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).

“Modern” Orthodoxy faces an internal schism

Rav Schachter, Shilita, doesn’t like the term Modern Orthodox. Many don’t. If the term is to be used, it means the type of Orthodoxy that is ready to deal with modern issues using modern knowledge. Rav Schachter believes this is nothing new in the sense that dealing with modern issues is something most groups with Orthodoxy undertake. They have to. When a question comes before a Rav, he needs to either answer it, or send the questioner to a different Rav who may be more qualified to answer that type of question.

Whilst Rav Schachter is also a Rosh Kollel, and in general a Rosh Yeshivah or Rosh Kollel doesn’t make the “best” Posek for a Ba’al Habayis, because they often live in a surreal world which is cut off, at best from the vicissitudes facing the man and woman who are immersed in Olam HaZeh, and not looking at Daled Chelkei Shulchan Aruch for most of their day. Rav Schachter is different. His interaction with an ordinary Ba’al HaBayis is palpable when he speaks, although stylistically and on occasion his oratory is more Yeshivish. He has a modest and respectful charm, which I can testify is very much real and uplifting.

Like his own teacher, the renowned Rav, Rav Soloveitchik ז’ל, Rav Schachter has an enormous and unshakeable attachment to Mesora/tradition. Mesora isn’t always that clear, of course. For example, simply looking at last week’s Parsha, when discussing how the Jews had access to Shitim wood in a dessert, Rashi quotes a Tanchuma and Yerushalmi (from memory) that Ya’akov Avinu foresaw that the Jews would need Shitim to build the Mishkan and ensured that these were planted in Egypt and then transported. Yet, Ibn Ezra says words that

If these thoughts of the Amoraim and Geonim are a Kabolo (Mesora) in learning that they received, then we must accept it. If they are not, but rather constitute a more homlitic interpretation by Chazal, then we (he, the Ibn Ezra) has another suggestion. His view is that there was an Oasis near Har Sinai, and it was from there that they took Shitim Wood

What’s obvious to the Ibn Ezra is that he is completely respectful to the Mesora. He just doesn’t have (from his own teachers) a definite teaching that Rashi’s sources constitute a definite truth, as opposed to a possibility. He does not dismiss this view as “far-fetched” and not to be accepted. Rather, he qualifies his comments with an “If then else”.

In terms of dealing with new questions, or indeed old ones, in a “modern” framework, what makes Modern or Centrist Orthodoxy different is really two things

  1. A rejection of the Hungarian view espoused by the Chasam Sofer, that “all that is new is forbidden”. In other words, if you don’t know about a new proposal or approach, then in a void of Mesorah, it is safest to always pronounce that the answer is “NO”
  2. The use of modern knowledge to aid us in understanding and further bringing Kavod LaTorah.

The latter is scary for the Aguda and those to the right of the Aguda. It represents a precipice. There is no question, that when, ironically, it comes to questions of Kashrus, all agencies rely on modern science. Science is respected, and the knowledge of the food chemist is critical. When it comes to questions of electricity and Shabbos, the Posek again must understand the physics. The Posek of a certain generation will indeed Pasken according to the modern understanding of the Science of their time. However, the modern orthodox Posek will not be afraid to also PERMIT something which was once forbidden because of a faulty model that was understood in yesteryear.

Another divide can be seen in issues involving the types of items identified in the Sefer, Hilchos Shmiras HaGuf VeHaNefesh. This has a list of many things that should be avoided because they may be injurious to health. Some are from the Gemora, others are more Kaballistic.

Rav Schachter contends that on matters of health, for example, THE MESORA itself, was to use the best knowledge of doctors of the time. In reality, when we are sick we all do that. However, when it comes to some “dangerous” things, Rav Schachter will often say that we don’t need to worry about it, as it only represented the best medical/scientific knowledge at the time. Now, we know better. We, however, must according to the Torah, use the best knowledge available in coming to a cogent and relevant (read modern Psak) as opposed to taking the Hungarian/Chassidic line of forbidding more and not less.

That being said, there are lines, and there always have been lines. Some of these lines can be argued with on the basis of “modern NEEDS” as opposed to modern knowledge or science. This constitutes the basis of articles involving  R’ Haskel Lookstein.

It is ironic, that the vast majority of ladies who want to include male mitzvos, do not routinely keep female mitzvos. One only has to look at the practices of those in Shira Chadasha style prayer organisations (I can only speak somewhat about the Melbourne manifestation). If only, if only, egalitarianism wasn’t the petrol in their Jewish Car, and comprehensive attempts at all Torah and Mitzvos, especially those already germane to women and men, were adhered to scrupulously. Alas, they appear not to. The emphasis is on egalitarianism, the catch cry of the conservative, and the idea that people like the Rav, R’ Moshe warned about. These cannot and must not change the existing Mesora.

Yes, if there is a particularly enriched and scrupulous woman, who is like the women of yore, with Tehillim on their lips, Torah in their hands, and Yiras Shomayim in spades, who objects to such exceptions fulfilling a natural progression. Ashreichem, if you reach such a Madreyga. Men don’t need to. We are enjoined to do these things, even if we haven’t reached such heights. Woman, however, are enjoined to focus on their important orthogonal role, and if they are special, so be it.

Rav Schachter, and his colleagues, are debating these issues behind closed doors, and doing so in a spirit of Torah and not through the press with hot loaded statements, that really don’t constititute adequate Tshuvos on the topic(s) (especially when they have erroneous sources, but let’s not go there).

I pray that Rav Schachter and his Chaverim are able to peacefully negotiate the issues with Ramaz and the like, and keep true to the firm and unshakeable weltanshauung of Rav Soloveitchik when it comes to “ceremony” and Shule. Shule was never about a mode of ceremony for the Rav. It was all about Hilchos Tfilla, and the Lonely Man of Faith, never lost sought of this.

I see no renaissance in female Jewish observance surging through the modern orthodox world. On the contrary, they seem to struggle with “why is sending sms’s on shabbos forbidden”.

Enough. I don’t want to cast aspersions on many good people.

Powerful speech by Rabbi Riskin on kiruv

This is well worth WATCHING

[hat tip DM]

Can or should an Avel perform Bircas Cohanim (part 3)

I was touched, and appreciated by the fact that the Dayan, with whom I am having a respectful Torah discussion on this issue decided to read and follow up my previous blog in a publication dedicated to Yud Tes Kislev: the Yom Hillula of Rav Dov Ber of Mezeritch, the father of all Chassidic Rebbes, and the occasion of the freedom from a short incarceration by the great Acharon, the Shulchan Aruv HoRav and Ba’al Hatanya.

The Dayan felt compelled to respond because a failure to do so might imply that he agreed with me. Chas VeShalom! Much of the material presented was a previous listing of the same Mekoros brought prior,  which are well known. We know from whence the Ramoh recorded the Minhag Ashkenaz, and we are well aware that this is related to the the Maharam MiRotenbug and the subsequent line of students after him, who had had identified this same minhag during their time.

We are also well aware that Minhag can uproot Halacha; the implication being that the Tri-Torah command of Bircas Cohanim can theoretically be supplanted by a Minhag. None of this is new and added no more to the discussion in my opinion. It is not a universally accepted anyway in this issue, despite the quotation of chosen latter day Acharonim. I’m surprised the Kitzur was quoted as a source. From the Hakdama of the Kitzur, we know his methodology of Psak, based on three acharonim. In my opinion, that adds nothing either.

It is important to note that the Dayan misquoted some of the sources in his original article. Indeed, a careful reading of these shows an omission of important facts. This will be expounded upon in due course. Much to my sorrow, I don’t have the time in the day to do such things in the proper academic way. I would have liked to be בבית ה׳ כל ימי חיי but it’s not my current Goral. I can’t wait till I can spend more time learning, and conducting shiurim. I have seen some of the material in its full form, and not the quoted parts in the Dayan’s original article, and it is clear and compelling and is somewhat not consonant with the Dayan’s proof.

As pointed out by the Gaon R’ Yekusiel Farkash in his Klolei Piskei Admor HaZoken, where there is no minhaga individuals need not  follow or adopt a Minhag (even quoted by Admor HaZoken). Perhaps the Dayan will consider Rav Farkash’s comments as invalid. I don’t know. Rav Farkash is a very widely accepted expert. Having heard his Shiurim, and read some of his Sforim, he is clearly a deep and careful thinker. If so, perhaps the Dayan should write to him. I might.

Ironically, the Dayan garnered some support from the Giant, R’ Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik inter alia. What the Dayan didn’t tell us is that the Rav Soloveitchik himself stated that an Avel should Duchen! This was also the opinion of his illustrious and legendary grandfather, the famed and revered Gaon, R’ Chaim Brisker. These are giants of the last few generations who knew the Ramoh and those who preceded him, very well. Admittedly, they aren’t as influenced by Acharonim, but this is an accepted mode of Psak. As the Rav once said when someone tried to tell him that his Psak was not the same as the Mishne Brura.

“Nu, I am an Acharon, and I have a license and may certainly argue. I don’t force anyone to accept my Psokim. If you want to follow the Mishne Brura, go right ahead.

Indeed, we don’t need to look to Brisk/Lita. We can simply list many examples where the Ramash (R’ Menachem Mendel Schneerson) instituted Minhogim against the explicit ruling of the Admor HaZoken. A famous example is the Ramash’s campaign to ask females to light Shabbos candles before they were married. We all understand why he did this, and what a wonderful initiative it was, however, if we are to remain unfaltering fidelity to the Admor HaZoken and the Rishonim and Acharonim who preceded him, this is against the Psak of the Admor HaZoken and yet is accepted. One couldn’t imagine the Dayan quoting the Ramoh or similar to the Ramash and saying “you are contradicting an open Admor HaZoken”. Sure, all manner of justification has been tended about that Takono, but if we are to be intellectually honest, the Psak of the Ramash, which he is most entitled to enact as a Gadol B’Yisrael of the last generation, amounted to an expression consonant with exactly what Rav Farkash expressed. The Dayan knows there are many other examples of this type.

It is simply amazing when one reads that the Dayan is untroubled about the fact that the Avel can be involved, no, is enjoined to be involved in public expressions of Simcha during a Yom Tov, and yet on the matter of a blatant and obvious example of Aveylus D’farhesya, the Dayan resorts to a quasi-Hungarian mode of Psak, which is as immovable as Chadash Assur Min HaTorah, even if we don’t understand the reason. I am reminded of the (incorrect, according to many Poskim) Psak of the B’eer Moshe, the Debreciner, who said that any form of Bat Mitzvah celebration is Chukas Ho’akum and the act of Reshoim! This is of course plain wrong on many accounts, and has been shown to be so by many Acharonim, but it is indicative of the type of lack of response that the Dayan tended in respect of this issue. To say that once a Cohen leaves the Shule before Retzeh, there isn’t Farhesya, is incomprehensible! Farhesya has nothing to do with Akiras Raglov and the technical ramifications of someone who didn’t leave. Well before that, people ask me for special requests, and of course Cohanim leave the Shule to wash their hands! Everyone, especially in Lubavitch where they are Makpid to bring babies to get Birkas Cohanim, are most serious about this Mitzvah. To me, it not only allows me to be a conduit, but my ability to obtain a Bracha, something one especially craves in a year of Aveylus, is negated if I don’t perform it! Now that makes me sad!

Interestingly, Rav Marlow paskened explicitly that a Cohen Avel who finds himself in Shule at Birkas Cohanim, and was unable, or perhaps forgot, or was pre-occupied, MUST Duchen on Yom Tov. I heard this directly from a completely trustworthy source. It would be Aveylys D’Farhesya. Now, Crown Heights is a different scene to Melbourne’s comparatively empty Yeshiva Shule where there were only four Cohanim. The Cohanim are like rare movie stars! How could the Avel Dyuchen? He isn’t (can never be) B’Simcha UveTuv Levov! According the the Dayan, this alone seems to be the only relevant factor!

Next we need to consider the Dayan waving his hand regarding my argument that someone who has already Duchened multiple times, according to the Psak of (Chabad) Rabbonim who do not agree with the Dayan, imbues no important ingredient to the situation. Really? Imagine the following scenes:

A Cohen sits in the Dayan’s Shule, and has the well-supported custom not to sit in his usual seat. Should the Dayan instruct the Avel to go back to his seat as it is Minhag Chabad? I witnessed no such thing at Yeshivah. I saw some who did and some who did not. It was up to the Minhag of the Avel. Aveylus, is most definitely tied to subjectivity and personal Minhag. To dismiss those because there exists another Minhag not favoured by the Ramo, is ingenuous.

What of an Avel who dances B’Simha on Friday nights around the Bima during L’Cha Dodo (a minhag I haven’t seen brought in the Ramoh or indeed the Shulchan Aruch HoRav). Chadoshim LaBekorim? Should a Dayan intercede and advise the Avel that he is doing the wrong thing? What if the Avel retorted that he does this every Shabbos, and if he stopped it would be Aveylus D’Farhesya? Maybe we can use a guitar for Kabolas Shabbos if we raven early enough?

(Personally I don’t understand the new hanhogo of dancing in the middle of davening, even if it is before Barchu. Is this what Admor HaZoken paskened or approved?)

What of an Avel who refuses to do Hakofos as brought by many Acharonim. He saw this from his own father. I personally witnessed the Dayan’s father in law and brother in law encourage Hakofos by suggesting that they do so together with a few people who surround him. If the Avel doesn’t feel comfortable adopting this approach would the Dayan say that the Avel has done wrong and that he must adopt Minhag Chabad?

Dismissing the powerful arguments of the Gaon as not being necessarily consonant with Admor HaZoken, is fair enough, although I didn’t appreciate the tone of the sentence in the Dayan’s article. (On the other hand, for example Zman Krias Shema the Gra and Admor HaZoken do agree). One may choose not to follow the Gro and the Beis HoRav after him, as mentioned above, that is, those who share the Gra’s insistence that there is a Bitul of three positive Torah commands. But it becomes somewhat different when someone insists that in his Shule, a Minhag HaGro on Hilchos Aveylus cannot be practiced by an individual! Are we still in the time of the Cherem on Chassidim? Perhaps there is now a Cherem on Beis HoRav? Was it not the Ramash himself who said to the Rav (on Yud Tes Kislev?) that when they two got together as the Dor Hashevii of each of their illustrious lines of Beis HoRav that Moshiach would come?

