‘The Rav and the Rebbe’ a book by Rabbi Chaim Dalfin: some comments

I’ve thought about how I will comment on this book. I decided not to review it from a purely academic perspective, as I don’t see the book in the more traditional academic light; there is abundant speculation and innuendo, interspersed both under the surface and visibly, for it to be considered as such. An academic work would seek to start with no or few assumptions let alone perceived bias, and would attempt to conclude and prove on the basis of “raw” facts, without an undercurrent that seems to be attempting to convince the reader to embrace a particular approach a priori. To be fair, towards the end of the book, the author doesn’t deny this and is honest. The author has tried his best.

That’s not to say that the book doesn’t contain useful information; it does: I am always (addictively, one might say) interested in discovering new things about Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik (the Rav) and Rav Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (the Rebbe), although not so much in the sole sense of their relationship, but rather their philosophies, deeds, accomplishments, and advice for living a fulfilling Torah life. These were two unparalleled leaders of our time with enormous accomplishments. Sadly, I didn’t possess the maturity or have the opportunity of interaction to appreciate them while they were living in our world. Perhaps I’d be less perplexed or even less universalistic than I tend to be.

As background, it behoves me to re-state that I studied in Chabad during my entire schooling and am thankful for the Rayatz for setting up a School in the antipodes which served the children of Holocaust survivors. I gained a methodological approach to “learn” at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh in Israel after that. These days I attend varied Shules that follow Nusach Chabad (I used to go to Mizrachi and Elwood, mainly, as that is where my father davened, and I was also Shaliach Tzibbur on Yomim Noroim). One is often influenced to be where their grandchildren are. It is good for them to see Zayda at Shule. I need to do more of that.

A keen sense of Chabad doesn’t elude me, having three sons-in-law and a son who consider themselves Chabad Chassidim of various shades. I don’t have any problems with that, and I hope they don’t have any problems with me having my own approach. In fact, I encourage them to adhere to their principles.

I only visited 770 once, a few years ago, and although I was in New York many years prior, never felt a sense of self-importance to go to the Lubavitcher Rebbe.  At that time I convinced myself that I had nothing burning to justify disturbing a busy Rebbe. I did enjoy the shtetl-like Crown Heights and managed to speak with many of the older, well-known personalities. This is another penchant of mine as they are a fountain of experience and wisdom.

The Rav, on the other hand, wasn’t part of my life until much later. I wouldn’t have asked him for a Brocha per se if I’d seen him. He was not a Rebbe. More likely, I would have taken a back seat and listened and tried to absorb. He had passed away by the time I felt the magnetism. I was and am exposed to him through his writings, talks, and the material from his students: one of whom is my primary Posek. The Rav is a source of fascination. A brilliant Brisker Talmudist, primarily, who taught a solid Mesora to legions of Rabbis, he also acquired a PhD in Philosophy (which he originally wanted to write about the Rambam but could not, as there wasn’t a qualified supervisor willing to supervise him in Berlin). My own career in University, although not in Philosophy, may be a factor in that attraction, but I’m not sure of that.

I have written a few blog posts on the topic with some documentary evidence and my own speculation. There should be no doubt, however, that the Rebbe had halachically and personally derived respect for the Rav. He stood upright at a Farbrengen as the Rav walked in, and remained standing when the Rav left. This has its roots in Halacha, and is most significant, even for a Chassid. I do get offended when the Rav is referred to as “J.B”. I hear this from Lubavitchersand some others. I find this an enormous Bizayon HaTorah, and make my feelings known vociferously. Can one imagine calling the Rebbe “M.M”? It’s a Chutzpah.

This was some background. I felt it important to mention, lest it biased my reading. It’s up to other readers to decide that, though, and I welcome any of their reflections.

Rabbi Dalfin’s book was been proof-read, and although there are some English errors, I sense English expression isn’t his forte. It reads more as a communicative attempt to search for commonalities, even obscure, irrelevant, and quite subjective ones, as a means to unite the two giants.

The purpose of this attempt at uniting and attempt at commonality is clear: it is to make Chabad more palatable or desirable for YU-style Talmidim. I didn’t find, though, any reciprocal exhortation or suggestion that someone from Chabad read, for example “Abraham’s Journey” while we are in the midst of B’Reishis. It’s a very good read, by the way.

I have never met Rabbi Dalfin, and that is probably good, as I maintained an open mind. I am acquainted with his ex-Melbournian wife and know his famed mother-in-law, but that is tangential. Notwithstandingly, the book I see the book as a pseudo-academic work designed to also function as a soft and diplomatic/disguised approach to convince the non Chabad students of Toras Rav, that:

  1. the distance between Chabad and the Rav’s Mesora is closer than they think;
  2. since the Rav was exposed to Chassidus as a child it not only affected his vista of Yahadus, but the Rav’s Talmidim should do likewise; and
  3. the Rav continued being an avid reader of Chassidus.

Rabbi Dalfin is aware that these accusations would be forthcoming and I feel he did his best to submerge them. In the process, I am sure (or hope) Rabbi Dalfin also gained an enormous respect for the Rav. At the end of the day, though, Rabbi Dalfin is a Chabad Chassid first and last, and that commits a person to clear boundaries and conclusions. It’s not my way, but it’s a valid approach.

Rabbi Chaim Dalfin
Rabbi Chaim Dalfin


There has been a group in YU who learn Chassidus already for some years. This also manifests itself amongst some in Yeshivot Hesder. Rav Hershel Reichman, one of the Roshei Yeshivah, has taught Chassidus for eons and visited the Rebbe at least three times, and one of the newer Mashgichim at YU is the charismatic Eish Kodesh of Woodmere, a fully-fledged Chassid (but not of Chabad per se). One can even download on yutorah.org (I think two) sets of Shiurim on the complete Tanya.

None of this is surprising due to the fact that at YU and RIETS, one isn’t shackled. In Chabad, one is more limited to a pre-defined set of Seforim. Individual Chabadniks, often the most impressive messengers of Chabad’s mission, are the ones who have also read more widely. The stock standard Chassid limits themselves safely to Toras Chabad and Torah She Baal Peh and Biksav. Personally, I appreciate it when someone tries to imbue a new insight, irrespective of what it’s based upon.

Chakira-philosophically styled works-is not encouraged in Chabad institutions today to my knowledge, and yet, I believe the original students of the famed Tomchei Temimim needed to know Kuzari and Moreh Nevuchim, before being admitted. The argument might be that in our day, people are not at that level and not equipped to deal with the challenges. This is cogent, but is it universally effective? Alternatively, the Lubavitcher Rebbe provided a comprehensive and firm formula relating to Jews which navigates around these types of seforim and provides an alternate approach, even though an enquiring mind may want to dip their toe into philosophical questions. Lubavitch emphasises Bitul, and Chakira involves questioning. Are they mutually exclusive?

For Chabad, there is only Chabad Chassidus, and it is often referred to as the Shaar HaKollel, the gate that all and everyone should enter, and Chassidus must be spread far and wide as a pre-condition for Moshiach. I don’t even think Rabbi Dalfin would agree that this was the view of the Rav or his Talmidim! In that sense, the Rav and the Rebbe were worlds apart. Perhaps they completed each other? One manifested their inherent gifts as a “Melamed/Rosh Yeshivah/Posek for the RCA” and the other as a “Manhig for all Jews”. They are different categories of leadership and contribution. Both were intellectually and intuitively well advanced over stock Rabbis in their generation, and were the subject of unfound criticism, as a result. That has been a hallmark of Rabbinic history, sadly.

I found that there was repetition thoughout the book, and that it could have been cut down by perhaps one third. The most interesting things = were footnotes where the author had sought interviews with people, whom I had not heard of or read about. For this alone, it was certainly worthwhile, especially for a somewhat addicted one to these personalities.

I now make some non-exhuastive comments on various parts of the book. While I was reading, I placed an ear mark against something I felt warranted comment. I now go back to each ear mark and try to remember why I did so!

The Rav (second from left) with Rav Shmuel Walkin

On page 43, Rabbi Dalfin notes that the Rebbe met Rav Hutner. I would expect that Rabbi Dalfin also knows that when Rav Hutner wanted to learn Chassidus, eventually he had a Friday night session with the Lubavitcher Rebbe (who was the Ramash at the time) at the explicit direction of the Rayatz, the Ramash’s father-in-law. The other brother in law, the Rashag, who was an important personality, was the original Chavrusa, but Rav Hutner needed more. Rabbi Dalfin didn’t need to tell us this, but it is an interesting historical fact.

I do not know where Rabbi Dalfin has information that the Rav ever spoke to or had anything to do with Nechama Leibowitz, even though she was there. She apparently sat in the library behind a mound of books. No doubt he would have nodded his head in passing. We do know, that the Lubavitcher Rebbe and others were in a tutorial with a series of august Rabbis, and were taught by Rav Aharon Kotler’s more controversial sister (this is documented in ‘The Making of a Gadol’ by Rav Kaminetzky, where she is alleged to have said who she thought was “smartest” of the talented group studying in Berlin).

As far as I know both the Rav and the Rebbe attended Rav Chaim Heller’s shiurim quite often. Rav Heller, however, maintained his relationship in the USA with the Rav, and the Rav’s hesped for Rav Heller was like a son for a father. It is one of the Rav’s classic hespedim.

The Rebbe in the early years, as the Ramash
The Rebbe in the early years, as the Ramash

The interchange about the Rambam at the Shiva call, seems to be questionable, or at least there are two versions. It would have been good if the actual letter from the Rebbe to the Rav was reproduced in the book. I’m sure it exists. The traditional story I read about and heard was that they discussed the laws of an Onen and Trumah and at one stage the Rebbe said “it is an open Rambam”. The Rav replied “there is no such Rambam”. Most of the discussion was in half sentences which the bystanders could not follow. One would start a Ma’amar Chazal, and the other would counter before they had finished their sentence. Subsequently, the Rebbe noted in his letter that it wasn’t actually in the Rambam’s Halachic writing, but appeared in the Rambam’s earlier glosses on Mishnayos and apologised for the misunderstanding.

On page 44, Rabbi Dalfin seems to be apologetic when saying that the Rebbe did not reciprocate a shiva call to the Rav because he stopped leaving 770 except to visit the grave of his father in law, the Rayatz. This may be true. Rabbi Dalfin notes however the phrase “with very few exceptions” that he did leave. I have little doubt that each such exception (prior to the early days when the Rebbe performed Chuppa/Kiddushin) were for important Chassidim or special cases/incidents. There were exceptions, though, and this can’t be glossed over: the Rav’s Aveilus was not one of them, though the thesis is that they were good friends. The Rebbe wrote as much. Clearly, visiting the Rav for a Shivah call was not one of those exceptions; the Rav saw it at least as an Halachik obligation to console the Rebbe personally. Indeed, the Rebbe subsequently wrote to the Rav, proposing that it might be possible to console a mourner through the written word. The Rebbe, also being felicitous to Halacha felt that he needed to explore and justify that one can be Menachem Avel through a letter. [I do not know if the Rebbe rang the Rav. If he did not, why not? If he did, I may have missed it in the book]

Page 46 (and other pages) In reference to the meetings of minds between the Rav and the Rashab at the Kinus HoRabonnim in Warsaw to oppose secular studies in the Yeshivas, as proposed by the Soviets, there seems to be no mention about the other recorded tradition. The Rashab was allegedly depressed because he felt he and Rav Chaim would lose the vote, being in the minority. The Rashab was weeping. Rav Chaim approached him and told him that he shouldn’t weep. Rav Chaim assured him that it would not happen. As I recall reading, just as the discussion/vote was to start, Rav Chaim rose and ascended to the Bima, banged his hand, and issued a formal Psak Din, that it was forbidden to listen to the Soviet proposal. None of the great Rabbonim who were present, was game to challenge Rav Chaim, even though they were great, and the meeting was over. I’m not sure why this version which has appeared in other places, isn’t mentioned.

On page 49, Rabbi Dalfin states that the Rav was a studious admirer of the Baal HaTanya. The Rav was certainly studious and was an admirer, but one needs to bring some evidence that the Rav learned Tanya regularly or semi-regularly following his youth to come to some of the conclusions Rabbi Dalfin seems to suggest. The Rav certainly knew the Tanya, as he did the Nefesh HaChaim of his ancestor, and he is one of the few who understood the differences. Unlike the noble recent translation of the Nefesh Hachaim by Avinoam Fraenkel, the Rav and the Rebbe both felt that the approaches to Tzimtzum were not the same. Either way, Tzimtzum isn’t something on my lips on a regular basis and I can’t say I think about it much. Ironically, I do when engaging a non Jewish students who wishes to talk!

The Rav was also a philosopher, yet Rabbi Dalfin states that in the Rav’s speech extolling the Rayatz, the Rav’s use of comparison between the Rayataz and Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa, was inspired by the writings of the Alter Rebbe in Tanya. Supposition?  The Rav knew Tanya and it’s there, he would have seen it and in Chazal. If he didn’t know Tanya, then he would have known the Chazals. It shouldn’t be remotely claimed that the Rav applying this praise to the Rayatz, was some type of pseudo plagiarism or an imperative derived from the Tanya. I got that message and didn’t appreciate it. Perhaps it is what gave the Rav the initial idea to create such a masterful Drosha, but the Rav was not a regular copyist (in fact, when he visited Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky he was quite upset as he perused Rav Chaim Ozer’s Seforim, because he saw many of his Chiddushim has been published by others, and he had not seen those Seforim until then).

The Rav was a Master darshan in his own right and had plenty to call upon. He didn’t need Tanya to construct his positive comments about the Rayatz, and one doesn’t need to justify saying something that appears in many places! By the way, to buttress my point, Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner told me that he was present for this particular Derosha from the Rav, and it was the best Drosha he had ever heard. Rabbi Groner was well acquainted with the Rayatz and the Tanya and the Rebbe.

