Sunday, April 15, 2012

Remembrances and Reflections IX - A Shabbos in Jerusalem

In the 1950s, Rav Aharon Kotler generally went to Israel every several years, invariably during the Bein Hazmanim period when yeshiva was off. These trips were intended to encourage the charedi world still struggling to rebuild after the devastation of the European Churban and also to speak and even campaign on behalf of Agudath Israel. After his father-in-law, Rav Iser Zalman Meltzer, died in 1953, he assumed to an extent the position of Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Eitz Chaim in Jerusalem and gave shiurim there during his visits.

At the time, I did not reflect on Rav Aharon’s role as a campaigner for Agudah. He was, after all, an ardent Agudist and since the electoral outcome impacted on the status of religion in Israel, I assumed that it was natural for him to do all that he could to assist the movement that he believed in. What he did was, in fact, extraordinary, meaning that no other Torah leader followed the same path. Gedolei Torah did not in this period speak at what were essentially political rallies. Much later, of course, Rav Schach did, but in the 1950s, Rav Aharon was unique in this regard. Indeed, it was Rav Aharon who urged Rav Schach to become more involved in klal activities.

Another remarkable factor is that Rav Aharon came from the United States for the purpose of getting out the vote for the Agudah, although he could not vote in the election. Furthermore, he spoke in Yiddish, although even then among charedim Hebrew had become or was in the process of becoming the dominant language.

Except for his summer 1959 trip, I was never with Rav Aharon in Israel. Even on that trip, I did not go or return with him and we were together only infrequently. Rabbi Avraham Stefansky, a talmid in Lakewood who was close to the Rosh Yeshiva, accompanied him on a regular basis. Rabbi Stefansky who has lived in Israel for perhaps forty years and is a top administrator at Neve Yerushalayim, the excellent multi-faceted kiruv and chinuch institution for girls located in Har Nof that was established by Rabbi Dovid Refson, should consider writing his zichronos.

I did speak to Rav Aharon before I left on my trip to Israel and carried out several small errands at his request. The highlight of the trip was a Shabbos in Jerusalem when I ate the meals at what was once the home of Rav Iser Zalman Meltzer and was now the home of Rav Yitzchak Meir Ben-Menachem, his other son-in-law. Rav Ben-Menachem was a member of the Beth Din Hagadol, a state sponsored body that has served as a sort of Supreme Court for the Israeli beth din system operated under the authority of the Chief Rabbinate. To the consternation of kanaim, eminent Gedolei Torah have served on this top rabbinic court.

Rav Ben-Menachem’s family included his wife, Rebbitzin Kotler’s sister who had more than a touch of her sister’s sanctity, and their two children, Efrat and Menachem, who were then about 10-12 years old. Rav Aharon loved these children. They obviously spoke Hebrew and, at least then, scarcely understood any Yiddish. During one of the meals, Rav Aharon attempted to make the case that the Ashkenazic and not the Sephardic havara or mode of pronunciation is correct. Subsequently, Efrat married Rav Eliezer Piltz, the Rosh Yeshiva of the highly regarded yeshiva in Tifrach, where Rav Menachem Ben-Menachem is also a Rosh Yeshiva.

Avraham Stefansky was also there for Shabbos, as was Rav Yaakov Schiff, Rav Aharon’s outstanding American talmid who came to Israel to be married not long thereafter to a daughter of the Brisker Rav who was seriously ill at the time and who passed away several months later.

Late on Shabbos morning and during the meal, Rabbi Wohlgelernter, who was an official at the Chief Rabbinate, came to tell Rav Ben-Menachem that Rav Yitzchak Herzog, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, had died during the night and that there would be a meeting of the Beth Din Hagadol after Shabbos to determine the details of the funeral. Rav Aharon spoke highly of Rav Herzog, adding that he hoped to be one of the maspidim. Rav Yaakov Schiff’s protest that Rav Herzog was a Mizrachist who had not opposed the draft of girls into military service was brushed off by Rav Aharon who noted that Rav Iser Zalman had eulogized Rav Kook. As an aside, there is hanging on the wall in my Jerusalem apartment a poster announcing the public hesped for Rav Kook at the Churva Shul, with Rav Iser Zalman listed as the first speaker.

Rav Aharon also noted that Rav Herzog was a Talmid Chachom who had done much to assist Jews during the European Churban and that Rav Shmuel Yitzchak Hillman, Rav Herzog’s father-in-law who had been a member of the London Beth Din, was an outstanding Torah scholar.

The Motzoei Shabbos meeting was quick and Rav Aharon was asked to be one of the speakers, I imagine at the suggestion of Rav Ben-Menachem. Also scheduled to speak were Rav Yitzchak Nissan, the Rishon L’Tzion or Sephardic Chief Rabbi, and Rav Shlomo Zevin, the prolific and highly respected author of the multi-volume “Ha-Moadim B’Halacha” and many other sefarim. There was at least one other speaker whose name I do not recall. Rav Aharon was strongly inclined to accept, noting that it was important for the public to hear the message that he wanted to deliver and also to hear a Yiddish speaker. There was, however, a hitch. The levaya was to be at Heichal Shlomo on King George Street, the seat of the Chief Rabbinate that had opened about a year before. The Brisker Rav had proscribed entering the building because Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, a key Mizrachi leader, had suggested that it become the seat of a new “Sanhedrin” that would examine and, when necessary, restate the halacha in light of the establishment of the State of Israel.

Rav Schiff argued that it would be inappropriate for Rav Aharon to enter Heichal Shlomo in defiance of the Brisker Rav’s edict, which he would be required to do if he did speak. He then suggested, “Der Brisker Rav is der Rav fun der shtadt. Der Rosh Yeshiva zol fregen der Brisker Rav.” (The Brisker Rav is the rabbinic authority in Jerusalem. The Rosh Yeshiva should ask him whether it is appropriate to speak from Heichal Shlomo.) Rav Aharon did not take kindly to this suggestion. I will omit certain details, except to note that Rav Aharon exclaimed in anger, “Ich ken alain paskanim a shailah.” (I am competent to decide an halachic issue.)

