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11 Shevat, 5783 - February 2, 2023 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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For The Sake Of Kovod HaTorah: The Battle Over The Vilna Rabbinate

By Rabbi Avrohom Meir Wexelstein

The Chofetz Chaim in 1923

This extended historical series about the battles over the rabbinate in Vilna was originally published in 1995 (5755).

For Part III of this series click here.

For Part V of this series click here.

Part IV

This series has discussed the background of Vilna, the Yerushalayim of Lithuania, and its rabbonus. We saw that the real position of Chief Rabbi of Vilna was left unfilled for more than a hundred years, out of respect, until the secular authorities insisted on the appointment of a rav to administer the registration of demographic information such as births, deaths and weddings. The community was required to appoint such a "rav meitaam," and the choice came down to a test of strength between the traditional side lead by HaRav Chaim Ozer, and the reformers and maskilim. Before his election, Rav Rubinstein, a former yeshiva student, promised Reb Chaim Ozer that he would stay clear of any involvement in Vilna's communal institutions. In return he was backed by Reb Chaim Ozer and elected. However, he did not keep his promise after his election in 1910.

Later, Reb Chaim Ozer's forced absence from Vilna during the First World War enabled Rav Rubinstein to greatly increase his sphere of influence in Vilna's communal affairs, in direct violation of the promise he had given Reb Chaim Ozer upon his election. When the Polish government required the Jews to hold new elections in 1919, the chareidim were in a minority against the combined forces of secularists, Zionists and religious Zionists and they were powerless to prevent Rav Rubinstein's accession to the seat of the Vilna Rabbinate.

This chapter chronicles the protest campaign led by the Chofetz Chaim to redress the terrible wrong that had been perpetrated against the honor of Reb Chaim Ozer and of Torah itself.

The Storm Breaks

The chareidim tried to fight against Rabbi Rubinstein in every way possible. The sessions of the communal council were stormy; some of them, so much so that they broke up before the meeting could get underway.

The five council members for Agudas Yisroel and Achdus accused the Zionists and the Mizrachi members of trampling the honor both of the rabbonus, by their choice for rav, and of the Torah itself, by their treatment of Reb Chaim Ozer. Mutual accusations and sharp verbal exchanges would pass between the delegates at the council meetings, while outside the large building, communal activists would run busily from one address to another, leaving no stone unturned in their efforts to redress the wrong that had been perpetrated. They pleaded, begged, raised havoc, shouted or roared — whatever was necessary.

They made frequent trips to tiny, nearby Radin from where the light of the godol hador shone forth. They consulted him often for they knew very well that by acting on the advice of elder sages, they would not go wrong. From the Chofetz Chaim, they would hurry to a small, dingy house on the outskirts of greater Vilna, on whose door the name "Karelitz" was inscribed. They coordinated their plans with the youthful gaon who, in later years, would become the leader of Torah Jewry.

The men we refer to as "communal activists" were not the ordinary type of party workers whose lives revolve around political quarrels and intrigue, deriving their spiritual sustenance from the petty daily conflicts of politics. All the men who waged this campaign stood head and shoulders above the concerns of most ordinary people and they were motivated by the noblest of intentions.

In times when things were as they should be, their time was wholly devoted to serving as rabbonim in Vilna's suburbs or as members of the Vaad HaRabbonim. They commanded widespread popular support for their work in these positions. They were fine, impressive rabbinical figures, set like jewels in Vilna's rabbinical crown. In times when things were as they should be, they would have had virtually no part in a confrontation of this sort.

Now though, it was different. The letter of protest that arrived on their tables bearing the Radin postmark, made it impossible for them to stand aside. The turbulent spirit and the bitter emotions of the godol hador were clear to all who read the contents of "Elbonah Shel Torah."

The Chofetz Chaim's letter was at once both incisive and bitter. Every word, they knew, had been weighed and measured. Once the living Mishna Berurah had rendered his decision, who could remain on the sidelines?

Here is the story of one man, Reb A., who did not know this, or else he would not have dared to ignore the Chofetz Chaim's advice. His father, Reb M.A., had been a friend of the Chofetz Chaim but at the time that Vilna was rocked by the Rabbinate controversy, he was no longer alive. His son took the Zionists' side in the controversy.

