The Life and Life's Work of HaRav Shimon Schwab
by Rav Yosef Fleischman
For Part II of this series click here.
For Part IV of this series click here.
Editorial note: The article was written and published in 1995/5755 in the months following the petiroh of HaRav Shimon Schwab zt"l. This year on Purim Katan will be the 27th yahrtzeit.
Last week we read about Rav Schwab's family and his education in Germany and in the eastern European yeshivos: Telshe and Mir. His rebbe in Frankfurt, Rav Shlomo Breuer, had asked him to return to work in Germany, and this week we read about his experiences as a young rav in Schweben in the early years of Hitler, ym'sh.
Torah Im Derech Eretz
Rav Schwab went to great pains on numerous occasions to clarify what the approach of Torah Im Derech Eretz is. Even now it is usually misunderstood — or at least not understood as he presented it. Torah is the ikkar and derech eretz is the tofeil. One of Rav Hirsch's main sources for his approach is the Toras Kohanim which says (Vayikra 18:4): loleches bom asseim ikkar ve'al ta'asseim tofeil. Torah is to be the ikkar but there is a place for other forms of knowledge as tofeil, to be used in the service of Torah.
Rav Schwab writes on the meaning of Torah Im Derech Eretz (Selected Speeches 245): "It means to approach Torah as the Divine nourishment, and human derech eretz as the aromatic ingredient to bring the Torah's intrinsic flavor to its most perfect peak." Thus Torah Im Derech Eretz is no less intense than Torah Only, the difference being merely what one will study and how one views non-Torah knowledge. Bitul zman is no more condoned in a Torah Im Derech Eretz discipline than in a Torah Only society.
In addition, shemiras hamitzvos should be just as strict in a Torah Im Derech Eretz society. This also includes one of Rav Hirsch's cardinal rules: Austritt — to shut out all irreligious sects and have absolutely nothing to do with them. This Rav Schwab mentions as a crucial and deeply integral part of the Torah Im Derech Eretz philosophy. He states (Selected Speeches 213) "If the Austritt philosophy is separated from the concept of Torah Im Derech Eretz, the latter becomes merely a key to a convenient life. It is no longer the battle cry that Rav Hirsch meant it to be, no longer a principle upon which a kiddush Hashem is based."
Rav Schwab published a pamphlet called "These and Those" which is a debate between Torah Only and Torah Im Derech Eretz. His conclusion is that both are proper philosophies. Both can live side by side. Neither need try to persuade the other to give up. Both are philosophies which are lesheim Shomayim and thus are mekadesh Hashem's name.
In fact he writes (Selected Speeches 225-235) of what he considered the program for his Kehilla which basically is an ideal society based upon the principles of Torah Im Derech Eretz. We thus see that besides defending Torah Im Derech Eretz from its detractors, Rav Schwab saw as his community's goal a lifestyle based upon Torah Im Derech Eretz. He states this quite clearly in Speeches (223), "We also become quite proud of our insistence that our kehilla must forever follow in his [Rav S. R. Hirsch's] footsteps."
He felt it to be an ideal if teachers of limudei chol would be frum people who would explain secular knowledge in the context of being a tool of Hashem. (Selected Speeches 229).
This point seemed to trouble the Rav greatly. He writes for example (Essays 147), "We feel duty bound to respect that as long as we have not staffed the secular departments of our Torah Im Derech Eretz schools with G-d fearing and Torah conscious teachers, we dare not sleep or slumber."
The reason why this is such an important facet of the Rav's program is that to properly follow Torah Im Derech Eretz, the Derech Eretz must be studied as an auxiliary to Torah, and this cannot possibly be done by non-frum teachers. The teacher of the secular subjects must also impart the message of yiras Shomayim.
One additional matter that Rav Schwab clarifies is the setting of Rav Hirsch's work in proper perspective. He notes that the concept of Torah Im Derech Eretz is not a chidush of Rav Hirsch. This is especially obvious since Rav Hirsch himself claims that this is the pshat in various statements of Chazal. He also points to numerous gedolim such as Rav Saadia, Rambam and the Vilna Gaon as being examples of gedolim in the sense of Torah Im Derech Eretz.
He points out (Essays 130) that the true chidush of Rav Hirsch is that he introduced this principle into the educational system. He writes, "There were always learned adults who acquired positive attitudes toward worldly knowledge after they had mastered Shas and poskim. But Rav Hirsch innovated a school program for children starting from the elementary level all the way up to higher education during the formative years of life.
