Thursday, July 30, 2009

Rav Soloveitchik's Greatest Hits, in Yiddish

Guest post by Dr. Arnold Lustiger

I have published two books containing English summaries of the Rav's oral discourses, drashos that were originally presented in Yiddish. My goal was not only to transmit the substance, but the form as well - to do my best to reproduce the Rav's cadences. To a large extent, I did not succeed. One reason is that a pure transcription of any oral lecture is choppy and reads terribly – of necessity any oral lecture has to be rewritten to be readable. Secondly, English is not Yiddish – nuances of language are not readily transmitted.

In his hesped for the Rav, Rabbi Mordechai Willig aptly observed that when the Rav spoke in Yiddish, his lecture was poetry. If so, then Dr. David Fishman, editor of Drashos un Ksovim, has given us a book of poetry.

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In his hesped for the Rav, Rabbi Mordechai Willig aptly observed that when the Rav spoke in Yiddish, his lecture was poetry. If so, then Dr. David Fishman, editor of Drashos un Ksovim, has given us a book of poetry. The two limitations that I faced in writing my summaries are obviated here. In most of the book, he worked directly from transcripts written by the Rav himself, and faithfully reproduced them in their original language. In the remainder, he reproduced articles that the Rav himself wrote for the Yiddish newspaper Der Tog-Morgen Zhurnal from November 1954- January 1955. Julius Berman, in his preface to this book, writes that the reader “will come as close to humanly possible to capture the experience of sitting in [the Rav’s] presence and listening to his brilliant expositions...” I can personally attest that after having heard hundreds of tapes of the Rav in Yiddish, I could seemingly hear the Rav’s voice while reading this book.

Interspersed through the book, Fishman reproduces a few pages of the Rav's handwritten transcripts, written in long hand. While the Rav's Yiddish may be poetry, his handwriting definitely is not art. I could not decipher ninety percent of the material on any of these pages. The efforts of Dr. Fishman and his assistants in reproducing the material seem just short of superhuman. While ellipses appear on a number of pages where even they could not make out the words, never was the continuity of the presentation compromised. And it is this continuity, the seamless transition from halacha to homiletics, that is the signature of the Rav's drashos in general.

Dr. Fishman’s introduction contains some surprising revelations regarding the Rav’s relationship with secular Yiddishists. The Rav presented a number of lectures to the Workmen’s Circle (Arbeter-Ring) in the 1940’s, one of which, on the topic of tzedakah, appears in this book. The Rav also gave a public lecture in Yiddish for YIVO in 1944. This latter lecture was described as an historic event in the secular Yiddish newspaper, Forverts: “I saw how a gathering of revolutionaries applauded a famous Rabbi, a descendant of our fanatical grandparents...We former youngsters, who feuded with Reb Chaim Brisker, came and listened to what Reb Chaim Brisker’s grandson had to tell us.” A tantalizing, unexplained phrase in this article leaves us hanging: “...he called for a renewed partnership in an important type of Judaism.”

The substance of three of the chapters in Droshos Un Ksovim have been published elsewhere. One of the chapters on Chanukah appears in English as Chapter 7 in Days of Deliverance, while a second, a drasha given on Rosh Hashanah appears in Hebrew as “Alei Te'inah Vekotnot Or" in Yemei Zikaron. The transcript of a now famous speech he presented at the Chinuch Atzmai dinner of 1956 appears in Amos Bunim's Fire in His Soul. Nevertheless, much can be gained by reading the original drashos in their original language. For those acquainted with the Rav’s drashos, familiar themes appear throughout the book: the centrality of self-sacrifice in Judaism, how gedolim in the past strove to remain anonymous, and the importance of day school education (with a specific emphasis on the Maimonides school).

Other material in this book is entirely new. In addition to the homiletic material which takes up the bulk of this volume, there is an undated philosophical discourse presented as a Yahrzeit Shiur in memory of the Rav’s father called Yachid Vetzibbur, regarding the tension between emes and shalom in the context of the responsibilities of the individual and community.

Here is a very brief summary of a portion of a drasha that appears in this book which the Rav presented on the second day of Shavuos 1957. (It is important to note that this a drasha, not a shiur - the Rav is not attempting to provide straightforward pshat - the material is homiletic in nature as a means to inspire the audience.)