Is there indeed a “Minhag Chabad”. We know very well that the psak of the Shulchan Aruch Admor HaZoken, doesn’t necessarily constitute Minhag Chabad at all. Many Chabad Rabonim duchen! It is a hazy issue, at best. Those Rabonim cannot be dismissed. They include Rav Hendel of Migdal Emek, and he writes about Chu”l.

Indeed, the Ramash expressly said that he would like to re-institute Bircas Cohanim each day in Chutz La’aretz, like Sephardim, but he doesn’t have the “ability” to do so. That in of itself is a puzzling comment. He could have instituted it in all Chabad owned/led Minyanim? Perhaps he felt he needed the agreement of other Gedolei Yisrael. I do not know.

Next, we move to the issue of “what if”. What if a Cohen Avel does duchen. He may have done so because he assumed it was Minhag Chabad anyway in that Shule, or he may have done so because he knew it was most definitely a valid approach as quoted (and ignored by the Dayan) in the Nitei Gavriel where he states that “most chassidim DO Duchen in Chutz La’aretz as Aveylim on Yom Tov. I wonder whether the Dayan will respond in a vitriolic fashion and raised voice against such Chassidim and tell them “It’s an open “din” in Shulchan Aruch HoRav or the Ramo”. To use the style of argument the Dayan has used “they know the Ramoh’s opinion” and yet they Duchen! How can this be? It’s a Minhag the Ramoh quotes, remember.

Next we move to the issue of: okay, an Avel just does it. Nu, so what happens to the Birkas Cohanim. Is it invalidated? If he is the only Cohen and does so, is it a Bracha Levatala. According to the Mishna Brura it most certainly is not. Does the Alter Rebbe say that a Cohen who does so is making a Bracha Levatala and/or his Bracha is useless?

The Dayan sets the Halachos of a Shule and answers the questions of those who seek his Psak. It isn’t at all clear, however, to me that the Dayan should seek to impose a Minhag, albeit based clearly on the Ramoh on someone who has Duchened, and castigate a person for doing so! Is there a Din Macho-oh here? I think not.

Hilchos Aveylus have limits on their objectivity. Much is subjective, and changed and changes with time, person and circumstance. As I pointed out to the Dayan, why didn’t he issue a Psak saying that Aveylim should not attend the Simchas Beis HaShoeva Farbrengens each night, with food and drink and great merriment. Furthermore, if an Avel did not do so, would he approach them and say that it’s “Minhag Chabad” to attend, and therefore you should attend. What is the Avel doesn’t feel comfortable! Is he saying that they aren’t B’Simcha? Shomu Shomayim!

Finally let me open up the can of worms which relate to an unmarried man (who is also NOT considered B’Simcha according to Shas Bavli and Yerushalmi because he isn’t married). The Dayan is well aware that this is a Minhag in Hilchos Aveylus which has definitely fallen by the way side, ואין פוצץ פה with convincing argument. The Shulchan Aruch HoRav has chosen not to give credence to the Kabala on this issue (and on the issue of Duchening). That of itself requires elucidation and an article of its own. He is of course perfectly entitled to do so as a most respected Acharon.

There is more, but this will do, for now. I am no Posek, but on such touchy issues, where the הלכה is כמיקל באבילות and there are many bluff procedures in place to enable simcha participation, I would (as has always been the case at Yeshiva) leave each Cohen to do as they see fit (unless they ask for a formal Psak Din from the Dayan/Rav, as was the case of the Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Cohen, for whom there couldn’t be a bigger Aveylus D’Farhesya!).

I’m afraid I didn’t see answers to the powerful arguments laid out by R’ Shlomeleh Vilner despite the claim from the Dayan, that they were answered. Perhaps its my ignorance.

PS. If one can’t see the connection between happiness and the ability to proffer love in a Bracha, then I’d have to say they were somewhat Misnagdic; it’s not a chassidic approach.

PPS. I followed the Psak of Mori V’Rabbi R’ Schachter, and avoided the Shule on Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah so as not to cause a Machlokes, and so in no way did I ignore the practice the Dayan wanted to see uniformly applied to all decreed unhappy Cohanim. As such, this really is a theoretical discussion, LeTorah U’Lehadira.

Can or should an Avel perform Bircas Cohanim: Part 2

Following on from what I had blogged here, a learned article appeared in הערות התמימים ואנ’’ש regarding this issue. A copy of this article was given to me בכתב prior. The author traces back the sources of the Minhag not to duchen as described by the רמ’’א. There are no surprises there, as there are no surprises in naming two students of Maharam of Rottenburg describing the same Minhag.

Unfortunately, whilst the learned author wrote about the general question, he chose not to consider the specific question that initiated the discussion and the article.

[By the way, the editors of that publication do no service when they are careless in their production. There are many printing errors in the article]

  1. What should a Cohen/Avel who has already duchened 9 times as an Avel for halachically valid reasons in a non Chabad Shule do when entering a Chabad Shule for Davening on Yom Tov? Given that the Gavra already has found himself in a position of Simchas Yom Tov that enabled him to Duchan with no issue, and with love, should he dispense with his existential Simchas Yom Tov, and assume he isn’t psychologically capable of a Bracha KiPshuto?
  2. When the entire Shule is aware of the specific issue, and there is no greater Farhesya, than 25% of the Cohanim effectively leaving in the guise of a single person, with everyone knowing the reason, how can that at all be reconciled with Hilchos Aveylus! How are we to understand Aveilus D’Farhesya? I note that Rabbis Feldman, Blesofsky and all the Gutnicks, did Duchan because they are Rabbonim, and if they had snuck out of  Shule, it could be argued that this is forbidden explicitly on account of Aveilus D’Farhesya, a basic tenet of all Hilchos Aveylus on Shabbos and Yom Tov.
  3. In a situation where a Cohen did Duchan, because he was not aware of “Minhag Chabad” (something that is not clear ) is it correct that the Rabbi explcitly not issue forth “Yasher Koach” in the same way that he always does?
  4. It cannot be argued that “one doesn’t pasken against a Minhag mentioned by the Ramoh”. We all know that not only do Acharonim do that even with a Din! Even within Chabad, the Shulchan Aruch HoRav refined his Psak through the aegis of the Siddur. One can play with words and say that the Shulchan Aruch HoRav didn’t change anything, but he most certainly didn’t always “go with the Ramoh/Magen Avraham” alone on each and every issue.
  5. The last Lubavitcher Rebbe himself found it appropriate, in our day and age to encourage, for example, younger girls to light Shabbos Candles, even though this is against the Shulchan Aruch HoRav. How so? I’m sure it’s discussed, but in the end he did decree thus, for what he saw were good reasons.
  6. I heard from an extremely reliable Rav, that Rabbi Marlow of Chabad ז’ל had paskened that if the Cohen leaving would cause Aveylus D’Farhesya (be noticed, or that he found himself in the Shule at that time) then he should duchen. If on the other hand, he could “slip out unnoticed” as a regular Cohen who perhaps required Tevilah would do, then he should.
  7. In what way is there a proof that the situation of Cohanim is the same as at the times of the Ramoh and thereabouts? How many Shules have so many Cohanim that you simply don’t notice if one is at Shule and doesn’t go up?
  8. I’ve been to the Ramoh’s Shule, and no doubt they didn’t Duchen. It’s tiny. Then again, I’d imagine the Shule was packed to the rafters and various Cohanim who weren’t necessarily regulars turned up, especially on Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah.
  9. Despite the fact that Chabad owes no “allegiance” to the opinions of the Vilna Gaon in his glosses on Shulchan Aruch, the Gaon does opine that one should duchan and not annul three D’Oraysos, despite the Minhag described by the Ramoh. The Gaon’s  opinion (which is identical to the Mechaber) is identical to R’ Chaim Brisker, and R’ Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. The Nefesh HoRav, who is Mori V’Rabbi, R’ Hershel Schachter, and is mentioned in the article, was simply quoting these views as well as the incredibly deep and vast Tshuva on this matter from the Dayan of Vilna, R’ Shlomoleh ז’ל in his Responsa.
  10. The author “bet me” that the Nefesh HoRav held that one should not Duchen. I disagreed and took the bet. What the Nefesh HoRav did tell me was to avoid Machlokes, and so I stayed away on Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah (and duchened elsewhere) where ironically I was one of three Cohanim!
  11. Finally, I’d be interested to know whether according to the author, it is proper that Cohanim aren’t happy enough on Yom Tov to be a conduit for Bircas Cohanim, and yet, as Avelim, they are permitted to attend parties known as Simchas Beis HaShoayvo, where there is food, drink, merriment and Torah. Is this a Chiyuv for an Avel? When I asked this question, I was met with anger. Sure, any Seuda can be turned into a Seudas Mitzvah with Divrei Torah (and according to some opinions just singing). Would one conclude that the Ramoh et al and the Shulchan Aruch HoRav would say it’s fine to attend a Mishteh V’Simcha as an Avel, but despite the fact that the person has Bosor V’Yayin, one should assume each and every Cohen has a level of sadness that they couldn’t possibly bench B’Ahava?
  12. If they can’t be B’Simcha, I guess the Basar and Yayin are also a waste of time?
  13. What is the Minhag in Chabad when there is only one Cohen (an Avel)? Is there no Duchening? Why yes? What about the Aveylus/Sadness. It’s existential, no?
  14. What is the Minhag in Chabad when there are only two Cohanim (one who is an Avel) (See Mishne B’Rura 575:159)

In the end, like most Hilchos Aveylus, as explained to me by Rav Schachter, most are about intentions and feelings and motivation. If a person intends to immerse, for example, in a Simcha event, or similar, for the purposes of getting “happy” and/or “enjoying oneself” then it is forbidden (except where there are matters of Tzaar — pain — involved through acts, and only in certain situations). The Halacha of Aveylus is deeply personal, and I would have no problem with a Cohen/Avel who just didn’t feel right not doing duchening. Some refrain from Aliyos! Yet, others, run for Maftir each week and seek to Leyn as well.

I don’t need to mention the Nitei Gavriel who says that most Chassidim do Duchan.

Would it be so far fetched for a Shule to have the policy:

  • it’s not our minhag to Duchan, but if you feel up to it, go for it


  • it is our minhag to Duchan, but if you don’t feel up to it, slip out unobtrusively if you are able.

They certainly find workarounds for the parade of Hakafos!

I spoke with a number of Rabonei Chabad who said that even in the diaspora, they did not enforce any Minhag not to Duchan.

Enough on this topic from me.

Disclaimer: it is not at all my intention in any way to give the impression that I am detracting from the Psak of the author or his right to do so. This is Torah, however, and we are committed to learning and understanding from the one who chooses all his people ּבאהבה.

Israel and Soldiers

[Hat tip to DM]

Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva Rav Yerucham Levovitz: “..regarding those who currently sacrifice their lives so we can be saved, no one in the entire world can stand in their presence…and our obligation to pray on their behalf is limitless…”

Nothing is to be achieved from the negative messages, prevalent in the hareidi/hassidic world about Israel. It is time for a change in approach so that new generations learn about what Israel is and not what it is not. Then the madim (uniform) and kelei ha’mikdash, the sanctified vessels and tools used daily to rebuild our Promised Land and safeguard all of its citizens, will be seen in a proper light..

The revered Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva Rav Yerucham Levovitz, who commented in his Sichos Mussar regarding those who were killed in Lod in Talmudic times [ha’rugei Lod ein kol briya yechola la’amod be’mechitzatan]. “No mortal can be in their presence” because they have sacrificed their life on behalf of Israel. Likewise,“regarding those who currently sacrifice their lives so we can be saved, no one in the entire world can stand in their presence [no one can measure up to their level]. And our obligation to pray on their behalf is limitless…”

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, head of Har Etzion hesder yeshiva, related that once, when he returned to America and was visiting with his father in law, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, he posed a series of questions he had received from students serving in the IDF. One student worked in the tanks division and his job was cleaning out and maintaining the tanks. Often his uniform got covered in oil and grime and he wanted to know if he needed to change before afternoon prayer,davening Mincha, something that would be terribly inconvenient and difficult. The Rav looked at Rav Lichtenstein and wondered out loud, “why would he need to change? He is wearing bigdei kodesh, holy garments.

These sacred garments have restored Jewish pride, faith and fortitude… these bigdei kodesh safeguard and secure all that is holy and worthwhile in G-d’s Promised Land and throughout the world.

No lesser voice than HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Hacohen Kook shared the regard and reverence for Israel’s soldiers and the uniform they wear. In Sichot Rabbenu, Yom Ha’atzmaut 5727, he wrote:

“A student of our Yeshiva approached me. I said to him: ‘At first I did not recognize you.’ He was wearing the army uniform. You know that I relate to this uniform in holiness. A lovely and precious man, full of G-d-fearing and holiness was approaching, and he was wearing an army uniform. At that occurrence I mentioned what I said at one wedding [of Ha-Rav She’ar Yashuv Cohen, chief rabbi of Haifa], when the groom came dressed in an army uniform.

There were some who were pointing out that it is inappropriate for a groom to stand under the chuppah with an army uniform. In Yerushalayim, the Holy City, it was customary that they came with Shabbat clothing, holy clothing, like a streimel (fur hat worn by hassidim on the Sabbath, ed.).

” I will tell you the truth. The holiness of the streimel – I do not know if it is one-hundred percent clear. It was made holy after the fact. Many righteous and holy Geonim (great rabbis) certainly wore it. There is certainly so much trembling of holiness before them, and we are dirt under the souls of their feet, and on account of this fact, the streimel was made holy.

“Also Yiddish, the language of Exile, was made holy because of its great use in words of holiness. But from the outset – it is not so certain. In comparison, the holiness of the army uniform in Israel is fundamental, inherent holiness. This is the holiness of accessories of a mitzvah, from every perspective…”

Rabbi Yehoshua Zuckerman relates [inIturei Yerushalaim] about Rav Tzvi Yehuda “teaching a class and a student, who was on leave from the army, was standing next to him. During the entire time, our Rabbi rested his hand on the student’s arm. At the end of the shiur, another student asked about this. Our Rabbi explained,“It is simple. He was wearing a Tzahal uniform and I was touching holiness the entire time.”

