Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

11 Tishrei 5763 - September 17, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Portraying The Past And Ensuring The Future: HaRav Yitzchok Isaac Halevi Rabinowitz, zt'l, Author Of Doros Horishonim

by Moshe Musman and Yated Ne'eman Staff, Based on a Biographical Account by Rabbi Shmuel Halevi Rabinowitz, z'l

Part Two: Pen of Valor

Introduction: Between Faith and Reform

Rav Halevi fought all his life for the truth. He fearlessly protested all forms of falsehood and distortion, and specifically those that were threatening to engulf and transform Jewish life.

He realized the insidious nature of the danger which the haskoloh -- that had already wreaked spiritual devastation on German Jewry -- now posed to the large Eastern European centers. Draped in a mantle of scholarship, the maskilim sought to sway the masses with the "justice" and "logic" of their arguments, undermining faith in Torah as a steppingstone to its abandonment.

Some of the maskilim were scoundrels, who made no secret of their desire to tamper with halochoh and bring it more in line with the "modern" spirit of the times. Others though, were less open, or perhaps less clear themselves about what they really wanted. These included some "moderates," who merely wanted to see other disciplines, that were important for economic and social integration into the country's society, take their place alongside Torah in Jewish education and in Jewish life. They may have believed themselves to be sincere but they did not see what the gedolim saw, namely, that any changes whose effect would be a weakening of commitment to Torah and its study, would inevitably cause abandonment of Yiddishkeit altogether.

Many who did not identify openly with the maskilim were no doubt still attracted by the lure of their vision of being able to live comfortably in two worlds at the same time and by their demands for timely changes.

Rav Halevi shrewdly observed: "In our times, it is a disgrace to take pride in oneself for stating the truth, because the impostors also speak in the name of the truth."

He was under no delusions as to the lack of validity of their ideas. He wrote, "Life without faith is itself a lie. No man goes through life without harboring some sort of faith in his heart . . . A man who chas vesholom does not believe in Hashem, in Moshe His servant, and in Hashem's Torah, takes the gentile family of nations as his guide and believes in them with greater fervor and devotion and with greater zeal than one who believes in the fire that burned in the bush . . . A man who does not believe in Moshe Rabbenu o'h, believes utterly and completely in Soton . . . "

A Masterful Analyst

The maskilim made full use of the power of the printed word. They camouflaged their intentions with a welter of sublime prose, using carefully chosen and finely expressed quotations from Tanach and Chazal and lyrical turns of phrase that were a delight to read. They presented themselves as champions of their nation's cause, whose honor and prestige it was their sole aim to further.

Rav Halevi responded in kind but without engaging in any polemics or defamation. He tore the mask away from the maskilim, exposing their true agenda, albeit without attacking.

From his early youth he had been endowed with a beautiful literary style. The ideas that took shape in his brilliant mind flowed unhindered from his pen. His clarity of style and incisive logic compelled his reader to follow his line of argument and to arrive with him at the desired conclusions. He would analyze an issue soberly, using penetrating ideas, that were both sublime and profound and that struck a responsive chord in the reader's soul. Extrapolating from the premises of the maskilim themselves, he depicted the natural outcome of their plans so vividly and so realistically, that their position was utterly unsalvageable and they had no choice but to lay down their weapons and retreat.

He never instigated an attack or confrontation. He would not write merely in order to express an opinion on a contemporary issue, however pressing a need there might have been for it to be aired. Such ventures were not in his field and he had no spare time available for them. Only when something momentous was in the offing that, if implemented, would have disastrous consequences for religious Jewry, did he take pen in hand. On such occasions, he invariably succeeded in putting an end to the scheme at hand, by publishing two or three articles in a Jewish periodical.

Rav Halevi's unsigned articles appeared in Halevonon, which was the mouthpiece of observant Jewry in the eighteen seventies. An editorial note to one of his articles reads, "We very much regret the honorable writer's refusal to allow us to reveal his name to the public, for then his words would make the impression that they ought to . . . He is one of the greatest among the well-known, in whom Torah and wisdom, faith and intelligence are fused firmly together." Rav Halevi was only in his thirties at the time.