The Chofetz Chaim invited him over and spoke to him very plainly: "I will soon be meeting your father in the yeshiva shel ma'ala. (This happened some four years before the Chofetz Chaim was niftar.) What will I say if he claims that I didn't reprove his son when he veered from the straight path? I want to fulfill my duty and inform you that you are not acting correctly."

Reb A. listened but did not react. He continued the same activities and held the same opinions, not modifying his stance by one iota.

As it turned out, the Chofetz Chaim did not have to worry about his late friend's remonstrances in olom haboh — the son got there first, dying within a year of his trip to Radin.

The members of the Vaad HaRabbonim, on the other hand, understood the Chofetz Chaim very well and knew that his pronouncement was binding. They stood publicly at the forefront of operations, led by Rav Meir Karelitz and his brother-in-law Rav Chaim Shimon Topp — both of them sons-in-law of the Cheshek Shlomo, one of Vilna's most famous dayanim.

Behind the scenes, the youthful Rav Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz coordinated the protest efforts. Together, they worked tirelessly to salvage the honor of Vilna's rabbonus and to rectify the slight to Reb Chaim Ozer.

HaRav Meir Karelitz

Rav Meir Karelitz

Rav Meir Karelitz's involvement in the campaign cost him his position. At the end of the winter of 5690 (1930), when things had quieted down, he was forced to submit a letter of resignation by the members of his community, the Vilna suburb of Poplaus. He was then offered the rabbonus of Karlin-Pinsk, to replace HaRav Dovid Friedman of Karlin. The letter of appointment that was sent him even bore the signature of Rav Avrohom Elimelech Perlow, the Karliner Rebbe.

Rav Meir made a trip to Radin to ask the Chofetz Chaim for his opinion. The Chofetz Chaim refused to let Rav Meir leave Vilna. "To leave Reb Chaim Ozer is like leaving Klal Yisroel!" was the terse judgment he presented to Rav Meir, who had been Reb Chaim Ozer's right hand in his every undertaking.

The communal leaders of Karlin lost no time, and travelled themselves to the Chofetz Chaim. After prolonged entreaties he relented somewhat and said to them: "To tell you the truth, it is extremely hard for me to decide such a question. Let us wait until the end of the year, motzei shevi'is, and we'll ask Eliyahu Hanovi who'll come with Moshiach Ben Dovid, as Chazal have said that at motzei shevi'is, Moshiach Ben Dovid will come."

Rav Meir allowed a slight smile to appear at the corners of his mouth. The Chofetz Chaim noticed this, grabbed his sleeve and said, "Is there any doubt about it? To me, it is absolutely clear!"

Ultimately, Rav Meir decided to uproot himself from Vilna and go to Karlin. In reaction to his decision, an outcry was raised in chareidi circles and the controversy of the previous year was almost reopened. Crowds flocked to the offices of Vaad Hayeshivos upon hearing the cause of Rav Meir's departure. There, they listened to impassioned speeches from rabbonim and lay leaders describing the great damage that would be sustained by Vilna if Rav Meir left. The chareidi newspaper Dos Vort commented, "Tens of askonim could not fill the place of Reb Meir."

Rav Meir found no peace in Karlin either. Karlin was a stronghold of the secular Bund party and the city's secular Jews were well informed of the role their new rav had played during the Vilna controversy. They feared he would intervene in Karlin's communal affairs to their detriment.

After a series of attempts to sabotage his position and a further consultation with the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Meir left Pinsk and returned to Vilna. A year or so later, on the 13th of Adar 5691 (1931), he took up a new position as rav in Lachovitch.

Rav Meir's brother-in-law, Rav Chaim Shimon Topp, who was a member of the Vaad HaRabbonim, also almost lost his job. His congregants were ultimately too afraid of him to take the fateful step. These two rabbonim, as well as others, carried the weight of chareidi Vilna's campaign.

The Secular Press Attacks

In common with all controversies, the newspapers had plenty to say. Both the general and the party papers ran commentary.

At that time, four Yiddish newspapers were published in Vilna, besides several others in Hebrew and Polish. Without exception, they all fought against Reb Chaim Ozer, attacking him bitterly. They were far more fierce in their condemnation of Reb Chaim Ozer than they were enthusiastic about Rabbi Rubinstein.

