Silence and Greatness - The Late Professor Isadore Twersky - By Rabbi Hillel Goldberg
Jewish Action, Winter 5759/1998

I.

He. He had many faces and they were all one face. Professor Isadore Twersky was the Nathan Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard University. Rabbi Yitzhak Twersky was a leading figure in the Jewish community of Brookline, Massachusetts. The Chassidic Talner Rebbe was the spiritual guide of a small but highly loyal and educated congregation, also in Brookline. The devotee and son-in-law of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, preeminent Talmudist, was one of the Talmudist’s literary representatives and dedicated caretakers at the end of his life, both trusted family heir and awed, humbled disciple. The author of Rabad of Posquierès: A Twelfth-Century Talmudist and Introduction to the Code of Maimonides was arguably the leading figure in academic Jewish studies in his generation. Of each of these persona individually and all of them in their unity, it may be said, as Rabbi Jechiel J. Perr said of the late Rabbi Yisroel Movshovitz, "What was the greatness of Reb Yisroel? That nobody knew who he was."1

At the end of his preface to Introduction to the Code of Maimonides, he wrote of his wife that any attempt to articulate his indebtedness to her would inevitably ring hollow; yet, "inasmuch as she is attuned to my silences she will understand every nuance and hear every resonance."2 Silences. A man who undeviatingly hewed his own line in both life and letters — who recoiled from fads and dug below pervasive but passing cultural prisms — he nonetheless chose to import Simon and Garfunkel into his magnum opus: "One must be attuned to the silences as well as to the sounds of Maimonides’ writing."3

The father of the Talner Rebbe — the previous rebbe, Rabbi M. Z. Twersky — was stricken toward the end of his life. He could not speak. His son helped him into the shtiebl and the rebbe, shaky but able to stand, would pray; then his son would help him out of the shtiebl. What passed between father and son were, of necessity, silences. Toward the end of his life, Rabbi Soloveitchik was stricken with Parkinson’s disease. His son-in-law took requests from other disciples who asked for a few moments with the great Talmudist; of necessity, these requests were denied and the silences reinforced. Where did they begin?

Why did East European immigrant parents, a Chassidic rebbe and his pious wife, send their son to Boston Latin School, then to Harvard University, not to yeshivah? How did their son, a scion of a distinguished line of Chassidic rebbes, find favor with the daughter of the scion of the most distinguished line of opponents of the Chassidic movement, the daughter of Rabbi Soloveitchik? How did the earnest religious seeker, the son of the rebbe and the son-in-law of the great Talmudist, find favor with the skeptic of Harvard, the lonely man bereft of faith, the world’s senior scholar of Judaica, Professor Harry Austryn Wolfson — so much favor that the religious young man became the dispassionate professor’s successor and a trusted literary representative? How did the protégé, an Orthodox Jew, secure permission from his philosophically skeptical mentor, "an unobservant Orthodox Jew," to focus his research on religious conviction and Jewish law?

There are no answers to these questions and never will be, none, at least, that will turn silences into sounds that satisfy, that will reach deeper than generalities and superficialities, that will reveal the core of the man and significantly attenuate the mystery that surrounded him in life, as in death. On one level, however, there is no mystery. On one level, all is pure and clear and simple: Professor Isadore Rabbi Yitzhak Rebbe Twersky was a presence, an unmistakable presence; with this one word he may be summed up. He. His presence will no sooner recur than the European Jewish civilization, the humanities-centered academia, or the softly shimmering piety of his parents, from all of which he sprang, yet surely did not embody: what was the greatness of Isadore Twersky? That nobody knew who he was.

II.

If man is created in the image of God and God is both unknowable and knowable — His essence inaccessible and His will revealed in nature, life, and Torah — then man should also be unknowable and knowable, concealed and revealed, silent and given to sound, to communication, to relationship. If he was unknowable, concealed like God Himself, so to speak, he left a body of work, he revealed a philosophy of the human spirit, he sounded a voice that may be studied, understood, and profoundly absorbed. His style was both ponderous and elegant; he left no nuance unexplored, no line of thought untidied, no word unsummoned.

