Monday, September 4, 2017

The Nesivos Shalom Controversy and Its Broader Ramifications for the Torah World

Lehrhaus has just published an extraordinary piece. An exposé by a fervent Israeli (Dati-Leumi) Chasid, Rabbi Dr. Zvi Leshem, of problematic aspects of the נתיבות שלום of R. Shalom Noach Berezovsky, a Rebbe of one faction of Slonimer Chasidim, a work that has gained a cult-like following in some quarters in recent years.

Visitors to this site may recall that a number of the months ago, there appeared here a different critique of the Nesivos Shaom phenomenon, from a Litvishe-Misagdic point of view, in reaction to a Lehrhaus piece lauding it.

Now, with the appearance of Rabbi Dr. Leshem's excellent piece, it is evident that the Nesivos Sholom phenomenon is long overdue for some serious scrutiny. If traditionally opposite camps both have serious problems with a work, it is time to reevaluate it, and its place among us.

The question is asked, what accounts for the popularity of the Nesivos Shalom, among certain segments of the community? Building on what Rabbi Dr. Leshem states on the matter, it seems to me that it has become a staple fed to students  from the diaspora at many seminaries and yeshivas, as it is Hasidism light. Things like modernistic Hebrew, and a more open attitude toward Israel than prevails in some other Hasidic sects, make it an easy fit for faculty who want to offer something a bit different to fill time in the year or more that many Modern Orthodox types study in Israel (or elsewhere) for.

As an aside, I do take exception to the conflating in Rabbi Dr. Leshem's piece of the Litvishe tradition as a whole, with some severe mussar texts or schools within (or without of) it. Not all Litvaks were part of the mussar movement. Some opposed it strongly. And even among those who were part of it, there were great differences. Just like Slabodka and Novhardok were quite different, so too there were significant differences among other Litvishe as well. For example, the Michtav Me'Eliyahu of Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler z"l (cited by Rabbi Dr. Leshem in his piece as an alleged exemplar of the Litvishe world), was opposed by some of his Litvishe brethren for various reasons. The traditional Litvishe velt would take strong exception to certain aspects of the Nesivos Shalom just as Rabbi Dr. Leshem does.

בכל דרכיך דעהו, within a framework of moderation in dealing with the physical world, was and is taken very seriously by Litvishe תלמידי חכמים past and present. The Litvishe Torah world extends far beyond black hat yeshiva walls, and its representatives are found in various places and positions, not just or necessarily ראשי כולל, ראשי ישיבה, and some משגיחים.

There also is in this episode an important broader lesson, namely that before people become followers of a leader or sect new to them and their background, they should exercise due diligence, and go beyond the figurative headlines to check for suitability, acceptability, and compatibility.

May we merit appropriate and fitting spiritual guidance, on a deep level.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Dynamics of Spiritual Momentum - Insights into the Workings of Mitzvah Goreres Mitzvah

We are taught in Pirkei Avos, Ben Azai says מצוה גוררת מצוה and עבירה גוררת עבירה. One mitzvah drags along another mitzvah, and conversely, an aveirah drags along an aveirah.

Seems pretty simple.

However, even a seemingly straightforward teaching, can be understood in different ways by different people at times. This mishnah has featured in Chasidic-Misnagdic debate over the years.

Exhibit one -

Chasidim who davened late were criticized for missing zeman tefillah. One answer given by R. Yitzchak Meir of Gora Kalwaria was as follows. The mishnah says aveirah goreres aveirah. However, according to the Chasidic respondent, those Chasidim who davened late, after davening would learn Torah. If so, according to him, that proves that their davening late was not an aveirah, but rather a mitzvah, since it was followed by another mitzvah, rather than by an aveirah (source)

Misnagdic responses to this clever defense could be as follows.