Attempting to Gain a Foothold

At the beginning of the eighteen seventies, a group calling itself The Society for the Spread of Haskoloh began to operate among Russian Jewry. The story of one of its campaigns, directed against the Shulchan Oruch, reveals Rav Halevi in his classic role of behind-the-scenes mediator.

The maskilim wanted to produce a new "edition" of the Shulchan Oruch that would contain all the lenient rulings of both the Beis Yosef and the Ramo. Before embarking on this enterprise, they searched for a suitable rabbinical figure from among Vilna's Torah scholars whose sponsorship would lend it sufficient prestige to gain wide acceptance. They found such a personage and initiated contact, without revealing the true scope of their intentions so as not to arouse his suspicions.

Two delegates from the St. Petersburg-based society visited him at home in Vilna. There, they also found an upright and Heaven-fearing talmid chochom by the name of Reb Shimon. The latter's Torah knowledge was exceptional and he was also a gifted writer. Like a majority of the talmidei chachomim of the times, Reb Shimon lived in penury, without any fixed source of income.

The delegates promised Reb Shimon material abundance were he to agree to accompany them to St. Petersburg and edit their Shulchan Oruch according to their society's guidelines. They also promised him that the rabbonim of Vilna would support the venture and that it would enjoy their full approbation.

Reb Shimon's suspicions were aroused. He was in no hurry to betray the Shulchan Oruch, even in exchange for the enticements that he was being offered. He requested a day's grace for deliberations and consultations with the chachomim whose authority he relied upon. They consented and he immediately turned to none other than Rav Halevi, who was then only twenty-four.

Though astonished to discover their plans, Rav Halevi hit upon the most effective strategy after a brief conversation with Reb Shimon. He instructed him to accept the offer, lest his refusal lead to something far worse, but to make it a precondition that the work be done in Vilna, subject to the scrutiny of the local rabbonim and Torah scholars. Reb Shimon was pleased with this plan and the next day he went to meet the delegates in the rov's home, to give them his decision.

The rov was so impressed with Reb Shimon's response that he immediately took him out of the room and asked, "Tell me the truth Reb Shimon, wasn't it Reb Isaac Rabinowitz whom you consulted, who put this wonderful proposal into your mouth?" Naturally, Reb Shimon confirmed this.

The two delegates were surprised by the condition and rejected it out of hand. It would clearly be impossible to implement their scheme in Vilna, where they would be under surveillance all the time. The rov's enthusiasm for the idea also waned. He was dismayed at how close he, one of Vilna's leading Torah elders, had come to handing the Torah over to the maskilim on a silver platter, whereas Rav Halevi, by far his junior, had seen through them immediately.

This simple idea effectively dealt a death blow to the plan. Deprived of the distinguished rabbinical backing and scholarly editor that they had hoped to recruit, they returned to St. Petersburg to try to salvage the scheme, accompanied by another Vilna resident whose Torah scholarship was far inferior to that of Reb Shimon.

Because he still considered the plan dangerous, whatever form it might ultimately adopt, Rav Halevi submitted an article to Halevonon exposing the society's devious aims. The maskilim responded with two articles that contradicted each other. One claimed that the writer in Halevonon was mistaken in his suspicions, while the other acknowledged the truth of his charges but disclaimed any harmful intentions on their part and repeated their usual sincere assurances that their sole desire was to better their people's lot. Rav Halevi responded to this with a second, even more forceful article, following whose publication they were forced to abandon the idea permanently.

Fitting Leaders and Spokesmen

Another of the society's plans was to establish a rabbinical seminary to train Russian talmidim who were not completely observant to serve as rabbonim across Russia and also in Eretz Yisroel. In an article in Halevonon published in 1880, Rav Halevi came out strongly against the idea. He did not rule out rabbonim learning the language of the land, or other rudimentary information, so long as any program for such learning would be run under the auspices of the leading rabbonim, to ensure that "everything would be done by men knowledgeable in Torah too, who are devoted to it [Torah] heart and soul . . . "

That much was acceptable as long as the rabbonim involved were first and foremost genuine rabbonim, whose fear of Heaven preceded their wisdom, "but," wrote Rav Halevi, "to turn the maskilim into rabbonim -- that is nothing more than utter coercion."

