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18 Teves 5762 - January 2, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Tears Of Light: The Sixtieth Yahrtzeit Of HaRav Dovid Leibowitz Zt'l

by Moshe Musman


HaRav Dovid Leibowitz zt'l, was one of the finest products to issue from the Alter of Slobodka's beis hamedrash, which was itself an outstanding producer from which came a majority of the postwar Torah leaders. HaRav Dovid was a great nephew of the Chofetz Chaim, with whom he had a close relationship, and he learned in Radin for several years before coming to Slobodka. It was the latter of these two famous botei medrash however, that left the most distinctive imprint upon him. His greatness as a Torah educator was matched by his prominence as an expounder of the Alter's thought and method.

In order to appreciate Reb Dovid's impact and potential, a few words about the Alter of Slobodka and his influence are in order. Although the Alter kept a low profile even within his own yeshiva, his influence upon his talmidim could hardly have been more far reaching. The phrase gadlus ho'odom, that is usually used to sum up the Alter's message, is really an oversimplification, and it can be completely misunderstood.

The Alter implanted not one single idea, but an entire language, or philosophy, of greatness within his students. He infused a new outlook, new joy and a new self-image into those whose self-worth and spiritual standing were threatened by lack of respect in the Jewish street for the ben Torah. His evocation of man's innate distinction and boundless potential was so powerful, that it spurred many of the talmidim to develop into giants of Torah and mussar, becoming shining examples of man's intellectual, emotional and spiritual splendor.

The Alter did not convey a finished set of ideas, or a fixed pattern of conduct; he conveyed a vision of grandeur so potent that it acted as a ferment, fueling each individual talmid's realization of his own potential and growth to greatness. When this point about the Alter is appreciated, one can begin to divine some powerful, common influence in the inner growth -- despite the apparent lack of outward uniformity -- among Slobodka's products.

Reb Dovid Leibowitz was not only one of the greatest figures to emerge from the Alter's circle. He was also one of his foremost disciples, possessing the ability to convey the Slobodka message to further generations and shape young men in both Torah and mussar, or rather, to inspire them to grow and attain their full ethical and spiritual heights. This was the task to which he applied himself when he accepted a position as rosh yeshiva at Torah Vodaas and in whose pursuance, he opened his own yeshiva several years later.

With the strength and optimism of youth, he hoped, and did in fact seem poised, to effect significant changes in Torah education among the sizable and at least nominally observant Jewish communities. However, he completed his mission in this world at an early age. His work was interrupted when he passed away tragically in his early fifties.

Reb Dovid's legacy was a rich one. Led by his only son, HaRav Henoch Leibowitz ylct'a, his yeshiva grew and prospered and, in keeping with Reb Dovid's aims, a considerable proportion of the student body went on to become rabbonim and marbitzei Torah. Over the years, the yeshiva also opened numerous other Torah institutions across the United States, as well as a branch in Yerushalayim.

Many of Reb Dovid's own talmidim were and still are prominent marbitzei Torah. The best known among them were probably HaRav Gedaliah Schorr zt'l and HaRav Avrohom Pam zt'l. For this article, another two of his talmidim, ylct'a, shared their memories of Reb Dovid with us: Rabbi Moshe Chait, rosh yeshiva of the yeshiva's Yerushalayim branch and Rabbi Yisroel Rockove.

Interestingly, in a piece published as an introduction to Kuntrus Zichron LeDovid (a collection of Reb Dovid's shmuessen), Rabbi Chait recalls, " . . . he [Reb Dovid] once remarked to us that bnei yeshiva [tend to] ignore the introductions to the works of the Torah giants and go straight to their chiddushim, without paying attention to what is written in the introductions, where the author's life history is usually recorded, reflecting his personality and his approach to learning.

