The Hug That Changed a Rabbi

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From Washington Avenue

My life was to change more than I realized on the night of my wedding. The prevalent custom was that the groom delivered a learned Talmudic discourse either before or after the signing of the ketubah. Generally, the groom would be interrupted by the spirited singing of his friends. Even if the groom wished to continue, his entourage did not allow him to. However, the Rav (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik) held that such deportment reflected a disrespectful attitude towards rabbinic scholarship. When he was present, no one would interrupt the groom. After the ketubah was executed, I spoke for twenty-two minutes on the topic of the ineligibility of gamblers to be witnesses or judges (Sanhedrin 3:3). (I imagine I was apprehensive that marriage too was a gamble.) This was a topic we had studied with the Rav in his classes on the tractate of Sanhedrin. When I completed my discourse, the Rav warmly embraced me in the presence of all those assembled at the “groom’s table.”

While I did not note the importance of this moment at the time, the Rav’s embrace was gradually to change my life’s goals and aspirations. During the week of sheva berakhot following the wedding, I received a note that Mr. Norman B. Abrams wished to see me. I entered the office of the Yeshiva’s administrator wondering what his summons was about. Mr. Abrams rose from his chair and put his arms around me. He declared:

Arnold, I have never seen Rabbi Soloveitchik so emotional with a student. He embraced you with such warmth when you finished your learned words of Torah. I told Dr. Belkin about it. We agreed that when there will be the next opening for a rosh yeshiva, you will be appointed to the Yeshiva’s faculty.

I made a mental note of the conversation and left his office with a smile on my face. It was not only the week of celebration after the wedding, but I also received this wonderful compliment. In 1961 when I attained my rabbinical ordination, there were no new appointments to the faculty. I entered the Lower Merion rabbinate. In addition to my duties as a rabbi and Hebrew school and adult education teacher, I insisted on giving a weekly Talmud lecture. I followed the Rav’s dictum: “Teach what you do not know. Thereby you will also master new material.” I chose the Talmudic tractate of Moed Katan for my lectures. This is a portion of the Talmud that was not part of the Yeshiva’s curriculum. I attracted many of the congregation’s most learned members to these classes. Some were ordained rabbis and all were accomplished scholars in their chosen fields of endeavor. Many of these students were part of the greater Yeshiva University network. Evidently word of these lectures on Moed Katan reached the ears of the Yeshiva’s administration. While caught up in the midst of all my difficulties at the synagogue, on Thursday morning, April 5, 1962, there was a knock at our door. It was a telegram from Mr. Abrams. It requested that I be at the Yeshiva the next Monday morning at 10 a.m. Abrams had arranged a meeting for me with the president of Yeshiva University.

That Monday, April 9, I took the train from Philadelphia to Manhattan. The subway brought me uptown to the Yeshiva, and I immediately entered Mr. Abram’s office. After greeting me, he quickly escorted me down the hall to Rabbi Belkin’s office. There were no words wasted. The president immediately broke out a bottle of schnapps and we drank to life. Over the le-hayyim, Dr. Belkin informed me that I was officially being appointed to the Yeshiva faculty for the term beginning in September 1962. Then he added a postscript. It was a concept that I would hear with a slight variation almost a decade later. Dr. Belkin declared: “Even though you will be a rosh yeshiva, I want you to continue in the rabbinate. I can shake any apartment building in Washington Heights and I will procure a rosh yeshiva. However, rabbis who are capable of serving as spiritual leaders in congregations are much harder to come by. I know you had difficulty in your first position. Nevertheless, you must make another attempt. I will instruct the Community Service Division to place you in a synagogue which will be within commuting distance of the Yeshiva.”

Thus I became the rabbi of a fledgling Orthodox synagogue in the suburban Essex County area. More important, I now joined the faculty of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. At that time the Yeshiva was still one unit, beginning with the Talmudical Academy High School and continuing through the postgraduate semikhah division. An inexperienced rebbe began with the first high school class and gradually worked his way up to more advanced teaching. In my years with the Yeshiva in Washington Heights this soon was not to be the reality. The campus was expanded and the student body consequently increased. Gradually the three levels of the Yeshiva separated. The Talmudical Academy High School, Yeshiva College, and the postgraduate studies became separate and distinct units of the greater Yeshiva picture. Nonetheless, I was now a faculty member of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

That summer we relocated to the Essex County area. In September I began a daily commute to the Yeshiva, which would continue for the next seven years. I was back in the halls of the Yeshiva. I was no longer a student but rather a rebbe. This was a new standard of teaching for me, well above that of my previous experiences in elementary Hebrew schools. My students at Talmudical Academy were already familiar with the Talmud. They had been introduced to the “sea of the Talmud” in their elementary education. My goal was to enhance their abilities to master the rabbinic idiom on their own. I guided them in deciphering the logic and thought process inherent in the Talmudic exchanges and excuses. I helped them master the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafot, the two most basic elucidations of the rabbinic text. I also introduced my students to the codification of Jewish law, with particular stress on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. I always tried to prepare my lectures to the fullest extent.

The art and love of teaching gradually entered my blood. The ability to remain in the world of Torah study and to impart knowledge and inspiration to the next generation started to pulsate within me. I learned to appreciate the sanctity and individuality of every student. The Rav often probed the philosophical question of whether Rabbi Elijah (the “Vilna Gaon”) or the Vilna shoemaker possessed more inherent sanctity. The Rav explained that in relation to knowledge and comprehension, the Vilna Gaon was certainly on a higher level than the shoemaker; albeit in relation to inner sanctity and dedication the shoemaker could achieve as much as the Gaon. Every mortal can strive to come closer to the Almighty. On this level, the genius possessed no congenital advantage over any other personage. The more I taught the more I came to appreciate and internalize the Rav’s insight. My students over the generations were to differ widely in their natural abilities and proclivities. Beyond the knowledge I attempted to impart to my students, I considered it my primary objective and mission to encourage and inspire them. To instill within them the resolve to fully accept their responsibilities as members of the Jewish people was more important than the amount of knowledge I could successfully transmit.

Since I respected the individuality of my pupils, I did not attempt to clone them in agreement with my particular outlook and viewpoints. This approach was communicated to me by observing the Rav. To attempt to reach all your pupils is the greatest challenge facing the rebbe in the classroom. It is painless and not difficult to impart knowledge to the bright and motivated students. The more complicated objective is to reach all of your class. I also attempted to have a convivial relationship with my students. I shared my baseball knowledge with them. I understood the circumstances in which they functioned and comprehended their quests and struggles. I never expressed the attitude that I was their master and they were my apprentices. Here, too, I was guided by the Rav’s deportment.

However, the ultimate goal in the teaching of Torah must be to successfully forge new links in the chain of Torah and tradition which originated from Sinai. This relationship between mentor and disciple is the foundation of the Oral Tradition (Torah she-be’al peh). It is the heart of the great mesorah, the heritage and living experience of the Torah people. The Rav expressed these sentiments at a sheva berakhot in 1979:

When I teach young boys, no matter how complicated the sugya [Talmudic topic] is, I try to pass on to them more than just knowledge. I pass on to them not only the knowledge, the abstractions, and the concept of the halakhah, but also something that I experience, something personal, something intimate, a part of myself…. In Yahadut, this relationship is the foundation of the Torah she-be’al peh and the great mesorah. It is the heart of a great tradition which one generation passes on to the next generation.

Adapted from Rabbi Rakeffet’s forthcoming memoirs From Washington Avenue to Washington Street. Learn more about this book and obtain a pre-publication discount at OU Press.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.