By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
We pulled up to the quaint, centuries-old hotel. The lobby was unremarkable. It had some sofas and plush chairs, along with potted plants and tasteful rugs. A receptionist stood behind a long polished desk, checking our reservations and sliding the room-keys across its surface.
It was a pretty typical hotel scene, taking place in Manchester, Vermont. The picture behind the receptionist was remarkable. I stared at it repeatedly. From the frame, the image of an old-time Jewish man stared out at me. With a flowing beard and peyos, and a funny hat covering his head, he stood in the lobby of this very hotel, working the desk.
The picture was incongruous. What was a man like that doing here?
His eyes really captured me. They seemed to be looking off into the distance, imagining, envisioning and praying. There was a look of loneliness and inner sadness in them, but also a faint glimmer of hope. Perhaps there would yet be a future.
“Who is that?” I asked the clerk. She did not know.
The picture was a charming bit of history, the front desk and its personnel as they appeared a hundred years earlier.
I had gone to Vermont for a chance to catch my breath, but that night ended in sleepless reflection.
Reb Yid, where are you now? What happened to your children, your einiklach? Did you perhaps give up and return home to Europe, realizing that America was no place for one who dreamt of a spiritual future? Did you push on and succeed, maybe even meriting descendants who are shomrei Torah umitzvos? Or did the story end on a painful note, with your first generation slipping away and their children drifting even further, another family lost to its people?
The mental image of that picture haunted me since I saw it back in August, and recently it appeared in my mind again. Last week, the New York Times ran the kind of article you wonder how many people are interested in, but I was fascinated by it.
The story was about a salvage drive for an old mural. In 1910, Ben Zion Black left Lithuania and arrived in Burlington, Vermont. Almost as soon as he arrived, the local Chai Adam shul hired him to paint a two-story mural in the style of Eastern European shuls back home. The images contained in the mural celebrate rich Jewish life. In the spirit of the shuls in scores of Litvishe hamlets, it rose behind the aron kodesh to touch the ceiling.
Back in the day, Reb Ben Zion was paid $200 to display his artistic talents. The shul was located in an area laid out like a Litvishe shtetel from which many of the area residents had emigrated. It was known as “Little Yerushalayim,” complete with shuls and all sorts of kosher shops.
Eventually, the shul building was sold. The mural was photographed and hidden behind a false wall by the locals who hoped to somehow preserve it. The story of the mural caught the attention of Samuel Gruber, who studies the art of Eastern European shuls. He says that he “had seen pieces of surviving murals in Europe and examples of decorated synagogues on Chelsea, Mass and Toronto,” but nothing like this one. “I really didn’t expect to see this in Burlington.”
Historians and curators are now raising funds for the mural’s restoration and maintenance, hoping to hold on to its fascinating bit of history.
The article concludes with a quote from Mr. Gruber: “We’re not talking about a great art masterpiece. What really makes it special is that it is a survivor.”
The recently-departed and beloved Rav Yankel Galinsky zt”l would describe the time he met a high-ranking secular Israeli politician. The fellow complained to the maggid that religious politicians were holding up a proposal for the construction of a new prison. “We have all the money allocated for it. All we need is the final approval and the chareidim are getting in the way.”
Rav Galinsky shared a tale about a dangerous highway, filled with bumps and curves. The town council met to discuss the fact that there were numerous accidents on the hazardous road. Someone suggested that they build a hospital at the roadside to treat the injured. The council embraced the brilliant proposal and got to work raising money to erect a hospital.
“Really,” smiled the wizened maggid, “they should have used that money to fix the road and take care of the problem. The religious politicians probably feel that the money you have set aside for a prison can be better spent to ‘fix the road’ and educate young people in a way that will ensure that they don’t end up going to jail in the first place.”
So now the good people of Burlington are seeking to raise several hundred thousand dollars to preserve a survivor. They are expending much energy, time and resources to build a hospital rather than fixing the road and establishing a proper Jewish educational system.
The mural is indeed a “survivor,” but the images it depicts and represents will have no meaning to those who marvel at it, if nothing is done to ensure that the Jewish people who have survived centuries of abuse and exile educate their young about the glories of their tradition.