"Why indeed, [he asked,] should these [aspects of his life] concern us? [After all,] the author's life is represented by his chiddushim themselves; they are what we wish to take from him." Our teacher [then] explained that it is almost impossible to appreciate the full depth of the words of Torah giants unless one first becomes familiar with the crux and essence of their spiritual world and their particular sacrifice for Torah study and for extending and glorifying Torah, for this, ultimately, is the source of their chiddushim."

This is a fitting idea to bear in mind when considering Reb Dovid's own life. While Reb Dovid was a great man and a superlative educator in his own right -- the whole point about Slobodka being that there was no such thing as a Slobodka "mold" -- viewing his life in the context of the spiritual world that was his inspiration, affords a much clearer understanding of what he aimed for and what he achieved.

With the Chofetz Chaim

Reb Dovid was born in Zhetl, Poland, in 1889 (the town was Russian until the First World War). Four years later, his family moved to Warsaw. In 1902, he went to learn in the Lomzhe Yeshiva and after a year there, he travelled to learn in Radin, where he stayed for five years. Reb Dovid's grandfather was a brother of the Chofetz Chaim and Reb Dovid would later comment that it was the Chofetz Chaim who had brought him to Radin.

He learned bechavrusa with the Chofetz Chaim for two years for twelve hours a day, from nine a.m. to nine p.m. They learned Hilchos Succah together, their study serving as the basis for the Mishnah Berurah on these halochos. In later years, whenever he heard someone described as "a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim," Reb Dovid would laugh and say that the Chofetz Chaim had no talmidim, and that if anyone was entitled to call himself his talmid, he was.

Interestingly, in a recently published volume of Me'ir Einei Yisroel, HaRav Zachs, a grandson of the Chofetz Chaim, makes the same observation about his grandfather. Even HaRav Elchonon Wasserman zt'l Hy'd, who used to travel regularly to Radin and who took from the Chofetz Chaim as much as he could, never referred to himself as a talmid.

In his article, Rabbi Chait mentions that Reb Dovid, " . . . took pride solely in being a melamed, and [said that] his uncle the Chofetz Chaim always said, `I am a melamed, and my father was a melamed, and this is our family's job over the generations, to be melamdim.' "

Reb Naftoli Tropp zt'l, under whom Reb Dovid learned in Radin, said of him before he was twenty that he was already complete as a lamdan. In his youth, people would test Reb Dovid by pointing out a sugya on which Reb Chaim zt'l, had said Torah. Almost every time he would anticipate Reb Chaim's difficulty and his resolution.

When Reb Dovid wanted to leave Radin, he felt unable to do so while his great uncle, the Chofetz Chaim, who had brought him there in the first place, was in town. He therefore waited until the Chofetz Chaim was away before making his departure.

Knesses Beis Yisroel

In Radin, beards and long coats were customary and Reb Dovid arrived in Slobodka bearded. In later years, he would explain to his own talmidim, that the Chofetz Chaim's opposition to shaving stemmed from his conviction that it was wrong to alter people's image of a ben Torah as having a more religious looking appearance than ordinary people.

This was not the view taken by Slobodka however, where the bochurim were clean-shaven and wore short suit jackets, not as a concession but for reasons that belonged to the overall philosophy of the place. Following his arrival in Slobodka, Reb Dovid gradually trimmed his beard, until he took it off completely. He said that when the Alter saw him clean-shaven, he commented, "Now I can look at you!"

Reb Dovid joined the Slobodka yeshiva in 1908 and learned there for seven years, with the exception of a six month period in 1912 when the Alter sent him to learn in the new yeshiva in Rassein under HaRav Moshe Soloveitchik zt'l. Among the well-known gedolei Torah with whom Reb Dovid learned in Slobodka were, HaRav Aharon Kotler zt'l, with whom he used to engage in heated Torah debates, HaRav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt'l, who referred to himself as Reb Dovid's talmid chover, HaRav Yaakov Ruderman zt'l, whom Reb Yaakov claimed was strongly influenced by Reb Dovid in his early development as a lamdan, and HaRav Yitzchok Hutner zt'l, who, as a bochur, was a frequent visitor to Reb Dovid's home (after the latter returned to Slobodka to join the kollel).

