Saturday, March 18, 2017

Headlines Radio Program Advocates and Spins for Lubavitch Acceptance, Rabbis Wary

Dovid Lichtenstein is an intelligent man, a fine talmid chacham and philanthropist, who has come to some prominence in recent years. A number of years ago, he authored an interesting work entitled Headlines: Halachic Debates of Current Events. Sometime afterward, he started a weekly radio broadcast, along similar lines. The program can be quite engrossing, and even riveting, with prominent Torah scholars regularly featured as guests.

In a recent episode, for close to half an hour in the beginning of the program (approximately 2:00-29:35), the featured topic was 'Revisiting our relationship with Lubavitch'.

Below is a synopsis of the program, with some comments and analysis. It is not a full transcript of the program, nor the full story.

The Question

The host's question to his panel of prominent rabbis, allegedly from a listener's letter, basically was that 'given all the favors that Chabad does for Klal Yisroel, that travelers and anyone with a sick family member in a far away place will attest to, and given that dire predictions that they would leave our religion, or even commit suicide, after the death of their Rebbe, did not materialize, should we revisit our attitude to Chabad?'

Lichtenstein was very open about his sympathies to Lubavitch, relating episodes where he was helped by their shluchim in Mexico and Italy in difficult circumstances, during his travels, and that definitely produced a significant tilt in the program in favor of Lubavitch.

Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky

The first Rav who the host turned to in the program is Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky shlit"a, Rosh Yeshivas Philadelphia, from whom he played a short, enigmatic snippet proclaiming that Lubavitch are our brothers ("We should surely consider them our brothers.").

The host describes that as "an amazing opinion". Obviously, he wants us to view it answer as a full-throated endorsement of Lubavitch, with the Philadelphia Rosh Yeshiva going along with his advocacy of general acceptance of present-day Lubavitch. Of course, that would be a giant departure from the longstanding Litvish Yeshiva world position. But is it indeed so?

Analysis & Reality Check - Despite what the host might wish, that is not what the Rosh Yeshiva said. Someone can be viewed as a brother, but still as a person with a different way of life, whom you differ with in important ways, and keep some distance from. We did not hear exactly what query was proposed to Rav Kamenetsky either (at other times, both the host's queries as well as answers of guests are aired, in contrast), nor what else he may have said beyond the short snippet aired. It is clear that editing is involved in the program, which is almost always prerecorded. In view of the above, a giant question mark hangs over Lichtenstein's interpretation that Rav Shmuel shlit"a has suddenly departed from the longtime Litvishe Yeshiva world consensus to embrace Lubavitch unconditionally. Large questions about editing, spin, and interpretation loom in the background.

Just to be sure, I contacted a very highly placed source in Philadelphia who confirmed to me that Rav Shmuel does not give a total, blanket hechsher on Lubavitch.

 If the host would ask the Rosh Yeshiva about our attitude to non-Orthodox Jews, he would also agree that they are our brothers. But does that mean that we accept them totally, with everything they stand for? Of course not.

Similarly, in another Headlines program just one week after the one under discussion (, at just after 15:00, when the Rosh Yeshiva was asked about dealing with a child 'who is seriously off the derech', the Rosh Yeshiva said 'we should accept them, and love them, and tell them that we hope they change their mind.' So we see that to the Rosh Yeshiva, acceptance of someone as a relative does not preclude serious disagreement.

Rav David Cohen, Congregation Gevul Yaavetz

Following Rav Shmuel, the host presented the well known mechaber Rabbi David Cohen of Congregation Gevul Yaavetz of NY, who commented 'I don't even know why you need my comment. Of course they should be embraced - they are our brothers. The fact that many of them believe that the Rebbe was moshiach, in no way excludes them from Klal Yisrael. Throughout the ages there have been people who had this kind of hashkafah and it's not a psul. The only people who deserve richuk are people who are apikorsim and it is very difficult to be mekareiv them. There are unfortunately those who believe in the 'Elokai milimatah' (not clearly elaborated upon, but referring to certain belief with regard to the last Rebbe) Those individuals need richuk. But Lubavitch as a whole? The fact that some people resented that they believe the Rebbe is moshiach, has nothing to do with richuk.'

Analysis - a) Rabbi Cohen says that many believe the Rebbe was (past tense) moshiach. He does not address the belief of at least some, perhaps many, in Lubavitch, that he still is moshiach now, b) he does mention an undefined group that does need richuk (distancing), but doesn't define what they believe exactly.

