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4 Shevat, 5783 - January 26, 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


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

For Part II of this series click here.

For Part IV of this series click here.

Part III

In the first part we read about 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 and during World War I when Reb Chaim Ozer was not in Vilna, Rabbi Rubinstein took over many community institutions.

Electing The Rav

When Vilna passed to Poland at the end of the first world war, the Vilna Rabbinate again became an issue. Polish law required that the rav be elected by a communal council. The first thing to do, therefore, was to elect a new council.

There was in fact an eighty member council that had been elected the previous winter. The council was composed of the following parties: 24 members of the Zionist party, 24 Bundist representatives, 9 members of the Achdus Ha'am party of Vilna chareidim, 7 representatives of the artisans, 5 Democrats, 3 members of Poalei Tsion, 3 Socialists, 2 members of Tze'irei Yisroel Hadatit, 2 members of Agudas Shomrei Torah and 1 member for the traders. About thirty percent of the those eligible to vote had cast votes in that election — 15,178 votes were cast.

However that old council, which was elected before Vilna passed to Poland, was dispersed by the Polish Government, which demanded that new elections be held.

For some reason, eight years went by before the order was enforced. It was only in 5688 (1928) that the Governor of the region, Hvoieboda, decreed that Vilna had to elect a new communal council by July of that year. Polish law stipulated that only those from the age of twenty-five and upwards and who also paid communal taxes were able to vote. Since, in Vilna, there was no compulsory levy of taxes, signatures had to be collected of all those who were interested in participating in the elections. Each party gathered as many signatures as it could — in all, 7,497 names were collected. While the pre-election campaigning was a departure from Vilna's ordinary, everyday routine, it was nothing compared to the storm that broke afterwards.

The worst fears of Vilna's chareidim materialized. Rabbi Rubinstein and the Mizrachi party joined forces with the Zionists and garnered many votes from ordinary, unsuspecting Jews. Participating in the new election were 4,707 voters, who cast votes for eleven different parties. The Zionist-Mizrachi coalition received 905 votes while Agudas Yisroel received only 386 votes. There was some consolation in the fact that a rival chareidi list, Achdus, received 532 votes.

As for the others, the Bund received 566, the traders, 457, the "small traders," 381, the Democrats, 329, the householders, 215, the young religious Zionists (who formed a party called Tiferes Bochurim), 104, and a group of residents from the suburb of Novigorod, received 76 votes.

On the night of the 29th of July, following the election, the votes were counted and the places in the communal council were divided up. The division was as follows: the Zionists with Mizrachi, 5 seats, the artisans, 4, the Bund, 3, Achdus, 3, Agudas Yisroel, 2 and the "small traders", 2 seats. The Democrats, householders and Tiferes Bochurim originally received one seat each but after a complaint to the authorities, the Democrats received the seat of Tiferes Bochurim.

There were a total of 22 members on the new council. Ten of them were self proclaimed mechalelei Shabbos; it was with these men that Rabbi Rubinstein had allied himself. This fact sent shivers up the spines — which were bent from the long hours sitting hunched over their Vilna editions of Shas — of Vilna's Torah-true community.

The next stage, according to the orders of the governor — the Starosta — was the election of a Chief Rabbi of Vilna. The winner of this election though, would be the rav of Vilna, not merely in name, as a mere government employee but in fact as well. He would occupy the seat of the Chelkas Mechokek and Rabbi Shmuel Ben Avigdor in defiance of the age old takanah, the first person in a hundred-and-thirty years to fill the position as rav.

Rabbi Rubinstein was the Zionists candidate for rav. The tables were now turned. The first time Rabbi Rubinstein ran for the position of government rav, he had been Reb Chaim Ozer's nominee to stand against the candidate of the secularists. Now, he was being nominated by his old opponents to stand against Reb Chaim Ozer. This provoked an outcry from Vilna's chareidim, who raised havoc over the shameful treatment of the godol hador.

To think of it! Rabbi Rubinstein was a young man — he was only 45 — and was neither suitable nor fitting to be appointed as rav of Vilna, the city of the Gra. Not only that, there were already a number of gedolei Torah in Vilna who were far greater in stature than Rabbi Rubinstein and at their head was Reb Chaim Ozer, the godol hador who had been serving in the capacity of rav, albeit unofficially, for years.