On page 50, we come to a quandary. If the Rav was so infused with Chassidus Chabad, why did it apparently take his recovery from an illness to teach Chassidus for 15 minutes as a measure of Hakoras HaTov. Before the Hakoras HaTov, he didn’t find it important enough?

I don’t recall Rabbi Dalfin mentioning the Rav’s comment extolling that a unique greatness of the Rebbe was his ability to take Yahadus into Reshus HoRabbim and that this was something the rest of the Rabbinical world could not or would not do, with fervour, organisation and single mindedness. Many kirov organisations try to emulate the approach, but aren’t quite as effective due to the Mesiras Nefesh of the Chassid.

On page 53, Rabbi Dalfin brings no source for the alleged knowledge of Sam Cramer. If it is true, then the Rayatz’s wife and daughter would have known about it, in the least!

On page 59, Rabbi Dalfin mentioned Rav Mendel Vitebsker seemingly nonchalantly as someone who accompanied the Alter Rebbe to see the Gaon of Vilna (others say it was the Berditchever, as Rabbi Dalfin mentions later). Rabbi Dalfin will know that Rav Mendel, also known as R’ Mendel Horodoker, was explicitly referred to as Rebbe by the Baal HaTanya himself, and the Baal HaTanya followed his Rebbe physically as a chassid to Israel, until told to turn back by R’ Mendel and look after the diaspora in Russia. It has always been a mystery to me why Rav Mendel isn’t considered a Rebbe before the Baal HaTanya in the chain of Chabad lineage, given that the Baal HaTanya considered and wrote of him as his Rebbe. Perhaps it’s because he wasn’t related to the Schneersohn dynasty. Either way, that is a side issue, but one that has intrigued me. Indeed, when I spoke to the late and great Chassid and friend, R’ Aharon Eliezer Ceitlin about this point, he mentioned that someone had once asked the Rebbe this question at a farbrengen, and the Rebbe replied that “it was a good question”. Take it for what it’s worth. I’m repeating what I was told. There is probably another reason.

On page 61, Rabbi Dalfin concludes that early tradition guided much of the Rav’s acceptance of Chabad. I see no logical conclusion for that. The Vilna Gaon went into exile for months, climbing through a window and issued a Cherem! Yes, the Vilna Gaon may have been misled, but a better proof would have been from the Rav’s relative, Rav Chaim Volozhiner, who pointedly did not sign the Cherem, even though he wrote it!

On page 63 Rabbi Dalfin argues that the Rav wasn’t a traditional Misnaged. He doesn’t define Misnaged. They come in different modes today. He needs to. A full misnaged is opposed to all Chassidic groups! My Rov, Rav Boruch Abaranok used to say, “Halevai there were Misnagdim today and Halevei there were Chassidim”.

Rabbi Dalfin surmises that the Rav didn’t go to the Mikva every day “perhaps because learning was more important”. The Rav was the quintessential Halachic man. Perhaps he saw no Halacha vis a vis Takonas Ezra requiring him to go Mikvah. On the contrary, one could conclude that Chassidus had not enough effect on him when it was weighed against Halacha Peshuta and his Brisker Mesora. (Apart from the fact that the Rav presumably showered and according to his student Rav Schachter and others, this suffices for those who wish to keep Takonas Ezra today). In those days, Mikvaos were also the central place to have a Shvitz and a clean up of sorts.

I do not know what is meant by the misnaged approach to practical Halacha that Rabbi Dalfin writes about. If anything, Brisk was highly critical of the Litvishe Yeshivas engaged with Pilpul and not drilling down to Halacha. The Rav was quite sharp in criticising that aspect. This was also the view of Rav Kook who never finished the books he wanted to write (as opposed to the snippet of diary entries which have been morphed and altered into books and are therefore mired in controversy).

On page 64, Rabbi Dalfin concludes based on David Holtzer’s book that the Rav did not think much of Polish ChaGaS. The Rav was despite his strong persona, extremely tolerant. His views were firm, but if there was a Yid for whom ChaGaS was a major ingredient and perhaps suited their personality, I cannot imagine from the Rav’s writings, that he would have an issue with it, let alone tell the person to abandon ChaGaS. The Rav wrote what affected him. I am not sure he wrote to convince others to change their approach to Yahadus.

The Rav had a lot of time for the Tehillim Yidden in Khaslavich. These were indelible memories. Yet, saying Tehillim was not the Brisker way. Brisk were the elite. I’d venture to say that Rav Moshe, the Rav’s father was more elitist (call it extreme masoretic) than the Rav, but the Rav was not, even though he maintained a personal unshakeable fidelity. Rav Moshe preferred Mishnayos, as is known by the practice between the two on Rosh Hashona.

Rabbi Dalfin relates that the Rav was allegedly eventually convinced of the emotional style of attracting Jews practiced by the Bostoner Rebbe, with whom he was close. But, the Rav had an open mind, and when he saw it had a place for certain types of Jews he accepted it. I don’t find it surprising. Evidence is a powerful ingredient. [On taking fringe ground: Both the Rav and the Rebbe gave Rabbi Riskin permission to develop Lincoln Square Synagogue, but this was not advice for others.]

This is in stark contradiction to the general approach of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe adhered to one way; Toras HaBaal HaTanya as successively elucidated and revealed by successive Rebbes. I can’t belittle such an approach. Why would I? I know many who are consumed by it. The Rebbe never deviated from it, and when in doubt, he followed what his father-in-law (as opposed to his more Kabbalistically inclined father) did. He was completely beholden to his father-in-law until his last breath, and felt he was an extension of his mission (in my opinion). In this sense the Rav and Rebbe were chalk and cheese. The Rav and Rav Moshe weren’t exactly kindred personalities but they had an understanding, a bond, perhaps a quietest bond void of emotions. The Rav, though, was not the pure extension of his father. That being said, he trembled to teach a Masechta that he had not learned with his father.

I recall reading a story that the Rav was to be a Sandek at a bris where they were going to do Metzitza using the mouth. The Rav who was Sandek, informed the Chassidic Mohel, that he forbade him to do so. The Rav was concerned for health reasons, and this was a matter of Halacha. Brisk are notorious for their stringency on matters of health, which results in leniencies. Two or three times they argued back and forth, and the Mohel refused to budge (he obviously didn’t think much of the Rav; Chassidim dismiss him as out of hand, but quietly admit that he was the inheritor of R’ Chaim’s brilliant mind). At that moment the Rav told the Mohel, “you are lucky that my father isn’t the Sandek. He wasn’t as tolerant as me. He would have walked out and refused to move one iota”. In this sense, I think Rav Moshe, the Rav’s father, was more like the Lubavitcher Rebbe showing a more singular unshakeable approach. He followed his Beis HoRav to the minutest detail [although in his later years he adopted the Tachkemoni approach, which didn’t work out for various reasons]. The Lubavitcher Rebbe had his singular vision and methodology and that could not be compromised and was a faithful brilliant continuation from the 1st Rebbe of Chabad.

On page 77, Rabbi Dalfin writes of an interchange with the venerable Rav Mendel Marosov regarding Mussar and Chassidus. One need not read the interchange in the way that Rabbi Dalfin interpreted it. Rather, the Rav could easily have been saying “Rabbi Marosov, you are a Chassid, you should be asking me not about Mussar but about Chassidus“. Neither implies that the Rav held that his Talmidim had to learn either. In Brisk they had a disdain for mussar (some called it Bitul Torah), and didn’t know of Chassidus. The Rav was exposed to Chassidus, and it gave him a non Brisker Geshmack in the same way that his mother did for the emotional side of Judaism and the secular scholarship of the world, in contrast to the more limited approach of his father.

Rabbi Dalfin states,

“if we truly respect the Rav and wish to fulfil his wishes(!) then Chassidus should be taught and studied at YU”.

This is a very long bow. Many of the Rav’s best Talmidim don’t study Chassidus regularly or at all, and were never asked to do so by the Rav! Certainly Rav Schachter quotes both from the Baal HaTanya and the Nefesh HaChaim and considers them both important Seforim. The thing I infer is that the Rav wanted to create original, halachically, sound-thinking, critical-thinking Rabonim, bound by a Mesora that behoved them to consult their Chaveirim if they had a Chiddush in Halacha, and then to do a PhD to enhance their ability to research with an academic nuance and think methodologically with the rigour he was exposed to in his University studies (and also relate to the new American, who spoke a different language).

On Page 86 Rabbi Dalfin notes “Some have criticised the Rav for being indecisive”. With this statement I believe Rabbi Dalfin is evasive for diplomatic or other reasons in order to further part of his agenda, and perhaps it indicates he doesn’t appreciate fully the Rav’s way. In fact it was the Lubavitcher Rebbe himself who noted the Rav was prone to sometimes change his mind.

Letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe ז'ל mentioning the Rav ז'ל
Letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe ז’ל mentioning the Rav ז’ל

In an interchange with Rabbi Dalfin, I criticised him for consciously leaving this letter out of his book and addressing it. He responded that he didn’t have the full context of the letter (and neither did I) and had consulted others as to whether to include it. It could well be that the rest of the letter had nothing to do with these comments, but it’s hard to imagine that the letter would be an expansion of what the Rebbe said, or a self-softening of what he said. My view is that they were intrinsically, also different.

Anyone who has seen Rav Schachter during Summer in Tannersville, knows that when he starts learning Gemora on his porch, he tells the many who wish to join him, that they must remove all their previous thoughts and knowledge about the Gemora and think originally again! This was what he learned from the Rav. It was about never being afraid to revisit an issue and conclude differently” (as did Rav Chaim Brisker famously in his inaugural lecture in the Volozhiner Yeshiva).

Some might say this indicates that the Rav vacillated, or was weak. [The episode of Kashrus in Boston, which Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky’s father experienced put paid to that. The Rav didn’t budge an iota when the Halacha was as clear as could be, and suffered (in his words) with the attempts to discredit him in court] To do so, in my opinion is to not understand his halachic honesty and his self-sacrificial fidelity to Mesora, that “every day it should be in your eyes, like something afresh”.

To Rabbi Dalfin I say, you should have published the part of the letter, translated it, and then made whatever comment you could or could not make. You could even have even left it to the reader.  To leave it out, is not the way, and the book is poorer for not mentioning this. I was also critical of both Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky and Rabbi Yossi Jacobson for not addressing this letter in a forum about the Rav and the Rebbe at YU (such a forum wouldn’t happen at 770 🙂 and I corresponded with Rabbi Jacobson on this matter, privately. As I recall, we agreed to disagree.

The Rebbe and the Rav
The Rebbe and the Rav

The fact is that this letter was hidden, and only known about by few. I don’t usually look at statistics on my blog, as they don’t interest me; I write because I feel a need to, at times. The statistics spiked when I published the letter) wordpress had sent me an email. Note also that anything personal could have been redacted, and the entire letter published. Everyone knows the librarian at 770, and they can obtain this letter from him and do the needful, unless there was a specific command for the librarian not to release it (and if there was, one needs to ask why). There are other cases where Chassidim (not the Rebbe) tried to prevent the publication of something he said.

My view is that this letter does not mean the Lubavitcher Rebbe was not fond of or friendly with the Rav, but it does mean that aspects of the Rav’s Derech HaTorah were not in tune with the Rebbe. I believe this fact is inescapable.

The Rav was also misunderstood. Many a time a Talmid would come to “ask a Shayla”. The Rav nodded. When asked why he nodded when he was against the proposal put forth by the Talmid, the Rav said, that [young modern Rabbi, as Rav Hershel likes to put it] did not come to ask me a Shayla. He already had decided. He had some contorted opinion to rely on, but the Rav did not agree with it LeHalacha U’LeMaaseh. He was, however, not interested in the Rav’s Psak. Someone of this type doesn’t come to the Rav as a Talmid to a Rav.

There are many stories of people asking the Rav if a woman has to wear a head covering. The Rav answered “yes, definitely”. They were “smarter” than the Rav, and thought he was just giving a dry diplomatic answer given that his own wife didn’t wear one (for reasons I’m sure she could explain). The Rav answered honestly, I have no doubt, and this is what he held.

On page 87, Rabbi Dalfin states that the Rav tried to be lenient on some rulings! I don’t buy this for one second. The Rav paskened according to what he firmly concluded was Halacha, and like all Poskim, specifically for the person asking the question, and the circumstance. His grandfather used to find lenient positions to make a Chicken Kosher. Did this make Reb Chaim a Kal? The strength of a Hetter is more powerful. The Rav would never pasken unless he was confident and if something new (technologically or fact-wise) came to light, he was intellectually honest enough to change his ruling. This happened with electricity and microphones, for example. He wasn’t the only one. He saw no contradiction with that. It was an imperative. Rabbi Dalfin hints at this in the footnote, but that sort of comment is for the text, not a footnote.

I am sure that Rabbi Dalfin also knows that when it came to questions of Yichud and adopted children, the Rebbe often suggested the couple go to see the Rav in Boston for a Psak, rather than ask the Rebbe. Why would the Rebbe do that if he didn’t respect the Rav as a Posek with broad shoulders?

The Rashab
The Rashab

On page 102, Rabbi Dalfin takes a long bow and attempts to extrapolate that the Rav “learned from Chabad” that a simple Jew should fuse the spiritual and the mundane. Does this mean Chabad follow Torah U’Madda or Torah Im Derech Eretz? Absolutely not. Chabad astonished the young Rav when he observed that simple Jews displayed real Yiras Shomayim and yet did so without great Torah knowledge. This contradicted his Mesora. It’s irrelevant anyway now. Both Chabad and YU stress the need for great Torah knowledge, (Chabad still maintained its Mesorah for saying Tehillim, and Rav Moshe would still have encouraged learning Mishnayos)

On page 125, it is noted, that the Rav was not in the habit of going to hear Torah from a Torah Genius. It is true, he didn’t go to other tishes or farbrengens. He didn’t even learn in a mainstream Yeshivah. Today’s Yeshivas would have thrown him out! Look at the way the Aguda spitefully treat Rav Schachter at the Siyum Hashas. He is seated at a back table, despite the fact that he likely knows more than all those at the head dias. This is Kavod?