There is no question that those raising children in the America of 2014 are so much more fortunate that the Jew whose countenance graces the hotel lobby and his fellow New England immigrants, who faced the daunting task a century ago. We have the luxury of wonderful mosdos and a rich frum landscape with shuls and schools that cater to us, and vibrant kehillos and neighborhoods that provide us with the best opportunities to lead complete Torah lives.
But make no mistake. It took work, focus and vision to succeed then, and it is no less true today. Authentic Yiddishkeit means making choices. Sometimes, they are very difficult ones. The Jews who arrived here at the turn of the last century worried about their children and their future, but tragically, they were unable to translate their fears into enough positive action. The concept that the religious educational system of the old country couldn’t be adapted here was so ingrained that nobody even attempted it, until a dreamer named Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz appeared on the scene. They had their Talmud Torah Hebrew Schools, and by and large that was it. Many awoke early to learn and daven before setting off to work, seven days a week. There was no other choice.
The Brisker rosh yeshiva, Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Soloveitchik, commented that many of the Americans he meets tell of a grandfather or grandmother who was moser nefesh for chinuch, who refused to accept the grim prognosis for American Jewry and battled for Shabbos, kashrus and chinuch.
“When I was young,” said the Brisker rosh yeshiva, “I thought that all American Yidden were tzaddikim. When I got older, I realized that it’s mostly those Americans I meet, the ones who are frum bnei Torah who go to yeshivos, who have these stories. The vast majority of grandparents who weren’t as strong, lost their children.”
Far be it for us to judge those who succumbed to the pressures and winds of the goldeneh medinah that was America. Surely they meant well. They made cheshbonos that their offspring would be different than the populace and would be able to fight the tide. Sadly, in most cases, it was false hope. Their intentions and hopes may have been pure. In fact, the Chazon Ish prophesized the mass teshuvah movement of the past few decades. He said that he saw, both in Eretz Yisroel and abroad, the second generation rejecting the religious life of their parents. “But the older generation sees their secular grandchildren and cries bitter tears to Hashem over what has become of them in the new country,” said the Chazon Ish. “There is no doubt that in the merit of those tears, their grandchildren will grow up and experience stirrings of teshuvah.”
We can’t even attempt to understand the nisyonos faced by tired, hardworking immigrants who came to this land to escape starvation, pogroms and forced military conscription. What we can do is to look into the Torah, our eternal guide, and glean direction relevant to our times.
People who thought they could compromise and still stay ahead of the game found out the hard way that they couldn’t. Those who embraced the zeitgeist were constricted and bound by it.
In next week’s parsha, we will learn how the Jews sinned with the Golden Calf. Moshe Rabbeinu proclaimed, “Mi laShem eilay – All who are on the side of Hashem should appear with me.” The posuk relates that the shevet of Levi rallied to Moshe’s side.
The words of the Chofetz Chaim, which I merited hearing from his talmid, my grandfather, Rav Leizer Levin zt”l, have become legend. My grandfather was a Levi, and he told me that his rebbi, the Chofetz Chaim, himself a kohein, explained to him the reason he was a Levi.
“It is because when Moshe Rabbeinu called out, ‘Mi laShem eilay,’ your grandfather [and mine] responded positively. Remember that when the call of ‘Mi laShem eilay‘ rings out in our day, make sure to give the right answer,” the Chofetz Chaim urged him. This was one of the messages the Chofetz Chaim would often repeat, and each time it would leave an indelible impression upon his talmidim.
Shevet Levi did not take a poll to see which side would win, Moshe or the others. They didn’t take a head count in an attempt to determine which side would emerge victorious from the battle and where they should line up. Moshe needed them and they rose to the occasion. Hashem caused Moshe and the Leviim to win and beat back the idolaters, and thus the plague that threatened the Jewish people was squelched.
Torah Jews aren’t supposed to check to see which way the wind is blowing before taking action. They are not supposed to be manipulated by public opinion. They are not supposed to be impressed by self-promoting press releases, court documents, and New York Times op-eds. They are not supposed to straddle the fence in the face of a campaign to separate the Jewish people from the Torah transmitted to us by our parents and grandparents.
“V’al tis’chakam yoseir,” says the wisest of all men (Koheles 7:16). Don’t try to outsmart the world. Don’t think that you know better than everyone. Don’t try to reinvent halacha and mesorah and turn the mitzvah observance of our children and grandchildren into something our grandparents wouldn’t recognize.
