It started with a snippet from a sheltered letter

My journey has almost done a full circle. The topic concerned two of the greatest leaders of our generation: the Rav (Soloveitchik) and the Rebbe (Lubavitcher).

It was 2011. I conveyed some thoughts back then in this blog post. My impression was that the Rebbe was not at one with the Rav’s approach to Yahadus, as exemplified by an issue which was the subject of a revealing letter published in that post and reproduced again below.

Certainly the Rav wasn’t a Chossid; he had a strong connection with Chabad through the Rayatz, the Rebbe’s father in law and this also stemmed from his youth in a Chabad town. There are many anecdotes and written accounts of a certain closeness. I would tend to categorise it as mutual admiration and respect. I don’t think the Rebbe and his romantic nostalgic relationship with Chabad were the same notion. The Rebbe was  single-minded in his approach. The Rav, ironically given his heritage, had a more pluralistic acceptance of different segments of Orthodox Jewry, and was often a featured as the star orator. The Rebbe could be described as reclusive or too busy, at the same time he was warm and insightful. He was tethered to his headquarters in 770 to the extent that he eventually decided he would not leave 770 for various purposes, apart from the daily cup of tea with his dear wife, and rare occasions. There are those who surmise that each of these revolutionary Rabbis’ wives were their only true confidants. The Rav’s wife had a PhD and was an educator whose mission revolved around the excellence of the Maimonides School that was established to resuscitate the Boston she and the Rav met on their arrival. The Rebbetzin was ever reclusive and kept to herself in an understated way.

One day, I became privy to what I (and  others) considered to be some clearer views from the Rebbe about the Rav in the form of a snippet from a letter. This letter, as I understand it, was not known and rather sequestered. I surmise with some confidence based on the secrecy, that it was placed under an unofficial embargo. What made the snippet  so interesting to me? As noted in that blog post, it clearly implied that the Rebbe had his differences and criticisms with the Rav (from the vantage of the Rebbe’s Weltanschauung and approach).

The Rebbe was a Manhig, a global director with firm views, and was not limited to Crown Heights, Brooklyn or the USA. The Rav described himself a “Melamed.” Everyone knew this was a self-deprecating description of a most brilliant Torah Rosh Yeshivah steeped in the Brisker tradition of his illustrious family. The Rav described how he was struck  and impressed by the Lubavitcher Chassidim who lived in the town where his father, Reb Moshe, the elder son of Reb Chaim Brisker, was Rav for a few years. The Rav experienced  the Chassidim’s Emesdike, heart-felt, even romantic approach to Judaism, though many were not apparent scholars (the antithesis of the highly intellectual Brisk he had been exposed to). That’s not to say that Chabad didn’t include high calibre Talmidei Chachomim, rather, they also embraced simple people within those people’s abilities and made them all realise that they could achieve plenty. They managed to produce outcomes that were somewhat foreign to Beis HoRav, Volozhin and Brisker tradition. Whilst Rav Chaim, the Rav’s grandfather was far from a “snob” and embraced the impoverished with all his might and kindness, Chabad made them feel holy.

I speculated more about the relationship between the Rav and the Rebbe in another blog post of 2011. The letter below  appeared (and I might say curiously) later as a page in a pamphlet given out as a wedding memento (of all things).

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

The cat was out of the bag through that snippet. Would anyone notice it or comment, I thought.

The central questions given the letter  were,

  • how was a Lubavitcher now meant to relate to the Rav, and vice versa,and
  • how was someone from Yeshivas Yitzchak Elchonon meant to relate to the Rebbe, given what had been written.

I was unable to advance knowledge of the context of the letter and those who I asked from both sides, seemed unaware or were reluctant. I suspect in Lubavitch some were aware, but I doubt that this snippet was ever seen by the Rav or indeed his Talmidim.

An anonymous Chabad researcher of note, recently revealed the issue as being in the context of the Rebbe writing disapprovingly of the Rav’s alleged predilection to “change his mind on matters of Halacha“, for various reasons, although the “Rav himself is a complete Yiras Shomayim.”

The study of Chabad Chassidus was growing. It appeared in some Hesder Yeshivos over the last ten years, and before long there were  students who studied Tanya. This was not surprising given that the current generation of some youth seemingly less pre-occupied with minutiae and seeking a more mystical understanding of their faith. My Posek, Rav Schachter, a Talmid of the Rav, often quotes the Tanya, so it was certainly an important Sefer in Yeshivas Yitzchak Elchonon.