Yet, at the end of the day, Rav Schiff’s words had an impact and Rav Aharon decided not to speak at Heichal Shlomo. As many of Israel’s leading rabbis were gathering before the levaya at the Herzog home on Ibn Ezer Street, Rav Aharon sent an intermediary to Rebbitzin Sarah Herzog to ask whether he could speak there before the funeral. She acceded to this request but, as was reported in the newspapers, Rav Nissan strongly objected because if Rav Aharon spoke at the home, it would mean that there would be a speaker before him and this would be an affront to his dignity.

Rav Aharon spoke at the cemetery in Sanhedria where Rav Herzog is buried. His eulogy was warm and contained much praise of Rav Herzog. Although the text of the eulogy is available, for whatever reasons, it has not been included among the hespedim published in “Mishnas Rav Aharon.”

Remembrances and Reflections VIII - Rav Aharon and the Rav

As I was standing outside the home of Rav Shneuer Kotler during shiva on a brutally hot early July night in Lakewood, a car pulled up and two men got out. They opened the back door and virtually carried Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik into the house. He was extremely frail and in declining health. I went inside and heard him say to Rav Malkiel Kotler, “I was a friend of your grandfather, I was a friend of your father and, im yirtzeh Hashem, I will be your friend.”

What was the relationship between Rav Aharon Kotler and Rav Soloveitchik? It often is difficult to pin down what is meant by friendship. In part, it is an expression of feelings and, in part, it arises from personal contacts. Among the Gedolei Torah who are overwhelmed by their communal responsibilities, what ordinarily is referred to as friendship is largely absent from their lives. There is too little time for indulgence in social transactions, such as casual visits, that exist among friends. This was certainly true of Rav Aharon whose crushing daily schedule included learning and shiurim, fundraising and an avalanche of klal commitments. Rav Soloveitchik was an essentially private, even reserved, person who in addition to his significant role at Yeshiva University had much on his plate in Boston. There also were the major lectures and writings that he crafted with much care.

Of course, Rav Aharon would find time to relax and reminisce about what had transpired in pre-Churban Europe, as when he ate with talmidim on Shabbos in the yeshiva and, as I witnessed, at Agudah conventions. I imagine that Rav Soloveitchik also had such moments of relaxation. Overall, these were men who eschewed the relationships that we commonly describe as friendship. Accordingly, when we speak of their friendship or relationship, what we essentially mean is that their relationship was one of personal respect and not that they had much ongoing and direct contact.

It is known that Rav Aharon did not have a favorable view of Yeshiva University. I was told that in his 1930s fundraising trip here, he gave shiurim at Yeshiva and was not happy about what he saw. Other eminent European Roshei Yeshiva also gave shiurim there during their trips to the United States, most notably Rav Shimon Shkopf, the Grodna Rosh Yeshiva. He was at Yeshiva for an extended period and entertained the notion of accepting a permanent position, but decided to return at the behest of the Chafetz Chaim and Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzienski.

Rav Aharon’s objections to Yeshiva University also arose from his insistence that the primacy of Torah study requires the total exclusion, at least at the Beth Medrash level, of any secular study. Without going into the full history which has been recounted elsewhere, shortly after the Second World War a serious effort was made by officials at Torah Vodaath and Chaim Berlin to establish a joint university-level academic program that would take place in a yeshiva setting, the intent being to deter their students from attending Brooklyn College in the evening after the mandatory two sedarim in the Beth Medrash. When Rav Aharon heard of this initiative, he immediately instructed that it be abandoned and it was abandoned.

As I have noted, prior to Rav Aharon’s arrival, the American Agudah was a far cry from what it became later on. The core of the organization was the Zeirei Agudah. Rav Soloveitchik at that point identified with the Agudah. Indeed, when news came in 1941 that Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzienski had died, he gave the principal hesped on behalf of the American Agudah.

More well known, of course, is his subsequent embrace of Mizrachi and Religious Zionism, a conscious choice that he described in emotional and, at times, poetic language in “Chamesh Drashos” (Five Lectures), a revelatory work that is a key to understanding Rav Soloveitchik. As he wrote, he left the house of Brisk for whom Mizrachi was anathema. Rav Soloveitchik was immensely affected by the Holocaust and then the establishment of the State of Israel. Of historical interest, as he moved from Agudah to Mizrachi, there were notable Roshei Yeshiva who were taking the reverse course, moving from Mizrachi to Agudah, largely because of Rav Aharon’s influence.

Rav Soloveitchik’s active identification with Mizrachi – and it must be underscored that he played a major role in the movement – did not serve as an absolute barrier to a relationship with Rav Aharon. However, it was always Rav Aharon who reached out to Rav Soloveitchik, in much the same way that he reached out to countless others across the spectrum of Orthodox life. My assessment is that because they were in separate hashkafic camps, their interaction and cooperation were limited.

During the fervid 1953 battle over the draft of girls into military service in Israel, Rav Aharon reached out to Rav Soloveitchik, hoping that he would come out publicly against Ben-Gurion’s decree. There was a meeting at Rav Mendel Zaks’ apartment in Manhattan. Rabbi Dov Ber Weinberger drove Rav Aharon to the meeting and he was witness to what happened. This report, never before published, was told by him to me many years ago and was recently confirmed by him.

