Thursday, March 8, 2018

Shver Tzu Zein a Litvak? Gut Tzu Zein a Litvak!

A while ago I had a brief conversation with a choshuve מרביץ תורה (disseminator of Torah) of Litvishe stock. I don't recall the entire (brief) encounter, but at some point he remarked to me along the following lines - 'I agree with you that the Litvishe way (Litvak דרך - way of Yiddishkeit) is the correct way, but it is harder. I have been breaking my head lately over some שווערע Rambams (to understand some difficult passages of רמב"ם). It is hard. It is a lot easier to be a Chasid.'

My response - Rav Moshe Feinstein זצ"ל famously used to say (along the lines of) that the saying 'Es iz shver tzu zein a Yid' (it is difficult, hard to be a Jew') did in a generation of Jewish youth. They would hear their father's, although keeping the tradition, sighing, groaning, about the difficulty involved. The children then, when given the opportunity to live a life that seemed (on the surface) easier, sans the same observance, unsurprisingly grabbed it (the then extremely influential Yiddish theater also had a hand in propagating that dangerous outlook). No, he counseled, admonished, we need to be very careful about what message we are sending - not 'עס איז שווער צו זיין א איד', rather 'עס איז גוט צו זיין א איד'' (it is good, great, enjoyable to be a Jew)!

I believe the same lesson applies to our topic. No, not 'עס איז שווער צו זיין א ליטוואק' (it is hard to be a Litvak), but rather 'עס איז גוט צו זיין א ליטוואק' (it is good to be a Litvak)! If we give off via vocalization or otherwise), a message that it is difficult, arduous, hard to be a Litvak (a Jew of any background following the Litvishe approach to Yiddishkeit), in this age of freedom and fluidity, we may look behind us and discover youth having deserted is, having taken flight for other camps. Rather it is good, special, delicious to be a Litvak! :)

                            The Essence of Being a Litvak, a Litvishe Yid

While we are at it, the idea that 'breaking one's head' over a shvere Rambam, and the like, is the essence of being a Litvak, is a stereotype or a caricature that is unfortunately held by some people. For a better idea of what the essence of Litvishe Torah life is, a fine book published a few years ago, The Legacy: Teachings for Life from the Great Lithuanian Rabbis, is a good place to start. Check out the sample pages available for viewing for starters.

Learning Torah and love of knowledge is at the heart of the Litvak identity/ethos. But it is not a one size fits all prescription of learning shvere Rambams for everyone all the time. Trying to make all Litvaks into Brisker clones is neither historically correct, nor wise.

May we be zoche to enjoy and revel in the great spiritual heritage of Lita, and share it with גאנץ כלל ישראל, all of our people.

א פרייליכען חודש

Monday, February 26, 2018

Drum Ensembles For Haman - Fit or Misfit?

A number of years ago someone related to me that the minyan in New York where he heard the megilla on Purim had someone there with a drum set, who would bang away on it when Haman's name was read, which bothered him. He didn't feel that it was fitting. To me it seemed bizarre. I didn't recall encountering such a thing myself. Maybe I had previously seen someone with like a small portable single bongo drum or similar (even that I don't know). But a professional drum ensemble? To me it seemed like there was maybe some crazy guy there who brought it in and the Rav didn't want to fight with him, so he tolerated it once (or twice) a year.

Then, subsequently I saw a video clip online of Purim at a congregation in Russia, which showed the same thing (also here as part of a larger report).  And, all the more so, there it seemed to be formally ensconced, up on stage as an officially sanctioned, sponsored part of the proceedings, not just something a private individual brought in of his own accord.

I thought that it might be beneficial to articulate what makes me uncomfortable about the idea of such a thing at the Megilla reading.

a) Such ensembles typically are associated with, and accompany instrumental music nowadays, as opposed to acting alone with a negating connotation of a type of stamping out (as in stamping out Haman harosho), or sounds of derision. They can be seen as highlighting Haman, even somewhat celebratory perhaps, rather than putting him down. As an interesting side point, in the Torah itself drums are mentioned at Kriyas Yam Suf (where Miriam took a drum with other women following after her, and they danced and sang praise to Hashem), in a positive context, accompanying shira (song).

b) What was lacking with other ways of reacting to Haman's name employed in the past (e.g. stamping feet on floor, grager), that this new practice was innovated?

c) To specifically bring in someone with advanced equipment as a noisemaker seems strange, as if that custom is followed, it should by done by attendees in general, as opposed to by a (hired?) designated professional, who might make amateurs trying to do so feel superfluous.