1) Mitzvah goreres mitzvah doesn't mean that one mitzvah observance will, with total certainty, follow another (and conversely with aveiros). Rather, it means that it will bring another mitzvah opportunity in its wake, following it. A type of positive spiritual momentum, if you may. In the final analysis, however, the person involved will have to choose if they will continue in the mitzvah path or not, by acting to take advantage of the new opportunity, or to lose the momentum, and squander the new opportunity.

Therefore the fact that people were learning after davening late, doesn't prove that the davening late was entirely proper. It may be that they just took separate action to move on to learning, not that they coasted there with the momentum of what they did previously.

2) Davening late (at least within some type of correct time frame, e.g. not davening shacharis during the time of mincha) is not an aveira (such as eating non-kosher or wearing shatnez), but rather carrying out a spiritual activity without following its prescribed regulations. Such a act might be endowed with different dynamics than an actual full-fledged aveirah.

3) There may have been another, possibly unseen, or unnoticed, act between davening late and the learning, which arrested the initial negative spiritual momentum.

Exhibit two -

Rebbe Yitzchak of Radvil asked as follows. We put tefillin on in the morning. This should lead to more mitzvos, because מצוה גוררת מצוה. So everyone should be a tzaddik, as this mitzvah should lead to another, which would lead to another, and on, and on. Why don’t we see this happening? He answers; it depends on how the person does the mitzvah. If he does it with joy, then definitely so. If not, however, it won't have this ability (source, p.8-9).

A Misnagdic response to the above would be (IMHO) that, as above in exhibit one, מצוה גוררת מצוה is not an unstoppable force. Rather it is a type of momentum, spiritual momentum. Just as physical momentum has limits, so too does spiritual momentum. Momentum is not inevitability. We would not agree that 'a mitzvah done without simcha' (as if such could be so easily measured or determined, if it exists at all), or otherwise in less than optimal fashion, is devoid of the power of momentum. Misnagdim have a more expansive, inclusive view of spiritual momentum, and don't limit it to what people consider mitzvos done besimcha.

Exhibit three - 

A fine contemporary hit song, known as שכר מצוה, states העושה מצוה אחת קטנה בשמחה מגלגלין לו לעשות מצוה גדולה מהראשונה - someone who does a small mitzvah with simcha, the opportunity is given to him to do a greater mitzvah.

While some people may not notice or pay heed, those lyrics actually differ from the mishna in פרקי אבות. While the mishna speaks of mitzvos generally, without classifying them as being smaller or larger, and without discussing if the mitzvah was done besimcha or not, the song lyrics introduce those new classifications/qualifications/limitations. I don't know where the lyrics are from, but I suspect that they are from (a) Chasidic source(s). If someone can shed light on the matter, please enlighten us. 

Let us hope that we seize our moments for good, and maintain positive momentum forward.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Many Friends of Rav Moshe Feinstein zt"l

The other day, while listening to the Headlines program, I heard stated, in the introduction of a well-known New York Rav (רב יהודה דוד בלייך שליט"א, Rabbi J. David Bleich) "he's one of the few people in the world who can say that Rav Moshe Feinstein referred to them as yedidi" (1:08:55-1:09:30 approximately).

I heard similar words in another program by the same host about the same guest in the past.

It didn't sound right to me, didn't square with my recollection however.

Just to check, I opened up אגרות משה (which can be seen at, and in the pages I went through, it seemed like just about every שואל was referred to that way, i.e. as ידידי  (with some exceptions, such as relatives, e.g. Rav Moshe's uncle, who were referred to based on their relationship).

I believe Rav Moshe also signed some public letters with the words ידיד כל אחד ואחד, משה פיינשטיין.

So it seems like an out and out error.

Rav Moshe z"l was a man of many friends.

Since Headlines and its author/host have become important players on the frum scene, it is proper to treat them with appropriate attention and seriousness, which includes correction of errors, such as the above.

Also, in another recent program, the host stated (1:35) "we love when people disagree, the koach of Klal Yisrael was always the כח of argument, discussion", as well as citing Bill Gates at another point, or in another recent program, as saying along the lines of that one learns more from those who disagree with them than those who agree with them.

