From Lakewood to Yeshiva University

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rabbi-aaron-rakeffet-rothkoff“From the age of 12,” Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff told The Jewish Press in a recent interview, “I had one dream: to be a tzaddik, a gaon, and a melamed. I never became a tzaddik, I never became a gaon, but I did become a melamed, nodeh l’Hakadosh Baruch Hu.” In his youth, Rabbi Rakeffet-Rothkoff studied for several years under Yeshiva University Rosh Yeshiva Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik and would later write the two-volume The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. He also authored The Silver Era: Rabbi Eliezer Silver and His Generation, Bernard Revel: Builder of American Jewish Orthodoxy, and two volumes of Rakafot Aharon. Within a year he hopes to publish his memoirs, the product of ten years of writing.

Rabbi Rakeffet-Rothkoff delivers halacha and hashkafa shiurim twice a week at Yeshiva University’s Gruss Kollel in Jerusalem, many of which can be accessed at YUTorah.org.

The Jewish Press: What’s your background?

Rabbi Rakeffet-Rothkoff: I was born in the Bronx. A few blocks south of my house was the area of the shuls. No shul spoke to another one, but when Roosevelt came by in ’44 during his presidential campaign, all the shuls got together, built an eruv and took out a sefer Torah for that menuval to kiss. I remember it like yesterday. That was the one time all the shuls got along.

I had one grandfather who lived with us who knew nothing else outside of reading Hebrew and how to daven. He came to America at the age of 14 or 15, but he was never mechallel Shabbos. My other grandfather learned in Volozhin, but by the time I knew him, there was nothing left of Shabbos.

I’m the eldest of three boys and went to public school for a year. The teacher had a lot of trouble with me because I learned too quickly. She told my mother, “Your son is too bright . Send him to a parochial school where he’ll have a double curriculum.”

And since it was a miracle that Yeshiva Salanter – the only yeshiva in the Bronx – was five little blocks away from my house, I went there starting in second grade and the rest is history .

In high school already, I went to Lakewood. I went to Rav Aharon Kotler. I loved Lakewood. I wanted to learn and nothing else mattered, but my mother [wanted me to go to] college, so they put heat on me and made a deal: I’ll give Yeshiva College a trial for a year, and that’s what happened.

At Yeshiva College you studied under Rav Soloveitchik. How many years were you in his shiur?

Four years, but I remained very close to him afterwards .

In rebbe I found my lodestar, my guide. What was so beautiful about the Rav was that you lived in Torah and you were part of the big world, and there was no contradiction. That’s ultimately what I was looking for, and with rebbe I found it.

Can you elaborate?

The Rav was a PhD from Berlin. In the shiur it was just like Lakewood; there was basically nothing external. But when you got to know him on a more private level, you could talk to him about Freud, about Karl Marx, about Machiavelli . The man was so broad and on everything he had beautiful, beautiful insight.

And he was down to earth. When I told the Rav I was going on aliyah, he asked me, “How will you make a living?” That was the Rav. There was no shtick about him. He was just so human.

You have an interesting story about Rav Soloveitchik concerning Thanksgiving. Can you share it?

The Rav used to come in from Boston Tuesday morning, said shiur at 1:00 in the afternoon, and then again at 10:00 Wednesday morning. One year he couldn’t come in Tuesday because of a wedding in Boston, so he came in Wednesday. After he finished shiur on Wednesday, he looked at his watch and said, “Tomorrow, we’ll say the shiur at 9:00, will you be here?” I said, “Rebbe, we’ll be there, but why so early?”

So the Rav looked at me: “Arnold, don’t you understand? Tomorrow’s Thanksgiving. We have Thanksgiving dinner with my sister, and I promised my wife we’ll be there at 2:00. So I have to catch the 12:00 plane.”

I had never celebrated Thanksgiving. I was a kana’i like most kids. When I came home and told my mother the story, she was in ecstasy. She said to me, “Why can’t you be modern like Rav Soloveitchik?”

In an article you wrote several years ago, you mention that you took a chemistry class in Yeshiva University with Professor Shmuel Soloveitchik. Many people know about Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rav Ahron Soloveichik. Very few know anything about this third brother. Can you talk about him?

He had a brilliant mind, and he was such a decent human being, but when [his father] Reb Moshe would teach his children and get mad at them, the Rav said he didn’t understand and Reb Shmuel, to avoid his father’s anger, would say he understood.

Obviously he knew how to learn, but he wasn’t on the level of the Rav or Reb Ahron.

He was in chemistry and had patents. He was married to a brilliant woman, Batsheva Ziv, who came from a chashuva rabbinic family. She’s related to the rosh yeshiva of Ponovitch. She was the most famous teacher in Bais Yaakov in Washington Heights.