In line with their usual mode of address, Rav Zaks was referred to as the Radiner Rosh Yeshiva. Rav Aharon as the Kletsker Rosh Yeshiva and Rav Soloveitchik as the Bostoner Rav. After more than a half hour of futile effort to get Rav Soloveitchik to publicly oppose gius banos, Rav Aharon came up with the following brilliancy, of course in Yiddish. He said, Bostoner Rav, imagine that instead of the three of us discussing this issue, there were another three who were judging the appropriateness of drafting girls into military service. Instead of the Bostoner Rav, there was your zeyde, Reb Chaim. Instead of the Radiner Rosh Yeshiva, there was your father-in-law, the Chafetz Chaim. Instead of me, there was my father-in-law, Rav Iser Zalman Meltzer. Bostoner Rav, what would your zeyde have said?

This masterstroke did not result in a shift in Rav Soloveitchik’s position. He got up and said that he had to leave, “Kletsker Rosh Yeshiva and Radiner Rosh Yeshiva, a gutten tag” and left. He never opposed giyus banos or, for that matter, publicly the Mizrachi on any major hashkafic issue.

Yet, not long after this incident, in 1954 or 1955, Rav Aharon reached out again to him and enlisted him in efforts to raise funds for Chinuch Atzmai. The high point came at the first Chinuch Atzmai dinner where Rav Soloveitchik made the most remarkable speech I have ever heard. Rabbi Henoch Cohen who has served Chinuch Atzmai for nearly sixty years with great devotion and who, please G-D, is about to make aliyah with his wife Chana, has a disc of this memorable speech.

After explaining why though he is a Mizrachist he is helping Chinuch Atzmai, Rav Soloveitchik spoke warmly about Stephen Klein, Chinuch Atzmai’s chairman and the president of Barton’s Candy. He then lavished praise on Rav Aharon, comparing him in elaborate language, first to the Vilna Gaon, then to Rav Akiva Eger and finally to his zeide, Rav Chaim. I was standing directly behind Rav Aharon as Rav Soloveitchik spoke and as each of these comparisons were made, Rav Aharon tugged at Rav Soloveitchik’s jacket with one hand and implored him to stop and with the other hand he pounded on the table and intoned repeatedly, “Das iz nisht emes, das iz nisht emes.” As I looked more closely at Rav Aharon, I saw that he was crying.

In subsequent years, Rav Soloveitchik’s involvement with Chinuch Atzmai was intermittent, invariably after Rav Aharon asked for his help. Rabbi Cohen tells me that there were occasions after Rav Aharon passed away when Rav Soloveitchik assisted Chinuch Atzmai.

What is evident is that he had enormous respect for Rav Aharon. He came to the funeral at the Pike Street Synagogue, apparently with a hesped written out, but sadly and mistakenly, he was not given the opportunity to speak. When Rav Soloveitchik passed away, Lakewood was not represented at the funeral in Boston, although I suggested that the Yeshiva be represented. For all of Rav Aharon’s misgivings about Yeshiva University and Mizrachi, he respected Rav Soloveitchik, not because of his lineage and not only because from time to time he assisted Chinuch Atzmai, but because he regarded Rav Soloveitchik as a man of stature as a Torah scholar.

These feelings of mutual respect did not bridge their differences. As was often apparent in this period that now recedes from memory into history, intra-Orthodox differences did not serve as insurmountable barriers to cooperation or, for that matter, to civility and respect.

Remembrances and Reflections VII - Rabbis and Deans

For nearly all of the first half of the last century, Orthodox leaders in North America were, in the main, congregational rabbis. These were men of talent and often of considerable learning who in their personal lives were certainly committed to religious observance. What they were lacking is vision, the ability to see our religious life not as it was in this Goldene Medinah which was also a treife medinah, but as it could become.

The situation in this period that saw wholesale Judaic abandonment as hundreds of thousands of once observant Jews cast away religious practices is captured in the final Mishnah in Sotah, as interpreted by Rav Aharon Kotler, an interpretation that has also been attributed to Rav Elchanan Wasserman and others. I heard the following from Rav Aharon: The Mishnah elaborates the frightening curses that will befall our people prior to the coming of the Moshiach. There will be an increase in insolence, the meeting place of scholars will be used for harlotry and their wisdom will decay, those who dread sin will be despised, truth will vanish, the young will publicly shame their elders and much else, including pnei hador kipnei hakelev, the face of the generation will be like the face of the dog.

After all of the horrifying details, the Mishnah adds, “Upon whom may we rely? Upon our Father in Heaven.” This is ordinarily interpreted to mean that because we will be in such an extreme state of degradation, our only hope will be to rely on Hakadosh Baruch-Hu. Rav Aharon said that this attitude was the greatest curse of all because it is an expression of yi-ush, of abandoning any hope in our capacity to challenge and reverse the situation we are in.

There were rabbanim who were great Torah scholars who looked at the American scene, at the steady and often rapid decline in observance, and then despaired about the future. They retired to their sefarim and writings. Others thought that they were witness to the flowering of a new Orthodox Jewry, an American brand that although different from what had existed in Europe would still be faithful to our heritage. These were mostly rabbis whose shuls were filled on Shabbos, men who honed their sermonic skills. Their congregations had Talmud Torahs with large enrollments. In their state of self-delusion, they scarcely paused to recognize that there was no Talmud and very little Torah.

These after-school programs were the handmaiden of massive religious loss. Sadly, few congregational rabbis saw the need for day schools. They bought unthinkingly into the dominant American Jewish ethos that yeshivas were an anachronism and not suitable in this land of freedom and opportunity. This helps us to understand why with few exceptions, Rav Aharon had little to do with congregational rabbis, this despite his being a remarkable people person who interacted with an astounding number of religious Jews, to an extent not approached by any other Torah leader.

When Rav Aharon came here in the late 1930s to raise funds for Kletsk, the invitation to a Manhattan reception in his honor included the names of New York’s most prominent rabbis and described him in exceptional language. When he settled here a few years later, however, his involvement with congregational rabbis was curtailed, especially after the early Vaad Hatzala activity. In the more than a decade that I knew him, he had little to do with the Agudas Harrabanim or congregational rabbis.