What would the Rav learn in Viznitz or Belz! He did go to Rav Chaim Heller, as did the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and Rav Heller was a genius but was not gifted as an orator and those around him often didn’t understand what he was saying. The Rav would elucidate. This doesn’t contradict Rabbi Rakkefet’s comment brought in the footnote that the Rav would interrupt, as if to imply he didn’t have respect for Rav Heller’s Torah or think it was worthwhile attending! The Rav, however, had very firm views of the standard of Torah of others. Rav Shimon Shkop was a Rosh Yeshivah at YU until his students sadly cajoled him to go back to Europe. The Rav didn’t feel at all inferior to the Rav Shimon Shkops and other luminaries at YU. He taught his way.

The Rav discussed Torah with Rav Aharon Kotler and Reb Moshe Feinstein, and visited sick Gedolai HaTorah who were in hospital who were visiting from overseas, and lifted their spirits through Torah interchanges. He was also the Chairman for the Chinuch Atzmoi at the behest of Rav Kotler because even though he had moved philosophically towards the vision of Mizrachi, he never minimised the importance of Rav Kotler’s work, and he also used to interchange Toras HoRambam with his Uncle, Reb Velvele (although the shameful ones removed the Rav’s name as the author of the letters). The Rav used to ironically send money to his Uncle to support his institutions! He was tolerant to those who learned Torah; even the Neturei Karta.

One can conclude that the Rav thought enough of the Rebbe based on personal interaction that he would come to part of an important farbrengen. It is not surprising that hearing the Torah there, he stayed as long as he felt well enough. Why wouldn’t he? The Rebbe was a genius. I don’t think that had to do with friendship per se. There was some Hakoras HaTov, but in the main, he was attracted to what he was hearing.

There is a theory, I think Rabbi Jacobson mentioned it, that the Rebbe tailored what he was saying, to respond to some of the issues the Rav had written about in the Rav’s Seforim. I’m not at the level to understand that. If I ever meet Rabbi Jacobson, I’d be interested to try and understand.

I wish to note another comment that I read in Rabbi Sholem Ber Kowalsky’s book, which I bought for some reason. He had been in the car, as I recall. Someone “borrowed” the book from me, and I haven’t seen it in years. Bring it back! In addition to what the Rav said in the car on the way back as reported by Rabbi Dalfin, the Rav also is reputed to have said that “Er meint az er iz Moshiach”, that the Lubavitcher Rebbe thought he was Moshiach. I know there is a JEM video with Rabbi Kowalsky and I don’t recall him saying that phrase in the video, but I clearly remember reading it, as it hit me between the eyes at the time. I don’t have a clue if it bothered the Rav in any way; I doubt it. I think his mind would be on the Shiurim he was to deliver.

Rabbi Dalfin seems to associate the Rebbe standing when the Rav entered the farbrengen as some sort of reciprocation. How does Rabbi Dalfin know that the Rebbe reciprocated because he saw the effort the Rav made (as a sick man who found it difficult to sit with sciatica) to come. Does Rabbi Dalfin, a Chabad Chassid not consider that the Rebbe stood because that is the Halacha for people of the calibre of the Rav!?! I guess for a Chassid, that just doesn’t work.

1. Rav Dovid Lifschitz, Suwalker Rav, 2. Rav Moshe Shatzkes, Lomza Rav, 3. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, R”Y RIETS, 4. Rav Chaim Heller, R”Y RIETS, 5. Dr. Shmuel Belkin, Presiden of RIETS
1. Rav Dovid Lifschitz, Suwalker Rav, 2. Rav Moshe Shatzkes, Lomza Rav, 3. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, R”Y RIETS, 4. Rav Chaim Heller, R”Y RIETS, 5. Dr. Shmuel Belkin, Presiden of RIETS

The size of the Shule that the Rav davened in as described in page 170 was small. The Rav wanted to teach students how to learn according to his Mesorah. He wasn’t a Rebbe, and saw no need for them to follow his personal Minhogim and styles. The Rav davened quickly, for example.

Both the Rav and the Rebbe were snappy dressers in Berlin. For the Rebbe, this was a negative amongst older Chassidim who were displeased that he wore white gloves to the Seuda for his Wedding, and had removed his Kapote, as described in the Warsaw press, at that time in the early hours of the morning. (The article from the press appears in “Larger than life” and is very detailed; it was a big story). I have both volumes of Larger than life if anyone is interested. I know the author is derided.

On page 140, Rabbi Dalfin claims that they had a different view of active messianism. I’m not sure why there is at least no footnote of evidence to support this statement. Rabbi Dalfin seems to forget that studying Kodshim, which is a Brisker emphasis, has plenty to do with being ready for the immanence of Moshiach. It is a Torah-study based activism and preparation (the same view was held by the Chafetz Chaim and Rav Kook). I’m not arguing the point, but just wondering if he had evidence that the Rav was opposed to the Rebbe’s approach. Could they not be complementary? After all, the Rebbe inaugurated the learning of the Rambam daily because it covered all aspects of Halacha and was unique, including the times of Moshiach and Kodshim and Tahara etc

On page 142, it is claimed that the Brisker tradition meant that the Rav may have been “less forgiving” in dialogue with visitors than the Rebbe. I think Rabbi Dalfin forgets that Rav Chaim left a specific command that only “Ish Hachesed” should be left on his tombstone. Rav Chaim was known to be very soft with the people, but tough in Torah discussion. The Rav was no Rogatchover firebrand with visitors, although he burned with Torah, and indeed, the Rav was very different to his father, possibly on account of the influence of his mother. Whilst in the early days of Shiur, the Rav “took no prisoners”, I’m not aware that he treated each person who came to his house with pure graciousness as per Halacha. If Rabbi Dalfin has evidence to the contrary, it should be presented.

On page 143, there is not enough evidence for the claim that the Rav studied the Moreh Nevuchim (regularly or semi-regularly). Of course he had studied it. We know he gave a year-long shiur on the topic that has been masterfully put together into a book by Professor Lawrence Kaplan recently, however, in the scheme of things, the Rav was much more of a “Melamed” of Shas and Poskim, then a teacher of philosophy. I wonder how often he picked up the Moreh Nevuchim later? How many of he Rav’s shiurim diverged into Philosophy or Chakirah? Do they sit in a filing cabinet?

Asking what the Brisker fascination with the Rambam was, is like asking why the Lubavitcher Rabbi had a fascination with every nuanced word of Rashi on the Torah. What about it? The Rambam was unique, as expressed by the Beis Yosef himself. There is no doubt about that. Indeed, at a Shiva call, the Rebbe asked the Rav, what his opinion was about the Philosophy of the Alter Rebbe, given that the Rav was ‘a philosoph’. The Rav responded that since the Rambam, there has been no greater Jewish (or non Jewish) philosopher than the Alter Rebbe. I heard and saw this stated from the mouth of Rav Hershel Reichman, who was in the room at the time, and is one of the Roshei Yeshiva at YU.

Rav Sholom Ber Kowalsky
Rav Sholom Ber Kowalsky

On page 170, Rabbi Dalfin seems surprised that Mori V’Rabbi Rav Hershel Schachter didn’t “hang out to daven” wherever the Rav was davening. I’m not sure why Rabbi Dalfin was so surprised. Prior to the current Litvishe Rabbis effectively imitating the ways of the Chassidishe Rabbis in that they became the locus of all activity, the Rav did not like anyone simply following his practices because he did them. He respected that there were family customs; his job was to teach Torah. He wasn’t taking the place of his father or grandfather and expanding the Shule he attended into an enormous gathering of Chassidim. Chassidim emulate every aspect of their Rebbe. They even clap their hands in the same style, and reshape their hats with a Kneich in the same way. This is totally foreign to a Brisker Litvak like the Rav.

Rav Moshe Soloveitchik

On page 175, Rabbi Dalfin describes the non Brisker message the Rav derived from the simple Chassidim of his youth. The Rav has written about it. Nowhere did I find support for Rabbi Dalfin’s comment that this was attained through attending farbrengens! I can’t even imagine Reb Moshe allowing his son to attend. If I recall, the Rav retells how at Melave Malka he experienced the longing of Chassidim to extend the Shabbos and how that impressed him greatly (and yes, the Rav kept Rabbeinu Tam’s times for Shabbos). I haven’t read anywhere about the effect of any farbrengens per se on the Rav.

On page 198. Rabbi Dalfin quotes an exchange with Rabbi Fund. It is interesting, but I don’t think Rabbi Dalfin sees the message adequately, that when the Rav learned Likutei Torah, Rabbi Fund states that he only elaborated on topics that he recognised, and that he didn’t use Chassidic language. Most importantly, contradicting the undertones of Rabbi Dalfin’s book, is that Rabbi Fund states that

“His [the Rav’s] exposure to Chassidus was limited

Rabbi Dalfin attempts to connect the teaching styles of Reb Yoel Kahn and the Rav. I once tried to listen to Reb Yoel Kahn, and found his delivery very difficult to follow. I think this was due to a speech impediment. The Rav was an orator. But more to the point, the Rav was a Mechadesh. Does anyone in Chabad think that Reb Yoel Kahn said or wrote original Chidushim in Chassidus? Surely he crystallised the thoughts of the Rebbes for the masses and is most influential in that way.

On page 225, Rabbi Dalfin recounts the Shavuos meal shared by the Rashab and R’ Chaim as retold by the Rayatz. I do not understand why Rabbi Dalfin didn’t mention that in response to the Rashab, R’ Chaim provided his own Torah in response, let alone reflect on what R’ Chaim was trying to say )I read this in Nefesh HoRav, I believe). I read the episode as two Torah giants exchanging Torah at a meal with mutual respect. I’m not sure how one reads Rabbi Dalfin or the Chassid with whom he discussed it and the novel explanation, without the context of R’ Chaim’s Torah at that same time. In addition, was there any evidence of “push back” from the Rav to learning Chassidus. I know that when he did take that initiative, he stopped Likutei Torah, and tore strips off Rabbi Menachem Genack, and said that this study was not for those who couldn’t use their heart, and stop focussing on the Rav’s brain.

On page 230, Rabbi Dalfin seems to imply that there is a paucity of “mimic acceptance” amongst Chassidim. My understanding is that Chassidim first do accept anything the Rebbe says or does, and then try to understand it (if they are successful). The Rav, was a great supporter of mimetic tradition, when it came to Mesorah (his son R’ Chaym famously writes about the concept in Tradition), but when it came to learning the truth of Torah, he had no place for non-critical regurgitation. One needed to personally work to come to sound conclusions. This was his definition of proper Torah study LiShma. Indeed, as a simple example, the Rav never accepted the new Techeles, not because he had some scientific or halachic objection, but because a Mesora had been broken. Yet, his student, Mori V’Rabbi Rav Hershel Schachter, does wear Techeles, and brings cogent arguments as to why one should do so as a Halachic preference. The Rav would have had no issue with a Talmid Muvhak, deciding in this way.

On page 236, Rabbi Dalfin wonders how the left of the RCA were becoming more dominant. For one, the left has effectively gone to YCT and has been rejected by the RCA. Secondly, to conjecture that this is the Rav’s fault because he encouraged individualism, is to ignore that the Rav over-rode individualism on matters of great importance, and the RCA does the same to this day. Furthermore, this line of argument, is akin to claiming that the plainly lunatic meshichist elohisten who stand in line for Kos Shel Brocho and think the Rebbe is literally alive, are the fault of the Rebbe because he should have been more forthright in stopping Rav Wolpe from writing his book on Moshiach. I heard that exchange on video, and I can’t see what the Rebbe could have said with more intent. Rav Wolpe though thought and thinks he knows what the Rebbe wanted and went ahead, even though the Rebbe told him to desist. There are many examples of Chassidim (with Hiskashrus) who do things today that they never would have done in the days when the Rebbe was in this world. One could “blame” the Rebbe or “blame” the Rav, but I think this is too simplistic. We are responsible for our actions. That being said, Open Orthodoxy is the new Conservative, and there have been some good articles exposing them of late. On that matter I have concerns for some Shules in Melbourne that are left wing enough to gravitate to a YCT-style approach.

Rav Chaim Soloveitchik
Rav Chaim Soloveitchik

On page 237, Rabbi Dalfin notes that the Rav didn’t visit the graves of his father or grandfather to communicate with them in the way the Lubavitcher Rebbe always went to his father-in-law’s grave. I think that Rabbi Dalfin has forgotten one thing: Brisker do not visit graves. They consider them Avi Avos HaTuma, and Halachically, they are not places one should frequent or expose themselves to. Mori V’Rabbi Rav Hershel Schachter doesn’t visit the cemetery. The Rav himself broke the rule when his wife passed away and admitted he allowed his emotions to rule (he did jokingly justify it with a positive outcome for the Yeshivah).

Rabbi Dalfin discusses Lubavitch and Women in respect of half, full or otherwise ordination and says it’s not even on an agenda. He is right. Traditional titles will never be used in Chabad. However, Chabad has its own title, namely, Shlucha. Depending on the Shlucha, who is as important as the Shaliach in respect of a Chabad house, many of the activities of the Shlucha share a commonality with the pastoral care that some women assume as their roles assisting a Rabbi. This used to be the role of a Rebbetzin, however, sadly, many Rebbetzins don’t see it that way any longer and their roles have changed, and some were not as learned. For the record, I am pro Yoatzot Halacha, as in those who study in Nishmat under Rav Henkin, but I draw the line there. A Yoetzet Halacha doesn’t pasken. She transmits a psak according to the case, and asks Rav Henkin when she does not know or is not sure.