More recently, Yeshivas Yitzchak Elchonon (RIETS) had no issue with a Tanya Chabura, and past lectures can be heard online and were taught by YU Rabbonim. Certainly, Rabbi Reichman, one of the Roshei Yeshivah has been teaching a variety of Chassidus for many years, even though he describes himself as a Litvak. One of his sons has studied Tanya in Israel through both Lubavitch and non Lubavitch spectacles (if I’m not mistaken he studied it also with another Chassidic Rebbe, one on one)

A Symposium was held at YU on the Rav and the Rebbe. I blogged about that symposium. Again, I felt that to talk about this topic and not  mention this letter left a gaping hole. The academic in me felt it was verging on dishonest because I was sure the Chabad speakers knew about the letter. Its absence could be considered, purposefully misleading. Rabbi Yossi Jacobson disagreed with me on that point in private correspondence.

A new book was recently announced on the Rav and the Rebbe by Rabbi Chaim Dalfin. I reviewed the book. Rabbi Dalfin knew about the letter and had asked me a while back if I knew more about it. I did not. The letter existed, however, and he knew about it. The letter was not mentioned in Rabbi Chaim Dalfin’s book. In subsequent correspondence with me, Rabbi Dalfin claimed that without knowing the full letter and its context he didn’t think he should include it. I disagreed vehemently. Perhaps that’s due to my academic training. Whichever way one looks the Rebbe makes clear statements. I appreciate that a Chassid doesn’t want to double guess what their Rebbe meant.

Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin
Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin ז׳ל

The mystery is now revealed. The letter was addressed to the famous Rav Zevin, the master editor and compiler of the earlier volumes of the Encyclopaedia Talmudis. [ Later volumes, whilst very good, don’t quite reach his enormous ability and articulate summarisation]

It can be argued that there are other things in the letter, but that is immaterial, at least, to me. If it had to do with the same issue it would also have been published (unless it said worse things!). Either way, choosing not to include this snippet can be viewed as a form of sublime revisionism, parading behind a façade of ‘I need full research on the letter’.

The reality is that the comments addressed in the letter were known in Chabad, but kept quiet. I again surmise that it was kept quiet because nobody wanted such comments in the public sphere.

As I have written, a full understanding of the Rav, encompasses his enormous strength and integrity in being able to change his mind if he felt a situation was different, or he felt a compelling new reason. This makes him stronger in my eyes; not wishy-washy by nature, as seemingly implied in the letter. That being said, it would seem that was not even the case here, anyway.

Let’s call a “spade a spade”, and I don’t just mean Rabbi Dalfin. I include Rabbi Jacobson. Who are we kidding? When Lubavitch poached the head master of Maimonides in Boston there was  acrimony that lasted some ten years. The Rav would never have allowed this in reverse in this way. The Rav went to Chinuch Atzmoi as a Mizrachist, albeit a nuanced variety thereof.

As to the Rav being some type of closet Chabadnik. The Rav stated many times he was a Litvak, who liked lots about Lubavitch and had a romantic attraction to them stemming from his youth. He was also a big fan of the writings of the Alter Rebbe.

The agenda of Rabbi Dalfin’s book was to gloss over these things and convince the reader through some dubious logic that they were much closer than they were (even though the Rebbe wrote a letter saying they were closer than people knew). The Rav’s head was in Shas and Poskim, all his life. Only certain Rishonim mattered, and he didn’t read the others. Philosophy was a wrapper to make sense of Judaism through a modern prism and paradigm.

[Hat tip anonymous] The snippet was about the Zim Israeli Shipping Company controversy. Zim proposed to sail also on Shabbos. In response to the fact that sailors, engineers etc would have to be mechalel shabbos to do so, Zim claimed that the ship could travel on auto-pilot. The Lubavitcher Rebbe completed an Engineering degree in a Paris College (not the Sorbonne) and, as the Ramash, worked in the Naval Shipping Yards in the USA as an engineer when he arrived. The Rebbe clearly had technical scientific expertise and of course was also a Gaon in Torah. As such, he vociferously held, and mounted a wide campaign to stop Zim, enlisting the help of many other Rabbis of note, including Rav Hertzog the then Chief Rabbi. According to the Rebbe, it was impossible for the ship to travel in “auto pilot” without some chillul shabbos from staff.

