Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, On His Yahrtzeit, Today


rav-hutner1Over three decades after his petiroh, Rav Yitzchok Hutner’s Torah is as eagerly sought as ever. The volumes of his Pachad Yitzchok are treasured by those who possess and pore over them, their message casting brilliant illumination onto the fundamental obligations of the Jewish soul and the seasons of the Jewish year. Rav Hutner was one of the handful of individuals who were destined by Hashgochoh to rebuild, or more correctly, to bring new life to, Torah and Yiddishkeit in the postwar world. He raised a generation of rabbonim and mechanchim, whose work in Eretz Yisroel and the United States bears the distinctive stamp of his thought and approach.

His uniqueness lay not in his role as a public leader but in the depth, the richness and the brilliance of his personality. He defies classification. It is even hard to discuss him within our usual terms of reference. Ideally, his own thought and expressions should be employed for the task.

His chassidishe roots and background, and the formative years that he subsequently spent in the great yeshivos of Slobodke and Chevron, would make any analysis of his greatness a daunting and precarious task. The crucial factor to bear in mind when appraising him is his originality. Whether he was delivering one of his famous ma’amorim, discoursing on Jewish history, counselling talmidim, or formulating an approach to one of the issues facing the klal, the depth of his penetration, the breadth of his scope and perspective and the beautiful way in which he expressed himself, always resulted in new insights and new content and brought a new light to bear upon the subject at hand.

A godol beYisroel he was, in every sense of the phrase – – a giant in Torah knowledge, in character and in spirit, and a leader of his people — yet he essentially remained a private person. In his case we are more keenly aware than usual of what is probably true of all men of his stature. Though they may live in the public eye, that part of them which remains hidden far exceeds that which is revealed and is open to our observation. We quickly realize that any picture that we may try to build up, using as our materials the shafts of light that flashed from his soul in the form of his deeds, speech or writings, is woefully inadequate and falls far short of the mark.

A related idea, which HaRav Hutner himself expressed at the end of a hesped he delivered for HaRav Aharon Kotler zt’l, is as follows: “There have been gedolim whose stature as individuals was fully in proportion to the dimensions of their mission to their generation. There have been gedolim of towering stature, whose mission to their generation nevertheless did not reflect their personal greatness. On the other hand, there have been gedolim whose mission to their generation was in excess of their personal stature.”

HaRav Hutner placed HaRav Kotler in the first category and he himself belongs there too. Yet Reb Aharon’s work was more in the public eye and the gadlus which he showed was of a type that the public could readily appreciate. While HaRav Hutner was likewise called upon to utilize all of his great gifts and qualities in serving the tzibbur, the nature of what he revealed was such that there was clearly much more that was concealed.

While the true dimension of his spiritual vision and the full iridescence of his soul must remain hidden from us, we have to share what we can with those who have not yet encountered his thought or experienced the emotions inspired by his ideas — by his exposition of the soul of Yiddishkeit in past, present and future, the throbbing pulse of Knesses Yisroel and in its eternal yearning for its Creator. Our final message to the reader echoes the sentiment of the declaration made by the Cohen Godol after krias haTorah on Yom Kippur (Yoma perek 7): Much more than what is presented here still lies before you!

What is Machshovoh?

How do we classify machshovoh, Jewish thought? Is it aimed only at the intellect or also at the heart? Does it merely aim to present a systematic classification of the ideas and thoughts that have inspired servants of Hashem throughout the centuries?

If that is all, then it is almost certain to be a dry, lifeless discipline. It may provide intellectual stimulation or even satisfaction, but by itself, it is highly unlikely to inspire its devotees with the same emotions that moved the great men whose work it treats. Ultimately, like all knowledge that is divorced from commitment, it may be more harmful than constructive.

On the other hand, even the most sincere among us may today remain unmoved by the raw emotion that used to characterize certain botei medrash. We are not untouched by the cold rationalism that so pervades the intellectual climate of the modern world — the manifestation of the evil power of Amolek which we struggle to fight and to overcome. Our minds must be reached together with our hearts.

Within the world of the yeshivos, the past hundred and thirty years have seen the adoption of various approaches towards bridging the gap. Most approaches sought ways to arouse the emotions in order to make an impression on the intellect, while some sought to discuss matters of the heart calmly and analytically, so as to impose order and control on the unruly spirit.

HaRav Hutner’s machshovoh is something utterly unique. He explains, clarifies, analyzes and defines ideas and concepts, yet every single thought carries implications for the heart. Every nuance and every shade of meaning plucks at different strings, arousing emotions and the yearning to serve Hashem. Using the language and the tools of the intellect, he kindles a fire of love and fear of Hashem in the heart.