It is true, that there is an expression in English about drumming someone out, but that is a different type of drumming.

Agree? Disagree?

A Freilichen Purim.

P.S. While you are here, you may enjoy the following past Purim related posts as well -

Davening on Taanis Esther or Purim - Which is more mesugal, which the more auspicious time?

Will Purim Be The Only Yom Tov Left Standing After Moshiach Comes? Let's Take a Closer Look

Monday, February 19, 2018

Simcha of a Litvak - How Rav Aharon Leib Steinman Modeled and Radiated True Torah Joy

We are now in the month of אדר, when שמחה is on the front page, so to speak.

But from where does true, authentic שמחה emerge and flow? We are talking about holy and wholesome simcha that the Torah wants us to have, of course, not improper levity.

As discussed here in the past, fundamental sources of simcha are תורה and ישרות. Straightness and truth. Conversely, the opposites of Torah, straightness, and truth, lead to opposite feelings of עצבות, sadness.

Even within Torah study itself, there are gradations and levels of simcha it would seem. The more straight, deep, and true one's Torah is, the more authentic and hence simcha inducing it should be. When someone is עוסק בתורה לשמה, toils in Torah for its own sake, the pure motives lead to a pure result...a straighter, more honest and pure strain of Torah. That Torah produces so much joy that the person involved in it, overflows with simcha, and hence, as Chazal say (Avos 6:1) he is משמח את המקום, משמח את הבריות, he gladdens both (so to speak) the Creator and His creations, his cup runs over with joy which is shared with others, gladdening both G-d and man. When someone is oseik in Torah lishmah for decades, getting progressively deeper and more profound (factor in what the mishna says in the name of רבי שמעון בן עקשיא that זקני תורה, as they age, דעתן מתישבת עליהן additionally, for added measure), the joy continues to increases exponentially.

The above may sound fine and well in theory, but is it actually true? Is it seen in actuality, in real life?

Yes, I would say so......and we could point to the recently נפטר (passed from this world) gadol Rav Aharon Yehudah Leib Steinman z"l as an illustration.

He was a man with a joyous demeanor, a jovial countenance. But his smile was not the forced, phony smile of a politician, which, due to it's superficiality, if not outright false nature, does not induce great (if any) joy in others. Rather it was an authentic expression of inner feeling, joy and love, something truthful, which makes an significant impression on others, and is hence contagious.

I noticed some recordings of hesped (eulogy), or divrei zikaron (remembrance) (however you want to describe them) on Rav Steinman z"l online recently from the well known Chasidic poseik Rav Asher Weiss, and I decided to have a listen to them. Rav Weiss spent much time with Rav Steinman on private aircraft when he visited the USA years ago. Unsurprisingly, Rav Weiss spoke highly of the level of Torah knowledge of Rav Steinman. Somewhat surprisingly, however, he also stated and stressed, over and over, how impressed he was by the simcha, the joy, of Rav Steinman, his smile, pleasantness, and happiness. Imagine that! The staunch Chasid is astounded by, and praising and learning simcha from the Litvishe (a Brisker to boot, at least in terms of his geographic origin) gadol. Putting the lie to the stereotype that simcha is a Chasidic thing.

To give you a better picture of what I mean, here is some of what Rav Asher Weiss said in his divrei hesped/zikaron on a man he called "this amazing tzaddik" (part one) (part two) -

Most of the time we spoke in learning (divrei Torah). I sat across from him (on the plane), and I was nispoel (deeply impressed and influenced) by his amazing memory (recall of sugyos of Torah), but I was far more moved with his simchas haTorah (joy of Torah), and generally his simchas hachaim (joy of life).

He had an amazing sense of humor.

He always smiled. He had the smile of angel.

