By Yitzchok Adlerstein
I was saddened to learn of the petirah of one of the giants of the American shul rabbinate, Rav Yosef Grunblatt, z”l.
Surely much will be written about him by those who knew him best – his family, students, and mispallelim during the decades he served at the Queens Jewish Center in Forest Hills. I can only share, as an exercise in hakoras hatov, the way he affected my life.
In my much younger days, I was wont to see things in black and white. Right-wing yeshiva people were the good guys; everyone else was a little (or a lot) off. Genuinely frum people avoided areas like philosophy. They left that for “YU people.” Rabbi Grunblatt was the first (but certainly not the last) I encountered who helped me explode that myth, and my life (and that of my own talmidim) is the better for it.
Rabbi Grunblatt, after all, was “seriously” grounded in Torah. He had gone to Torah Vodaas, and loved deeper learning. Yet, by the time I discovered him in my late teens, he was a respected authority on serious philosophy in the Orthodox world. That got me thinking, even before I met him in the flesh.
I did spend time with him a number of times after that, first, as an NCSY advisor at shabbatonim at his shul, later as a scholar-in-residence. The woman he married later in life after his wife of many decades was nifteres is the mother and mother-in-law of close friends. The passage of time only increased my estimation for him as one of the most significant intellectual assets that the Orthodox community possessed. I never heard him deliver without including serious thought – always with Torah content.
In one early, memorable conversation, he revealed that he could not accept the approach of Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l in Kovetz Maamarim. R. Elchonon argued that belief in HKBH was logically and intuitively necessary. The compelling reasons for it were obvious and apparent. People chose not to believe only because of the self-serving need for freedom and independence. It is just more comfortable to live without an all-knowing G-d calling the shots.
R. Grunblatt said that his experience with serious doubters did not allow him to accept that position. He had met too many people who struggled with emunah, despite having no apparent difficulty living a life bound by halacha. They were not overtly looking for an easy way out. Coming from a strong mussar background, I tried arguing that R. Elchonon did not mean that the shochad/self-bribery he spoke about operated overtly. He meant, I argued, that merely the smallest disposition all of us share towards comfort and autonomy would subtly influence all the evidence on the side of belief.
He heard this – somewhat – but his mind was not much set at ease by my proposal. With the passing of decades, I probably moved much closer to his position than he to my earlier one. In any event, precisely because he had the yiras ha-rommemus for R. Elchonon (unlike many others I have encountered), his intellectual honesty and integrity made a deep impression upon a young mind. It is reassuring to meet people who can think for themselves, but stay within the bounds of a Torah community.
He was also an astute commentator on current affairs. During the height of the Vietnam War, sentiment where I hung out was as conservative as it is today. Student protesters were seen as acid-head cowards who didn’t want to be drafted – in contradistinction to us yeshiva students, who had valid reasons not to want to be drafted. A few of us were not so sure, and saw another side to the conflict. Rabbi Grunblatt at the time wrote a piece that was remarkably balanced, giving credit for moral sensitivity where it was due, while unflinchingly calling out the flaws in their conduct. He reduced their position to a pithy phrase: “misplaced yetzer tov.” Agreeing or disagreeing with his assessment was not so important. What he communicated to me at the time was generosity of spirit, effective communication and nuanced thinking – items in even shorter supply today than back then.
Yehi zichro baruch.