Sunday, March 8, 2015

Old Litvish Comes Back Into View (Chofetz Chaim video analysis)

The recently discovered Chofetz Chaim video has garnered much publicity and commentary, and rightfully so.

A few days ago, a more sophisticated analysis appeared online, giving important context to the video.

However, I don't recall seeing some of the points that occurred to me, so I will share some of my thoughts here.

Old Litvish vs. new Litvish

Many people, perhaps the overwhelming majority of people out there in the sugya, have a certain image of what a Litvak, an orthodox, Torah observant Litvishe Yid, is. It likely is, for most such people, someone wearing a fedora, with a necktie (often with eyeglasses as well). Or, if they are a Rav, perhaps with a Homburg type hat. They might picture him as beardless, in a light colored modern suit as well. However, the Chofetz Chaim, one of the most famous and venerated Litvish Torah personalities of modern times, and perhaps of all time, in a few moments of moving pictures, demolished all those stereotypes. Not one of those things are seen on him in the video!

What is the explanation for this?

The answer is, that the Chofetz Chaim, when the video was filmed in 1923, was a Litvak from an earlier era. A throwback to pre-modern Lita. That partly was due to his age. Recall that he was born way back in the 1830's. But also due to his chosen way of life. He deliberately did not wear a Rabbinic hat, preferring the hat of a simple baal habayis (layman). The modern garb of light suits, ties, and fedoras adopted by many young Litvish Yeshiva students in the early 1900's, reportedly under the direction of the Alter of Slabodka (although some aspects of it started earlier), to give the Yeshiva students status, to counter the picture of them promoted by their 'enlightened' opponents that painted them as 'shleppers', giving them instead an aura of sophisticated urbanity, was a new thing, and one that the Chofetz Chaim, as a conservative small town Yid from a previous generation, did not adopt.

While we have many photos showing the new Litvish style, Yeshiva students, Rabbonim, and gedolim, in the newer garb, we have many less images that give a glimpse of the older, simpler, Torah observant Lita. Seeing such images, therefore, are a great revelation, taking us back into an earlier time. Being transported to the old Lita with such video footage, even for just a few seconds, is therefore an unexpected revelation and delight.

A posek, a Litvishe Halachist, and Baal Mussar - and not a Brisker!

Another way in which the Chofetz Chaim was an old fashioned, pre-modern Litvishe Yid was in his type of Yiddishkeit. He was from the pre Brisker era. Nowadays, many (rightly or wrongly) identify Litvaks with people learning with 'lomdus' and 'Brisker Torah', in wake of the revolution wrought by R. Chaim Brisker. Often, those who followed that trend shied away from hammering out halachic conclusions, and they were also not part of the musar movement as well. The Chofetz Chaim, on the other hand, was diametrically apart from this new Lita of Brisk. He was, on the contrary, heavily involved in and promoting halacha study and mussar.

Lessons to be gleaned

The overhelming reception to this video, as well as the great, enduring popularity of the Chofetz Chaim zt"l, tell us that there is a thirst and a need for the old Lita, the old Litvishe way. The new, modern Litvish way, of some, of placing great emphasis on Brisker chakiras and fedoras, needs to be reexamined (a process already underway for a while, but more still is needed). Perhaps it was important and necessary for some a century ago. But that doesn't mean we must follow it slavishly now as well, without modification.

The fact the Chofetz Chaim video resonated so well with the frum masses, tells us something very important.

People crave authenticity, Emes. Especially nowadays, when the sheker in the alma deshkira (world of falsehood) has gotten so strong and pervasive. The Chofetz Chaim exuded old fashioned, authentic Yiddishkeit, and Emes.

Such lessons are ignored at our own peril