Nevertheless, despite those two very important caveats, the host gushes about how pro-Lubavitch the response allegedly was. Which is not telling the entire story.

Rav Hershel Schachter, Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan

Rav Schachter said that he thinks the Yeshiva world is worried about people davening to the Rebbe, and those that believe the Rebbe is moshiach, which can lead to avoda zara, as it did in history. Overemphasis on moshiach can lead to avoda zara.

Rav Menachem Mendel Shafran, Chasidishe Dayan in Eretz Yisroel

Nobody hates them, everybody who really travels is mechabed Chabad for good they do, whatever they are doing good is very good, but what they are doing no good is no good.

We don't have to be machshir problematic things due to good things done. They can't be toveia (demand) that we have to accept their hashkafos, a hechsher on everything, because they are doing tovos for Klal Yisroel.

Rav David Yosef, Rav, Rosh Kollel, member Moetzet Chachmei HaTorah (Shas)

Opened by saying 'it's a very difficult question'.

He starts with high praise for Lubavitch and the late Rebbe, talking about shluchim he met, and their work in distant places.

From the other side, he believes that they are not allowed to say that the Rebbe is still alive. He wishes they will open their eyes. That he could convince them that they are wrong, it's a very bad idea, against Judaism, against Torah.

Reb Dovid Lichtenstein, the host, speaks

Says that he grew up in 'a Litvishe environment', went to great Litvishe yeshivos. He never saw the  Rebbe (Ramash), and never was in 770 E.P. (Lubavitch HQ). Says 'I'm a Litvak' (I believe he means in terms of institutions studied at - family roots can be a different matter).

He repeats old Lubavitcher arguments claiming that it is not problematic to believe the late Rebbe is moshiach, both before as well as after his passing, claiming that is okay based on gemaras. Of course, interpetation is key. How the passages are interpreted.

Rav Nisson Kaplan

Rav Nisson Kaplan of Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem, refrained from giving an opinion, as he stated that his mother told him not to get involved in such a matter, due to her personal history during the WWII era.

Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky of Lubavitch

At the end, the host brings on Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky of Lubavitch, who works with Lubavitcher shluchim and chairs their annual conference. Lichtenstein asks him about people davening to the Rebbe, to which he says the Rebbe was a Shulchan Aruch Yid, and that if anyone does that he is not a real Lubavitcher (the no true Scotsman response).

The  host says that we have to take him at his word, he's certainly an עד כשר (kosher witness) (but isn't the category of נוגע בדבר relevant?).

Closing thoughts

There are longstanding differences of opinion, חילוקי דעות, in the Jewish world about certain inyanim. The fact that Lubavitchers do chesed, and did not convert, or commit suicide, after the passing of their Rebbe, is a red herring. The differences still exist. Those that agreed with Lubavitch in the past, likely still agree with them, while those that didn't, likely still retain reservations. Everyone can/will believe as they wish, but we should be honest about things.

The bottom line here is that the host was advocating for Lubavitch and spinning things for them to the point of distortion and misrepresentation. People should be aware of this and not be misled. It also raises questions about the program in general, e.g. how reliable is it? In this program, as well as in a later follow up segment with Rabbi Dr. David Berger, the program is seriously compromised by the host's obvious feelings about the matter. It leads one to wonder if that has happened in other instances as well.

As our holy Torah tells us, כי השחד יעור עיני חכמים.

In a way, it is sad, but it is also good that it brings this issue to light, that we need to be wary of conclusions based on programs that can be edited and manipulated.

May Hashem lead us in the path of truth, and may we merit שלום על ישראל במהרה בימינו.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Oh My, How the Shtreimels Have Grown - Purim in Williamsburg 5731 (1971) vs. Forty Years Later

Note the size (and type) of the shtreimels in this Purim video from Williamsburg Brooklyn in 5731/1971 (h/t), as opposed to in this Purim one forty years later. Extra credit for noticing other changes in the scenes.

Hopefully the growth was not just external.

A gutten chodesh Adar.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

When A Chasidic Tale Clashes With Halacha - A Recent Account From Neo-Chasidism

About three years ago, at a Shabbos in Manhattan, a visiting Rabbi related an old Chasidic tale that left students in an uproar. It was Shabbos of parshas Mishpatim of 5774, and the location was Yeshiva University.