[Hat tip DH and AR] The Rav was asked to offer his view. The Rav had a policy of not paskening about matters pertaining to Israel. He felt that this was the domain of the Chief Rabbinate and not that of a resident of Boston and Rosh Yeshivah in RIETS. He also held the policy that Rabbis must consult experts in questions of Halacha involving matters that were not known by them. This is reflected in his view that the question of returning territories was a matter of Pikuach Nefesh that had to be determined by Generals and not Rabbis or Politicians. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was a Rebbe and Manhig and proffered his Halachic opinion that no inch of land be ceded. The Lubavitcher Rebbe had a different approach.

Unless someone has more information: I have consulted world-wide authorities on the Rav, and  knowledgeable people about the Rebbe, I cannot understand how the Rebbe could come to his conclusion about the Rav. The Rebbe obviously expected the Rav to join him, as he knew this would be very powerful. The Rav was always his own man. He had views  on protests for Russian Jewry as did the Agudah, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe had different views. This, however, does not make him prone to change his opinion, as implied by the snippet.

I have already covered the microphone issue, and that is a long bow. I can’t find the blog post though 🙂

In conclusion, those who wish to argue that they were close, can do so, but my view is that they held fundamentally opposing approaches and views and to intimate a special bond through a symposium or through Rabbi Dalfin’s book doesn’t stand up to academic muster.

Accounts of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s campaign re Tzim and influencing the Chief Rabbinate can be seen here and here and here (in Ivrit).

Unfortunately, in correspondence from Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet, he advised me that the two people who would have known more details about the Rav’s involvement have both passed away. He referred me to a son who shed some light.

If anyone can elucidate with any more material on this I’d be interested. At this stage, I stand by the feelings expressed in blog posts dating back to 2011.

Our holiday. Part 2: 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn New York

Dear Readers,

Herein part 2.

As stated in part 1, our trip, although planned, was somewhat up in the air awaiting various confirmations. As it turned out, Baruch Hashem these came through and we arrived on a Wednesday in Crown Heights, New York, for the first leg. I had never been to crown heights, nor, as I have stated did I ever have a great interest in visiting there. And this, despite the fact that I went to a Chabad School, and daven in Chabad. I’d heard things about the place, but admittedly, I really only listened with one ear, but for me, spending time in Yerusholayim, Ir HaKodesh, was and remains the focus of my heart and mind. Our son, Yossi is currently learning in Israel, and both my wife and I felt that despite our yearning to visit Israel once more, it would be better not to disrupt Yossi’s progress with our ever presence for a few weeks. So, based on my wife’s previous year’s experience, and her suggestion I acceded without rancour to a visit to Crown Heights en route to Montreal, and then our holiday in Miami.

It was difficult to pack because one encountered  the cold winter cold of Crown Heights and colder winter of Montreal and then the physical warmth of Miami; a contradiction in weather patterns, it say the least. My wife expertly found us what is known as a ‘basement’ for our lodging. Observing the architecture, it became clear that basements are a regular fixture of narrower houses that invariably are built on an incline. I was reminded of parts of Sydney. Down the steps we went, and into a basement. It was nightfall already, and the flight via Hong Kong had been longer than expected because our Melbourne to Hong Kong leg departed late, and we missed the connecting flight. I did enjoy a few scotches in the Cathay lounge in stuporous compensation. Marc Schachter was also present, and he was a more experienced flier to these regions, providing sound advice. It was impossible to get food into the airport, and while there was the usual sprinkling of OU Nash, that wasn’t exactly what we were after. This also meant there was no Kosher food on the long missed subsequent leg to New York, as they require 48 hours notice. That God, my wife had a few Wurst Sandwiches which we devoured early on the flight. I did contact Chabad close by, but there wasn’t enough time to effect any changes.

Arriving in Crown Heights, New York, the basement was neat and clean and had amenities for those who maintain a fidelity to Halacha. We quickly grabbed a sandwich from a 24 hour place near vt. It was overpriced, but tasty nonetheless and we were hungry. I mentioned to my wife, that despite sleeping on the plane, I had no idea what time I would wake in the morning and hopefully it wouldn’t be too late for a minyan.