In time, Reb Dovid grew very close to the Alter, fully absorbing his approach. Once, during the summer, when the Alter would go to stay in the country for a time, Reb Dovid was invited to be his guest over Shabbos. On erev Shabbos while visiting the bathhouse, Reb Dovid slipped and fell, breaking a rib and he was unable to keep his engagement at the Alter's table. Afterwards, he heard that the Alter had spoken at the table about the posuk (Shmuel I 20:27), " . . . and Dovid's place was empty".

Rabbi Rockove recalls Reb Dovid mentioning that once, when he was conversing with the Alter, the latter intimated to him that he would like him to join the hanholoh of the yeshiva. Reb Dovid said that at the time, he was shocked by the suggestion and overwhelmed by its implications and that he had been unable to give any answer. He reflected that it had happened that way because his destiny had been to come and spread Torah in America.

Reb Dovid's standing as a transmitter of the Alter's message was widely appreciated. Rabbi Rockove remembers accompanying Reb Dovid to the annual gatherings of Slobodka talmidim held in New York on the twenty-ninth of Shevat, the Alter's yahrtzeit. After Reb Dovid's petiroh, in 5700 (1941), Rabbi Rockove continued attending on his own, although as a young bochur he was obviously too young to have known the Alter, who had passed away fifteen years earlier. A son of the Alter, HaRav Shimon Finkel zt'l, was in the United States at the time and he attended the meeting. He noticed Rabbi Rockove and asked him who he was.

"A Slobodker einikel (grandchild)," Rabbi Rockove replied, and when Reb Shimon asked him what he meant, he explained that he was a talmid of Reb Dovid Leibowitz.

Reb Shimon's response was that in that case, he was not an einikel but a first generation member of the "family," a true Slobodka talmid, since Reb Dovid had absorbed the Alter's teachings in their full strength, without any dilution or cooling.

Kollel Beis Yisroel

In 1915, Reb Dovid married. His rebbetzin was the daughter of Rav Henoch Shereshevsky zt'l, rav of the Polish towns of Salechnik and Beinukon. When his father-in- law passed away shortly afterwards, Reb Dovid took over his position as rov. In 1922 however, he returned to Slobodka at the Alter's calling, to learn in the newly- formed Slobodka Kollel, Beis Yisroel, which was headed by the Alter's son-in-law HaRav Isaac Sher zt'l.

Among the kollel members were the best products of the Slobodka yeshiva, men who were already highly accomplished scholars. Many of them went on to become well known roshei yeshiva or to author important seforim, while many others were tragically murdered during the Second World War, along with the rest of Lithuanian Jewry. The kollel members used to take turns at addressing each other both with chaburos on the topics that were currently being studied and on mussar themes.

Some of Reb Dovid's talks, as recorded by one of the listeners, were gathered and published several years ago in Kuntrus Zichron LeDovid, mentioned earlier. While the talks were presumably delivered in Yiddish, the notes were made in loshon hakodesh, and have more of the air of a literal transcribing than of a translation. This leads to frequent difficulties in grasping Reb Dovid's precise meaning, as noted by the editor of the collection, although the force of Reb Dovid's personality, the depth of his convictions and the atmosphere of Slobodka are all transmitted most eloquently.

While each talk affords an invaluable glimpse into the mind of a budding godol beTorah, one of them, entitled Matoras Hakollel, most of which has been translated and is presented here, gives as much of an insight into the future course of Reb Dovid's own life as into the world of his ideas. It is a stirring call to an elite group of the yeshiva world's most promising young figures to rally in order to ensure Torah's survival.

Yiddishkeit was then on the wane even in Europe, although there were as yet no outer signs of the cataclysm that would befall European Jewry twenty years later. Still, both spiritual hazards and material hardships faced observant Jews everywhere in the world -- in the fledgling communities of the United States, Western Europe and Eretz Yisroel, as well as in the established Eastern European centers. To many, even minimal mitzvah observance seemed doomed, let alone a vibrant Torah life.

