The Rav as Communal Leader

24 Mar 2021

There is a providential principle in Jewish history.[1]  As religious Jews, we believe that God never abandons the Jewish People and that in a time of crisis, He always provides us with new hope and new leadership.  This has been true throughout Jewish history, and the American experience is no exception.  When the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, came to the United States in 1932, the Torah community was at a terrifying crossroads.  To read the literature of the twenties, thirties and forties is to wade through countless eulogies over the impending demise of the Orthodox community.  We were consigned to the limbo of obsolescence, and we were assured that a Torah-true Jewish life could not strike roots in the pragmatic soil of America.

There were good grounds for these assessments and predictions; everything pointed in that direction.  Only a guiding, providential hand could change the course of history; only a towering spiritual and intellectual figure could, by dint of his teachings and his personality, reverse the process of religious self-destruction and open a new era of Jewish creativity on the American continent.  That man was the Rav.

The Rav was the architect of our approach to Torah Judaism.  He was not the creator of what some now call Modern or Centrist Orthodoxy; that preceded his coming to the shores of America.  Men like Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel were the original visionaries of Torah uMadda, but it was the Rav who was destined to give it direction, substance and meaning.  Through his shiurim, lectures and essays, his weltanschauung was impressed on the minds and hearts of two generations.  Thousands hung on his every work, and his comments and statements became guides for action.

The status of the Rabbinical Council of America as an authentic Orthodox rabbinic body was legitimated by the presence of the Rav in our midst.  His universally recognized Talmudic erudition, coupled with his vast secular knowledge, made him the undisputed guide and teacher for the Modern Orthodox rabbinate and its lay constituency.  And given his identification with the RCA, the Agudas haRabbanim could no longer trifle with the RCA and its decisions.

The Rav, in his capacity as the Chairman of the RCA Halakha Commission, revealed another aspect of his prodigious personality:  the Rav as posek, as halakhic decisor.  The Jewish world revered the Rav as creative teacher, as halakhist par excellence and as the seminal Jewish thinker.  Few had the opportunity to experience him as a first-class authority in practical areas of Jewish Law and the author of responsa on religious and social issues, which reflected his masterful scholarship, his brilliant insight into the American Jewish community and his ability to communicate his decisions in a manner which made them binding on broad sections of the community.[2]

It was in this capacity as posek that the Rav took his stand, for example, against mixed pews.  In the forties and fifties, the problem of mixed pews became a very serious matter for the Orthodox rabbinate.  Orthodox synagogue after Orthodox synagogue was falling to the Conservative movement over this issue.  Finally, the struggle was joined in the secular courts when two famous cases were brought, one involving a synagogue in New Orleans and the other a congregation in Mt. Clemens in Michigan.  In this struggle, the RCA and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, which played a key role in this legal confrontation, were buttressed by the strong position which the Rav enunciated and which was used in these cases.

In unusually strong terms, the Rav denounced those Orthodox rabbis who were lax, timid or indifferent to the principle of separation – reflecting the depth of his feeling on this issue.  In clear and decisive language, he declared that a “synagogue with mixed seating arrangements forfeits its sanctity…and is unfit for prayer…”[3]  It was in keeping with this unequivocal opposition to mixed pews that he directed a young man who lived in a neighborhood where the only synagogue was mixed-pew congregation, to remain at home on Rosh HaShana and not hear the blowing of the shofar “rather than to enter a synagogue whose sanctity has been profaned.”[4]

The Rav rejected any attempt to justify mixed pews on the basis that it was being practiced by increasing numbers o congregations.  In his view, it was completely irrelevant whether five percent of fifty percent of the pulpits of Orthodox rabbis were mixed.  The violation of a religious or ethical principle does not affect its validity and cogency even when a large segment of the community is guilty of that  violation.  Dramatically, the Rav posed the rhetorical question:   “Was the commandment against murder declared null and void while Nazi hordes were practicing genocide?”[5]

The Rav’s statement here, as well as in other areas, had a powerful impact.  The number of mixed pew positions serviced by Orthodox rabbis has been sharply reduced and has become a rare phenomenon.  The Rav’s decision fortified the Orthodox rabbinate not only because of its substance, but also because of the manner in which the Rav succeeded in intellectualizing the traditional opposition to innovations in the synagogue.  He not only spelled out the halakha in a language which educated American laymen could understand; he advanced a cogent rationale for the halakha which could not be readily dismissed by those who sought to impose reason rather than religious authority as the arbiter of religious law in the synagogue.

