The Talner Rebbe – interview with editor Rabbi David Shapiro

Elliot Resnick ● The Jewish Press

A professor at Harvard, a chassidishe Rebbe, and the son-in-law of a Litvish gadol. The combination is unusual, to say the least, but it accurately describes the late Rabbi Dr. Isadore Twersky.

Rabbi Twersky (1930-1997) was the Talner Rebbe of Boston, a professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy at Harvard University, and married to the older daughter of Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University.

Now, a new book – Torah of the Mind, Torah of the Heart: Divrei Torah of the Talner Rebbe (Bereishis, Shemos) – gives the masses a taste of this unique individual’s ideas. The book’s editor is Rabbi David Shapiro, a student of Rabbi Twersky and formerly the principal of Maimonides School in Boston. The book’s divrei Torah are based on Rabbi Shapiro’s notes of Shalosh Se’udos addresses delivered by Rabbi Twersky at the Talner Beis Medrash.

The Jewish Press: How did you first meet Rabbi Twersky?

Rabbi Shapiro: I was learning for semicha in YU, and my father-in-law said to me, “Go to Harvard and earn your doctorate there. You’ll have the zechus to learn with Rabbi Twersky, and a degree from Harvard will open more doors for you professionally.”

So my wife and I moved to Boston. The rest is history.

What was Rabbi Twersky like as a person?

He was very private and reticent. He didn’t make small talk. But he was also very kind, empathetic, and easy to talk to.

He was a ben achar ben from R’ Dovid’l Talner, who was the son of Reb Mordechai of Chernobyl (the Me’or Einayim). People didn’t give Rabbi Twersky kvittelach – he wasn’t that kind of Rebbe – but he was a chassidishe personality and people came to him for advice. He was very wise.

My first interaction with him came when we moved to Boston. I was in the catalogue room of Harvard’s library, and Rabbi Twersky, came over to me and said, “Shalom Aleichem, welcome to Boston. Do you have a sukkah in your apartment? Will you need a place to eat Sukkos? You can come to us.” That was his opening line to me.

It’s very unusual for a chassidishe Rebbe to also be a professor at an Ivy League university. Can you talk a bit about this strange mix?

Some people live a double life. He did not. He was extremely oisgehalten, extremely consistent. He always wore a yarmulke in Harvard and always left campus to be in his shul for Minchah.

For us, listening to a lecture at Harvard and hearing him give a shiur in the Talner Beis Medrash was basically the same thing. He might have used different language, but it was the same person, and that’s one of the things that made him very special….

During his years at Harvard, he never hired people to teach courses in Bible because he didn’t want to be responsible for confusing his students. He used to attract a lot of yeshiva boys who wanted to learn Jewish history with him because he was frum and wouldn’t try to shake their beliefs, so he felt responsible to nurture their growth al pi Torah.

He knew everything. He was brilliant. Everything he saw, he remembered. So if we read something controversial on our own, we could talk to him about it. But he didn’t require us to read problematic works.

Did he function as a chassidic Rebbe?

He was very uncomfortable with chitzoniyus. If you read some of the divrei Torah in the book, you’ll see there’s an emphasis on pnimiyus, on inwardness, on not being ostentatious in your avodas Hashem.

His father wore a streimel. His father was an old-time chassidishe Rebbe who came to America in 1923 and set up a shtiebel in Boston. But Rabbi Twersky wore a regular business suit and never put on a streimel. He only put on a gartel after his father died as kibud av. And on Shabbos, he started wearing a bekeshe only after his older son got married. He did this almost reluctantly.

The truth is, Rav Soloveitchik, his father-in-law, was the domineering personality in Boston. But the last 10 years of his life, Rav Soloveitchik [was ill] and no longer really able to respond to the public. So Rabbi Twersky, b’al karcho, got drawn into the public sphere.

People need a leader, and he was an obvious person to go to for religious guidance. He became the posek for Maimonides School. Even Conservative rabbis in town came to his Tuesday night Gemera shiur and would talk to him afterwards about their community issues. He was a big yo’etz.

He represented the Ribbono Shel Olam in a way that was a Kiddush Hashem both amongst the non-Jewish community at Harvard and the Jewish community in Boston. And for me it was Gan Eden because I was the principal at Maimonides, and all I had to do was say, “Listen, I discussed this issue with Rabbi Twersky and this is what he said we should do.” And that was it. Nobody challenged me.

