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.”