Thankfully, there are also those in the hareidi community willing to speak out against the angry and misguided radicalism that would diminish the glory of the IDF. Writing on Behadrey Hareidim,Rabbi David Bloch, founder of Nahal Hareidi, expressed his resentment at Rabbi Tzaurger’s words.

“We have been told by our ancestors: ‘Anyone who opposes the good in his friend may end up opposing the good of Hashem’, anyone who is not grateful towards the soldier for his defense of the Jews in Israel, so he can live here in relative peace, is an ingrate.” Rabbi Bloch continues: “There is no connection between the Zionist ideology and gratitude to those who physically make it possible with God’s help so each resident can live here, and manage his life as he sees fit. Even if we were living in exile and there are enemies who want to destroy us – we must be grateful to those who are working to save lives. One could be anti-Zionist and still be grateful to those who risked saving lives. Such a call is a serious failure of values.”

The most basic Jewish value is that of expressing Hakarat ha’tov, gratitude, to anyone and everyone who does anything which is of benefit for me and certainly for society at large.

Every Orthodoxy has radical elements. To be radical in one’s love of Torah and of God is not a sin. However, when one’s embrace of Torah is expressed as hatefulness towards IDF soldiers and a damning of the bigdei kodesh that they wear, then it is a radicalism that has lost sight of true Torah.

Can a Rabbi know everything?

I saw an interesting question and answer from Rabbi Aviner’s web page. I’d describe Rabbi Aviner as Charedi Leumi, but unlike regular Charedim, he is acquainted somewhat more with the real world. Here is the question and answer

Q: Sometimes when a Rabbi is asked a question, he responds: “I don’t know” or “I am not familiar with that”. Is this and answer, or a was of avoiding taking a position?

A: It is a type of answer and of taking a position (The Chazon Ish said: ‘I don’t know” is also part of the Torah, meaning that when a person reviews his learning, he need to points out I know this and I don’t know that. Sha’arei Aharon vol. 1, p. 44 in Kuntres Sha’arei Ish. And the Steipler complained to a great Rabbi: When I say that I don’t know, the world explains it as if it is a doubt. Orchot Rabbenu vol. 1, p. 38 in the additions at the end. And Ha-Rav Chaim Kanievski was asked: When Ha-Rav answers a question with “I haven’t heard”. Does this mean that he does not agree with that position? He answered: It is the simple meaning of the words. She’eilat Rav Vol. 1, p. 22 #8. Segulot Raboteinu, p. 257 note #319).

I recall being taken aback when Mori V’Rabbi, Rav Hershel Schachter occasionally said to me over the phone “I don’t know”. This to me is Gadlus, otherwise known as intellectual integrity as opposed to papal infallibility (lehavdil). It could have lots of meanings

  1. I don’t know you well enough to make a determined ruling
  2. I need more facts, and based on what you’ve told me, “I don’t know”
  3. I never had a Mesora on how to decide this issue, and I don’t pasken without a Mesora (this is a Hungarian trait), others (like Dayan Usher Weiss isn’t afraid to say Libi Omer Li)
  4. I can’t answer you on the spot, I need to look into it very carefully (the Rav told all his Talmidim to never answer immediately, and to always say you have to check, and to look in Shulchan Aruch and call back, even if you know)
  5. Rav Hershel always encourages his Musmachim to discuss every Shayla with a Chaver (Rav) before answering
  6. He’s not convinced I’ll listen to him, so and not say something, he says I don’t know.

As opposed to Poskim, I would posit, that most Rebbes, and Rebbalach, never seem short of an answer. Similarly, the same can be said of Mekubalim (the real ones, and the shyster money grabbers).

Right to left Rav Abaranok ז’ל, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Balbin, and me, on the Upsherin.

I’ve never seen it as a negative! Moshe Rabenu needed to consult what to do with Zelafchad, the Mekoshesh Etzim. Consultation is a good thing, and human frailty to me is Gadlus. Mori, V’Rabi Rav Abaranok, always said his “tentative opinion” then invited you to his office or house, where he went through the Mekoros and explained his Psak (or withdrew it!). They say ( I think in the name of R’ Moshe Tendler) that R’ Moshe when asked a question would answer at the bottom of the stairs, and by the time he got to the top of the stairs, reviewing everything out loud, he either kept his Psak or changed it.


Should certain people not join the army of the State of Israel

We have all been reading with interest about the expiration of the Tal Law, which had afforded “Kollel Yungerleit” the opportunity to avoid military service in the State of Israel on account of their extended and continued full time study of Torah. We have also heard many Gedolim say that this is a situation of יהרג ועל יעבור … that people should give up their lives rather than join the army.

Parshas Shoftim describes the process whereby the Cohen, משוח מלחמה explains the procedures before warfare. First he encourages the troops and tells them that they only should fear Hashem and not the enemy, then he describes the categories of soldier (male soldiers, of course) who are exempt from battle (anyone is engaged but yet to marry a woman, anyone who has built a house but did not move in, anyone who has planted a vineyard but has yet to reap a harvest, and anyone who feels afraid). The Shotrim (policemen/miitary staff) then repeat this to groups of soldiers, according to Rashi.

There are two broad categories of war: the Milchemes Mitzvah (loosely described as a war where one defends the very existence/populace) and a Milchemes Reshus (a type of warfare which is waged for other reasons). A Milchemes Mitzvah is obviously a more serious, life threatening situation, and so we fine that the Mishne in Sotah (8:7) states that the aforementioned exemptions do not apply to a Milchemes Mitzvah. In other words, when it comes to defending the very existence of the people/State, it’s “all hands on the deck”.

Strangely, the Rambam at the beginning of the seventh chapter of Hilchos Melachim, states that the Cohen also announces these exemptions for a Milchemes Mitzvah. How can the Rambam contradict a clear Mishna? One explanation I read from Rav Schachter in the name of the Rav is that there is a dual obligation when anyone goes to war. One obligation is a national obligation. The person is part of the כלל and in the sense that the כלל is threatened in a Milchemes Mitzvah, the Torah does not provide an opportunity for exemption. There is also an individual obligation, the obligation of the פרט, the potential soldier who signs up for military service or considers doing so. In a Milchemes Reshus, the Cohen explains that someone who is in one of the aforementioned categories is strongly urged to stay home. They aren’t needed, and furthermore it could be argued that they may even damage morale by virtue of their preponderant thoughts.

According to the Rav, the Rambam is saying that even in a Milchemes Mitzvah, the Cohen explains the laws of the פרט being absolved from joining the armed forces before they defend the nation. It is necessary to explain the difference, and stress that this is only an exemption in as much as they are private individuals, however, since they are about to embark on a life and death battle for the defence of the people and the State, the aspect of the כלל affords them no exemption.

Of course, there are other explanations. Reflecting on this on Parshas Shoftim, I have great difficulty understanding how those who ostensibly don’t feel politically part of the State, give themselves the right to also not feel existentially part of the כלל.

Certainly, as I sit in Melbourne, Australia, I’m not exactly entitled to criticise the life and death decisions taken by those who live in Eretz HaKodesh. I am, however, entitled, I believe to ask for an explanation in light of the above.

A novel approach to shadchanus

On Wednesday nights, the Rav ז’ל used to give a Chumash Shiur. How did this Shiur originate? R’ Ari Kahn relates that one evening the Rav looked around his apartment and asked his Shamoshim (an entourage who assisted the Rav with his needs) why they were there: didn’t they have families, and if they didn’t why weren’t they looking. Some of the Shamoshim responded that life was not easy. They didn’t feel at ease interacting with the Shadchanim industry; equally, they were loath to “hang out” in the front of the Stern College for Women as if they were “on the prowl”.

The Rav responded that he would begin a Shiur for both young ladies and young men. He, the Rav, would make sure that the young ladies would attend; he’d leave the rest up to them. With that, the new Shiur commenced.

Of course, the right-wing would only see a “mixed” Shiur, so to speak, and condemn.

Tachanun on Yom Ha’atzmaut

I understand but do not accept the view of Hungarian Satmar, Toldos Aron, Shomer Emunim and similar, that the establishment of a State for Jews is the work of Satan and should be rejected. Such a view, in the opinion of many great sages is not justifiable, and its tenuous reliance on the three oaths is seen as an halachic fiction.

I understand, but do not agree with the view of Chabad and some other Chassidim and Misnagdim, that “it is what it is”. They contend that the establishment of the state wasn’t a necessary event in the development of events leading to the Mashiach. However, given that the State is a reality, they will support the people within the State. Chabad, for example, refrain at all costs from saying the State of Israel. Listen carefully. They will always say Eretz Yisroel, following the practice of the last Rebbe, who I believe only referred to it as the “State of Israel” but once.

I understand and accept the position of those who see the State of Israel as being an eschatological reality created by Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and that it will eventually lead to ובא לציון גואל, but who will either

  • not say hallel
  • will say hallel without a bracha
  • will say hallel with a bracha

They do not disagree with the metaphysical importance of the State, but have halachic techno-legal reasons for their particular practice. For example, the Rav didn’t say Hallel and at Kerem B’Yavneh we said Hallel without a Bracha.

I do not understand why people who do not agree that the establishment of a State for Jews is the work of Satan (e.g. Satmar) or who are passively ambivalent about the eschatological significance of a State (e.g. Chabad) not only say Tachanun, but insist on saying Tachanun. It is related that the Chazon Ish, who was saved from the events of the Holocaust by no less than the efforts of Harav Kook ז’ל, insisted on saying Tachanun.

In Melbourne, a number of years ago, when a Bris occurred at the ultra-orthodox Adass Yisrael congregation, Rabbi Beck insisted that Tachanun be said davka because it was Yom Ha’atzmaut and that it would be entirely wrong for someone to come away with the impression that Tachanun might not have been said on Yom Ha’atzmaut.

It is well-known, that Chizkiyahu the great King, in whose generation the Gemora tells us (in Sanhedrin from memory) that Torah study and knowledge was in a high and unprecedented state, failed to materialise the Geula because Chizkiyahu became too haughty and felt that it was unnecessary to utter special praise (Shira) to Hashem and thank him for the miracles that Hashem wrought on Am Yisrael.

Shira, praise and thanksgiving, is the power to see the illumination of the future in the present. It is the power to perceive our existence as a link between the past and the present, and the power to raise everything towards an all-encompassing Geula.

Therefore after crossing the Red Sea, in “Shirat Ha’Yam” – it states: “Az” Yashir. Az– “Then,” past tense, is a reflection on the past, “Yashir” – “will sing praise” in the future tense. There is the joining and encapsulation of the past and the future, thereby giving meaning to the present.

The Torah is also referred to as “shira.” We seek to find Hashem in every nook and cranny and aspect of life—in every corner. This is the approach to Torah that elevates the world. Torah that creates a superficial division between the Yeshivah and the external, real world, is not the ideal.  Yahadus desires to interpret everything, and of course, especially the manifestation of God’s name

It is possible to study Torah as in the days of Chizkiyahu, to the extent that even the children are expert at the laws of tumah and tahara, yet still the Geula is hindered and delayed.

Yeshayahu expected Chizkiyahu to offer praise, and sing shira to elevate the entirety of reality. Chizkiyahu failed and the world was set back in reaching its goal.

One’s individual Torah, despite it’s great value and benefits, is not termed Shira. Only the transcendent Torah that strives to see how everything is bound to Hakadosh Baruch Hu is described as shira.

Those who separate the Torah from the State as if they are two entities are not singing.  This is how Rav Kook explained the criticism of Chizkiyahu. “That in his days briers and thorns covered Eretz Yisra’el,” for Chizkiyahu did not demonstrate how the Torah is also connected to the land.

In justifying Chizkiyahu, some have posited that the miracle of his victory over Sancherev was not as great as the sun standing still (in the days of Yehoshua) and that is why Chizkiyahu didn’t sing Hashem’s praises. Mortals, however, are not qualified to  judge which miracle is greater or more substantial. Judging such things is an expression of haughtiness, and this is what Chazal meant.

Shira dissolves the temporal manifestation of ingratitude, as supplied by the Yetzer Horah.

What is most puzzling to me is that even those who don’t recognise the need to especially sing to Hashem still insist on making this a day like any other and continue saying Tachanun. Yet, on their own days of celebration (e.g. a special day in a Chassidic court), they suspend the saying of Tachanun.


Should a non-Jew wear a Yarmulke?

Back in the days when I began the musical element of my life, I was bemused to see the primarily non-Jewish bands, such as the Los Latinos or Volares respectfully wearing brightly coloured silk yarmulkes. In those days, the façade of the נכרי singing יבריכך ה’ מציון wasn’t complete unless the cap fit and he wore it. Most likely, the haute couture generated supplementary mirth at an already happy and refreshed שמחה. The boldy-coloured yarmulkes, perched precariously on thick, black, amply lubricated and coiffured Italian scalps were not solely the respectful masquerade of a musician. The non-Jewish videographer or photographer,  (if Mr Cylich or Herbert Leder weren’t available) also donned the Jewish millinery uniform.

Schnapps’ keyboard player, Peter, is one of the חסידי אומות העולם. A respectful and sensitive man,  Peter initially asked whether he was required to wear a Kippa. I quickly responded in the negative, and ensured that the other band members knew there was no expectation whatsoever that they do so. In the words of my percussionist, also named Peter, “We are just a pack of goyim anyway”.

Back then, in my young and lest restless years, I felt it was critical not to encourage the portrayal of a misleading repose. I didn’t want to be responsible for a single person being misled by an exterior גניבת דעת. That was then. Today, regrettably, many Jews choose not to wear one even when these are provided by בעלי שמחה as part of a theme or memento.

I fondly recall my old friend Mr Yisrael Tuvia Blass ז’ל posing the question (in Yiddish) “Why is Yom HaKipurim considered like Purim?” His answer was “on Purim, Yidden masquerade as goyim (e.g. Haman) and on Yom Hakipurim, “goyim” masquerade as Yidden. (It sounds even better in Mame Loshen).

