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 - 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.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Litvishe spirituality - The role of the yeshiva mashgiach, as seen by Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt"l

The Yated Neeman newspaper from New York, in its current Rosh Hashanah issue, contains an important feature, based on an interview with famed משגיח and מחנך Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt"l approximately thirty years ago. In the piece, crafted masterfully by senior writer Avrohom Birnbaum, we get valuable insight into the role of the mashgiach (director of spiritual guidance), in Litvishe yeshivos, in the glory days of yore.

Nowadays, when the role of mashgiach is often diminished, if it exists at all (in some places it carries on, but in others it has totally disappeared, while in yet other places, Chasidim have been appointed to it, a move not in accordance with the mesorah of Litvishe yeshivos), it is quite worthwhile to gain new understanding and appreciation of the role of the mashgiach, at its highest level. Unfortunately, some people think of a mashgiach as a type of policeman checking with his watch if a student was late for seder or davening, for example, and accordingly dispensing fines, discipline, and so on. And perhaps in an institution for minors there is a place for that. But a classical mashgiach in the ישיבה גדולה sense, is really a source of vital, life-giving spiritual guidance, meaning, and counseling, via public and private activity, even up to the level of spiritual resuscitation, rather than being a petty enforcer of minor institutional rules and regulations.

Here are a few important points, in brief, from the feature.

1) Rav Wolbe strongly lamented the dearth of mashgichim today (thirty years ago, קל וחומר now). It greatly pained him. He wondered how the lack is excused. They claim that there is no Rav Yerucham (Levovitz), or Rav Chatzkel (Levenstein) (legendary mashgichim of yesteryear) today, he said. But there is no Rav Boruch Ber or Rav Shimon Shkop either now. Yet they still have Roshei Yeshiva. So why not mashgichim as well? יפתח בדורו כשמואל בדורו.

2) When asked why Roshei Yeshiva are being produced now, but not Mashgichim, he replied, simple - it is much easier to be a Rosh Yeshiva than a Mashgiach.

3) Rav Yerucham Levovitz on the respective roles of Rosh Yeshiva and Mashgiach - the Rosh Yeshiva straightens out the mind, but the mashgiach straightens out the heart.

4) When queried about his tremendous deference to his own mashgiach, he stated that Rav Yerucham brought him back to life, a kind of spirtual resuscitation, techiyas hameisim, and he did that to many others as well.

5) The purpose of a mashgiach is to elevate people, to create Torah personalities, to teach bochurim how to think independently, to form their world outlook. In that regard, Rav Wolbe cited the directive of Rav Yisroel Salanter זצ"ל to the Alter of Slabodka, that his task in a yeshiva should be להחיות רוח שפלים ולהחיות לב נדכאים (to breathe life into the spirit of the lowly, and into the heart of the shattered).

6) Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt"l, a Rosh Yeshiva, who acted as a mashgiach in terms of giving mussar type talks as well (showing the possibility of a Rosh Yeshiva having characteristics of a mashgiach too), was not self-made in that role. Rather, he was a talmid of Rav Yerucham.

For those interested in more, see p.52-56 in the Yated Neeman.

May we be zoche that the crown of elevated השגחה of the Litvishe tradition be maintained (where it still survives), as well as restored to its former glory (where it has perhaps been lost).

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Cast Down the Viduy Booklets? Response to a Leading Neo-Hasidic Leader and Mashpia

What are וידוי booklets, you may ask?

Well, some years ago, some people who are מדקדק במצות (scrupulous in their observance of Hashem's commandments), in order to be mezakeh the rabbim (merit the public), to enhance the seasonal prayers and עבודה (Divine service) of the ימי תשובה, the season of repentance, published some small booklets, expounding on different forms of viduy recited in the season (an integral component of the teshuvah process), which are focused on in this time of the year, to make it more meaningful and relevant for those who seek such things.

An updated version of one that has been around for many years, is shown here. Another one, from Artscroll, can be seen here.