(After relating how simply he ate, a potato with a glass of hot water for supper) I've known other gedolim who were mesagfim (limited earthly pleasures), but usually it comes with kotzer ruach, anxiety......He was the most pleasant person in the world, always with heoras panim (a countenance of light), always seemed to be happy.

He always had such an unbelievable haoras panim, and such a simcha.

There sits a man with the most beautiful smile in the world - I never saw a man so happy - I never saw a millionaire so happy.....

He saw himself as a simpleton...

Some videos illustrating these aspects of Rav Steinman z"l can be seen online.

To see what Rav Asher Weiss was talking about, take a look at actual footage from Rav Steinman's travels close to fifteen years ago referred to in the divrei hesped/zikaron, and his angelic smile then, here (3:50-4:20). A beautiful such scene with a younger להבחל"ח Rav Asher Weiss himself can be seen at this point (4:08 app.).

A unique video I spotted online (in the Hebrew, Yiddish, and English languages) with extensive 'private footage' of Rav Aharon Leib (I found especially interesting a segment of sparring on the parameters of 'צדיק גוזר והקב"ה מקיים'  at around 23:45-28:25) is also interesting viewing.

May we follow the way of pashtus, emes, and limud haTorah lishma modeled by Rav Steinman z"l and be zoche to ונרננה ונשמחה בכל ימינו.

A freilichen chodesh!

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Illuminating The Shtreimel World - A Video Visit And Conversation With A Shtreimel Maker

        Demystifying The Distinctive Fur Hat - The Tails on the Heads

Although we have in the past shared with you a pictorial feature on shtreimels of fine still photos here, a recent entertaining video interview from Eretz Yisroel with a shtreimel macher posted online takes us on a moving journey deeper into that world, adding to our knowledge and understanding of the headgear, and is worth viewing for those interested in such things.

Topics covered include legend of the origin of the shtreimel, how many tails go into a shtreimel, are animals killed solely for shtreimel manufacture, theories for the origin of the term shtreimel, mass produced vs. custom made shtreimels, shtreimel costs,  and more.

Mostly in Yiddish, with English on screen, and some Hebrew.


(h/t Gruntig)

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

YU's Chasidic Revolution - A Pioneer Reflects

Over four years have elapsed since Rabbi Moshe Weinberger was brought back to YU/RIETS to spread Chasidus, sufficent time for students to have entered and graduated YU with him there for their whole tenure. As such, sufficient time has passed to take a hard look at what has occurred there, and on the neo-Chasidic front in general, in the last few years.

Fortunately, we are ב"ה aided in this vital work by reflections (last four paragraphs) shared by veteran RIETS Rosh Yeshiva and YU Chasidic pioneer R. Hershel Reichman, recently published in Kol Hamevaser, The Jewish Thought Magazine of the Yeshiva University Student Body.

Let us focus on a few important, fundamental points.

1) Neo-Chasidus at YU is a revolution, a revolutionary development. That cannot be denied. While some people may have wanted to (and still try to) pretend that bringing in R. Moshe Weinberger with special custom-designed provisions catering to him (special, limited, tailored hours, the new Chasidic title of mashpia, after starting first as mashgiach, etc.) and rolling out a red carpet for him, was just adding another faculty member, and nothing out of the ordinary, that is patently false. Such efforts to obscure the magnitude and significance of the move are diversionary and misleading.

2) The Rav (R. Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik) is old, neo-Chasidus at YU is new and hip. For many years, Modern Orthodoxy and RIETS/YU was dominated by the Rav, R. Yosef Dov Solovitchik z"l, and his Torah. Now, the pendulum has swung in a different direction. While the Rav and his legacy is still a giant presence in the YU/RIETS world, especially among older talmidim and staff, among some younger ones there is a significant shift, led by Rabbi Weinberger and others, away from Brisk, to locales like Medzhibozh, Uman, and Lubavitch.

3) R. Reichman, a devout Chasid himself, expresses disappointment at a decline in high level, intellectual, rigorous talmud Torah concomitant with the rise of neo-Chasidus.

Rabbi Reichman says that many talmidim leave the yeshiva knowing little of the Rav's Torah.

 And that is a key in a discussion like this. We need to look at the younger students, the future. What are the trends among the younger students?

