Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

25 Teves 5762 - January 9, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Tears of Light: The Sixtieth Yahrtzeit Of HaRav Dovid Leibowitz, zt'l

by Moshe Musman

Part Two: Torah Pioneer


When Reb Dovid took up the post as rosh yeshiva of Mesivta Torah Vodaas in 1926 with the blessing of his great uncle the Chofetz Chaim, he introduced his talmidim to the beauty of Torah and mussar, as he had imbibed it in Slobodka -- and as he had come to embody it.

He gave his all to his talmidim and they became strongly bound to him. In 1933 he left Torah Vodaas and opened his own yeshiva in order to continue this work in full accordance with his ideals. His aim was to show that even in America, it was possible to raise talmidim to be bnei Torah in the fullest sense -- talmidei chachomim and baalei mussar, who themselves would go on to spread Torah. Single-handedly, he succeeded in doing so.

Had he lived longer, his influence upon American Jewry would surely have been colossal. Yet, though he was lost to a generation for which he could have done so much more, his work was continued by others. In effect, during the fifteen brief years that he spread Torah in America, he planted seeds that, tended by his son and other talmidim, sprouted and blossomed in later decades.

In order to fully appreciate Reb Dovid's personality, his greatness as an educator, and the significance of his contribution to Torah's growth in America, it should be realized that seventy years ago, there was a virtual consensus -- among non-observant and observant alike -- that Torah as it had always been studied, practiced and lived, that is, considered to be the prime factor in forming the environment in which Jews lived and the moving force of Jewish life, had no future in America.

It is true that mitzvah observance and Jewish education were available in America, for some at least. There were even talmidei chachomim and notable rabbonim. However, in their dealings with the general Jewish public they filled merely a caretaker role, providing only such guidance as was asked for and only for as long as it was requested. Usually this was no longer than the arrival at adulthood of the American-raised generation. Even those rabbonim with positions had little real authority and none, it seemed, had a vision of how things might be altered.

This phenomenon, the collapse of the old established order, was of course a problem all over the Jewish world at this time. But in America, where widespread ignorance of Judaism had been the rule since the very beginnings of Jewish immigration, there seemed to be no hope at all for regeneration. After all, what spiritual nucleus had ever existed in America for whose regeneration one could hope?

To be fair, there were many who were perplexed by this state of affairs. They sought ways and means of ensuring Orthodoxy's survival and took concrete steps to implement them. However even the best solutions involved accommodating secular studies together with, lehavdil, Torah under the same roof. Given the situation that existed then, this was the best that could have been hoped for and was certainly a step in the right direction.

Many however, viewed this as the goal rather than as a starting point. Even now in retrospect it is hard to see how the correct perspective as to which track of learning was secondary to which, could have been inculcated and sustained in the long term, and especially among those who did not share the enthusiasm.

The ideal of purely motivated Torah study, for its own sake without the prospect of future material gain, had few buyers. Nobody saw the need for accomplished Torah scholars or the slightest hope of training such men in America. Would that observance of mitzvas be able to ensure its own propagation! Who could dream of more?

Reb Dovid's was then a bold voice, insisting that Torah itself had the power to change all this. He maintained with confidence that if one was properly dedicated to its study, Torah could change a person and his every circumstances. He demonstrated the beauty of the gemora's logic to his talmidim and they learned to share his excitement.

Following his Slobodka training, he would extract nuggets of mussar from Chazal's remarks, revealing the many facets of each lesson and holding them up for his talmidim to admire together with him. He became their guide and counselor, inspiring them to accept communal positions and work selflessly for Torah's sake, as he did. In this second article and in next week's conclusion, we view Reb Dovid through the eyes of his talmidim, who shared their recollections of their exceptional rebbe with us. It is not surprising to see that sixty years after his petiroh, their bonds to him remain as strong as ever.