As it turned out, I managed to wake in the morning hours at a reasonable time, grabbed my tallis and  tefillin and noticed lots of chassidim in the street walking in a particular direction. I followed them and then found myself literally 2 minutes later standing in front of 770. We were obviously very close to 770. I recognised it, ironically, from the 770 facade in Caulfield!

I wasn’t sure what to do. I am not comfortable davening with meshichisten, and I wondered if I would end up in a Shule therein bedraped with signs, people taking dollars from nobody, drinking Kos Shel Brocho from nobody, or pretending to make a pathway for nobody to walk through. These are scenes I don’t want to be ever be connected with. I become aggravated weekly from the unnecessary single sign at the back of Yeshivah in Hotham Street Melbourne which effectively states that there cannot be a Moshiach other than the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. This is a nonsense by any stretch of normative Judaism. There is nobody who can or should state who the Moshiach must be. It isn’t part of our Mesora to do that. I am not going to get into the issue from a learned perspective, but an interested and serious reader would do well to read the work of HaRav HaGaon R’ Yechezkel Sofer in his important Kuntress Yisboraru Veyislabnu, for which he was ridiculed and called R’ Yechezkel Kofer (a disgusting pejorative).

That sign grates on many people, but remains up because the Chassidim who run the Shule in Melbourne, including the clergy, don’t actually follow the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s directives which included the point that if such a thing causes one person not to come in or feel comfortable, then they should be discarded as they are not the essence of Chabad. Those people have their own rules for what is term Hiskashrus and that concept seems to supersede even what their own Rebbe stated clearly and plainly. I will stop there on that topic.

All these thoughts were in my mind as I stood at the doorway, wondering whether I should go in. I knew I’d be able to find another Shule, but my sense of direction is so woeful, I feared walking further. In addition, I had just finished reading the three recent books about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and these had an effect on me. I decided to brave matters and enter.

Opening the door and there was a narrow corridor, and I noticed some people milling about. I recognised Rabbi Shem Tov; he has distinctive eye brows! He was rather self-effacing and pointed to a room and said a minyan would start there in 15 minutes. I searched for a place to put my coat, such that I might find it again and then the door opened and I walked in and readied myself for davening. I noticed that it was an office and that the bookshelves has been sealed. In front of me was a small desk, and it then became obvious that I was in the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s office, the room where many a famous yechidus/discussion took place. When a few men turned around and briefly eye-balled me, I realised that the Rebbes’s three secretaries were also in this minyan. My mind wandered to the many stories described in the three books (a draft review of which I have had for some time but have not managed to complete) It was a surreal experience finding myself in that very room. Some people strangely were davening just outside the room even though there was space therein. I was to learn later that this was their way of according respect, because they had no “permission” to enter. Not being a Chabad Chasid myself, I didn’t feel uncomfortable davening in the office and entered as I would in any circumstance.

I looked at the chair, and felt some sadness that there was nobody occupying it. At the same time I was made to feel very welcome. There were no shrieks of Yechi here, no emblazoned Yarmulkas, and no yellow lapel badges, all of which continue to annoy me as they are expressions of a false reality. Instead, call it by divine providence, my first encounter was with those who I consider “normal,  level-headed” Chassidim who were no less connected to their late Rebbe than the type who feel the need to advertise their views. We are lucky that tattoos are forbidden. If not, I would imagine Hiskashrus would be akin to tattooing the Rebbe on one’s back, forehead, and anywhere else.

Being a Thursday, there was layning. It was also Chanuka. The Gabbay, whose son-in-law is the Rabbi of Central Synagogue in Sydney, is a warm man, and when he called out “is there a Cohen”, I answered in the affirmative. I follow the Psak of Rav Soltoveitchik that these days, it is highly questionable whether one should make a Brocho of Gomel after flying as it happens to be safer than crossing a road (statistically). I am a stubborn type in the sense that I don’t like to deviate from what I have been taught to be clear halacha. Accordingly, I made the Brachos on an open sefer torah (and not closing it as per many including Chabad). The Baal Koreh didn’t interfere, and I respect him for that. I felt a bit cheeky doing so, but it is how I do it naturally. When I finished the second bracha, I decided that I would bench Gomel. When I think back why I did so, I think the primary reason was that it was a tad fortuitous and pre-ordained that I should immediately be in the Rebbe’s Yechidus Room, and I felt that Minhag Hamakom should prevail. I wasn’t consistent, because I used the Brocho of Gomel of Nusach Sfard instead of Chabad, but impressively, not a single person blinked an eye lid or issued any complaint. This seemed to be the type of inclusive environment I was used to as a youth, and although my actions were contradictory, I felt a feeling of “acceptance”. At the conclusion of davening, which was undoubtedly more meaningful for me because I was, where I was, and thereby able to commune more effectively with God, I was asked who I was etc.

