Monday, February 20, 2017

The Vital Legacy of Rav Moshe Shapiro z"l - Living Refutation of An Old Canard

Rav Moshe Shapiro was niftar recently in Eretz Yisroel. A gadol baTorah and gadol bemachshavah, with many talmidim. Numerous hespedim were held for him in various parts of the world at various points after the his passing.

One important aspect of his legacy that is worthy of note, is that he personally was a living refutation of an old canard. The disgraceful slander referred to here, which certain people and sects have been spreading for many years already, is that the Litvish type of Yiddishkeit and Torah is (ח"ו) superficial and external, and that for 'inner Torah', or פנימיות התורה, people need to look elsewhere, for example to a Hasidic sect. As if at מתן תורה the Litvishe only received a limited portion, just some lomdus perhaps, and not the full package of Torah. These propagandists were (and are) stereotyping the Litvish Torah world as a whole as being people concerned and involved with relative externalities, trivialities, superficial things, while claiming that members of their sect were/are connected to deeper, inner Torah, more 'spiritual', and so on.

Rav Moshe Shapiro z"l, a proud Litvak, and giant in מחשבה, was a living refutation of their disgraceful propaganda. His greatness in מחשבה attracted talmidim from a wide range of backgrounds, including Chasidim. It was so great that it could not be denied, even by members of sects who think that area belongs to them. Hopefully his talmidim will perpetuate this important legacy of his.

תנצב"ה

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Emes-Torah Interface - Insights from Rav Shmuel Rozovsky zt"l

Rav Shmuel Rozovsky (English) zt"l, who served as Rosh Yeshiva in Ponevezh Yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel after moving there from Lita, was one of the leading Litvishe gedolim of recent times. Since he passed away at a relatively young age (in his sixties) over thirty five years ago, he is not as well known, especially among the younger generation in the diaspora, as he might have otherwise been. But people in the know, and mevinim, recognize a gem when they see one.

A fine, illustrated biographical work on Rav Shmuel was published within the last year, which I looked at a bit in recent months. One chapter in it that drew my attention in particular, was the one (chapter twenty eight, bigematria koach, strength) on midas ha'emes, truthfulness. The fact that it was such an important and central part of his life, as to merit a chapter of its own, is itself telling and beautiful.

I would like to share some gems from that part of the book about this great gaon and tzaddik.

Rav Shmuel cited a verse from Tehillim 119:163 שקר שנאתי ואתעבה תורתך אהבתי (loose translation - I hated falsehood, and loathed it, your Torah I loved), expounding upon it that there is a connection between hating sheker-falsehood, and loving Torah. For Ahavas HaTorah, one first must hate falsehood, sheker.

Rav Shmuel took it further as well, observing from the double expression of the posuk that hating falsehood was not enough, but rather it should also be loathed, seen as something disgusting, something that a person can't stand.

Rav Shmuel remarked that a mouth that speaks sheker (ר"ל) is not mesugal (not favorably inclined) to being a talmid chacham amiti (an authentic high level talmid chacham) (my understanding and elaboration - of course such people could repeat teachings which others have already brought to this world, and even add to or expound on them, in olam hazeh where sheker is strong, Hashem yeracheim, however shortcomings in emes hamper true advancement at higher levels).

He connected emes with behirus - truth with clarity. If something (e.g. a piece of Torah teaching) is true, correct, it is naturally clear. It is no coincidence then, that he was renowned for his great clarity.

In an instance when a particular presentation didn't make him happy, he held back from accepting it. He remarked zeh lo misameach osi - it doesn't make me happy. That to him was an indication that it was not emes, since Torah, which is emes, goes together with happiness (see e.g. Tehillim 19:9, פקודי ה' ישרים משמחי לב).

He also saw lack of precision and exaggeration as forms of sheker, and stood strongly against them as well, in addition to more obvious and blatant falsehood.

Naturally, there are also some fine stories about his being modeh al ha'emes in public, even when it could reflect negatively on his scholarship, such as stopping his shiur upon worthwhile objection to it from a talmid, as well as other, more unique examples.

Since time is limited, and I don't have the sefer with me at the moment either, I will stop here now, confident that the brief tidbits above are sufficient to give over the basic flavor of the chapter, and whet the appetite for further study.

