Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

2 Tammuz 5763 - July 2, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Torah for the Taking, Torah for the Giving: HaRav Zushe Waltner Zt'l

By Moshe Musman

Part Two

Introduction: A Gallery of Heroes

The establishment of major Torah centers throughout the world that perpetuate the great yeshivos of Eastern Europe, is one of the greatest contemporary miracles. This began over sixty years ago. It was wrought by a handful of great builders who single-mindedly, often alone and against the prevailing trend, created, from scratch, environments where spiritual growth could take place and Torah greatness could be worked for. The significance of their achievements lies not in the size of what they left behind them, for the most striking growth came later, but in its very existence. Because of their tremendous self-sacrifice, the foundations they laid have proven enduring and today support a larger-than-ever edifice. Whether they built, transmitted, inspired, or did all three, they all effected genuine change. They breathed life into a nation's dry bones and infused soul into its spiritually wasted frame.

HaRav Zushe Waltner zt'l, earned a place on this list by any reckoning. While his work as a Torah disseminator began early in life and continued into advanced age, he is principally associated with the great achievement of his middle years, the creation of a Torah center in Tangiers. Most Tangiers alumni are grandparents today. Many of them fill important communal positions around the world. Virtually all are sincere, genuine bnei Torah. Who was the man that achieved such results and how did he do it?

The first part discussed HaRav Waltner's youth in Hungary and his travels through Cracow and Switzerland until he eventually was admitted to England in 1937. There, Rav Waltner developed a very close relationship with Rav Eliahu Dessler, who took his meals with the Waltners for several years while his wife was stranded by the war in Australia. After the war, Rav Waltner and Rav Aryeh Grosnass traveled to Europe to help the shattered remnants of European Jewry, and founded the yeshiva in Sunderland to accommodate some of them. Traveling to Tangiers to recruit talmidim for Sunderland, he met R' Shmuel Toledano who soon built a yeshiva building and then invited Rav Waltner to come and found a yeshiva. He sent Rav Waltner a telegram: "It's all ready. Come." At the advice of Rav Dessler who consulted with the Chazon Ish on the matter, Rav Waltner accepted the challenge.

Dawn of an Era

R' Shmuel Toledano undertook the support of the yeshiva for the first two years. Subsequently, Rav Waltner won the support and confidence of the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC -- or "Joint") and of Mr. I. Shalom z'l, who supported the Otsar Hatorah network.

With Rav Waltner's arrival, there began a period of over twenty years of steadily expanding Torah achievement which he pioneered, not only in Tangiers but throughout Morocco. Following the yeshiva's growth, a kollel was opened, then a Teachers' Seminary for girls and finally, a talmud Torah. Given the favorable material conditions in Tangiers and the generous cooperation of financial backers, this might seem straightforward. However in fact, it was anything but that. That things developed in the way they did is testimony to Rav Waltner's great wisdom and his personal integrity and sincerity.

Several other Jewish groups were also at work in Morocco, vying for the community's soul. The Alliance school system had already become part of the fabric of Jewish life, raising an elite of communal leaders who were cultured but ignorant of Judaism and who were naturally opposed to full-blooded Torah education, even when it cost them nothing. The Zionists were there too, working to lure unsuspecting parents into sending their youth ahead of them to the Jewish State. Usually though, even before the youngsters' arrival in Israel, they were attacked for their religious sympathies and traditions, which most of them swiftly abandoned.

Persuading the guileless native Jews that secular learning and Zionism would not deliver the salvation that their proponents claimed was only a first step though. Great skill and insight were needed in order to create environments in which even those parents who desired Torah chinuch for their children would feel comfortable placing and leaving them.

Rav Waltner's singular success in this respect was not confined to his own institutions. A community grew up, centered around the Torah institutions, which is said to have been akin in atmosphere to Bnei Brak. Last but not least, success in achieving the aim for whose sake all these efforts were made -- the superlative chinuch in Torah and mussar that was offered within the institutions -- required dedication and sensitivity.

Unpolished Diamonds

Rav Waltner's arrival in Tangiers in 1952, ushered in a period of remarkable flourishing of Torah life there, which had an effect on the whole of Jewish Morocco. An acquaintance, Mr. E. Rothschild, describes the Moroccan Jewry that Rav Waltner encountered upon his arrival.

"He found a warm community, numbering two-hundred-and- fifty thousand souls, virtually all of whom were at the very least traditional. All of them had the deepest respect for parents, chachamim and rabbonim. Nobody would dare to criticize a rov, or to speak disrespectfully to his father.