Yechezkel Hanovi (chapter 37) describes Hashem’s prophecy to him regarding the atzamos yeveishos, dry human bones that Yechezkel returned to life. Hashem told Yechezkel that the bones were symbolic of the Jewish people. Just as the bones were brought back to life and returned to their original lives, so too the remnants of Am Yisroel should never give up hope. They will be returned to their original state in Eretz Yisroel.
The Gemara in Maseches Sanhedrin (92b) records a machlokes about whether that prophecy actually took place or if it is merely an allegory.
Rebi Eliezer ben Rebi Yosi Haglili says that “The dead people Yechezkel brought back to life went up to Eretz Yisroel, married and gave birth to sons and daughters.” Rabi Yehuda ben Beseira rose up on his feet and declared, “Indeed, they really did come back to life, it was not simply an allegorical account. In fact, I am a descendent of a man who was brought back to life. I wear his tefillin. The tefillin given to me by my grandfather were handed down to him from his ancestor who was brought back to life in the prophecy described by the novi Yecheskel. Ani m’bnei b’neihem v’halalu tefillin shehiniach li avi abba meihem.”
These tefillin were left to me by my father’s father! This is the song of our generation of American Jewry. Our ancestors docked at Ellis Island and settled in one of the then-burgeoning Jewish communities of Omaha, Nebraska, or Memphis, Tennessee. Perhaps it was freezing Winnipeg, Canada. Either way, with their resolve and drive, and no small amount of tearful prayer, they merited that we can point to our heads and hearts and say the words: “Halalu tefillin shehiniach li avi abba meihem.”
I wear the same tefillin my father does, and his father did, and his grandfather did, all the way back to Sinai. Through all the exiles, the halacha leMoshe miSinai relating to tefillin – what they look like and who wears them – has remained constant.
They look exactly like the tefillin worn in Burlington, Vermont, Chelsea, Massachusetts, and the Warsaw ghetto, and those smuggled into Auschwitz under the threat of death. The tefillin we wear in America today are the same as those worn during the golden period of Spain, the Inquisition, and the periods of the Botei Mikdosh.
All throughout history, as others have mocked us and sought our destruction, those who answered the call of “Mi laShem eilay” remained loyal to the traditions passed on through the generations.
In our day, too, there is a kolah delo posik, a silent call emanating from Sinai, the Har Habayis and from every bais medrash around the world. It proclaims, “Mi laShem eilay.”
We must answer, “Hineini. You can count on me. I will make myself worthy of this mission.” We wrap tefillin upon ourselves, we hunch over our siddur, and we remind ourselves that we are up to the sacred task.
We have to stay focused on the goal and realize that today the yeitzer hara comes in a new guise. He no longer attempts to convince us that we have to desecrate Shabbos in order to earn a livelihood. He has become much more sophisticated and uses lofty spiritual rhetoric to engage us. He speaks of tikkun olam, of harmony and achdus, of making Yiddishkeit “user-friendly” and approachable. But underneath the call for peace and goodwill, the modern-day scoffers of Torah are remarkably sensitive, thin-skinned and insecure.
Rabbi Avi Weiss continues to menace the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and attack standards of geirus and general halacha currently in force in Eretz Yisroel. Last week, he published a scathing attack on the Rabbanut in the New York Times, exposing the masses to his portrayal of the chief rabbis’ evil, harsh and strong-armed tactics to keep halachic standards.
Reacting to the Rabbanut’s initial refusal to accept his testimony about the Jewish status of two people who wanted to be married in Eretz Yisroel, Weiss wrote in his Times opinion piece, “I therefore went public by challenging the Chief Rabbinate in the press in the hope that community awareness and involvement would lead to a solution. I was ready to bring the matter before the Israeli Supreme Court.
“The Chief Rabbinate, in contrast, has been turning inward, taking religiously extreme positions, consolidating and extending its power. In 2008, in one sweeping move, it limited the right to participate in American conversions to a short list of handpicked rabbis and rabbinical courts. It did so by enlisting the full cooperation of a major American rabbinical association that ceded its autonomy and capitulated rather than stand up for all of its members in the field.
“This was a major step backward. One of the most vibrant aspects of Orthodoxy in America has been its decentralization and proliferation of many voices. It would be particularly distressing for Orthodoxy in America to reverse course and adopt the stifling hierarchical model of the Israeli Rabbinate.
