Thursday, January 8, 2015

Book Review - Chumash Mesoras HaRav

Chumash Mesoras HaRav, Sefer Shemos
compiled and edited by Dr. Arnold Lustiger
Reviewed by Rabbi Ari D. Kahn

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of Shabbat meals in my parents’ home: Family and guests around the table, food, songs - and words of Torah. My father would share Torah insights with us  – more often than not, ideas he had heard from “The Rov.” The highlight of my father’s week was traveling to Manhattan to participate in Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s weekly shiur in the Moriah synagogue. This weekly Gemara class (in which The Rav dedicated a few minutes to the parasha) was attended by laymen and rabbis alike, and the words of Torah, the questions, the answers, the explanations that my father heard there and shared with us, are the bedrock of my own learning, teaching and religious identity. Only years later I was privileged to personally learn from The Rov, and to read and study his writings.

A newly published work by Dr. Arnold Lustiger reminds me of those early years, and of the glow on my father’s face as The Rov’s words flowed from his lips to our young ears. Mesoras HaRav is a digest of Torah commentary, ideas that The Rov either wrote or delivered orally in different venues, and to different types of audiences, throughout his career. Despite the fact that this work was not written by The Rov, and despite the fact that a commentary of the Torah written by The Rov himself would have undoubtedly been a completely different book, Dr. Lustiger’s Mesoras HaRav is a major achievement.

The Rov was notoriously careful with language; this was a family tradition. Had he chosen to write a commentary on the Torah, every word, every letter, would have been weighed carefully - first and foremost, in terms of the intended purpose and audience of such a work. The Rov was a master of pshat, drash, homiletics, midrash, philosophy and philology (in fact, students who sat in his classroom sensed that the Rov has mastered all of Judaism); had he chosen to focus on any one or more of these aspects of the Torah, the result would no doubt have been magnificent, breathtaking. Furthermore, The Rov had the unique ability to communicate with audiences that spanned the entire spectrum of age, affiliation and background. Whatever audience he might have chosen to address, any and all readers on this spectrum would have benefitted.  

But alas, the Rov did not leave us with such a commentary on the Torah, neither a complete nor even an incomplete opus. Thus, the purists, the “real” students, the “Rovaphiles” will have ample room to criticize Dr. Lustiger’s work for what it is not:  It surely is not what The Rov or any of those attempting to imitate or recreate his style would have written. In a sense, though, the fact that Dr. Lustiger is not among that innermost circle of The Rov’s students may be an advantage: Mesoras HaRav is not limited to sentences that The Rov himself would have penned. Instead, Dr. Lustiger attempts to share a glimpse into the thought of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik with a new generation. What emerges is a compilation, smatterings of many things the Rov said and wrote; and even if it is uneven, it is nonetheless, magnificent.

A new generation has arisen, a generation that “does not know Yosef.” This generation does not sit in his daily Gemara shiur, his weekly Chumash shiur or his mesmerizing public classes and lectures. This new generation cannot aspire, as did every serious yeshiva student for decades, to reach the level required to join The Rov’s Gemara shiur. Today’s Orthodox Jewish community will not experience the sunburst of intellectual and spiritual energy that previous generations enjoyed at The Rov’s annual Yahrziet and Teshuva drashot. This generation will have no firsthand acquaintance with The Rov’s well-crafted lectures or the uplifting messages they conveyed, nor will they know the awe and wonder that earlier students felt when they came face to face with The Rov’s breathtaking process and methodology of learning. Although more and more of The Rov’s recorded shiurim are making their way to the internet in digital form and there is an ever-growing library of publications based on his teachings, many of these are far beyond the grasp of those not on the highest levels of Torah scholarship. Some of these publications treat topics so specific and with such erudition that they are esoteric; others, although they address broader topics, require the layperson to keep both a dictionary and encyclopedia close at hand in order to understand the words and follow the references.

Mesoras HaRav is different, accessible. Again, the purists may complain: The work is uneven, collected from many different lectures and articles, cobbled together from sources that differ in purpose, audience, topic and methodology. The eclectic nature of the sources is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Despite the disparity of its sources, the book is cogent, and should be seen as a reflection of The Rov’s vast knowledge, of the different topics he tackled and the different ways he would approach the same topic. Many of the Rov’s own writings do not lend themselves to the creation of a running commentary on the Torah. Long essays in which The Rov laid out critical elements of his philosophy, such as the delineation of  “Adam I” and “Adam II,” cannot easily be harvested for micro-comments on specific Torah verses. Such essays, although they elucidate central components of the Rov’s weltanschauung, are often too unwieldy to be used as primary sources for Mesoras HaRav and the reader must suffice with small samples from such a monumental work.

Some suggestions: In my opinion, more footnotes are needed. Occasionally, thematic connections or overarching ideas are expressed in several independent comments, but no connection is made, either between the sources from which these ideas are drawn or between the comments themselves. When a particular idea or theme is illustrated through various different verses, it would be useful to note that each independent comment is part of a larger whole; each verse expresses a larger idea in its own way, but all are related. For example: The Rov taught, in numerous lectures and to different audiences, that at one point Moses had actually given up hope in the redemption of the Jewish People, and had taken up permanent residence (or so he thought) in Midian. In Mesoras HaRav, the commentary to each relevant verse illustrates this idea, but at no point do the comments on individual verses refer to any of the other verses that deal with this topic. An introductory section would do much to help the reader identify and understand such concepts as they are applied or expressed in the remainder of the work. Alternatively, an index and cross-referencing in the footnotes would allow the reader to gain a wider view of The Rov’s treatment of this recurring theme, and would alleviate much of the perceived repetitiveness. Moreover, although it is not unusual for a single source, a single lecture or article written by The Rov, to lie behind Mesoras HaRav’s commentary to many disparate and far-flung verses, the reader is generally given no indication of this connection.

While this is not a book the Rov wrote -- or would have written -- it is a book that reminds me of those Shabbat meals with family, when my father shared The Rov’s Torah with us. Those early lessons led me, and both of my brothers, to attend The Rov’s shiur, and led our entire family to a deeper knowledge and experience of Judaism. Some of the ideas I first heard at my parents’ Shabbat table appear in print for the first time in Mesoras HaRav. The citation reads “Moriah,” where my father attended those weekly shiurim years ago. Each time I see that citation, a smile comes to my face as I recall the question my father raised at the table or the answer he relayed. Occasionally, I can recall only one or the other; now, thanks to Dr. Lustiger, they have come together.

Mesoras HaRav is valuable in and of itself, as it transmits hundreds of The Rov’s insights and explanations. If it spurs the reader to further inquiry and investigation, if it leads the reader to seek out the primary sources – The Rov’s original essays or recordings of his classes or lectures -  perhaps this generation who “do not know Yosef” will at the very least “see his back” and understand the profound privilege my generation enjoyed: We had a Torah colossus in our midst, an accessible and inspiring source of Torah tradition and innovation. I applaud Dr. Lustiger for his efforts and look forward to the publication of future volumes that will allow a new generation to bring The Rov to their table and inspire children and adults alike.

Rabbi Ari Kahn is a student of Rav Soloveitchik, he is author of numerous books including a series on the Torah called “Echoes of Eden”.

No comments: