For Kovod HaTorah: The Battle Over The Vilna Rabbinate
By Rabbi Avrohom Meir Wexelstein
One of the pictures of the Gra said to be accurate
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.
Part One: The Seeds Of Conflict
Vilna — "The Gra's Vilna," as it was known. Vilna — the capital of Lithuania — was also a capital of Torah, yiras Shomayim, kedusha and gemilus chesed. Vilna was a phenomenon unequaled anywhere else in the world in its day: a city to which no other could compare. It was the city where gedolim of the stature of the Chelkas Mechokek served as rav; the city of which Rabbi Akiva Eiger felt himself unworthy to serve as rav; the city whose very streets and houses spoke Torah; the city where every facet of Torah greatness, in both learning and deeds, was to be found.
In Vilna, one could find ordinary, everyday Yidden who were fluent in absolutely every part of Torah. One would come across a tailor who would string together several sidrei mishnayos while he threaded his needle; a blacksmith, belonging to the blacksmith's shul, who used to give a shiur that was on a par with the shiur of the rosh yeshiva of the Ramailles Yeshiva in the neighboring courtyard.
In those days you could have seen an ordinary water carrier who had no need for a Vilna Shas because he knew it all by heart already and a plain shoemaker — as HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky writes in his haskomo — who published a sefer entitled Shem Hagedolim Hashelishi, completing the great Chida's work of the same name.
If you had spent time in Vilna of a hundred to a hundred and fifty years ago, you would have definitely heard about the Chevras Chayei Odom, the Chevras Shas and the Chevras Mishnayos, as well as the Chevros Somech Noflim, Rofe Cholim, Menachem Aveilim, Ozer Dalim, Matir Assurim, Pidyon Shevuyim and Gomel Chassodim. One suspects that there may even have been a Chevras Mechaye Hameisim too!
You would have heard the town's badchan — who was fluent in Shas himself — maintain that there wasn't a posuk in Tanach that didn't feature as the name of one of Vilna's chevros.
And if, after realizing something of what Vilna was, you would pose the question of how it became what it became — what no other city ever became, the answer would be identical to the answer you received when you asked what the city's name was: "The Gra's Vilna."
How did the Gra do this to Vilna? What was it that he did that had such deep and far-reaching effects on his city?
The answer is, nothing — at any rate, nothing apparent. He was neither the city's rav, nor a rosh yeshiva; he was not a maggid shiur nor a dayan. He just sat learning Torah, day and night, in his small chamber, with the shutters closed and candles burning round the clock. A mere handful of talmidim, really very few, merited to learn Torah from him.
The Gra's Kloiz in Vilna
It is nevertheless impossible to assert that Vilna could have earned the title "Yerushalayim of Litta" if not for the Gra. At the same time though it is also impossible to find any direct, material way of connecting the Vilna phenomenon with the fact that the Gra lived there.
The solution to this seeming paradox can be found in the words of another famous resident of Vilna (albeit written in a different connection). This is what he wrote: "...and if bnei Torah would labor at uncovering the truths of Torah, they would save many children and a mass of people from thoughts of sinfulness and denial of the world and such-like, in the power of their holiness and the outpouring of pure spirit to the world. We can see with our own eyes that in the environs of a true master of Torah, a powerful influence is felt by many people; an influence that no practical endeavors whatsoever are capable of achieving. Similarly, there are impressions at work on those far away, so delicate that they pass undetected."
What the Chazon Ish described here is what happened in "the Gra's Vilna." (The above lines are in Kovetz Michtavim, Bnei Brak, 5741.)
Everything in Vilna — everything that Vilna stood for — was molded by the influence of the Gra's spirit, which continued to rest on the city down to its last days during the Second World War, when it shared the fate of European Jewry. A century and half after his petiroh, the Gra's inspiration was a powerful force in all the city's goings on and in every aspect of its life.
The Great Synagogue in Vilna
An Early Takanah
There was also something more specific that remained from the times of the Gra: the regulation that the city should have no Chief Rabbi. Unquestionably, this was a strange takanah. Strange maybe, but nonetheless, of a piece with the demands that the Chief Rabbinate of Vilna could quite justifiably make on any aspirant. This regulation stood in the way of many gedolim who could have taken the position.
With all the takanah's strangeness though, nobody dared to abolish it. Nobody that is, but a few good-for-nothings who, one hundred and twenty years after its institution, took that rash step in opposition to the hallowed tradition. Let's not jump ahead though. We are still several generations before then.
Life in Vilna, in the times of the Gra, for all its exalted nature, was not tranquil, as life in golus never is.
On the one front, the Gra fought like a lion against Chassidus and its leaders. The entire city steeled itself for the fray.