Should non-Jewish teachers be required to wear them at Jewish Schools? This question arose several years ago in the USA and was posed to three leading Rabbis of their generation: the Rav ז’ל, R’ Moshe Feinstein ז’ל and R’ Aaron Kotler ז’ל. The Rav responded with a simple “no” (the Rav had a policy of not providing the reasons for a Psak). R’ Moshe answered that “he should do as everyone does”. In other words, the non-Jewish teacher should wear a yarmulke. R’ Aaron Kotler answered that the non-Jew should not wear a Yarmulke. Explaining his Psak, R’ Aaron opined that the idea of והבדלתם, that a Jew should be separate, extends to the notion that a non-Jew should not be encouraged to adopt Jewish customs and, therefore, בדווקא, the teacher should not don a Yarmulke.

I read this on שבת in R’ Hershel Schachter’s דברי הרב, and it rang true to me, justifying the position I took with Schnapps, so many years ago.

The Rav on Vayigash: 3 short insights

Notes from a shiur given in Boston on January 6, 1979. (מוצאי שבת)

Insight 1

I try to answer one question halachically. When the brothers come to Mitzraim for the first time to buy food and presented themselves before Joseph, were accused of espionage and denied the charges, Judah’s name is not mentioned. No matter where you look, he isn’t mentioned. We find in the conversation between the brothers and the Viceroy the word, “Vayomru” — (and they said) but it doesn’t mention “Who said.” “Vayomru” is mentioned in fact several times but not specifically who. Where does Yehudah appear?

In his debate with Jacob (where he appeals to his father to let them go a second time to buy food and to take along their youngest brother Benyamin as requested by the Viceroy). At first, it is Reuven – the oldest brother who intervenes right away and is rejected by the father. Much later, it is Yehuda. Scripture tells us there was no food and then Yehuda repeated basically what his brother spoke before him. Suddenly, he emerges from the shadows to the forefront. Apparently, his appeal was irresistible and was accepted. He could have said it before the food was consumed but waited till the point of starvation. When they come to Joseph’s house Yehuda again disappears in the background. When they were caught with the silver chalice in Benjamin’s possession, again, Yehuda is not mentioned. The turning point is where Yehuda is singled out in a solemn manner. Yehuda took over the leadership. The fact that Joseph couldn’t contain himself any longer is due to Yehuda’s appeal. Yehuda takes over when the situation becomes grave. Thus, it was grave when the food became low. Before the goblet was found they thought it was a joke on the part of Joseph. When the goblet was found however, disaster threatened. Yehuda takes over in the time of crisis. Technically, Reuven’s power still had not been removed till Jacob’s blessings in Sedra “Vaychi”. Yehuda takes over in the time of despair.

“Chazal” (Sages) says, “Reuven bchor shota” – Reuven is a fool for he speaks of “Jacob killing his children if he fails to return Benjamin – Aren’t his children Jacob’s also? Yehuda however, wins over with his oration. When Yehuda takes over, the mission will be implemented. The reason is: Yehuda will be Melech. From him will arise the kingship. I want to quote Rambam about the mission of a king. If a “novi” – prophet appoints a king, even if not from the house of David, and he follows the right path, he will be accepted. His ability must be to fight a war. He should think of one objective – to raise the standard – to establish justice, to break the arms of the wicked and to engage in a holy war because the whole purpose of appointing a king is to implement justice, to march ahead of the armies and to emerge victorious over our enemies.

The job of the king is two-fold: to enforce justice and fight the war. The word war, however, has to be interpreted. The word milchama (war) by Rambam is in a much wider sense than the literal meaning. I would say, “milchama” means time of crisis — military, economic, or spiritual. When there is a war it is a critical time. When times are normal there is no need for such unity. In times of war, we need unified, collected leadership. He is responsible for the well-being of the people and their continued existence. Secondly, the king is responsible for the principles of justice. The courts were composed of three, twenty-three, or seventy-one justices — and found in all the cities. But the king is necessary when justice is being trampled in time of crisis and is in danger of disappearing. When the principles of justice are being desecrated, where the people make mockery, the Bes Din (court) is not sufficient. For example, the Hashmonayim lived in critical times. They fought against the “mishyavnim” — the revisionists in combat and the power was seized by Yehuda Hamaccabee. He had the courage and ability of a king.

These are the two objectives which a Melech should pursue: general crises and justice. When the brothers first come to Joseph and he accused them of espionage, they thought he was irritated but not critical. After all, he acted like a gentleman, was handsome and in general conducted himself exemplary. When they finished the food, Yehuda smelled danger. His conscience was affected. “I must come forward at once, it is a crisis!” Later, he withdraws because again there is no crisis. He becomes humble, modest, withdrawn. When he comes before Joseph, they exchange gifts etc. Again he withdraws and his name is not mentioned. When the goblet is discovered and they tear their clothes in despair, now he must emerge. It is a critical time. They all come to Joseph’s house and Joseph understands very well that he’ll have to deal with them, but he thought it would be collective bargaining. However, “Vayigash Yehuda” — Yehuda stepped forth. Joseph had an intuitive feeling that he’ll have to fight with Yehuda and this he’d want to avert. Of course, they were aroused by the initial charge of espionage for it is wrong to be suspicious. But this was a conspiracy. “This Egyptian is out to destroy the house of Jacob.” After all, many nationalities came to Egypt and Joseph didn’t receive them personally. Here he singles out the house of Jacob. He is a fiend interested in destroying the house of Jacob and he will go on provoking and provoking. The possibility that the house of Jacob will be destroyed aroused the “Lion of Judah”.

It is time for the King Yehuda to come forth. Medrash says that the “Shvotim” (tribes) were not involved at all. It is a confrontation of 2 kings. The Torah characterizes Yehuda as a “lion”. Often, the lion sleeps and is unaware of what is happening outside. This “lion” slept when Joseph was sold. In time, when courageous action was desired the “lion” aroused to defend the principles of justice and to defend Jacob’s house. Yehuda appears courageous twice: — once in the affair with Tamar when she returned his goods for identification (when he accused her of harlotry and sentenced her to death. He could have remained silent but chose to forego his honor and publicly admitted his guilt). Secondly, was his defense of Benyamin. Yehuda was successful on both occasions. Why was he tested twice? Because there are two problems! Does he have power as an individual? Does he have power as a leader? Some people can only do one. Some have leadership but as an individual (over their own conscience) they have no power. Here he was tested on both levels. It was not easy to lower himself for an unknown girl. The second time he called the Viceroy of Egypt a liar.

Insight 2

There is another problem which is bothersome. When Yehuda came over to Joseph and wanted to engage in an argument what was the substance of his argument? He told him a story which Joseph knew very well. Basically, it seems strange to think that Joseph would change his position and let Benjamin go free. He merely told Joseph all which he already previously knew. He didn’t argue; he merely related a story. Therefore, what is the idea?

I believe that Yehuda told Joseph something new — something he didn’t know! It is like a lawyer telling a judge that which he already knows. Yet, he must have told him something which caused Joseph to break down and reveal his identity. Why did Joseph torture his brothers — charge them with espionage? I believe that Joseph pursued a double objective. First, Joseph wanted to make up his mind, “should I be loving and forgiving or should I be vindictive? Shall I be a brother or an Egyptian tyrant? The answer is: “It depends on them! Are they the wild Bedouins who sold me or have they grown up? Has the morality of Abraham taken hold of them? Are they or aren’t they ‘B’alay T’shuvah’ (repentant)? Have they changed in the course of time?”

Judah’s appearance changed his mind. He remembered Judah on that awesome day when he sold him. How Jacob would suffer to such a message. He had no compassion for his father’s feelings. Now we are told by medrash that Judah grasped the columns of the palace and shook them. He was ready to give his life. The one who repents is willing to give his life. I believe that Judah felt, Joseph will give in if he repeats the story. Here Judah shows his feeling for his father.

Deep down in his heart, Joseph wanted something which no one could give him. Joseph dreamt twice! Once he dreamt of the surrounding sheaves and the prostration of the sheaves. This was fulfilled! When the brother’s came and bowed there was no doubt about the reality in such a fantastic manner. His ego was satisfied. His brothers are beggars and prostrate themselves. Was the second dream a reality or is it a vision waiting to be recognized. Joseph wanted not only that the sheaves should prostrate themselves but also the celestial bodies! He was mainly interested in the second dream. This is related to the spiritual leadership which the “shvotim” (tribes) will prove. He wanted “malchus” (kingship) not in Egypt but in the Eternal City — the “Messiah”. He wanted all to prostrate themselves and recognize that from him will the Messiah issue forth.

In order to have all this he had to have one condition. When Joseph beheld the second vision, this is the one which he revealed to Jacob. Jacob declared, “Do you expect me to bow to you?” Jacob is the sun! In order to recognize fulfillment of the second condition, Jacob must bow. Jacob had the key – the control. Jacob will never accept and Joseph can never lay claim to “malchus”. His problem was, “How can he make Jacob prostrate himself?” Thus, he contrived the following plan. He will contain or retain Benjamin — fully knowing that Jacob will not remain in Canaan if Benjamin doesn’t return. He will come to Egypt, bow just once to the “Egyptian Viceroy” as a matter or protocol and the “malchus” will come to him. Judah did not understand all this but he felt that the strange Egyptian leader had an interest in making Jacob leave Canaan and come to Egypt. “Jacob will come without knowing the identity.” Should he know, he surely will not bow and Joseph cannot take over “malchus”.

What did Judah tell Joseph? “You are making a mistake. Jacob will never come. You cannot achieve your objective. If you keep Benjamin, Jacob will die but not in Mitzraim. You have lost your game! You’ll never force Jacob to come! “This is when Joseph broke down and realized that “Hashgocha” (providence) has different plans. Now he no longer could control his emotions!

Insight 3

“Vayigash alov Yehuda” (And Yehuda drew near to him). It should have said, “Vayigash Yehuda el Yosef”. This would have been perfectly acceptable Hebrew grammar. What is the difference semantically? In order to understand “alov”, we must study the end of Sedra “miketz” to find out to whom. The brothers didn’t understand the Egyptian. They really didn’t believe he was an Egyptian. “What could we really have said about him had we been exposed to him? We he brutal, capricious? He never engaged anyone else in conversation — the thousands who came to buy. The others bought, they loaded – they departed. Here he asked them all sorts of personal questions. Also they couldn’t understand Shimon’s treatment. Having seen him arrested and bound before their very eyes when they first departed from home, yet when they returned and Shimon was released and was questioned, “How were you treated?,” he answered “Better than ever!” When they come to Joseph’s house, they were wined and dined and exchanged gifts. It was strange!

Even after the charge against Benjamin they were not brought to jail or to the executioner, but to his own house. It was customary even at the time of accusation to throw all into jail. Here the text reads, “Cholilah” (far be it from me to take you all as slaves). In that era, a Yehuda rebuttal against Pharaoh (as he did) would have led to the gallows. Therefore, “alov” is Joseph — the cryptical figure; on one hand an Egyptian — on the other hand, a different kind of person. Even the word, “Baso” (his house) had the opulence of a king but the reminiscence of the quality of their own home. Even when they were apprehended, they were not assaulted and he didn’t shout. He used the language of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. It is more of a complaint person, not the language of a despot. Joseph was still the cryptic, mysterious figure which no one could describe. He was the man of their family!

man and woman in the covenantal community: parshas chayei sarah

The following is an adaptation of a talk by the Rav in the 1970s on חיי שרה based on the original 1998 copyrighted version from Dr Israel Rivkin and Josh Rapps. 

There were 2 covenants between Hashem and בני ישראל. The first was the ברית אבות (Patriarchal Covenant) between אברהם, יצחק and יעקב and Hashem. The second was the Covenant at הר סיני.

The Rav explained that, on the surface, the ברית אבות is an enigmatic covenant, with only one commandment contained within it, circumcision. What did this covenant accomplish, what does it demand from the Jew and what is its relevance to us today?

The Torah mentions the ברית אבות  when it first mentions the Covenant at הר סיני  in Parshas Bechukosai, referring to it as Bris Rishonim. The dual covenant notion is expressed in Mussaf on Rosh Hashonah, as both are mentioned in the Beracha of Zichronos. Apparently the two covenants are complementary. The ברית אבות is the background and pre-requisite for the establishment of the Covenant at הר סיני . The Covenant at הר סיני  relates to human deed and performance. It teaches us how to act in all situations. The ברית אבות  addresses human personality and character as a whole, the essence of the I-awareness, teaching man who they should be. The Covenant at הר סיני  teaches man how to act and what to do as a member of the Covenantal Community. The ברית אבות  tells the Jew how to feel as a member of that Covenantal Community, and how to experience being a Jew. It is wonderful to be a Jew, unfortunately not everyone knows how to appreciate this experience.

The covenant was reached with two people: man and woman. From the time of creation, and their first rendezvous, Hashem addressed Himself to both man and woman. Both were created together. In plural, they were they called אדם and endowed with the greatest of gifts, the humanity of צלם אלוקים. Human reality connotes a duality. At creation the human condition transcended physiological gender differentiation and extended into the metaphysical level. The very statement of creation, where man and woman were created together and in the image of Hashem, contradicts the perverse notion that Judaism ascribes an inferior status to women. At the same time, it also absolutely contradict the false notion that there is no metaphysical distinction between man and woman.

Man and woman differ existentially, but they do not differ in terms of values (axiological existence), as both share the image of God, their humanity. Hashem created a dual existence, man and woman, as they complement each other. The two existential beings together represent one perfect destiny.

This complementary nature and single destiny is the basis of the Covenantal Community. We see this through the relationship of אברהם and שרה. Both were equal parties to the covenant with Hashem. Indeed, at times we might be tempted to think that שרה was the central figure (see רש’’י on the verse telling אברהם to listen to the voice of שרה, that אברהם was on a lower level, in terms of prophecy, than שרה was).

The defining essence of the Covenantal Community, as requiring both שרה and אברהם, man and woman, is also seen at the end of לך לך. Avraham asks Hashem to pass the covenant on to ישמאל, resigning himself a childless existence with שרה. Hashem answers that שרה, his wife, will bear him a child to be called יצחק, and this child, the product of both שרה and אברהם, will be the recipient and next progenitor of the covenant. ישמאל cannot be the recipient of the covenant, because he represented only one side of the Covenantal Community, אברהם, but not שרה. Hagar was inadmissible as the second half of the covenantal union with אברהם.