Vilna's chareidim tried everything they could. They tried to influence Rabbi Rubinstein to withdraw his candidacy and display some honor to the godol hador, who had paved the way for his takeover of the communal institutions. Nothing helped though. Their pleas fell on deaf ears. The secular communal leaders did not listen. Rabbi Rubinstein and his circle were intransigent.

With their insistence on continuing to support Rabbi Rubinstein's candidacy the new forces of "modernity" were launching a double attack: on the ancient Vilna tradition and on Reb Chaim Ozer, who was counted among the circles of Agudas Yisroel and who fought like a lion against secular Zionism.

Shortly afterwards, the dreaded blow fell. On Sunday, the twenty-second of MarCheshvan 5689, the communal council voted, by a majority of fifteen to seven, for Rabbi Rubinstein as rav. Now, he was the rav of Vilna.

Rabbi Rubinstein

Who Was Rabbi Rubinstein?

Perhaps at this stage the reader is imagining the storm that raged over these elections. Probably, a picture has formed of the two central figures in the controversy: Reb Chaim Ozer and Rabbi Rubinstein.

Reb Chaim Ozer truly was as he is portrayed: an elderly, white bearded prince among men, who on the one hand loved and pursued peace and harmony, while fighting for the preservation of clear, unsullied Torah-true hashkofo, and, waging war on the plague of secularism that was eating away at the community, on the other.

Rabbi Rubinstein is seen perhaps, as a power-hungry seeker of honor; a man with base ambitions who had no rightful connection to the seat he presumed to occupy, beyond a characteristic craving for honor; a man who forged an alliance with men of abandonment, all for the sake of degrading Reb Chaim Ozer's position. Some may even seek a parallel between this conflict and that waged by the Brisker Rov against the establishment of Heichal Shlomo in Eretz Yisroel. Others may go even further, equating it with our present day struggles against the Reform and Conservative Movements. After all, the Chofetz Chaim himself later wrote, "...and the solution to the question of the Vilna Rabbinate is the beginning of Reform."

The truth is though, that such a judgment is fallacious. Not our description of Reb Chaim Ozer — that falls far short of portraying the true extent of the greatness of the gaon who led all of European Jewry; the man without whose knowledge not a yeshiva was opened, nor a rav appointed.

Rabbi Avrohom Rein once related how he asked HaRav Yisroel Zeev Gustman zt'l, who had been rosh yeshiva of Vilna's Ramailles Yeshiva, if he had ever visited a certain godol. HaRav Gustman replied in the affirmative. What was Rabbi Gustman's reaction to him? Rabbi Rein wanted to know.

"I'll tell you." HaRav Gustman replied. "From the day I saw Reb Chaim Ozer, I have not been impressed by anyone else!"

Our portrait of Rabbi Rubinstein however, is somewhat harsh. Not for nothing was he beloved by Vilna's Jews. He didn't win fifteen of the council's votes without having done something to earn them. He didn't ascend the orphaned rabbinical seat of Vilna without some cause.

The fact was that from the day he was chosen as government rav, he proved himself to be a tireless activist and a dedicated worker. He was able to establish ties with all the puppet authorities that blossomed in Vilna during the war and then disappeared overnight, leaving behind them a trail of burned earth and beaten, suffering Jews. Many of the city's Jews owed him their lives. Many more owed him debts of gratitude for having helped them in times of crisis. His membership in the Tzedaka Gedola, which coordinated the various charitable enterprises in Vilna, greatly helped him in this work.

Rabbi Rubinstein possessed great gifts and was an exceptional speaker. Together with Reb Chaim Ozer, he had received Tzar Nicholas in 5674 (1914) and had spoken in honor of the occasion. He soon established contacts in royal palaces and in the corridors of power.

Once, a special tefillah was to be offered for the government's welfare. Rabbi Rubinstein spoke and when he had finished, "Ha'nosein teshu'a" was said. Suddenly, the Russian pristov who was present, got up and charged that someone had whistled mockingly during the prayer. A detachment of soldiers surrounded the beis haknesses, the doors were closed, and the tsibur was ordered to identify the rebel. In the end, three Jews were imprisoned. It was Rabbi Rubinstein who fought — successfully — for their release.