The visiting Rabbi told of a family who had two sons that were circumcised and died afterward due to it (perhaps due to what we call today hemophilia). In such a case, Jewish practice dictates that future sons are not circumcised, due to pikuach nefesh (the imperative to save and preserve life), as it assumed that they are also in mortal danger from a bris. However, in this case, in the Chasidic tale, a Chasidic Rebbe, Reb Pinchas of Koritz, visiting the area, noticed the young uncircumcised male child and asked about him. He was told that the child's brothers had died due to milah, so he was not circumcised, as above. Whereupon he said that the child would be alright, and that he himself would perform the bris milah on him the next day. So people got together the next day, and a bris milah was done. However, after the milah, the child was bleeding, and it could not be stopped, and it appeared that he would die like his brothers had before him. There was panic and despair in the air. Reb Pinchas walked outside where he encountered the Rebbe Reb Zushe, who was told about the situation, and said don't worry, I'll take care of it. He then went inside and said that everyone should sit down and eat, and things will be okay. During the meal, things came under control with the child's situation. Later on Reb Pinchas asked him how he knew that would solve the problem. He responded that it says in the pasuk (in Mishpatim, this week's portion) ויחזו את האלקים ויאכלו וישתו - when middas hadin, signified by the shem Elokim, is seen, one should eat and drink, show friendship to one another, and so on, and things will be okay.

The tale left some talmidim of the yeshiva very upset, as it appears to endorse going against halacha, and they protested to hanhalah about it.

Who was the visiting Rabbi at YU who told over the tale? It was Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, the then new mashpia of Yeshiva University, and rabbi of Congregation Aish Kodesh in NY, someone who has been written about here previously, due to other problematic statements and teachings of his.

One of the hanhalah members of YU commented that it is a Hasidic tale, and there is a saying of Chasidim themselves that 'anyone who believes all Chasidic stories is a fool...'.

(heard from reliable, well connected Yeshiva Rav Yitzchak Elchanan  sources)

Chasidic stories have a goal of promoting Chasidus and Chasidic leaders.

If eating and drinking is a way to solve all dangers to life, why wasn't/isn't it done it done to save other people as well?

Anyway, it is hard to understand such things.

For non-Chasidim, we don't have such problems. We know that we are supposed to follow halachah, and that is it.

Good Shabbos and a gutten Chodesh.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Vital Legacy of Rav Moshe Shapiro z"l - Living Refutation of An Old Canard

Rav Moshe Shapiro was niftar recently in Eretz Yisroel. A gadol baTorah and gadol bemachshavah, with many talmidim. Numerous hespedim were held for him in various parts of the world at various points after the his passing.

One important aspect of his legacy that is worthy of note, is that he personally was a living refutation of an old canard. The disgraceful slander referred to here, which certain people and sects have been spreading for many years already, is that the Litvish type of Yiddishkeit and Torah is (ח"ו) superficial and external, and that for 'inner Torah', or פנימיות התורה, people need to look elsewhere, for example to a Hasidic sect. As if at מתן תורה the Litvishe only received a limited portion, just some lomdus perhaps, and not the full package of Torah. These propagandists were (and are) stereotyping the Litvish Torah world as a whole as being people concerned and involved with relative externalities, trivialities, superficial things, while claiming that members of their sect were/are connected to deeper, inner Torah, more 'spiritual', and so on.

Rav Moshe Shapiro z"l, a proud Litvak, and giant in מחשבה, was a living refutation of their disgraceful propaganda. His greatness in מחשבה attracted talmidim from a wide range of backgrounds, including Chasidim. It was so great that it could not be denied, even by members of sects who think that area belongs to them. Hopefully his talmidim will perpetuate this important legacy of his.


Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Emes-Torah Interface - Insights from Rav Shmuel Rozovsky zt"l

Rav Shmuel Rozovsky (English) zt"l, who served as Rosh Yeshiva in Ponevezh Yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel after moving there from Lita, was one of the leading Litvishe gedolim of recent times. Since he passed away at a relatively young age (in his sixties) over thirty five years ago, he is not as well known, especially among the younger generation in the diaspora, as he might have otherwise been. But people in the know, and mevinim, recognize a gem when they see one.

A fine, illustrated biographical work on Rav Shmuel was published within the last year, which I looked at a bit in recent months. One chapter in it that drew my attention in particular, was the one (chapter twenty eight, bigematria koach, strength) on midas ha'emes, truthfulness. The fact that it was such an important and central part of his life, as to merit a chapter of its own, is itself telling and beautiful.