The end result of Rav Schwab's discussion is that he views both the Torah Only and Torah Im Derech Eretz as being proper Torah philosophies and a Torah-true person can feel comfortable with either. In fact, Rav Schwab sees a need for both. He writes (Essays 156), "For in reality, one school cannot function without the other. Both should complement each other, rather than compete with one another to reach a goal which will be forced to remain one-sided."
[Editor's Note: To most of our readers, the contrast between Rav Schwab's two positions, Torah Im Derech Eretz and Torah Only, is not too great, if properly understood. The line is not drawn at completing a certain number of years or a particular level of secular education, such as college or even high school. In Rav Schwab's conception, one could be an exemplary adherent of Torah Im Derech Eretz, even if he never completes high school. In fact, neither the Vilna Gaon nor Rav Schwab himself finished high school. The main thing is a willingness and interest to use derech eretz in service of Hashem. By this definition, it may be difficult to find adherents of the Torah Only approach in the modern world.]
He definitely does not believe in rocking the boat. He thus states (Essays 157) that a person should follow his minhag. If he has no minhag he should follow the views of the gedolim.
His personal view is that Jewish society in the U.S. of today certainly contains elements which need Torah Im Derech Eretz no less than German Jewish society of Rav Hirsch's day. He thus writes (Essays 147), "Before us lies a vast Jewish wasteland populated by five and a half million of our lost brethren... Only Torah Im Derech Eretz offers the timeless and Divine Judaism in a way which can be accepted by American Jews today." He probably means that expecting to reach out to their group by a Torah Only approach is far fetched and thus, for them, all would agree that Rav Hirsch's ideas should be preeminent. To some gedolim this would be lechatchila and to others it would be hora'as sho'oh.
One final point that Rav Schwab always stressed is that, although he finds both Torah Only and Torah Im Derech Eretz are proper philosophies, he allows no room for what is now commonly known as "Torah uMada." On the contrary, he vehemently opposes it as being a gross misinterpretation of Rav Hirsch's philosophy and thus considers it a treif derech. Torah must always remain supreme and not be a co-ideal as it is in the Torah uMada approach. Torah uMada was also totally unacceptable to him since it is often lax on Austritt, the complete social and institutional separation from heretics, a key concept that we will explain later on.
One final remark about, "Heimkehr Ins Judentums," concerns the section which doesn't deal with Torah Im Derech Eretz at all but consists of an attempt to point out to contemporary (1934) German Jewish society that Hashem is trying to warn them to do teshuva. He points out how Nazi decrees were brought by Hashem, middoh keneged middoh. For example, the fact that the economic boycott of Jewish businesses was decreed on the Shabbos where the Haftorah says, "I shall deliver Jacob to destruction and Israel to abuse."
Thus, if Jews didn't voluntarily close their businesses on Shabbos then Hashem had the goyim do the job for Him. Thus, it seems Hashem was giving German Jewry one last chance to do teshuva before the final punishment.
This was similar to the Dor Hamabul where even when the rains of the mabul began, Hashem first brought down gishmei brocho. The rain could have been a brocho had Dor Hamabul done teshuva but if not, then they became part of the Mabul — their punishment.
Another example would be the ten plagues in Egypt where Hashem allowed for teshuva in the first five plagues. Had the Egyptians done teshuva, the plagues would have served a positive purpose. Hashem brings punishment in a manner that can be used as a vehicle for teshuva or chas vesholom as part of the total punishment.
Rav Schwab wrote the book at a time when teshuva was still possible. The purpose of the book was to sound the call to actually do teshuva. Had this happened, then the economic boycott and similar decrees would have served their positive purpose in a similar manner as the decrees of Haman did. The gemora says (Megilla 14A) "Gedola hasoras taba'as yoseir mi-mem ches Nevi'im" — Haman caused Israel to do teshuva more than forty-eight Nevi'im. In the time of Mordechai, Klal Yisroel did teshuva and was saved. The generation of pre-World War II did not heed the warnings to teshuva and suffered the grave consequences. Unfortunately, his call went unheeded by the majority and the results are ours to behold.
One other element in Rav Schwab's philosophy which came into prominence in his career in Germany was the importance of minhagim. He explained that many takonos which were later formalized by Chazal were minhagim previously. Thus, even before Chazal made takonos in order to preserve the sanctity of Shabbos, this was already the minhag of Klal Yisroel. It was only when people didn't keep the old minhagim, such as in the time of Nechemia, that Chazal found it necessary to formalize them and give them the weight of takonos.
