Thursday, June 28, 2012
American Olim in Israel: The Challenge (Part 2)
[While reading this plaint about the extremism that is increasingly characteristic of Religious Zionist Psak Halakha, I was reminded of two Gedolim stories that exemplify a different mode of rabbinic leadership, one that is more in line with the sensitivities that American Olim (especially RIETS and Skokie graduates) bring with them; one that takes responsibility for the needs and abilities of the broader community, while staying uncompromisingly within the four cubits of Halakhah. The first story, about the דבר אברהם (left), I heard from an eyewitness. The second, involving מו"ר Rav Gedaliah Felder זצ"ל, I was personally involved in.]
1. The pre-war Jewish community of Kovno (Kaunas, today) Lithuania was divided into different components, divided by the Neris River. On the one side was the general community, which was made up of every type of contemporary Jewish religious and cultural population. Indeed, the community was a bit notorious for a lackadaisical form of religiosity. On the other side of the Williampol bridge, was the famous Slabodka Yeshiva, a flagship of the Mussar Movement. As might be expected, relations between the two sectors were often tense. There was a saying attributed to the Alter of Slabodka, R. Nosson Zvi Finkel זצ"ל, that the bridge from Kovno to Slabodko only went one way.
Coping with the myriad of challenges, modernization and secularization in Kovna was its illustrious rabbi, R. Avraham Dov-Bear Kahana-Shapira זצוק"ל, author of the classic collection of responsa and Talmudic essays דבר אברהם, and known more popularly as the 'Kovner Rov.'. One central concern of his was the alienation of young Kovner Jews from the synagogue. Thus, when the administration of the Choral Synagogue came to him with an intriguing approach to the problem, he jumped at it.
The idea was to have the synagogue's cantor, the internationally renowned tenor Misha Alexandrovich, offer public concerts that would feature classical חזנות alongside renditions of serene Italian bel canto compositions. The hope was that this type of cultural evening would draw modernizing youg Jewish men and women to the synagogue, where they would socialize and (perhaps) find mates.
The first concert was a smashing success and more were planned. Everyone was thrilled, except for the heads of the Slabodka Yeshiva. They turned angrily to the Kovner Rov and demanded that he intervene to stop the concerts. They were indecent, the Rashe Yeshiva objected. The led to fraternization between men and women, and in the synagogue. Worse still, they might corrupt yeshiva students.
The Kover Rav listened quietly, and then firmly rejected the Yeshiva's objection. 'You are responsible only for your yeshiva,' he asserted. 'I am responsible for the spiritual welfare of all of the Jews of Kovno.' The concerts, he declared, would continue.
2. When I was a young Rav, over thirty years ago, I served in a small shul in Long Island City, Queens (which closed its doors a few years ago). The community was made up of older retirees, whose devotion to their shul remains an inspiration to me. They were not all observant, indeed very few were actually Orthodox. However, they maintained a daily minyan, Shabbat and Holiday schedules and an active Men's Club and Sisterhood. They were, as I said, overwhelmingly Golden Agers and not in the best of health or strength.
That proved to be a challenge when it came to carrying (much less raising) the Torah during services. All of the available scrolls were either unfit or way too heavy for any of the members to carry. All, that is but one, which was quite light. The problem was that it was written in Sephardic Script (כתב וועליש) whereas all but one of the members were Ashkenazic. When I mentioned the situation to some of my fellow Kollel-leit and to some of the Rashe Yeshiva at YU, they told me that one may under no circumstances use a Sephardic Torah in an Ashkenazic minyan.
Knowing that the shul had no money to spare to repair the unfit scrolls (much less buy a new Sefer Torah), I called my teacher and (other) רב המסמיך, R. Gedaliah Felder זצ"ל in Toronto. Rabbi Felder was a פוסק of tremendous power and fortitude, whose encyclopedic knowledge of all of Rabbinic Literature was nothing less than stunning (as borne out by his magnum opus, יסודי ישורון). He was, also, a synagogue Rav his entire life and literally lived among his fellow Jews.
I called Rav Felder with my question. He did not hesitate for a moment. There is no reason not to use the lighter, Sephardic Torah Scroll (because we hold like the responsum attributed to Maimonides that one may read in public from a sefer pasul: הל' תפילין פ""י ה"א בכסף משנה). I will, though, never forget the impassioned words with which he prefaced his פסק: 'You can't impose standards on בעלי בית in a Shul as if you were in a yeshiva!' he exclaimed.
It's time that we stopped ourselves being railroaded by מחמירים who, in the end, drive people away from Torah. It's time we developed the kind of גבורה and stand up to halakhic ruffians (who are welcome to be strict on themselves). If the Torah allows something, and the מסורה of פסק confirms it, we cannot roll our eyes and delegitimize those who follow the Torah's dictates. This is precisely the type of community sensitive approach to פסק הלכה that American trained תלמידי חכמים imbibed from their teachers. The שלחן ערוך is a סם החיים, not a strait-jacket.