Based on the above, the host should welcome these corrections. אי"ה there will be more coming.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Road From Uman to the Vatican - Understanding the Astounding

A few weeks ago an astounding video was published online, proceeding to go viral in short order. It showed a group of ostensibly Haredi Jews dancing and singing (during sefirah, with instruments no less) before the Pope in Vatican City to the words of Tehillim, אורך ימים אשביעהו ואראהו בישועתי (I will satiate him with long life and show him my redemption).

A firestorm of criticism erupted online. R. Yair Hoffman, a newspaper writer (along with a Lubavitcher shliach that was removed from his post years ago, by the name of Shmuley Boteach), attempted to tampen down the outrage, but many others took a much harsher view of the event, including Lubavitch, which took action against their shliach that participated.

I want to comment on an aspect that has not received much, if any attention. That is the Uman-Breslov connection involved.

A great amount of the participants in the singing and dancing are alumni of the annual Breslov Uman Rosh Hashanah gatherings. One of them even has his own large minyan there. Zvi Gluck is an Uman veteran. While perhaps Rabbis Pinson and Gluck senior didn't attend, nevertheless the majority or overwhelming majority of the participants appear to be Uman alumni. R. Pinson, although of Chabad-Lubavitch background, has close ties to the Uman group, and spoke for them a number of months ago in a trip in the Middle East.

The Uman Rosh Hashanah gathering has been described as a sort of Jewish Woodstock (Of course, not all Breslovers and Uman visitors are the same. There are different types of Breslovers, and different types of minyanim at Uman. Nevertheless, for some there it has the atmosphere of such a giant festival). Coupled with Breslov teachings about simcha, and doing foolish things to make merry, and the lack of a current supreme Rebbe in Breslov, one can see that the door is left open, or it is encouraged for people to come up with various jolly stunts. In this case, the stunt is singing and dancing a Shlomo Carlebach song in various places around the world.

With most of the participants being younger people with limited life experience and knowledge of Jewish-Catholic relations, and with that Breslover mentality, we can understand how the astounding event came to pass. What is more surprising, however, is how the (by far) senior member of the group, Rabbi Edgar Gluck, born before WWII, went along with it. Perhaps it is part of the pre-messianic confusion of פני הדור כפני הכלב in which the youth lead the elders, instead of the reverse, as the Torah mandates.

Also interesting is how Haredi media reacted to it. Interestingly, it appears that major Haredi media, including Yated Neeman and Hamodia, as well as major website, did not report the story at all. A blackout was imposed. Perhaps they felt bewildered and had trouble explaining the idea of a group of ostensible Haredim from Brooklyn, NY, with the leader in full Hasidic dress, came to sing and dance before the pope. And they were not singing מה יפית either, though perhaps in a way it was somewhat analogous. One could imagine if non-Orthodox leaders would have done the same thing, or some from left-wing Orthodoxy, what kind of an outcry likely would have ensued, in protest of breaching of traditional religious boundaries.

The bottom line is that it was a stunt of a few people, and not representative of mainstream Haredi Judaism. The people involved are not major Rabbis. Despite the seemingly impressive title of chief Rabbi of Galicia, R. Edgar Gluck has not given up his longtime home state of New York, where he continues to be active in local affairs, as an askan or shtadlan. Chief Rabbi of Galicia pre WWII would have been impressive. Now, however, what remains of Judaism there is a miniature shadow of its former self.

I have doubts that Reb Nachman of Breslov himself would have approved.

Let us hope that in the future people will act more responsibly, and curb frivolous instincts they may have, or at least not publicize inappropriate behavior around the world.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Lag Baomer in pre WWII Mir Yeshiva in Europe

In the current issue of the Yated Ne'eman (USA) newspaper (p.59), we learn about Lag Baomer in a protypical Litvishe yeshiva.