On page 238, Rabbi Dalfin claims contradictions between the Halachic and philosophical positions. I am not sure what he is driving at, in the context of the relationship with the Rav. If his point is that there were no contradictions between the Rebbe’s halachic stances and the Rav’s philosophy, the two were writing in two completely different loci. One was expounding chassidism, while the other also related the conceptual illumination of philosophy to Halachic imperatives. The Rav, was also refreshingly open about his personal feelings. The Rebbe, in the words of the Rav, was a Nistar by nature. One would imagine that he only discussed private matters with his wife when they shared a cup of tea each day. The Rav and Rebbe were chalk and cheese on matters of self, and expressing their personal struggles.

On page 241, Rabbi Dalfin quotes from the Rayatz and the Rebbe, regarding R’ Chaim being someone ‘who did as much as humanely possible and then leaving the rest to God’. The Rashab, wasn’t satisfied with that. The Rebbe saw in this R’ Chaim exercising a halachic view. I am not here to argue with the Rebbe’s interpretation, however, when Brisk burned down, and they rebuilt it, the last person to move into their house was R’ Chaim, even though it was immediately rebuilt. He slept in the street until every pauper had their house rebuilt. According to Halacha he didn’t need to do that! An equally plausible explanation is therefore that R’ Chaim wasn’t saying there is nothing more to do, but rather, we need Siyata Dishmaya to achieve more. I see nothing untoward in such a thought. I also read that the Rashab couldn’t believe that R’ Chaim’s Shamash (and paupers) often slept in R’ Chaim’s bed forcing the Rebbetzin to sleep in the kitchen. He had a rule with his Shamash: whoever went to bed first, slept in the bed. That doesn’t sound like man who pursued honour to me. The Rav also didn’t pursue honour. He knew his task, and gave his life to fulfil it.

On page 254 Rabbi Dalfin mentioned the Chabad-YU conference on the Rav and the Rebbe. I ask Rabbi Dalfin would such a thing ever be held at 770 in the Zal?

I find Rabbi Dalfins comment that

“More young Israel congregations should hire Chabad Rabbis and Chabad must start to include more young Israel Rabbis as speakers and teachers at their events

one of the most revealing biases in the book! Chabad’s strength is with the non-affiliated using their non judgmental approach. Many a Chabad Rabbi is ill-equipped to lead a young israel shule. They do not have the secular background to connect, and it is only the crème de la crème that can do so. Having said that, this comment is demeaning and I don’t think Rabbi Dalfin would agree that the Rav would agree with it! And why aren’t young Israel Rabbis more than speakers! Their Smicha is excellent and includes important new training.

Finally, Footnote 519 lists Rabbis Boruch Reichman. It fact it was his father Rav Hershel Reichman who was in the room and heard the statement.

Here is a Pesach letter from the Rav to the Rebbe, and this is a letter from the Rayatz extolling the Rav. Apologies for any typos, but I don’t spend much time re-reading what I wrote, especially when it’s this long, and I’ve probably lost the reader already.




Alcohol vs Simcha

I have to admit to liking a drop. Strangely however I’ve never been able to take part in the rather heavy “straight to the head on an empty stomach” that occurs on Shemini Atzeres during or before Hakofos. I don’t know why, but if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say I appreciate that people have been generous, but the “barn like” atmosphere affects half of me.  the Brisker side, and not the Amshinover side. That’s speculation. I don’t really know. My disposition on Simchas Torah is laboured. I tend to look at the Sefer Torah and find it harder as I get older to muster Simcha because the older I get the more I realise that there is much more that I don’t know than I do know. I tend to stand, and look in a Sefer, and probably appears (unintentionally) pompous or remote. It’s my issue. I heard I nice vort today from Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Groner where he said the מחשבה … cognisant thinking are the same letters as בשמחה and that through מחשבה of good things as opposed to wallowing in one’s “I haven’t yet achieved where I should get to” one may get to בשמחה. This is of course quite consistent with modern-day psychology which exhorts parents et al to concentrate on the achievements and the good things. Likely, I am still affected by the hole in my life, that is my father, but should concentrate on the wonderful new additions of our four beautiful grandchildren כן ירבו בדרך התורה והמצווה על פי המסורה הקדושה.

The following two videos are presented in this blog as food for thought. I think there may be a part 3. I’m not sure. I will post it, if I see it.



Personally I have a long way to go to get past “going through the motions”. When one is younger, especially returning from higher Yeshivah, one is convinced that they have the Torah. The Brisker influenced part of me, especially from the Rav, and then realising what an ant I am listening to HaGaon Rav Hershel Schachter שליט’’א, has turned me into something more sanguine. It’s not humbleness. It’s just reality. I can’t hide reality.

Rabbi Telsner resigns

He has made a few mistakes, and it makes interesting reading seeing the different reports from the Age Newspaper versus the Sun. They obviously have different sources whispering in their ears. The anti-Jewish News will have the story just in time to splash on the front page and triumphantly blow its horn as the harbinger of morality (sic).

The Yeshivah Centre is undergoing change, no doubt. However, I’m not going to say any thing on the Rabbi Telsner issue because if I do, some will certainly misunderstand my words and it will make no different how I state them.

I am sure Rabbi Telsner has learned from this, and will contribute in a way using the gifts God gave him.

Rabbi Telsner is a card carrying Meshichist, as is his brother in law, R’ Chaim Tzvi Groner. There is no place in a Shule for screaming signs that no longer belong. There is no Mesora for placards in Shules, and it’s also a failure of Maimonides 13 principles of faith which clearly imply that we believe in Mashiach coming. Mashiach is a term for someone God chooses, it is not a euphemism for one and only one holy person in the Garden of Eden. Denying God this choice is in my opinion Kefirah. Meshichisten will not, cannot, and do not believe it is remotely possible for God to decide whomsoever He chooses from the physically living. That is pretty close to Kefirah. It is also a pseudo Kefirah for them to even entertain that there may well be someone else chosen because they won’t appear as a loyal Lubavitcher.

As for me, as I have said many times I couldn’t care less who it is. Eliyahu HaNavi will tell us.

Yeshivah has lurched to the right. It needs to bounce back to the centre and concentrate on quality education. It cannot afford to be a front for a Mesivta. There is obviously a need for a Mesivta. Let them find premises and build themselves on certain backers finances. The School itself needs to stress the qualities unique in Chabad, and there are many. Let the students be known for being fine examples of the Midos that are imparted by this philosophy. By all means it needs to stay a Chabad school, but one grounded in the realities of Melbourne. Failing that it should stop marketing itself as a community school.

Ironically, the School failed dismally to effectively educate Russian immigrants, years ago, and no longer does it serve many who are not religious. That’s their raison detre!

Too many New Yorkers have infiltrated and married in and tried to turn it into a fancier version of Oholei Torah in Brooklyn. Bad mistake. This is not New York.

I think it’s also time to pull down the rather pointless Yechi sign at the back of the Shule. Those who feel the need to scream this message to the world can bounce on the corner of the street, or wear a yarmulka (which they can’t then wear in a bathroom) wave yellow flags, wear cheap badges and all manner of paraphernalia not mentioned in Shulchan Aruch.

It does turn people off, and I include people from outside the Yeshivah centre. Those who really want to experience that type of experience can just go down the road to Dudu Leider’s Israeli Chabad house. They will love it. I’m told they chant Yechi more times than Shma Yisroel, over there, by a factor of 100.


Win some, lose some. Chabadnik dons Tefillin on ex-Charedi lady

Some find this funny. For me it epitomises גלות. Here we have a well-meaning boy, who is trying to ignite a spark within Jews. His mode, is that of his Rebbe זי’’ע and that includes igniting the Neshoma through a Mitzvah, the Mitzvah of Hanochas Tefillin.

The only problem is, in this case it was a woman. She had buzzed hair, and to top it off had a strong Charedi broken English accent, full of the usual errors. She obviously enjoyed her moment in the sun of egalitarianism.

I feel sad that she obviously hates her heritage so much, that she is ready to mislead this well-meaning בחור. She’s no daughter of Rashi.

אוי מה היה לנו

Woe unto what we have become


Letter from Lubavitcher Rebbe נ’ע to the Rav נ׳ע before Shavuos

(hat tip Sh)

The letter and beautiful explanation is Here

I don’t have time to translate it but the Rebbe wishes Rav Soloveitchik a good Yom Tov using the language of his father in law the Rayatz which included accepting the Torah happily. When he came to sign the letter he explained the word happily ie בשמחה

The difficulty is we are meant to be in fear. What does the emotion of happiness have here. Based on a Gemora in Brachos, Rishonim and the language of the Shulchan Aruch HoRav, it is explained that fear most certainly has its place during learning Torah, but at three other stages the emotion of happiness is appropriate. One of these is on Shavuous when we accept the Torah.

The Rav, the Rashag, the Rayatz, and the Ramash (the future and last Lubavitcher Rebbe)


When does a Woman not exist?

its old news that Adass chassidic will not write even the first initial of a lady. My wife would be known as ‘mrs I Balbin’ this is certainly a hall mark of Hungarian chassidic practice as well as some Russian/Polish chassidic.

contrast this to the wedding invitation that R Chaim Brisker used for his son Mishe’s wedding (Moshe Soloveitchik was the father of the Rav. He had signed it as ‘Chaim and Lifshe Soloveitchij’. No appellations and her name was ‘out in the wild’, heaven forfend. 

Interesting article or beat up?

See this article about Chassidic “atheists”. I don’t know how true it really is. Ironically Centrist Orthodox (e.g. YU) are accused of becoming more Chassidic as witnessed by the employment of the Aish Kodesh, Rabbi Moshe Weinberger (a Rebbe with an MA and MS) as Mashpia at YU. I read an article about that phenomenon when I was in NY. I’m told davening in his Shule is a real experience.

Klipas Nogah

What the heck is it? I use it in my iPhone email signature. One of my respectful readers asked me to explain what I meant by קליפת נוגה. To trace the concept historically, perhaps its earliest appearance is in the  זוהר חדש יתרו מ”ד ע”ב and I am happy to be corrected by those who live and learn these concepts regularly. I don’t understand Kabbalistic concepts and find them and Chassidus rather impenetrable. That’s just me. Nonetheless, we have Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 203 (hat tip RMS) telling us something very profound

אם אי אפשר לו ללמוד בלא שינת צהריים – יישן.

הגה: וכשניעור משנתו, אין צריך לברך “אלהי נשמה” (בית יוסף). ויש אומרים שיקרא קודם שיישן “ויהי נועם” (כל בו).

ובלבד שלא יאריך בה, שאסור לישן ביום יותר משינת הסוס, שהוא שיתין נשמי. ואף בזה המעט – לא תהא כוונתו להנאת גופו, אלא להחזיק גופו לעבודת השם יתברך.

וכן בכל מה שיהנה בעולם הזה, לא יכוון להנאתו אלא לעבודת הבורא יתברך, כדכתיב: “בכל דרכיך דעהו” (משלי ג ו), ואמרו חכמים: כל מעשיך יהיו לשם שמיים, שאפילו דברים של רשות, כגון האכילה והשתיה וההליכה והישיבה והקימה והתשמיש והשיחה וכל צרכי גופך, יהיו כולם לעבודת בוראך, או לדבר הגורם עבודתו. שאפילו היה צמא ורעב, אם אכל ושתה להנאתו – אינו משובח, אלא יתכוין שיאכל וישתה כפי חיותו לעבוד את בוראו.

וכן אפילו לישב בסוד ישרים ולעמוד במקום צדיקים ולילך בעצת תמימים, אם עשה להנאת עצמו – להשלים חפצו ותאותו – אינו משובח, אלא אם כן עשה לשם שמיים.

וכן בשכיבה, אין צריך לומר שבזמן שיכול לעסוק בתורה ובמצוות לא יתגרה בשינה לענג עצמו, אלא אפילו בזמן שהוא יגע וצריך לישן כדי לנוח מיגיעתו – אם עשה להנאת גופו אינו משובח; אלא יתכוין לתת שינה לעיניו ולגופו מנוחה לצורך הבריאות, שלא תיטרף דעתו בתורה מחמת מניעת השינה.

וכן בתשמיש האמורה בתורה, אם עשה להשלים תאוותו או להנאת גופו – הרי זה מגונה. ואפילו אם נתכוין כדי שיהיו לו בנים שישמשו אותו וימלאו מקומו – אינו משובח, אלא יתכוין שיהיו לו בנים לעבודת בוראו, או שתהיה כוונתו לעבודת הבורא או לדבר המביא לעבודתו.

כללו של דבר: חייב אדם לשום עיניו וליבו על דרכיו ולשקול כל מעשיו במאזני שכלו, וכשרואה דבר שיביא לידי עבודת הבורא יתברך – יעשהו, ואם לאו – לא יעשהו. ומי שנוהג כן, עובד את בוראו תמיד.

In other words there is a class of our actions that can be used for mundane/selfish or even sinful purposes but that group is not in of itself an irredeemable or innately bad category. It is a behavioural manifestation that depends on us. If we use it for good, it can be raised to holiness. If we misuse it, it can transform into a negative force.