A True Educator

In both halochoh and aggodoh, Reb Dovid's approach was distinctive and truly pedagogic, geared towards effecting real, long term change, as opposed to a making a superficial, short term impression. In recalling the friend of his youth, R' Yaakov Kamenetsky later mentioned the hard work which Reb Dovid put into reading and examining the gemora and Rishonim, his "kneading" of the text, weighing each word and contemplating "how it should have read, how it could have read."

Despite the inventiveness of his own mind, Reb Dovid bound himself to attaining a correct understanding of the words of the scholars of old. Reb Yaakov pointed to this as evidence of Reb Dovid's humility, his reverence for gedolim and his recognition of their towering greatness and holiness.

Such was Reb Yaakov's estimation of his friend's abilities, that he sent his oldest son Reb Binyomin to learn with Reb Dovid in New York immediately after his arrival with his mother and siblings in Toronto [where Reb Yaakov was serving as rov, his family having remained in Europe when he had left over a year earlier].

Reb Binyomin recalled writing to his father that he felt as though he was being thrown out of the house, being sent so far away after not having seen his father for over a year. Reb Yaakov's response was that had the family stayed in Europe and had he been able to afford the fare, he would have sent Binyomin all the way to the United States to learn with Reb Dovid. Now that they were in North America, he did not want his son to miss a single day.

Reb Dovid's talmid muvhak, HaRav Avrohom Pam wrote that his rebbe, "simply reveled in the analysis of an intricate sugya . . . a brilliant dramatizer of logic at play, was he . . . He was a master at taking a blat gemora apart and vitalizing it with sevoros that were sound and illuminating. The mere animation of his features during a Torah discussion was arresting."

Reb Dovid's talmid, Rabbi Yisroel Rockove, recalled Reb Dovid's tremendous patience in explaining ideas to his young talmidim. "He would not get excited . . . he'd explain it one way, then another way . . . he tried [repeatedly] and [phrased himself] in may other ways, so that the talmid would understand."

Rabbi Moshe Chait says, "His point was not [merely] to answer a talmid's difficulty but to find where he'd made his mistake so that he could correct himself. It was no big deal just to show that it was no question. [He'd say,] `Hert voss ihr fregt (Pay attention to the reasoning behind what you are asking),' and would take the talmid step by step through [the topic].

"If his talmidim lacked bekius he wasn't as disturbed as by a krumme sevoro, faulty thinking. He was more concerned with the [personal progress of the] talmid than he was with the impression that the rebbe has to make for the talmid to know who he is . . . He used to insist that it is impossible to [make] gain[s] in Torah without toil. Only through sweat and toil [could Torah be acquired]."

Reb Dovid was disparaged for these aims. People preferred to see young men pick up a broad sprinkling of Jewish knowledge that would be of more "practical" use, in a relatively short time. But he would not give in. It took years of hard work to develop into a genuine talmid chochom; nothing could alter that.

But his approach bore some immediate results too. Rav Pam wrote, "Unforgettable were the Thursday nights in the Mesivta. He had formed a Torah vaad . . . a select group of advanced talmidim, for the purpose of exchanging chiddushei Torah under his guidance. The group met every Thursday [at] about ten o'clock in the evening and sessions lasted till two [or] three in the morning. Patiently, profusely perspiring and beaming, he received the bikkurim, the first Torah fruits his talmidim had produced out of the seeds he had sown. His continual comments reflected the brilliance of a Talmudic master and the art of an excellent pedagogue. Stimulating and directing group discussion, he criticized without discouraging, he enlightened with tenderness . . . "

Toras Hamussar

Reb Dovid's shmuessen were classic Slobodka, combining a statement of Chazal or a posuk or episode from Tanach in order to bring out practical lessons for everyday conduct, which he found in abundance.

"I once asked him," recalls Rabbi Rockove, "what the difference is between Kelm and Slobodka. [He replied that there are] two things in mussar: chinuch hamussar (mussar training), which involves modifying behavior to become a better, nicer person, and toras hamussar, which means extracting empirical mussar instruction from Chazal.