R' Yitzchok Hisiger reports that someone once asked the legendary R. Leib Malin z"l what Lag Baomer was like in the famed Mir Yeshiva of old. R. Leib's response was וואס מיינסט דו? מען האט געציילט ספירה (What do you mean? We counted sefirah). The writer goes on to say that that was it, otherwise the yeshiva's sedarim went on as usual.

Paragraphs of commentary follow. Rav Yitzchok Sorotzkin shlit"a comments that it is ironic that some use the day to slack off in Torah, the opposite of what it stands for, in view of R. Shimon ben Yochai's maximalist reading of the words of the posuk that לא ימוש ספר התורה הזה מפיך (see ברכות לה ע"ב).

So the next time someone tries to convince you that you need to go to Meron, dance around a fire, or engage in some other foreign thing to be "yotzei" Lag Baomer, remember R. Leib, and let them take a hike.

Wishing you a good day from virtual Lita.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Chabad-Lubavitch Acts Against Emissary for Inappropriate Vatican Activity

Although we have significant differences with Lubavitch here, nevertheless, I want to compliment them for their action in the wake of the visit of a Hasidic delegation to the Vatican the other day.

It seems that they have removed the listing of the Lubavitch branch of the shliach involved from their website.

While we are prepared to work with others, including leaders of other faiths, to advance certain important goals, nevertheless, gedolei Yisrael, including such different personalities as Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik z"l and the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, have delineated guidelines for such meetings, warning against interfaith theological discussion. They have instructed that traditional faith boundaries be respected. Those guidelines seem to have been violated in this case.

Also problematic in the event was the singing, with instruments, of a verse from Psalms, in front of the Pope. It is problematic for a number of reasons, such as we are now in a historic mourning period, part of which is due to commemorating the many thousands of victims of the Crusades who were massacred in this time of the year, in which live music and dancing with instruments is banned, as well as the danger of the verse and the action being misconstrued, if not worse.

We need to make it clear that the delegation was not made up of major Jewish leaders. Rather it was a group of minor ones.

Hopefully in the future we will will merit the blessing of Chazal that אשרי הדור שהקטנים נשמעים לגדולים, fortunate is the generation in which the small heed the direction of the gedolim, the great Jewish leaders.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Man Who Was So Busy Learning That He Had No Time To Become A Talmid Chochom

The story goes that back in the old country there was a Yid that was always learning Torah, yet remained in the realm of ignorance, not becoming a talmid chacham.

R. Chaim Brisker was asked to explain the phenomenon. He explained that 'he is so busy learning, he has no time to become a talmid chacham' (source - Kerem Yehoshua: Bring Clarity To Your Learning And Master Shas, By Rabbi Yehoshua Cohen).

What does that mean? It means that the idea of learning Torah is to become knowledgable in it. One needs to learn with seichel, with a method, to grow in Torah knowledge and understanding. Just 'learning' alone, without proper digestion and absorption of the Torah studied, can leave a person in (relatively) ignorant state, despite numerous hours spent 'learning'. Just like someone eating profusely, but not allowing his body to digest and absorb his intake properly, will not be healthy.

A related teaching from Chazal is brought in Rashi on the first pasuk of parshas Vayikra, which we just read. It tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu had hafsakos, breaks, between one parsha and the next, to have space/time to think. To digest and absorb the Torah he learned. And afortiori, all the more so, for people on a lower level, with lesser teachers, that such breaks are needed for proper Torah learning.

A related Litvishe teaching is that there is an inyan of bittul Torah be'eichus. Bittul Torah in terms of the quality, the level of the Torah study. If someone can learn on a higher level, with deep understanding, and instead remains on a simplistic level, he has fallen short. Bittul Torah is not just a matter of quantity.

We need to keep in mind that the goal of Torah learning is to truly understand Torah, and not be like the pious fool that was always learning, but remained ignorant.

May we merit becoming true תלמיד חכמים.