When we consider many aspects of life, be they secular, seemingly mundane, or even holy, they can be a positive force or they maybe a negative sapping energy.
There are, of course, things which are innately evil or lacking קדושה and are simply impure. These are defined to us by Shulchan Aruch. But ultimately, many things are (in the words of a friend in Miami) Pareve. You can turn them into fleshig or milchig. What you do, depends on your intention and  actions: do you seek to have a positive emanating light or are you fooling yourself, or are you, God forbid, misusing what has been given to you.
iPhone, the internet, and other devices have been slammed by many righteous people and some Poskim. It is  my belief that they fall into the class of קליפת נוגה. In other words, they are not innately bad. They are a communication device but are able to aid in other ways. Of course, like many other appliances, they can be misused for the wrong thing(s). At the same time they can be a source of extreme קדושה.
In my own case the advent of the iPhone opened up a world to me that I would never have experienced. Although I am a musician, I have little music on my iPhone. I only insert the odd song that I need to learn for my band. Currently I have 50 Gigabytes of Shiurim on my iPhone. When I drive to work, and drive home, most commonly I am listening to a Shiur (and usually it’s from Rav Schachter). The internet as stored or accessible on my iPhone which is shining from a parve state to one which I have found  exalted. My own Posek was actually “sourced” from learning via my iPhone. I had the recent pleasure of spending a full day of Yarchei Kallah at YU, together my wife. and I had the merit of hearing two shiurim directly from Mori V’Rabbi Rav Schachter, and also spoke a little with him. The iPhone was the derech that I discovered him and his Torah.
Dayan Usher Weiss is another who I occasionally listen to. He knows me now. Just this week I spoke to him about a difficult Shayla which I became involved in, only because I was asked, and I knew that his standing would be able to influence those on the other end. (My son just brought back the second chelek of his Shaylos and Tshuvos for me).
To perhaps put the concept in more concrete terms. I will quote from a very good book I was given, named “GPS for the soul”, by Rabbi Nadav Cohen. It’s essentially a rewrite of Sefer HaTanya in a form that is palatable for simpletons like me. I haven’t read it from cover to cover, but do look therein when there is a concept that doesn’t cleanly penetrate my head due to the way it’s been explained to me before. Here is an embellished quote

From a verse in Yechezkel 1:4 “And I looked and  behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, a burst of flame, and a glistening (נוגה) around it, we learn there are four kinds of Kelipa (outer shell): “a stormy wind, a great cloud, a burst of flaming and a glistening (the latter is what I think is Klipas Noga)

These four Kelipot subdivide into two main groups: a lower level and a higher level. The lower level which is referred to as a stormy wind, a great cloud, and a burst of flame is called the three impure Klipot and they are responsible for infusing vitality into all forbidden things.

The remaining Kelipah (“a glistening“) is called kelipat nogah and  is responsible for infusing vitality into all permitted things-meaning, anything that isn’t forbidden or (already) a Mitzvah

Sefer Hatanya formally states (chapter 7)

קליפה רביעית הנקראת קליפת נוגה שבעולם הזה הנקרא עולם העשיה רובו ככולו רע רק מעט טוב מעורב בתוכה [שממנה באות מדות טובות שבנפש הבהמית שבישראל כמ”ש לעיל] והיא בחי’ ממוצעת בין שלש קליפות הטמאות לגמרי ובין בחי’ ומדרגת הקדושה ולכן פעמים שהיא נכללת בשלש קליפות הטמאות [כמ”ש בע”ח שער מ”ט ריש פ”ד בשם הזהר] ופעמים שהיא נכללת ועולה בבחי’ ומדרגת הקדושה דהיינו כשהטוב המעורב בה נתברר מהרע וגובר ועולה ונכלל בקדושה כגון ד”מ האוכל בשרא שמינא דתורא ושותה יין מבושם להרחיב דעתו לה’ ולתורתו כדאמר רבא חמרא וריחא כו’ או בשביל כדי לקיים מצות ענג שבת וי”ט אזי נתברר חיות הבשר והיין שהיה נשפע מקליפת נוגה ועולה לה’ כעולה וכקרבן. וכן האומר מילתא דבדיחותא לפקח דעתו ולשמח לבו לה’ ולתורתו ועבודתו שצריכים להיות בשמחה וכמו שעשה רבא לתלמידיו שאמר לפניהם מילתא דבדיחותא תחלה ובדחי רבנן. אך מי שהוא בזוללי בשר וסובאי יין למלאת תאות גופו ונפשו הבהמית שהוא בחי’ יסוד המים מארבע יסודות הרעים שבה שממנו מדת התאוה הנה ע”י זה יורד חיות הבשר והיין שבקרבו ונכלל לפי שעה ברע גמור שבשלש קליפות הטמאות וגופו נעשה להן לבוש ומרכבה לפי שעה עד אשר ישוב האדם ויחזור לעבודת ה’ ולתורתו כי לפי שהיה בשר היתר ויין כשר לכך יכולים לחזור ולעלות עמו בשובו לעבודת ה’ שזהו לשון היתר ומותר כלומר שאינו קשור ואסור בידי החיצונים

So, in summary, what I say in my “iPhone email sign off”, is that like the Television that is wheeled out each Motzei Shabbos in the Shule I daven at on Motzei Shabbos and is used to show DVDs of Torah, that TV is Klipas Nogah. It can glisten and shine and emerge from pareve.

Think of classical music, for example, it can be used to soothe nerves. It can’t be considered as forbidden in my world view.
I recognised the more right-wing sheltered types will see no glistening in such devices. הנח להם … I leave them to their philosophy with which I disagree.
Even the University education of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the Rav, in my opinion was Klipas Noga. They used it to shed light and infuse the particular type of modern Jew for whom this was “the key”.

The Admor of Amshinov, Rav Sholom Shimon Kalisch זצ’’ל

In another blog I was asked to post the picture by a commentator, but I can’t recall the article! Anyway, I have in our dining room a picture of the Rebbe זי’’ע. I just took a picture of it with my iPhone. He was very well-known. In Lubavitch he is known because the Rayatz instructed his Chassidim, when the Rayatz was in hiding from the authorities, and unable to respond to their questions to only ask R’ Sholom Shimon. In addition, at the wedding of the last Rebbe, R’ Sholom Shimon walked into the Simcha in the wee hours of the morning while the Rayatz was saying a Ma’amar Chassidus. He must have sensed R’ Sholom Shimon had come in, because in a very rare occurrence, he actually stopped saying the Ma’amar Chassidus until the Rebbe from Amshinov had sat down. In Amshinov, there is also a tradition which I have seen written, that says there is only one sefer that has to be learned to understand all Chassidus, and that is the Tanya of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Interestingly, I heard Rav Schachter saying that a Scholar is now working on an important Sefer comparing the Tanya to the Nefesh Hachaim of R’ Chaim Volozhin, the prime student of the Vilna Gaon (who did not sign the Cherem against Chassidim). The word is that he finds the thoughts and approaches close to identical. I also heard the Rav (Soloveitchik) say this, although he qualified it by saying that the differences are advanced and he doubts many actually understand the differences. The Rav was unique of course in the sense that he knew both those Seforim inside out, and had been taught Tanya by his Lubavitcher Melamed when a boy (but that didn’t matter because the Rav had a superior intellect, as is well known).

As for me, I know nothing about either! The current Amshinover Rebbe in Bayit Vegan,  is well-known as one of the Tzadikei HaDor. He doesn’t get involved in politics, and is a truly incredible Oved Hashem. My only connection is a nostalgic familial one, because my grandmother, Toba Frimet Balbin ע’’ה (née Amzel), who I loved very much and was the engine behind the Balbin family, was from Amshinover Chassidim. She and my Zeyda Yidel are buried in Israel, and I still remember Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner ז’’ל speaking about her before her coffin left from Essendon Airport. Rabbi Chaim Gutnick ז’’ל told me that she used to bring him a present every Purim. I never knew that, and he told me they were all around his house!

PS.  I got this picture from Chayi Glick (nee Rotter), whose mother I believe stems from Amshinov and whom I cajoled incessantly to bring back the picture from New York.


Full of twaddle

There is a fellow who sits proximate to me, whose Yechi Yarmulke annoys me. Actually, its not his yechi yarmulke, it’s all Yechi yarmulkes that upset me, because I consider the implied message as non halachic bunkum. And yes, I’d be happier if there was no sign at the back of the Shule, but if it means people don’t blurt it out at every opportunity during, before and after davening, like they used to, I tolerate it.

Anyway, he’s a new comer, so today he informed me that he had “asked about me”. He was perplexed. How can someone daven at a Chabad Shule and dislike the advertising hoardings around a handful of skulls.

He then told me that he was advised that I was a Misnaged who has been thrown out of every Shule I had davened at, and that’s why I now often daven in Lubavitch.

Well I have news for this Johnny-come-lately, and for the geniuses who informed him.

I have been “encouraged” to leave one Shule only in my life. It was the nascent Beit Haroeh at Mizrachi, decades ago. Two others, Anthony Waller and David Meerkin, both fine upstanding people and friends, who now live in Israel, were also so encouraged, all by Mizrachi Board Askonim at the instigation of the infamous Rabbi Baruch Zaichyk, then Rabbi of Mizrachi. I carry that episode as a badge of honour. Quite apart from some serious halachic issues I had with Rabbi Zaichyk which I raised privately with him (and I don’t refer to the Eruv that wasn’t) he publicly imitated Mori V’Rabbi Harav Baruch Abaranok ז’’ל and that was a line that was beyond the pale for me. I revered and continue to revere Rav Abaranok to this day. I could have fought Zaichyk, especially in those youthful days, and believe me I have a dossier of properly researched material in a file which I had prepared to defend my position in the event that a need would arise. My father ע’’ה who was a lot wiser than me, told me to just stay away. I have no desire to reveal this information today and long ago took the decision not to do so. I enjoyed a good relationship with Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen ז’’לֹ and get on extremely well with the impressive Rabbi Ya’akov Sprung, both Rabbis of Mizrachi since that time.

So Mister Smart Aleck, proud wearer of the Yechi Yarmulke, your “facts” have zero credibility. I think you need to wake up and realise that there are even Chabad Shules, such as the one run by my class mate Rabbi Yossi New in Atlanta, who wouldn’t even let you in, wearing one of these skull caps.

PS. Anyway, although I don’t follow any Chassidic group, I am not opposed to Chassidism per se, Lubavitch or otherwise. I have three sons-in-law and a son who consider themselves Lubavitch! I do have different views on matters: e.g. the rabid anti-Zionism of Satmar, Meshichism of Chabad, etc but they hardly qualify someone as a Misnaged!

The Sound of a Broken Heart

From Machon Tzomet (c)

By Zeev Kitsis, Kibbutz Hadati Yeshiva and Bar Ilan University

I have the privilege of being named after one of my ancestors who was a member of the holy group of students of the Baal Shem Tov. The name of Reb Zev-Wolf appears together with the Baal Shem Tov in several stories, in such books as “Shivchei Ha’Besht,” and others. The most famous story about him involves blowing the shofar for the Baal Shem Tov. The following is the earliest version of the story:

“One time the Baal Shem Tov commanded his disciple Reb Zev-Wolf to prepare himself and learn the mental intentions of the shofar blowing, because he would blow the shofar for the Baal Shem Tov. Reb Wolf studied all the proper intentions (“kavanot”) and wrote them down on a piece of paper so that he would be able to look at it while blowing the shofar. He hid the paper in his pocket. Reb Wolf didn’t know that the Baal Shem Tov made sure that the paper would be lost. When he rose up to blow the shofar he looked for the paper everywhere, but he could not find it. Reb Wolf was so upset that he blew the shofar with a very heavy and broken heart, without any special intentions.

“Afterwards, the Baal Shem Tov said to him: In the Palace of the King there are many rooms and halls, and each door to a room or a hall has a different key. But there is a better way to enter than to use the key, and this is to use an ax, which can open the locks of all the doors. The same is true of proper intentions. They are the keys to each and every gate, and every opening has the proper intention for it. However, the broken heart is an axe. It allows every person to enter all the gates and the halls of the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He.”

[Moshe Chaim Kalman, Or Yesharim, Warsaw, 5684 (1924), pages 104-105].

Every year I feel a special magic in the moments of silence, when we pause for a brief second in reciting the long prayers of Rosh Hashanah, during which the raw sound of the shofar rises up. The shofar itself expresses a simple sigh, the basic sound of the soul, before it has been fashioned into words or “intentions.” The Baal Shem Tov describes this simple concept for his disciple in terms of the allegory of the keys and the axe. The keys – that is, the unique Kabbalistic intentions – must be precise and executed with great care. In this way, slowly and cautiously, a person can approach the King – the King of the Universe. This corresponds to the detailed description in the ancient book about Kabbalah by Reb Yosef Jiktilia, Shaarei Orah, which gives details about how the involvement with intentions can help one very carefully enter the Palace of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The axe stands apart. This is compared to a broken heart, and it has the power in a single moment to shatter all the locked gates of the King. There is no longer any need for the intentions, the kavanot, there is no need for careful weighing of the intentions, there is no need for any knowledge and written words on a piece of paper. The only thing that is needed is the most important “intention” of all: the broken heart of a man.

However, I would still like to ask a question about this nice allegory by the Baal Shem Tov. Can one really appear before the King carrying an axe? After all, the whole essence and the task of the “Palace,” of the rooms and the halls, of the gates and the walls – is to block the entrance of anybody who does not have the proper keys and to block the way of the axe! Just imagine how a human king would react if while sitting in his palace he would suddenly hear the sound of an axe shattering the glorious locked doors. How can the Baal Shem Tov compare the two possible ways of entry into the palace – one of which is acceptable and legitimate, while the other is absurd and totally forbidden?

The Baal Shem Tov spent the last twenty-four years of his life close to a fortified palace. The small wooden Beit Midrash where the Baal Shem Tov met Reb Wolf and the other members of the group was at the center of the street of the Jews in Mezibuz. At the end of the street, a short distance from the Beit Midrash, stood one of the most impressive fortified palaces of the Ukraine, as it still stands today. At the time, Mezibuz – which today is a neglected village – was an important regional center. The mighty red walls and the watch towers of the fort protected the city and the roads leading to it from an attack by the Turks. About a year ago, as part of a group of students and teachers, we entered this fortress, without any need for keys or an axe, as formal guests of the director of the museum at the site.

