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Gentle Words

By Barry Jacobson

In contributing to the debate over the situation of the chareidi community in Israel (see the June 14, June 21, and July 5 issues), in no way do I wish to appear ungrateful for all the good the chareidi world does. The American chareidi schools on the whole have a much higher level of learning than the modern schools, although of course there are individual exceptions. The students in chareidi yeshivos also have outstanding middos and yiras Shamayim in most cases and are completely dedicated to chesed. Almost all the big chesed organizations here in the USA are run by chareidim. The rebbeim are moser nefesh to come in early on Sunday when everybody else has a day off to sleep late and ride on their boat. Most rebbeim will never have money to buy a boat, and are lucky to buy food for Shabbos. They do this out of love and a sense of purpose in perpetuating our age-old tradition of excellence in learning. Perhaps they themselves feel a sense of unequal sharing of the burden, since they work so hard to preserve our heritage, while others have it much easier.

Our heated discussion about this machlokes in Klal Yisrael was not the cause of it. Much of it probably started before either of us was born. But it is our generation’s obligation to find a way to end it. I believe we must start by hearing out each side and realizing that every segment of the klal contributed positively in some way, over the years.

I certainly can understand where Rav Shach is coming from. A few years back, on one of the parashah sheets, there was a biography of somebody, but I can’t recall who. He was quite young, maybe 12, but desperately wanted to learn in a certain yeshiva far from home. He did well on his farher (entrance exam), but the rosh yeshiva told him that unfortunately, the yeshiva was so poor, they had absolutely no more food for another student. He begged the rosh yeshiva to take him, and assured him he could make his own arrangements. The rosh yeshiva agreed and the boy began learning. After a few weeks, it was discovered that these “arrangements” were that he would wait for the other bachurim to finish, and then when they left, he would sneak in and eat whatever leftover scraps he could find from their plates. When the yeshiva found out what this poor boy was willing to do in order to be able to learn, they managed to get him some real food. This is the mesirus nefesh and love of Torah that has been the hallmark of our nation for so many years.

Many rabbanim can’t process or find anything else worthwhile other than this total immersion in learning. This has spilled over into another major machlokes, as well, which is similarly splitting the klal, regarding the permissibility of investing time in secular studies. This requires a separate piece in its own right. But my purpose here is to emphasize that I regret my strong language against Rav Shach and the Satmar Rav. Out of frustration with what seems so obvious to me that we are fortunate to have the Medinah, but yet that is like an impenetrable brick wall in the chareidi world, I got overheated. My words were no less inappropriate than the people I was complaining about.

I initially wanted to think that harshness comes only from the kannaim. Rav Shach’s rebbe was the Brisker Rav, whose students are in general among the most extreme chareidim. There is a terrible story found in the book The Brisker Rav, by Meller, vol. 1, p. 100 that his father, Reb Chaim, once screamed at him so forcefully over a disagreement regarding the understanding of a certain Gemara that he was bedridden for three days. While we might all discipline our children over matters of chutzpah, this clearly was incomprehensible. Perhaps the trauma of this experience caused him to become so extreme in later life. Yet Reb Chaim was known as a huge baal chesed, and once made kiddush on Yom Kippur in the middle of shul, to encourage people to eat during an epidemic.

However, in truth, no group or person is immune to this type of inappropriate behavior, myself included. A far worse story occurred with Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik of YU, as narrated by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. It has been quoted in various places, and is found on the YU website:

We strove to understand the Talmudic concept he was explaining and he, especially in those years (1957–9), would brook no foolishness. He wouldn’t accept a foolish question, and could put down a less than perfect rendering of the Talmudic argument very strongly, and very bluntly. The classes were exciting and the material was intellectually invigorating. But there was a great deal of pressure. You didn’t want to say the wrong thing. You didn’t want to give a wrong answer. You didn’t want to ask an unwise question.

I’ll tell you at what point he completely captivated me—the incident that enabled me to understand the Rav’s true attitude toward his students. There was one student I had taken under my wing. He didn’t study in the Yeshiva section of Yeshiva University; he was, rather, in the less-intensive Teachers Institute Department. Since he was very bright, I tried hard to influence him to come over to the Yeshiva section, and he agreed . . .