May we be zoche to follow in the way of Rav Shmuel zt"l, a true Litvishe gadol, who displayed the authentic beauty of the derech ha'emes, and become outstanding in truthfulness and Torah as he was.

A freilichen Chanukah.

P.S. It seems quite clear that Rav Shmuel would be strongly against those who take liberties and are less than truthful in relating allegedly inspirational stories and so on, with the excuse that they are doing so to inspire people in their Yiddishkeit. One does not build Toras Emes of Hakadosh Boruch Hu by entering into a joint venture with the 'other side'.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Slonimer Sensation, or Overactive Imagination?

A few days ago, I read with interest a piece at a new high level Jewish website about an alleged "Slonimer sensation".

Someone reading the piece, about a past leader of one of the factions of Slonimer Chasidim, referred to as the Nesivos Shalom, by the name of his written work, could emerge from it thinking that Nesivos Shalom has surpassed the Mesilas Yeshorim in popularity, ר"ל, and that it is the greatest thing to hit the Orthodox world since sliced bread and daf yomi.

It is so overdone, that a reality check is sorely needed, which hopefully will be accomplished here, since I don't see others addressing it.

While it is true that the Nesivos Shalom has gained in popularity in recent years, the piece, however, is compromised by hyperbole. It conjures up images of people in suburban America, worlds apart from, and limited in knowledge of contemporary Chasidic life, nevertheless viewing themselves as experts on it. Though they may be quite knowledgable in some aspects of it, they may be lacking in other areas, such as context.

Let me address some of the arguments of the writer now, in some detail.

A) The writer posits the existence of a "Slonimer sensation", taking the Jewish world by storm with a 'stunning degree' of popularity.

Based on what? Numbers of google results. Ahhh. Rebbe Google, the posek hador, strikes again. Google paskened that Nesivos Shalom > Mesilas Yeshorim > Alei Shur. The problem is that Rebbe Google is a sheigetz. And an am haaretz gamur. And not only in limudei kodesh, in limudei chol as well!

If you follow that same yardstick, you could also conclude that Donald Trump > George Washington > Thomas Jefferson > Abraham Lincoln  (google Donald Trump = around 482,000,000 results, George Washington = 346,000,000, Thomas Jefferson = 87,2000,000, Abraham Lincoln = 54,500,000), something I haven't heard from even his most ardent supporters.

Additionally, many of the results for Netivot Shalom in google are not for the Slonimer work, but rather for left leaning congregations, and other irrelevant for this discussion entries.

B) The writer claims that since some people allegedly refer to the Nesivos Shalom simply as "The Slonimer", that shows a special degree of affinity that exists for him. I, however, suspect that they call him that because they know of no other Slonimer. They don't know about the Litvishe history of Slonim. But even on the Chasidic side, they don't know that Slonimer Chasidus has been divided for many years, and that multitudes of Slonimer Chasidim did not accept the Nesivos Shalom as their Rebbe. To these people, however, Slonim = Nesivos Shalom, hence the Nesivos Shalom is "The Slonimer", as if he were the only Slonimer Rebbe ever, rather than one of many over the years. However, the truth is that even when he was serving as Rebbe for his faction, he was not the only Slonimer Rebbe. He was only the leader of one part of a divided sect.

To refer to him then, as "The Slonimer", unqualified, is like calling The Rebbe of Satmar in Kiryas Joel "The Satmarer". Is it absolutely wrong? No. But it is only part of the truth. Satmar is divided into two (main, there are other smaller ones as well) factions. Bobov is divided into two. Vizhnitz has two Rebbes. Other groups have more than two Rebbes.

For more about the divisions in Slonim, see this Hebrew Wikipedia entry.

The parallel English Wikipedia entry, although it has much less information about the split in Slonimer Chasidus, at least mentions it.

However, the Nesivos Shalom English editions (this recent volume, for example), seem to contain no mention of the fact that Slonim has more than one Rebbe. Which leads people to assume that all Slonimers are united as followers of R. Berezovsky. I think that at least it should allude to it, and not give people the impression that the Nesivos Shalom was the undisputed Slonimer Rebbe.