“In a democratic Jewish state, options must be available. For example, an Orthodox group in Israel, Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah, has proposed that communities elect their own religious leadership and receive state funding. In matters like marriage and conversion, communal standards would be taken into consideration instead of dictates imposed from above.”
What is the 2008 Rabbanut consolidation of power to which Weiss refers? In 2008, in order to curb the performance of subpar geirus procedures, the Rabbanut and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) introduced the Geirus Policies and Standards (GPS) program, in which only certain botei din jointly approved by the Rabbanut and the RCA would be granted seamless Rabbanut acceptance of their geirim. Weiss fought this program, arguing that it stripped individual rabbis of their autonomy.
Avi Weiss has been on a campaign to undermine the Rabbanut and replace it with an American-style rabbinate, lacking central authority and allowing an “anything goes” system to take over. That way, rabbis could set their own standards. Weiss and his Open Orthodox colleagues would be rabbinic authorities equal to all other rabbonim, carrying out all types of faux procedures, prayers, innovations and conversions.
In fact, Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah, of which Weiss is a principal controller, has called for the ability to have non-Orthodox Rabbanut members and the abolishment of the rabbinical status quo: “If a neighborhood democratically voted in a non-Orthodox rabbi, then they too will be an intrinsic part of the decision-making of the local and national, religious leadership.”
We thus have Avi Weiss publicly disparaging rabbonim in the pages of the New York Times and elsewhere calling for the dissolution of the Chief Rabbinate as we know it, with his Israeli group calling for the ability to have Reform and Conservative Rabbanut rabbis who set their own standards.
Furthermore, Weiss has previously and repeatedly called for the acceptance of non-halachic conversions and weddings in Eretz Yisroel: “For this reason, Israel as a state should give equal opportunities to Conservative and Reform communities. Their rabbis should be able to conduct weddings and conversions.”
Weiss and his faux-Orthodox group are strongly lobbying for a churban of yuchsin and Torah standards. By enlisting the help of lawyers, politicians, secular and general media, and non-Orthodox Jewish groups more than happy to assist in this attempt to destroy the Orthodox rabbinate, along with his threats to take the Rabbanut to the Israeli Supreme Court, Weiss has bullied and terrorized the Rabbanut and tried to menacingly foist his vision of halacha upon it and Israeli society as a whole.
As we have been reporting for years, Avi Weiss began a snowball series of pirtzos of Torah. He has ordained women rabbis, watered down geirus standards, and had a female cantor for Kabbolas Shabbos davening at his shul. He introduced women’s Krias HaTorah, haftorah and megillos. He has brought heretics and gentiles to speak at his synagogue, with these guests singing and dancing in the sanctuary and his yeshiva’s beis medrash. He has headed a movement that supports non-traditional marriage and defends rabbis who deny Torah MiSinai. This is the story of a person who has defied all boundaries and knows no limits.
The latest breaches perpetrated in the name of Orthodoxy were decisions by schools to allow female students to wear tefillin. Despite the accepted ban on this practice, as found in the Shulchan Aruch (Rama on 38:3, Gr”a, Aruch Hashulchan and others), schools are now permitting it and are being cheered on with great fanfare.
The pattern set by Weiss and Chovevei Torah – ignoring past custom and tradition – is evident in this latest travesty. Portraying themselves as the heroes and the chareidim as villains, Open Orthodoxy pushes the envelope yet further, gaining for themselves much positive press and liberal accolades. Fiercely hanging on to the Orthodox appellation, they search for the next area of halacha and mesorah to be challenged.
Yet, the Orthodox community, by and large, remains silent in the face of yet another step away from Orthodoxy by the group that seeks to battle it from within and without.
For years, the Orthodox establishment largely ignored the outrages of Avi Weiss. Fear of making him into a martyr, or causing more attention to be drawn to him and his antics, kept many quiet, wishing he would just go away and fail to draw much of a following. Invariably, each new step away from halacha and mesorah by Weiss and his group was met mostly by a quiet yawn or a rare hand slap.
By now, it should be evident that this approach has failed. Weiss continued to press on with his agenda and widen the goal posts, winning battle after battle. Now, he has maligned the Israeli chief rabbis in the general media, seeking to dilute their authority and the rule of halacha. He threatens to take the rabbinate to court in order to impose non-halachic geirus in Eretz Yisroel and allow secular rabbis to play a role there. This year, he will be graduating a second class of “Maharat women rabbis,” as more and more of his students come out for non-traditional marriage.