Fine and dandy you say, huh? Who could have a problem with that? However, to a prominent neo-Hasidic leader, for some reason, they are viewed not as a welcome enhancement, but as a serious problem. Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, Mashpia at Yeshiva University, Rabbi of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY, and leader of the neo Hasidic movement, just came out with a scathing attack on such publications. In a gathering at his congregation a few days ago, he ridiculed them (relevant segments being at 69:40 mainly, as well as at 81:20). According to Weinberger they are problematic, because a person should not dwell too much on sin, rather they should concentrate on positive things, citing certain Hasidic teachings to that effect, particularly on the pasuk לב חכם לימינו ולב כסיל לשמאלו.

Now, there is some logic to that. Standard (non Hasidic) Jewish sources also warn against dwelling excessively on sins of the past. However, as part of the teshuvah (repentance) process we also have mitzvos of viduy which are intensified and focused on around the beginning of a new year. And Rabbi Weinberger himself mentions that in his talk. But then, he goes on to bash viduy booklets, which are useful aides for some people, adjuncts to do the mitzvos in a meaningful manner, going so far as to relate approvingly that when he got one as a youngster his father objected to it and threw it to the floor! He ridicules them to the delighted laughter of his Modern Orthodox audience.

To lash out at such legitimate and honorable works that are utilized by sincere Jews, ehrliche Yidden, is not appropriate in general, and certainly not for someone who (allegedly) is a big leader, and merits a signficant מחאה.

Ironically, it is the Hasidic nusach Sfard order of prayer, which is the nusach of Rabbi Weinberger and his congregation, which says viduy much more often than regular non-Hasidic Jews, having viduy as part of its daily weekday services through most of the year, while the nusach Ashkenaz used by non Hasidim, conversely, does not generally say it year round, but rather only at special times like תענתים and  עשרת ימי תשובה. The Vilna Gaon, the great Misnaged, limits it even further. According to the גר"א, viduy (the short אשמנו version, as well as the longer על חטא version) is only said once during daily selichos (as opposed to three times, as others commonly do), as well as only once per tefillah of Yom Kippur (e.g. once during maariv, once during shacharis, once during musaf, once during mincha). As opposed to others who say it an additional time per tefillah with the shliach tzibbur.

Sadly, this is not the first time that inappropriate rhetoric emanated from this personality. A previous case, discussed at this website in the past, was related to his speaking approvingly about dancing on Tisha Be'Av. Other cases, discussed elsewhere, include his wholesale bashing of kollelim. Even before that, he made other extreme statements that generated much controversy.

ב"ה it is never too late to repent, as long as people are alive. And for institutions who employ unworthy spiritual leaders, there is also room for rectifying past mistakes, and turning over a new leaf with new appropriate leadership. With the Richard Joel era winding down at YU, questionable initiatives and hires of his tenure should be reexamined as well.

May we all merit true teshuvah speedily.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Shabbos with Steven Hill (Reb Shlomo Hill) z"l

The news spread quickly. The famous Reb Shlomo (Steven) Hill was niftar the other day. Interesting posts appeared about his life and character on various websites.

I did not know him personally, nor from television or movie gazing.

But for me, Reb Shlomo Hill was still special.

I have fond memories of him, from a great recording released over twenty years ago, "A Taste of Shabbos", with Dov Levine, which he narrated beautifully, faithfully transmitting the taste of that special day.

If you have never heard it, you might want to take a listen now. Or listen once again, to savor the experience. I don't know if Reb Hill composed the lyrics, or just delivered them. Either way, he shone with a great performance. Seemingly simple words, but depth is there too.

A while back, Charie Bernhaut featured the album on his music broadcast. You can hear extensive clips there (scroll down to show #284, in the first hour) via the archived version, and get a taste of the magnificence of Reb Shlomo Hill.


(previously entitled The Jewish Majesty of Reb Shlomo (Steven) Hill z"l, and Hill Shines For Shabbos - "A Taste of Shabbos" with Reb Shlomo (Steven) Hill z"l )

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Gematria Abuse

Gematria is an ancient art, which features in Jewish tradition at times (Wikipedia has quite an interesting, elaborate entry on it). That does not mean, however, that any and all such calculations conjured up are particularly significant. Not all gematriyaos are equal. Some can be laughable or repulsive. Others can be part of Torah.