"In chinuch hamussar, it is legitimate to use whatever means one can in order to influence a person, be it philosophical ideas, homiletics etc. However, one can't make bircas haTorah over the ideas used in chinuch hamussar because those are one's own ideas, albeit presented in a Torahdige way. But they are not actual Torah.

"Toras hamussar on the other hand, takes apart a statement of Chazal's or a posuk. It is not one's own; one's aim is simply to see what Chazal say. Kelm represents chinuch hamussar and Slobodka, toras hamussar. He added that Slobodka also employed chinuch hamussar, for example when the Alter counselled bochurim individually in order to train them."

Rav Pam wrote, "He would take apart a single midrashic thought and toy with it for an hour, analyzing it, dramatizing it, expanding it at the risk of distortion, reexamining it again and again at the risk of tedium, ever fearful that the point is not yet fully appreciated, ever straining to exhaust the beauty of the medrash. He was particularly fond of midroshim relating to personality, to middos. The incredible complexity of human character was the favorite theme of the shmuess. The coexistence in man of divinity and deviltry and the simultaneous manifestations of both these tendencies in a single act . . . was a phenomenon which ever intrigued him."

Rabbi Chait recalls the fascinating explanation that Reb Dovid once gave him as to why he invariably chose to speak about interpersonal issues. As well as being a lesson of fundamental importance, Reb Dovid's reply is also a fascinating insight into understanding Slobodka.

"I once asked him why all his shmuessen were about bein odom lechavero. Why not speak about bein odom leMokom? [He replied,] `To bring oneself close to Hashem is a very difficult thing. It is very difficult to conceive of the Ribono Shel Olom. One cannot fathom Hashem's Being, only His middos. People make a mistake and think that bein odom leMokom is religion while bein odom lechavero is courtesy, by which reasoning, a gentile is also included since he is capable of being a gentleman. No gentile however can grasp the Torah's bein odom lechavero -- it is far too profound. To observe it, one must be a yirei Shomayim. One gives oneself up for one's fellow Jew, one respects him, one benefits him . . . Bein odom leMokom is what one does for oneself, it is self-centered . . .

" `A human being is a tselem Elokim. If we are negligent in dealing with a person made in the Divine image, how can we deal with Hashem Himself? One has constant contact with one's friends. Bein odom leMokom requires a leap - - can you first handle a tselem Elokim? This is why consciousness of gadlus ho'odom is primary in Yiddishkeit.' He pointed to the comments of the Seforno on the words betselem Elokim (Bereishis 1:27), `The Ribono Shel Olom endowed man with a capacity for middos tovos. Man is ethically disposed. He has a choice of which values to choose . . . to make a choice there must be yiras Shomayim. Bein odom lechavero provides us with the conditioning to attain yiras shomayim.

" `However, we take each other for granted and make [demands on others], underestimating the importance of our chaveirim . . . We are very aware of what constitutes, `What is hateful to you . . . ' yet we constantly stumble when it comes to you [the conclusion of Hillel's statement (Shabbos 31)] ` . . . don't do to your fellow man.' Despite our efforts, we have no idea of the essence of the tselem Elokim in a person that confers obligations upon us to respect him and to recognize his greatness. How inordinately greater then, is the work that is needed in order to acquire the necessary understanding for [building the relationship] between man and Hashem?! How far it is from us! Unless we first attain perfection in our bein odom lechavero, towards the tselem Elokim within [each of us] . . . how can we attain the slightest trace of the awesome feeling necessary for bein odom leMokom?'"

Rabbi Chait continued, recalling how Reb Dovid applied this idea to some well known principles. "We usually understand that Olom chesed yiboneh (The world is built through kindness) as meaning that Hashem did a kindness when He created the world. What it really means though, is that chesed [to be practiced between Hashem's creations] was the blueprint [the plan and basis] for the world's Creation.