C) The writer posits that R. Berezosky was unique, as he came from a background which combined both Chasidic and non-Chasidic influences, as well as other non-Slonimer Chasidic ones, due to his teaching at a Lubavitcher Yeshiva in adulthood.

As to the first point, other Yeshivos - Chasidic, Misnagdic, and other) also had varied influences and faculty, perhaps more than Slonim as well.

Re the second point, his teaching in a Lubavitcher Yeshiva for a time, I am afraid that that is not as unique as it is made out to be as well. For example, Maran HaRav Schach, זצוקללה"ה זי"ע, taught in a Chasidic Yeshiva too, for a number of years, of Karliner Chasidim, upon the invitation of their Rebbe. Rav Yisroel Gustman זצ"ל taught at a Lubavitcher Yeshiva for a while as well.

The view from here

The reality as I see it, is that, yes, of course, the Nesivos Shalom has attained a degree of popularity beyond his home community (thanks to articulate fans in places like California and Minnesota promoting him to the English speaking world, in their language, in part), but much less so than a casual reader of the Lehrhaus piece might think. Some individuals who are eclectic in their tastes may enjoy him. Some of those types otherwise affiliate with the Litvishe-Yeshivishe world, but, maybe to inject some variety into their lives (perhaps they are on a too narrow contemporary Litvishe spiritual diet, as opposed to the more broad based, balanced, and holistic diet advocated by gedolei Lita such as Gaon of Vilna) occasionally look to the Chasidic world for something different. In the past (and perhaps present too), some such types looked to Reb Tzadok of Lublin, or the Sefas Emes, in the way they look at the Nesivos Shalom now. Some may think it is 'cool' to throw in some Chasidic sources at times (I am reminded of a time when I heard a prominent Litvishe type speaker addressing a crowd, citing 'the heilige Slonimer Rebbe, the Nesivas Shalom' ['the holy Slonimer Rebbe, the Nesivas Shalom']. He was such a big Slonimer Chasid, בלשון סגי נהור, that he didn't even get the name of the sefer right), or do it as an attempt to show that they are more broadminded than they may seem. But overall, I don't believe the Litvishe-Yeshivishe World as a whole has flocked to the Nesivos Shalom en masse (for example, is there any standard Litvishe yeshiva that has a regular seder in it?).

In conclusion, while I have taken issue with some of the piece about the Nesivos Shalom, particularly the former part of it, I think that the analysis and ruminations in the latter segment on spiritual leadership are valuable and worthy of consideration. Litvaks (Misnagdim, or non Chasdidim) should consider why some who generally affiliate with their world, nevertheless, sometimes look elsewhere for inspiration, and ponder if that indicates an imbalance in some of their institutions, which should be addressed with wisdom, if necessary.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Stealth Messianism at Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchim Conference Banquet (?)

Earlier this week, as the 'mainstream' Lubavitcher shluchim conference wound down (many people do not realize that their rival, the overtly messianic wing of Lubavitch, had their own shluchim conference at the same time, a parallel shadow government to the R. Krinsky wing, which can be followed at overtly messianic websites, such as this one), their annual banquet was held. Unlike other parts of the conference, which are not open to the public, it was broadcast for all to see. As a large part of the Lubavitcher PR campaign, much effort is put into the event, an elaborate theater production, which is intended to project an image of Lubavitch as being a cosmopolitan vanguard of traditional Judaism, ubiquitous, and unstoppable. A cavernous hall, giant video screens, big sound, and elaborate lighting effects, are used to those ends. At the end of the event a "rollcall" is held, to much fanfare, calling shluchim of different countries to stand when their locales are named, to give the impression that Lubavitch is everywhere. At the conclusion of it, an additional call is made, asking those sent out before the late Rebbe passed away to stand, with their number displayed in screen, followed by those who went out after his passing, whose larger tally is shown as well. The message is clear. Those who said that Lubavitch would fall apart after the Rebbe's death were very, very, wrong. Just look at the statistics.

As part of this sophisticated PR effort, messianism is hidden at the event, as the idea is to promote an image of Lubavitch as mainstream orthodoxy. Yechis, yechi yarmulkas, and moshiach flags are not seen or heard. On the other hand, however, the Rebbe is not referred to with זצ"ל or נ"ע either, which is definitely noteworthy. He is referred to in the manner of someone who is alive.