I couldn’t really answer in any meaningful way except to say I was a Mechutan of Rabbi Yossy Goldman and Rabbi Shabsy Chaiton, both of whom everyone seemed to know. It probably sounded like I was trying to brandish Yichus, but that wasn’t my intention at all. Isaac Balbin, is a meaningless name, although I was to find out that a few people were readers of my blog and enjoyed it. That’s a bonus, but not the reason I write. Indeed, I am writing now, after visiting my father’s Tziyun at Springvale, and whilst I should be learning more Mishnayos, this post is what I am capable of doing at the minute  in my state of mind.

I continued returning to this Minyan later for Mincha etc. It seems it isn’t always available but being Chanuka, I was fortunate. I love the haunting Haneyros Halolu from Chabad, and enjoyed that immensely. Each time I noticed a few more rooms and then it dawned on me that one had to go downstairs to see the “main shule”. I forgot that everything is below ground here!

I didn’t want to go there. I had seen pictures. I had seen the Tzfatim outside, and that atmosphere as opposed to the one where I davened, provided no attraction to me. I didn’t go downstairs.

Shabbos was looming, and Ari Raskin’s aufruf was also to be upstairs, and that was lucky (for me at least). That day is a Parsha in of itself and will be Part 4 of the trip.

Our holiday. Part 3: 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn New York

Dear Readers,

I’ve scribbled out part 1 (and thanks to a reader for the english correction wherein I learned that I had understood a word incorrectly all my life!)

I’m jumping to Part 3 before Part 2. Why am I doing so? Perhaps you will understand when I have finished writing. I apologise as always for errors but I don’t proof-read much if at all.

My dear father’s 2nd Yohr Tzeit is on Friday. Leading up to that has been somewhat teary. A way to cope is to try to divest from  thoughts and memories and ever presence. It only helps partly. Every which way life turns, the touch and influence of his Neshoma and memory is raw and palpable. Call it second generation holocaust survivor syndrome. It’s my existential reality; I can’t escape it.

This morning I had five injections in my feet (for plantar fascia) after enduring pain for way too long. The specialist kept saying, “this is going to hurt, this will hurt a lot more etc as he dug the needle and spread it around while squirting in places where needles don’t normally wander”. I answered each time. It doesn’t hurt. Just do what you have to do. When the procedure was finished and my feet felt like they had fallen asleep from the block used in my heels, he was ready to move on quickly (too quickly to his next patient). I stopped him and explained that nothing any doctor could do would cause me to show pain. He asked why? I replied that my parents are holocaust survivors in a world of insulting and sick denial, and their pain was far worse than anything I could ever imagine. Accordingly, I stridently refuse and refused to show visible pain; what I experienced was a drop in the ocean.

He stood there somewhat speechless. He asked me if my parents had passed away. I said my father had “just” passed away. That’s not true of course. His second yohr tzeit is in a few days and ברוך השם he is weaving his magic 2005-10-09_14-47-22 with השם and cajoling him to shower our family and wider family with Simcha after Simcha. To me though, it is like yesterday, and hence my instinctive but unintentionally dry incorrect answer.

So what has this to do with Crown Heights and Part 3 of a holiday? Is Isaac Balbin off on yet another emotional outpouring? Maybe he needs to see a shrink. Maybe I do need to see a shrink but not because of this 🙂

We were only in Crown Heights for a few days. The truly wonderful Tzirel Goldman led us on a walking tour of important places, and then our Mechutonim graciously took Leonie and I out to a very nice restaurant. Unfortunately due to a gig, I couldn’t make the wedding of their son, which had just taken place.