He began (in Rabad, 1962) with water, "streams," "tributaries," "offshoots," "rivulets, "eddies," and "waddies," to be exact; with metaphors for the "complex network" pouring into or alongside the mainstream. The network was the "dazzling variety of cultural disciplines: philosophy and mysticism, rationalism and pietism, exegesis and commentary, poetry and belles-lettres, linguistics and grammar."

The courses of these streams deserve to be — and, to a great extent, have been — charted, their ebbs and peaks registered, their force and calm measured; each of them left an imprint on the evolving Jewish intellect and spirit. The mainstream, however, was the halakah (Jewish law) — its ever-expanding corpus of literature and its cumulative body of practice.4

Professor Twersky made his mark in the mainstream — in Jewish law — and in doing so he created a new genre. Before him, books on practitioners of Jewish law ("halachists") were written by lawyers (that is, other halachists) or by biographers. The lawyers analyzed the legal reasoning of the halachic scholar. The biographers, for the main, contented themselves with a chronology of the scholar’s life, an exaltation of his works, and sometimes an analysis of his sources or influence. Professor Twersky addressed the halachic work itself, but not as a lawyer. Professor Twersky wanted to know, for example, whether the work’s popular image was correct. Was Rabad, who wrote many biting glosses on Maimonides’ Code, an unremitting critic of the master (the popular image), or was the relationship more complex? Professor

A Contemporary Orthodox Role Model

Hoshanah Rabbah, 5758
October 22, 1997

Dear Mrs. Twersky,

I was very sorry to hear of the untimely passing of the Rebbe, z"l. I am one of the many who received benefit both personally and professionally from the Rebbe’s wisdom and efforts, and wanted to share with you …a story of his deep influence.

In 1974, I was a twenty-year-old music student in the Yale Graduate School with no background or knowledge of Torah Judaism. I had recently begun reading an English translation of the Torah. My sister, who was working on a Ph.D. at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, sent me a Chanukah present. Inside the wrapping was a copy of a new book called, A Maimonides Reader, edited and arranged by the Rebbe.

This little volume masterfully collected key writings of the Rambam on essential aspects of religious philosophy, including the existence of the Creator, freedom of the will, teshuvah, secular philosophy and halachah.

The Rebbe’s own words, interspersed among the passages, unconsciously served as a role model for me of an educated 20th century thinker who lived a life of emunah and rigorous intellectual honesty in his personal observance of Torah and ethics.

I pored over my paperback copy, using the reference list as a guide for further reading. I slowly became a "chassid" of the Rambam and the Rebbe from afar. A year and a half later, I was graduated from Yale and enrolled full-time in a yeshivah.

During the ensuing years, my brother, sister, first cousin and other friends and students joined the camp of bnei and bnos Torah. Today they are raising their own observant families. Their dozens of children are, in a real sense, spiritual "grandchildren" of the Rebbe and yourself…

***

One of the leading forces helping reset Jewish communal priorities towards Jewish education was the Commission on Jewish Education in North America established in 1988 by Morton Mandel of Cleveland. The Commission gathered community and lay leaders to consider needs and strategies of American Jewish education.

Among the professionals invited to participate in the Commission’s two years of research was Rabbi Dr. Isadore Twersky. During the conference, he exerted a profound influence upon the participants. Due to his scholarly Torah wisdom, sincere respect for his fellow man, and compassionate understanding of the assimilating American Jew, Rabbi Dr. Twersky emerged as a role model of the educated Jew the Commission sought to develop. Given the diverse backgrounds of the Commission members, this position was all the more remarkable and was mekadesh Shem Shamayim; here was a prestigious group of American Jewish community leaders looking for leadership to the outstanding Torah scholar in its midst.

For Morton Mandel, chairman of the Mandel Foundation who convened the Mandel Commission, "Dr. Twersky was a towering figure, combining immense learning with worldly wisdom and great vision. He was awesome, yet modest, inspiring confidence. He was one of the key individuals who helped shape the blueprint for the Commission report, "A Time to Act," issued November, 1990. He made Orthodoxy understandable and relevant. I loved the man. He leaves a huge void."