"Some understand that Derech eretz kodmoh laTorah means that it is important to put [i.e. to practice] derech eretz first . . . [It's] a kind of slogan, a piece of good advice for a person following a Torah path, a peripheral rule, or an external observation on the conduct of a well bred person . . . but he said that it means that derech eretz is a prerequisite, that there cannot be [Torah] without derech eretz . . . It is a basis and a foundation for the inner world of Torah and a point of crucial understanding to the whole of Yiddishkeit . . . If we fall short in our relationships with others, it removes us from our relationship with Hashem.

"If a person disgraces someone else in public, even though he may have learned Torah and done good deeds, he has no portion in Olom Haboh. One can work all one's life to build oneself spiritually and it can all vanish in one moment. There is no mitzva shebein odom leMokom that carries such a consequence. A Jew who is mechalel Shabbos is like a gentile, but a gentile has Olom Haboh as well . . . "

A Path in Life

Rabbi Chait writes of the, "Unforgettable . . . fierce love that he always displayed towards bnei Torah in general and towards his talmidim in particular, without making the slightest distinction on account of a talmid's abilities or his excellence. Plainly put, he loved a ben Torah deeply, simply because he occupied himself with Torah. He used to say, `Nowadays, there are lovers of Torah everywhere but it's hard to find lovers of a ben Torah.' He would add that whenever his father-in-law, Rav Chanoch Henech Shereshevsky zt'l . . . would meet a ben Torah coming towards him, he would give him a loving kiss even before he got to know him . . . Although our teacher didn't ordinarily kiss us when we met him, the love that always shone from his clear eyes would immediately penetrate deeply into our souls and it never left us. With this love, he brought us under his influence, through which every aspect of our lives became enriched."

A Rebbe for Life in General

As well as being a rebbe in Torah and mussar, Reb Dovid was a rebbe for life in general. He equipped his talmidim with the tools to remain staunchly faithful to Torah while maintaining a balanced outlook upon themselves and upon those around them. Slobodka decried self- deception. It exhorted its talmidim to attain awareness of their own spiritual levels and to adjust their outward religiosity accordingly.

Reb Dovid called for conviction in the strict observance of halochoh even in those areas where lapses were common among observant people, even at the risk of being abused for such observance. At the same time, he strongly opposed adopting extra stringencies -- chapping madreigos (snatching spiritual levels way above one's own), which was encouraged in some circles as a way, albeit artificial, of preserving one's frumkeit -- unless one was inspired by a genuine, inner, spiritual urge. Worse still were the individuals who employed such superficial measures merely in order to increase their worth in their own and in others' eyes.

The Inside and the Outside

It happened that Reb Dovid's son once came home wearing a new black suit. His father sent him straight back to the store to return it. That was neither the customary dress of yeshivaleit in the Lithuanian yeshivos nor of those in America. Reb Dovid felt that his son was imbuing such garb with religious significance that held no current relevance for him. This was something he would not countenance.

At the same time however, he would insist that talmidim from chassidishe homes abide by whatever mode of dress was customary in their community; for them, this was an integral part of frumkeit.

Reb Dovid would often caution his talmidim to be aware that behind an apparently worthy rationale for doing something, an ulterior, self-serving motivation might be lurking. Such an interest can be entirely subconscious but it can skew a person's judgment badly and it takes ruthless honesty in order to acknowledge its presence and to uproot it.

In brief, he fought the mindset that accorded priority to outward displays of religiosity, while neglecting or abandoning personal improvement and moral development. He felt that only with proper knowledge of what Torah does and does not demand of a person, with thorough self-knowledge gained through constant mussar study and introspection and a clear sense of one's own immeasurable worth and potential and that of others, could one hope to attain and hold onto a spiritually-balanced and healthy approach to life. Coupled with joy in life, and goodness and refinement in all one's dealings with others, these comprised the hallmarks of Slobodka. These were the lessons which Reb Dovid expounded to his avid talmidim.