I have no doubt that the high walls and the mighty locked wooden gates were in the Baal Shem Tov’s view when he told the above allegory and others, which tell the story of shattering walls and how a man can enter into the chambers of the king. But can we then suppose that the Baal Shem Tov didn’t know that a person could not use an axe to get close to the king? Didn’t he know that one needed a formal invitation and advance notice in order to be allowed to enter?

The allegory of the Baal Shem Tov makes sense only if we make an assumption – that the King hidden in the palace was waiting for somebody to come and shatter the walls that hi d him from view. The King Himself wants to see the action of an axe. The walls with which the King surrounded Himself, by which He distances himself from us and hides, serve as a test of courage, to see if we will make an effort to enter through a locked door. And in this case we can hear the simple voice of the Chassid, who does not take into account the infinite distance between man and G-d. The Chassid declares that the King is also his Father, his lover who waits for him. In this way, we can all cry out in a simple voice: “Our Father, Our King

A tribute night for the Lubavitcher Rebbe זי’’ע

Today was the יום הילולא of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe (LR). I’m presently ensconced in three books describing him and will offer my thoughts on these when I have finished.

They are certainly impressive pieces of work, each in their own way. In a recent private email exchange I had with Rabbi Yossi Jacobson in reference to this post, I mentioned that one of the things that attracted me to the Rav, Rav Y.D. Soloveitchik ז’ל was the refreshing ease with which he was able to write about his personal feelings on various matters, some of which were the result of his private life and the emotional struggles surrounding these. Rabbi Jacobson, if I’m not misquoting him, was of the opinion that the LR also expressed his personal feelings. I felt that the LR wasn’t expressing his own private issues, but was always focussed on what the movement and it’s Chassidim needed to achieve.

The Rav, however was not, and never saw himself, or his task in life, as that of a Manhig Yisrael. In his own words he was a מלמד. Certainly that was a self-deprecating description of someone, often described by others as the למדן הדור. We should all aspire to be such a “מלמד”! In other words, the Rav dedicated his life to interacting with the challenging American reality and transmitted the Brisker method of Lomdus and Mesora that he had digested from his illustrious  grandfather, R’ Chaim Brisker, father, R’ Moshe, and Uncle R’ Velvel, to a challenged generation for whom such sophisticated analysis of Torah, enmeshed in the vernacular of the day, was intellectually challenging and advanced in its conceptualism and oratory. The Rav ordained more Rabbonim than any other Rav in the history of Judaism (it would seem).

As time goes by, his greatness, like many who pass away, is amplified, and the fact that I “discovered” him relatively late in my life, is a source of sorrow. How I would have loved to have participated in a Shiur, or listened live to his majestic droshas.

Enter his famed University colleague from Berlin the LR. I couldn’t put my finger on it, until I (partly) read the books about the LR, but I now have a fuller appreciation of the LR’s role and personality. In many ways, they were both became fully equipped educationally and culturally to interact with the needs of American Youth in a so-called modern society. They had both studied at University level, and were aware of the so-called European/Western Culture and thought. I do not think either of them saw that culture as some sort of enlightening factor, but it enabled them to interact at the highest levels using the modern vernacular and conceptualisation of our times, within the context of acutely high levels of grey matter.

דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם

found a new home among these giants.

Whilst I was not brought up with a deep understanding of the “Torah Im Maddah” approach or YU, I found it easier,unsurprisingly, to speak and digest that language. A more universalistic approach to different paths has always appealed to me.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, however, was an enigma. Here was this powerful genius with a photographic memory and acute ability to link and understand the seemingly disparate thoughts at his disposal, through the prism of the metaphysics of Chassidus, with brilliant insights and a paucity of notes. Yet, I guess I felt remote from him because there seemed to be no outward human frailty that he ever allowed to be shown, except when he was afflicted by that terrible stroke which ultimately led to his departure from our world and when his beloved wife passed away. Furthermore, while the elder Chassidim stressed the Chabad Chassidic approach, the younger Chassidim seemed more pre-occupied with his personage. To be sure, Chassidim would say “you must have a Yechidus”, “you have to immerse yourself in Chassidus to appreciate him” but that didn’t prick me into action. I never felt that I had anything meaningful to say or ask, and I wasn’t the type of tourist to invade an important Gadol’s time just because it was the done thing.

I have only been to the USA once, and I never went to 770. I simply didn’t know or comprehend what I might get out of it. These days, I’d be most apprehensive to go there given that it is controlled largely by the more radical Meshichist types, whose philosophy I do not consider to be Masoretic, but rather a backwards-pointing justification for an already concluded premise.

People will read what I have written and say, stop saying “I” … it’s not about you. One has to be בטל,  somewhat constricted within their personal ego to appreciate what was being effected in a Yechidus. Perhaps I was too ego-driven or cock-sure of where I stood in life vis-a-vis my Avodas Hashem and perspective on Torah. I may have even been wrong. It is what it was, and remains that way.

After reading most of these books, I have discovered through the über romantic, carefully chosen words of Rav Steinsaltz, and the meticulously researched tome of Rabbi Telushkin (Chaim Miller is next), that I have a better appreciation of this extraordinary leader. I didn’t learn much from earlier books, including those of academics and more. I felt that they started their books with a (negative) premise, and then sought to prove this premise, and not undertake a clean, academic unadulterated look at the facts.

Now, a leader can only try and do his best to make sure that his Chassidim conduct themselves in the way which he approves and/or legislates. The LR was no different. At times his exasperation was palpable.

One can certainly find a bevy of Shluchim who are seemingly pre-programmed automatons lacking the very gift that the LR had—the ability to connect individually with the person talking to them. There isn’t and wasn’t a magic formula. It was an action/reaction experience. Some have this gift; many, I dare say, do not.

Even last Shabbos, when I spoke to stranger who was wearing a Yechi Yarmulke, and asked why he wore that outward advertisement, he accused me of hating him simply for asking. I suggested that concluding that I hated someone because I asked a question was shallow, and when I referred to the classical work of R’ Yechezkel Sofer on the topic (which he described as “garbage”) this represented a problem with his own eyes, and not mine.

After reading the books I felt real sadness for the LR. He was clearly a very reluctant leader initially, almost a recluse whose favourite times were with his wife, father in law, parents or his seforim. His personal life was zealously guarded from the masses or even to the few in constant contact. He was a truly selfless man who pushed himself to extraordinary limits. He did not compromise on an iota, and mission, as summarised by Rabbi Sacks, was to ignite the soul of every person who the Nazis had attempted to extinguish and towards whom society was threatening with their often depraved value systems. He was as singularly minded in his pursuit of re-igniting souls to hasten the redemption as anyone we have seen.

As such, I find myself asking the question: what would he have said about a “tribute night” in his memory. Based on what I’ve read, I posit that he would be embarrassed by the word “tribute” to describe such a night. He would not want anyone to focus on him per se. He appeared to vehemently dislike cultish worship. Rather, the essential task was all about the missions and initiatives that he worked tirelessly to introduce and strengthen, all with the aim of bringing the redemption quicker.

It’s a paradox. On the one hand he was reaching out, and yet at the same time, he was enigmatically private.

So, why do his Chassidim engage in tribute nights? Certainly there is the practice that one should remember and talk about the deceased on the day of their Yohr Tzeit. One fasts, and learns Mishnayos. I don’t know how many Chassidim today do that today. But, it is more than that. In the absence of a leader to actively direct a movement in 2014, I feel he would only approve of such a gathering if it was about people taking strength and renewal and redoubling their efforts to carry out (genuinely) the tasks and processes that he had inaugurated.

In that vein, I will agree that a tribute evening potentially can invigorate. At the same time, it can also fail to do so—if people concentrate on the person and not the task to be achieved.

My thoughts on the Rav and the Rebbe event

When I became aware that this event was being planned, I quietly contacted the organisers, and asked that either the Chabad speakers (I didn’t know who they might be) and/or the YU speakers might address the telling letter where the Rebbe זצ’ל chose to write some of his personal thoughts about the Rav.

I felt that the YU speakers were generally “polite”, reminiscing and respectful. There is and was no problem (to my knowledge) in a pluralist place like YU to condemn anyone who decided to learn Chassidus (of any type) that I am aware of. In the same way, although Mussar was not seen as a useful use of one’s time according to the Beis HoRav (through R’ Chaim) it would be hard to imagine YU or the Rav condemning or putting a stop to someone for whom learning Mussar was part of their daily regimen. Talmidim had to know all about the Shiurim that they attended, and in particular, those who went to the Rav’s shiur, say, as opposed to those of R’ Dovid Lifshiz ז’ל were exposed to the method of trying to learn what is in-between the lines. R’ Dovid, the Suvalker Gaon, had a different approach. The Yeshivah co-existed with different viewpoints, but the Rav’s charisma and enormous depth in learning, naturally attracted many now esteemed Talmidim.

I received some replies from the organisers about the source of the letter I presented in an earlier blog post in which the Rebbe clearly expressed a form of misgiving about what he considered to be character traits of the Rav. I responded that if this was to be a true event where the relationship was to be studied openly and honestly, that the organisers should approach Chabad about the authenticity of the letter (not that this can be questioned, it’s very clearly the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s handwriting) and be ready to analyse and comment on it.

I didn’t hear back for months, and I just assumed that the organisers would pass the letter onto the Chabad speakers, and we’d hear a perspective, at least, in due course. Perhaps the organisers did pass on the letter, and Rabbis Krinsky and Jacobsen decided that they wouldn’t “touch it” because it might introduce controversy. I don’t know. I may email the organisers and ask them.

I’m an academic. If this was a colloquium or extended seminar and it failed to discuss the contents of the letter (they are of course entitled to disagree entirely with my personal interpretation) then it was deficient because it seemed to be ignored.

Perhaps I am oversensitive because the Rav has become such an important ingredient in my ability to make sense of the world through the prism of Yahadus, but I felt that Rabbi Krinsky, continually referring to him as “Rabbi” Soloveitchik was (perhaps unwittingly) derogatory. The Rav described himself as a Melamed, but given the number of Rabbinic folk in Chabad who get Smicha and call themselves “Rabbi” XYZ, I felt this was a come down. He could have been called “the Rav”, or even R’ Yoshe Ber, especially since the event was being held at YU. (I find those who refer to him as “J.B” rude). Can you imagine for one minute if someone from YU spoke at a Chabad event at 770 and referred to the Rebbe as Rabbi Schneersohn? I know people are even sensitive to the acronym Ramash, because acronyms are usually applied once someone has passed away and is in גן עדן מקדם or in עדן itself. I found Rabbi Krinsky’s anecdotes interesting, but I didn’t find them academically incisive or revealing. Certainly his recollection of the Rambam in Pirush Hamishnayos when the Rav came to be Menachem Avel to the Rebbe, was enhanced by Rabbi Jacobson and more detailed than what I head read in (I think) Nefesh HoRav.

Rabbi JJ Schechter, not to be confused with the Rav’s Talmid Muvhak, R’ Hershel Schachter שליט’’א  is a fine scholar, and I have read a number of his articles, books, and listened to his talks. However, here, I felt he (perhaps diplomatically, or influenced by his late father, the other Rabbi Hershel Schechter ז’ל) provided more of a sociological talk which, while entertaining, wasn’t overly enlightening (at least to me).

I felt the most dynamic speaker was Rabbi Jacobson. His reputation as a speaker precedes him. He, at least, tried to link the contents of the Sichos which the Rav heard, with his interpretation that they were an “answer” to the Rav’s lonely man of faith, halachic man, etc. Nobody seemed to mention that the Rav went to the farbrengen as an expression of HakoRas HaTov as described by close Talmidim. To look at Rabbi Jacobson’s thesis, and he was second guessing his own Rebbe, one would have to study those Sichos and see whether in the gamut of other Sichos or Ma’amorim at farbrengens, these were indeed somewhat out of left field, and directed as a theological approach by the Rebbe to assuage the original thoughts of the Rav, as expressed in his published works to date. I certainly am not in a position to comment on that thesis, as I do not have the knowledge of the Rebbe’s general style and content at such a Farbrengen, let alone those Sichos.

I am surprised that nobody took the opportunity to mention that the Rav wrote a Pirush on the Tanya in Ksav Yad, that remains unpublished, as claimed by Rabbi Kenneth Brander on his recent visit to Melbourne. It’s certainly indicative of the Rav’s attitude to Chabad, as opposed to the Rebbe in particular.

To summarise, what I considered, a few years ago, to be a letter which provided potentially important insight, was seemingly wilfully? ignored. As such, I felt it was a “feel good” evening in American style, where the YU people stressed that the Rav had enormous respect for the Rebbe (which needs to be tempered by statements recorded in Rabbi Holtzer’s book, and statements attributed to the Rav’s own son Prof Chaym Soloveitchik)

So, in conclusion, congratulations on a great idea, but I would have preferred a more academically inclined approach than the “slap on the back” style which seemed to permeate most speaker’s style of delivery. Then again, maybe that was the aim of the organisers, and my issues are misplaced in context.

On Kennard, Shochet, Chabad and Modern Orthodoxy

The community in Melbourne, and abroad, has been buzzing about a series of articles/indirect interchanges between Rabbi James Kennard, principal of Mount Scopus College and Rabbi Yitzchok Shochet of the UK. I caught the tail end as we were heavily involved in planning and enjoying the wedding of our daughter! I had a moment after the Shabbos Sheva Brachos to quickly read Rabbi Kennard’s second article (I haven’t seen the first) in the Australian Jewish News, and formed some thoughts which I now have a moment to put down.