The Rav’s relationships and influence moved across a wide spectrum and embraced the greater part of American and world Jewry.  The people who related to him and sought his guidance and advice covered the gamut of the Jewish community, including the late giants of the previous generation.  Rav Moshe Feinstein was his cousin and his friend; his relationship to Rav Hutner went back to their days in Berlin as did his relationship with the Lubavitcher Rebbe.  I remember accompanying the Rav to three meetings with Rav Aharon Kotler in 1949.  Witnessing the mutual respect and the genuine friendship which flowed between these two spiritual giants is an experience with remains indelibly imprinted on my mind.

Thirty years later, in 1979, I accompanied the Rav to a meeting with the leadership of the Joint Distribution Committee.  The Va’ad haYeshivos had asked the Rav and me (in my capacity as president of the Rabbinical Council of America) to intercede on their behalf for a much-needed grant for their institutions.  When we walked into the conference room, the top leadership of the Joint was present.  Not one of them was an Orthodox Jew, but when the Rav walked in, instinctively, they stood up as a sign of their respect for a great man.

The Rav spoke to them for thirty minutes – and they were mesmerized.  He developed the concept of hakarat ha-tov, of gratitude, and he thanked them for what the Joint had done for his family in the aftermath of the First World War.  I can still see that wonderful smile which lit up his face as he told them that he could still feel the taste of the chocolate in his mouth.  He then proceeded to apply this principle to the need to support Torah and Torah institutions.  When he was through, the president of the Joint responded that because the Rav had appeared before them and had spoken to them, the grant would be forthcoming.

The Rav provided Orthodoxy with respect, dignity and stature by articulating its basic philosophical premises.  It was within the framework of the Rav’s thinking and approach that the RCA involved itself in an internal struggle over relationships with non-Orthodox rabbinic bodies and non-Jewish religious groups.  The Rav’s role in determining these directions was crucial and definitive.

The RCA, as a rabbinic body, had maintained ongoing relationships with the Conservative and the Reform – and we did no on the basis of ground rules which our halakhic authority ha set down for us.  For many years, the RCA and UOJCA were members of the Synagogue Council of America, which housed representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements as well as our own.

In 1956, our relationship to non-Orthodox bodies was challenged when eleven rashei yeshiva signed an issur prohibiting Orthodox rabbis from belonging to the Synagogue Council of America.  The RCA then turned to its Halakha Commission for direction.  The truth is that a definitive decision was never handed down.  The Commission and its chairman, our beloved Rav, were criticized for equivocation and for not taking a stand.  But the Rav’s approach was the only wise course to take.  The Rav felt that the atmosphere was too highly charged emotionally for a public response.  He had not been consulted by the signers; indeed, they had asked him to join in the issur only after the fact – and one can easily speculate as to the reasons.  Nonetheless, they were colleagues in the larger sense and men of scholarly distinction.  The Halakha Commission would not disagree publicly now that they had ruled, and neither the Rav nor the RCA were prepared to sever all relationships with these eminent men and their world.  In such circumstance, “no decision was also a decision”.

The Rav set down for us his famous guidelines of kelapei hutz and kelapei penim.[6]  In an interview with a Yiddish newspaper, he made this historic distinction (which he had previously made at an earlier RCA conference).  Underlying his approach was the unity of the Jewish people.  When the representation of Jews and Jewish interests vis-à-vis the non-Jewish world – kelapei hutz – are involved, all groups and movements must be united.  There can be no divisiveness in this area, for any division in the Jewish camp can endanger its entirety.  “In the crematoria, the ashes of Hasidim and anshei ma’ase (pious Jews) were mixed with the ashes of radicals and freethinkers.  We must fight against an enemy who does not recognize the difference between one who worships and one who does not.”  However, in internal matters – kelapei penim – such as education, synagogues, rabbinic organizations and halakhic decisions, “when unity must be manifested in a spiritual-ideological meaning as a Torah community, it seems to me that the Orthodox cannot and should not join with other such groups that deny the foundations of our weltanschauung.”