I felt an “agenda” happening yet I wasn’t in usual control. I was moving from place to place. The area was buzzing from Chanuka to Hey Teves (& silly meshichisten) and it was on for young and old. Let’s not forget to mention the aufruf I was looking forward to attending (oh and the Kiddush in Getzel’s Shule, someone I had heard lots about)

Suddenly, our Mechutonim, the Goldmans said, let’s go and introduce you to Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky. I had momentarily forgotten he was their brother-in-law. I keep getting mixed up between Duchman and Kotlarsky for some reason, and Mendel Duchman (who I also met on this trip in Montreal) is also a Mechutan of the Chaitons.

Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky

I recognised his face, had seen him in Melbourne, and was aware that he supervised the shlichus operations for the Lubavitcher Rebbe זי’’ע. “Fine, I responded thinking perhaps I might just say a few niceties and perhaps share a tiny piece of Torah”. We came into his room and he is a big man in several ways. His office looked organised and tidy. Emails were constantly flowing in. He looked tired and weary as if the world was on his shoulders. We shook hands and I sat in front of his desk, with Rabbi Yossy Goldman, and the lady folk including Rabbi Kotlarsky’s wife (who is my mechuteniste’s sister), Leonie et al on the side.

After the usual platitudes. I mentioned to him things he (made out he didn’t know) about Rav Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg הי’’ד

The horrid Holtzberg Kvura

and we immediately had a rapport based on our collective experiences with these special korbanos tehoros. He asked me if I had been back to see what they had done to Nariman House. My response was “no” and I wasn’t sure I could anyway. On my last trip, I somehow managed to get into the bullet-riddled, blood-stained building and took a video, which I won’t show, as it is nauseating. I mentioned my chelek in the miracle that is Moshe Holtzberg and he nodded, seemingly knowingly. I had the impression that this figure knew a heap more than he was letting on. Nonetheless, I told him how Rav Gavriel’s parents majestically appeared in Melbourne for our daughter Talya’s wedding to Zalman Bassin. The others were moved, but he seemed to show less emotion. I had the feeling that he was “used to” these types of happenings and for him, they were but another confirmation of what he had experienced and what was driving him with a sense of unstoppable purpose.

Suddenly he turned to me and asked “Have you been to the Ohel?” 

I answered truthfully. A בית החיים gives me the heebee geebies and I avoid them. As a Cohen I am somewhat cocooned but that came to an abrupt end when my father passed away and a scene I had never been close to, invaded me with shock. I mentioned the opinion of the Gro and Beis HoRav (Soltoveitchik) and Mori Rav Schachter and explained I was a soul with a foot from Brisk and a foot from Amshinov. It’s a contradiction in terms, which might explain my often ebullient meshugassen and eccentricity (well maybe not, but it’s a good try :-). I explained that I find it very difficult to go to my father. I unashamedly attend the least of my entire family. He asked me for the reason, and I explained that I was ממש a nothing compared to him and feel emotionally distraught even from the distance, after which I would be disturbed for days. He asked why? “That’s a good Midda to have. One should feel useless when standing next to giants”. I countered that the giants are around even outside the בית החיים and that is a fundamental. Why did one need to effectively go to a “sack of bones” which was even Tomei to experience their special presence. I suggested that maybe people can achieve things in different ways.

He cajoled me undoubtedly through his demeanour and presence, to “not” leave Crown Heights without a visit.

I launched into the issue of Doresh Al HaMeisim (I can make grown Rabbis scream, but he was very calm) and that I had no Minhag to go to Mikvah, wear slippers and knock on doors. He responded that’s all unnecessary. You can go in the way you feel “comfortable”. I said that DAVKA at a Tziyun, there is a natural tendency to “ask” from the Niftar, and tried to side track him with Brich Shmei and Shalom Aleichem which aren’t said by some for similar reasons. He then said, “Nu, take a simple Maaneh Loshon and say that”. I heard what he said, and understood him well. He had more than a touch of charismatic “Rabbi Groner” about him.

When I go to my father’s Tziyun, I say very specific Tehillim. I do that to stop myself from ASKING my father to do things. You can’t do that, but it’s a very natural tendency. I said I’d consider it seriously, but if I did go, it would be a very great mental strain to stop myself from lapsing into Doresh Al Hameisim when standing in front of two people who were responsible for my Torah education and much more.

In another part, I will explain what eventuated in terms of decision time.