Is there a breaking point? What will be the next halacha to be trampled upon?
We must take a stand. Silence has backfired. Let’s not fear to take a strong, public stand and finally stop the hemorrhaging in the name of Orthodoxy. If we don’t, we may wake up to find that yuchsin, geirus, halacha and mesorah have been set back so far that we will have to be defending every one of our hallowed traditions and halachos.
We must look at the pictures or letters of our zaides and bubbes, the ones who made the decision, somewhere back in time, to stand firm. We must look back to those who responded to the call of “mi laHashem eilay.” Make no mistake: Every one of us has such ancestry. We must contemplate their legacy and then answer the haunting question asked by Moshe Yess in his classic song: Who will be the zaidies of our children? Who will be their zaidy if not me?
The battles are just beginning and we don’t have the luxury of staying impartial. We need to hammer home the truths of Torah hashkofah to ourselves and our children, not tolerating these deviations. Our organized groups must speak up, despite the fact that it may render them unpopular among those who claim to seek achdus and progress.
Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl related that during the British Mandate period in pre-state Eretz Yisroel, the Jews of the old yishuv suffered a series of attacks from Arabs. Jewish Agency officials, charged with political representation of the community, hit upon a plan. If the Jewish community would surrender their claim to the Kosel, they claimed, the Arabs would be placated and desist. The Jewish Agency bureaucrats explained that, in reality, nothing would change, and the Jews could continue to daven at the Kosel as before. It was only a signature on a piece of paper, a symbolic transfer meant to attain peace.
The officials had trouble convincing the people, however, so they went straight to the top. The frum community was split between two leaders, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld and Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Kook. Though these two rabbonim differed in many matters of hashkafah, they responded to the Jewish Agency proposal with the exact same words: “The Kosel doesn’t belong to me,” they said. “It belongs to Hakadosh Boruch Hu.”
Like the proverbial shtetel of simpletons who cut the parchment of the Sefer Torah that was sticking out of the new, attractive, velvet mantel, we are witnessing the Torah being cut to fit an ideal. We see how institutions and communities are buying into this hostile takeover of the Torah, reinterpreting it to fit some so-called value system. They will sue, they will persuade, and they will be choneif our enemies. They will do whatever it takes to succeed. And if we don’t stand tall and make our voices heard, they will continue on their march.
Rav Elyokim Schlesinger of London had a close relationship with his rebbi, the Brisker Rov. When Rav Schlesinger left Eretz Yisroel to assume a position as rosh yeshiva in Europe, he wanted to part from his rebbi. The Rov was in Switzerland resting and his talmid went to spend Shabbos with him. On Motzoei Shabbos, they sat together and spoke divrei preidah. It was an emotional leave-taking, and both Rav Schlesinger and the Rov sensed that it was the end of an era. They might never see each other again.
They spoke for some time and the Brisker Rov said, “Let us eat melava malka. We have some more time.” As they partook of their final meal, the Rov recited the zemiros with great kavanah as he did each week. Rav Schlesinger tried to hold back his tears of longing for more time with his great rebbi.
The moment of farewell came and the Rov walked his student to the door, quoting the posuk in Yeshayah (4:3) which states, “Vehayah hanishar b’Zion vehanosar b’Yerushalayim kadosh yomar lo – It will come to pass that he who is left in Zion and he who remains in Yerushalayim shall be called holy.”
The Brisker Rov pointed out that those who remain loyal through the pangs of golus, will be referred to as holy ones. The Rov offered a final directive to his beloved talmid: ‘Men darf nor bleiben ah nishar un ah nosar. We have to endeavor to remain remnants…”
We must do all in our ability to sustain and transmit our traditions in the face of that which confronts us. Our lives should be murals and pictures telling powerful stories of survival.
Maybe the eyes of the man in the picture are looking at us, urging us not to accept those who say we must change and adapt for survival. Those eyes are telling us not to fall for cynical, manipulative speeches and op-eds. If we are to survive we must remember who we are.
If we stand proud and firm, the Shomer She’airis Yisroel will surely help guide us back to Zion and Yerushalayim, and the nation of remnants, survivors and holy people will rise once again.