On another occasion, the Polish government decided to clear Vilna's cemetery and to erect horse stables in its place. Rabbi Rubinstein ran immediately to the Polish General Karlov and, flatteringly, expressed his amazement at the plan: "I could understand if the government wanted to build a fortress in the graveyard, but horse stables?"

Thanks to his intervention, the proposal was shelved.

Again, during the war, when the ridiculous accusation was leveled against the Jewish community that the wires of the eruv were really telephone lines to maintain contact with the enemy, it was Rabbi Rubinstein who hurried to the Vilna command post and explained at length about the mitzva of eruv.

When a decree of expulsion hung over the heads of Vilna's Jews, it was Rabbi Rubinstein — he had been alerted by the Gerrer rebbe, the Imrei Emes — who succeeded in having the edict rescinded.

When a shortage of matzos threatened Vilna before Pesach, Rabbi Rubinstein engaged in shuttle diplomacy, going from Prince Tomanov's chamber to the governor's office to the local command's department of supplies, ultimately ensuring that there would be sufficient quantities for the Yom Tov.

When Vilna was occupied by the Poles — and Rabbi Rubinstein's own life was in danger — he swiftly met with General Pilsudski and obtained his consent to the prevention of any outrages against the Jewish community. When the Vilna municipality resolved to close down the city hospital, who, if not Rabbi Rubinstein managed to dissuade them?

In Kislev 5676 (1915), with the butchery of the Great War at a peak, Rabbi Rubinstein set up "The Central Jewish Council," which united all the city's charitable institutions and distributed funds to refugees, the poverty stricken and the destitute. In his capacity as the council's chairman, he travelled to Germany and worked for the unification of all the relief efforts that were being undertaken by different organizations. "The Relief Association" combined the individual resources of the Bnei Brith, Agudas Yisroel, the German Zionist Organization, the Council for the East as well as other groups. Under his guidance, they all worked together to coordinate the relief work for the refugees.

Rabbi Rubinstein represented Vilna on the "Aid Center for the Occupation Zone." It was he who obtained American support. Millions of dollars passed through his hands while he himself lived in dire poverty.

As a result of all his successful relief work, he was thrown into jail a number of times and in keeping with Chazal's teaching that "a prisoner cannot free himself from jail," he had to stay put. There was nobody to intercede on behalf of the man who interceded for everybody else. Once, when he was set free, he refused to leave the jail until the other Jewish prisoners were also allowed to leave. Only after the community leaders explained to him that it was more important that he be out of jail than in, did he agree to leave but not before he held tefillas mincha betzibbur with the other Jewish prisoners.

Rabbi Rubinstein then, had done a lot for the Jews of Vilna and this was the reason he had the support of most of the city's different groups. We must mention too, that he was a talmid chacham. When he later emigrated to the United States upon the outbreak of World War Two, he delivered shiurim in Yeshivas Rabbenu Yitzchok Elchonon (Yeshiva University).

Even his membership in Mizrachi should not prompt any conclusions based on a comparison with Mizrachi's present-day leaders. In those times, there were many talmidei chachamim who belonged to the movement and paid their membership shekel.

There had even been a merger proposed between Mizrachi and Agudas Yisroel (!) and many of the Aguda's leaders viewed such a development favorably. Let someone try and suggest such a thing today and see what the reactions would be! The very fact that such a suggestion was possible teaches us a lot about the very small difference separating the two camps; the difference that only the crystal clear vision of gedolei Yisroel could fully appreciate. There is no comparison between today's Mizrachi Movement and the Mizrachi of a hundred years ago.

Yet nevertheless, despite all Rabbi Rubinstein's successful endeavors and important achievements, despite his being a talmid chacham and his maintaining contacts with the authorities, despite the aid he extended to the refugees, and his collection of astronomical sums to help them — despite everything, the Chofetz Chaim viewed Rabbi Rubinstein's appointment as a breach in the wall protecting the Jewish religion.

Despite everything, he found it necessary to lead a furious campaign — that was doomed to failure from the start — against the man who had aligned himself with the city's Zionist freethinkers and who coveted the seat of the Vilna Rabbinate, ignoring the fact that his ambitions involved trampling on the honor of Reb Chaim Ozer.