"The friendly Moroccan Jews received him warmly. Although Rav Waltner was a strong character by nature, who stood up for his Torah principles without compromise and who fought corruption and disgrace of Torah single-mindedly, they accepted him because they recognized him as a fair man and as a talmid chochom who loved others.

"The tradition of Torah study in Morocco was utterly different from the norm in Europe. They learned a lot of Zohar, medrashim and Tanach. Those talmidei chachamim who took an interest in gemora, learned `on the daf,' without much sophistication. Their shiurim culminated in a precis of the halachic conclusions of the topic studied. They started with the gemora and finished with the four volumes of Shulchan Oruch.

"Of course, tefillah in Morocco was utterly different. There was much more song and much more communal participation. Different paytanim from among the kahal would take the place of the shaliach tzibbur. Whoever went up to the Torah knew how to read the pesukim from the sefer with the cantillation. They were fluent in grammar and in the commentaries to Tanach . . .

"Before Rav Waltner came, the idea of spending years learning in yeshiva was foreign to them. Gifted talmidim learned in a yeshiva framework for a year or two at most and then left to earn a living . . .

"It's true that there were chadorim and yeshiva high schools in Morocco even before . . . but the approach to teaching there was very primitive. The teachers were devoted and were good Jews but they didn't know how to educate. Hitherto, the strap and the stick had enforced discipline in the schools. They learned by rote and by heart, more than in depth . . . The Lubavitch movement also had a thriving educational network but there was room and a need for something else too."


Many who became acquainted with Moroccan Jewry recognized the community's great potential for spiritual growth. The local Jews' warmth and sincerity, their straightforwardness and deep, simple faith, were qualities that were far less frequently encountered among the rank and file of the Jewish communities across Western Europe and the United States. Rabbi Yitzchok Meir Halevi zt'l, (whose years of service as Otsar Hatorah's head coincided with Rav Waltner's first years in Morocco) once commented that Morocco had the potential to become a second Poland.

The Revolution

Several groups of Moroccan bochurim had left to learn in yeshivos abroad -- Rav Waltner himself had already taken some to Sunderland -- and more would yet go (HaRav Avrohom Kalmanowitz zt'l and HaRav Zeidel Semitaicki zt'l took boys to Mir, New York and to HaRav Moshe Schneider's Yeshiva in London, respectively).

A number of them did later return to Morocco to teach Torah. Most however, settled in the predominantly Ashkenazi communities that had adopted them where, while they and their families flourished spiritually, they were isolated as individuals and could never totally blend in. No rejection on the personal level is meant, chas vesholom. Rather, where spiritual goals are uppermost among the members of a group, differences in background and culture often tend to recede. A tiny minority will adapt itself to the prevailing atmosphere, even at a certain cost to self- identity. The inner challenge involved in living as a ben Torah is rightly perceived as being of far greater importance than the preservation of predominantly outward forms and customs.

In inviting Rav Waltner to found a yeshiva gedolah in Tangiers in order to reverse the defection from Torah in Jewish life in Morocco, R' Shmuel Toledano was responsible for an unexpected payoff. Rav Waltner brought the Eastern European tradition of Torah study in breadth and depth, ambition for Torah greatness and the self-discipline of mussar and planted them, for the first time, in Moroccan soil. He thus wrought a real and startling revolution in the minds and characters of many among the local Jewish population.

Hitherto, a mother's greatest ambition might have been to see her son a chazan, a shochet, or a successful businessman. Now, parents and youth alike began to see a new ideal -- the talmid chochom, the ben Torah, the Jew whose calling in life was his quest for Torah knowledge and for self-improvement. They tasted the sweetness of lomdus and of comprehension. They experienced the tranquility that comes with introspection and self-knowledge. They saw the happiness that prevails in Torah homes and they were fired to try and achieve the same in their own lives.

Rav Waltner's real genius as an educator lay in knowing how to maintain the fine balance, both within the yeshiva and without, that enabled this to happen. He and the talented staff that he built up, transmitted Torah and mussar alone, calling forth personal growth without imposing in any other way.

His arrangements for the tefillos on Rosh Hashanah serve as a particularly striking example, among others that will be encountered in this article. Shacharis in the yeshiva was conducted according to the local nusach, but for musaf, Rav Waltner would approach the omud. In his powerful and moving voice, he would conduct the tefilloh in his own nusach. Copies of the Ashkenazi piyutim were handed out and the gathering was spellbound by the depth and feeling of his davening. Years later, many made a point of mentioning their memories of those special tefillos and the strong impression they left.