The flip side of the prominence of congregational rabbis in the first decades of the twentieth century was the limited role in Orthodox life of Roshei Yeshiva. Their ranks were small and they were primarily confined to the four cubits of the institutions where they taught. To my knowledge, there was no Moetzes Gedolei Torah or any similar body. Torah Umesorah was established in 1943 and Agudath Israel was years away from being the key organization that it ultimately became.

Rav Aharon’s arrival triggered a role reversal, not immediately or dramatically, but incrementally. Ultimately, Roshei Yeshiva became a vital force in our religious life. Paralleling this development was the decline, not rapid but in stages, in the position and authority of congregational rabbis. When Rav Aharon passed away in 1962, the reversal was just about complete and the landscape of American Orthodoxy had been transformed.

This development, out of which so much that is praiseworthy subsequently emerged, was not universally welcomed within Orthodox life. There was discontent among the Modern Orthodox, notably in the rabbinate. Was the decline of the rabbinate caused by the ascendency of Roshei Yeshiva who deliberately undermined the rabbinate, as was claimed, or were these two parallel but separate developments, meaning that the rabbinic decline occurred for reasons not directly related to the expanding influence of Roshei Yeshiva?

This issue was the subject of much discussion in the 1960s and I participated in the debate. In a 1966 essay called “Rabbis and Deans” that was published in Tradition, then and still the excellent journal sponsored by the Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits launched a severe attack against Roshei Yeshiva. Later, of course, Rabbi Jakobovits served with great distinction as the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. At the time, he was Rabbi of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue. In a follow-up to his original piece, Rabbi Jakobovits summarized his principal criticism of Roshei Yeshiva as follows:
1. The denigration and usurpation of the role of practicing rabbis by yeshivah deans had virtually eliminated the traditional place and functions of the rabbinate in the spiritual government of the religious community, resulting in the disappearance of the public Torah image in the community at large.

2. The transfer of rabbinic jurisdiction from communal rabbis to academic scholars confined to yeshivot had severely limited the scope of contemporary Halakhah and caused substantial deviations from the traditional pattern in the methods used to determine Jewish law.

3. These unprecedented developments had led to the displacement by yeshivot of kehillot as the institutional center of gravity in Jewish religious life.

4. The yeshivot’s discouragement of rabbinical careers was directly responsible for the spread of mediocrity in the rabbinate and the growing scarcity of candidates for leading rabbinical positions.

5. Yeshivot, by tending to stifle rather than to promote a sense of commitment to the wider community, had been equally unsuccessful in raising a community-minded laity, so that public Jewish life became increasingly drained of rabbinical and lay leaders alike.

I responded in a long letter that Tradition published in its entirety. Reading it for the first time in many years and after the passage of nearly a half-century is a strange, even eerie, experience. I believe that I was respectful to Rabbi Jakobovits, although in his rejoinder he accused me of “some quite unworthy imputations.” In brief, I wrote that “the Roshei Yeshiva have filled a vacuum and are contributing mightily, and at great sacrifice, to the development of a viable Orthodoxy… and to the possible evolution of a more functional rabbinate.” As for the claim of usurpation of rabbinic authority, I regarded this as astonishing “when we recall that a charge leveled against Roshei Yeshiva, most often from the Orthodox left, is that they restrict themselves too much to the yeshivot and do not vigorously lead the Orthodox community at a time when there is a paucity of leaders.”

I invite readers to revisit this discussion because it sheds important light on what American Orthodoxy was like nearly two generations ago and the transformations that have occurred since. Of note, neither Rabbi Jakobovits nor I made any mention of Rav Aharon Kotler, although it was certain that at issue was the pivotal role that he played in the changed character of American Orthodoxy.

From the perspective of nearly half a century, we can see how the rabbinate has been transformed and how congregational rabbis, including among the Modern Orthodox, have become involved in yeshivas and day schools and have encouraged their members to devote significant time to Torah study. This is confirmation that Rav Aharon’s vision has been fulfilled and that, as a consequence, when we now write about rabbis and deans, the reference is not to warring camps within Orthodox life but to a relationship that is generally respectful and cooperative.

Remembrances and Reflections VI

Fifteen years after he came to live in the United States and set out to build Torah in this land in fulfillment of the vision of Rav Chaim Volozhin, Rav Aharon Kotler and ten other eminent Torah leaders issued their historic ruling forbidding Orthodox membership in rabbinical and congregational bodies with the Reform and Conservative.

In a popular book on Rav Aharon that devotes one page to this epic event, the author writes that Rav Aharon “wasted no opportunity to demonstrate how Orthodoxy undermines its very essence by extending religious status to the Reform through an organizational association with them within a religious framework.” That certainly was his position, yet it remains that he came here in 1941 and the psak was issued in 1956. Why the delay in declaring “that it is forbidden by the law of our sacred Torah to participate with [them] either as an individual or as an organized communal body.”?

I believe that Rav Aharon did not focus on this issue because for him there was no issue. Whatever their titles or affiliations, the Reform and Conservative were entirely without legitimacy. Their clergy were not rabbis and their congregations were not synagogues. This was self-evident and no elaboration was needed.

Although he had ongoing and, at times, extensive contact with lay persons from across the spectrum of Orthodoxy, specifically including many who were quite modern in their outlook and even behavior, in an intriguing way his involvement with rabbinical figures was limited. After his first years here which entailed Vaad Hatzala activity, he had little to do with the Agudas Harrabanim, this despite that organization being comprised of Yiddish-speaking rabbis, many of whom came from Lithuania or nearby places in Eastern Europe. I hope to deal with this issue in a subsequent column.