A response from one of the society's members arguing the need for modern "rabbonim" who would be able to influence those who had already drifted away from their religion, drew two further articles on the subject from Rav Halevi, after which this plan too, was abandoned.

This attempt was made against the backdrop of a serious development. During Rav Halevi's last years in Vilna, Jewish communities across Russia were increasingly affected by a phenomenon that greatly lowered Torah's esteem among the people. In the large cities, no new appointment would be made upon the demise or departure of the incumbent rov. The community's wealthy, powerful (and usually free-thinking) lay leaders would invariably be at work behind the scenes, doing all they could in order to prevent a new figure of religious authority from being installed. The damage that this caused might not be readily apparent, especially when viewed from our own times of spiritual impoverishment and communal fragmentation, but it was great indeed.

A rov of stature raised Torah's prestige in the eyes of the entire community. He would attract and inspire the religious youth. Householders whose free time was devoted to Torah study would delight in speaking to him and absorbing his teachings. With a solid core of united and devoted followers, his influence upon a community's religious periphery would be that much greater, as would his ability to ensure that communal affairs proceeded squarely upon a Torah path.

The followers of the maskilim were thus fighting to drastically lessen Torah's influence in communal life. Since it is much easier to prevent something (even if it is positive) from happening than it is to make something happen, they were very successful. Later on, matters were further complicated by the controversy in the religious community between the Mizrachi and chareidi camps, making it next to impossible to find rabbonim of stature who were acceptable to all parties.

Quite apart from the immediate damage cause by the lack of religious leadership and the refusal to submit to it, Rav Halevi (and others) discerned a grave long-term danger. Chazal enjoin us to occupy ourselves with Torah and mitzvos even if our motivation is less than selfless. Rav Halevi argued that young talmidim aspiring to greatness in Torah needed the incentive of possibly attaining a prestigious and comfortable rabbinical position in a large city. Obviously, not everyone could or would win the coveted prize, but everyone needed the knowledge that all the options were open. The true gedolim were greatly venerated by the people at large and the awareness of young men that such prominence might one day be theirs if they devoted themselves fully to Torah, was powerful encouragement. All this was being eclipsed by the diminishing stature of religious authority.

A century and more ago, those who were active in Jewish communal affairs, and the vast majority of the Torah leaders of Eastern Europe, had no knowledge of the language of the lands in which they lived. They certainly had no secular education. Since they themselves were unable to converse freely with the authorities, external Jewish affairs were usually conducted by irreligious intercessors, who were quite at ease conversing with gentile rulers and politicians.

This led to a serious misconception on the part of the people. They came to view the intercessors not as emissaries, entrusted merely to convey the opinions and wishes of the real leaders to the authorities, but as men who took action on their own initiative and styled themselves as the foremost representatives of their people. The government, too, received a false impression from the fact that the men coming before them to plead the cause of observant Jewry betrayed their people's religious mission in their own personal lives.

Rav Halevi bemoaned this state of affairs. He advocated taking steps to ensure that there would be individuals among the chareidim, who were capable of dealing with the authorities directly, thus freeing the community from its dependence on irreligious representatives. He himself was one of the very few who were capable of acting in this capacity. But the day was approaching when Heaven decreed that Russian Jewry be suddenly deprived of his formidable qualities and his capacity for communal leadership.

Flight and Wandering

On Rosh Chodesh Nisan 5655 (1895), Rav Halevi's business fortunes suffered a sudden reversal. Pressed by creditors for payment while unable to recover money that he was owed, he was compelled to leave his home and flee. For several years, he was forced to wander throughout Europe undergoing trials and tribulations, until he finally settled in Germany, where he obtained a post in Hamburg in 5662 (1902).

