The Rav Never Went To Yeshiva

I caught three lectures by Professor Marc B. Shapiro this weekend. Among his astonishing statements was that the Rav (Joseph Baer Soloveitchik) never went to yeshiva. He learned from his father and grandfather, I assume, and learned with others (and at secular universities).

At the shul where he was scholar in residence this Sabbath, Dr. Shapiro showed up on time Friday night, Saturday morning and Saturday afternoon and was the first person to arrive at shul.

Dr. Shapiro said the Rav was one of those rare rabbis who became more influential after his death.

The rav’s funeral was interesting. The Haredim boycotted it.

The Rav was to the religious right of Rabbi Jechiel Jacob Weinberg in many respects but while the Haredim embraced Rav Weinberg, they rejected the Rav as clearly not being one of them.

There’s no scholar of modern Orthodox Jewish thought to match Dr. Shapiro. He’s about the only guy with an in-depth understanding of the Haredi world from the inside and a complete commitment to objective truth.

He says that none of the charedi elites have given him a hard time (there was one exception and the charedi rabbi reluctantly went along with it because he felt an obligation to calm the masses). Charedi leaders simply don’t want the masses getting their hands on Marc Shapiro’s writings.

The more religious you go in Jewish life, the stronger the distinction between learned and ignorant.

Dr. Shapiro pointed out that the Chareidi organization Aish HaTorah chose to honor intermarried Jews Jason Alexander and Larry King at banquets and that the famous rabbi who lashed into Yeshiva University’s Norman Lamm as a destroyer of Israel first in his talk bashed Aish HaTorah for honoring Jason Alexander.

On Saturday morning, Dr. Shapiro outlined Judaism’s views of Islam. He mentioned Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s view that we should apply the negative view of the Talmudic sages and early commentators towards idolatrous gentiles to Islamic terrorists.

Dr. Shapiro was so eloquent that I’ve decided to give up attending terror-supporting mosques even though they have great music and their women are hot.

I also learned this Sabbath that some Jewish prayerbooks in previous centuries contained woodcut drawings of topless women (in addition to pictorial representations of G-d, which were not a big deal because nobody believed G-d was corporeal).

That’d certainly help my davening.

Dr. Shapiro said the Hasidic Rogochover rebbe was the pre-eminent genius of the 20th Century. That you could fit Einsteins into him.

Marc B. Shapiro blogs:

I should also note two errors the Rav made in his evaluation of communal matters. 1. He was strongly opposed to changing the charter of YU and turning RIETS into an “affiliate.” Dr. Belkin had been assured by the lawyers he consulted that the change was only a technicality, and that the school would continue to run no differently than before. Yet there were a few hotheads who had the Rav’s ear and had convinced him that this meant the end of Yeshiva University as a real Torah institution. The story of how the Rav, in front of hundreds of people, challenged Belkin on this point, and how Belkin pulled the microphone away from him, has been repeated many times. I have been told (although I don’t know if it’s true) that following this episode YU refused to permit the Rav to speak at university events. With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that Belkin was correct and the character of YU did not change. (This reminds me of the doomsayers, and those who were saying tehillim, when it was announced that a non-rabbinic figure would become president of YU. Here again, nothing changed). 2. The second example is the Rav’s firm belief, and in this he was in agreement with R. Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, that a haredi society, and certainly real hasidic societies, could never flourish in the U.S. Here too he was mistaken (as were most observers). This latter error is very important for the Rav’s right-wing students, for they would like to believe that as he saw the development of American Orthodoxy in the 1970’s his view about the necessity for higher secular education changed. One of his leading students has stated on a number of occasions that the Rav could not be a part of Agudah in the 1950’s because the organization opposed all secular education. But today the Agudah convention is filled with lawyers and other professionals, and therefore the Rav would have no reason to leave Agudah – as if the Rav’s position on religious Zionism was not an important factor of his Weltanschauung. For the haredi world, one of the Rav’s great errors was his description of the differences between the Chazon Ish and the Brisker Rav, as expressed in the eulogy he delivered for the latter. In this eulogy R. Dovid Cohen famously screamed his protest at what he thought was the disrespect shown to the Chazon Ish. The Rav’s wife yelled that he should be taken out, and none other than R. David Hartman physically forced Cohen out of the hall. A few weeks ago R. Rakefet faxed me some pages from a new book on the Brisker Rav. Lo and behold, this hagiography says exactly what the Rav said, to wit, the Chazon Ish was prepared to engage in some flattery vis-à-vis Ben Gurion for the sake of kelal Yisrael, but the Brisker Rav was such an ish emet that no matter how good the cause he couldn’t bring himself to do this.

…Part of the problem in responding to the current scandal of sexual abuse is that halakhah, as it has been understood in the past, often stands in the way. For example, R. Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (the third Lubavitcher Rebbe) in Tzemah Tzedek, Yoreh Deah, #237, was asked the following question: A rabbi was playing with a young man on Purim and stuck his hands into the pants of the youth. The rabbi claimed that he did so because he was unable to perform sexually. He thought that this was due to his small testicles and he wanted to see if he was unusual in this regard. In other words, the rabbi was conducting a medical examination on the boy. The Tzemah Tzedek decided that the rabbi should not be removed from his position, as he provided a good explanation for his behavior. One can only wonder how many other boys were subjected to this rabbi’s medical examinations. Regarding another problematic decision, this time by the Aderet, see here.

…I recently read a hesped where R. Yitzhak Yosef recorded how the deceased talmid hakham, R. Moshe Levi, didn’t miss a moment of Torah study. He described how when R. Levi was at a communal meal he kept a book under the tablecloth, and every free second he could be seen be looking at it. The eulogizer saw that as something positive, whereas in my town, everyone would regard it as very rude. This point illustrates why I find haredi hagiography so fascinating, as it clearly reveals the culture gap between the haredi world and the Modern Orthodox world. Some of the stories that are told, and are part of haredi myth making, would be regarded with horror by the Modern Orthodox world.[15] How better to determine the ethos of a community than by seeing how it chooses to remember and praise its leaders? If anyone thinks that the Rav shared the Modern Orthodox ethos, just look at the stories he tells in Halakhic Man.

Sometimes truly horrible stuff is found in haredi “gedolim books” as well. Let me offer just one example. There is a very helpful book by Dov Ber Schwartz entitled Artzot ha-Hayyim (Brooklyn, 1992). This book contains short biographies of numerous American rabbis, a list of rabbinic books published in the United States, and an essay on Orthodoxy in America. Yet in the midst of the book, on page 52a in the note, one finds the shocking passage which you can see here, and which I am too embarrassed to translate. One can only hope that sentiments such as these are not very common among Schwartz’ fellow Satmar hasidim.

I would often tell people that one of my fellow students [Noah Feldman], an undergraduate taking graduate classes, was perhaps the most brilliant person I knew – a much better head than mine – and I have known many intellectual heavyweights. Yet I have read some people, who certainly don’t know him, describing Feldman as an expert in Shas and poskim. This is laughable. He has a great mind, and can grasp a Tosafot quicker than almost anyone, but he never spent any serious time in limudei kodesh after high school. I think my father best summed matters up after reading his article. He said: “Feldman may be very smart, but he isn’t very wise.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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