There is a collateral point that merits attention. Rav Aharon was a person of intensive activity who toiled in a state of constant exhaustion as he labored to sustain his yeshiva through shiurim, contacts with students and fundraising and, as has been described previously, to create and nurture both financially and spiritually Chinuch Atzmai in Israel and the emerging day school movement in North America. This was his life. Although there are those who out of ignorance or malice have accused him of routinely issuing issurim or prohibitions, in truth that was not his style.

Thus, in his leadership role at Torah Umesorah which at the time encompassed more than a handful of co-educational schools, he tacitly accepted an arrangement that he did not approve of because he understood that through diligent efforts, ultimately these schools would transform the religious Jewish landscape in North America. In fact, as is evident in passages published in Mishnas Rav Aharon, he believed that co-education is absolutely forbidden at the high school level and, at best, problematic at the upper elementary school grades. Yet, there was no public prohibition. There is a lesson in this, which is that the primary path to expanding Torah living is by showing how it is life-giving.

The prohibition against the Board of Rabbis and Synagogue Council of America (SCA) membership begins “We have been asked by a number of rabbis,” and by others, whether “it is permissible to participate.” The clear indication is that the ensuing ruling is a response to an issue that was presented to the Gedolai Torah. My recollection is that the key person was Rabbi David B. Hollander who had previously served as president of the Rabbinical Council of American (RCA), which was comprised primarily of Yeshiva University rabbinical alumni and which together with the Orthodox Union was a member of the Synagogue Council. Rabbi Chaim U. Lipschitz who was involved in the Iggud Harrabanim which at the time consisted mainly of Torah Vodaath musmachim also played an important role.

As significant as the issur was in the delegitimation of boards of rabbis and the Synagogue Council, its immediate – and even short-term – impact was in practical terms limited. Few members of the Rabbinical Council resigned from that group and the RCA remained in the Synagogue Council, as did the Orthodox Union, this despite unceasing efforts in which I was involved to get the Orthodox Union in particular to abide by the prohibition. In communities across America outside of the New York area, local arrangements that accepted joint membership generally remained in place and these arrangements often included local day school principals, as well. In many localities it was accepted that it was preferable to maintain a semblance of unity rather than to envelop the community and its day schools in conflict that would occur if rabbis resigned from joint bodies.

Over time, the message that was sent in 1956 took strong root. The ties between Orthodox rabbis and organizations and boards of rabbis, as well as the Synagogue Council, grew constantly weaker. Ultimately, the Orthodox Union withdrew from the Synagogue Council and that organization collapsed. It hasn’t been missed. About five years ago, I spoke at a Rabbinical Council event. It was remarkable to see how the organization’s composition and orientation had changed, how a significant proportion of its membership now came from yeshiva-world institutions.

Paradoxically, the changed character of the Rabbinical Council has undermined the distinctive mission of the Iggud Harrabanim, which a half-century earlier had been pivotal in the prohibition issued by Rav Aharon and the other Gedolai Torah.

There is an additional paradox. For all of the conflict, even contentiousness, within Orthodoxy over membership with the non-Orthodox, that critical issue did not serve as a barrier to intra-Orthodox cooperation on a host of public issues. Amazingly, in the 1960s and 1970s and during the heat over the Synagogue Council issue, every major Orthodox group joined within the framework of the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA) to advocate for government aid to parochial schools and to further the rights of religious persons in the workplace and elsewhere. I was intimately involved in these efforts as COLPA’s first president. Intra-Orthodox cooperation brought about abundant beneficial fruit.

Throughout this period, I was active in both Agudath Israel and the Orthodox Union, both on a voluntary basis. Gedolai Torah authorized my Orthodox Union activity. However, I was not allowed to become an officer of the organization because it was a member of the Synagogue Council. In this activity, I believe that I was faithful to the lessons that Rav Aharon taught about Orthodox unity and the instructions that he had given me.

There no longer is conflict within Orthodoxy over membership in joint bodies. As noted, the Synagogue Council is gone. The New York Board of Rabbis apparently exists, serving as another example that many organizations continue to operate even after they have died. This should be a glorious time in Orthodox life, a period of constant cooperation to achieve mutual goals. There is much to be proud of in fulfillment of Rav Aharon’s vision. Unfortunately, because the major Orthodox organizations do not cooperate, there have been scant advances over what was achieved a generation ago regarding the rights of religious persons and government aid to our schools, when despite tension and conflict our organizations put aside their differences and knew how to cooperate.

Remembrances and Reflections V - The Battle Over Women’s Draft in Israel

As the 1950s opened, Agudath Israel was in an accommodationist mode in Israel, serving in the government and accepting the notion that Israel was fully a Jewish state. Even Rav Aharon Kotler seemed to retreat from the position that Rav Elchanan Wasserman and he had taken at the 1937 Knessiah Gedolah in Marienbad where they sharply rejected the neo-Zionist views regarding the anticipated Jewish state espoused by Dr. Isaac Breuer and other major Agudath leaders.

Within Orthodox life in North America, there was general acceptance of a modernist outlook on public issues, including on separation of church and state. There was, at most, a whiff of militancy and separatist sentiment within what was then the yeshiva world. Two epic events, one in Israel that also had a strong impact here, and the second entirely on these shores profoundly changed the relationship between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox and reversed the appearance of intra-Orthodox unity.

The first event was the conflict in Israel over the draft of girls who had just graduated high school into the Israeli army. The second, which I will discuss in a subsequent article, concerned Orthodox participation with the non-Orthodox in rabbinic and congregational organizations.

For all of David Ben-Gurion’s and the Mapai’s (Labour Party) strong secular orientation and hostility toward religion, in the first years after Israel’s establishment, their attitude was to accommodate the Orthodox. This approach was articulated in the famous 1947 agreement between the Jewish Agency which Ben-Gurion headed and the Agudah – later, as well, with the Mizrachi – accepting the religious character of the state. Shabbos was recognized and there would be no public transportation on that day. Kashruth would be maintained in the army and in other public places. Most critically, in matters of personal status such as marriage and divorce, halachic processes and standards would prevail.

