It Looks Like I’ve Got Some Explaining To Do – A Friendly Reply to Dr. William Kolbrener
The past day has been for me one of uneasiness and preoccupation. Although it was not at all my intent, I perceived from Dr. William Kolbrener’s tweets and Facebook posts that I had offended him or come across as brash with my article of late yesterday – yet I awaited his “official” response before taking to the keyboard and reaching out with some friendly clarification. I firmly believed that my article was not at all a personal critique and that it constituted a debate of issues l’shem shamayim – such was my aim; however, the article obviously did not come across that way, for which I apologize and seek the opportunity to explicate my intent.
Below are some technical clarifications, after which I hope to take a step back and make a few general observations:
- Dr. Kolbrener felt that I asserted that he, “as a literary critic and Yeshiva University outsider”, is unfit to provide insights into the persona and thoughts of Rav Soloveitchik, for only the Rav’s “closest disciples and most accomplished students” are qualified to depict him and comment on his ideas. Such was not at all my intent, and I apologize for the impression that I was mandating an insider or elitist (for lack of a better term) qualifier. My intent was that in order to understand and present the gestalt of the Rav, one needs to consult with his closest disciples, who can provide paramount and dispositive information and perspectives that are not readily available to a reader of the Rav’s philosophical writings. I did not at all intend to claim that only the Rav’s close talmidim have the right to explain his ideas and significance, and to exclude Dr. Kolbrener or anyone else from doing so.
- I gave the impression that Dr. Kolbrener’s work is the product of studying Rav Soloveitchik merely from the perspective of a handful of his books and articles. Dr. Kolbrener draws upon a very broad array of the Rav’s material, both penned by the Rav as well as by others who knew him well. My intent was merely that the Rav’s philosophical writings should not be the primary lens through which he is viewed. But I did not convey this well, and I did not mean to detract in any way from the validity of Dr. Kolbrener’s studies and insights.
- Dr. Kolbrener writes: “I would say it is impossible to entertain R. Gordimer’s own contrarian postulate that R. Soloveitchik dismissed the disciplines of Western culture, as somehow a merely utilitarian accessory without intrinsic merit.” I heartily agree, and if I implied otherwise, I take it back. That said, and not opposing anything Dr. Kolbrener affirms in his response, Rav Soloveitchik did utilize his philosophical and general academic knowledge to elucidate hashkafic axioms, and he rejected secular scholarship which conflicted with Torah values, as is seen repeatedly throughout his public derashos and shiurim.
- Dr. Kolbrener writes: “R. Gordimer may object to the title of my essay, ‘Killing Off the Rav'”. Dr. Kolbrener also implied in a tweet that I attacked his essay’s language by referring to it as “attention-grabbing and sensationalist”. I did not intend to denigrate the essay’s language, as I knew the context and purpose of employing such terminology. My emphasis was that the wording was hyperbolic, aimed to seize readers’ attention. Such is not a criticism, and I apologize that it was taken as such.
- Dr. Kolbrener writes: “In the letter from which R. Gordimer selectively quotes, R. Lichtenstein concludes by disapproving of a species of that lack of complexity – with ‘the shallowest cut of all’ being ‘the attempt to pigeonhole the Rav within the confines of a current narrow “camp.'” I quoted the punchline (specific to the Edah issue) of the Rav Lichtenstein letter in order to demonstrate the core “rosh yeshiva orientation” of the Rav, and not to diminish from the complex totality of his persona and thought. My intent was not to excise part of the Rav’s comprehensive and broad identity and outlook.
Rav Soloveitchik’s halachic and hashkafic prowess and his stature as one of the most preeminent ba’alei mesorah of the past century, whose legacy so profoundly impacted Jewry on multiple levels, will leave a massive footprint, whose breadth and depth we probably cannot yet grasp or even ponder. His striking brilliance and profound intuition, coupled with his appeal for all Jews to engage in Torah (he explained that Talmud Torah is a very democratic system – all are invited to learn, and pedigree plays no role in Torah greatness), opened up treasure troves of knowledge and insight and offered something to everyone.
As much as I have gained from the halachic teachings of the Rav, as conveyed to me by my rebbeim and others, and as much as I am a voracious consumer of the Rav’s published shiurim and derashos, my personal, intellectual and spiritual growth have been seismically impacted by the Rav’s epistemological and ideological writings and emotional expression. Dr. Kolbrener’s quest to draw forth new and deeper insights from the Rav can only lead to a greater cultivation and development of these crucial and ever-so-needed riches.