I then mentioned that I had written but once to the Lubavitcher Rebbe yet had never received a reply. He didn’t ask what I had written, but I was comfortable saying it. I said that Melbourne was going through a particularly difficult and potentially splitting moment where two icons were jousting and Lubavitch was splitting. I had mentioned my family history, and made it clear that I could not be considered a Chosid in any shape, but I knew that the only person who could resolve the issue was the Rebbe himself and I asked him to. I never got an answer, and the Rebbe then had a stroke. I always assumed that the reason I hadn’t received an answer was because the Rebbe was B’Sakono and wasn’t in any position to respond with the same immediacy and wisdom as people were accustomed. I left it as a תשבי. One day I’d find out.

At that moment, Rabbi Kotlarksy said but you did get an answer, you just didn’t know it. I will now tell you what happened. As a result of the momentum of letters such as mine (I don’t claim any special powers!), he was summoned immediately to the Lubavitcher Rebbe who instructed him to travel to Melbourne and sort out the “mess”.

Rabbi Kotlarsky then told me how he sorted it out, and he did so quickly. I was very impressed by the ביטול of Rabbi Y.D. Groner ז’’ל about whom I could never imagine as “lower” than anyone, given his towering presence. That was a new greatness that I discovered. I was blown away by what Rabbi Groner had done. I was also blown away by the fact that on this particular trip after our daughter married into a well-known family, I had about an hour with someone who I never expected (or had a desire/need) to meet. I had no common business, so to speak.

But “the Aybishter Firt Der Velt”, and it was השגחה that I was to unravel a long mystery. I liked Rabbi Kotlarsky. He gave me the impression that he’s someone who I could sit for five hours listening to at a farbrengen. His finger was literally on the Chabad pulse.

We said our good byes, and I thanked him for allowing us to interrupt his very busy schedule. He was due to spend Shabbos at the Ohel for Hay Teyves and seemed to always be on planes, in cars and any vehicular transport, as he explained to me.

I’ve obviously not gone into all details, as they aren’t necessary and help nobody today.

So I come home to the Golus of Melbourne, and I’m due to now go the Tziyun of my dear father. I’ve had a practice run, so to speak, and it was mentally draining for me to keep my thoughts halachically sound and emotionally relevant.

I have to admit, that I am still implacably against people who write “to” the Rebbe as I noticed in many letters (even though they were torn) the people either didn’t know the Halacha, or were never taught it properly by some single-minded teachers who probably assumed something transcending Halacha. I don’t change my views on that and don’t apologise. I understand Chassidim emulate, but I am sure that the Lubavitcher Rebbe never ever was Doresh directly of his father in law. He was a Medakdek B’Mitzvos K’Chut Ha’saaroh and could not be questioned on such issues. I feel this was also why he had a common thread with the Rav, who is also known as the איש ההלכה.

So, until my next post, I will try to do the things one should do to give my dear father’s Neshoma nachas, although I can’t help but feel that there ought to be a motive to pile these up during the year, and just unload so to speak on the Yohr Tzeit when the Neshoma will go up a level (or levels).

I hope I haven’t bored you too much, but most of my posts are rather selfish. I heal myself through writing them.

A tribute night for the Lubavitcher Rebbe זי’’ע

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

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

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

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

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

דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם

found a new home among these giants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My thoughts on the Rav and the Rebbe event

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping a balanced view of life

Over Pesach I heard this story directly from the Levi.

He had travelled to receive Brachos from the Lubavitcher Rebbe ז’ל and to bring his son around the time of his Bar Mitzvah. He is a Levi and was called up as a Levi in 770. The next Aliyah, Shlishi, went to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe faltered and instead of starting with ברכו he began the ברכה of אשר בחר בנו. Nobody said anything to correct or interrupt the ברכה. At the end of the Aliyah, after the Rebbe said the second ברכה of אשר נתן לנו, he then said ברכו. Of course, one can say ברכו at any time and have ten people answering.

Upon returning to Melbourne, the Levi mentioned this story to members of the Chabad Kollel. The reaction was

“You’ve misunderstood. The Rebbe did it on purpose. He wanted to teach people what the Halacha was”

Unfortunately, these were also very high quality אבריכים from the USA (from several years ago). It’s somewhat sad that they couldn’t see the Rebbe as a human being, as well as a great צדיק and מנהיג ישראל (or  נשיא)