After the state was established, Ben-Gurion accepted the exemption from military service for yeshiva advanced students, perhaps because, as has been claimed, there were relatively few of them, although I believe that he sincerely felt that Israel needed to have some young men study Torah full-time.

There were, of course, divisive issues in the initial years, notably over basic education, as I have discussed in a previous article on Chinuch Atzmai. Even then, Ben-Gurion refrained from taking a coercive position, as he accepted the creation and independence of Chinuch Atzmai.

At the time, as well, within the yeshiva world and a number of chassidic groups, there was a measure of acceptance, perhaps begrudging, of Israel. There was pride in Israel. We weren’t Zionists in hashkafa or affiliation, yet most of us were somehow zionist in our identity with Israel. We cleaved to the radio as the United Nations voted for partition and a Jewish state in November 1947 and again the following May when Israel came into being. Whenever we felt that Israel was endangered, we once more were emotionally enveloped in our concern for the Jewish state. We did not – and still do not – say the tefila for the Medinah, but prayers for Israel are always in our hearts.

In 1953, Ben-Gurion decreed that girls would be required to do military service after they graduated from high school. This triggered an immediate explosion of protests from Gedolai Torah, including the Chazon Ish who by and large had stayed away from public issues. They ruled that army service for girls was absolutely forbidden as a form of arayos or illicit behavior that fell under the halachic requirement of “yaharog v’al ya-avor.” In the course of the ensuing struggle, first the Chazon Ish and then thirty days later Rav Iser Zalman Meltzer died. These terrible losses shocked the yeshiva world. Etched in my mind is the grief that was evident at the hespedim for these Torah giants at the Pike Street (Kalvirer) Shul on the Lower East Side. Rav Aharon was the principal speaker. A dramatic moment occurred when Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz of Mir opened the Aron Kodesh and cried out in Yiddish, “Der Chazon Ish iz nisht dor, Rav Iser Zalman iz nisht dor, un ich bin an alter Yed” and then collapsed.

As the battle raged in Israel, Rav Aharon called for a mass protest at the Israeli Consulate in Manhattan. Yeshivas emptied out and many Chassidim, including Satmar and the Rebbe, joined in what still remains the largest demonstration ever in North America against the Israeli government. As invariably happens at such occasions, in the name of crowd control the police roughed up some protestors. There was extensive media coverage and shock and anger among American Jews. A line had been crossed, it being sharp criticism by Jews of Israel.

The strongest criticism of the demonstration probably came from the Modern Orthodox, with the Rabbinical Council of America which was largely comprised of rabbis ordained at Yeshiva University leading the way. The RCA asked its members to denounce Rav Aharon and the demonstration from the pulpit and many did. We of the Borough Park Zeirei were determined to respond and so on the Shabbos that was appointed for rabbinical censure of the protest, we completed davening a bit earlier than usual, divided our members into several groups and went to the large shuls where we were certain that the rabbis would speak out against Rav Aharon and the demonstration. When they did, we protested verbally and vehemently. To put it mildly, we were not welcomed.

Ben-Gurion, surprised I believe by the fury unleashed by his action, backed down a bit, so that the high school graduates could choose national service, such as in schools or a social service project, rather than being in the army. As a practical matter, charedi girls were exempt. As has been widely reported, the arrangement has broken down over the years. Nowadays, thousands of girls from secular homes claim the religious exemption.

The battle over Giyus Banot or military service for girls and also Sh’erit Leumi or national service took a huge toll. Ben-Gurion’s concession did not change the reality that over the years probably hundreds of thousands of girls, more than a few from religious homes, have served in the army and that this service has been a powerful factor in the erosion of Israel’s moral fabric.

The willingness of Mizrachi leaders, in Israel and here, to acquiesce to an arrangement that was totally antithetical to Torah standards and to do so despite being implored by Rav Aharon to reverse their position has contributed significantly to that movement’s steady decline. Sadly, over the years whenever push came to shove over religious issues in Israel, Mizrachi invariably chose political expediency over halacha.

For Rav Aharon Kotler, there was also a cost. He had tirelessly reached out across the Orthodox spectrum and specifically over the years to the Modern Orthodox and now he was being denounced. He would continue to reach out, yet the truth is that support for Lakewood suffered as a result of his principled stand. He believed, of course, that this was a small price to pay for promoting and protecting Torah values. He would not contemplate accepting financial gain for his yeshiva at the cost of sacrificing Torah values.

Remembrances and Reflections IV – Rav Aharon and the Agudah

Rav Aharon Kotler was an Agudist. His involvement was not peripheral or incidental, limited to participating at high profile events where he would speak and then return to his primary klal and chinuch responsibilities. He was active in the Agudah and this activity had strong roots in pre-Holocaust Europe. When he arrived here in 1941, his initial focus was on hatzala activity which, to an extent, entailed involvement in the Agudah. With the passage of time, his commitment to Agudah intensified.

It is a challenge to write about the American Agudah, or, for that matter, American Orthodox Jewry in the years prior to Rav Aharon’s leadership which brought about major transformations in the profile of Orthodox life in North America. From the perspective of today’s vibrant Orthodoxy, what existed then may seem to have been mislabeled as Agudah and, indeed, mislabeled as Orthodoxy. The American Agudah in the 1920s and 1930s was far different from what the Agudah looked like in Europe before the Churban and American Orthodoxy was a far cry from what it is today. In an important essay, Rav Shimon Schwab described a similar challenge in writing about Orthodox life in Germany. He commented that although it is not acceptable to depart from the truth, a certain discretion is required.