The bringing in of R. Weinberger was done under Richard Joel, the first YU President lacking semicha,  and not simultaneously Rosh Yeshiva of RIETS. It was also done after the departure of longtime RIETS dean R. Zevulun Charlop. It is not coincidental that such a radical break with RIETS history and tradition took place took place under such a new regime.

With R. Weinberger on an extended trip to Eretz Yisrael (perhaps he is contemplating aliyah?), now seems like a good time for a cheshbon hanefesh, to sit down and assess the results of R. Weinberger's appointment and the YU/RIETS Chasidic revolution, and think about adjustments that may be in order after this extended period of revolutionary experimentation.

Let us hope that any corrections that need to be made are seriously considered, rather than ignored, or kicked down the road.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Learning Longevity From Litvak Luminaries

Maran Rav Aharon Leib Steinman z"l just passed away, reportedly at the age of 103. Five plus years prior, Maran Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv z"l passed away at a reported age of 102. Approximately a decade prior to that Maran Rav Elazar Menachem Man Schach z"l passed away at a reported 102 (if not greater age) as well.

A group of gedolim, manhigei hador, born in Lita, who lived most of their years in Eretz Yisrael.

Oustanding gedolim with outstanding longevity.

הלא דבר הוא - worthy of note.

What can we glean from their extreme years?

Al pi derech hateva (looking at it from a natural perspective), they lived very healthy (spartan we might even say - pardon the expression :) lifestyles - not smoking, eating little (cf the teaching of Rambam that most sicknesses come from overeating, IIRC), eschewing luxuries, living very modestly. Spiritually, they lived rich, meaningful lives, with a wealth of Torah and mitzvos. Of course, they benefited, especially at the end of their lives, from excellent personalized medical care, as well.

Of course, when considering such things, we should examine Torah sources regarding arichas yamim. A fundamental one is the posuk in Mishlei which tells us that יראת ה' תוסיף ימים ושנות רשעים תקצרנה, yiras Hashem adds days to a person. See the beautiful pshat of the holy Vilna Gaon there.       

They are exceptional cases, and longevity is not limited to those with their exact background. Rav Shmuel Wosner, a fellow Bnei-Brak gadol, from a Vienna reportedly lived to 101as did Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg z"l of Yerushalayim, who differed from the above by virtue of living in America for many years (although he was born in and lived in Europe as well). The Chofetz Chaim, a gadol of an earlier era, when modern medicine and health science was far less advanced, lived well into his 90's. There are non-celebrities of extreme age living quietly in nursing homes, with family, and elsewhere. There are cases of people of other faiths living extremely long as well. However, some, many, or most of them, seem to be relatively sheltered, and not too active. Whereas the gedolim above continued, B"H, to be active in their leadership roles (with vital assistance of course) to their last days, more or less.

In general, there are more people today living longer, b"H. I recall reading or hearing some time ago that more people are over one hundred years of age now than ever before in human history.

Takeaway - Those interested in longevity might contemplate living a lifestyle akin to their's. One needn't run daily for miles.

A freilichen and lichtigen Chanukah.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Litvak Caveman - Modern Historical Development of a Polemical Stereotype

Years ago, a controversy erupted when a past President of Yeshiva University and Rosh Yeshiva of RIETS, in an attempt to delineate and distinguish between his yeshiva and those of the more right wing Yeshiva world, stated, that unlike at some other institutions, his students were not cavemen.

Some right wing Yeshiva world elements then reacted with furor, seemingly thinking that the caveman reference was to a neanderthal type creature. Actually, however, the learned speaker and masterful darshan was referring to the famous gemara that tells of R. Shimon ben Yochai and his son R. Elazar staying for years buried in earth in a cave, when they were fugitives from governmental tyranny and religious persecution, with the speaker meaning that his students interacted with the outside world more than those of more insular institutions.

Over time, that speaker retired from Yeshiva University, and the controversy became a piece of history, past rather than present, for a while.

More recently however, the caveman stereotype has reemerged in a new form, with Hasidic figures at YU and elsewhere invoking it more broadly, not just against YU's right wing rival yeshivas, but as a rhetorical tool against Litvaks in general.