He was forty-six and no longer so young when he took up the wanderer's staff. The bitterness of travelling as a fugitive was compounded by personal suffering. Nevertheless, who knew better than he that Jewish history is replete with examples of great men who were forced by untoward circumstances to leave their homes and to wander to distant lands, it becoming evident, in retrospect that they had been singled out by the hand of Hashgochoh to plant Torah in new surroundings?

Rav Halevi's exile can be seen in the same light: it made possible the two monumental achievements of his later years, both of which had an impact that was major and lasting. Had he remained in Vilna at the center of communal affairs, it seems more than likely that he would never have had the opportunity to write Doros Horishonim, his panoramic account of ancient Jewish history. And had he, friend and colleague of the Eastern European gedolei Torah, not encountered German Orthodoxy firsthand and become acquainted with its strengths, its weaknesses and its communal figures, it is hard to see how he could have played the pivotal and crucial role that he did in bringing Jewish leaders of East and West together in Agudas Yisroel.

Both of these projects were born of the recognition of the deep inroads that haskoloh was making into traditional Jewish life and of the need to bolster religious Jewry in the face of the ongoing threat. All the religious leaders were aware of the extent of the crisis; they came face-to-face with it on a daily basis. The infiltration of the kehillos and the seizure of power by maskilim, with their constant agitation for changes `in the spirit of the times,' left rabbonim and Torah leaders to fight single- handedly, which they did valiantly but often ineffectively. Some kind of retrenchment was imperative.

On the broader, communal level, the response came in the form of Agudas Yisroel, the worldwide alliance of yerei'im. On the individual level, the response was Rav Yisroel Salanter's mussar movement. Though this was originally intended to lead to renewed devotion in avodas Hashem among the rank and file, it ultimately only gained a firm foothold in the great yeshivos that continued the work of Volozhin, from where it led, in the generations that followed, to a renaissance of Torah life that is still unfolding.

Obligations Towards Hashem and Man

At the end of his introduction to the first volume of Doros Horishonim, Rav Halevi writes, "Hashem, in whose Presence I have stood from the day I attained maturity, [aspiring] to heighten vigor in order to increase Torah in Yisroel, to the point where He saw fit to remove my standing entirely . . . I pray that he will return and have mercy on me . . . setting me on my feet that I may live before Him . . . and may He merit me with fulfilling all my obligations towards Hashem and man . . . "

As these wishes imply and as his son attests, the business debts which he had left behind in Russia, never ceased preying on Rav Halevi's mind. He had to struggle for a few years simply in order to subsist but as soon as his fortunes improved, he began to send considerable sums of money back to Russia periodically.

Although he kept a meticulous record of the names of his creditors and the sums that he still owed, some of them tried to extort from him more than he owed them. They rightly expected that he would prefer to reach some sort of "compromise" with them over their exaggerated claims to engaging in a public din Torah. He even refused his son's offer to go with them to beis din on his behalf. At the same time, he was "forgotten" by his customers and debtors in Russia who still owed him money.

Despite his financial woes, he always made a point of avoiding gifts. An acquaintance once visited him in Hamburg and spent an entire day trying to get him to accept a money bill which would make him the man's partner in a large business concern. Though Rav Halevi knew that his would-be- benefactor could easily afford such generosity, he refused. When a group of his admirers in Hamburg presented him with a gift of two and a half thousand marks in cash on some special occasion, he also refused. The amounts involved made no difference.

When he first arrived in Hamburg, he asked one of his followers to buy him a good paraffin lamp, which he needed for walking out at night. The man brought the lamp which cost nine marks, but he was unwilling to accept any money back. Rav Halevi was adamant that he accept the money and remained unmoved when the man told him that two weeks earlier, he had done a similar favor for a different rov, who had ultimately agreed to accept the item as a gift. Rav Halevi informed him that if he would not take the money, he would simply have the lamp sent back to him.

His son notes that even during the hardest times, his father continued distributing tzedokoh to the needy, going even beyond his means. Whenever he recognized a case's urgency, he gave generously, placing his trust in Hashem to continue bestowing His kindness and prevent him from losing the tenuous foothold that he had gained.