When Hashem appears to אברהם and changes his name to indicate that he is now the father of all the nations of the world. Hashem informs him that the change is effective from the time of notification. Later, when Hashem informs אברהם that שרה’s name has been changed, it is mentioned in terms of having previously been changed. Why? The covenantal community requires the dual involvement of man and woman. Since the Covenantal Community required both אברהם and שרה, it was impossible to change the name of one without automatically affecting the name of the other. שרה’s name was changed automatically at the same time אברהם’s name was changed. Hashem later simply informs אברהם that her name has already been changed as well. Only together, could they achieve covenantal sanctity.

After שרה dies, אברהם realises that with the death of the mother of the Covenantal Community, his mission as father of the Covenantal Community is drawing to a close. All that is left is to act out the last part and walk the historical stage, making way for others to pick up the mantle. אברהם survived שרה by 38 years. Yet, after the death of שרה the Torah tells us just two stories involving אברהם (in relation to his role as father of the Covenantal Community). The first is the purchase of the burial plot for שרה, the מערת המכפלה, the second is the story of finding a wife for יצחק. The latter story is more important in the context of the Covenantal Community given the progenitorial relationship of רבקה and יצחק. The Torah relates that יצחק brought רבקה into the tent of his mother. She filled the gap left by the death of the mother in respect of one half of the Covenantal Community.

The Torah says that אברהם came to eulogise שרה and (then) to cry for her. Human nature suggests that one cries and then eulogises. Crying is not mourning. It is the spontaneous release of tension to a (usually destructive) surprise. On the other hand, a eulogy is a rational, intellectual performance requiring clarity of mind to evaluate and appraise the loss, and discover how reality has consequently been changed. אברהם suffered a double loss with the death of שרה. The first was the loss of his wife and partner as they met the challenges of life. No one understands the bleak loneliness and destructive nostalgia felt by a surviving mate. אברהם felt that his whole world had been dislocated. The second sense of loss was the uncertainty of the fate of the Covenantal Community. אברהם understood that the covenant was entrusted to both a man and a woman. Now that the mother of the Covenantal Community had died, would Hashem trust him to continue? Perhaps he had sinned and was no longer worthy to be the father of the Covenantal Community.

The first thing that אברהם did was to appraise שרה’s contributions to the growth of the Covenantal Community, and to put in place a future plan. After all, אברהם was not alone in this loss. As the Rambam writes, that they had brought tens of thousands of followers into the covenant. These people also felt the loss of the mother of their community. First אברהם oriented himself to the loss of שרה in terms of the community. Afterwards he broke down and cried over the loss of his soul mate.

What was שרה’s assigned role within the Covenantal Community? What kind of person was she? The first (enigmatic) verse (and רש’’י) in the Parsha answers these questions.  The repetition of the word שנה after each digit in the number 127 is strange, as well as the clause שני חיי at the end of the verse.  רש’’י quotes the מדרש that the reason for the repetition is to emphasise that when she was 100 she was as free of sin as a woman of 20, and as a woman of 20 she was as beautiful as a girl of 7‡.

What kind of life did she lead? What was the essence and substance of her personality? The Torah answers these questions by stressing that indeed שרה was a unique individual. She was a 7-year-old innocent child, with the beauty of a 20-year-old girl at the age of 100. רש’’י stresses that even though she was ripe in years (100), she was still a young vivacious girl. The whole biography of שרה can be summed up in these three closing words of the first verse שני חיי שרה.

The Rav mentioned that he would associate the opening רש’’י in Chayei שרה with (להבדיל) the story of Peter Pan. Peter Pan refused to grow up and take his place in life. However, שרה did not suffer from a stymied, under–developed personality. She was a bold, daring and responsible person who, miraculously, did not allow the maturity of the adult in her to squash her inherent enthusiasm of an innocent child. She grew older and wiser with the passage of time, yet in times of need or crisis the young girl in her came to the fore. רש’’י is telling us that the three time periods of a member of the Covenantal Community, childhood, young adulthood and mature older person can coexist simultaneously; they are not mutually exclusive. The paradoxical confluence of all three in an individual is a sign of greatness necessary for leadership in the Covenantal Community.

There are 4 basic מצוות in the life of the Jew. Study of Torah, Faith in Hashem, Prayer and the Love of Hashem. One studies Torah with his intellect. Not everyone is endowed with the capabilities necessary to study Torah at a meaningful level. Intellectual endeavours are esoteric in nature. The more capable one is, the more time they have for study and the pursuit of knowledge and the more knowledge they accumulate. A wise person is called a זקן because intellectual wealth is usually associated with someone who has devoted much time to study, and this is typical in an older person. Maturity is required for the study of Torah. The immature mind cannot adequately grasp the concepts of study.

Torah scholarship, indeed scholarship in any field, requires intellectual curiosity and skepticism. The effective student questions everything the teacher offers, attempting to refute the lesson in order to achieve a clearer understanding of the topic. The Gemara (Baba Metziah 84a) relates the story that after the passing of Resh Lakish, the Rabbis sent Rabbi Elazar Ben Pedas to take his place as the study partner of Rav Yochanan. After a while he was sent back. Rav Yochanan explained that Resh Lakish would argue with him and force him to support his positions and opinions. Rabbi Elazar Ben Pedas would agree with Rav Yochanan and would not challenge him intellectually. Rav Yochanan had no use for a passive study partner. Some people become vindictive with old age. However old age that is accompanied with a discriminating skepticism is a very important quality for the study of Torah.

When it comes to prayer, skepticism is an undesirable quality §. The adult, with the skeptical mind does not know how to surrender himself in prayer. He does not know how to generate the mood of despair, helplessness, worthlessness necessary for prayer. If a man does not feel himself completely dependant on Hashem for his needs, he may not pray. The closer one comes to Hashem the more he realizes how insignificant he truly is. The Rambam speaks of man’s movement towards Hashem and with the sudden realization of how worthless he is, that he is someone here today and gone tomorrow, he recoils from Hashem. The Rambam refers to this experience as Yiras Hashem. This experience is the spring well of prayer.

The sophisticated intellectual cannot pray. Only a child, the naïve person who is capable of complete faith and trust in Hashem can pray. An infant has unlimited trust in his mother. King David expresses this concept when he says that he puts his faith in Hashem like the weaned child’s faith in his mother. A child instinctively feels protected in the arms of his mother, sensing that the mother would never allow any harm to come to him and would do anything to make his life more enjoyable. A child has absolute faith in his mother because she has never lied to or disappointed him. This same absolute, child-like faith in Hashem is required for prayer. In theological terms, faith cannot be applied to man. Faith is absolute, complete reliance without reservation that he will never be betrayed or disappointed. To have faith in man would contradict the statement of King David, Kol Haadam Kozev, all men lie. One can have confidence in man, but it is blasphemous to have faith in man.

Faith requires of the faithful the willingness from time to time to suspend his judgement, to surrender body and mind to Hashem. Faith sometimes requires irrational actions without providing an explanation for the action. The ability to surrender judgement requires the child within to help the intellectual adult surrender himself to God and pray.

The ability to suspend judgement was required of אברהם at the Akeida. Hashem had decreed that it was prohibited to murder another human being, including the abomination of human sacrifice. One who commits such an act is punishable with death. אברהם had spent much of his adult life engaging the priests who practiced human sacrifice in debate, attempting to convince them to stop this horrible practice, a practice that contradicts the very essence of humanity. אברהם built altars, but he never sacrificed anything on them, with the exception of the ram on Mount Moriah after the Akeida. Suddenly, Hashem commands אברהם to offer a human sacrifice. In this context, it was not important who he was to sacrifice, but rather that he was to offer a human sacrifice at all. אברהם could have protested to Hashem, how could he do the very thing that he had devoted so much of his energy and time to discredit and prevent! How could he suspend his humanity and offer a human sacrifice? אברהם never protested to Hashem. He suspended his judgement and humanity in order to fulfill the will of Hashem. אברהם acted as a child, showing complete faith in Hashem.

Hashem does not ask us to make the same leap of faith that He required of אברהם. All we are asked to do is to accept the Torah and the מצוות without trying to rationalize each Mitzvah. We have no right to rationalize the מצוות, our obligation is to accept and follow, and like אברהם show our complete faith in Hashem. It takes a great deal of Chutzpa to rationalize the מצוות, to make them fit in our view and mood of the minute.

The Rambam writes that אברהם deduced that Hashem was the guiding force behind creation. The Rambam describes אברהם as an intellectual giant who overcame the foolishness of the idolaters that surrounded him to recognize Hashem. Yet this intellectual giant was capable of suspending his judgement when he had to faithfully serve Hashem. אברהם was also the first person to pray to Hashem, because he was the first who was capable of suspending his intellect to express his complete reliance and child-like faith in Hashem. He was able to view himself as dust and ashes when praying to Hashem. He acted the same way when called to perform the Akeida. The Torah teaches us that man must be ready to act as both an adult and child, and to switch between them at a moments notice.

Both אברהם and שרה, the founders of the Covenantal Community, exhibited maturity and child-like behavior when called upon to do so. The Torah expects a member of the Covenantal Community to fight as a young man for his ideals, like אברהם did when called upon to save his nephew. אברהם was at least 75 years old at that time, probably older, yet he acted as a young warrior when it was time to fight and went into battle without hesitation. When אברהם studied the skies of Mesopotamia in search of Hashem he acted as a wise old man. When he prayed, he did so with the complete faith of a young child. And when called upon to fight, he did so as a young and vigorous man.

What is the covenant personality as defined by the patriarchs and matriarchs? One trait is the existential dialectic with which he/she is burdened, having an awareness of greatness as well as helplessness, of courage and self-doubt. The 3 fold personality that is so indicative of the Covenantal Community, that of child, youth and old person, is expressed in the opening verse of the Parsha, Shnay Chayei שרה, the biography of שרה. These three traits combined to form the essence of the covenant personality as exhibited by the patriarchs and matriarchs.

In addition to the covenant personality, the ברית אבות  has also created a concept of covenant historical destiny that is distinct from historical experience. The covenant bestowed upon בני ישראל a destiny distinct from other historical processes in 2 ways: 1) causal determination and 2) dialectic covenant destiny.

The main distinction between universal historical and covenant dynamics lies in their view of the causality of events. Universal historical dynamics is based on the premise that an event in the present is caused by an event in the past. Event A begets event B.  It is based on a mechanical notion of causality. The covenant event should be placed in a different causal context, that of teleology or purposiveness. The covenant dynamic is sustained by the covenant promise and the drive to attain a goal that temporarily lies outside the reach of the community.

Let us examine the relationship between the Jew and ארץ ישראל. The whole ארץ ישראל experience, including that of the state and the political pressures that it faces, cannot be explained in normal historical mechanistic terms. Rather it is a covenant event. The commitment of the Jew to the land is not based on events that happened in the past as much as on a promise of a miraculous future when the divine promise will be fulfilled. In covenant history, the future is responsible for the past. Covenantal events cannot be explained in terms of normal historical categorisation. One cannot explain in normal psychological terms the commitment of the Jew to ארץ ישראל. It is an irrational, yet unconditionally strong, commitment based on the covenantal promise.

The covenant has created a new concept of destiny. The word destiny conveys a notion of destination. The historical experience of the Jew is not based on the point of departure, but rather the destination towards which they are driving. The destination of the Jew is the ultimate eschatological redemption of the universe that will occur with the coming of Moshiach. The covenant is the force behind this destiny.

Historical destiny, however, can also be characterised by another trait: the contradiction inherent in our historical experience. There has never been a period in history where the Jew lived a completely covenantal existence. From the beginning, Jews have always lived among non-Jews. אברהם lived among the children of Ches; he dealt with them in economic matters. The modern Jew is certainly entangled and integrated into the general society. Consequently we share the universal historical experience. We have no right to tell society that societal ills like pollution, famine and disease are problems owned by the rest of society. These problems apply to the Covenantal Community as well. The Jew as a member of humanity, as someone endowed with צלם אלוקים, must contribute his part to the benefit of humanity, regardless of the terrible treatment accorded him throughout the ages. The patriarchs and matriarchs were buried together with Adam and Eve, the parents of all of society, in order to show that there is no gap between the Jew and the rest of society. There is no contradiction between laws based on human dignity of צלם אלוקים, and laws based on the sanctity of the Covenantal Community. The Covenantal Community adds additional responsibilities to the Jew beyond those already based on his humanity.

The non-Jewish world finds it difficult to understand this duality and therefore view us as an enigmatic people. For example, they view our commitment to ארץ ישראל as irrational because they do not comprehend the nature of the covenantal commitment that is the foundation upon which this attachment is based. The extra commitment that the Jew has that they do not share or understand creates existential tension between the Jew and non-Jew. אברהם described this tension when he instructed אליעזר and ישמאל to remain behind while he and יצחק travelled on to another point. The Jew and non-Jew have common cause up to the point of פה, “here”. However the Jew has an additional commitment beyond that of society. He cannot remain “here” as אברהם said. He must go further, to כה, to fulfil his additional covenantal commitment and destiny. This tension is worth enduring in order to be the maintainers of the destiny and legacy of אברהם.


‡ Parenthetically, the Rav noted 2 questions here. We know that a woman is punishable from the age of 12, so why was she compared to a woman of 20 in terms of purity from sin, which implies that a woman of 20 is not liable for her actions. Also, we know that the prime age of beauty for a woman is not 7, but closer to 20. The Rav noted that while he does not like to alter texts, he felt that this מדרש would read better if it was inverted to say that she was as beautiful at the age of 100 as a woman of 20 and as free from sin as a young girl of 7.

§ The Rav noted that the Jewish people discovered prayer, taught the world how to pray, and unfortunately many of us have forgotten how to pray. The Rav emphasised the importance of the Siddur in the life of the Jew. He related the story of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Baal Hatanya, who as a young boy in White Russia reached the age where he had to choose where to continue his studies. He was presented with 2 choices. The first, Vilna, was the centre and pinnacle of Talmudic study. The second was the town of Mezeritch, where the Maggid of Mezeritch concentrated on the study of prayer and the Siddur. The Baal Hatanya was an accomplished Talmudist already, but he felt that he knew nothing about the Siddur and how to pray, so he decided to go to Mezeritch.