As he himself writes (at the conclusion of the general introductory essay that is printed at the beginning of each of the volumes of Pachad Yitzchok), “The stirring of the awareness of the duties of the heart are concomitant with, they immediately result from and they are connected to the intellectual toil of attaining the divrei Torah [that define them].”

When the Alter of Slobodke zt’l, passed away, HaRav Hutner was standing next to HaRav Yechezkel Sarna zt’l, who commented to him, “Two kinds of builders participate in the erection of every spiritual edifice. One kind are creators (yotzrim), the other kind are storers (otzrim). The creators have now departed from us and we must assume the mantle of storers.”

In his role as a storer, HaRav Hutner rose ever higher, ultimately attaining the role of creator, as the originator of his own spiritual edifice that will continue to quench the thirst of many in the years to come. (Introduction by Moshe Musman.)

A Godol in Torah, in Chinuch and in Hashkofoh

By Avrohom Hacohen Ehrentreu

One of the volumes of Pachad Yitzchok contains a selection of the letters which HaRav Hutner wrote to talmidim over the years from which there is much to be learned about his approach to chinuch. The following article is based upon a selection of these letters.

Contact Through the Written Word

The America in which HaRav Hutner arrived some sixty years ago was not an inspiring place from a spiritual point of view. The prevailing atmosphere among the generation that was growing up was highly materialistic.

Rav Hutner knew how to find a way to the heart of each of his young American talmidim, and with devotion and toil he brought them into the beis hamedrash and planted them firmly within.

Even after his talmidim left Mesivta Rabbenu Chaim Berlin, some of them becoming important Torah disseminators in their own right, HaRav Hutner retained his connection with them, keeping up correspondence in which he asked them to inform him about their progress in both spiritual and material spheres. He wanted them to consult him about any doubts that they might experience and when they did so, he replied with the necessary guidance, noting the recipients’ comprehension of his thoughts with particular satisfaction. He continued to accompany them as they set up homes and went out into life.

The letters are all clearly personal ones. He was familiar with each talmid’s character and the workings of his soul and his message to each one was regulated accordingly. Yet HaRav Hutner’s own personality shines through in each case. He always stressed the feelings that were filling the heart of the writer.

In one letter he mentions that he feels, “the turbulent spirit of a Jewish soul, which looks out of itself and views the twists and turns of the life of a yearning soul.” He is quick to respond to a predicament by stating, “In our times, it is utterly impossible to base one’s guidance and advice to a young man upon comparisons and similarities [with others] and to adduce support from one [young person’s situation] to another. The door [to further discussion] nevertheless remains open and I give you permission to approach me without hesitation at any time that you feel is suitable.”

He knew how to pick the right topic to interest every personality and every age. Every conversation with him was at once a pleasure, as well as a golden opportunity to converse with a great personality.

What a person chooses to say to his own disciples will not always be exactly the same as what he commits to writing, especially in the case of a master of the written word such as Rav Hutner. He once explained that in writing a letter to a talmid he injected vitality into the personal channels that traversed the individual’s soul. All those who were fortunate to learn Torah from him knew the extent to which his relations with and his influence upon each one of them were personalized and precisely tailored to fit the individual’s needs. In this way, Rav Hutner cultivated an array of different personalities among his talmidim, each of whom grew upwards from his own distinct spiritual roots.

In the Beis Hamedrash

This basic rebbe-talmid interaction was one of the most striking and fundamental features of the beis hamedrash. The bonds were not dependent upon any external factor. They were genuine and were rooted deep in the souls of teacher and disciple. He taught that if a talmid forges a bond with his rebbe for any particular reason, be it as sublime as can be, for example because the rebbe possesses ruach hakodesh, it is a shortcoming in his acceptance of his rebbe as his mentor.

What then, forges the bond? It is not through any intellectual attribute but because the talmid finds spiritual pleasure in his rebbe’s words, in his leadership and in his conduct. This pleasure cannot be conveyed in words, for it supersedes intellect. (See a broad treatment of this idea in Pachad Yitzchok, Shavuos, ma’amar 18, perek 2.) The deeper the bond, the more the talmid can receive. Utilizing this bond, the talmidim grew ever higher in stature, each becoming, “a personality, living his [own] life of grandeur.”

His love and devotion to each talmid were well known. He once commented, “A rov’s love for his talmidim is self understood, for the very relationship between rebbe and talmid is formed through Torah; the interaction with the talmid is Torah interaction. How can the rebbe’s heart therefore not be filled with love for his talmid? [For] this [love] is an offshoot of his own general love for Torah. If one finds a rov who loves Torah but not his talmidim, then his love of Torah is worth nothing.”