The Torah states that real estate in Eretz Yisrael reverts to its original owner in the Yovel year. This law, however, does not apply to walled cities. After the first year of occupancy, the owner of a home in a walled city is allowed to retain his dwelling into perpetuity (Lev. 25:29)

The symbol of physical security in ancient times was the wall which surrounded a city. Today, such a wall is represented by atomic bombs, rockets, fighter jets, submarines and large armies.

But can any wall, real or symbolic, really provide security against merciless fate? To answer this question, one must look into the book of Ruth.

A wealthy aristocrat named Elimelech attempted to build a wall of economic security around himself and his family by moving from Bethlehem to Moab during a famine. Although he and his family had enough food in Bethlehem to survive the famine, Elimelech was worried that the great number of poor people approaching him for charity there would consume his estate.

On the other hand, Elimelech had a relative named Boaz who was not as prominent, rich or powerful. Unlike Elimelech, however, Boaz did not flee Bethlehem for a “walled city” in search of security.

Elimelech also had a daughter in law, Ruth, who insisted on following Naomi to an “unwalled city.” Because she was the daughter of the King of Moab (Sanhedrin 105b) she could easily have found the security of a “walled city” by staying in her home country. She could have lived an easy, secure life, but instead chose to travel with her mother-in-law to Bethlehem, where her sustenance would consist of nothing more than the gleanings of the poor person: Leket, Shikcha and Peah.

Yet it was in the unwalled city of Bethlehem that Ruth encountered Boaz and together they built the most secure, permanent entity in Jewish history: the eternal Kingdom of David and the Kingdom of Mashiach.

Another personality appears in the book of Ruth as well, the go’el, the "redeemer", a closer relative of Elimelech. Like Elimelech, he also desired security. As a result, when the opportunity came to act as Ruth’s redeemer, he refused: "I cannot, lest I destroy my own inheritance…" (Ruth 4:6)

So what became of this redeemer? We don't even know his name. He became the very personification of anonymity, a Ploni Almoni!

Yet, the Torah did give indeed give a special status to the walled city, in that it does not revert to the original owner at Yovel. So why were those who strove for such security, for the drive to build a personal "walled city", punished?

The answer lies in a difference between a how a word should be read in the Bible (קרי) and a how it is written (כתיב). Regarding the verse in Leviticus detailing the law of the walled city, it is written: וקם הבית אשׁר לא חוֹמה לצמיתוּת לקוֹנה אוֹתוֹ לדוֹרוֹתיו: “...the house which has a wall (i.e. is in a walled city) shall be secure in perpetuity to him that bought it, throughout his generations.” . The phrase אשׁר לא חוֹמה is written with an aleph, but is read as with a vav. With an aleph, the biblical phrase would be translated “...the house which does not have a wall [shall be secure in perpetuity].” Superficially Jewish destiny may seem to be “unwalled,” insecure, but this is only an illusion. Indeed, if one studies Jewish history, one must of necessity read the verse with a vav - Jewish destiny is protected by a mighty wall. The buyer who invests in this remarkable dwelling initially does not see the wall, אשׁר לא חוֹמה , but the house is indeed secure, אשׁר לוֹ חוֹמה. Boaz and Ruth, who invested in a home אשׁר לא חוֹמה ultimately attained the security of a home אשׁר לוֹ חוֹמה. The Sefer Torah of Elimelech and the redeemer, on the other hand, apparently contained only the קרי and not the כתיב, as they searched for security that was only superficial. Boaz and Ruth’s Sefer Torah contained both the the קרי and the כתיב, and thus the home they created continues through eternity.
In the final brief chapter of the book, the Rav states: “I am not a Yiddishist, maintaining that a language alone has absolute value.” However, he goes on to explain that there are gufei kedushah, items which have intrinsic sanctity, (such as a Sefer Torah or Tefillin) as well as tashmishei kedushah, the accouterments associated with such items (such as the covering for the Sefer Torah or the pouch in which the Tefillin are kept). The Yiddish language fits into the latter category. Yiddish was the language of the Ram”a, the Mahrsha”l, the Vilna Gaon, R. Chaim Volozhiner as well as the Baal Shem Tov, the Maggid from Mezeritch and the Alter (Lubavitcher) Rebbe. The Rav concludes that maintaining such a “pouch” is a great zechus.

Dr. Fishman, his assistants, and especially Mr. Julius Berman, whose enthusiasm for this project is clearly reflected in his preface, have all earned this great zechus.

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