They couldn’t have children and that clouded his life. His last years were very sad. He died in 1967. At the time, the Rav’s wife was critically ill, and the Rav shaved and wore regular shoes when he went to the hospital to visit her because he didn’t want her to know that Reb Shmuel died. It was terrible. At the funeral Reb Ahron Soloveichik just lost himself. He broke down and had to be led away.

His wife went on to marry, a year later, Reb Yehoshua Hutner, who was Reb Yitzchok Hutner’s first cousin. They had a fabulous second marriage and I had the zechut that they lived one floor under me in the building in which I reside in Israel. They were our closest friends. He died last year. She died about ten years ago.

Incidentally, she was also related to Reb Aharon Kotler and was very friendly with Sarah Kotler, Reb Ahraon Kotler’s daughter. So whenever Sarah came to Israel, we would come down and talk. She was always frum. These rumors that she wasn’t aren’t true. She was always a shomeret Shabbat , She was a Brooklyn College graduate, a lawyer, and an assemblywoman.

In an interview with YU’s student newspaper, The Commentator, you said, “To me it’s a compliment that I don’t need [a black hat] to be frum.” What did you mean by that?

Today we all wear uniforms. What is the concept of wearing a uniform? What is chassidus all about? It’s beautiful. You have a social order, you build a wall around yourself . It’s a way of protecting yourself from outside influence. My generation didn’t need it. When we made a commitment, we made a commitment. That’s what I meant.

But if a black hat will keep you frum in America, you should wear two black hats, not just one. To me, being a Torah Jew is the most important thing in the world .

But when all is said and done, the chassidim conquered America. The Litvakim lost. In the Litvishe yeshivas no one dressed the same. When I learned in Lakewood, the only one who wore a black hat was Reb Aharon Kotler.

Even the old mashgiach, Reb Nosson Wachtfogel, wouldn’t dare wear a black hat. No one wore black pants and white shirts. It was unheard of. Everyone dressed different and stylish. In YU, not so much. Lakewood was more stylish because it’s part of Slabodka mussar [to dress in a dignified manner].

So you see the different mode of dress as a sign that chassidim have “conquered America”?

More than that. We think like them. There’s da’as Torah. Bachurim worship the ground their rosh yeshiva walks on. That didn’t exist when I grew up. When I grew up the roshei yeshiva were mortals. There was no da’as Torah. You could argue with them. But who ever argued with a chassidic rebbe?

{The Jewish Press/Matzav.com}

34 COMMENTS

  1. I wonder: would the rav have had his own Thanksgiving dinner were it not for his sister?
    That he would acknowledge Thanksgiving positively I have no doubt; it was hammered into me from my earliest BY days that we have to be grateful for this malchus shel chesed [even if we don’t want to have a fleishig meal so close to Shabbos – that was from the home].

  2. He says “When I grew up the roshei yeshiva were mortals. There was no da’as Torah. You could argue with them.”

    What a blatent lie. It is osur to say such a thing. There was always and always be da’as Torah. Reb Elya Svei zecher tzadik levrocha used to always munn from everyone to have amunaas chachomim (he used to talk about it always during yomim neroyim).

  3. It’s sad the way RIETS talmidim have to live their lives walking around with this heavy axe to grind. Da’as Torah is also from the chassidim? That’s a new one! imagine if the yidden in Suhshan believed like him when Haman wanted to kill all the Jews because some frumak who knew nothing about politics refused to bow down to him and then this frumak tries to convince them that it’s a gezeira because they ate from the Se’udas Achashveirosh which he assered nine years earlier.

  4. Rabbi Rakeffet, aside from being a talmid chochom, is a wealth of knowledge about the gedolim of the 19th and 20th centuries. I have heard him speak and he is facinating. It would pay for the bochurim to hear a shmooze from him about the gedolim. He brings them back to life.

  5. I like this guy. He has tremendous Kavod Hatorah. That is the ikar. Ehr hut fashteight that the shuls getting together in the Bronx to give honor to the Menuval Roosevelt, was a terrible thing. Today, anyone that speaks out against the actions of our Organizations when they are clearly wrong, like endorsing Corzine, Bloomberg, Weiner etc…, are immediatly branded as anti torah trouble makers, kineged Daas Torah (LOL), imatture, out of the mainstream, not a team player etc… You get the picture.