In the new form, Litvaks are carricatured as monkish types who do not engage with, or even reject the world, rather remaining isolated studying Torah all day. In other words, unbalanced people, who's lifestyle is a departure from Jewish tradition. On the other hand, Chasidim are portrayed favorably as people who engage with the outside world rather than cower from it, who believe in בכל דרכיך דעהו.

Exhibit one of this new form of the polemic - A few years ago, Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, Rabbi of Cong. Aish Kodesh, and RIETS Mashpia, basing himself on Rabbi Mottel Zilber (aka Rabbi Mordechai Silver), a (one of two) Stutchiner Rebbe (son-in-law of Rabbi Moshe Wolfson, spiritual leader of Cong, Emunas Yisrael of Brooklyn, NY, and mashgiach of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath of Brooklyn), attempted to propagate it in a talk at YU, under a guise of 'A Chasidic View of Parnasah', as part of his 'introduction to תורת הבעש"ט' series there.

Exhibit two - Rabbi Hershel Reichman, RIETS Rosh Yeshiva and neo-Hasidic pioneer, in a just published message, reflecting on neo-Hasidism at YU/RIETS (interestingly he expresses some reservations about it there now, entertaining the possibility that it has gone too far), says (last paragraph) that Hasidism is a seamless fit with Modern Orthodoxy, because they both see opportunities for avodas Hashem in every area of life, as per the fundamental Torah teaching of בכל דרכיך דעהו. As if Litvaks have excised that from their Yiddishkeit!

What is the problem here? Does anyone else realize what is wrong with this rhetoric? May I suggest a few points to ponder.

1) Litvaks as a whole are being conflated with a certain type of modern yeshiva/kollel (long term/indefinite "Torah-only" study for the masses) lifestyle, and its constituency.  As if such a thing ever existed in Lita, Jewish Lithuania, the 'old country' for them where the amount of kollel students pre-WWII did not even get close to three digits, and where the typical man, with rare exception, was a 'balabos' (בעל הבית) rather than a kollel yungerman. The fact is, though, that Litvish in general is not totally identical with Yeshivish. Yes, there is overlap, and common cause, and collaboration at times, but they are still distinct identities and categories.

2) Chasidim nowadays have gone into kollel in a big way, and now have some of the largest kollelim in the world (in Kiryas Joel, New Square, etc.).

3) Pre-WWII Chasidim had similar things to kollel, even if the term was not used by them (e.g. the famous Belzer 'yoshvim' system).

4) Many of the most extremely insular segments of the contemporary Jewish world are actually Chasidic communities.

5) I don't recall this argument/polemic being raised in the days of when the Chasidic-Misnagdic clash was in full swing 200+ years ago. Chasidim then did not (IIRC) accuse Litvaks of being monk-like cavemen. Why not? Simple. Because it would have been ludicrous. There was no such thing! There was no kollel movement in Lita, Jewish Lithuania and environs, at that time, in the time of the Vilna Gaon! It is a modern invention, which became a mass movement only in recent decades. That itself shows that there is a problem with a polemic linking such a lifestyle to core Litvak ideology and identity.

I wonder, would Rabbi Reichman have proclaimed such drivel in front of his late rebbe Rav Soloveitchik z"l, or Rabbi Weinberger in front of his (alleged - I don't know if I have ever heard him say over Torah from the Suvalker Rav z"l despite listening to quite a few of his talks - if he ever does, it definitely seems to be quite rare) rebbe Rav Dovid Lifshitz z"l, and other past Litvishe RIETS greats? I seriously doubt it. Now, however, after their passing, these people feel free to spout anti-Litvish rhetoric openly in the institution where their teachers taught Torah for so many years.

Let us speak out strongly against this grotesque carricature of the Litvak being propagated by some to promote aims of their own, in which the Litvak is a Christian monk like figure, who doesn't believe in בכל דרכיך דעהו.

It is time for this defamation campaign to be exposed and retracted. The contemporary figures propagating it should be challenged for their words, and held accountable for the ugly stereotyping. Issues can be debated, but leave the broad brush stereotyping out please. Hopefully those responsible will consider their words more carefully in the future, and refrain from such talk, restoring a measure of peace among us.