The Great Vilna Shulhof

A Thunderbolt From Radin

The Chofetz Chaim's protest, published in 5689, was entitled, "Elbonoh Shel Torah — The Torah Disgraced." It shocked Torah-faithful Jews, who at first, had watched Rabbi Rubinstein's ascension without seeing anything amiss.

The Chofetz Chaim's language in this proclamation is stormy; it tugs at the heartstrings: "How greatly," he wrote, "do the ears buzz, of everyone who hears the recent reports reaching us of events in Vilna, in connection with the Rabbinate there that has been breached asunder by the feet of pride and contempt — a breach in the foundations of Torah and emunah. It is known that for several hundred years, Vilna has been the capital of Lithuania for gedolei Torah and leaders of Yisroel. Since the days of Rabbi Shmuel zt'l, the last av beis din, when the Chief Rabbinate was run by one rav single handedly, the community has been led by the members of a committee of rabbonim who are geonim and gedolim, great morei horo'oh. From those days until our own, Vilna has never ceased being the greatest Torah center, with geonim, gedolim, lights of Yisroel, from whom Torah goes out to all of Yisroel.

"But now, the Satan has veered towards us. It has been decided by a majority of the community to distance the geonim and teachers of Yisroel from the religious community and to appoint a prince over them, who is not fitted for this position. Woe is to us that this has befallen us in our times, that the Torah is torn into pieces from within and without by our enemies who rise up from our midst, and who incite and seduce the people of Hashem away from His Torah and mitzvos.

"And this most recent affair is the harshest of all, whereby they have started a rebellion and are acting faithlessly, trying clandestinely to undermine our holy religion with the hidden intention of profaning all that is sacred and of chas vesholom weakening the rabbonus, the foundation of ruling on matters of law in Yisroel. Just as the Reform did in Germany, where we saw with our very own eyes what happened throughout an entire period and what was the outcome — that the very remembrance of Yisroel has virtually died out in those places. And the meaning of the question of the Vilna Rabbinate is the beginnings of Reform.

"And so brothers and friends, who quake at the word of Hashem and His Torah and who are concerned for the existence of our nation Yisroel. We must gird ourselves with the remnants of our strength and protest with all our vigor against the danger which hovers over us, and fill the breach to whatever extent we can. There is a great and holy obligation upon whosoever heart is reached by yiras Hashem, to raise an open protest against the dreadful injustice that has been perpetrated in the community of Vilna, against our holy Torah, as is explained in the Sifrei: "You shall not favor one party in a judgment"...this refers to the man in charge of appointing dayanim. He should not say, "So-and-so is strong or handsome or wise in other areas of knowledge or has other merits, which are not matters of Torah or yiras Shomayim, I will appoint him as a dayan etc." This is explicitly counted as a mitzvas lo sa'ase by the Rambam (Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo"s 284).

"Also, it is unjust and unlawful to remove a distinguished beis din of geonei Yisroel, the members of the Vaad HaRabbonim, who have been serving in their sacred calling for a very long time. Whoever has a hand in this treachery, stepping over the heads of a holy people, will be called to account for it in this world and the next, as Chazal have said (Sanhedrin 7). May Hashem heal our broken nation, strengthen the weaknesses in our disgraced Torah and cause peace to dwell among us, for the honor of His Name, may He be blessed, and may the upright members of the community ponder how to correct this iniquity."

The Chofetz Chaim's words struck a responsive chord all around the Jewish world. All who read his clear, forceful appraisal were deeply shaken.

The only place that his message failed to have any impact at all was in Vilna. Rabbi Rubinstein, now rabbi of Vilna, didn't move an inch. None of the communal leaders, the Mizrachi and the Zionists were particularly interested in the letter of protest arriving from Radin which was published all over Poland and which incensed the Torah faithful.

At the Chofetz Chaim's behest, Vilna's chareidim, for whom Reb Chaim Ozer would always remain rabbi of Vilna whatever else might happen, began an extensive campaign. The campaign was supported by letters from the gedolim of Yerushalayim, headed by HaRav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld as well as by letters of support from gedolei Torah in the rest of the world.

End of Part III


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