  6. I was addened to read that Rabbi RR denigrates the fact that “Bachurim worship the ground their Rosh Yeshiva walks on.” Rabbi Akiva explains the word “ESS” in the passuk, “You must fear ESS Hashem,” by explaining that the word ESS includes fear of Torah scholars. We must feel the same fear and respect for Talmidei Chachamim that we feel for our Creator. This idea is not new, and certainly not limited to chassidim. Rabbi Akiva predates the Baal Shem Tov by many years. I am sure Rabbi RR can tell you exactly how many. The concept of having a distinct levush, (manner of dress) to distinguish us from the nations we live amongst, is likewise not a product of chassidim, or of recent generations. It goes back to Galus Mitrayim, our enslavement in Egypt, “Shehayu Mitzuyanim Sham” and has other sources as well.

  7. I find his insight into the black-white yeshivish dress phenomenon very interesting. It explains the historical reality that indeed this was not the way people dressed in the European yeshivos, as well as the widespread acceptance of this dress code in modern times.

    Arguably, the void left WWII coupled with the desolateness of much of America in terms of widespread Torah education in the 1940s and 1950s would go a long way to explaining why underlying, though unstated chassidic philosophies and world-views have taken such widespread hold in the chareidi world.

  8. What does it matter if he wouldn’t have had a sister that celebrated. If, if, if! The fact is that he did have a sister and celebrated. What if his sister inter married? You can “if” all day but the fact is he did celebrate it.

  9. There is a sleeper fan club of Rabbi Rakeffet who are addicted to his tapes. They can be downloaded from his site, his knowledge of tidbits of gedolim, leaders and rebbes is unreal.

    Could not believe the standing room only crowd at Beis Yisroel shul when he spoke on shabbos in Flatbush. During the summer,nevertheless!!! Men, women and young adults came to hear him speak about Torah & Israel…

  10. Interesting article.

    His comment that “the chassidim conquered America. The Litvakim lost…” is provocative. As is his derech, he makes provocative, exaggerated statements at times, perhaps we could say to wake up his audience, as stated in gemara.

    I think he said that as a shtoch to the black-hat Yeshiva world, trying to tell them that they are not really following the derech of Lita.

    However, the matter is not that simple. True, there was a custom in certain Litvishe Yeshivas to dress very stylish, at times with lighter colored clothing, etc., bifrat the talmidim (as opposed to the hanholoh). But it should be put into historical perspective to properly understand it.

    It was not minhag Lita midorei doros. In the time of the Vilna Gaon, the talmidim weren’t clean shaven with light suits and fedoras (the fedora wasn’t even invented yet). In the heyday of Volozhin they didn’t wear that outfit either.

    What evidently happened is that the Alter of Slabodka, about a century ago, as part of an effort to increase the stature of Yeshiva bochurim at a time when maskilim were making fun of them and they were being portrayed as old-fashioned, out of date shleppers, had them dress in a stylish manner to counteract those negative stereotypes. That is where the stylish dress came from. Perhaps we could describe it as a hora’as sha’ah, a takonoh for the circumstances of that time.

    After a while, however, circumstances changed. The public surrounding culture in the western world changed greatly in recent times. Standards of tznius plummeted, and gedorim of arayos and morality were pushed aside, Rachmono litzlon. It was therefore realized that we have to go back to older standards of different dress to separate ourselves from the increased tumah and hefkeirus now around us. If that means blacks hats, so be it. So we are going back to the old minhog Lita, the way it was before the Alter made the change for the circumstances of his day.

    So Rabbi Rakeffet, bimechilas kevodo, although being a big scholar and historian, has erred here. Minhag Lita is more complex than he depicts it. He should study history closer before making such sweeping declarations.

    Additionally, he does not touch on the great influence the Litvishe Yeshiva velt has had on Chassidim. One example of this is the many kollelim in the Chassidic world now, something that they didn’t have in the past. In fact, the Satmar Rav, the Divrei Yoel, was against kollel.

    Influence is not necessarily only one way.

    Therefore, his remarks are interesting, but they are lacking, and definitely are not the final word on the subject.

  11. I was saddened to read that Rabbi RR denigrates the fact that “Bachurim worship the ground their Rosh Yeshiva on.” Rabbi Akiva explains the word “ESS” in the passuk, “you must fear ESS Hashem,” by explainig that the word ESS includes fear of Torah scholars. We must feel the same fear and respect for Talmidei Chachamim that we feel for our Creator. This idea is not new, and certainly not limited to chassidim. Rabbi Akiva predates the Ball Shem Tov by many years. I am sure Rabbi RR can tell you exactly how many. The concept of having a distinct levush, (manner of dress) to distinguish us from the nations we live amongst, is likewise not the product of chassidim or of recent generations. It goes back to Galus Mitzrayim, our enslavement in Egypt, “Shehayu Mitzuyanim Sham” and has other sources as well.

  12. “I wonder: would the rav have had his own Thanksgiving dinner were it not for his sister?”

