What would my Rebbe Rav Ahron Soloveichik have said…

Rabbi Heshie Billet of the Young Israel of Woodmere posted a challenging and perceptive comment on my article – really not so much on my specific article, but I think on my approach in general – and let me quote if you haven’t seen it: “Dear Asher, You like quoting Rav Aharon Soloveichik ZT”L. Especially his liberal piskai halacha. If he’s your Rebbe, then undoubtedly you know about his stringent decisions especially when it comes to change in the Synagogue. You have to be fair and take the dvash as well as the oketz.”

Dvash meaning the sweet, easy, “progressive” stands, and oketz, stinger, meaning the hard ones that don’t square as well with an Morethodox point of view.

I’d like to answer Rav Billet:

Yes, I do consider Rav Ahron to be my rebbe. However, Rav Ahron himself was committed to each person being able to think for themselves and not to follow a rebbe in a dictatorial fashion. So even though he had many rulings that, yes, spanned the political and religious spectrum, he was always open to his talmidim making up their own minds, and thinking for themselves. In fact, he felt that there was too much “hero worship” of Gdolim and Rebbes and Rosh Yeshivas, and that hero worship was a form of idolatry.

So, yes, I quote Rav Ahron frequently in my sermons and writings, and usually it is when his rulings are the “honey” I agree with. However, I am cognizant that Rav Ahron himself evolved in his rulings. Earlier in his life he took a much more stringent view of abortion. By the time I was able to spend the most time with him, the last 15 years of his life, he had developed an much more “liberal” attitude towards abortion. If a woman was raped, he would tell her to go quickly to get an abortion, and he could even see allowing her to abort in such a circumstance in the third trimester, if necessary. By his last years, when I was a rabbi already in my shul, he paskined for me on a difficult case that a woman carrying a Trisoma 18 baby, which would not live for more than a few years at most, that allowed her to abort, if she felt she was not strong enough to endure. So I don’t know how Rav Ahron would paskin on many of the issue of today. I know that when he felt women were sincere in the yiddishkeit, and not just taking a political stand, that he was open to them participating and taking on obligations: saying Kaddish, even when there was no man saying kaddish with them, davening three times a day, in the right times, and washing mayim acharonim. In fact, he joked that he was willing to be called a feminist in that he felt women had the same obligation of men to do mayim acharonim.

The one area where Rav Ahron felt the strongest against was pluralism and sitting on the Board of Rabbis. He was always against it. However, when we set up our community, pluralistic school, (Chicago Jewish Day School) I asked him if we could admit children of Jewish fathers, non-Jewish mothers. He said yes! Then his grandson who was there said, But Zayde, these are “goyim g’murim”! His answer was, So what? You can teach Torah to goyim as well! And he quoted the S’fornu.

So even in areas where I don’t think Rav Ahron would “sign off” on the positions I take, he had a depth and breadth that allowed a crazy lefty like me to be part of his Torah world, and see myself as a real talmid of his, but at the same time pursue a separate path.

More next week,

Shabbat shalom,

Asher Lopatin

15 Responses to What would my Rebbe Rav Ahron Soloveichik have said…

  1. Rabbi Ahron Soloveitchik made clones and students. Like Abayee and Rebbe Meir, the student will sometimes disagree with the teacher. The notion that we follow a rebbe blindly as rabbis who are trained to think is absurd. After all, who thinks for our rebbes?

    Rather, we obey the rules of TSB”P. WE have the right to fill the gaps. Even against the consensus. Just ask Caleb and Joshua when, in 120 years, we can put the question to them.

    Great blog!

    alan yuter

  2. Anonymous says:

    “If a woman was raped, he would tell her to go quickly to get an abortion, and he could even see allowing her to abort in such a circumstance in the third trimester, if necessary.”

    I mentioned this comment to Rav Ahron’s oldest son Rav Moshe and he told me that his father would never pasken this way after 40 days, even in a case of rape. He says that while it is true his father had a change in opinion it is that in the earlier years he would tell the person no, and in later years he would refuse to pasken on the case.