For over twenty years, Rav Waltner taught, guided, directed and inspired thousands along their own individual Torah paths. He brought his fire with him from Europe but the new flames that he kindled with it burned brightly with their own characteristics and radiating timeless light. He thus raised legions of Sephardi rabbonim, roshei yeshiva, dayonim, Torah disseminators and bnei Torah, who are active all over the world today.

The number of his direct talmidim, together with their talmidim, has been estimated at thirty thousand. Moreover, the roots of the independent Sephardi movement that emerged in Eretz Yisroel a decade after Rav Waltner left Morocco, have been traced to the process that he set in motion in Tangiers.

Pathways to Growth

"When delivering a sichah, he wouldn't speak about insubstantial things. He would always discuss sublime ideas. He always liked to speak within a framework of greatness, not of smallness. He wanted bachurim to be aware that matters of great consequence were under consideration. He wanted to fire them with ambition. Whether or not they fully understood didn't matter so much. A bachur's very realization that he was sharing a discussion of important concepts, showed him that there was deep content here, that had to be toiled over -- not something that could be had by casual talk.

"He knew how to spark a current in a talmid so that he'd be capable [of achievement]. This was how he shaped the men who worked with him . . . They should be the type that would always inject a living spirit, for he always particularly sought this kind of approach . . ." (From a hesped delivered by his talmid, Rav Yosef Azran, rov of Rishon Letziyon)

HaRav Yissochor Meir, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Hanegev, also noted the way in which Rav Waltner utilized lomdus in order to fire the talmidim: "He set himself to saying lomdus. Repeating the simple understanding is good, but lomdus is needed in order to give a bochur ambition and desire."

Rav Shlomo Farrache, a talmid, who later served as a maggid shiur, recalled his own chavrusa with Rav Waltner: "In the early years, I also learned with him privately . . . He was utterly amazing; he would dissect everything. I was very impressed by his way of learning . . . In shiurim he was very deep. He didn't cover a lot [of ground] but he would take a point in the sugya and really delve into it. He didn't say chaburos or ma'arochos [surveying arrays of different sources]; he preferred going deeply into comprehending something.

"His motto was always excellence. He sought excellence. He couldn't bear pshetlach or incorrect things. [Such was his] trait of truth and his depth . . . [He would often ask,] `Nu, how do you explain this Maharsha, or Rashash?' If you didn't give a genuine and acceptable explanation, he couldn't listen to it. This was the way -- to explain and delve deeply, without any superficiality."

This was his approach in mussar as well. Rav Farrache: "In his sichos, he used Sefas Emes al Hatorah a lot and [would quote] from Rav Dessler. He might start a sichah like this, `Why does a person feel shame?' He would take a point, [for example], `What is the origin of a sense of shame? From feeling a contradiction in one's personality. One thought a certain way and now one feels a contradiction . . .' He was a great analyst."

Rav Yissochor Meir: "[He expounded] the lomdus of mussar. Rav Dessler made [lomdus] of mussar and chassidus (meaning sifrei Kabboloh, not what we know as chassidus). When Rav Dessler came to him, the Ponovezher Rov told his talmidim, `[Now] you've got a rosh yeshiva for mussar.' "

Rav Farrache: "He greatly stressed how important it is that a person be genuine and not do things that are merely external. One's deeds should come from [the prompting of] one's inner self. Sometimes one can be excited by something but the excitement should be directed inwards . . . There was a bochur in Tangiers who grew a beard. I remember that he called him to the office and shouted at him to remove it. I was very close to him and it hurt me that he shouted at him. What was wrong with growing a beard? He said, `He's not on the level to grow a beard. What will happen later? Someone will laugh at him and he'll remove it and that will affect him adversely.' . . . He insisted that [a person be] honest with himself, that his deeds fit his level -- not that chas vesholom one shouldn't do mitzvos [if one felt unworthy], for a chiyuv is a chiyuv -- but with respect to frumkeit and stringencies. He demanded that one be wholehearted about things."

Guidance for Life

Rav Waltner was described by Rav Moshe Schloss as having been, "an interesting combination . . . Critical but [at the same time] gentle. He never pushed anyone away completely. He voiced his criticism but he saw that it was done with love. He had a love for the person."

Despite his exacting standards, Rav Waltner was neither austere nor aloof. He was a man of strong spirit, which he poured into his talmidim in different ways, such as through his singing, his inspiring tefillos and the seudah shelishis meals for which he used to be with them on Shabbos. His bonds to them remained strong, even when additional responsibilities to Torah chinuch in Morocco took him away from the yeshiva often. He was devoted to every aspect of his students' welfare. His active cooperation with the Joint's advisers about their dietary and other mundane needs was dictated as much if not more by his concern for them as it was by the need to conform with his sponsors' policies.

