vast references cover multiple genres that include specific citations so original ideas can be quickly found. Those without extensive familiarity with the Rav’s thinking will find many examples of comments that are understandable as they are, in addition to the many that are mere “tastes” and require examining the original source. The commentary is at times inspiring and informative, but always fascinating. The essays at the beginning of each machzor provide a quick guide to the main thoughts in the commentaries but still leave the bulk of insights to be found through careful reading.
An important feature in these machzorim, and one that I suspect will delight many readers but may annoy others (myself among the former), is the inclusion of “Hanhagos HaRav,” the halachic practices of the Rav. Dr. Lustiger consulted with those who knew the Rav’s practices best, most notably Rabbi Menachem Gopin, who sat down with the Rav towards the end of his life with the specific intent of recording his practices. He then compiled a list of the Rav’s unique halachic practices regarding prayer in general and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in particular. These are listed in a separate section at the beginning of each machzor and then incorporated into the text as footnotes. This last point is significant in that the Rav changed the text of certain passages in prayer, particularly in the Mussaf of Rosh Hashanah.
The decision to only incorporate these changes as footnotes and not into the text itself allows those who wish to use the currently standard machzor text-certainly the vast majority of readers-to do so easily. However, I am sure that some users of the machzor would rather have the entire section completely removed. Undue emphasis on the Rav’s private customs and practices does, in some sense, make him seem like simply a man with strange practices rather than the towering intellectual figure that he was. Additionally, the two types of footnotes-commentary and practices-occasionally blend into each other when they run onto multiple pages and make for somewhat confusing reading. Nevertheless, I personally found the value of these practices to outweigh these concerns.
In summary, these machzorim are indispensable for anyone looking to learn about the themes and prayers of the High Holidays or about the thought and methodologies of the Rav.
Rabbi Student is the president of Yashar Books and the author of a popular blog at TorahMusings.com. He would like to thank Steve Brizel for his extremely helpful comments on this article.
1. A play on the phrase “ish shehakol bo,” a man who embodies everything. See Sotah 47a-b and Rambam’s Commentary on the Mishnah, Sotah 9:9.
2. To date, there has been no comprehensive biography published on the Rav. Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff’s two-volume The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik is a fascinating book, but it is hardly a comprehensive biography.
3. For example, see Rosh Hashanah Machzor, 447-449, regarding the blessing over blowing/hearing the shofar.
4. As can be seen throughout the Hanhagos HaRav sections, discussed later in this review.
5. See RHM, 535, about how God rules through natural and moral law, and the example quoted in the next paragraph of this review.
Interestingly, I did not find any mention of a non-religious or non-Jewish philosopher in the machzorim, although the quotations from the Rav’s philosophical works certainly bear the influence of the philosophers mentioned in those books. For example, the Rav’s theory of time (e.g., RHM, 543-544) is clearly influenced by the views of Martin Heidegger. When I made this observation on my blog, commenters directed me to an article that discusses this as well as a statement by the Rav that he attended a course taught by Heidegger (in Rabbi Rakeffet-Rothkoff, vol. 1, p. 195). See this discussion at http://hirhurim.blogspot.com/2006/10/rav-soloveitchik-and-heidegger.html.
However, it is understandable why the names of non-religious and non-Jewish philosophers would not be mentioned in a prayerbook. See the responsum of Rabbi Amram Gaon, quoted by the Ramban and other Rishonim in their commentaries to Avodah Zarah 35b, and the series of posts on my blog titled “Citation of Non-Orthodox Scholars.” As these machzorim are intended for synagogue use and for ritual purposes, they are different from a philosophical book.
6. See RHM, 98-99, about Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik’s moving Rosh Hashanah Kiddush and RHM, 522-525, about the teacher from the Rav’s youth explaining to him that Rosh Hashanah is about coronating God as king.
7. See RHM, 242-244, about God sitting on his throne and listening to prayers and RHM, 316-317, about how the tradition unifies across generations.
8. See RHM, 268-269 and 309-311, about tzimtzum and RHM, 234-235 and 301-302, about itaruta diltata.
9. See YKM, 89, about how the praises “great, mighty and awesome God” refer to the first three blessings of the Shemoneh Esrei and YKM, 105, for the calming effect of the Shemoneh Esrei’s final blessing for peace in the world, after the previous jarring prayers.