Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Torah With Yesurim


New York Times January 4th 1987

Every week, Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik leaves his home in Chicago and boards a plane for New York. There, though a stroke three years ago has left him in constant pain and barely able to walk, he slowly makes his way from an apartment to a classroom building at the Yitzchak Elchanan Theological Seminary, where 70 rabbinical students fill a classroom and listen attentively to the man they call Rav Aaron.

Seated behind a desk cluttered with Jewish texts, the 69-year-old rabbi -considered one of the world's foremost Talmudic scholars and authorities on Jewish law - begins the two-hour shiur, or class, slowly articulating complex laws of betrothal and numerous opinions of rabbinic sages recorded throughout the ages.

''It's as if he has the entire Talmud before his very eyes,'' said a second-year rabbinical student from Pascagoula, Miss., Fivel Smiles. Torah,the oral and written law, ''is his life, his therapy.''

A Study in Human Character

After suffering his stroke, Rav Aaron continued his teaching in Chicago. And this year, when the Elchanan seminary asked him to come teach a twice-weekly class, the rabbi accepted without hesitation, despite the hardships involved.

''I don't know how people can retire,'' said the rabbi. ''It's sadistic. One's mind begins to rot.'' To his students and colleagues at the seminary, which is affiliated with Yeshiva University, Rav Aaron is a study in human character as profound as the centuries-old Talmudic texts he has taught for 40 years.

''It's a wonder how such a frail shell can possess a power and enthusiasm that mesmerizes his audiences,'' said the seminary's director, Rabbi Zevulun Charlop. ''You're so taken by his spirit and dynamism, that you don't notice the physical ailment after a while.''

''His courage and determination to teach the Torah cannot be stopped,'' said a postgraduate student, Rabbi Joshua Hoffman, who has studied with Rav Aaron for the last seven years.

A Difficult Task

But after rehabilitation, including, most recently, regular treatments of acupuncture, effects of the stroke on the rabbi's body remain. The daily walk from his apartment on Yeshiva's campus on Amsterdam Avenue and 185th Street to an adjacent classroom building takes nearly a half hour.

''Do you know what it's like to tie my shoes or to put the tefilin on my hand?'' he asked, holding out his shaking left hand and pointing to where he binds the traditional phylacteries each morning. ''It's as difficult as parting the Red Sea.

''I try to elevate myself through my suffering,'' said the rabbi. ''I'm in constant pain. But when I give a shiur, I don't feel it as much.''

For the rabbi, the opportunity to return to the seminary - where at least one member of the Soloveitchik family has taught since 1929 and where he himself taught for six years in the 1960's - is of special significance.

''It's an invigorating feeling to teach at the school where my brother and father have taught,'' said the rabbi, who has six children, four of whom are rabbis, and 22 grandchildren. ''I have feelings of trepidation and excitement.''

His father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik, was a noted scholar in several Eastern European communities before joining the Seminary in 1929. After Rabbi Moshe's death, Rav Aaron's older brother, Dr. Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, became the Seminary's pre-eminent scholar, remaining there 46 years until 1985 when poor health forced him to give up his classes.

Rav Aaron, a graduate of Yeshiva College in 1940 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, earned a law degree from New York University in 1946. In Chicago, where he has lived since 1966, he founded the Yeshiva of Brisk in 1974 to honor his family.

The challenge for stroke victims, the rabbi wrote in an essay from his hospital bed in 1983, ''is to galvanize one's moral and spiritual potential.''

''I've never allowed myself to become victimized and frustrated by the stroke,'' he said. ''With God's help, I have been strengthened.''