Even niggunim were held by Rav Schwab to be important since these are part and parcel of minhagei Yisroel.
Shul in Ichenhausen
In fact, evidence of the importance of the Rav's stress on minhagim can, perhaps, still be seen today. When the Nazis ym'sh destroyed the shuls on Kristallnacht, the shul in Ichenhausen, although ransacked, was bechasdei Hashem not destroyed. Today the shul has been made into a museum whose curator is a former Nazi who wished to do teshuva by taking care of the former shul.
When Rav Schwab's son recently visited Ichenhausen he saw in the sheimos room some 400 wimpelen (the German equivalent of the gartel put around the Sefer Torah). This is an amazing amount in view of the low birth rate in prewar Germany. He thinks that this is perhaps due to Rav Schwab's emphasis on keeping alive minhagei Yisroel. He considered this to be a beautiful minhag — how thereby a child feels like he is wrapped around the sefer Torah.
In fact, Rav Schwab considered minhagim sacred. He maintained that it was the holy duty of the kehilla in Washington Heights to maintain German minhagim. Moreover, he included under the concept of minhag not just the way one davens but one's total way of life. Even a life based on Torah Im Derech Eretz he included under the concept of minhag. These are big chidushim since in halocho one doesn't generally include philosophical approaches and attitudes. The same is true concerning his inclusion of niggunim.
Probably, he doesn't mean to include these in a strict halachic sense, but they help maintain one's sense of attachment to other aspects of minhagim and halocho in general. One needs symbols to help preserve one's general religious upbringing. This is especially true for people who spend much time in a non religious environment.
He maintained strongly that, just as one should steadfastly cling to his own minhagim, he should likewise respect an other person's minhagim. He compared the plethora of minhagim extant today to the shevotim of ancient times.
He, thus, writes (Selected Writings pg. 17), "As far as our own kehilla is concerned we may very well consider ourselves as the successors to the old kehillos kedoshos of Western Europe, as the perpetuators of the thousand year old minhag Ashkenaz and the faithful pupils of the saintly Chachmei Ashkenaz in general and Rabbi S.R. Hirsch zt'l in particular."
Further he says, "It is for this compelling reason that we treasure our traditional pronunciation of the sacred tongue, our age-old melodies, our piyutim and selichos which have withstood the onslaught of time and turbulence."
Miracles with the Nazis
On Parshas Ki Siso, Rav Schwab gave a drosho about the parsha. Part of the drosho was devoted to explaining why Bnei Yisroel made the eigel hazohov as mentioned in that parsha. He told over Rav Hirsch's explanation that Bnei Yisroel felt that, since Moshe Rabbeinu was no longer with them, they would need a new intermediary between themselves and Hashem.
In German an intermediary is called a mittler, and it was obviously a word that figured prominently in Rav Schwab's speech. Someone who misunderstood what he said — whether accidentally or deliberately — told the authorities that Rav Schwab had spoken against Hitler, ym'sh. The result was that Rav Schwab earned a place on the list of enemies of the Third Reich. This was a very serious matter, since the Nazis were very uninhibited in their methods of dealing with any opposition.
Rav Schwab was very eager to have his name removed from the list. In order to do this, Rav Schwab took with him a copy of Rav Hirsch's Commentary on the Chumash and went to the Gestapo to show them that he had really said "mittler."
When Rav Schwab arrived at the Gestapo he began to raise his right hand in order to give a Hitler salute (as was required then), at which he was told by the official to put his hand down. This gave him hope that perhaps this man would help him. When he was finished with his explanation the man told him to call back in a week.
For quite some time, every week the scenario would be the same. Every Wednesday Rav Schwab would call as he had been told to, and he would be given the reply, "Call back again next week." Finally, after about three months, the man suddenly answered with a tirade against the "dirty Jews," hurling many choice epithets into the phone at Rav Schwab.
However, in the course of his tirade, in a muffled voice, the officer said, "It was long ago taken care of." Thus, Rav Schwab finally heard that his name had been cleared. However, he realized that the situation was quite precarious and thus he began an active search for a new position.
Rav Schwab traveled to Eretz Yisroel and England in search of a position. In Eretz Yisroel he actually received an offer for an important position. However, the pay then was quite low and Rav Schwab calculated that this position would not give him a livelihood sufficient to raise his growing family (by that time 2 children had already been added to the family).