He knew his talmidim thoroughly and advised them about their future paths, demanding that each of them properly fulfill his designated task in life, whether it predominantly involved either holy or mundane pursuits. He also arranged matches for many of the talmidim -- often with graduates of the Teachers' Seminary. His face shone with joy when he took part in these weddings. The tens, hundreds even, of fine Torah homes that these couples built were a source of profound joy to their families and of pride to the community. In a number of cases, he also shouldered the financial burden of the weddings. Although the means for effecting a strong Torah revival in Morocco were available to Rav Waltner, various other groups, that had very different agendas and wielded great power, were also hard at work -- and in general, the financial situation was very difficult.

One talmid related that his parents planned to settle in Eretz Yisroel and wanted him to accompany them but Rav Waltner dissuaded him from doing so. "There are tremendous problems in earning a livelihood over there," he explained, "and when there's no food left in the house, they'll send you out to work." The boy's parents could not refute this argument and he remained behind. Rav Waltner later displayed special concern for this bochur, arranging his wedding and concerning himself with all his needs, in place of the absent parents.

The yeshiva's business in Morocco was hatzolas nefoshos, in the spiritual but plainest sense. After his marriage, when Rav Farrache served as a maggid shiur, he would deal with applications for the yeshiva. He would travel to the town near Tangiers in order to register talmidim and speak in the beit haknesset.

There were no examinations or entrance requirements. Every single talmid who wanted to learn was accepted. There was a special preparation shiur to raise the level of the arrivals, whose general level might be zero. One talmid recalled that upon his arrival, after attending an Alliance school, he just about knew how to hold a siddur. Many of those who arrived with virtually no Torah knowledge whatsoever, developed into highly distinguished talmidei chachomim.

End of Part II

Letter from Rav Dessler to Rav Waltner: Travelling Diminishes Stature


Yom Dalet, Isru Chag Pesach 5703

Beloved and precious friends,

I left this morning without managing to take leave of you but forgive me, for I did not want to disturb you. B"H, my departure and arrival here were in order. Tonight, I intend travelling iy"H, to London and Chesham.

On the way, it occurred to me: Chazal say that travelling diminishes a person's name. We know that something's name denotes, "its substance, as it appears to the giver of the name" thus [this means that] travelling diminishes a person's inner content. "Name" can't mean reputation, because buffoons are always travelling around for the sake of publicity. Who then, can consider himself worthy enough that he is able to abandon his very own substance [in order to travel] for Heaven's sake? Who is worthy enough to be able to make such a sacrifice? Everyone can see that someone who's always travelling loses something of his inner level -- may Hashem have mercy on me, that I shouldn't fall among the others who stumble, chas vesholom . . .

Letter from Rav Dessler to Rav Waltner: Man Arrives in the Middle and Leaves in the Middle

Yom Shlishi,

On my return from Chesham, King's Cross Station [London] [5703]

Precious friends,

I couldn't write to you yesterday because time was short and as I write now, I don't know which will reach you first, this letter, or I myself, in my lowliness. Nevertheless, I am obliged to show you gratitude for all the tokens of friendship that you heap upon me, beyond all measure, and I cannot but write.

A new thought occurred to me, while contemplating that there is nothing new. Every person imagines that he will achieve something and bring something new to the world but he is mistaken. Man is created in the middle and he ultimately leaves in the middle. ("There is no tzaddik in the world who does [only] good without sinning [at all].") Man's task is to elevate himself by degrees, but not necessarily to reach [perfection], as Chazal say, "it is not up to you to finish the work." Man's task is not the completion but the work itself -- "a soul that toils, benefits from its toil." Someone who thinks he can finish will ultimately despair and will end up having accomplished nothing. Happy is the man who recognizes that his work [itself] -- his service of Hashem, battling the yetzer hora -- is the purpose for which he was created and is that which elevates him and makes him great. The greatest among men is a servant of Hashem [whatever his objective stature] -- this is the sum total of man's purpose. It is a wondrous purpose, for man can fulfill it every instant if he wishes, not just at the end of his life. Every moment that he spends in toiling to fulfill his Owner's wishes bears the imprint of this purpose.

This eminently simple idea is known to very few people indeed. It is a novelty to realize that there is nothing new -- in the collective sum of all that exists -- under the sun . . .


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