Riveting. Moving. Inspiring. Such is the documentary A Lonely Man of Faith produced by Ethan Isenberg. The golden mind, heart, and tongue belonged to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik, known to his students simply as the Rav.
The highlights of the film for me:
- The early influence of the Rav’s mother. The film emphasized her love of secular knowledge and only hinted at her real contribution — the emotional warmth the Rav’s strict father could not provide.
- The Rav’s emphasis on higher learning for women, by insisting on teaching the first Talmud class for women at Stern College. Maimonides, the Boston day school he founded, had mixed classes through high school because the Rav feared that separate classes would lead to inferior education for girls.
- His support of the State of Israel, secular education, and cooperation with the non-Orthodox (on issues affecting the entire community), causing a rift between modern Orthodoxy and the Yeshiva world that has not been repaired.
- The Rav’s combination of a love of learning, personal integrity, and an emphasis on ethics and morality including business ethics. He believed that the goal of learning Torah and doing mitzvot is to lift us to a higher moral level. Too often they are seen as the ends in themselves.
- The discussion of faith that he brought into modern-day consciousness. He was disturbed by those who asked, “What can religion do for me?” instead of “What does God want from me?”
- His unique and well-trained mind–head and shoulders above any other — combined with unusual sensitivity, oratorical genius, and levelheadedness — placed him, arguably, as the savior of the precarious American Orthodoxy that existed when he arrived in the 1930’s.
- The Rav’s personal and professional challenges.
- The unfortunate lack of a successor, or even a clear legacy, because every decision occurred in a specific context that cannot be reproduced.
I only mention a small portion of the vast material that the producers managed to include in an hour and a half. Even though it ignored or glossed over many negatives, A Lonely Man of Faith made me proud to call myself modern Orthodox and a religious Zionist.