Firstly, the usual disclaimers and context:

  • Three of our children married into Chabad families. Our fourth will also do so in a month or so.
  • I attended a Chabad school, Yeshivah College in Melbourne
  • I did not attend a Chabad Yeshivah after year 12, I went to Kerem B’Yavneh, a religious zionist yeshivah (call it Chardal if you like)
  • I was Rosh Chinuch at B’nei Akiva for a few years, and my wife was a Meracezet in Sydney
  • None of our children attended a Chabad Yeshivah or Seminary after their Schooling.
  1. There is little doubt that a follower of Chabad, who considers themselves a Chosid, needs to effect the wishes and approach of the late and great Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Ramash נ’ע
  2. There is little doubt that the philosophy of Chabad is that the Geula (Moshiach) will be effected when Yidden will augment their Torah with Chassidus Chabad. אימתי קאתי מר
  3. There is little doubt that where a person has no known minhag because their family practices have lapsed, that Chabad will only introduce Chabad minhagim to that person, and will in general not make an effort to find out what a family practice might have been. This is because Chabad philosophy considers their approach as one which subsumes other approaches, and is superior at this time. שער הכולל
  4. There is little doubt that Chabad has indeed changed its approach to Zionism, in practice. Whereas the Rashab spoke with vitriol in a manner not too different to Satmar, the Ramash’s language became far more sanguine and displayed an acceptance? of historical reality (to use the words of the Rav, “History has paskened that the Aguda was wrong”)
  5. Chabad never saw the establishment of the State as the moment of the beginning of Geula. On the other hand, the establishment of the State certainly occurred during the time when the Geula was imminent, according to Chabad philosophy.
  6. In general, unlike many groups, Chabadniks do not spend their lives in Kollel. They either go out and get a job/study, or they become Shluchim. That’s not to say they embrace Torah Im Derech Eretz as a particular philosophy. Rather, it’s how one survives and lives.
  7. Chabad was and still is a leader in Jewish outreach, and this stems from extreme! Ahavas Yisroel, as stressed in Chassidus Chabad, where the Neshomo Elokis of a Yid is what counts, at the cost of all other considerations. This is a good thing!
  8. The Rav himself stated that Chabad taught the world how to bring Yiddishkeit into Reshus HoRabbim as opposed to Reshus HaYochid.
  9. The Rav noted that the differences between the Tanya and Nefesh Hachaim were semantic nuances that most did not and could not understand. The Rav did, of course. Indeed, Rabbi Brander mentioned that the Rav wrote a Pirush on Tanya which is still בכתב יד!

Until now, I have written about Chabad. Of course, like every group, there will always be a mismatch between the philosophy and some of the implementors (call them Chassidim) of that particular philosophy. Some Chassidei Chabad are what one might call “more tolerant” of difference, whereas others (often these are newer chassidim) range from less tolerant to downright intolerant of anything which isn’t in immediate accord with the Chabad approach to life. In this, one could argue that Chabad are no different to others. I would argue, however, that Chabad are different. Their difference lies in the fact that they absolutely revere and adhere to their approach to Yiddishkeit and do so with Mesiras Nefesh. Any student of history or sociology will have noticed that elements of this reverence have rubbed off on so called Misnagdim, who now have Rebbes in everything but name. “Gadol HaDor” anyone?

I agree with Rabbi Kennard that there isn’t only one way. I have always felt that way. Indeed, when I was a student and introduced to Tanya, I had a “stand up” with my teacher who said that Moshe Rabbeinu was a Lubavitcher. I said this was absurd and he called me a “Moshchas”. I think that’s where I started going down hill 🙂

It is a well-known Gemora (I think in Taanis) that says that Hashem will, in the future, create a circle of Tzaddikim (in plural) who will dance around him and point to the epicentre of truth, which IS Hashem, בעצמותו. Many have repeated the interpretation (two which readily come to mind are Rabbi Akiva Eiger (whose grandchildren were Chassidim) and Rav Kook (whose mother came from Chabad)) that a circle was chosen rather than a square or indeed a line (dance) because each Tzaddik represented a different but equal approach to Avodas Hashem: call it a different perspective.  The  point of this Gemora (I think it might even be a Mishna, but I’m writing without looking as I have little time at the minute) is that each approach is equidistant to Hashem. Each is valid. Each is correct.

How can they all be correct? Simply because it’s a matter of perspective. Two people can be in the same room and the same spot, and witness or observe the same thing from two perspectives. Both are right. Both see truth. One of my sons is very talented in design. I have zero talent in the area in which he excels. I will not see what he sees. At the same time, I’m perhaps extra-logical. My PhD intersected with formal logic. My son won’t see or be bothered by what I see or am influenced by. Undoubtedly, this also extends to the concept of education, where we are enjoined to teach each child according to that particular child’s needs and expectations, approach and ability. חנוך על פי דרכו

No doubt, the Chabad perspective on the Tzaddikim in the circle will be that they consist of the line starting from the Baal Shem Tov through to the Ramash, and the reason they are equidistant is that they represent the same spark of Moshe Rabeinu, and that is a super soul which incorporates the souls of all of us. (This is not entirely correct though because the Ramash inherited the greatness of the Rayatz who inherited the greatness of the Rashab etc)

Personally, despite my background, I have not developed an understanding or appreciation of Chassidus Chabad or any other Chassidus. When I was introduced to Mussar, I disliked the  almost “abusive” approach of reproach. I learned Kuzari (which Rabbi Kennard might be interested to know was originally something that Chabadniks had to know together with Moreh Nevuchim!) but found it outdated.

I was attracted to the Rav, and elements of Rav Kook, in the main. That’s just me. That being said, I don’t know if so-called “modern orthodoxy”, which is a term the Rav did not like, is what is “needed” by the congregants of the Great Synagogue. I do not know how Rabbi Kennard knows that either. If he does know it, then I would hope that he flew to Sydney and addressed the board and congregation of the Great Synagogue and explained to them why that style of philosophy was the correct one for the Great Synagogue.

Perhaps I am spoilt. I saw a Chabad at Elwood Shule in the frame of Rabbi Chaim Gutnick. The Shule davened Ashkenaz, and still does. In fact, I inserted that expectation into the constitution of the Shule! Rabbi Gutnick was a master orator and a Chabad Chossid, however, I never witnessed him pushing Chabad down the throats of his congregation. Occasionally, he would refer to his master and teacher, the Ramash, but in the end, he related to people כמות שהם, “as they were”. His son, R’ Mottel follows in exactly the same footsteps as his father, although he does mention the Ramash more often than his father. Some may call this “Chabad Light”, but I beg to differ. It’s what you achieve that matters. I know that Rabbi Chaim Gutnick discussed his approach and issues with the Ramash on several occasions, and the latter called him הכהן הגדול מאחיו

At the other end of the spectrum was the late and great Rabbi Groner. He wasn’t the Rabbi of a non Chabad Shule. He was the Rabbi of a Chabad Shule. He was the head Shaliach of the Rayatz and then the Ramash. He certainly projected Chabad through a more defined prism, however, at the end of the day, he too never shoved Chabad down my throat, and I was known to be vocal on issues  I might have. I often heard him give a drasha based on a vort he read from someone other than the Ramash (not that it contradicted Chabad philosophy).

I attend a great shiur by R’ Yehoshua Hecht. He has no problem with saying “the Rebbe Nishmoso Eden“. He is as strong a Chosid as anyone else, and speaks without fear or favour.

I am aware, though, of some who are “not as well read” or “not as exposed” to the different Jewish world views and people who exist. As such, they are certainly less tolerant, more narrow-minded, and frankly, less likely to succeed! (in my opinion).

The point I am making, of course, is that it is more about the Chosid him or herself, than the Chassidus itself.

I recall coming back from learning in Israel, and R’ Arel Serebryanski asked me at a Farbrengen (yes, I do enjoy a good farbrengen, but sadly there aren’t many good ones these days) to learn Tanya with him. I responded that I would do so if he agreed to learn Chazon HaGeula from Rav Kook with me in return. He promptly averred. That’s fine. R’ Arel has his Chassidim and his circle of influence, but I’m obviously some type of “Klipa” that is in the too hard basket 🙂

So, while I don’t learn Chabad Chassidus per se, I have to say that their approach of love and being non judgemental as a primary mode of returning Jews to their roots, is something that is inspiring and we all can learn from. Clearly, places like Aish HaTorah have adopted this approach. It’s the only approach that can work in my opinion. The days of chastisement  and admonition have long passed their expiry.

I did not like Rabbi Kennard introducing the issue of child abuse in the context of his article. I felt that this was completely out of context and in boxing terms a hit below the belt. Rabbi Kennard is not a fool, and he knows full well, as we all do, that actions speak louder than words, and words unfortunately seem to fall in the domain of lawyers and those who are litigious by nature. When the Labor Government came into power they promised an apology to the indigenous population of Australia. Speak to any indigenous person. They will tell you that an apology is meaningless in the context of a void of action. Action is the key, and like Rabbi Kennard, I have no doubt that action has and continues to be taken to make sure that world’s best practice of prevention is implemented in the School in question.

I think it was unwise for Rabbi Shochet to debate Rabbi Kennard on this matter. Did he really think that he could argue cogently with the points that Kennard had made?

I also think it was unwise for Rabbi Kennard to make a call on the Great Synagogue’s needs in the Australian Jewish News, when in my opinion there are much more important issues threatening all Orthodox approaches in the circle I mentioned above. The Jewish world is buzzing about “egalitarianism” and the actions arising out of that fever. There is a growing Shira Chadasha, a private Hechsher that is causing waves of discontent, Ramaz’s issues with Tefillin in the women’s gallery (will Rabbi Kennard allow that at Scopus?), the Maharat debate and more.

Yes, I agree with Rabbi Kennard that there is more than one way. Yes, I agree with Rabbi Kennard that Chabad (like others) think that their way is the best way, but I am interested to know where the issue of Chabad and the Great Synagogue’s choice of Rabbi sits in terms of importance to the Jewish world, vis-a-vis the issues I outlined above (and more).

Lighting up the darkness

It is a long-standing Chabad metaphor, repeated by the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, that his Chassidim need to be lamp lighters. One of their tasks is to create light in a dark world, so to speak. In advice allegedly also given to Binyamin Netanyahu, he had said

“even in the darkest hall, the light of a single candle can be seen from a great distance”

Netanyahu had taken to using this metaphor in many speeches and discussions. If I’m not mistaken, he also used this metaphor in his famous recent speech to the UN. The metaphor is apt an powerful, and certainly justifies the lighting of the Jewish soul, if you wish, by Chabad emissaries throughout the world.

Recently, I was listening to a shiur by R’ Hershel Schachter. He mentioned the Pasuk

כי נר מצוה ותורה אור

For Mitzvos are a candle and Torah is light

He made the point (unrelated to Chabad) that whilst its true that a little light can illuminate “big” darkness, that Mitzvos are limited in that they are but the light of the candle. It is not effective on the larger scale, so to speak, of vast darkness. They light up the immediate surround, but are pretty limited as one moves away. Torah, however, is light itself. Accordingly, says R’ Schachter, if one wants to really illuminate and disperse the darkness, one needs to increase in Torah learning, whose light is Or itself.

R’ Avrohom Mayorer: an inspiration

I guess it must have been about 20 years ago, when I sat at the Seudas Bris of a baby who had just been named Avrohom. For some reason, I can vividly remember the scene, including the exact table and seat where I was sitting. I don’t normally remember such things in this way. Rabbi Groner ז’ל was speaking in his renowned powerful and emotive manner; a style which many of his students have naturally if not genetically assumed in their own delivery.

“Let me tell you about R’ Avrohom Mayor” he thundered. “In Melbourne, you don’t know who he was nor are you aware of his greatness. R’ Avrohom was an עובד who learned Chassidus for many hours before davening only to then daven for another 4 hours each day. You could see him at lunchtime in 770, draped in Tallis and Tefillin, in deep contemplation while still davening שחרית. But one thing I will tell you, despite his עבודת התפילה, R’ Avrohom would never peform his daily עבודה before he had made sure each of his children had had their breakfast, and food was on the table. R’ Avrohom was completely בטל to the זולת. First it was somebody else, and only then was it R’ Avrohom Mayor.”

I do not know why, but I remember these words with remarkable clarity. The little baby was a great-grandson born through R’ Avrohom’s daughter’s family (Rubin). We were and remain close friends of the then little Avrohom’s parents and family. Subsequently, I saw a large photo of R’ Avrohom Mayor and was awe-struck by the holy הדרת פנים of his countenance. That was then.

Recently, I read that a book had been published by his grandson (Moshe Yosef Rubin) which could be described as a biography of R’ Avrohom. Lately, I have been caught up buying lots of books, and wanted to add this one to the long list of books I intended to read. Not finding the book at bookdespository.com or amazon.com made the purchase less than automatic, so I expedited the process by borrowing a copy.

Over Shavuos, I finished reading the book and it left me feeling both inspired and inadequate. The book is nicely referenced and footnoted, and even allowing for the natural license of a grandson to possibly exalt his Zeyde or omit the odd narrative, it was inescapable that I had read about an impressive and incredible human being.

In my travels, I have been to the USA several times, but only twice to New York. Despite my school years in Chabad, I felt no specific desire to visit 770 Eastern Parkway, and, in point of fact, I have never been there. I am not a Chosid, and have never been in Yechidus with any Rebbe, let alone the Lubavitcher Rebbe ז’ל. I never felt I had anything meaningful to say, and all that I asked for, I tried to achieve through my poor but personal davening. For reasons of familial nostalgia, I did want to visit the Amshinover Rebbe, if only to tell him that I was attending on behalf of my late namesake, who was an Amshinover Chasid, but alas, each time I attempted to see him, it didn’t work out. Maybe that’s the way it was meant to be. After reading this book, however, at this stage of my life, I would have liked to have spent a weekend participating in one of R’ Avrohom Mayorer’s apparently intimate and uniquely inspiring farbrengens.