Did he have chassidim?

He had people who were devoted to him and considered him like their second father. Many people grow a beard and wear a bekeshe and streimel if they became chassidim of a Rebbe. But the Talner Rebbe himself didn’t wear a streimel [so his followers didn’t either].

There were people, though, who revered him and would ask him all their shaalos and personal advice questions.

How would you characterize Rabbi Twersky’s thought? What made it unique or special in your opinion?

He was a rare blend of three strands. One was his chassidishe tradition. He grew up in a home where he heard Chassidus from his father.

The second strand was his academic training. He went to Boston Latin – which is like the Bronx high school of science [a school for the academically gifted] – all the way through 12th grade. (He had melamdim who came to the house to teach him Torah.) And then after he graduated, he went Harvard.

On top of all this was the third strand, which was [his litvish Torah knowledge]. Every Friday, Rav Soloveitchik would sit and learn with a small chaburah of brilliant people as a sort of preparation for his shiurim at YU the next week. These people consisted of his son Chaim; Shlomo Sternberg, who’s a brilliant mathematician; Rav Ahron Lichtenstein, who married Rav Soloveitchik’s younger daughter; and Rabbi Twersky.

After 1967, when the Rav’s wife died, Rav Soloveitchik moved into the Twersky home. So from then on, Rabbi Twersky and Rav Soloveitchik ate breakfast, lunch, and supper together three days a week, spent Shabbasos together, and formally had chavrusa time together. That’s a lot of litvishe learning.

So he had these three strands, and they are reflected in Rabbi Twersky’s divrei Torah and the way he gave a shiur.

He incorporated both litvishe and chassidishe ideas in his divrei Torah?

He actually was very concerned with the popularization – and the concomitant cheapening and vulgarization – of Kabbalah and Chassidus. So although he was a baki in it, he never actually taught Chassidus. Even the Me’or Einayim – his eltere zeide – he rarely quoted.

The divrei Torah in the book are extraordinarily short. Why?

What you’re reading are my reconstructions of his Shalosh Seudos addresses based on notes I took 25 years ago.

He didn’t speak for two minutes. He spoke for 10 minutes. But he was also a man of very few words. He once gave a shiur in which he talked about the Gemara’s comment that “le’olam yeshaneh adam l’talmido derech ketzarah – a person should teach his students using few words.”

Rabbi Twersky [didn’t talk for the sake of talking]. I had the zechus to drive him often. I remember we once went to New Hampshire to be menachem avel someone whom we both knew. It was an hour and a half drive each way, but we spoke very little. He didn’t need to fill a car ride with conversation. For him it was okay to just sit and consider various Torah ideas. He didn’t need to make idle talk.

The truth is that a lot of what Rabbi Twersky said at Shalosh Seudos was [difficult to understand to many of those present]. I don’t know what to say. I had tremendous yiras hakavod for him. He was very nice to me – he made me feel like a son – so it wasn’t a yirah [that made me frightened], but I just had this awe and respect for him, and I never asked him, “Why do you do this?” So I don’t know why he chose to speak at Shalosh Seudos that way, but that’s how he spoke. You had to strain, you had to listen. He didn’t repeat things twice.

Can you give readers a taste of the book by repeating one of the divrei Torah?

The Torah says, “Sheshes yamim ye’aseh melacha u’vayom hashevi’i Shabbos Shabbason – Six days work shall be done, but the seventh day is one of complete rest from work.” Rashi writes that “Shabbas Shabbason” means: “menuchas margo’a, v’lo menuchas arai – a total rest, not a superficial rest.”

Rabbi Twersky pointed out that the Torah only uses the words “Shabbos Shabbason” in the context of Shabbos when it talks about work in the passive voice: “work shall be done.” When work is described in the active voice – “six days you shall do all your work” – the words “Shabbos Shabbason” do not appear.

Rabbi Twersky said that when the Torah speaks of people “having their work done,” it means you recognize that HaKadosh Baruch Hu is in the driver’s seat. You’re passive. You’re only an instrument for Hashem to achieve His purpose in this world. Such a person has “Shabbos Shabbason” – he has a menuchas margo’a, a total rest.

But if you’re “active” during the week – if you pursue your own self-serving agenda – then on Shabbos you’ll only experience a menuchas arai. You won’t be able to let go.

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