Monday, March 22, 2004

The Maimonides Conference kicked off yesterday. The keynote, and official opening, was last night, but before it, during the afternoon was, what I think, will be the best of the sessions- I'm glad it was held then, so I could make it. The auditorium was packed, and, to paraphrase the song, "everyone who should be there was there."

Professor Blidstein gave a presentation about the Rambam's ideas of halakhic authority. Interesting, if a bit wooden. But I forgot about it completely and had to go online to remind myself what the topic was. I'll be generous and say it's because he was first.

The Grach (a jocular name for Prof. Hayim Soloveitchik) gave a very good speech indeed. I'd forgotten that he speaks well, and hadn't been expecting that. Perhaps it's because the first time I heard him was when he gave a somewhat disjointed (to my mind) eulogy for his father, back in 1993. But I suppose someone in that spot has to be cut lots of slack.

His topic was covert (and overt) agendas in the Rambam, and he focused on how the Yad is an answer to Karaism. One flaw I saw with his argument was that he's willing to accept that the Rambam sacrificed clarity in writing the halakha for polemic- and covert polemic, at that. I don't like the sound of that- he seems to be missing the forest for the trees, or suggesting the Rambam meant us to. In fact, he argued that he (Soloveitchik) is looking at a much broader picture of the Yad- if so, he's missing the forest for a broader forest. Or something.

The question session after he spoke reminded me of why I restrain myself from asking questions of the Grach. (The last time I did was ten years ago.) As a friend of mine who was sitting next to me said, "He doesn't suffer fools lightly. For that matter, he doesn't suffer intelligent people lightly either." Ask a stupid or irrelevant question, or one whose premise he feels is fundamentally flawed, he'll tell you, point by point. I'm reminded of something national treasure (and, one hopes, future Chief Justice) Clarence Thomas once said: He was asked why, unlike other justices, he doesn't ask a lot of questions. He answered that, first, he grew up speaking Gullah and thus was embarrassed to talk up in class. As he got older, he realized that many people ask questions just to hear themselves speak, and they often know the answer already. Finally, he realized that if your question is really important, you can keep your mouth shut and somebody else will ask it eventually. So I waited, and, sure enough, other people brought up my points. Needless to say, the Grach was not fazed.

Over at Protocols, Steven I. Weiss (who I finally got to meet) records another exchange: "Prof. Haym Soloveitchik in refusing to speak to me as a reporter: 'Your job is to simplify and my job is to find nuance.'" Ha! I remember the famous "Superman" speech from my senior year of college, when the Grach told my roommate, in front of a full Weissberg Commons, to get himself therapy.

Finally, there was Marc Shapiro...gotta run. I'll put in more later, so check back!

Continued above.

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