In hindsight, Reb Dovid's call for dedicated Torah leaders seems to have been startlingly prophetic, for these were precisely the type of men who emerged, while he himself was one of the first. His call was heeded by the many Slobodker talmidim who began, in the even darker years that followed, to rebuild Torah.

With Reb Yaakov

Reb Dovid's younger colleague, HaRav Yaakov Kamenetsky, recalled several episodes from their younger years together, which give us some fascinating glimpses of Reb Dovid in Slobodka. (The stories are recorded in Reb Yaakov.)

Once, a brilliant baal teshuvoh, who had previously studied to an advanced level in university, came to learn in Slobodka. He had a regular chavrusa with Reb Dovid, until one day, when he pointed out that a comment in the gemora about the geography of a certain place in Eretz Yisroel was at variance with the map. Reb Dovid refused to continue learning with a chavrusa who questioned the gemora on such a basis, but Reb Yaakov betook himself to the problem, and scrutinized both the gemora and the maps, until he came up with a way of resolving the difficulty.

When Reb Dovid told the Chofetz Chaim of his plans to join the kollel (for which he was giving up a rabbinic post), his great uncle tried to dissuade him saying, "Dovid'l, Dovid'l, you're a Cohen. What will you do when the Beis Hamikdosh is rebuilt and a Jew brings you a lamb for a [korbon] chattos and you don't know the halochos of offering the sacrifices?"

The kollel was learning Shabbos at the time and Reb Dovid responded lightly, "What will I do if a Jew tells me he did something on Shabbos and asks me if he has to bring a chattos?"

But the Chofetz Chaim responded immediately, "For that you already have my Mishnah Berurah."

Reb Yaakov and Reb Dovid had an arrangement whereby the former would speak on the same topic which the latter had addressed in his chaburoh the previous week, but following a different approach. It was probably in reference to this `partnership' that Reb Yaakov later commented, "I would ask holtzeneh (wooden, i.e. solid, fundamental) questions [not ingenious, penetrating ones]. But he could not answer my questions and from those questions I would build my chaburoh."

The kollel was very much connected to the yeshiva. The Alter would give the kollel members their own shmuess each week. The best bochurim in the yeshiva would learn together with kollel members and as one of the senior members, Reb Dovid undertook to guide younger students, which, not unlike the Alter, he did at times quite forcefully.

One teenaged talmid finished all of Shas in a year, only to be told by Reb Dovid, "Without understanding, it's not worth much." This talmid gave Reb Dovid the credit for giving him the push that led him to become a distinguished rosh yeshiva.

A Trip to America

Joining the kollel involved making a commitment to learn there for five years and to take a turn at travelling abroad to raise funds at some later point. Thus it was that Reb Dovid arrived in the United States in 1926. At the time, the recently founded Mesivta Torah Vodaas was in need of a rosh yeshiva and Reb Dovid was recommended for the post.

The decision to accept was not a straightforward one. Torah disseminators with Reb Dovid's potential were as badly needed in Europe as they were in the United States. Moreover, a post as rosh yeshiva in Warsaw awaited Reb Dovid should he return to Europe. He consulted the Chofetz Chaim, whose advice resolved the matter, "Dovid, du kenst boien Torah in America (You can build Torah in America)." That was sufficient encouragement.

When Reb Yaakov came to New York, following Reb Dovid's petiroh, he enquired as to how old his friend and colleague Reb Dovid had been. On being told that Reb Dovid had been just fifty-two years old, Reb Yaakov lamented, "Vie kent die Ribono Shel Olom avec nemen azoi yung? (How could the Ribono shel olom have taken him away at such a young age?)" and added that had he lived, American Jewry would have had a different face.

See also the translation of HaRav Dovid's talk on "The Kollel's Aim" in the Opinion and Comment section.

End of Part I


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