Parshas Lech Lecha

Many Jews react in extremes because they don’t understand the mandated existential aloneness of the Jew. The reaction is usually at two extremes: some become left-leaning, tree-hugging, egalitarian-seeking, über humanitarians whose mantra is “Tikkun Olam”. They believe they can somehow meld into the world and become accepted by showing exemplary humanity and a tamer more palatable hold on their heritage. Others become rabid, angry, and even violent proponents of the “Malchus Shakai” concept. They are impatient. They believe in completely cutting themselves off from the seventy nations and either living on an island, or engaging in an often violent Milchamos Hashem, fighting for Shabbos or an expanded Israel.

None of this is new. It has manifested itself throughout history. The German approach of being a Jew “in the four corners of one’s house”, whilst an “elegant man of the street” when outdoors was also an ill-fated attempt at becoming “accepted” and “acceptable” in the eyes of the seventy nations.

The reality is that עם לבדד ישכון: we are a nation destined to loneliness. We can never look at this loneliness as a problem that we can or must “solve”. That approach is flawed and has proven to be flawed throughout history because it contradicts the very nature of Hashem’s covenant with Bnai Yisrael.

We certainly have a responsibility to be Mentchen, Torah Observant, good citizens, and Holy. These are immutable responsibilities. When they are, however, hijacked by motives to solve the “loneliness” problem, radicalism is born. Over time, only the shades of “reactionism” change through the prism of society’s expectations.

In understanding the nature of our covenant and our loneliness, I adapt a copyrighted (by Dr. Israel Rivkin and Josh Rapps) version of part of a talk from the Rav on Parshas Lech Lecha delivered in 1973.

The Rav noted that Parshas Lech Lecha and the story of Avraham is as current today as it was many years ago. The struggle between Jews and the Egyptian continued throughout the ages.

In Parshas Lech Lecha, Avraham is commanded to differentiate himself from the nations of the world. Avraham is the progenitor of the process of the separate nation. Avraham, the first Jew, encounters Egyptians soon after he enters Eretz Yisrael. Ironically, Avraham is blamed for the tension because he had claimed that Sara was his sister and did not declare that she was his wife. Had she been his sister, would that have given the Egyptians the right to take her? [Apologists would blame Avraham, of course]

Egypt constantly surfaces throughout Tanach as the antagonist of the Jewish Nation. Avraham was not the only ancestor to have dealings with the Egyptians. Yosef was enslaved in Egypt, after which the Jewish Nation was enslaved there. During the time of the first and second Temples there was constant friction with Egypt. Why?

The prophet Zechariah says that all the nations will gather against Jerusalem and Hashem will come to battle them on behalf of His nation. In the Messianic period Egypt will be singled out for special punishment in that it will not celebrate the festival of Succos.

Parshas Lech Lecha lays down the everlasting principle that the Jew must be separate and alone from other nations of the world. Bilaam [and latter-day Bilaams] recognised this and said that the Jewish Nation dwells alone and does not count itself among the other nations of the world. This separation began with Avraham, culminating with the Mitzvah of Bris Milah. [In our time, the holocaust denier, Mahmoud Abbas, is allegedly “comfortable” with a State, but specifically will not accept a State for Jews. This is the behaviour of a latter-day deceitful Bilaam]

The Torah (Breishis 17:1) says that Hashem commands Avraham to “walk before Him and to be complete” so that Hashem will grant The covenant between Avraham and his descendants. Rashi comments that Hashem tells Avraham that He is all-powerful and all-capable to administer each and every creature. Accordingly, “you shall walk before Me and I will be a God and protector for you”. Based on this interpretation, what is the connection between this statement of Hashem and the Bris Milah itself?

The Midrash says that after he was commanded to perform the Bris Milah, Avraham was concerned that this separate act of Milah would cause a fundamental change in his relationship with the rest of the world. Until that point, all people sought out Avraham, and he was able to influence them. [Tikkun Olam was easy. There were no obstacles]. Even though they knew that Avraham ascribed to a different philosophy, there was enough in common with the nations of the world to the extent that they sought Avraham out.

Avraham protested. With the inception of the Bris Milah, they would no longer associate with him and he would be alone. The Torah describes that Avraham sat at the door of his tent, at the height of the heat of the day, searching for guests, yet none passed by. The people did indeed boycott him. Hashem reassured Avraham that he should not worry about his loneliness, Hashem will always be with and protect him.

Milah and Shabbos (and Yom Tov) are both classified as Osos (signs) from Hashem to Bnai Yisrael. The Rav pointed out that although they share the concept of sign, they symbolise different aspects of the relationship between Hashem and Bnai Yisrael. Shabbos symbolises the unique Kedushas Yisrael; the sanctity of the Jew. The Jew has to follow a path of Kedusha and be separate from the other nations of the world.

The essence of Mila, however, is that the Jew is inherently different from the other nations. He has a different, unique destiny. The non-Jew can understand that there is a concept of sanctity. He might grasp that there is a concept of performing Mitzvos. However he has a hard time grasping this unique separation between the destiny of the Jew and the destiny of the rest of the world. He finds it especially difficult to grasp the connection between the Jew and Eretz Yisrael; the embodiment of this destiny.

Avraham understood that with the Mitzvah of Mila, the Jew will now embark on a separate, unique life style and destiny from the rest of the world. After Mila there will no longer be seventy-one nations. Rather there will be seventy nations on one side and one nation on the other. The Jew will always be excluded from the “United Nations”, throughout the ages. Avraham was afraid to be alone and separate from the rest of the nations. [Others still seek the approval and acceptance of the United Nations as the panacea]

Hashem promised Avraham that should he perform the Mila He will protect him and always be with him. Hashem promised that Ani Kel Shakay, He will be the God and protector of Avraham. Hashem’s alliance with Avraham will be far superior to the alliance between Avraham and the other nations of the world. And it is through the merit of the Mila that Avraham and his descendants were also granted Eretz Yisrael, for this is the destiny.

It is these two linked concepts, Mila and Eretz Yisrael,  that define the Jew while causing him to remain an enigma to the rest of the world.

Ki Tavo+Vayelech before Rosh Hashana

The following is an adaptation of small part of a Yohr Tzeit Shiur given by the Rav in 1966. It is strongly based on the transcription copyrighted in 2001 by Josh Rapps and Israel Rivkin. I have made minor stylistic changes.

Ezra enacted a rule that we should read the ברכות וקללות of ויקרא in פרשת בחוקותי prior to Shavuos and the ברכות וקללות in דברים) פרשת כי תבוא) before ראש השנה (Megila 31b). The Rav ז’ל asked:

  1. According to our order of reading the Torah, במדבר is always read the Shabbos prior to Shavuos and נצבים is always read the week prior to ראש השנה. Why do we deviate from the Takanas Ezra?
  2. The גמרא distinguishes between the ברכות וקללות in תורת כהנים)  ספר ויקרא) and ספר דברים —משנה תורה (for example, in the ברכות וקללות of תורת כהנים, one person reads the entire set, while the ברכות וקללות in משנה תורה may be subdivided among several people). Why is there a distinction between them?

The Rav explained based on a רש’’י דברים 14:2

 … כי עם קדוש אתה להשם אלוקיך

רש’’י explains כי עם קדוש as  קדושת עצמך מאבותיך, you possess inherited sanctity from your forefathers. However there is another type of sanctity that Moshe mentions:

בך בחר ה’ אלוקיך להיות לו לעם סגולה

describes an amazing principle, that a Jew has two forms of sanctity, קדושת ישראל through יחוס מאבות. There is a second individual קדושה granted to each Jew, קדושת עצמך, your individual holiness, based on our selection as בני ישראל by Hashem.

The Rav asked what is the status of a משומד (someone who has become an apostate)? Does he retain complete קדושת ישראל or not? On the one hand there are sources in the גמרא that he remains a complete Jew (for instance his Kiddushin is valid, see Yevamos 47b). On the other hand, there are other sources that exclude him from various religious tasks (Shechita, Kesivas Stam and others, see Gittin 45b).

Which קדושה does the משומד lose? The Rav said that the inherited קדושה of a descendant of the patriarchs is irrevocable. However, the Rav felt that a משומד forfeited the second קדושה that is based on their personal selection  as the chosen people of the Jewish nation.

A convert has both קדושות, as the הלכה says, he recites the  פרשת ביכורים and he says אלוקינו ואלוקי אבותינו based on Abraham being called the father of a multitude of nations, אב המון גויים. He has an inherited קדושה from Abraham and he acquires the קדושת ישראל when he converted.

If there are two קדושות inherent in Jews, and every generation has these two קדושות, they must be based on two separate כריתת ברית (enacted covenants). קדושה is based on the obligation to fulfil מצוות. The Rambam (הלכות מלכים 9:1) describes the observance of מצוות among the generations prior מתן תורה as the historical map of sanctity among the Jewish people. Each higher level of sanctity could be attained only through the acceptance of additional מצוות. Even though they underwent Milah and Tevila in Egypt prior to the Korban Pesach and the Exodus, בני ישראל needed an additional Tevila at Sinai. The Rambam says that since they attained new מצוות at Sinai, they had to undergo another conversion process. In short, Mizvos are built upon כריתת ברית, the enactment of a covenant with all the obligations therein.

Har Grizim and Har Avol

A Jew has two distinct sources of obligation. The first is based on the original ברית at הר סיני that derived from the patriarchs and was then expressed through Moses. This covenant obligates all successive generations, through our lineage connection—Yichus—to fulfil the מצוות. There is a second כריתת ברית that is based on individual קדושה and is entered into by each and every generation.

Where do we find these two covenants? The first covenant is in בחוקתי and the second is in כי תבוא. Why do we need both covenants*?

פרשת נצבים is the continuation of the ברית in כי תבוא (according To Rabbeinu Nissim Gaon). At מתן תורה, Moshe read the ספר הברית while the Jews stood at הר סיני. What did Moshe read to them? חז’’ל tell us that he read the Torah from Breishis through the story of the Exodus. The Sinaitic covenant was built on the Exodus that was in turn built on the covenant with the Patriarchs. In תורת כהנים, Hashem mentions that He will recall the original covenant with Jacob, Isaac and Abraham. In other words, the entire Sinaitic covenant is based on, and is the continuation of, the covenant of the forefathers and transfers from generation to generation.

Therefore Shavuos, the holiday of Matan Torah, is associated with the ברכות וקללות in בחוקתי that were given at הר סיני. Even though the ברכות וקללות are recorded in בחוקתי, they are referred to and are connected to פרשת משפטים, when Moshe sprinkled the people and read the ספר הברית to them. These ברכות וקללות were part of the ברית enacted with the Patriarchs. We read פרשת במדבר prior to Shavuos, because the entire concept of Yichus, Jewish lineage, is based on פרשת במדבר. The entire concept of counting the people derives from the sanctity of the Patriarchs and the lineage of the 12 tribes who trace that lineage back to Abraham. As it says in the Parsha,

למשפחותם ולבית אבתם, ויתילדו על משפחותיהם

חז’’ל say that each one brought his lineage documentation (Shtar Yuchsin) proving that he descended from the patriarchs and their children.

The different levels of sanctity attained by each of the twelve tribes was derived from their connection to the קדושת אבות of the previous generations. This is the Kedusha of כי עם קדוש אתה להשם אלוקיך. In Bris Atzeres read on Shavuos, we find the fulfillment of the statement כי עם קדוש אתה להשם אלוקיך, the sanctity of each Jew based on his lineage. The Midrash says on the verse זה קלי ואנויהו, that Moshe emphasised that the קדושה did not begin with him (Moshe), but rather it began long ago through our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as expressed in אלוקי אבי וארוממנהו. This is the essence of Shavuos, מתן תורה and ברכות וקללות of בחוקותי. Ezra established that they should read about this covenant, the covenant that mentions the patriarchs and the exodus from Egypt that led to קבלת התורה at Sinai, before Shavuos each year.

The Rav lecturing at Stern College

How do I know that this covenant extends to subsequent generations? I would not know it from פרשת בחוקתי alone. The Yichus, lineage described in פרשת במדבר teaches that the covenant also extends to me based on that Yichus.

The covenant based on ברכות וקללות in נצבים was not only given to the generation that stood before Moses prior to his death. Rather, this set of ברכות וקללות was, and is, given to each and every individual generation. We are not bound to this covenant through lineage, or through the patriarchs. It is our own responsibility. As רש’’י explains ובך בחר השם אלוקיך, Hashem has selected you and endowed each generation with a קדושה that is separate and distinct from the קדושה of the Avos.

רש’’י explains the verse ואת אשר איננו פה עומד עמנו היום (and those who are not with us this day) that the oath obligates the future generations of Klal Yisrael. Targum Yonasan Ben Uziel says explicitly that it binds all future generations. All succeeding generations stood before the Ark and Moshe and accepted the oath to observe the מצוות of Hashem. Therefore ראש השנה is a יום הזכרון for ברית, not only for the ברית אבות but also for the ברית that Hashem makes with each generation. ברכות וקללות in משנה תורה must be read prior to ראש השנה, however the story would be incomplete without also reading פרשת נצבים, since the connection to each generation, לא איתכם לבדכם אנוכי כורת הברית הזאת (not with you alone am I forging this covenant), is not found in כי תבוא, but rather in נצבים. Therefore, reading נצבים prior to ראש השנה is in total agreement with Takanas Ezra, as it is the continuation of the ברכות וקללות in משנה תורה.

The Sinaitic covenant that was built on the patriarchs was a covenant created with the entire עם ישראל. Everyone, each and every יחיד, is included and responsible, because each of us belongs to the עם, to the רבים. כי עם קדוש אתה, the basis of the sanctity, is the עם, the רבים. That’s why the ברכות וקללות in בחוקותי are written in לשון רבים, plural, as it was given to the entire nation. However the כריתת ברית in נצבים was given in the singular form, to each and every יחיד. It is not just a כריתת ברית with each successive generation, but rather it is a covenant with each and every individual within those generations.