For all of the first half of the last century and, in fact, into the 1960s, a substantial number of American Jews who identified themselves as Orthodox were only nominally or marginally Orthodox, meaning that although they would not accept any other denominational identity, in practice they departed significantly from halachic norms. There were more than a few Orthodox synagogue presidents, including in Borough Park, who went to shul on Shabbos morning and then went to work. In a seminal essay published in the early 1960s in the American Jewish Year Book, the noted sociologist Charles S. Liebman who was a colleague of mine at Yeshiva University described the phenomenon of nominal Orthodoxy.

For much of the 1930s, the Agudah was headquartered at the Jewish Center, then and now a Modern Orthodox synagogue on West 86th Street in Manhattan. Rabbi Leo Jung, its Rabbi for decades and a man of substantial intellect and talent, was a key Agudah leader. Another important figure was Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein of the West Side Institutional Synagogue, also Modern Orthodox. For years he served as the nominal president of the American Agudah.

The key rabbinic leader was Rabbi Eliezer Silver of Cincinnati who was also the dominant figure in Agudas Harabbanim, at the time the major Orthodox rabbinical organization. His relationship with Rav Aharon Kotler was complicated and, at times, strained. They clashed over Vaad Hatzala, both during the Holocaust and later when the organization was reconstituted and its focus shifted from rescue to rebuilding religious Jewish life. As Rabbi Aaron Rothkoff recounts in “The Silver Era,” Rabbi Silver’s role in American Orthodoxy was greatly diminished as a consequence of Rav Aharon’s leadership and personality. He remained a presence, but not an influence.

After the untimely passing in the early1950s of Rav Reuven Grozovsky, Rosh Yeshiva of Beth Medrash Elyon, Rav Aharon was the unequaled leader of both the yeshiva world and the Agudah, serving as the head of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah and the hashkafic force in its emergence as the influential organization that it has become. This remarkable achievement came about because of his involvement and it came about at a time when American Orthodoxy overall was weak and the charedi sectors were small. Much of what then constituted charedi life remained apart from the Agudah. This was obviously true of Lubavitch and Satmar, as well as the cluster of chassidic groups within the Satmar sphere of influence. Klausenberg, Bobov and Skwere also were apart from the Agudah, as was the Breuer kehilla in Washington Heights and other pockets of American Orthodoxy.

There were chassidic rebbes of spiritual stature who were actively involved in Agudah, including the Rebbes of Novominsk, Kapishnitz and Boyan, but in reality they had small followings. Among the Roshei Yeshiva who identified with Agudah, there were some who not long before had identified with Mizrachi. Rav Aharon changed that. The Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah came to symbolize the movement, attaining a status that endures to this day. It is of note that in Israel where for decades there have been great Torah leaders of unsurpassed eminence, the Moetzes does not have the role that it enjoys here.

For all of the force of his personality and super-human efforts, Rav Aharon could not have single-handedly molded the Agudah into a vital instrumentality for Klal Yisroel. He needed help and that came from the persons who led the organization on a daily basis. There was Michael Tress whose mesiras nefesh and hatzala activity, notably after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, remain an inspiring chapter in the history of Agudath Israel and of our people.

Most critically, there was Rabbi Moshe Sherer, with whom Rav Aharon had a close and warm relationship. Skilled in the art of leadership and blessed with keen insight into what was occurring in Orthodox life, Rabbi Sherer visualized an Agudah that would be true to its name, meaning that it would be a unified and unifying body, an Agudah that would be under the halachic and hashkafic guidance of Gedolei Torah. At the same time, daily organizational affairs would be the responsibility of the top staff and perhaps some lay leaders. He brilliantly saw the opportunity and seized the moment.

From today’s perspective, this may appear to be a minor achievement. It needs to be remembered that throughout the 1950s – and, in fact, at least into the 1960s – the Agudah was operating on a shoestring. Payroll was often late and more than once Rabbi Sherer said that he would have to leave, relenting at the behest of Gedolei Torah. There was no government funding, few affluent active members and much of the fundraising that occurred at the conventions was on behalf of Chinuch Atzmai.

In contrast to the orderliness that Rabbi Sherer eventually imposed, back in the 1950s Agudah conventions and meetings could be rough and tumble, with lively debates that involved rabbinic leaders and laymen. These were memorable occasions. At the conventions, I ate privately with Rav Aharon, at his request. Other Roshei Yeshiva and distinguished persons would come in and that would usually engender much light conversation, frequently about events that occurred before the European Churban. During the Shabbos meals there would be much singing and dancing. Rav Mendel Zaks believed that the clapping of hands and dancing were inappropriate on Shabbos. Rav Aharon argued that the Chofetz Chaim permitted such behavior; he was not at all persuaded by the circumstance that Rabbi Zaks was the Chofetz Chaim’s son-in-law.

In those years, Rabbi Silver would speak before Mussaf, invariably at length. He would use the opportunity to needle Rav Aharon, as when after Rav Iser Zalman Meltzer died and Rav Aharon became Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Eitz Chaim in Jerusalem, Rabbi Silver announced, “We have outstanding Roshei Yeshiva in Israel and we have outstanding Roshei in the United States. Now we have a new type of Rosh Yeshiva, a transatlantic Rosh Yeshiva.

One year Rabbi Silver began to speak at 11:45. There was an audible groan from the audience, prompting Rabbi Silver to say, “Ich vet redden nor biz chatzos.” (I will speak only until noon.) Nearly an hour later, he was still going strong when someone in the shul had the temerity to call out and remind Rabbi Silver of his commitment to complete speaking by noon. He quickly responded, “Cincinnati time.”