  3. Asher Lopatin says:

    I am a talmid of Rav Moshe as well, and as you see from Rav Moshe’s answer to you, all he says is that his experience with his father is that Rav Ahron changed his mind and would not poskin. So if I heard this p’sak from Rav Ahron, which I did hear, Rav Moshe would not disagree; it’s just that he never heard his father paskin this way. By the way, the discussion came up in the Beit Midrash in Yeshiva University and I remember the exact location. It was right after Rav Ahron put his tefillin away after devening up at the front. Rav Ahron said that in the case of a devestating illness of the fetus, such as Tae Sachsn(sp?), if he felt the mother was not strong psychologically, and it was beyond 40 days, he would send the person to Rav Waldernberg whom he knew had a lenient p’sak. In that case he would not paskin because he felt his father, Rav Moshe, would not necessarily allow it. But in the case of incest or rape, Rav Ahron would tell her to go himself, and he felt that in that case his father would paskin that way also.

    Your discussion with Rav Moshe is instructive: It is fascinating to see how g’dolim paskin differently to diffrent people – and even give different images to different people. Perhaps the best case is the wildly varying takes on the Rav, and his views on the State of Israel and women’s issues, from his different Talmidim – I actually think Rav Meiselman gets the Rav right – but perhaps there is no “right.” In this case, however, even Rav Moshe admits that his father changed his mind in his later years. Moreover, you can ask Rav Moshe’s son Yitzchak Zev who was in Rav Ahron’s house when I asked specifically on this issue of woman with a child who would not live more than a year or two (Trisoma 18) and Rav Ahron paskined – beyond what he would have done just a few years before – that if she felt that it would be just too difficult to have this child psychologically, that she could abort.

    Asher Lopatin

  4. Anonymous says:

    Rabbi Lopatin,
    I also discussed your response with Rav Moshe; he felt two points should be clarified.
    1. With regard to devastating illness of the child after forty days: His father would not send people to Rav Waldenberg, he would decline to paskin and inform them that Rav Waldenberg had a more lenient approach. This is only indicative of the fact that he himself had a more strict approach.
    2. It is obvious there must have been some misunderstanding in the conversation at Yeshiva University. Since permitting abortion in the case of devastating illness of the child, rape, and incest are all founded on the ability of the mother to cope, it would not make sense to differentiate between these three categories. Either all three of these categories are the same, or each individual case is different, but the three categories can not logically be different.

    • Asher Lopatin says:

      Rav Ahron’s sense was that incest was so horrible, that “coping” was not even an option. But he would send her to get an abortion ASAP. Basically, Rav Ahron on was basing these leniencies on “ubar yerech imo” – the fetus is a limb of its mother – not an independent being. Rav Ahron felt you could even read that into Rav Chayim Brisker’s understanding of the Rambam.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Rabbi Lopatin,
    I do have one more thing to add. This morning I showed a copy of the whole article to Rav Moshe. He spoke very highly of you, and very warmly about your relationship with his father. He told me that you have done more than almost any other Rabbi in Chicago when it comes to reaching out to acheinu beis yisroel. However, he felt it should be emphasized that while it is true his father did not agree with what he saw as hero worship, his father felt that halachic shailos should be decided on halachic criteria, and not on the basis of philsophy, whether it be liberal or right wing.

  6. Asher Lopatin says:

    Thanks, Anonymous. Please send my best to Rav Moshe! I call Rav Moshe myself with shailot, and he is one of the honest great men of the Hashgacha business. In fact, it was Rav Moshe’s recommendations on kashrut that enabled me to make things much easier for my community to keep kashrut. And I agree that halachic questions need to be decided by halachic criteria, not philosophical or vision methods. There is a lot of literature out there regarding influences on Halacha from the outside world, and, while Rav Yosef Dov, and Rav Ahron Lichtenstein fiercly resisted and resist taking a historical approach regarding halacha, newer Orthodox research does bear out many influences on halacha. Rabbi Broyde acknowledges these influences, but says that once the decisor admits that they are influencing his decision, it invalidates his or her halachic decision. There is a lot more to say on this, and perhaps it would be a good blog discussion in the weeks and months ahead. In the meantime, stick with Rav Moshe!

