March 4, 2024
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Rav Soloveitchik: The Personal Ruminations Included in ‘Al Ha-Teshuvah’

There is a famous work “Al HaTeshuvah” that summarizes the thoughts of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik on the subject of repentance. It is a serious work of halacha and philosophy, with chapters like “Acquittal and Purification,” and “The Relationship Between Repentance and Free Choice.” Difficult passages in the Talmud and Rambam are much discussed. It was translated into English with the title, “On Repentance.” The Hebrew version was written by Pinchas Hacohen Peli. He supervised the English translation as well. (As to exactly what Peli did in the Hebrew version, see the end of this column.)

I thought it would make an interesting column, if I overlooked the serious discussions of halacha and philosophy that are included in this work and, instead, collected some of the personal ruminations of the Rav that are found here. Here are some excerpts (citing from the English edition):

  • “The laws of repentance contain 10 chapters, and in each of the 10 days … a Jew should study one of these chapters. This was the custom of my grandfather, Rabbi Haim, and, of my father, of blessed memory. It would be interesting to investigate whether this number of chapters was accidental or whether this was Maimonides’ original intention,” (page 141).
  • “I remember a time when 90% of world Jewry were observant and the secularists were a small minority at the fringes of the camp. I still remember—it was not so long ago—when Jews were close to God and lived in an atmosphere pervaded with holiness. But, today, what do we see? The profane and the secular are in control wherever we turn. Even in those neighborhoods made up predominantly of religious Jews, one can no longer talk of the “sanctity of the Shabbat day.” True, there are Jews in America who observe the Shabbat. (The label, “Shabbat observer,” has come to be used as a title of honor in our circles, just like “Harav Hagaon”—neither really indicates anything and both testify as to the lowly state of our generation …) But it is not for the Shabbat that my heart aches, it is for the forgotten “eve of the Shabbat.” There are Shabbat-observing Jews in America, but there are no “eve-of-the-Shabbat” Jews who go out to greet the Shabbat with beating hearts and pulsating souls. There are many who observe the precepts with their hands, with their feet and/or with their mouths—but there are few, indeed, who truly know the meaning of service of the heart! What is the percentage of religious Jews today, in contrast to the 90% only two generations ago? … I am often overcome as I lie awake at night, that we are building castles of sand, and, any moment, a wave will come and wipe out everything,” (pages 97-98).
  • “I cannot possibly transmit the emotion I felt when I heard my grandfather, Rabbi Haim, tremulously breathe the words, which describe the service in the Temple on the Day of Atonement … One could well-nigh see that, at that moment, Rabbi Haim dwelt in another world, as if he were floating and journeying from Brisk to Jerusalem two-thousand years ago. The American Jew has no awareness of this sublime experience of ‘the sanctity of the day,’ ” (page 149).
  • “In the second type of confession … (by the Kohen Gadol), the formula changes from ‘I beseech Thee, O Lord (HaShem)’ to ‘I beseech Thee in the Name of the Lord (baShem).’ I have already explained in the past that the word “baShem” is not connected with the word, ‘ana—I-beseech-Thee,’ which precedes it, but with what follows, so that it says, “In Thy Name please acquit,” i.e., with the power of Your great name please grant acquittal for our sons and iniquities. Thus, I have directed the leader of prayers in the synagogue in which I pray to say “ana,” to pause and only afterwards to continue: ‘baShem kaper na!’ (although he was angry with me for “ruining” the melody…). Now, I have a different way of explaining the matter … ” (page 230).
  • “The sages of Israel in the Middle Ages, and in other periods, hardly dealt with mental illness, on which so much interest is focused today; they were not interested in neuroses and psychoses … Perhaps, because they simply did not have as many mentally-ill people among them, as we have today,” (page 211).
  • “One of the astronauts, thus, reacted spontaneously (while in space), when the majesty and splendor of the universe were revealed to him and he began to recite the passage: ‘In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.’ His natural associative stream led him to quote from the Holy Scriptures,” (page 197).
  • “Several days ago, I once again sat down to prepare my annual discourse on the subject of repentance. I always used to discuss it with my wife and she would help me to define and crystallize my thoughts. This year too, I prepared the discourse, while consulting her: ‘Could you please advise me? Should I expand upon this idea or cut down on that idea?’… I asked, but heard no reply. Perhaps, there was a whispered response to my question, but it was swallowed up by the wind whistling through the trees and did not reach me,” (page 280; the Rav’s wife was already deceased at the time of this incident).

———

Finally, at pages 184-85, is a great story in the name of Rav Chaim Volozhin of what will happen when the Messiah suddenly arrives. Rav Chaim of Volozhin predicts that he will have to greet him with a missing button, as he and his wife delayed fixing his suit that week, and his wife will be too preoccupied to greet him because her sauce on the stove has burnt (which Rav Chaim was supposed to be watching)!

———

I have to explain the nature of the above unusual work by Peli. It was not composed by the Rav. In English, the full title is: “On Repentance in the Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik.” The Rav gave yearly discourses in Yiddish on the subject of repentance. Peli took the ones he heard from 1962-74 and organized the ideas into seven chapters and published the Hebrew edition, writing it as if the Rav was writing it. Thus, the musings above are not what the Rav chose to put in a book. These are musings chosen by Peli, from 13 years of shiurim. Surely, there were hundreds of others that Peli did not choose to include.

It is known that the Rav approved of Peli’s work, even though there is no “haskamah” by the Rav in the Hebrew or English editions. As to Peli, he was born in Jerusalem, in 1930, to a chasidic family with the last name, “Hacohen.” At age 16, he started publishing poetry in a secular Israeli newspaper.

He used the pen name, פלאי, because he was afraid to use his real name, as he was from a rabbinical family in Meah Shearim. (Although this root usually means “wonder,” at Judges 13:18, many interpret פלאי to mean “hidden.” This meaning was surely what he intended, as he did not use the name פלא, but פלאי.) He, subsequently, adopted this pen name as his actual name. For many years, he was a professor of Jewish thought and literature at Ben-Gurion University. During 1970-71, he taught at Yeshiva University, where he became close to the Rav.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Many have observed that “repentance,” with its relation to the words “penalty,” and “penitentiary,” and a connotation of remorse, is not a good literal translation of “teshuva,” which simply means “return.” But, perhaps, it is a justifiable choice because “teshuva” requires remorse.

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