Elderly Russian Chassidim were not a new phenomenon to me. Rav Perlov ז’ל and Rav Betzalel Wilshansky ז’ל were originally Chassidim of the Rashab ז’ל and even a young non conforming and fiercely individualised lad like me could not help but be intrigued by their הנהגות, demeanour and countenance.

Rav Perlov seemed to be ancient. We were davening שחרית at the school’s 7am minyan, and he seemed to have been there from the crack of dawn. Watching him slowly removing his Rashi Tefillin and don Rabeinu Tam’s tefillin was like a slow motion movie. The world seemed remotely removed from Rav Perlov. Time was an irrelevance. He was seemingly hovering above time. His קריאת שמע took an eternity. R’ Perlov’s wife was no less daunting. I can still vividly see her face, as she walked across the school yard while we played football. She held up her hands, shielding her face, slowly shuffling across the yard, concerned that a ball might hit her. We, of course, froze, and halted our sport until she had safely passed.

Rav Betzalel, with his rounded enormous hat and greyish kapote, was a picture of יראה. I feared looking at him. He seemed thoroughly gripped and enveloped by דע לפני מי אתה עומד. It was as if he was acutely aware of אלקות at each moment, while we were remotely meandering through a confused sea of גשמיות with the odd sprinkle of רוחניות. One Tisha B’Av stands out. R’ Betzalel was called up to say the Haftora of אסוף אסיפם and his loud wailing and sincere crying left me speechless and in awe that someone could so acutely feel the words of the נביא. It is also one of those moments where I can vividly remember exactly where I was standing, as I watched R’ Betzalel literally go to pieces.

R’ Zalman Serebryanski ז’ל was the warm and smiling, intellectual, Rosh Yeshivah and R’ Isser Kluwgant ז’ל carried himself with the dignity of מלכות. R’ Betzalel Althaus ז’ל epitomised שירה וזמרה and התעוררות, but it was R’ Nochum Zalman Gurewicz ז’ל who was the master story-teller. It was R’ Nochum, who interrupted our Gemora classes to tell us about the NKVD and his time in the army. It was he who attempted to regale us with stories of near escapes from the clutches of the evil Soviet empire. But I, and many others, were the sons of Holocaust survivors.

As second generation survivors, stories of Soviet persecution didn’t leave me with the type of indelible tattooed watermark of the שארית הפליטה. This was not the archetypical definition of death and destruction: the evil Amalekite Nazi regime. Put in simple terms, I was brought up surrounded by Holocaust survivors and their harrowing tales. I could not make room to digest the stories of Soviet Jewry, despite being surrounded by the aforementioned respected, impressive and honourable older Chassidim.

Fast forward to this new book. I have a new-found understanding. To put it simply, the stories in this book captured important elements of the attempted destruction of Judaism in the Soviet archipelago, whereas the Holocaust was about the attempted destruction of the Jewish Nation. The Nazis didn’t care if one was frum, half-jewish, a bundist or fascist. If you were Jewish, you were to be exterminated: end of story. The Soviets, however, would leave you alone, and indeed embrace you, if you cast off your Judaism and adopted the communist oath of allegiance to Stalin ימח שמו and his evil socialist ideology.

Enter R’ Avrohom Mayorer and others of his kind. These were Chabad Chassidim who fought with all their might to stave off the attempt to kill Judaism. Story after story of immense bravery, courage and conviction is retold expertly and one is left in wonderment and disbelief. How much easier would it have been to stay alive, unpersecuted, and in comparative safety, simply by compromising and exclaiming יעבור ואל יהרג?

The inspiration for this struggle against the Soviets was the fulfilment of the direction from the Rashab and the Rayatz ז’ל. These Rebbes loomed large in the hearts of the Chassidim who risked their lives, daily, to make sure that the נכשלים אחריך didn’t give up their souls to Godless Soviet atheism. But this was not just a story about the Soviet Union.

R’ Avrohom continued with the same fervour to build up Chabad institutions in the new State of Israel. Whether it was Lod or Kfar Chabad or Tel Aviv, R’ Avrohom Mayorer was devoted to his task of ensuring that Torah (and Chassidus Chabad) flourished in the most difficult and challenging times during the formation of the Yishuv. Life was physically challenging and these were a different style of pioneer in the newly growing, but constantly challenged State.

In his later years, R’ Avrohom finally moved to New York where he was united with the family he so dearly loved. It would seem from all accounts that the last Rebbe ז’ל preferred that R’ Avrohom spend all his days in Israel. R’ Avrohom, was R’ Avrohom. You could take the man out of any country, but you couldn’t take his care and support for Chabad and indeed any Jew, out of the man. You could transplant him into Uganda, and he would find a way to spread Yiddishkeit בכלל and Chabad חסידות בפרט. The issue of R’ Avrohom not remaining in Israel isn’t covered in the book, nor would one expect such a private issue to be discussed in the context of a book written by his great-grandson. Notwithstanding this fact, in my view, it can only be the small-minded, gratuitous, simplistic and ignorant חסיד who failed and fails to see the wood from the trees and appreciate the immense impact and personality of this major תלמיד חכם. It is not a matter of chance that arguably the Rebbe’s greatest חסיד, R’ Yoel Kahn, spent many long hours in deep conversation with R’ Avrohom. Like the Chassidim I encountered in my youth, this book vividly painted the picture of a man who was larger than life.

R' Avrohom with his partner in life R'n Sarah.

On Rosh Hashono and Yom Kippur, I am emotionally exhausted and distraught when I sing the chilling words:

כי לא תחפוץ במות המת

What does it mean? Hashem doesn’t want the death of a dead person? If he doesn’t want it, then why let man die? And so what if כי אם בשובו מדרכו וחיה—even after תשובה man dies. R’ Avrohom Mayorer explained this in a brilliant way. What Hashem doesn’t want, is במות המת. When we leave this world after 120 years, Hashem doesn’t want us to leave as a מת, someone whose time was already up; someone who was retired and no longer active; someone whose strengths and abilities were no longer manifest; someone who was physically there but who had effectively ceased their living task. No, on the contrary, we are exhorted to work and live until our last breath and try to bring more קדושה into this world through the מצווה of והלכת בדרכיו. This also epitomised the עבודה of R’ Avrohom Mayorer.

For this vort alone, the book was well worth reading. I will always remember this vort. May his memory be a blessing.

You are what you learn

I have always felt that in learning Torah, once a person starts to earn a living and engage with wife and family,  enjoying what you learn is paramount. There is one invariant; Halacha. Each person must have a working knowledge of basic Halacha and should aim to revise this every now and again; yes, 30 days before a Chag.

Personally, I have always been captivated by  study of the Halachic process. I am roused when reading שאלות ותשובות especially when the Posek takes the trouble to map out his thoughts from fundamental sources through to his final decision. Pilpul and conjecture aka תורה לשמה—for the sake of it—was also gripping. some 30 years ago. Nowadays, unless it leads to Halachic import, I tend to look at it as an exercise in  עמלה של תורה more akin to an intellectual odyssey that may not lead to any change or understanding in Halacha.

During my school years, I was exposed to rudimentary Chassidus. I don’t think I was mature enough, emotionally or intellectually, to properly engage. The study of a Jewish metaphysical realm was parenthetical to my “needs” at that time. Perhaps it’s different  and more meaningful for others, even during those early and teenage years. I feel strongly, however, that it ought not be compartmentalised as compulsory curriculum unless one wants to engage—it could be a case of יצא שכרו בהפסדו.  Similarly, we have a tradition that Zohar and Kabbalah should not be studied until one has reached 40—the age of attaining בינה.  I imagine there are people who have “reached” 40 when they are 20, and other who will not have reached 40 even though they are 70. To each his or her own (are women allowed to learn Zohar, I don’t mean bits of Tzena U’Rena … I imagine they would be, if they were at the level of spiritual nourishment that requires it?)

I had never learned Mussar until I studied in Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh. I tried. The first thing I noticed about it was that it was an intensely personal introspection. One had to psyche oneself to be in the proper mood. I couldn’t understand why one would learn Mussar with a Chavrusa, a learning partner. To me, Mussar or Jewish Ethics was almost the type of study where the entire Beis Medrash should be enveloped in an eery silence.

Mussar was studied for half an hour a day, just before Ma’ariv and Dinner, except for Shabbos. There are many different styles of Mussar Seforim. There are those that take the severe admonishment line (which never appealed to me) and are others which were written by Rishonim themselves. More recent varieties, such as the quasi mussar approach of Michtav Me’Eliyahu were really a cross between Mussar and Jewish thought. I did enjoy studying כוכבי אור (not the sefer by R’ Nachman MiBratslav) by R’ Itzele Blaser (a famed student of R’ Yisroel Salanter) during Tishrei but I think this was because it was more of a Lomdishe Mussar Sefer where there was a great question and answer leading to a mussar message.  Others had a different approach, like Daas Tevunos from the Ramchal. I liked those, but didn’t feel they were hard-core Mussar seforim. Brisk had no place for Mussar. It felt that Mussar was unnecessary. If you needed to study ethics, it meant that your study of Shas was not proper.

I ended up abandoning Mussar after 6 months (I did gravitate to another Sefer called Ma’alos HaMidos) and started learning Sefer HaKuzari on my own. I know this raised eyebrows, but the Yeshivah were clever and one day an Israeli Chavrusa “appeared” and told me that he’d like to learn it with me. I appreciated that in as much as it helped me with vocabulary and I knew that the Yeshivah was tolerating my nuanced needs. I think that’s important in any Yeshivah. Too often Seder becomes an indoctrination of sorts.

Kuzari was good for my general knowledge, but I didn’t really feel confident with some of the answers in the sense that I could use them in the 21st Century. That was probably my fault. It was fascinating trying to get my head around Sechel HaPoel and Sechel HaNifal. I later discovered Maharal, and fell in love. It was written in a way which I could understand and all the hidden messages, such as 8 being higher than 7 and what that meant across Shas and Halacha was intriguing.

We have a link to Amshinov back in time, but they don’t write many Seforim. A few years ago a friend in Israel saw a short booklet put together by the Rebbe in Borough Park (not widely seen as THE Rebbe as distinct from the well known and renowned Amshinover Tzadik in Bayit Vegan). I read it, and I was astonished to see that the Amshinover Rebbeim, starting from the first Rebbe, R’ Ya’akov Dovid ז’ל said words that

There is only one book for Chassidus, and that is Sefer HaTanya. If there was only one Sefer left in my house it would be Sefer HaTanya. Everything else is subsumed by it

They were powerful words. I gave the book to R’ Groner ז’ל as he was very excited to read it. R’ Groner, whom I miss greatly, was a walking encyclopaedia. He told me everything I wanted to know about Amshinov through to a vivid description of the size of R’ Shimon’s Shulem’s nose ז’ל 🙂 Subsequently, I told R’ Groner to keep the book, and I’m glad I did.

Fast forward. My soul became inexorably attached to the Rav. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was my head that became intertwined. I discovered early on that the Rav knew Tanya like the proverbial back of his hand, as well as Likutei Torah from the Alter Rebbe. The Rav was a romantic (not personally, but in respect of his life memories). He was also unique in that he actually wrote and told you about his feelings and struggles. I love that candour. It only makes me pine to interact with him even more. It is one of my regrets. I remember when the first group of students from the YU Kollel came to Kerem B’Yavneh. The Rosh Yeshivah immediately began interrogating them so that they could relate the latest Chidushim from the Rav. One of the Rav’s best Talmidim (certainlywith respect to Psak as opposed to Philosophy) is R’ Hershel Schachter, the Posek of OU. I have downloaded and listened to many of R’ Hershel’s shiurim, and he is literally like a sprouting fountain that gushes forth with an enormous ידיעת התורה. I noticed that he too had studied Tanya and would quote it.

I don’t know any Tanya. I know some of the basics of Chassidus—very very basics—and it’s safe to say I’m an ignoramus. The Gaon’s prime Talmid also wrote a critically important and widely read Sefer, akin to Tanya, and apparently written as the Misnagdic equivalent, called Nefesh HaChaim. I have this at home, and read Rabbi Norman Lamm’s PhD thesis comparing the Tanya and Nefesh HaChaim.

My beautiful,  much beloved, and much missed cousin, R’ Ya’acov Yitzchak HaCohen Balbin ז’ל, whose soul was as pure and holy as I have ever come across, and to whom I dedicate this post less than a year after his sudden Petirah that he should have an Aliyos Neshoma and a Lichtige Gan Eden, was a Chosid of R’ Zalman Serebryanski ז’ל and despite having gone to live in the State of Israel some 30 years ago, still asked his difficult questions to R’ Groner ז’ל.  I well remember my father, myself and Ya’acov visiting R’ Groner, literally less than 48 hours before his Petirah and Ya’akov asking R’ Groner what was to be R’ Groner’s last Halachic question in this world. One year, Ya’acov bought me a copy of the Steinsaltz Tanya. Ya’acov’s son-in-law, somewhat of a Chabakooknik, is a Chosid of R’ Steinsaltz who was Mesader Kidushin at his wedding (I attended).

Yet, despite all of this, I can’t open Sefer HaTanya and I remain ignorant. Why?

Because there is this big sign at the back of the Shule at Yeshivah in Melbourne which (rightly or wrongly) bothers me to the depth of my soul. If it has a place, that sign should be in the Chasid’s heart. Having such a sign in a Shule (and in the Mesivta in the School my sons attended) let alone bellowing this out daily, simply turns me off.

Call it irrational, call me full of myself, call me whatever you want. I’m sure I’ve been called worse. But, these are the facts. I feel it, and I feel it deeply. I’d like to learn, as I feel it has become an important and accepted sefer.

I can’t. I feel negativity which I cannot erase. The marketing has gone mad and it is pervasive in the extreme.