One of the memories Rav Schwab was fond of discussing was the Kosel Hama'arovi of old — how it was just a small alley, very unlike today's Kosel Plaza, but the davening (of individuals) was fervent and serious. (This is in keeping with Rav Schwab's stress on being earnest as we will discuss later.) In England, as well, Rav Schwab was not successful in finding a suitable position.
It was not that Rav Schwab didn't view the situation seriously. Indeed, the entire time that he was on the list of enemies of the government, he did not remove his clothing at night. This was due to the fact that earlier an acquaintance of the Rav's who had been outspoken in his criticism of the regime was found one morning hanging from a tree nearby. This was the practice of the Nazis: to come with a fateful knock on the door in the middle of the night. Thus, Rav Schwab felt that, at least, if this were to be his fate as well, he should hang with his clothes on, as befits the rav.
One of the practices of the Nazis, in order to provoke fear in people's hearts as well as to actually prevent people at times from leaving, was to collect people's passports. Rav Schwab viewed this with trepidation since without a passport, Germany was one big jail. Therefore, he was at a loss to how he should react if the Nazis requested his passport. It turns out Hashem sent him the answer.
It was Tisha B'Av, 1936. Rav Schwab almost never lay down to sleep in the afternoon in his younger years, even on a fast day. However, that particular Tisha B'Av Rav Schwab felt particularly in need of a nap and thus, he went to lie down without informing his family. Before retiring Rav Schwab emptied his pockets of their contents onto the living room table, which was situated in full view of the front door to his house.
While Rav Schwab was sleeping there was a knock at the door. When the Rebbetzin admitted the "guest" he asked to see the Rabbiner. He said he had come in order to collect the Rav's passport. The Rebbetzin, who hadn't been informed of Rav Schwab's rest and had merely heard the door banging shut, thought he had gone to shul. She thus informed the Nazi, in all honesty, that the Rabbiner was not at home. This elicited a furious reply on the part of the Nazi — but he left.
When later the Rebbetzin walked into the bedroom still in an extremely uneasy state, she immediately woke the Rav and informed of all that had transpired. They saw this as a big ness min haShomayim, as Rav Schwab's passport lay in full view on the table and Hashem had caused both his wife as well as the Nazi, not to notice its presence.
Thus Rav Schwab certainly realized that the situation was very serious.
He had heard that Rabbi Leo Jung, an Orthodox American rav, was staying in Switzerland, so he took a circuitous route to Switzerland to see him, in order not to arouse the attention of the authorities.
When Rav Schwab met with him, Rabbi Jung told him that indeed there was a vacancy in the German congregation in Baltimore. The congregation required that the Rav be fluent in both German and English. German was Rav Schwab's mother tongue but his knowledge of English was scant — since it was only what he had acquired in his studies at the Realschule in Frankfurt. Rabbi Jung assisted Rav Schwab in composing a letter of application.
Shortly thereafter, Rav Schwab journeyed to Baltimore for an interview and a trial Shabbos. The congregation informed the Rav that they would only have a reply after the Yomim Tovim but they asked him to stay on until that time so that they could have his services for the Yomim Tovim. Rav Schwab declined, saying that he had a commitment to the Jews of Schweben to serve them until he got a different position. Thus, Rav Schwab returned to Germany in Elul of 1936, eagerly awaiting the response of the shul in Baltimore.
After the Yomim Tovim, Rav Schwab received a telegram that he had been unanimously chosen to be the Rav. (Rav Schwab's reaction to the telegram was described in last week's article).
However, even with a position in hand, there was one more hurdle to overcome. In order to obtain entry to the U.S., even after one had obtained an affidavit one needed to obtain a visa. When Rav Schwab arrived at the U.S. Consulate in Stuttgart, Germany, he had a minor rash. The staff of the consulate, not being very sympathetic to the plight of Jews, wrote down that Rav Schwab had a communicable disease and it would be a health hazard if he were allowed to enter the U.S.
The delays dragged on until a member of the Baltimore congregation, Mr. Nathan Adler, a frum askan who assisted Rav Schwab on many occasions thereafter and was later one of the founders of the Beis Yaakov of Baltimore, took up Rav Schwab's cause. He enlisted the aid of Senator Albright who wrote to the consulate in Stuttgart that he was interested in having Rav Schwab's case processed favorably.
Finally the U.S. Consulate granted Rav Schwab the coveted visa. At long last on Asarah BeTeves 1936, Rav Schwab, his wife and three children arrived in the U.S. to begin a new chapter in their lives which we'll take up be"H in the next article.