I noticed one interesting thing related to this, which probably eluded most non Lubavitch attendees. Just after seven minutes into the video, Tehillim was said. But what part of Tehillim? "The Rebbe's kapital" (#115), followed by "the Rebbetzin's kapital" (#116). But what is the connection of those chapters specifically with the late Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rebbetzin? The answer is, that Lubavitchers have a custom that the kapital of Tehillim corresponding to the year of a person's life they are in, has a special meaning for them. So if someone is seventy two years old, meaning that they are now in the seventy third year of their life, kapital #73 is their kapital that year. In the last days of the last Rebbe, who passed away at age ninety two, twenty two years ago, his kapital was kapital 93. That is how it works with a living person. What if someone has passed away? I assume the practice is then ended. However, the Lubavitchers were treating the Rebbe (b. 1902)  as if he was still alive, and therefore in the 115th year of his life. The same for the Rebbetzin, who was a bit older, who was treated as she was in her 116th year.

The question is, if they are saying kapitlach for the deceased, according to their years, why didn't they say kapital 137 for the Rebbe R. Yosef Yitchak (b.1880), the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, then as well?

Something to think about.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Charedi paparazzi - A Rare Inside Look

Interesting short video (Hebrew, with Hebrew subtitles), with accompanying text, exploring the phenomenon of Charedi paparazzi, as well as looking at the related Gedolim photo magazines, Gedolim cards, stickers, and albums.

Among those shown are Maran Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlit"a, a photographer who specializes in Sephardi gedolim, Gerrer and Vizhnitzer Rebbes, along with an analysis of the levush of Chasidic Rebbes, with a commenter comparing different bekeshes for home and away from home of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe to different football (USA soccer) uniforms for home and away games.

In this coverage, the proliferation of, and explosion in the amount of such photos, is viewed quite positively. According to the video, children who now play with gedolim stickers and cards, previously would play with cards of football/soccer stars or movie stars, with their accompanying negative sights and influences. So it was seen as being much better for them to play with gedolim cards instead, even if the photos end up on the floor sometimes.

That logic seems sound. So even if I might have reservations about some aspects of it, and it wasn't exactly that way in the alte heim, I am not going to blast the phenomenon at large at this time. Kids need things to do, and we have to consider the alternatives.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Mishlei Gender Gap and Its Consequences

Shlomo Hamelech, the חכם מכל אדם (wisest of men), wrote a sefer commonly referred to as "Mishlei".

A kinnui classically used for ספר משלי is ספר החכמה (the book of wisdom).

The book of wisdom, authored by the wisest of men. Seems like quite a piece of work. Who would pass on such a great read?

Unfortunately, however, it does not get as much attention as it should, especially among some portions of the tzibbur of male lomdei Torah (of course, the men have many others things they need to learn, such as major areas of gemara, and halacha, which take up much time and energy). On the other hand, on the female side, it gets a lot of attention. The result is a major gender gap when it comes to knowledge of Mishlei among אחינו בני ישראל.

The situation has gotten so bad that some people think of Mishlei as ווייבישע תורה, something like Tzena Urena, a portion of Torah designated for women, like an ezras nashim of תורה שבכתב. Of course, why some of the greatest gedolim, such as the Vilna Gaon, and Rabbeinu Yonah, wrote extensive peirushim on Mishlei, if it was just for talmidos of Beis Yaakov and seminaries, might be somewhat of a mystery then.

In addition to a general deficit in Torah knowledge, that a lack of any cheilek in Torah would mean, Mishlei is a treasure trove of practical wisdom for living life, of various hashkafos and eitzos. Now women have already had an advantage of over men in the area of בינה, due to their innate bina yeseira. But, that is balanced by an advantage in the area of חכמה on the male side, especially חכמת התורה. However, if women will be the only ones learning Mishlei, the sefer hachochmoh, that could create a serious imbalance in gender relations, which could negatively affect things like שלום בית and שידוכים, in addition to life in general.