Within this framework, the Rav strongly opposed joint religious services with the Conservative and Reform movements; he also urged the RCA never to sign proclamations with other national rabbinic bodies, “particularly if it should manifest a religious character.”  These guidelines enabled the RCA to cooperate with other groups in external matters without compromising or blurring the lines which separate the Torah community from those who do not have a similar halakhic commitment.[7]In a similar vein, the Rav provided direction for the Torah community on how to address non-Jewish religious manifestation.  In Confrontation, the first essay of the Rav’s to appear in English,[8] the Rav developed the ground rules for that very delicate and potentially dangerous relationship.  We need not re-articulate those positions here, but it was in keeping with those principles that the Rav took a strong stand on Vatican II.  In 1960, at the time of Vatical II, the Jewish community was asked to send representatives to the Council as observers.  Then, like today there was a strong inclination in certain circles not just to go to the Vatican, but to run.  The Rav was unalterably opposed to sending Jewish observers to participate in Vatical II, which was, in his view, strictly a Christian matter.  Indeed, no official observers were sent.  The minute the Rav opposed it, Dr. Nachum Goldman, who was anxious to participate, withdrew rather than oppose the Rav and jeopardize the unity of the Jewish community.[9]

In 1962, the Rav had a secret meeting with Cardinal Willebrands, a Church liberal who was very friendly to Jews and very active on Vatican II. At Willebrands’ request.  The purpose was to discuss the possibility of a religious dialogue between Jews and Christians.  The Rav rejected this notion totally, using the basic arguments which he had developed in Confrontation.  He understood the missionary character of Christianity and its commitment to both demonstrate its truth and persuade individuals and groups to accept salvation through a Christian affirmation of faith.[10]

The RCA remained loyal to the guidelines which the Rav had set down and distinguished between theological discussions and ethical-secular concerns, which have universal validity.  Every program involving either Catholic or Protestant churches in which we participated was carefully scrutinized and analyzed – we literally would go over it with a fine-toothed comb.  Every topic which had possible theological nuances or implications was vetoed, and only when the Rav pronounced it to be satisfactory did we proceed to the dialogue.

Few people realize the kind of influence the Rav wielded in Israeli affairs .  When I was President of the RCA, I received a call from the then-Prime Minister Begin’s office asking me to receive his personal advisor on Russian affairs, who was coming to America with a special mission in which we could play a key role.  The emissary arrived, and he, I, and Rabbi Israel Klavan met in the offices of the RCA.  At that meeting, the emissary laid out the Israeli concern on Russian Jewish emigration, in which approximately 90% of the immigrants were opting for America.  The Israelis felt that only those Jews who agreed to go directly to Israel should be allowed to emigrate, and all others should be actively discouraged.  He asked us to intervene with the Rav and solicit from him a statement supporting that position.  He felt that with the Rav’s religious and moral authority, they would be able to sell their position to world Jewry.

I had personal reservations, but I agreed to speak to the Rav.  I flew up to Boston and met with him in his study.  He rejected the notion out of hand and related to me that his father, Rav Moshe, had told him during the 20’s and 30’s that to get a Jew out of Russia was in the category of pidyon shevuyim (redeeming captives) and should be undertaken at all costs.  At that point, the Israeli government dropped its plan, only to revive it a number of years later.

During the First Lebanon War, the Rav was terribly agitated by the situation.  He felt that the Israelis had gone too far, particularly in the last phase of their operation, which involved the Christian invasion of the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatilla.  When the question of a special commission to investigate what had happened in Sabra and Shatilla was brought before the Israeli cabinet at that time, the swing votes were in the hands of the National Religious Party; it was the Rav’s insistence that the Commission be established which played a major role in the decision of the Mafdal to opt for the creation of a Commission and the results which then followed.

The Rav’s position on the future of Judea and Samaria was solicited gy spiritual and political leaders of every shade and description.  It is true that the Rav consistently rejected the notion that the obligation to hold on to Judea and Samaria at any cost is a religious or halakhic imperative; at the same time, the Rav never aid that Israel should give back all of Judea and Samaria.  He insisted that the future of the territories should be determined by those who are its properly constituted authorities, in terms of the best long-term interests of the Jewish people, with the least danger to human life.  Only those who are politically and militarily informed, and whose lives depend upon that decision, have the right to make that decision.

The Rav clearly had a great love for the land of Israel and a great affection for the State of Israel.  He saw the State as a means to an end as meaningful only insofar as it helps fulfill the historic destiny of what he called “the covenant of the committed.”  The State of Israel, dedicated to God, aware of its unique historical and political position, is an indispensable instrument of national religious fulfillment.