Dr. Twersky’s persona did much to further the understanding and appreciation of Orthodoxy, which resulted in two innovative programs: In 1994, the Foundation sponsored the establishment of Aish Dos, a school for training kollel scholars to become teachers. This year, the Foundation co-sponsored a three-year fellowship for yeshivah principals. Both projects were "firsts" and important steps for Torah education in America.

On the Goals of Jewish Education

(From "A Time to Act")

"Our goal should be to make it possible for every Jewish person, child or adult, to be exposed to the mystery and romance of Jewish history, to the enthralling insights and special sensitivities of Jewish thought, to the sanctity and symbolism of Jewish existence, and to the power and profundity of Jewish faith. As a motto and declaration of hope, we might adapt the dictum that says, ‘They searched from Dan to Beer Sheva and did not find an am ha’aretz!’ ‘Am ha’aretz,’ usually understood as an ignoramus, an illiterate, may for our purposes be defined as one indifferent to Jewish visions and values, untouched by the drama and majesty of Jewish history, unappreciative of the resourcefulness and resilience of the Jewish community, and unconcerned with Jewish destiny. Education, in its broadest sense, will enable young people to confront the secret of Jewish tenacity and existence, the quality of Torah teaching which fascinates and attracts irresistibly. They will then be able, even eager, to find their place in a creative and constructive community."

Presented by Professor Isadore Twersky, Member of the Commission, at the meeting of June 12, 1990

Twersky wanted to know whether the critical glosses of Rabad fell into categories and gradations, and, if so, what they were. He wanted to know why rulings of Maimonides that cried out for critique were passed over in silence by Rabad. He wanted to dismantle the image of a scholar typographically locked into a designated square or rectangle on the mosaic which forms the many-authored, single page of standard editions of classic Hebrew works. He wanted to know what Rabad wrote besides brief, mainly acerbic glosses, duly carved as insets into Maimonides’ printed words; he wanted the full picture of Rabad’s influence on subsequent formulations of Jewish law.

Professor Twersky pursued these and similar goals with verve, doggedness, and conviction, not to mention mastery of both the primary literature, all that Rabad wrote, and the secondary literature, all that others wrote about Rabad and the issues he raised. This was Professor Twersky’s primary focus: correlation of historiography with history, restoration of the mainstream of Jewish thought, refocus on Jewish intellectual history as it was — the corrective reordering of the "dazzling variety of cultural disciplines" under the throne of the most dazzling of all, halachah.

Already in his first major work the theme that governed much of Professor Twersky’s scholarship in the remainder of his fruitful career was present in embryo. The last chapter of Rabad is entitled, "Relation to Philosophy and Kabbalah." After all, the mainstream, Jewish law, was colored by the tributaries, such as philosophy and kabbalah. If the "dazzling variety of disciplines" could not be fully perceived without their relation to Jewish law, the reverse is also true. Jewish law existed in relation to other disciplines. What, precisely, is this relation? This question occupies 42 pages in the 300-page work, Rabad. By the time of Introduction to the Code of Maimonides, 18 years later, its analogous chapter, "Law and Philosophy," occupies 158 pages in the 537-page work — proportionately, more than double the attention. The increase is due not only to the different emphases of Rabad and Maimonides, but to the personal interest of Professor Twersky himself.

His interest was the complexity of reality. Law was not law, he maintained; law was law and spirit, law was a coin with two sides. To be more accurate, Professor Twersky saw the major halachic scholars as seeing their own work in this twofold manner. His research uncovered halachists who took note of, responded to, reflected the concerns of, or (depending on the halachic scholar) even gave pride of place to mystical, philosophical, or pietistic ideals. To be sure, law had its own terms. It could not be reduced to a "value" or any other generality that exempted either scholar or adherent from its many details. Still, law reflected the spiritual dimensions of other disciplines; either that, or bodied forth a spirituality all its own. With his twofold lens, Professor Twersky did not merely create a new and subtle genre of academic or halachic analysis; he set forth a unitive vision of the human spirit.

III.