Therefore I was happy to recently see a report of a grand siyum on sefer Mishlei in Lakewood. According to it, a Shul there was learning the sefer slowly, בעיון, בציבור, for fifteen (!) years, before reaching its conclusion. ברוך שזכינו.

If we could correct a skewed playing field so simply, by having more men learn משלי (and quicker than in fifteen years), wouldn't it be a great thing? Besides, Mishlei is such an enjoyable limud anyway, it is a win-win-win idea.

As the old expression goes, if only the עם חכם ונבון would have א ביסעלע שכל (a little seichel). With more people, especially men, learning and internalizing Mishlei, that could be attained in greater measure. May we merit a closing, and ultimately a disappearing, of the Mishlei gap soon.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Narrowness in scope of Torah study is one of the great tzaros of our time - Rav Avraham Pam זצ"ל

Such narrowness is a צרה not only because that Hebrew word comes from the root צר, meaning narrow (as in מקום צר, a narrow place).  It is a צרה because eagerly awaiting visit and exploration are a land mass of twenty four sacred books, כ"ד ספרים, of תורה שבכתב,  as well as a sea of talmud (ים התלמוד), positioned around six Mishnaic orders (ששה סדרי משנה), with thousands of pages for the Jewish man to traverse, along with many more treasures and adventures (such as deep sea Talmudic diving, inspecting sunken ships of the past, and prospecting for hidden valuables) beyond. And if some stay in a safe harbor of a selected few pages, rather than visiting the great expanses beyond, they will miss out on worlds, and not be able to ascend to the higher ranks of captains and commanders in the Torah realm.

Correcting a serious misconception

Some people mistakenly believe that the Litvishe tradition of Torah study does not esteem or demand broad based Torah knowledge (aka בקיאות). That notion, however, is emphatically not correct, and needs to be strongly refuted, which ב"ה it was recently, in a featured excerpt of a sefer in a widely distributed newspaper (the Flatbush Jewish Journal, a publication out of NY), citing the leading Litvak sages Rav Avraham Pam zt"l, and Rav Elazar Menachem Man Schach zt"l.

The greatly revered and loved Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, Rav Avraham Pam zt"l, was known as a mild mannered man, and a great baal middos (of exemplary character and conduct). He was not a person who was seeking to criticize others, particularly students of Torah, who were so beloved to him. But he did, nevertheless, feel compelled to speak out strongly (in his soft-spoken way) against the problem (among some) of narrowness in scope of Torah study, echoing the great Rav Elazar Menachem Man Schach zt"l.

Both of those towering Litvishe Torah authorities, by the way, were old school Litvaks, the real McCoy, so to speak, not some synthetic modern hybrid versions. Rav Pam, despite his American citizenship, was a genuine Litvak, born in the Eastern European homeland of Litvishe Yidden, who studied Torah in Kovno, Lithuania, as well as being a close talmid of Rav Dovid Leibowitz, great-nephew of the Chofetz Chaim, and founder of ישיבת רבינו ישראל מאיר הכהן, after migrating to the USA. Rav Schach as well, despite his many decades in Eretz Yisroel, was at his root, also a Litvak from Jewish Lithuania.

  The relevant segment can be seen in the feature "A Vort from Rav Pam" (from the great sefer by that name) starting on P.4 of the FJJ issue of this past parshas Vayeilech, and continuing and concluding on p. 82 there.

May we merit Torah broadness in the path of our great gedolim.

P.S. The Sukkos edition of Yated Ne'eman of NY, has a precious interview with Maran Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky shlit"a (by Avrohom Birnbaum), in which this topic is touched upon. It says there that in the early days of Lakewood, the (BMG) Rosh Yeshiva went away to Eretz Yisroel during the winter one year, and came back after after Purim, whereupon he gave a shiur on daf nun zayin (דף נז) of the מסכת. They had learned - and during first seder yet (so I asssumed - but perhaps lav davka) - from the beginning of the mesechta until daf 57. רב שמואל שליט"א is then asked, what happened, why yeshivos cover less ground now? The response given is twofold. One, that when Mirrer talmidim came from Shanghai, things slowed down, as they were used to learning slower than than the Kletzker Rosh Yeshiva, and two, that there were very few seforim (on gemara) in Lakewood in those days to distract them, so they were able to plow ahead and proceed veiter.