On the other hand, there was internal dissension in the community: the town's notables waged a furious campaign against the rav of that day, R' Shmuel ben R' Avigdor and they planned to depose him. This is not the place to enumerate all the various causes and the circumstances which converged in the dreadful controversy in the wake of which the Gra was imprisoned for several days nor to relate the stories of the wonders and miracles that took place at that time. Nor is this the place to name the various protagonists of the conflict, nor to explain the cause of the rav, Reb Shmuel's terrible suffering. (Reb Shmuel was the son-in-law of Rabbi Yehuda Safra Dedi'ena, after whom the old shul was called "Ye'S'oD" — the acronym of his name.)
All we will say at present is that after Reb Shmuel's petiroh in 5550 (1790), Reb Noach Mindes, a mechuton of the Gra, eulogized him, applying the following words to the niftar in light of his bitter experiences in the dispute: "The mishna in Avos says, `Which machlokes was [waged] for the sake of Heaven? The machlokes of Hillel and Shammai...and which was not for the sake of Heaven? This is the machlokes of Korach and his crowd.' On reflection it will be seen that whereas with the first machlokes, the names mentioned are those of both sides, this is not the case with the second machlokes where only one of the sides is mentioned — Korach and his crowd. This is in order to teach us that Moshe Rabbenu was not one of parties in Korach's machlokes. He stood his ground steadfastly, seeking no quarrel. It was Korach who instigated the entire conflict..."
In the aftermath of this episode it was unanimously agreed that the seat of the Vilna Rabbinate would remain unoccupied for evermore. The takanah was faithfully observed for over a century. The single occasion that the communal leaders were bold enough to contravene it was when the position was offered to Rabbi Akiva Eiger. In view of his standing in the Torah world, they decided that in his case, an exception ought to be made.
In Av 5596 (1836), after the petiroh of Rabbi Avrohom Avli Posseviler (who had also not served as Vilna's rav, but who was the unofficial leader of the community), a document bestowing the position of Vilna Rav was despatched to Posen where R' Akiva Eiger was then serving as rav. The gaon was profoundly moved but he replied that he preferred to serve as a shames in one of the city's batei knesses rather than occupying the seat of the prestigious Rabbinate of Vilna — the city already having so many great talmidei chachamim and gedolei Torah.
From the day that Rabbi Akiva Eiger turned down the messengers from Vilna and onwards, the request for a rav was never articulated again. A large stone was placed on the rav's empty chair which stood to the left of the aron hakodesh in the Beis Haknesses Hagodol.
In the decades which followed there were giants of stature — men great in Torah and avodas Hashem — such as Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, Rabbi Shlomo Hacohen (the Cheshek Shlomo), Rabbi Shaul Katzenellenbogen, Rabbi Shmuel Strashun (the Ra"ShaSh), to name only the most famous, all of whom were both suitable and desirable candidates for the position of rav. The only impediment was the old takanah.
HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky
Reb Chaim Ozer
Not even Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzensky (the son-in-law of Reb Eliyahu Eliezer Grodzensky, who was himself the son-in-law of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter), served as rav of Vilna. This was despite the fact that for fifty-six out of the sixty years he lived in the city, he served in the Rabbinate.
At first his position as the city's spiritual guide was unofficial but he soon assumed leadership of the Vaad HaRabbonim, the committee of dayanim who led the community. His own personal stamp that he used in correspondence gave no clue to his true position; it bore the simple legend, "Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, Vilna."
Despite the fact that he was never formally instated as rav, little by little, as his fame spread, he became recognized as the unofficial head of all of Eastern European Jewry, and as rav of Vilna in particular. Indeed, it is doubtful whether many people knew that officially, he did not occupy that position. To the masses of ordinary Jews he was the Rav of Vilna.
Reb Chaim Ozer himself often stressed that he was not the official rav. Once, while vacationing in Druskenik, he was met by a wealthy Jew from Pinsk. This man hurried over to Reb Chaim Ozer, his hand outstretched in greeting, saying warmly,
"At last I have the merit of meeting the rav of Vilna!"
"You are mistaken my friend," replied Reb Chaim Ozer. "In Vilna there is no rav!"
The result of Reb Chaim Ozer's avoidance of officially becoming the rav was that he was approached by many other communities offering him the rabbonus of their cities. Bialystok, Kovno, Grodno and Yerushalayim were just a few of the many proposals that arrived on his desk. St. Petersburg, the Russian second city, was another. Reb Chaim Ozer answered all of them similarly, "Were you to offer me all the gold, silver and jewels in the world, I will only live in a mokom Torah!"
Aware of the special love that Reb Chaim Ozer bore towards them, and the strong connection he felt to their community, the Jews of Vilna wished to reciprocate. A suggestion was made that a special Beis Din be convened to rescind the old takanah, enabling Reb Chaim Ozer to fully assume the position he already filled in all but name. The proponents of this suggestion however, in all probability, did not know Reb Chaim Ozer well enough or they would have realized that he would refuse.
In a related matter, had they known him better, they would have realized that a proposal to raise his salary (this took place when the Petersburg rabbonus was offered — and refused) was also a non-starter, "unless the salaries of the other members of the Vaad HaRabbonim are also raised," Reb Chaim Ozer stipulated.