The Rav, in one of his addresses to the Mizrachi, said:

You may ask, what is the attitude of Orthodoxy to the State of Israel:  Certainly our attitude is positive, can it possibly be otherwise?  Which faithful Jew can be against Israel?… But the State is but one bank of the river …. We admire the State with all our heart, we pray for her welfare, we send her our sons and stand united to defend her.  But it is not the highest good.  Our highest ideal is our faith; the basic foundation of our existence is that which is “beyond the river,” which symbolizes the people in confrontation with God and its unique way of life… If the question is put to us, what do you choose, a secular State of Israel… or the God of Israel?  Then it must be clearly understood that all of us, with one voice, will choose the God of Israel.[11]

The Rav himself was a card-carrying member of Agudath Israel.  In 1935, he travelled to Israel, for the first and only time in his life, to try out for the position of Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv.  He made a brilliant impression with his shiurim and lectures, but he was not elected.  The reason that was given was that he was too young.  The real reason was that his great-uncle, Rav Meir Berlin, vetoed him because of his Aguda credentials.

The Rav was the star of Aguda conventions, and people flocked to hear him.  For example, when Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky died, it was the Ra who delivered a masterful eulogy over Rav Chaim Ozer at the Aguda convention.  At that time, no one question the Rav’s credentials, and his Berlin doctorate was not a detriment to his honored position in the Agudath Israel hierarchy.  However, in the forties, the Rav underwent a slow transformation, and by the fifties, he was a committed Religious Zionist.  The Rav admits that his “links with Mizrachi grew gradually,” that he had his “doubts and reservations about the validity of the Mizrachi approach,” and that his decision ran counter to his family tradition.[12] But the Rav made his decision firmly on behalf of Mizrachi.  He was impressed by its achievements.  He was convinced that “from the point of view of history, Religious Zionism had saved the honor of religious Jews.”  It had created “a network of schools in which Bnei Akiva Yeshivot and Hesder Yeshivot are the crown; it has insured the unity of the Jewish people by making matters of personal status answerable to the Rabbinate and excluding civil marriage.”  The Rav recognized this and affirmed that without the pioneering efforts of Mizrachi, the “yeshiva world” could no have transplanted itself to the land of Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust.[13]

However, to our great sorrow, which the Tribes of God thousands of years ago finally admitted Joseph’s righteousness and begged his forgiveness… today, a segment of our brethren still lack the capacity to see reality as it is and the courage to admit their error.  Even today after Treblenka and Auschwitz – as assimilation putrefies a great portion of Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel is occupied in protecting the Jewish settlement from the Arab Amalek – they hold fast against their rother Joseph (Religious Zionists) “and they viewed him from a distance.”

It goes without saying that the Rav did not always agree with positions and actions taken by the Mafdal;[14]  nor was he above levelling his criticisms when they were warranted, in his opinion.  Nonetheless, the Rav supported Religious Zionism with great consistency, re-affirmed his faith in its historical validity, hailed its enduring achievement on behalf of religious Jewry and, to the end, never wavered in his commitment to the movement.

The Rav’s multifaceted personality, unfortunately, lends itself to distortion and revisionism.  The process has already begun, and many of those who presume to speak in his name sometimes do him a great disservice.  The Rav was, throughout his lifetime, the teacher of Torah par excellence, and all of his involvements were simply reflections of that commitment.  At the same time, he was, like other gedolei Yisrael, no recluse, and his impact was felt in many directions.  To picture him in any other light is to distort reality.  Never, then, has it been more important to place the Rav, his life and his contributions in historical perspective.  This a humble, but sincere attempt in that direction.

[1] Cf. Midrash Rabbah, Kohelet, I,5.

[2] Cf. L. Bernstein, Challenge and Mission, pp. 51-64.

[3] Cf. B. Litvin, the Sanctity of the Synagogue, p. 110.

[4] Ibid., p. 115.

[5] Ibid., p. 141.

[6] The Jewish Day, November 19, 1954.

[7] Cf. Brnstein, Challenge and Mission, p. 56, where Bernstein quotes a letter from the Rav to Rabbi Theodore Adams, z”l, on August 11, 1953.

[8] Tradition, vol. VI, pp. 5-29.

[9] Cf. Bernstein, Challenge and Mission, p. 206, for the background.

[10] Based on an article written by Dr. Hillel Seidman, in the Morning Journal at the time.

[11] The Rav Speaks, pp. 116-117.

[12] Ibid., pp. 34-36.

[13] Ibid., p. 32.

[14] Ibid., pp. 9 and 185-186.


This article originally appeared in Tradition Magazine