Recently, with excitement, someone stated to me, that Donald Trump is be-gematria משיח בן דוד, while his opponent was equivalent to a Biblical villain in calculation. I guess a partisan somewhere put it together to pitch their favored candidate.

I responded that I can't go along with it, and that if we went according to (such) gematriaos, 770 (Eastern Parkway) is בית משיח.  :)

Note: this is not an endorsement or non endorsement of any candidate.

(Of course, the thing is laughable. How can someone from non-Davidic stock be Moshiach ben David, after all? And someone not of a nationality the Torah condemns is not that either.)

Sometimes these gematria abuses seem like cases of people painting a target around an arrow, after it was shot. In other cases it just seems like play and humor. Perhaps this case is a combination of the above.

May all our calculations be accurate and on target.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Makom Shelibo Chafeitz - Restoring a Forgotten Fundamental of Torah Study

לכבוד זמן מתן תורתנו

The תורה הקדושה is our main connection to Hashem. It is available to everyone. However, to tap into it on a higher level, one needs to develop a personal connection with it, to gain ownership of it, so to speak. As Chazal tell us (commenting on Tehillim 1:2) regarding a pious man, first it is called תורת השם, Hashem's Torah, and later, after he contemplates in it day and night, it is called תורתו, his Torah, as if he made a kinyan (act of acquisition) and acquired it as his own.

The teaching of Chazal that we just mentioned is from the gemara in מסכת עבודה זרה דף יט עמוד א.

That same daf, shortly afterward, also contains a very important principle, that can help one connect to the Torah in a more personal way, that unfortunately is not so well known today it seems. Namely that a person should learn Torah in a place his heart desires, במקום שלבו חפץ. That means that if he desires to learn מסכת גיטין, he should learn that, מסכת בבא קמא, let him learn that, חומש, let him learn that, מדרש, let him learn that, הלכה let him learn that, אגדה, let him learn that, and so on.

This important principle was taught by none other than the great רבי.

In the modern era, the great Chofetz Chaim reaffirmed the validity and importance of it.

The Torah has so many aspects and so many spiritual flavors and delights, so to speak. Sometimes one's soul is in need of a certain type of spiritual nourishment found in a part of the Torah, that may not be so commonly studied by the masses, or is somewhat off the beaten path, so to speak. One should, in such a case, not ignore one's personal desire for that part of Torah, as it may indicate a need of his specific neshama (soul) and circumstances. Rather, one should turn their attention and effort to it.

Perhaps this principle (ללמוד במקום שלבו חפץ) is seemingly not spoken about so much in public today, as it can at times conflict with institutional frameworks. Also, many people are learning in formats such as Daf Yomi, in which flexibility is limited. Be that as it may, the principle is an important one, which needs to be remembered and practiced.

In the merit of us following this ancient teaching of Chazal, may we be zoche to have the Toras Hashem truly become our Torah.

A gutten Yom tov.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The posuk that can explain Trump

There is a posuk that is helpful in understanding Mr. Trump.

Mishlei 18:23 - תחנונים ידבר רש ועשיר יענה עזות.

A wealthy person speaks strong words.

There are different levels of wealth as well. If someone worth ten million dollars speaks with a certain strength, someone worth one hundred times that amount might hold forth in a correspondingly stronger manner.

Unfortunately, not enough people, especially on the male side, learn sefer Mishlei seriously. A sefer called by kadmonim ספר החכמה is a quite fitting study for an עם חכם ונבון actually though, even for men.

(There is also a related idea brought in שמות יח:כא on the words אנשי חיל, where Rashi says עשירים שאין צריכין להחניף ולהכיר פנים.)

Let us connect to the חכמה עליונה of the תורה הקדושה to help us through these turbulent times, בעזרת השי"ת.