August 02, 2009

Review: “The Rav Thinking Aloud”

Almost every student in either a Hebrew day school or a yeshiva nowadays has heard of Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveitchik, or as he's more commonly referred to- the Rav. It shows something about the impact that an individual has made on society when all you need to say is "the Rav" and people know who you mean. I had also grown up hearing about the Rav, both in the classroom and at shul, but I never read any of the works by him or about him.

That all changed a month ago when I picked up a new book, "The Rav Thinking Aloud: Transcripts of Personal Conversations with Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveitchik," by Rabbi David Holzer, Rabbi Soleveitchik's close confident and a personal attendant of his for many years. This book is a collection of informal conversations with the Rav about a variety of topics, including thoughts on Zionism, women in Halacha, medical ethics and a personal history of the Rav's early years, including recollections of his grandfathers, the giants of the Brisk Yeshiva. This book is unique because it contains the actual words of the Rav as recorded by Holzer, as opposed to recollections or retellings of his views. The downside (which is not a big one) to this is that because the book contains unscripted conversation the sentence structure is not always complete, and sometimes a word or two is missing due to the recorder not picking up clearly the Rav's voice. However, these unedited informal conversations are really one of the most genuine ways to get a close up look at the Rav's thoughts and ideas. The Rav is literally "thinking aloud", which is how he himself expresses his views in one of the later chapters, and the reader gets the authentic feeling of being in conversation with the Rav.

The format of the book is divided between sections of recorded conversation and notes that Rabbi Holzer took down from certain conversations. The bottom of each page explains that the standard text is the words of the Rav from the recordings, and the text that is surrounded by a border is based on notes. The author does a good job making sure that everything is clear, making a distinct separation between who is asking the Rav questions versus when the Rav is the one talking, as well as when the text is based on notes.

The book is also accompanied by footnotes that add both sources and interesting additional information about the topic being discussed. As a reader, I have always preferred footnotes over endnotes because then you can remain on the page and see the added information, as opposed to having to turn all the way to the back of the book to find the same information. A brief album of pictures is included at the end of the book, with most of them showing the author or members of his family with the Rav. This author makes clear the connection that existed between himself and the Rav. Instead of any haskamos the book begins with a transcript of the Rav speaking affectionately at the author's sheva brachos, and throughout the book the Rav visibly shows a high esteem for his young attendant. This lends legitimacy to the author's credentials towards writing such a book since he is clearly familiar with the subject being portrayed and was found worthy of such a task by the subject himself.

One of the most interesting chapters, as well as one of the longest, is the recording of a shiur at YU that the Rav conducted following Shacharis on the morning of Yom Ha'atzmaut 1978. The focus of the shiur stemmed from the recitation of Hallel during Shacharis and the Rav delves into whether or not in his opinion one should recite Hallel on that day. The chapter goes into so many different scenarios and aspects of Yom Ha'atzmaut, answering pretty much every possible question. Concepts of Halacha for the day, such as Hallel, K'rias HaTorah, and music are brought into the conversation, as well as hashkafic concepts like aliyah and our responsibilities to the land. One question that was posed to the Rav was:

"What should be done? Is the whole idea of Yom Ha'azmaut a proper idea?"

The Rav answers:

"I don't know, it's no idea. For my part Yom Ha'atzmaut can be Yom Yerushalayim. I don't care about the date. In my opinion there is no kedushas ha'yom in the day. But the fact, the event, of Medinas Yisrael requires shevach v'hodaah to Hakodosh Baruch Hu, and not only on Yom Ha'atzmaut. One 365 days of the year." (p. 214)

The Rav's views on this topic are not accepted by everyone but it is interesting to read into his thoughts on the matter and the ways that he came to his conclusions. It took me a while to make my way through this chapter and the rest of the book but overall one puts it down with a sense of understanding another approach to Torah within the framework of Shivim Panim LaTorah and I would recommend this book for anybody interested in learning more about the Rav and his teachings. Even someone like me, who does not necessarily come from the same school of thought as the Rav, enjoyed learning more about a person who is respected and revered by many thousands around the world.

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