There are many other wonderful memories of those years. Nearly forty years ago and shortly after I became president on a voluntary basis of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, I decided to no longer be involved in the national Agudah. Long gone are the conventions, meetings and other trappings of organizational life. I miss none of that. I do remember with much fondness the early years of my klal activity, of the z’chus to be with Rav Aharon and of the fun we had when we were young and full of spirit.

Remembrances and Reflections - III

In its early years, a major source of support for the Israel network of religious schools known as Chinuch Atzmai that was established by Rav Aharon Kotler came from a Borough Park minyan of about fifty young men who at the start of the 1950s were still in their teens and learning in yeshiva. The minyan was called Zeirei Agudah. Rav Aharon would leave Lakewood to make an annual appeal, most years on Shabbos Bereishis when it did not come immediately after Simchas Torah. When it did, the appeal was made on Parshas Noach, so that he would not be at the yeshiva for what was the start of the z’man for many students. There is no more telling indication of the importance he attached to this appeal.

Rabbi Moshe Sherer, still in his early years as the transformative leader of Agudath Israel, would also speak and it was he who made the actual appeal. If my memory is not errant, Rabbi Sherer once gave a marvelous illustration from the parsha to explain why Rav Aharon refused to allow Chinuch Atzmai to be fully incorporated into the governmental education system, an arrangement that would have guaranteed complete financial support. Referring to the incident of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, Rabbi Sherer asked, what curse was there in “upon your belly shall you crawl and dust shall you eat all the days of your life?” After all, the serpent was being guaranteed daily nourishment. He would not have to forage for food. How was this a curse?

He answered that a daily nourishment of dust is a curse. If Chinuch Atzmai was enveloped in the governmental system and thereby guaranteed its subsistence, its existence would be one of spiritual dust.

The yearly appeal brought in about $25,000, an impressive figure by today’s standards and an amazing achievement for a group of boys and young men in the 1950s. It was my responsibility to collect the pledges throughout the year. Many of the fellows would turn to family members and others for contributions.

During this period, Rav Aharon generally sent $15,000 a month to Israel to help cover Chinuch Atzmai’s budget, which may not seem like very much money but it was a challenge to him to put together the necessary funds each month. Most months, I would provide $3,000 toward this goal.

Throughout the 1950s, the minyan was known as Zeirei Agudah. We davened one flight up in the main Agudah building on Fourteenth Avenue and Forty-Fifth Street. There was tension in the relationship, especially after some of our members married and the folks downstairs thought that they should daven with them. We preferred our own space and ambience, except on Simchas Torah when the hakofos were in the main shul. They were led by Rabbi Joshua Silbermintz, the unforgettable leader of Pirchei Agudah whose goodness toward all was his hallmark. In the pre-Bobov days, the hakofos drew a huge crowd.

One year, Rav Aharon gave the Shabbos Hagadol drasha before Pesach in the Agudah. The topic was chadash or halachos relating to new produce. He asked whether I could provide him with a volume of the Minchas Chinuch, as he did not have the sefer in his Borough Park apartment. These days, of course, nearly all of us have well-stocked Torah libraries in our homes. Back then, far fewer seforim were available and most religious Jews could not afford to buy more than a very limited number of those that were available. As an aside, in 1959 I went to Israel, a trip that coincided with Rav Aharon’s visit. A new and attractive edition of Rambam had just been published. I bought twenty sets at twenty dollars each and had them shipped home, where they were eagerly purchased at cost by Zeirei members.

I borrowed the requested volume from Zeirei and gave it to the Rosh Yeshiva, but I did not retrieve it in a timely fashion. The Zeirei’s president at the time was Meir Stern, for decades, of course, the greatly respected Rosh Yeshiva in Passaic. His chavrusa at the time was Moshe Hillel Hirsch, for decades the eminent Rosh Yeshiva of Slabodka. Reb Meir asked that I return the volume. I bought a set of Minchas Chinuch, had it gift- wrapped, brought it to Rav Aharon and told him that a lay person in the Agudah asked me to give it to him as a gift. A day or two later, Rav Shneuer Kotler came to the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, fetched me out of the Beth Medrash and said that his father wants me to know that if I want to give him a present, that is no excuse to depart from the truth.

As the years went by, our Zeirei Agudah became the Young Agudah and then the Sixteenth Avenue Agudah. We recognized early on that we needed a Rav and turned to Rav Yisroel Perkowski, a Rosh Yeshiva in Beth Hatalmud who had davened with us in our early Zeirei years. Under his guidance, the minyan flourished and the members and their children grew into Bnei Torah. I shall always cherish my relationship with this elevated and extraordinary man.

In what may seem strange to many, Rav Aharon always referred to me as Marvin. My Hebrew name is Meir, yet the letter reproduced here demonstrates that Rav Aharon surmised that my Hebrew name had to be Moshe, perhaps because he believed that I was a close relative of the Maharam Schick. Many years later, when I mentioned this to Rav Yisroel Perkowski and then said that Rav Shneuer Kotler called me Meir and, l’havdil bein chaim l’chaim, Rav Malkiel Kotler calls me Reb Meir, he remarked in obvious jest that this was proof of “niskatnu hadoros,” the decline of the generations.

The Zeirei days are long gone. The ranks of the Sixteenth Avenue Agudah are depleted. Some members have passed away, others have moved away and still others are infirm and no longer come. This past Shabbos, we bid farewell to a member who joined fifty years ago, immediately after he married. He is moving to Lakewood, following an already well-trodden path for seniors whose children and grandchildren live there.

If there are feelings of sadness over the fate of our minyan, they are offset by what has been achieved over the past sixty years. The story of this minyan is of extraordinary service to Klal Yisroel. Its members have excelled in Torah, avodah and gemilas chassadim. We are all given a limited number of years. The challenge we face as religious Jews is to take the great heritage we have received and then nourish it and bequeath it to future generations. By this standard, we have fulfilled our mission.

Rav Aharon judged us well. We have lived up to his expectations.