Friday, January 27, 2012

Remembrance and Reflection I

Hertz Frankel and I met initially in 1951 or 1952, early in our involvement in Zeirei Agudah Israel. We participated in the annual conventions of Zeirei, as well as in the main Agudah organization, and also countless meetings where there was much debate over issues that are long forgotten. He went on, of course, to his distinguished career within Satmar which he has described in the fascinating series that has graced these pages, articles that have enriched our appreciation of the extraordinary impact of the Satmar Rebbe.

My communal activity in its early stages – meaning about a decade – included a relationship with the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood, Rav Aharon Kotler, the transcendent figure in the emergence of Orthodox life on these shores in the post-Holocaust period. Some of the sketches that, please G-D, I will write in the weeks ahead will touch on this relationship, yet it is necessary to underscore that it was not at the level of Hertz Frankel’s involvement with the Satmar Rebbe. I did not attend Lakewood, nor work for the Yeshiva. I saw Rav Aharon only during the mid-week days when he was in New York.

In a talk to the rabbinic alumni of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, Rav Shneuer Kotler described my relationship with his father as a servant, akin to that of Yehoshua to Moshe Rabbeinu. When I was with Rav Aharon, I did consider myself to be a servant, never thinking of my own needs or that perhaps I should arrange for a photograph to be taken. There is no photograph of my being together with him.

The Agudah conventions, including those of Zeirei, featured the attendance of Gedolei Torah, including Rav Aharon, Rav Moshe, Rav Yaakov and chassidic rebbes. These gatherings were lively affairs, with lay people, some of them quite young, publicly expressing their views on issues of the day. It was not thought inappropriate for fellows who were still yeshiva students to speak out. The Gedolei Torah who with few exceptions were extremely limited in their English language comprehension, listened and seemed to enjoy watching young men participating with such passion.

Zeirei Agudah is no more. It vanished several decades ago, the victim of changing times. What has been lost, not entirely but to a large extent, is the ideal of askanus, of communal activism by lay people. Askanus means a role that is more substantial than simply writing checks or attendance at conventions and dinners and listening to speeches. Askanus, a term rarely employed nowadays, conveys the notion that even as we are guided by Torah leaders, lay people have ideas and leadership to contribute.

Askanus has behavioral and attitudinal aspects that are closely linked. The behavioral aspect speaks of activism, of religious Jews devoting significant portions of their time to communal affairs. There is little left of this spirit and, to a great extent, for good reasons, such as increased family size and commitments, the endless parade of simchas and events and, most happily, the significant increase in the time committed by most ordinary religious Jews to Torah study. We are left with little time and energy for communal activity.

But it is also true that the ideal of askanus is no longer respected. In my youth and even among the strongest beth medrash students, askanus was considered praiseworthy. Outstanding talmidim were involved in Zeirei, Peylim and other meaningful activities. At Chaim Berlin, the eminent Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, encouraged some of his best students to be involved in Bnei Akiva, the Mizrachi youth organization, because he believed that this would result in the organization being oriented in the right direction. In Lakewood, there were students who were askanim.

Nor was this an American phenomenon, reflecting the still comparatively weak state of an emboldened Orthodoxy that was taking root. In Israel, there were advanced yeshiva students who were active in Agudah and many other klal activities that took place outside of the yeshiva walls. In a discourse given, I believe in 5731, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz wondered why Mir Beth Medrash students were engaged in political work during Elul rather than devoting themselves full-time to Torah study.

The attitudinal component consisted of taking positions. It was legitimate to engage in debate, as had occurred in pre-Holocaust Europe at the Knessiah Gedolahs and conferences. This was in no way antithetical to the ideal of Daas Torah, to the acceptance of the authority leadership. The highest level of obedience is not manifested by total negation, the attitude that it is improper for an ordinary religious lay person to express views on contemporary issues because that is the exclusive province of Torah leaders. The highest degree of obedience to Torah authority is when a person of lesser authority who has articulated his opinion yields because of the contrary view of recognized Torah authority.

Not that I would express an opinion when I was with Rav Aharon. That was out of the question because I would tremble in his presence, a sensation that never left me during the eleven years that I strove to serve him. On occasion, he would ask about my college study and graduate work in political science and constitutional law. He never conveyed to me the attitude that because I went to university and clearly was not particularly learned, I was ineligible to serve in a meaningful communal capacity. To the contrary, he encouraged my askanus and, I believe, he respected me for it.

Rav Aharon was to be my mesader kedushin. He was critically ill as my wedding approached and I was left with his final brocha given from his hospital bed, words that I have cherished for all of my days.