Interestingly, the love and closeness were also reflected in another way — a way which is of the essence of being a rebbe: rebuke. He once wrote to a talmid, “I want to let you know that I do not forgive you.” Inherent in this snub was also a great compliment to the talmid to whom it was directed. His rebbe considered him worthy of being subjected to a precise accounting over some individual matter.

Rav Hutner’s practice was to conceal his love for his talmidim beneath a mantle of rebuke. He once wrote in a letter, “Every piece of writing endures to some degree as a record — ‘So that they should endure for a long time,’ (Yirmiyohu 32:14) — however, certain things are harmed if they endure for a long time.”

With regard to serving a rebbe too, which is part of the obligation to honor one’s rebbe, he stressed [the desirability of] a general mode of behavior that reflected awareness and understanding of the nature of the obligation, rather than mere outward actions that were empty of meaning. A talmid is obligated to serve his teacher, when it is done in the right manner. The talmid must be a mentsch and must invest the full measure of his own stature into his service to his rebbe.

Yet with all his love and devotion for them, he never actually referred to anyone as a talmid. In none of the many letters which he wrote to his disciples does he accord this title to his correspondent. He noted that while the gaon Rabbi Akiva Eiger also refrained from ever calling anyone his talmid, the Chasam Sofer in his teshuvos uses the term a great deal. He concluded that “both are words of the living G-d,” and that both receive reward in Olom Haboh for their approach.

A large part of the fashioning of his disciples’ spiritual profiles was achieved in the course of private conversations, during which he clarified ideas, revived depressed spirits and offered different forms of encouragement, as well as through the practical guidance which he gave, sometimes in immediate response to an incident.

He would relate that in his youth, he had a conversation with his teacher, HaRav Avrohom Grodzensky Hy’d, in the course of which the latter made use of a parable about a lame man. When it was time for Rav Hutner to go, after they had spent a long time together pleasantly, HaRav Grodzensky asked his talmid to wait just a little longer and he hinted to him that one of the lessons of mussar was to consider which moshol to select. (Rav Grodzensky had a defect in his leg.)

Appreciating the Past

Rav Hutner wrote a penetrating essay about the significance of Jewish history and the injunction to “understand the years of each generation” (Devorim 32:7), in his letter of approbation to the work Toldos Am Olom by Rav Shlomo Rottenberg zt’l. In his letter HaRav Hutner wrote, “The main campaign that we wage is against this point. Viewed through the Torah’s prism, every one of the experiences and upheavals that Knesses Yisroel has undergone is nothing less than Hashem’s pathway and the way He leads His treasured nation. Every added measure of understanding, every new attempt to delve more deeply into historical events in general or into Jewish history in particular in the context of a Torah perspective, is no more than the appreciation of Hashem’s ways.

“It follows that there is no greater closeness to our Heavenly Father than [attaining] this added depth. Whoever limits the work of loving Hashem and fearing Him to talking about Gan Eden and Gehennom, has no place in our beis hamedrash.”

He once delivered a lecture to a select group of teachers and educators in which he dealt with teaching the Jewish history of the past generation. In this lecture, HaRav Hutner took issue with the use of the term sho’ah, Holocaust [with its implication that the essential nature of what occurred is unique in its horror and has no precedent in our history], recommending instead the use of the term churban, destruction [which places the events of sixty years ago in the general context of our bitter experiences in golus, in the course of which there have been other such cycles of tranquility followed by terrible suffering].

In his letters he also toiled to elucidate the words of the great teachers of our generation, from whose Torah we have had the fortune to benefit. In one of his letters, he writes at length in explanation of the Chazon Ish’s ruling that milking on Shabbos is forbidden under all circumstances, “. . . and this is the custom in every place where Shabbos is valued highly and it is the Torah’s way to maintain peaceful relations with everyone and to be forgoing” (Chazon Ish, Shabbos siman 56:7). HaRav Hunter explains that this debate took place during the campaign waged by the heads of the Zionist labor union, the Histadrut, to have Jewish employers only engage other Jews for work (avodah Ivrit). They referred to Arab labor as avodah zarah. This was why the Chazon Ish added some extra conciliatory words: against their envy and vengefulness. These words in favor of employing gentiles in the economy were incorporated into the Chazon Ish’s rulings on Hilchos Shabbos.