Neither did he ever complain or question why he should have suffered such a reversal of fortunes. Neither communal or individual troubles, nor personal woes, crushed his spirits or bowed his head. His son points out that in fact, it was during the periods of greatest difficulty, that his father fortified himself with added yiras Shomayim and sanctified Heaven with his conduct. His perfect trust in Hashem carried him through the years of suffering, when he found little tranquility or comfort for his troubled soul.

The Fruits of Exile

Rav Halevi began writing Doros Horishonim in Pressburg, where he arrived in Tammuz 5655 (1895), after three months of travel through Russia and the Ukraine. His son Rav Shmuel records that his father's first stop upon arrival was the city's yeshiva. Even when beset by his own troubles, his thoughts always centered on Torah, Torah institutions and the welfare of the teachers and students within them.

On his travels, he had devoted himself to editing and arranging his own chiddushei Torah for publication. This pursuit, writes his son, was always the most precious to him and brought him true satisfaction. In Pressburg he had the pleasure of receiving the first section of his sefer, Botim Levadim back from the printer. This is an extensive treatment of the discussions of the gemora and the Rishonim about the ways in which halochoh treats various types of doubts and doubtful circumstances. It was reprinted a year ago in Eretz Yisroel.

It soon became apparent however, that while he was in alien surroundings, he would be unable to raise the funds necessary for publishing the entire work. He thus set aside further work on his chiddushim and began writing Doros Horishonim. The first section he wrote was Volume Three, which dealt with the latest period that his work covered, "From the Sealing of the Talmud until the End of the Times of the Geonim."

In his introductory remarks, Rav Halevi explained that, "I very much wanted to publish Volume Two first because it is needed more urgently, but since I am on the move, bereft of all good and lacking any seforim whatsoever, I could not do so, for the Second Volume includes the entire period of the Tanno'im and Amoro'im, the Mishnah and the Talmud and is more directly relevant to every aspect of Torah and I did not want to arrange it for publication at this time . . . "

If one appreciates what his being "on the move" means, his achievement in writing the sefer, even a volume whose preparation did not demand such undisturbed reflection, is staggering. He remained in Pressburg for only five months, before travelling via Frankfurt am Main to London, where he remained for six or seven months. He then left for Paris, where he lived for eight months, before returning, again by way of Frankfurt, to Pressburg. The first volume was completed there in Sivan 5657 (1897), almost two years after he started it, and was published later that year.

After much difficulty, the publication costs were met -- amazingly -- by the Paris, based Alliance Israelite Universelle, even though the work's ideology was diametrically opposed to the organization's program and the outlook of its leadership. Their vexation at the great impression made by the book was probably the reason for the subsequent evasion of a promise of further assistance with the second volume.

His wanderings continued over the next three years, among Jewish communities in Austria, Romania and Germany. He started Volume Two while living in Jassy, Romania, where his daughter and son-in-law lived, completing it on Rosh Chodesh Adar 5661 (1901). The book was sponsored by Baron S. Z. Rothschild z'l, and was published in Hamburg.

From letters written by Rav Halevi, it transpires that almost a year earlier, in the summer of 5660 (1900), he had been offered a position as klausrabbiner in the kloiz of Leib bar Sh'oul z'l, in Hamburg. Candidates for the position had to devote all their time to Torah study but no natives of the community were eligible as candidates. The only duty that the position required of its occupant was the delivery of weekly shiurim. This position was clearly eminently suited to Rav Halevi. It enabled him to continue with his writing and resume his involvement in communal affairs. However, for some reason, he only settled in Hamburg and assumed the position in 5662 (1902).

Klausrabbiner and Mentor

Some six months after settling in Hamburg, Rav Halevi began delivering a two-hour shiur on maseches Chulin every Shabbos. The shiur attracted the city's leading talmidei chachomim, some of whom walked very long distances in order to attend, devoting virtually their whole Shabbos to it during the winter months.