Just three years had passed since Reb Chaim Ozer had turned down the Vilna rabbonus, when the matter again became a topic of discussion in Jewish circles, occupying the thoughts and tongues of a large section amongst the wider community — from the haskalah circles that had infiltrated the city's Jewish life, to the handful of slumberers who whiled away their afternoons at the back of the Gra's shul.
The issue was the appointment of an official rav for Vilna, recognized by the government authorities. In and of itself, there was generally little to interest Vilna's Jews in the appointment of a puppet "rav" for government purposes, known as the rav mitaam. The doings of the Lithuanian government as a rule, had to be endured since they could not be altered. This time though, there was much at stake for the Jewish community.
In Government Service
The "rav" whose appointment stirred up the relative calm in Vilna was really no more than a government clerk. He was responsible for the recording of births, marriages and deaths within the Jewish community. The only qualification he needed to have was a certificate of graduation from a university — he didn't even have to be observant or be able to read Hebrew. The institution of government appointed rav thus became the target of many jokes and stories in the Jewish townlets of Russia and Poland.
One such story concerned the rav's verdict when he was asked to decide a disagreement amongst the gabboim about the correct course of action if the shofar would not emit the tekios on Rosh Hashana. One gabbai recommended pouring vinegar into the shofar while another maintained that the posuk, "veyehi noam" should be said over it as a segulah.
"In my opinion," said one "rav," in utter seriousness, with his spectacles perched on the end of his nose and after he had "looked around" in a few thick seforim, "you should pour in a mixed portion of both vinegar and — what did you say it's called? — "veyehi noam"..."
Such was the tenor of the jokes that were told at the expense of the government appointed "rabbis." It was precisely because there was no need for the "rav" to have any religious standing whatsoever, that the communities preferred that the post be filled by a man who was a virtual ignoramus in Jewish matters and not particularly quick-witted. They chose the least intellectually capable people they could find, for in this way there was no danger of the "rav" encroaching on the communal institutions or forging any undesirable alliances with other groups.
There was, for example, the Lithuanian town who chose a stutterer as their "rav." To the astonished Russian officer who asked why the community had elected such a man as rav", one of the notables replied:
"Actually, we would have preferred a "rav" who was dumb. Since however, it is not allowed by law, we made do with a stutterer."
The Search Is On
It also fell to Reb Chaim Ozer's Vilna to arrange elections for a new government "rav." Until 5670 (1910), the post had been filled by Dr. Y. L. Kantor. Kantor was known as a maskil and the extent of his religious observance was a matter of conjecture. He edited the Petersburg newspaper The Day, and was at first no particular friend of the Zionists on account of his criticisms of the Chovevei Tsion movement. Some years later however, he changed his mind and became a Zionist, although not a leading figure in the movement. In 1910 he left his Vilna post and moved to Latvia where he served as the government "rav" in the city of Riga.
It was now up to the Jewish community to choose a new man for the post. Election fever began to sweep Vilna. The city was almost torn in two by the rival factions since the seeds of haskalah that had been sown in Vilna in earlier years had taken deep root and now posed a serious threat to the unity of the Jewish community.
On one side stood Torah Vilna that had been basking in the spirit of the Gra for over a hundred and fifty years, down to the times of the leadership of Reb Chaim Ozer, the Gra's spiritual heir. This was the heavenly Vilna, with its yeshivos, its chadorim and its thousands of honest citizens who were faithful to the city's Torah character.
But now, in 1910, arrayed on the other side was the other Vilna, bearing a new image, that had been fashioned by the secular groups and their cronies — the third generation pupils of the German maskilim linked with the adherents of Zionism which was then sweeping Europe. This was the "modern," secular Jewish Vilna.
While the two Vilnas engaged in a tug-of-war, Reb Chaim Ozer went in search of a candidate for the post of government "rav" who would have a minimum of anti-religious influence and could do as little damage as possible. The maskilim favored the very people that repulsed Reb Chaim Ozer. They wanted the type of "elevated" man who would gain them a foothold in the affairs of the Tzedaka Hagedolah or the community's offices. Having infiltrated these communal strongholds, they would then be in a position to inject the poison of secularism into Vilna which was then still the capital of chareidi Jewry.
Many names were put forward. Initially the Zionists wanted Dr. Shmaryahu Levin. In principal, his candidacy would also have been agreeable to Reb Chaim Ozer but for the paradoxical reason that Dr. Levin bore the appearance of a devout, observant Jew. Reb Chaim Ozer feared that simple Jews would be misled and this would make it easy for him to gain control of the communal institutions. Reb Chaim Ozer therefore made his agreement to Dr. Levin's candidacy conditional upon the latter shaving off his beard and exchanging his Jewish clothing for something more in the spirit of the modern times. In any event, Dr. Levin withdrew his candidacy for other, procedural reasons.
End of Part I. Next Week: The two sides select their candidates.