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.


Nachum said...

What could be the objection to a Sephardi Torah? Unlike a Yemenite Torah, the contents are exactly the same*; only the "font" is different- and there are even different "fonts" among Ashkenazi Sifrei Torah! (For that matter, if it really was "Vellish" as you say, it was probably an old Ashkenazi Torah anyway. Was it in a wooden box or not?)

One solution: Do Hagbah Yemenite-style, where you tip the Torah up from the top while it's on the bimah. Or was even carrying it a problem?

*And even non-Yemenites can be yotzeh with a Yemenite Sefer.

ari kahn said...

I am not sure if are aware (one the one hand I would be shocked if you did not know this – on the other hand if you did you would have mentioned it) the Rov started his Wednesday Chumash shiur in order to cause a healthy atmosphere for young men and women to meet. The story as I heard it from one of the people there, one night the Rov looks around his apartment and asks various shamashim –“why are you here?” They reply they are here to help the Rov, he asks why they are not home with wives and families. One fellow responds – “it is not easy – we don’t go to shadchanim, and we are not going to “hang out” in front of Stern”. The Rov responds – I have an idea – and tells them he will give a shiur for men and women, The Rov says: “I will get the young ladies in the room – but you will need to do the rest”.
Now I know that the Dvar Avraham – had the same idea.

Michael Pitkowsky said...

Another Rav Felder story. A former colleague of my wife's was a graduate student living in Toronto. He sublet his kosher apt. one summer to an Israeli couple. They said that they were familiar with kashrut, etc. When he came back at the end of the summer he found treif food in the apt., pork and beans. He went and spoke with Rav Felder. After asking him about graduate school and life as a student, Rav Felder told him that the only keilim that he had to kasher were the ones that were actually dirty and in the sink when he came home.

Richard Landes said...

lif only someone had been arguing this a generation ago.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

There is no such thing as machmir and meikel, one machmir in two different directions because whenever you're machmir in one thing you're meikel in another and vice versa.
For example, in the first story the Slobodka'niks were being machmir in one way by insisting on a certain standard of public behaviour and meikel in showing no interest in keeping young Jews from drifting away from public worship, and the Kovner Rav was being machmir in trying to increase Jewish participation in shul.
In the second story, one side was machmir about what sefer Torah could be used and meikel in denying these seniors a krias haTorah.
It's time to recognize that one can be machmir wihtout being more "stringent" or "gotcha!" in the application of the rules.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I understand why you take the complaints of the Masorti movement about adherence to Kol Isha that seriously. Are there "extremists" in the MO camp? Sure. But the situation is not nearly as terrible as the author portrays it. Last I checked, the Shulchan Aruch does forbid Kol Isha, and the author of the YNet piece seems to feel that this halachah is wrong and inappropriate. Sorry, but I don't believe that the two rabbnonim you write about in the piece would have any problem with our community adhering to the Shulchan Aruch.

Eliyahu said...

Rav Gedalia Felder, z"l gave a Sunday morning shiur for Grade Twelve high school students and for university students. I attended the shiur for a number of years. He would review various issues in halacha that he considered of interest to the participants and he would also answer questions. At one of those shiurim he told us that a couple were becoming observant of halacha and they owned a set of expensive heirloom chinaware to which they attached much sentiment but they despaired about no longer being able to use that set because it had been used for non-kosher food etc. Apparently they had been told or at least they were given to understand that they would have to have the set reglazed and they were reluctant to do so both because of the expense and also the impracticality of doing so because their precious dishes might be damaged. He told us that he had paskened that they could use the set as is. IIUC that was because the dishes were used a a keli shelishi or the food served was not sufficiently hot to cause a problem of absorption. Another story with some poignancy: One talmid chacham who had lost his family in Europe had a brilliant son from a second post-war marriage and he worried that the young man was becoming estranged from observance. Rav Felder learned with the young man on a regular basis and the father subsequently in gratitude sponsored a breakfast to honour the Rabbi and express his hakarat hatov for giving him back his son as an observant Jew.

Rav Felder was a very great man who combined his yirat shamayim and great knowledge with warmth and understanding (and a down to earth sense of humour and wit) .

Yehei zichro baruch.

G.A. said...

Rabbi Felder was ahead of his time on this, in the sense that we could have used him now.

For my thoughts on Chumrah (and why, like Garnel, I believe that there is no such thing), see