In his rabbinical frock coat and his top hat, Rav Halevi was a striking figure. Twice a year, on Simchas Torah and on Purim, his followers would gather in his home and he would sing special piyutim in the melodies that were traditional in Vilna. The numbers attending these gatherings would grow from year to year, to the point where his house could not contain the crowd.

Rav Halevi's greatness in Torah and prominence as a historian soon attracted a number of the young German rabbonim to him. They grew to revere him greatly and assisted him in furthering the spread of his ideas. Rav Shmuel Hillman Kotek z'l, rav of the resort town of Bad Homburg near Frankfurt, became a very close friend, with whom Rav Halevi corresponded frequently. Rav Shlomo Menachem Halevi Bamberger z'l, rav of Hanau, was entrusted by Rav Halevi with the editing of parts of the third section of Doros Horishonim. Other members of the circle were Rav Yonah Bondi z'l, rav of Mainz, who was said to know virtually every line of Doros Horishonim by heart, Rav Chaim Biberfeld z'l, and Rav Gershon Lange z'l, who became Rav Halevi's devoted follower at their very first meeting.

Together with him, they established the Frankfurt-based Society for Jewish Literature in 5661 (1901), whose aim was to further the study of Jewish history in the spirit of Torah and staunch faith, as it was portrayed in Doros Horishonim. The Society published a yearbook, containing articles and monographs dealing with a range of historical material, written in this spirit. Typically, although Rav Halevi himself occupied no formal position in the Society, he was its inspiration and guiding spirit; his behind-the-scenes involvement was very extensive.

Several years later, we find Rav Halevi mentioning in a letter that the heads of the Hamburg Talmud Torah had begun coming to his home to learn from Doros Horishonim together with him.

To be continued

End of Part II

Admirer and Critic

From an Appreciation by Rabbi Dr. Moshe Auerbach z'l

The end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, until the First World War, were years of economic growth and expansion in Germany, in which the country's Jews played a major and active role, with many of them becoming extremely wealthy. Naturally, they acknowledged their obligations towards their brethren in other lands, particularly towards the Jews of Russia, who suffered terrible poverty because of the government's cruel and despotic laws, which destroyed the livelihoods of tens of thousands of them.

However, this state of affairs led the German Jews to look upon their Russian brethren as poor relatives, and to see themselves as the benefactors of those who were living in the Czar's lands, of those who had fled to Germany and needed help and of the various delegations that came to raise funds for charitable enterprises and for the great yeshivos. Only a very few understood the extent to which they needed the Torah of Poland and Lithuania.

The emissaries of the yeshivos and the well known rabbonim saw their main task in Germany as raising the money they needed for their institutions, so they refrained from criticizing the state of Torah in Germany and they praised the tiny minority that they found in the various groups for learning gemora. Thus, a large portion of German Jewry, including bnei Torah, developed feelings of superiority towards the Eastern European Jews, in respect to whom they felt themselves to be ascendent.

There were a few of the Eastern European gedolim however, who came to Germany and did not recoil from expressing forthright criticism of the Torah's position, despite their genuine regard for the fine character traits and love of Torah that they encountered. One of them, perhaps the first, was Rav Yitzchok Isaac Halevi zt'l. This Lithuanian gaon, who arrived in Germany as a virtual refugee, knew how to raise Torah's prestige and to demonstrate to all, that with [his] Torah spirit, he gave far more to his supporters than he received from them materially.

In and around Frankfurt, he found a circle of rabbonim and baalei batim, who saw him as their rov, particularly in his historical methodology, based upon the Talmudic sources. Among those who joined this circle was Morenu Yaakov Rosenheim [z'l]. In time, his influence extended to a wider circle of baalei batim and Orthodox youth in Hamburg. He was their teacher and guide. He knew how to value their fine traits, their toil at Torah and their mitzva observance, in a foreign environment. At the same time however, neither did he refrain from criticism or from warning them of the evidence of assimilation, to which even they were not immune. He was a wonderful example, engendering respect for the glory of the Torah greatness of Eastern European chachomim.


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