In a letter to a talmid who was busy trying to establish a home but who was experiencing tremendous difficulties in finding a partner, he wrote bitingly, “I am well aware of all the trials and tribulations that you have been through . . . and when the day arrives to sing the song over your splitting of the sea, you are busy with a parsha in Torah. I am certain that with the help of Hashem yisborach, you will ascend ever higher and also be successful.”

To an author who sent him a copy of his work, he wrote thanking him heartily, and since he was about to leave for Eretz Yisroel he added, “This trip is very troublesome and distracting and requires much preparation. To my chagrin, I was unable to find the clarity of mind necessary in order to taste properly from your gift and I was compelled to make do with only the pleasure of its aroma.”

His Bond With Eretz Yisroel

He experienced special spiritual elevation during the years that he spent in Eretz Yisroel as a bochur when he learned in Yeshivas Chevron. In a letter from 5689 (1929), he wrote, “More than three years have passed since I ascended to Eretz Yisroel . . . I have dwelt a lot in the tent of Torah and many waves of Torah light have suffused me and illuminated me during this time. Out of inner emotional constancy, I am bonded with a life of elevation in Torah, in every area of this all- encompassing ideal.”

At times, when he was preparing to leave Eretz Yisroel for chutz lo’oretz, he found the parting very difficult: “Many, many of the fundamental ideas of Torah thought and of understanding Judaism have become clear to me and have become well-grounded within me thanks to its influence on me there. No approach, no teacher and no educator, could have penetrated to as deeply within my soul as has Eretz Yisroel, the true place for a life of Torah. A covenant has been established between the Land and the Torah.”

Even after he returned to the United States in order to disseminate Torah and to set Torah upon a firm footing there, the bonds of love for Eretz Yisroel remained strong. He once gave instructions that hakofos should be held in his yeshiva following the meal on the night of Shemini Atzeres as a sign of identity with the inhabitants of Eretz Yisroel who were celebrating Simchas Torah and holding their hakofos that night.

To a talmid who had settled in Bnei Brak he wrote concerning the use of electricity on Shabbos, “Now, certainly, as long as you are in Bnei Brak, choliloh that you should avail yourselves of this service on Shabbos. It is certainly unthinkable to go against the holy wish of that elder, the author of Chazon Ish, zy’a.”

One interesting letter that he wrote to a talmid recalls memories of a shared experience at a simchas beis hasho’eivoh. The place was, “a spacious succah, full of people celebrating, on a high rooftop, separate and set apart from the dwellings of lowliness below. Among the members of the party, all of whom are of the same mind, divrei Torah are delivered that uplift the soul and draw streams of nobility upon the gathering, preparing them for expressing the joy that is inspired by [the fulfillment of] mitzvos. The space inside the succah is filled with song and the music of inner melodies, which are principally directed towards a G-dly point in the soul, that captivates the soul’s pathways. One of the melodies is a wonderful combination of a powerful tune with the words, Achas sho’alti.”

Rav Hutner followed that talmid and noted, “I saw with clarity of vision that your tears then, at the simchas beis hasho’eivoh, were drawn from the wellspring of your soul. And lo, something wondrous: those tears transformed the skin of your face (skin, or with an ayin), to the light of your face (light, or with an alef).”

While HaRav Hutner concentrated all his strength into training his talmidim, his influence extended far beyond the walls of his beis hamedrash to all the other American yeshivos and the Beis Yaakov institutions.

He exhorted them to be a bulwark against the spiritually hostile elements in the surrounding society. He demanded that they aim beyond mere survival, making their target the restoration of bnei hayeshivos and genuine talmidei chachomim to their rightful status in the Jewish world. He stressed that this should be the aim of the Beis Yaakov system as well, repeating the Chazon Ish’s message of encouragement, “Just as the world cannot exist with men unless there are women, there cannot be Torah in the yeshivos unless there is Beis Yaakov.”

The efforts which HaRav Hutner invested in his talmidim yielded a bountiful harvest. In 5699 (1939), he wrote to himself, “Talmidei chachomim, seekers of Hashem, often feel two ambitions in the course of their avodoh, which are opposed to one another in their practical realization. One is the will to take shelter within Hashem’s precinct, while the other is the wish to live in the street and in the tradesmen’s marketplace and to sanctify Heaven’s Name through worldly pursuits and dealings with other people over mundane matters. Attaining the correct balance between these two desires is one of the more difficult tasks in the holy service of Hashem.”

Yet this was the path which he took. In so doing, he transmitted an entire heritage to his talmidim — a heritage that encompassed his outlook on chinuch, his exposition of Torah and the path to follow in order to attain it, and his world outlook.

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