    Clearly you don’t understand Thanksgiving, as it is usually a non-nuclear family gathering.

  13. Look at the good old days. One may have had a daughter that was not so Oisgehalten, but yet it DIDN’T affect the shidduchim of his other children & aineklach. Today, forget it! There would be a bunch of old bachelors & bachelorets in the family! The yichus police would say: Seh paast nisht! And then the kofrim wonder, why we have a shidduch crises today?!

  14. “What evidently happened is that the Alter of Slabodka, about a century ago, as part of an effort to increase the stature of Yeshiva bochurim at a time when maskilim were making fun of them and they were being portrayed as old-fashioned, out of date shleppers, had them dress in a stylish manner to counteract those negative stereotypes. That is where the stylish dress came from. Perhaps we could describe it as a hora’as sha’ah, a takonoh for the circumstances of that time.”

    I heard that from a rebbi years back. This rebbi then, to prove his point, said that in E”Y in Chevron, the mode of dress was different. It was more “yeshivish.” However, there are pictures of the yeshiva in Chevron. The bochurim were dressed just as fashionably as they did in Europe.

  15. M<atzav should be ashamed to print such an article. This person stands for everything that the great Rosh Hayeshiva Reb Aharon Kotler ZT”L did not.

    Is it that great to try to be so liberal and to try to appear so openminded????

    Do you ever think before printing an article if you’re doing a service or a disservice to the Torah connumity???

    Think about it !!!!

  16. RRR also was in bnei akiva in the bronx his madrich was r shia fishman form torah umesorah. he is a real mechabed torah and has great yiras kovod for r aaron. he hates the modern lack of observance found in the upper west side world but at the same time he is certainly a talmid of YU. We should be mechabed him regardless for his relentless committment to torah, mitzvos and limud hatorah. many of my rabbeim agree with his assessment that the chassidim won we all look the same in black with payos and tzitzis outand the roshei yeshiva can do no wrong

  17. This a lesson to all of us that no matter how old or learened you are, you still have to daven to hashem to help you keep your hashkofos intact in the face of all the sheker that the western society would like us to beleive.

  18. a historian can have all the facts, but it depends on which facts you magnify as the most important.Certanly people were more individualistic then, but to say there was no leadership of klal yisrael is a tad incredulous

  19. “bochurim worship the ground of the rosh yeshiva” you missed his point he is not saying you should not revere and respect your rosh yeshiva he is just saying that it should not be seen as a contridiction to using your sechel to the fullest by questioning that which needs to be questioned that is how you grow in sechel and daas and ultimatly come to abetter recognition of your creator and your tachlis in this world the chasidic way may have a diifererent aproach however that is not hte lithuanian aproach

  20. Normal:
    I have listened to many shiurim from this man. Which side of him do you feel is not being portrayed correctly?

  21. Rav Schach and the Steipler assered this guy. See Rav Schachs letters about the seminary Michlala – they were all due to this man’s terrible hashkofos. Matzav should not have interviewed someone who Rav Schach publicly condemned.

  22. To Politics wins Again,

    Do you ever think for yourself or Do you ask
    a shayloh for everything? Do you dress yourself or do you ask a Shayloh for that too?

  23. Rabbi Rakeffet’s lectures and shiurim are great. He spoke to a packed crowd in Baltimore as well. It is well known that many B’nai Yeshiva have become closet fans of this presentations

  24. To; Too true to post
    His weekly shiurim when he rips it into frum Yidden.
    Look at his comments refered to in this article and I think that you can get the jist. Thanksgiving is OK but Extreme Kavod Hatorah is not. Rav Hutner was the one that brought this idea to the USA and he taught us how to respect a Talmid Chochom. Not only Chasidim, all Ehrlicher Yidden!

  25. Why is Thanksgiving not OK? Observant Jews in America have celebrated it enthusiastically since the very first one, proclaimed by George Washington in 1789 — thus establishing minhag hamakom. The very first American Thanksgiving sermon every to be published was by a Jew — it was an exposition of Psalm 100. I have a copy and read it myself on Thanksgiving.

  26. I love comment #4 as if its in any way a stira to anything R” Rakkefet said “When I grew up the roshei yeshiva were mortals. There was no da’as Torah.”. Unless he meant that R’ Elya spoke about daas torah before R Rakeffet grew up?
    We dont live in a vaccum we have sources dating back thousands of yeasr look through those if you wont to say we always had Daas torah not a 20th century quote with no mekor, that in no way contradicts anything R’ Rakefet said.
    Kudos too Matzav for posting an interview with an adom gadol

  27. 27 – Can you give any proof or indication whatsoever that Rav Shach’s assering michlala had anything to do with RR? It didn’t- he assered michlala bc michlala is a college…

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