I would like to share some gems from that part of the book about this great gaon and tzaddik.

Rav Shmuel cited a verse from Tehillim 119:163 שקר שנאתי ואתעבה תורתך אהבתי (loose translation - I hated falsehood, and loathed it, your Torah I loved), expounding upon it that there is a connection between hating sheker-falsehood, and loving Torah. For Ahavas HaTorah, one first must hate falsehood, sheker.

Rav Shmuel took it further as well, observing from the double expression of the posuk that hating falsehood was not enough, but rather it should also be loathed, seen as something disgusting, something that a person can't stand.

Rav Shmuel remarked that a mouth that speaks sheker (ר"ל) is not mesugal (not favorably inclined) to being a talmid chacham amiti (an authentic high level talmid chacham) (my understanding and elaboration - of course such people could repeat teachings which others have already brought to this world, and even add to or expound on them, in olam hazeh where sheker is strong, Hashem yeracheim, however shortcomings in emes hamper true advancement at higher levels).

He connected emes with behirus - truth with clarity. If something (e.g. a piece of Torah teaching) is true, correct, it is naturally clear. It is no coincidence then, that he was renowned for his great clarity.

In an instance when a particular presentation didn't make him happy, he held back from accepting it. He remarked zeh lo misameach osi - it doesn't make me happy. That to him was an indication that it was not emes, since Torah, which is emes, goes together with happiness (see e.g. Tehillim 19:9, פקודי ה' ישרים משמחי לב).

He also saw lack of precision and exaggeration as forms of sheker, and stood strongly against them as well, in addition to more obvious and blatant falsehood.

Naturally, there are also some fine stories about his being modeh al ha'emes in public, even when it could reflect negatively on his scholarship, such as stopping his shiur upon worthwhile objection to it from a talmid, as well as other, more unique examples.

Since time is limited, and I don't have the sefer with me at the moment either, I will stop here now, confident that the brief tidbits above are sufficient to give over the basic flavor of the chapter, and whet the appetite for further study.

May we be zoche to follow in the way of Rav Shmuel zt"l, a true Litvishe gadol, who displayed the authentic beauty of the derech ha'emes, and become outstanding in truthfulness and Torah as he was.

A freilichen Chanukah.

P.S. It seems quite clear that Rav Shmuel would be strongly against those who take liberties and are less than truthful in relating allegedly inspirational stories and so on, with the excuse that they are doing so to inspire people in their Yiddishkeit. One does not build Toras Emes of Hakadosh Boruch Hu by entering into a joint venture with the 'other side'.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Slonimer Sensation, or Overactive Imagination?

A few days ago, I read with interest a piece at a new high level Jewish website about an alleged "Slonimer sensation".

Someone reading the piece, about a past leader of one of the factions of Slonimer Chasidim, referred to as the Nesivos Shalom, by the name of his written work, could emerge from it thinking that Nesivos Shalom has surpassed the Mesilas Yeshorim in popularity, ר"ל, and that it is the greatest thing to hit the Orthodox world since sliced bread and daf yomi.

It is so overdone, that a reality check is sorely needed, which hopefully will be accomplished here, since I don't see others addressing it.

While it is true that the Nesivos Shalom has gained in popularity in recent years, the piece, however, is compromised by hyperbole. It conjures up images of people in suburban America, worlds apart from, and limited in knowledge of contemporary Chasidic life, nevertheless viewing themselves as experts on it. Though they may be quite knowledgable in some aspects of it, they may be lacking in other areas, such as context.

Let me address some of the arguments of the writer now, in some detail.

A) The writer posits the existence of a "Slonimer sensation", taking the Jewish world by storm with a 'stunning degree' of popularity.

Based on what? Numbers of google results. Ahhh. Rebbe Google, the posek hador, strikes again. Google paskened that Nesivos Shalom > Mesilas Yeshorim > Alei Shur. The problem is that Rebbe Google is a sheigetz. And an am haaretz gamur. And not only in limudei kodesh, in limudei chol as well!

If you follow that same yardstick, you could also conclude that Donald Trump > George Washington > Thomas Jefferson > Abraham Lincoln  (google Donald Trump = around 482,000,000 results, George Washington = 346,000,000, Thomas Jefferson = 87,2000,000, Abraham Lincoln = 54,500,000), something I haven't heard from even his most ardent supporters.

Additionally, many of the results for Netivot Shalom in google are not for the Slonimer work, but rather for left leaning congregations, and other irrelevant for this discussion entries.