They emptied out buckets of verbal refuse on Reb Chaim Ozer and carried savage articles that did not hesitate to trample the renowned name of the author of Achiezer, which had appeared just six years previously, and had earned Reb Chaim Ozer the added title of "gaon hador" throughout the same yeshiva world that Rabbi Rubinstein — the Slobodke talmid — had come from.

They complained that Reb Chaim Ozer had misused his position by being a member of Agudas Yisroel, but it is doubtful whether even those who made this claim understood exactly what it was they meant to accuse him of. Again and again they repeated the same slogan, "Rabbonim should be nonpartisan."

When Rav Chaim Shimon Topp discussed this meaningless and ridiculous assertion, he would remark jokingly, "To what can it be compared? It is as though they said, "The rabbonim are not allowed to rule on the halachos in siman so-and-so in Shulchan Oruch!"

Another canard that was leveled at Reb Chaim Ozer was; "We don't want a rav who deserted his community during the war!" This generally emanated from those quarters where a rav was needed for nothing more than weddings, divorces and funerals.

They conveniently "forgot" that a death warrant had hung over Reb Chaim Ozer's head. They "forgot" that he had indeed refused to leave Vilna, and would not have done so if not for the pressure brought to bear by the Chofetz Chaim. They "forgot" that Rabbi Rubinstein had also packed his bags and tried to escape but had missed his chance. All the facts had been "forgotten" but there was one thing they did remember: that one of the six hundred and thirteen mitzvos was chilul Hashem — they hastened to attach this label to Reb Chaim Ozer.

"Before the elections for a rav," wrote a correspondent in the London paper Ha'olam, who signed his name, "Vilnai," "elections for the community council were held in Vilna around which a great battle was waged, for everybody knew that this council would have to choose a rav. The Agudists lobbied a great deal but they were unsuccessful. In Vilna there are few who follow the Aguda.

"Nevertheless, even when they are unsuccessful they refuse to bow their heads in submission and lay down their weapons. They publish a Yiddish language weekly in which they attack their opponents, especially the Zionists, using all kinds of improper expressions. As far as the Jewish community is concerned, little is gained or lost by this. Outwardly though, they are wreaking great spiritual damage.

"The authorities know every detail about the rabbinate and about the entire controversy, and it is causing a chilul Hashem (...) Without a doubt, the lay leaders of the Aguda will be taken to task for this in the future."

Several religious weeklies also became involved. They tried to portray themselves as fighters for the integrity of the most sacred values of Judaism and as working for the glorification of Torah and of its standard bearers — they "achieved" this though, by trampling the most sacred values of Judaism, employing cheap tale bearing, slander and related tactics.

Loshon Hora?

Whilst Reb Chaim Ozer's name could be mauled in public, it was a different matter when it came to the Chofetz Chaim. The aged godol, who was known equally for his geonus and his tziddkus and also as the leader of Torah Jewry and navigator for the chareidi parties, was far too famous to assail directly or to be openly accused of the type of "crimes" that Reb Chaim Ozer had been attacked for. The newspapers had to find an alternative method of neutralizing the clear message that was being broadcast from Radin.

The Warsaw Yiddish paper Moment published an article which dealt with the matter. The writer posed an innocent question, expressing his amazement as to how it could be that the Chofetz Chaim, who was famous for being a lover and a pursuer of peace, as was also evident from his distinguished seforim, had stumbled, in his letter "Elbonah Shel Torah," into transgression of the Torah's prohibitions and had become a quarrel monger, a baal machlokes?

A different writer provided the answer; he came up with a solution that would be acceptable to the broad masses whilst refraining from slandering the Chofetz Chaim in the process. It was simple! He was being misled by others! The people around him were stirring things up and taking in the innocent, trusting Chofetz Chaim with their lies.

The Jewish public almost swallowed the bait. The Chofetz Chaim knew that claims of this nature — that had been invoked in the past, against Rabbi Akiva Eiger for example and Yirmiyahu Hanovi, and would be invoked still in the future — would undermine the idea of absolute trust in gedolei Torah. He therefore hurried to issue another strongly worded communication. In "An Open Letter" he wrote:

"I have heard that an article was printed in the newspaper Moment that expresses wonderment at me — how could I not have been careful regarding the prohibitions of loshon hora, machlokes and halbonas ponim in my letter of protest about the rabbinate in Vilna? These are topics that I have dealt with boruch Hashem, throughout my life and with regard to which I am certainly careful at present also. He [the writer] also reached the false and distorted conclusion that it has been done without my knowledge, through the influence of others over me.