In Rabad, one reads of "faint echoes" and "latent processes of reasoning" and "sleuthing" (in Maimonides’ Code) — all favorite phrases of Professor Twersky’s teacher, Professor Wolfson.5 In Rabad, one reads of Rabad as a "man of halakah"6 and a "homo absconditus," 7 both favorite phrases of his father-in-law, Rabbi Soloveitchik. Unobtrusively tucked away in a note or long paragraph in the Introduction to the Code of Maimonides is a reference to the "hypothetical-deductive method of textual analysis"8 or the "covenantal community,"9 phrases coined by, respectively, Professor Wolfson and Rabbi Soloveitchik. Professor Twersky imbedded himself in the works of his guides, all the way down to their favored phrases; his guides were not mere predecessors but profound influences, even as he charted his own path in life and letters. No creator works in a vacuum. No creation is empty of external influence. In Professor Twersky’s case, however, the influences run deeper and run in reverse: the deeper influences on him are he himself, cast as a mirror within his works, as well as other mirror images which, like those in an amusement park, defy precise measurement, sequence, or position. Up and down Professor Twersky’s works, sentences jump out that make one ask, who is being described here? Is it Rabad? Maimonides? Or is it Rabbi Soloveitchik? — or Professor Twersky himself? For example, in commenting on Rabad, Professor Twersky writes:

One gets the impression that he was qualified to sit back and theorize — would have enjoyed it — but compelled himself to devote his energies to other, rigidly circumscribed tasks.10

I believe that the "impression" here is as much of the disciplined, fastidious Professor Twersky as it is of Rabad; especially since Professor Twersky gets a very similar impression from Maimonides:

. . . there is a conscious unity and progressive continuity in his [Maimonides’] literary career . . . in which there is no room for leisurely and discursive writing. It is as if he were following a carefully etched blueprint and as a result was never free, was never "between performances."11

Under Professor Twersky’s lens, two different people, Rabad and Maimonides, who never even met each other, are said to share a fundamental trait: commitment to task above leisurely intellectual pursuit, be it "theorizing" or "discursive writing." Their common trait is fundamentally that of the indefatigable Professor Twersky himself. Perceiving it in two otherwise very different halachists, it mirrors himself as much as them, if not more.

This line of thought is strengthened as we turn to a still more direct impression of Professor Twersky. In one of his seminal articles, he writes of Rabbi Yair Bacharach:

He is a self-conscious stylist, striving for puns, allusions, and epigrammatic constructions.12

Professor Twersky is a self-conscious stylist. For example, he strives mightily for alliterations. They are present in embryo in Rabad; 18 years later, in the Introduction to the Code of Maimonides, they are, to echo the professor, veritably ubiquitous and virtually uncountable. In a mere eight pages of the Introduction, the reader confronts "candidly and curtly," "leaps or lapses," "calculated and consistent," "import and impact," "sequence and structure," "crowning and consummate," and many more such pairs.13

The deeper influences on Professor Twersky are the traits he perceived in the scholars in whose writings he immersed himself and on whose thinking he based himself. No less than his personal mentors, he esteemed these leading halachists; so much so that he exchanged psychic places with them, so to speak, merging their persona with his own, appropriating their many sided spirituality as his own. The many faces of Professor Twersky distilled the waters of the cultural tributaries as well as the halachic mainstream, of the past as well as the present, extending the silences further, across one unforgettable face. He.

Copyright c 1998 by Hillel Goldberg

Rabbi Goldberg is executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News and associate editor of Tradition. He is a member of the Jewish Action contributing editorial board and author of The Fire Within, 2 vols. (Mesorah, 1987 and 1992).


NOTES

Yechiel Y. Perr, "Reb Yisroel — Who Was He?" The Jewish Observer (June, 1969).

Isadore Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah) (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), p. xvi

Ibid., p. 235.

Isadore Twersky, Rabad of Posquierès: A Twelfth-Century Talmudist (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), p. vii.

Ibid., pp. 129, 130, 136.

Ibid., pp. 40, 271.

Ibid., p. 257.

Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides, p.241

Ibid., pp. 226, 485.

Twersky, Rabad of Posquierès, p. 260.

Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides, p. 6.

Isadore Twersky,"Law and Spirituality in the Seventeenth Century: A Case Study in R. Yair Hayyim Bacharach," in Isadore Twersky, Bernard Septimus, eds., Jewish Thought in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 451.

Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides, pp. 7-15

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