B) The writer claims that since some people allegedly refer to the Nesivos Shalom simply as "The Slonimer", that shows a special degree of affinity that exists for him. I, however, suspect that they call him that because they know of no other Slonimer. They don't know about the Litvishe history of Slonim. But even on the Chasidic side, they don't know that Slonimer Chasidus has been divided for many years, and that multitudes of Slonimer Chasidim did not accept the Nesivos Shalom as their Rebbe. To these people, however, Slonim = Nesivos Shalom, hence the Nesivos Shalom is "The Slonimer", as if he were the only Slonimer Rebbe ever, rather than one of many over the years. However, the truth is that even when he was serving as Rebbe for his faction, he was not the only Slonimer Rebbe. He was only the leader of one part of a divided sect.

To refer to him then, as "The Slonimer", unqualified, is like calling The Rebbe of Satmar in Kiryas Joel "The Satmarer". Is it absolutely wrong? No. But it is only part of the truth. Satmar is divided into two (main, there are other smaller ones as well) factions. Bobov is divided into two. Vizhnitz has two Rebbes. Other groups have more than two Rebbes.

For more about the divisions in Slonim, see this Hebrew Wikipedia entry.

The parallel English Wikipedia entry, although it has much less information about the split in Slonimer Chasidus, at least mentions it.

However, the Nesivos Shalom English editions (this recent volume, for example), seem to contain no mention of the fact that Slonim has more than one Rebbe. Which leads people to assume that all Slonimers are united as followers of R. Berezovsky. I think that at least it should allude to it, and not give people the impression that the Nesivos Shalom was the undisputed Slonimer Rebbe.

C) The writer posits that R. Berezosky was unique, as he came from a background which combined both Chasidic and non-Chasidic influences, as well as other non-Slonimer Chasidic ones, due to his teaching at a Lubavitcher Yeshiva in adulthood.

As to the first point, other Yeshivos - Chasidic, Misnagdic, and other) also had varied influences and faculty, perhaps more than Slonim as well.

Re the second point, his teaching in a Lubavitcher Yeshiva for a time, I am afraid that that is not as unique as it is made out to be as well. For example, Maran HaRav Schach, זצוקללה"ה זי"ע, taught in a Chasidic Yeshiva too, for a number of years, of Karliner Chasidim, upon the invitation of their Rebbe. Rav Yisroel Gustman זצ"ל taught at a Lubavitcher Yeshiva for a while as well.

The view from here

The reality as I see it, is that, yes, of course, the Nesivos Shalom has attained a degree of popularity beyond his home community (thanks to articulate fans in places like California and Minnesota promoting him to the English speaking world, in their language, in part), but much less so than a casual reader of the Lehrhaus piece might think. Some individuals who are eclectic in their tastes may enjoy him. Some of those types otherwise affiliate with the Litvishe-Yeshivishe world, but, maybe to inject some variety into their lives (perhaps they are on a too narrow contemporary Litvishe spiritual diet, as opposed to the more broad based, balanced, and holistic diet advocated by gedolei Lita such as Gaon of Vilna) occasionally look to the Chasidic world for something different. In the past (and perhaps present too), some such types looked to Reb Tzadok of Lublin, or the Sefas Emes, in the way they look at the Nesivos Shalom now. Some may think it is 'cool' to throw in some Chasidic sources at times (I am reminded of a time when I heard a prominent Litvishe type speaker addressing a crowd, citing 'the heilige Slonimer Rebbe, the Nesivas Shalom' ['the holy Slonimer Rebbe, the Nesivas Shalom']. He was such a big Slonimer Chasid, בלשון סגי נהור, that he didn't even get the name of the sefer right), or do it as an attempt to show that they are more broadminded than they may seem. But overall, I don't believe the Litvishe-Yeshivishe World as a whole has flocked to the Nesivos Shalom en masse (for example, is there any standard Litvishe yeshiva that has a regular seder in it?).

In conclusion, while I have taken issue with some of the piece about the Nesivos Shalom, particularly the former part of it, I think that the analysis and ruminations in the latter segment on spiritual leadership are valuable and worthy of consideration. Litvaks (Misnagdim, or non Chasdidim) should consider why some who generally affiliate with their world, nevertheless, sometimes look elsewhere for inspiration, and ponder if that indicates an imbalance in some of their institutions, which should be addressed with wisdom, if necessary.