  7. BZL says:

    Hi RAL,

    Which Sforno did R’ Ahron quote about teaching Torah to goyim?

    Also, teaching Torah to goyim is not the only shailah involved here. Some of these children will undoubtedly consider themselves Jewish and intermarry with unassuming Jews and it can cause a terrible takala in Klal Yisrael, chas v’shalom.

    • Asher Lopatin says:

      I don’t remember which Sfornu it is – but I did see it myself and I’ll try to get it for you.

      However, I have also heard a cassette from Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l, where he, too, says that Maimonides school accepts kids with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers – kids who grow up as Jews – since they will inevitably be part of the Jewish community, and if we can persuade them to convert, that is the best policy. Interesting how the Solovei(t)chiks think alike!

      Asher Lopatin

  8. Anonymous says:

    Rabbi Lopatin,

    I have received numerous E-mails concerning the above mentioned ‘Heter’ you received from my grandfather regarding this unfortunate and distraught women. While it is true that the last psak my grandfather gave that day on this issue was a heter for an abortion, I think our recollections of the details surrounding the psak may differ. Though I’m sure you remember that I was not a silent observer during this conversation. In fact as I recall we had a spirited conversation on the Issue afterwards on the front porch. I can still recall your parting words to me on that fine day. Something along the lines of “Your problem is that you are a backward closed minded Chareidi”. This of course is very shortly before I made Aliyah, Joined the army, and began to study medical science at the Technion. Ah yes the Trifecta of my narrow black hat lifestyle.

    Your Friend and Great Admirer,
    Yitzchak Zev Soloveichik

    • Asher Lopatin says:

      Sorry for not getting back to these comments sooner!

      Yes, Kevod Yitzchak Zev, I recall our discussion then – oy! Please give me mechila for both trying to be insulting, and also for referring to Chareidim as backward and closed minded. I apologize to you and to chareidim. My family and I hope to join you in Israel in 2 years, when I will still be young enough to volunteer for the Border Patrol in the IDF! Looking forward to continuing the conversation from the Holy Land.

      Kol tuv,


  9. Yosele says:

    Rabbi Lopatin is a man that I admire greatly. He is both wise as well as kind. I may not agree with everything he says but I know that he speaks his truth.

  10. non says:

    “I know that when he felt women were sincere in the yiddishkeit, and not just taking a political stand, that he was open to them participating and taking on obligations: saying Kaddish, even when there was no man saying kaddish with them, davening three times a day, in the right times, and washing mayim acharonim. In fact, he joked that he was willing to be called a feminist in that he felt women had the same obligation of men to do mayim acharonim.”

    what does this mean? these are not liberal positions, RAL was making a joke about mayim achronim. davening three times a day is the position of the aruch hashulchan and washing mayim achronim of course they have the same obligation as men – the idea of meikilim is that maybe women collectively follow the shita that mayim achronim is due to melech sdomis which doesnt exist bzman hazeh and men collectively follow another shita – which maybe one can rely on and maybe not, but even the meikil position is not dependent on the idea that women and men inherently have different obligations only that maybe one can say they follow different psak akin to communal minhagim.
    This has nothing to do with women’s sincerity or lack thereof.
    The only thing you say that is “liberal” is that apparently RAS followed the tzitz eliezer or a similar meikil psition on abortion – did this have something to do with his moving to israel where in general there seem to be more poskim who are lenient than in the US? anyway, you have not made a general case that he was liberal with these examples, only with the single example of abortion. Kaddish is also not a good example. First I may be mistaken or confusing him with someone else, but i think he specifically says to be mekarev such women – anyway it is the “fahrtzatish” litvishe position , as you can see from rav henkin’s position, what rav moshe writes etc

  11. non says:

    ral should be RAS of course.

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