I remember exactly what we were studying when the incident occurred: Masechet Pesachim, the topic of tesha chanuyot. It is a complex portion of the Talmud, and it’s very difficult to understand exactly what the Gemara is trying to get at. It deals with the laws of presumption. Rav Soloveitchik had presented a whole construct as to how he thought the Gemara should be interpreted, and then he reversed himself completely and gave a wholly different understanding. I was very excited about the second way in which he was explaining the repartee within the Talmud; this new interpretation was truly novel and eye-opening.

Toward the end of the Rav’s new explication, my protégé—we’ll call him Cohen—now sitting right behind me, whispered a question in my ear. I thought it was an excellent question, even a devastating one to the Rav’s construct. So I encouraged Cohen to ask his question out loud, and he did.

Rav Soloveitchik exploded. “How could you ask such a foolish question? How could you ask me something like that? You shouldn’t be here anyway. You’re here because Riskin brought you in.”

And with that, he ended the class. I was devastated; Cohen was smashed to the ground.

During those years Rav Soloveitchik gave two classes back-to-back. One was in Talmud, for the younger students, and the other was in Yoreh De’ah for the older students who were soon to receive their rabbinical degree. Although I still had a good deal of time for my rabbinical degree, I took both classes, as did a coterie of faithful students. So I stayed in the room after the Rav’s explosion.

Usually the Rav switched from topic to topic with barely an interruption. This time, Rav Soloveitchik sat at his desk with his head on his arm, Masechet Pesachim still open before him, for at least twenty minutes.

There was absolute silence. No one spoke. As long as the Rav remained silent, all of us continued to wait in silence. Then Rav Soloveitchik looked up at me and said, “Riskin, what’s his name, the one who asked me the question?”

I said, “Cohen, Rebbe.”

He said, “Yes, yes, Cohen. Take me to him. Where is he now? Take me to him . . .”

When the Rav entered the Greasy Spoon, palpable shock waves went through the tables of diners. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Cohen, who was eating a scrambled egg and hash-brown potatoes with ketchup. I can see his plate in front of my eyes as I retell the story.

Everyone immediately jumped to attention, including Cohen. He had just begun to recapture some color on his face, but at the unexpected sight of the Rav his face turned a stark white. Rav Soloveitchik set his gaze on the hapless questioner: “Cohen, you’re right and I was wrong. Your question was a very good question. It undermines my complete thesis. I have to give a whole different interpretation next week. Thank you, Cohen.”

And with that he walked back with me across the street and into the classroom.

I understood at that point what intellectual honesty was all about. I also understood that Rav Soloveitchik was mindful of the fact that he was training future rabbis—future congregational leaders, future decisors of Jewish law. To his mind, a rabbinical student, no less than a medical student, couldn’t afford to make a mistake. The mesorah, the tradition the Rav was giving over to our hands, must be treated with the same precision necessary in medicine.

• • •

Clearly the issue here was not intellectual honesty, but the terrible public embarrassment of a student. However, there is another episode related by my rav, that one time Rabbi Soloveitchik ended class 45 minutes early for an entire zman, because a boy needed to leave early for chemotherapy, and he didn’t want to embarrass him for walking out early. Rabbi Soloveitchik explained that the Torah starts with chesed (clothing and feeding Adam and Chavah) and ends with chesed (the burial of Moshe). We can infer that the entire book is about chesed. Therefore, any Torah that is not chesed has no value.

The lesson is that even the greatest people from all the various factions have on occasion lost their tempers and taken extreme positions, due to a belief in some purpose or ideology. Perhaps that is why the Torah tells us that Moshe was punished for hitting the rock, instead of talking to it. Even for a good cause like providing water for the parched nation, he should have remained calmer. The Torah does not cover up this flaw.

I believe that the chareidim can fully maintain their commitment and excellence while at the same time appreciating the good that the State does. May we all make the effort to understand the other side, and reach the best conclusion for the klal. “Divrei chachamim benachas nishmaim—Words of the wise are heard when spoken gently.”

“Maaneh rach meishiv cheimah—A soft response deflects anger.” v

P.S.: Dear Rabbi Ginzberg: I have heard privately that you wish to end your involvement with this difficult topic. I must ask you mechillah if I was metzaer you in any way, chas v’shalom. I know you have invested enormous amounts of time at the feet of gedolei Yisrael. You are a bigger mensch and anav than I am. Whereas you would never challenge their words, because of your complete emunas chachamim, if I had had the opportunity to meet with them, I would have asked very tough questions.

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Posted by on July 13, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.