Each of us stood before Moshe and the Ark and we accepted the oath administered by Moshe. Moshe is talking about each individual who might say in his heart שלום יהיה לי, I will go my own way. Moshe warns such an individual, that the retribution for this sin will be great. He is talking to each and every Jew, throughout all the generations.

* Really there were 3 covenants, with the third at Mount Grizim. But that was a different type of covenant based on Arayvus, acceptance of mutual responsibility for fellow Jews.

What does one say-a last vestige of the Chassidim of yore?

The Amshinover Rebbe is a controversial figure. Amshinov descended from the famed R’Yitzchak Vurka ז’ל who was linked to R’ Simcha Bunim of P’Shischa (whose disciples included the Kotzker, Chiddushei HaRim of Ger, Alexander and more) right back to the Magid of Mezritch.

Early complaints against Chassidim in general were about their reported lack of respect for certain aspects of Halacha and strange practices during davening. One of these, but by no means the only one, was their seeming disdain for davening within the mandated halachic time frame: the Zman. Some, such as Rabbi Dr Norman Lamm described this behaviour as “antinomianism”. It was as if there was a “higher imperative” that surpassed the halachic imperative. These complaints fuelled early litvak/misnagdic distaste for Chassidic Rebbes and the Chassidic lifestyle. Many Rebbes were comparatively unlearned. Unlike their misnagdic brethren, Rebbes were often not experts in many facets of Jewish learning, and concentrated on simple drashos, one liners, and seemingly fanciful stories.

These days, the number of Rebbes has by no means subsided. Elements of Chassidism, such as the reverence for an uber Rabbi, have invaded the misnagdic Weltanschauung. Most Rebbes are respected solely by their Chassidim, save for a chosen few whose learning and well-known middos and deeds are universally acknowledged.

Acknowledged by both the Chassidic and Misnagdic/Litvak world, there is an unobtrusive Rebbe in Bayit Vegan,

The Amshinover Rebbe שליט’’א

who is uniformly respected. Many an itinerant Yeshiva student who slept in, knew they could go to the Rebbe’s Beis HaMedrash because they would always catch the Minyan “on time”, even well after the Zman. The Rebbe’s davening and preparation for davening meant that time was an irrelevant imposition in his quest for nearness to Hashem.

Yes, my great-grandfather and name-sake was a simple Amshinover Chosid who lived in Boguszyce, and delivered chalav yisrael and cheese goods from his small farm by horse and buggy to nearby towns and villages.  Yes, I have tried on two occasions to see the Rebbe given that I am somewhat of a pseudo-Polish romantic (others would describe my malady as extreme second generation post holocaust syndrome). I have been unsuccessful (maybe there is a message there). I also felt somewhat “wrong” to seek Yechidus and waste the Rebbe’s time given that I didn’t have a particular problem or issue that I felt I needed to discuss. That’s probably due to the part Brisker in me on my grandmother’s side and the influence of the Rav on my outlook.

Recently, someone emailed me a comment post from a hebrew web site. I thought it might be useful to loosely translate the comment and post it below.

There are some Rebbes, Rabonim and Roshei Yeshivos from this and past generations, about whom many believed and believe that they are Tzadikim and holy. Sometimes this belief comes about because of the (biased) education imparted in the house, other times this belief is purely a political imperative. 

It is only very few, about whom one can sense with one’s own eyes, irrespective of earlier biases, their true righteousness, and pure Avodas Hashem.

The Amshinover Rebbe is the Rebbe about whom one does not need to believe that he is a Tzadik. This can be readily observed every minute and hour of the day, each day, over many years. 

Without minimising the importance of others, I do not think there is anyone in our generation who approaches the Amshinover Rebbe’s stature as a Tzadik, and who serves Hashem in his holy way and through pure Avodas Hashem.

I’m talking about a person who is ascetic in the extreme. He barely eats (he drinks a natural  juice concentrate), sleeps 5-6 hours in a week and lives a life of extreme simplicity. He doesn’t have the trappings of many “grand” Rebbes. He doesn’t have a fancy car at his disposal. He wears basic clothing. On the door of his apartment of three rooms, on the second floor, there is a sign which simply reads “Family Milekowski”. In this apartment of three rooms, twelve children were brought up. He literally runs away from any smell of honour, has no special honoured seat for Davening and at a Tish, he sits on a plain bench. He has no use for extravagant silver utensils or accoutrements.

His love for fellow Jews is unparalleled, spending many hours each day helping people from all around the world. He cares for each Jew irrespective of which group they may belong to. Whoever hasn’t experienced his love, cannot understand what I mean. Even when he talks to fifteen year old children he uses words of respect and speaks in the third person.

 He is the only Rebbe, in my opinion, who has never allowed a word to cross his lips without careful forethought. He doesn’t unload on anyone. This is someone who trembles  with a countenance revealing his genuine fear of Hashem. Each time he even makes the most “mundane” of brachos the trepidation in saying Hashem’s name is palpable . The Rebbe never sits during davening, even if that davening takes him 10 hours.

The Amshinover Rebbe is possessed with unique strength. There are innumerable stories and testimonies from people who will support what I have written above. To give you a feel, I’ll relate one. 

A few years ago, on Rosh Hashana, after two entire days without sleep and being involved with intensive davening that included a 7 hours personal Shmone Esreh, the Rebbe proceeded to wish a “Git Yohr” for four hours as people passed in front of him. After aTish, just before T’kias Shofar, the Rebbe informed his Gabbay that he needed to leave for some sleep. Before he entered his room, the Rebbe requested that the Gabbay wake him in nine minutes. After nine minutes, as the Gabbay entered, the Rebbe immediately jumped up and re-entered the Beis Medrash as if he has enjoyed a complete sleep. The Rebbe had minimised his bodily needs.

In respect of the Rebbe’s knowledge of Torah, he was never “caught out” on any topic: Bavli, Yerushalmi, Shulchan Aruch, Poskim, Kabbala, Chassidus or Sheylos U’Tshuvos (many tried to catch him out, but were unsuccessful). Even to this day, the Rebbe maintains Chevrusos studying all these topics.

I could go on and on about the Rebbe’s greatness, but it would be unnecessary if one takes the above into their hearts with seriousness. Nobody seriously questions the Rebbe because he is a giant of giants who serves Hashem constantly, and surely won’t err in Halacha.

I will finish with one story, which admittedly I heard second-hand. That being said, “well known things don’t require proof”. 

R’ Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ז’ל, loved and respected the Rebbe. Once, R’ ShlomoZalman was asked how it was possible that the Rebbe seemingly didn’t follow Halacha (on account of the Rebbe davening after the Zman). R’ Shlomo Zalman answered: 

“The Mishna in Pirkei Avos says that one Mitzvah causes another Mitzvah and an Aveirah causes another Aveirah. There are two ways of understanding this double meaning. When a man does a good deed, but isn’t sure whether what he did was indeed a good deed, look and see if the Yetzer Hora stirs the man or whether the Yetzer Hora is sidelined and leaves him alone. The obvious way to answer this is to look at the next action, after the Mitzvah. If the next action is good, then this is proof that the first action was also good. 

When the Amshinover Rebbe does something which isn’t easily understood, we don’t know if he is doing Mitzvos or Aveyros ח’ו. Have a look at what his next actions are. They are Mitzvos … “

It’s important to note that the Rebbe studied for several years in Yeshivas Brisk. He grew up in an authentic “Litvak” home (his father was the Gaon R’ Chaim Milekovski). In all aspects of his life the Rebbe is a Machmir and punctilious, even more than the Briskers and the Chazon Ishnikes. This extends to all aspects of Kashrus, Pesach Chumros, Succos, Daled Minim, giving honour and respect to another human being, avoiding Machlokes, not speaking Lashon Hara etc. Do you know another Rebbe who has not had a single Machlokes with anyone?

The Rebbe is always on the go, rushing around with his eyes perched downwards. Everything the Rebbe does is with great care and Zrizus.

One more last story will serve to elucidate how much we don’t really know about him or appreciate his greatness. 

A few years ago, on the Hillula of a previous Rebbe, his great-grandfather R’ Shimon Sholem ז’ל (Rabbi Shimon Sholem was a major driving force behind the exodus of thousands of young men in Mir, Kletzk, Radin, Novhardok, and other yeshivas via Japan to Shanghai at the outbreak of World War II and was also widely respected by the Rayatz of Chabad) on the 19th of Av,

R’ Shimon Sholem of Amshinov (and Otwock) 

the Rebbe went to R’ Shimon Sholem’s grave site in the old city of T’verya. On the way, he davens Shachris at the Kever of R’ Meir Ba’al HaNes. In that year, the Rebbe arrived very early at the Kever of R’ Meir Ba’al HaNes, and the Chassidim were sure that the Rebbe would manage to daven by the Zman. The Chassidim were astonished. The Rebbe paced around the Beis Medrash at the Kever of R’ Meir Ba’al HaNes deep in thought, occasionally glancing at the ticking clock. The Rebbe continued to pace back and forth, sweating profusely in the Tiberian heat. In the end, the Rebbe paced deep in thought for a full six hours, preparing himself for the eventual T’filla. What was the Rebbe thinking about? What was he waiting for? Everyone watched in astonishment. We will never know.

“The purpose of knowing, is that we will never know”

Yom Hashoa

I have just returned from Monash University where the Melbourne Jewish Community commemorated Yom Hashoa, remembering the 6 million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis, may their names be blotted. Many families were seen attending together with a parent or grandparent, who are holocaust survivors. What person would not join their parent or grandparent on such an occasion? Sadly, I witnessed some families attend, as they always did, only this time without the Holocaust survivor in tow. Alas, the survivor had gone to meet their maker.

When I was a boy, attending this event was almost a punishment. It used to be held at Dallas Brooks Hall and maybe even Festival Hall before that. It tarried for what seemed an eternity. One could barely hear a non-Yiddish phrase. The evening was full of long speeches by people who spoke only the Queen’s Yiddish—the Litvishe style Yiddish so consummately enunciated by Bundists. I used to pray for the choir of old men and heaving women to emerge, for I knew that when they plodded onto the stage, it was time to sing the famous Partisan Song, that haunting melody forever etched in my mind. The lyrics were composed by Hirsh Glick, and tonight in Melbourne, we heard from Glick’s friend, Phil Maisel, formerly incarcerated in the Vilna Ghetto, who personally related the scene when Glick wrote the poem, thereafter describing how Glick was murdered by Estonian prison guards after trying to escape with a group of 40 inmates.

The Rav said that every time a Jew stops and remembers the Holocaust he fulfills the positive Torah command of remembering Amalek, זכור את אשר עשה לך עמלק. Times have changed. We no longer endure the long and winding speeches mainly from members of the Bund. We have also lost the heart-rending and eloquent speech from Rav Chaim Gutnick ז’ל who captivated every heart on these occasions, often on the theme of the dry bones coming to life, the עצמות היבישות of the נביא יחזקאל. Instead, the devices of multi-media are intermeshed with chosen personal testimony, interesting narrative, and soulful choirs. The commemoration does not take long, is usually very powerful, and serves the purpose of transporting many of us, back in time, amongst the Nazi killing fields.

The traditional universal day of mourning to remember and mourn Jewish tragedy is Tisha B’Av. The Rav strongly felt that Tisha B’Av should also be the day when the Holocaust is remembered. When Menachem Begin, then Prime Minister of the State of Israel, visited the Rav, one of the topics they discussed was contemporary modes of Holocaust commemoration. The Begin and Soloveitchik families were very close in Brisk, with Menachem Begin’s father being R’ Chaim Brisker’s Gabay. The Rav reportedly convinced Begin to press the Knesset to adopt Tisha B’Av as the (correct) day to also commemorate the Holocaust. A young Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, was also present at the Rav’s house at that meeting, as he describes in his wonderful collection of essays entitled “Listening to God” (I highly recommend his book). Upon returning to Israel, Begin, however, faced oppostion to this concept on practical grounds, because Israeli school children would be on holidays on Tisha B’Av and Ministers felt that the commemoration would be largely uneventful with the secular public.

Ironically, whilst the Kinos on Tisha B’Av are literally crying out for a Kina related to the Holocaust, and I have been personally moved by the Kina authored by the Bobover Rebbe ז’ל, the Rav (like his Uncle R’ Velvel ז’ל but for a different reason) was opposed to us adding new Kinos since we don’t have the ability to write with the requisite authority and style. The Chassidic genre, like the Bobover Rebbe, had no trouble adding a Kina and neither did the German-derived Rabbi Schwab ז’ל of Breuer’s Shule.

An interesting question can be asked: during the time of the second beis hamikdash, did the Jews fast on Tisha B’Av? On the one hand, the first temple was destroyed, and the level of miracles was lower in the second beis hamikdash. On the other hand, is it not anachronistic to mourn the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash whilst the second Beis Hamikdash is standing and in use? It appears that both Rashi and the Ritva in Gemora Rosh Hashono 18B held that during the second beis hamikdash they did not fast on Tisha B’Av. On the other hand, the Rambam in his Pirush Hamishnayos to the first perek of Rosh Hashono, in the third Mishna, opines that the Jews did observe Tisha B’Av even during the time of the second Beis Hamikdash. The reason would seem to be, that although we regained the right to bring Korbanos (sacrifices) in the second Beish Hamikdash, after the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash, there has been and there is no end to the tragedies that befell and continued to befall our people. The Rambam held that until the Redemption, there is a direct link beginning from the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash extending until our times. Tisha B’Av essentially commemorates the beginning of, and the continuation of, Jewish suffering. The second beis hamikdash was a temporary hiatus; it did not signal an end to Jewish suffering and so the Jews, according to the Rambam continued to fast.

The Rav, perhaps following the Rambam, felt that no new mournful days should be added and that Tisha B’Av was more than just the destruction of the Temple. Tisha B’Av signified both the beginning and the continued suffering of the Jewish nations, reaching the contemporary unfathomable holocaust of our generation.