"I therefore make it publicly known that in a situation [such as this] where [our] faith is being trampled and destroyed, everything has been done according to the halacha. As I explained in my protest, it is a great mitzva and an obligation to do whatever is possible to correct the matter, to restore the fence and to fill the breach and there is not the slightest suspicion whatsoever of anything prohibited."

"I am amazed at all the gedolei Yisroel who are silent about this matter, refraining from open protest. As a rule, I wish to make it known that every matter that comes from my hand with my seal attached to it, has always been carried out by me personally, whether a matter of great or small consequence, and it can be relied upon.

"I request that all the newspapers print my first protest and this letter as well.

"The words of he who is troubled by the troubles of the multitudes of Beis Yisroel and who looks forward to Hashem's speedy salvation, when the Torah's glory will be raised, the small one,

"Yisroel Meir Hacohen of Radin"


A passport photo of the Chazon Ish as a young man

The Chofetz Chaim's ruling that "there is not the slightest suspicion whatsoever of anything prohibited" and "where faith is being trampled and destroyed, everything has been done according to halacha," guided the Chazon Ish all the way through the controversy. He held discussions — sometimes lengthy ones — with influential personalities, amongst them rabbonim and gedolei Torah, in which he asked them to take action. When necessary, he knew how to raise his voice too. If the Mishnah Berurah had ruled that there was no halbonas ponim or loshon hora, then he was obligated to do it.

The Chazon Ish wrote: "The lightest straw of a quarrel, weighs upon me as heavily as the beam of an olive press," but it was different when it came to the Vilna rabbonus. As much as he loved sholom, he loved Torah even more.

In fact, even without the Chofetz Chaim's ruling, the Chazon Ish had always held that there was no prohibition against speaking loshon hora about rabbonim in their professional capacity. He warned that "great caution is necessary, lest one deviates to the slightest degree from the truth and transgresses the prohibition of being motzei sheim ra on talmidei chachamim." Nevertheless, he held, there was a clear demarcation line between loshon hora, which involved the truth, and motzei sheim ra, which was false.

"My opinion is," wrote the Chazon Ish during that period, "that it is correct that the upholders of Hashem's Torah recognize its great men in their true light. If it is permitted therefore, to speak loshon hora about a craftsman and his work to someone who has a need to inquire, then how much more so is it permitted to make known to the upholders of Torah, who have a need to know. For knowledge of the characters and traits of the wise men of the generation, are Torah principles in themselves."

Accordingly, he dictated articles to his talmidim that were particularly sharp in their style. These articles appeared in Dos Vort, the weekly published by the Vaad Hayeshivos.

Rav Yosef Shub, the editor, was one of the lay leaders of Agudas Yisroel and a confidante of the Chazon Ish. Dos Vort could then claim justly that it was the most widely circulated chareidi publication, despite its limited circulation. This was because no other newspaper existed that was consistently faithful to the gedolei Torah.

In retaliation for Dos Vort's loyalty, there was widespread plotting against it in an effort to impede its progress. Rabbi Shub was viciously attacked on the pages of the Warsaw paper, Heinte.

Later on, in 5692 (1932), after it had written disparagingly about Reb Chaim Ozer, this paper was boycotted by the Chofetz Chaim. He wrote, "I trembled to hear the fearful rumor that sinful men have set out to make a mockery and a laughing stock, to fabricate vain and baseless accusations against the Torah and its bearers; heaping scorn on a gaon and a prince in Yisroel and seeking to undermine, chas vesholom, the holy yeshivos and their supporters."

The Polish police even impounded one issue of Dos Vort and the editor was summoned to the gentile courts by the Zionists. At the same time, Vilna's printers worked overtime at the Zionists' request, spewing out new papers that were no more than propaganda vehicles. One of these was called Vilner-leben, whose raison d'etre was supposedly, "the preservation of Vilna's character"!

End of Part IV


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