There were many who found Reb Dovid's ideas threatening. Indeed, those who feared what they saw as the `liberalism' of the Slobodka approach, were correct in their own way. Reb Dovid himself would have agreed that his ideas could be misused in the hands of someone who picked and chose from among them, without harnessing himself to the entire approach: long-term Torah learning, long-term mussar study and long-term tutelage under a rebbe who himself possessed a clear tradition in these realms.

In common with other visionaries, Reb Dovid's greatness lay in his refusal to abandon any part of his message, or of the mesorah he had received, in the face of denigration. He would not sacrifice his ideas of gadlus for the sake of fears that he considered shallow, nor would he accept anything that he considered artificial, even if it was propounded in the name of frumkeit. He refused to abandon his calling to teach sound, Torah-based judgment and balance simply because there were some who could not understand his approach. He fully believed in his path and he had full confidence in the ability of his American talmidim to absorb it in its entirety.

Sensing his dedication and his love for them, the talmidim became more and more bound to Reb Dovid. HaRav Pam writes that, "His home, less than a block away from the Mesivta, was open house to all students . . . talmidim were ever present in the house at 109 Taylor Street. Some came to engage him in a Torah discussion . . . others desired a chat on lighter subjects. Some came to consult him on personal problems, others, just to be near him. There was a magnetism about his personality that attracted -- a warmth and genuineness that made everyone feel so much at home."

Rabbi Chait recalls, "Fellows would consult him on matters that they wouldn't discuss with their parents. They felt that it just wasn't possible for them to say anything that would make him disappointed in them."

And Rav Pam adds, "No student, however young, was ever addressed as du [the familiar mode of address; instead, he would use the more respectful ihr], and none [were] ever reproached or frowned upon . . . "

Going It Alone

Eventually, Reb Dovid's single-minded and successful pursuit of the Slobodka ideal, led to an uncomfortable situation. While it might have been possible to dismiss some people's misgivings about his approach, the fact remained that the menahel of Torah Vodaas, Rav Shraga Feivel (Mr.) Mendelowitz zt'l, had a significantly different vision for the Mesivta's educational goals. He wanted to see excellence in learning in the tradition of the Lithuanian yeshivos, but animated by the fire and fervor of chassidus. It was not a question of whose approach was right, or better. It was a genuine difference of opinion over how to try to shape the future of American Orthodoxy.

Both of these great men were visionaries and master educators. Both of them saw that Torah would only have a future in America if a spiritually sound generation could be raised and both of them dedicated their lives to making this happen, taking boys with little or no background in Yiddishkeit and shaping them into bnei Torah. Reb Dovid was proving that Torah could indeed triumph over the most inclement spiritual circumstances. Reb Shraga Feivel on the other hand, may have considered that in the long term, a broader based approach would succeed to a greater extent.

In the meantime, Reb Dovid, who had been chosen in the first place precisely for his excellence as a educator, had grown to become more than a rosh Mesivta. He was a virtual mashgiach ruchani and mentor to his devoted talmidim. His talmid Rabbi Rockove recalls that whereas, "the bochurim . . . were constantly in his house, suddenly they stopped coming. I assumed that the hanholoh of Torah Vodaas told them not to go."

The Founding of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim

After seven fruitful years at Torah Vodaas, Reb Dovid left to open his own yeshiva, single-handedly.

The magnitude of this undertaking, in Reb Dovid's circumstances, cannot be underestimated. The impetus for the opening of Torah Vodaas and other early Torah institutions had been the concern of parents for their children's futures. They had organized the financial basis -- itself no simple matter in those days -- and had then proceeded to seek and engage teachers.

Reb Dovid had no backers and no supporters. He had a group of faithful talmidim who clung to him. It was for the latter that he now proposed establishing an institution, even though he himself would be bearing the full organizational burden, as well as that of teaching and guiding them.

End of Part Two


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