The Gemora in Avoda Zara 17A relates the famous story of R’ Elazar Ben Durdaya. R’ Elazar performed an intense level of repentance after an encounter with a famous harlot. This lady had indicated that R’ Elazar’s Teshuva would never be accepted in Heaven. R’ Elazar tried to summon all manner of help to effect T’shuva, after which he finally came to the realisation that the only way he could do T’shuva would be through his own efforts. With that cognisance, he sat down on top of a mountain and cried until his soul left him. A Heavenly voice proclaimed that Rav Elazar Ben Durdaya had entered Olam Habo –the World to Come. When Rebbi heard this story, he began crying and remarked,

“There are some who acquire their share of Olom Habo in just a moment.”

יש קונה עולמו בשעה אחת

Many ask why Rebbi cried. Surely he should have been happy that R’ Elazar Ben Durdaya had been accepted to Heaven with a “clean slate”. Reb Chaim Shmulevitz ז’ל explains that Rebbi cried in recognition of universal human frailty. Each one of us potentially experiences a gripping moment in our lives that is capable of transforming our thoughts and deeds. Rebbi cried because so few of us are able to recognise or “seize the moment”. Our generation lives with that moment. It’s in our blood.

In terms of the Mitzvah to remember and not forget Amalek, our generation was cursed through the cataclysmic and inhuman tragedy of the Holocaust. If this remembrance though means that some, especially in our generation, choose a different date to remember, or different devices to remember, so be it. I will live with their choice, and join them.

If only we could all seize the moment.

Chabad lack of perspective: Part 2

I have to acknowledge credit, where credit is due. chabad.org has a calendar which describes auspicious days. I was taken aback to see this entry

Passing of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveichik (1993)

On the 18th of Nissan, 5753 (April 9, 1993), Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveichik, a scion of the illustrious Volozhin-Brisk rabbinic dynasty, passed away at the age of 90.

Rabbi Soloveichik, known to many as “The Rav,” was the Rosh Yeshivah (dean) of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University in New York City. He was a great thinker who authored many volumes on Jewish thought and law, and a great Talmudic scholar and educator.

His regular classes were attended by hundreds, and many thousands still enjoy their recordings. He inspired many students to delve into the study of the Talmud and Jewish law.

Whatever the motive, I was pleasantly surprised and pleased to see someone whose name wasn’t Schneersohn make it into the Chabad calendar. I am happy to be wrong!

My only regret is that I didn’t have an evening of learning in my house on the Rav’s Yohr Tzeit. Next year, God willing, I will organise it and have some guest speakers.

Remembering a giant: the 18th Yohr Tzeit of Morenu HaRav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik ז’ל

I received  the following loose transcript of an oral shiur given by the Rav on the 31st March 1999. It isn’t clear when the Rav actually delivered this shiur.

Sippur, as in Sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim, comes from the word Saper, the same root that includes Sofer, which is Hebrew for scribe. A scribe is not the same as a simple writer. Throughout Tanach the word Sofer is used to indicate that the position of scribe was one of importance, for example Sofrei Hamelech in Megilas Esther. In Talmudic parlance, Sofer means a Talmid Chacham, a scholar. In contrast to Divray Torah we have the term Divrei Sofrim, which are the teachings of the scholars. There are many examples in the Talmud where the word Sofer refers to the scholar. Apparently the Hebrew language scribe or scholar is distinguished by his ability to write. A Talmid Chacham must be capable of writing. Historically, when a Jew showed the ability to write, he was accepted as a scholar. The statements of the transmitters of learning, the Maatikay Hashemuah, are referred to as Divray Sofrim.

The definition of Sippur goes beyond simple oral story telling, but it includes the ability to tell a story through writing it down. The word Sefer, book, derives from the same root, L’Saper, to tell a story. In Hebrew, writing and oral communication are both included in the framework of the root word Saper. The Gemara says that Megilas Esther refers to itself first as an Igeres, letter, and later as a Sefer, a book. There are significant differences between these 2 forms of writing. A letter is written for a short term purpose. It does not need to be written on parchment; it can be missing letters and may not be complete yet it still conveys the gist of the story. In contrast, a Sefer is intended to transmit the story to future generations. It requires parchment and if even one little letter is missing it is halachically voided. For example, the prophet commanded the people to write contracts on their land in a Sefer and place them in earthen vessels so that they may last a long time. Sefer documents an event for present and future generations. Another example: Hashem commanded Moshe to document the eternal conflict between God and Amalek in the Sefer and transmit it to Joshua. This message could only be transmitted through a Sefer.

Chazal note that a major Kabbalah principle is that Hashem created the world through acts of Kesiva, writing. For example, the notion of writing is found by the 10 commandments that were written Betzba Elokim, K’vayachol, by the finger of God. The Sefer Hayetzira maintains that the world was created through 3 Seforim (forms of the word Saper): B’sfor, B’sippur U’Bsefer, through counting, relating a story and through the book. We know from the Torah that Hashem wrote the Luchos, but how does the Sefer Yetzira know that the world was created through these 3 forms of the word Saper? According to the Kuzari, when the Torah repeatedly mentions Vayomer Elokim, it is referring to the act of Sippur by Hashem. The result of this Sippur was the Sefer, all of creation. It was the word of God that created the world and is embedded in nature and continues to drive it. At the same time, nature must obey the will of Hashem. If  the flowers bloom, the birds fly, man walks and the heavenly bodies remain in motion it is because this is the Ratzon Hashem, the will of God. The manifestation of the will of God was inscribed into every function of nature. According to the Baal Shem Tov, the word of God, the Vayomer Elokim, that created everything is as real and ongoing today as it was at the time of creation, Udvarcha Emes Vkayam Load, and Your words are true and everlasting.

Chazal valued very highly of the ability to write. Chazal say that Ksav Vmichtav were among the miraculous things that were created at twilight of the sixth day prior to the onset of the Shabbos. Chazal recognized the amazing gift in the ability of man to  to record events that happened thousands of years ago in such a way as to allow subsequent generations to identify with, understand and appreciate the thoughts and feelings that moved the author so many years before. The events of past generations are alive for us today. For example, when we read in the Torah the stories of the patriarchs and the 12 tribes, we feel as if we are part of the actual events that are unfolding before us. We cry with Joseph when he is sold into slavery by the brothers and we rejoice with him when he is elevated to the position of Viceroy of Egypt. We travel with Abraham as he leaves Charan for the unknown land of Canaan and our hearts skip a beat as Yaakov narrowly departs with the blessings before Esau enters his father’s room. Reading the written word allows us to span generations in an instant and to identify with our ancestors. Educators today must make the stories of the Torah come alive for their students and make them feel as if they are part of the story and not some impartial bystander.

In contrast, the Rav noted that today, unfortunately, parents and children can’t communicate across a gap of a single generation. Children of today can’t understand or relate to the experiences of their parents. To many Jews today, the Lech Lecha of their parents, their life experiences and their Judaism, means nothing to them. In order for us to inject meaning into the stories that we write during our lives, we must do more than simply put words on paper. We have to create a climate through which we appreciate all the events that shaped Jewish history, for example to feel the pain of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash or to understand other events in Jewish history. Today we have many aids to study, unprecedented numbers of  translations of the various texts are readily available to the masses to assist them in study. However in too many cases, we have words written on paper, but we lack the atmosphere of involvement and participation in the events we study. The greatest Sofer, scribe, is not one who can write on parchment or paper, but rather the one who can write on the hearts of living beings and influence their lives. The great scribe is the one that can transmit a living Torah that passes on the Torah world of Rabbi Akiva, the Rambam and the Vilna Gaon to the next generation. This is Torah Shbeal Peh, which is dependant on the ability of each generation to make these experiences come alive for the subsequent generation to ensure that the flame of Torah burns for eternity. The scholars were called Sofrim because they were the transmitters of the tradition between generations. Their greatest accomplishment was not the writing of Torah on paper, but rather etching Torah into the hearts and souls of their students to keep it alive for subsequent generations, creating living Seforim.

One need not write tomes during his life to earn the title of Sofer. For example, we have no recorded writings from the Baal Shem Tov. Yet his vast Torah was spread throughout the world by his living Seforim, the many students that he taught during his life. Moshe Rabbeinu was called Safra Rabba D’Yisrael, the great scribe of Israel. Did Moshe spend his time as a scribe of Sifrei Torah, Tefilin and Mezuzos (STAM)? We find that Moshe wrote a Sefer Torah towards the end of his life. Yet he earned the title as the great scribe in Israel because of the Torah he taught all Bnay Yisrael and how he inscribed it into the parchment of their hearts and souls so that they might act as the scribes that would teach the next generation. Just as the original word of God continues to drive nature, so to the Torah that Moshe gave Bnay Yisrael in the desert is as alive for us today as it was thousands of years ago. It is the ability to transmit from generation to generation, despite great difficulties, without diluting the message that makes Bnay Yisrael unique.

Sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim is more than telling a story. Vhigadta L’Bincha means that the father must write the book that will become his son. It is the obligation of the father to view his son as a Sefer to be carefully written and not as an Igeres. The obligation to be the scribe of this book extends well beyond the Seder night to encompass all of life. Bchal Dor V’dor Chayav Adam Liros Es Atzmo K’ilu Hu Yataza M’Mitzrayim, in every generation the Jew must view himself as if he has just left Egypt. Man must feel that he has participated in the entire, collective Jewish experience and he must inscribe this knowledge into the book that is his child. Sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim is the book of Jewish existence. The greatest accomplishment is when a father carefully transmits his experiences so that he may pass it on intact to his child before he passes on.

There were many great scholars who were not able to permanently inscribe themselves into the Sefer that was their children. They were only able to write an Igeres, a short term note, that their  children quickly erased when they left home. Yet there are simple parents who succeeded in making a permanent inscription into their children’s personality. They were able to write on the hearts of their children their Seder, their feelings on Tisha Bav, the beauty of their Shabbos, the solemnity of their Yom Kippur and their blessing of their children before Kol Nidrei in a way that made a lasting impression on the child, an impression that stayed with him throughout many years of separation and struggle. The Rav asked why should the scholar fail where the simple person succeeds?

Chazal say that there  are 10 synonyms for prophecy, one of which is the word Masa. There are 2 explanations why Masa refers to prophecy. The first is that the prophet would raise his voice when presenting the message of God to the people. The second is the Rambam in the Guide (Moreh Nvuchim) who explains that Masa is used to indicate that prophecy was a heavy load for the prophet to bear. The essence of prophecy is that it is a truth entrusted only to the specific prophet. He is the only one privileged to know this truth communicated to him by Hashem. The vision is a burden that does not let him rest. He has a need to spurt forth spontaneously and a desire to share it with others. For example, when someone is entrusted with a secret they have a difficult time maintaining the confidence. They find themself constantly struggling to refrain from blurting it out. The prophet seeks to unburden himself by telling the message of God to others.

When it comes to a prophecy or to Torah that a Jew knows, the only relief from his load comes through sharing it with others. The Rambam says that the prophet is required to tell his prophecy to others even when he knows that his intended audience is not interested in the message and may seek to harm him as a result of it, even if it costs him his life. Jeremiah was an example of a prophet who wanted to hold back his prophecy when the scoffers opposed him but he could not hold it back. When the Jew has a prophecy or Torah to transmit, he must view it as a Masa, a heavy burden, that in order to endure must be transmitted with great care and exactness as a Sefer to the next generation and not as an Igeres.

The ability of the Jewish parent to sacrifice themself for their child is so great that it approaches the point of self negation. How can such a person refrain from transmitting to his child the beauty of Shabbos, Yom Tov, Tanach or Torah Shebal Peh and the great Jewish personalities? Like the prophet of old, he can’t control himself, he must blurt out the message. If he does not transmit it to his child, the reason must be because he himself is lacking the feeling for these things. In order to be a successful scribe, you yourself must feel the burden of prophecy, the Masa Dvar Hashem.

In essence, this is the Mitzvah of Sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim, V’Higadta L’Bincha, and you shall instruct your children. A Jew must present his child with a Sefer and not an Igeres. Inscribing such a Sefer for the next generation is the way for every Jew to attain the level of prophecy in his lifetime. If you would ask what is the greatest characteristic of Knesses Yisrael, it is the  great wonder of Jewish History, the ability to engage in Sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim not just on Pesach night. It is the ability for one generation to turn the subsequent generation into its carefully written Sefer.

The Rav noted that the night of Pesach is a symbol for this inter-generational transmission process. We are all familiar with the story of the great rabbis that were assembled in Bnay Brak and were involved in Sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim all that night till dawn. The Rav asked which night was it? The Rav interpreted the night as extending beyond that immediate night of Pesach. The “Night” refers to the long and dark exile period that we have endured for 2 thousand years. It is the long night of pogroms and blood libels and crusades and inquisitions and holocaust that we have endured. Not only were Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Yehoshua at that table, but Gedolei Rishonim and Achronim who lived through the rain of Jewish blood and misery throughout the ages were there as well. Yet despite all these difficulties, Gedolei Yisrael recognized that they had a mission to be the scribes of the their generation, not in terms of writing books but as scribes that engrave a love of Torah in the heart of each Jew. Gedolei Yisrael carried the burden, the Masa Hashem, and transmitted their Torah as an inter-generational Sefer and not as a fleeting Igeres. They seized on the method Hashem uses, the Sippur Bsefer, writing on the book of creation, to ensure the continuity of faith in Hashem and the eternity of the Jewish people. The Torah remains alive to us today because of them. If not for their efforts, we would not be able to sit at our Seder table and discuss the exodus on the night of Pesach.  Jews are called the Am Hasefer, the people of the book, not because they are avid readers, but because each and every Jew is a living book that has been authored by the previous generations.

How long must we function as Sofrim, as scribes? When does the Jew complete his assignment of studying Torah? How long must we emulate the ways that Hashem created the world, through Sfor, Sippur and Sefer? Until we see that the next generation is ready to shoulder the load and assume its role in this never ending chain. Until the students knock on their teachers’ door and say “Our Teachers, the time to recite the morning Shema has arrived”, that they are now ready to assume the leadership role. The essence of Sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim is to create the living books, the Seforim, that will ensure the continuity of Torah and Judaism, is not limited to the night of Pesach. It is an eternal mission.

Copyright 1999, Josh Rapps and Israel Rivkin, Edison, NJ. Permission to reprint this Shiur, with this notice, is granted.