Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Reflects on Lessons of his Teacher and Mentor, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik
Nissan 18, the second day of Chol Hamoed Pesach (April 22), marks the 18th yahrzeit of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik.
Yeshiva University opened up a whole new world for me. I believe that I received there the kind of education I could not have gotten anywhere else.
But my entry into YU gave my parents one severe headache: they, especially my mother, were mortally afraid of my becoming a rabbi because I attended YU during an era in which Orthodoxy was in retreat and Orthodox rabbis barely made a living. They were generally dependent upon receiving payment for extra services rendered, like performing weddings and funerals, forcing them to rely upon the largess of individual members of the congregation in a way that often became demeaning.
At each juncture – when I went to Yeshiva University High School of Brooklyn, and then when I went to Yeshiva University – my mother would say, “We’re letting you follow the course of your own mind, and that’s fine. But remember, you promised you’re not going to become a rabbi.” I don’t know if I actually promised that, but I certainly gave her to understand that I wouldn’t become a rabbi, and I really didn’t plan at that time to do so.
And then I entered Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik’s Talmud class.
Rav Soloveitchik, zt”l, was an extraordinary influence. He brought Talmudic texts to life in a way I never dreamed possible. The Brisker conceptual method of study, specifically through the lens of Rav Soloveitchik, was such that I began to see great philosophical constructs emanating from the pages of the Talmud, no less impressive and unifying than the Kantian or Hegelian philosophical constructs. Even more significantly for me, Rav Soloveitchik called himself a “halachic existentialist” because he believed that halacha spoke to the most profound existential feelings of the human being.
Every year, on the occasion of the yahrzeit of his father, Rav Soloveitchik would give a four-hour exposition; the first two hours werehalacha, after which he would take the legal concepts he had just interpreted in a novel and profound way, and he would go on to elucidate the philosophical, existential and humanistic ramifications of the Talmudic argument. For me, those four hours passed like just a few moments.
I began to realize that all I was looking for – the spiritual, the intellectual, the humanistic – could be found within the pages of the Talmud.
I became a very devoted disciple of Rav Soloveitchik; my Yeshiva University experience was very much centered around the Rav, who became my religious and spiritual mentor.
The film “The Paper Chase,” which described the agony and ecstasy of a difficult law school class where students were sharply challenged and had to work hard to be up to snuff, was nothing compared to Rav Soloveitchik’s shiur. The pressure was very intense. We knew that he was greatness. We knew that it was a privilege to be in his presence. We would give anything for his praise, and we were in dread of his derision.
We strove to understand the Talmudic concept he was explaining and he, especially in those years (1957-9), would brook no foolishness. He wouldn’t accept a foolish question, and could put down a less than perfect rendering of the Talmudic argument very strongly, and very bluntly. The classes were exciting and the material was intellectually invigorating. But there was a great deal of pressure. You didn’t want to say the wrong thing. You didn’t want to give a wrong answer. You didn’t want to ask an unwise question.
I’ll tell you at what point he completely captivated me – the incident that enabled me to understand the Rav’s true attitude toward his students. There was one student I had taken under my wing. He didn’t study in the Yeshiva section of Yeshiva University; he was, rather, in the less-intensive Teachers Institute Department. Since he was very bright, I tried hard to influence him to come over to the Yeshiva section, and he agreed. I also intervened when I thought he was ready to enter Rav Soloveitchik’s class.
There were about a hundred students in the class; many vied to get in, and it was a coup when my friend was accepted. I sat in the front seat, first row, and he sat in the last seat in the back row. But every week, I would encourage him to come up a row, until finally he was seated right behind me.
I remember exactly what we were studying when the incident occurred:Masechet Pesachim, the topic of tesha chanuyot. It is a complex portion of the Talmud, and it’s very difficult to understand exactly what the Gemara is trying to get at. It deals with the laws of presumption. Rav Soloveitchik had presented a whole construct as to how he thought the Gemara should be interpreted, and then he reversed himself completely and gave a wholly different understanding. I was very excited about the second way in which he was explaining the repartee within the Talmud; this new interpretation was truly novel and eye-opening.
Toward the end of the Rav’s new explication, my protégé – we’ll call him Cohen – now sitting right behind me, whispered a question in my ear. I thought it was an excellent question, even a devastating one to the Rav’s construct. So I encouraged Cohen to ask his question out loud, and he did.
Rav Soloveitchik exploded. “How could you ask such a foolish question? How could you ask me something like that? You shouldn’t be here anyway. You’re here because Riskin brought you in.”
And with that, he ended the class. I was devastated; Cohen was smashed to the ground.
During those years Rav Soloveitchik gave two classes back to back. One was in Talmud, for the younger students, and the other was in Codes (Yoreh De’ah) for the older students who were soon to receive their rabbinical degree. Although I still had a good deal of time for my rabbinical degree, I took both classes, as did a coterie of faithful students. So I stayed in the room after the Rav’s explosion.
Usually the Rav switched from topic to topic with barely an interruption. This time, Rav Soloveitchik sat at his desk with his head on his arm, Masechet Pesachim still open before him, for at least twenty minutes.
There was absolute silence. No one spoke. As long as the Rav remained silent, all of us continued to wait in silence. Then Rav Soloveitchik looked up at me and said, “Riskin, what’s his name, the one who asked me the question?”
I said, “Cohen, Rebbe.”
He said, “Yes, yes, Cohen. Take me to him. Where is he now? Take me to him.”
I assumed Cohen was eating. There was a restaurant right across the street called Tov Me’od, but we all called it the Greasy Spoon. So I said, “Rebbe, I think he’s at the Greasy Spoon.”
“Take me to him!” he repeated.
The Rav had a rather distinctive walk. He walked very quickly and his hands swung on both sides. He rarely went into any of the restaurants; occasionally, he would eat in the Yeshiva cafeteria, but generally the Rebbetzin would prepare his food in their dormitory apartment.
When the Rav entered the Greasy Spoon, palpable shock waves went through the tables of diners. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Cohen, who was eating a scrambled egg and hash-brown potatoes with ketchup. I can see his plate in front of my eyes as I retell the story.
Everyone immediately jumped to attention, including Cohen. He had just begun to recapture some color on his face, but at the unexpected sight of the Rav his face turned a stark white. Rav Soloveitchik set his gaze on the hapless questioner: “Cohen, you’re right and I was wrong. Your question was a very good question. It undermines my complete thesis. I have to give a whole different interpretation next week. Thank you, Cohen.”
And with that he walked back with me across the street and into the classroom.
I understood at that point what intellectual honesty was all about. I also understood that Rav Soloveitchik was mindful of the fact that he was training future rabbis – future congregational leaders, future decisors of Jewish law. To his mind, a rabbinical student, no less than a medical student, couldn’t afford to make a mistake. The mesorah, the tradition the Rav was giving over to our hands, must be treated with the same precision necessary in medicine. A mistake in a mesorah was as dangerous as a medical mistake.
This essay was adapted from Rabbi Riskin’s new book, Listening to God: Inspirational Stories for My Grandchildren (Koren Publishers) and was originally published in The Jewish Press. It can be read in its entirety here…
Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin, renowned speaker and author, serves a chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel. Rabbi Riskin graduated as valedictorian, summa cum laude, from YU in 1960 and was ordained by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, his teacher and mentor, three years later. He holds a master’s degree in Jewish history, and in 1982 was awarded a PhD from New York University’s department of Near Eastern Languages and Literature. Rabbi Riskin served first as lecturer and then as associate professor of Bible and Talmud at YU from 1963 to 1977.