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5 Teves, 5783 - December 29, 2022 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Keser Torah: HaRav Aharon Kotler Zt'l, 2 Kislev 5753 —- The Thirtieth Yahrtzeit

By Shalom Meir, Yisroel Gellis and Moshe Musman

From left: HaRav Moshe Feinstein, HaRav Aharon Kotler, HaRav Yaakov Kamenetsky

This extended appreciation of HaRav Aharon Kotler zt"l was first published in 1992. We are republishing it now for the 60th yahrtzeit, and also to make it available on the web.

For Part V of this series click here.

This week we present the final part in our series on Reb Aharon Kotler zt'l. While thus far we have attempted to portray something of his greatness in the themes discussed by Reb Aharon himself in his shmuess, "Kisroh Shel Torah," we now turn our attention to the role played by the Rosh Yeshiva as the leader of his generation.

It is surely no exaggeration to say that during the two decades after his arrival in the United States, Reb Aharon emerged as the leader and spokesman of a powerful resurgence of Torah-true Judaism, the far-reaching effects of which are ever growing greater with the passage of time.

There are two factors which run thread-like through every chapter of the story of Reb Aharon's communal involvement. First, his love and concern for every one of his fellow Jews. The incredible burden of Klal Yisroel's concerns that he shouldered was merely an extension of the same devotion which he displayed to the needs of each individual, every one of whom was "an only son" to him, as we saw last week.

Second, his insistence on adherence to pure Torah ideals in all aspects of Jewish life. Reb Aharon asked, or more accurately, demanded, that Torah values never be compromised because of other considerations, whatever their nature and whatever the likely consequences of this stand seemed to be. Again, this was the standard he set for his own affairs, displaying the courage necessary to take an unpopular position even when it concerned the welfare of his own yeshiva. While he was quite prepared to suffer slights to his own honor, when it came to the honor of Torah, he was ready to give up everything if need be. Rather than listing a detailed and comprehensive historical account of Reb Aharon's achievements in communal affairs through the years, we will refer to the better-known areas of his involvement, using anecdotes to illustrate the underlying two threads of devotion and purity which lay at the heart of all the battles he fought.

Early Precedents

Reb Aharon led the Torah world through two decades of terrible darkness and confusion. During the thick darkness of the war years, he spearheaded whatever rescue efforts were possible and in the confused times which followed, he was a beacon of truth. As familiar to us as terms like "da'as Torah" and "Torah outlook" are, they were a rare commodity in the Jewish life of fifty years ago. Just in order to survive, religious observance was tolerated only as long as it was practical and pragmatic while the idea of evaluating communal policy in light of Torah values alone was way beyond the ideas of all but a very few.

With his arrival in America in 1941, Reb Aharon plunged into relief work as one of the key members of Vaad Hatzolah. In effect, the Vaad represented a coalition of various Orthodox groups who worked at full strength to facilitate the rescue and escape of their brethren who were trapped in Europe. Much information about the members of the Vaad and their achievements has been published in recent years. Two books which cover the subject extensively are A Fire In His Soul by Amos Bunim, published by Feldheim, and To Save A World Vol. I and II by David Kranzler, published by C.I.S.

While Reb Aharon was known as a godol in Europe and Eretz Yisroel, he was virtually unknown in America outside of New York. Consequently he played down the true extent of his role in the Vaad's activities, having other prominent Jewish figures take a public role whenever possible. This was revealed by HaRav Eliezer Silver in a hesped he delivered at Reb Aharon's levaya. Reb Aharon had made him promise, he said, to keep his true role in the Vaad a secret during, and even after, the war. He had thus been able to carry out certain plans which, had his identity been known, would have been impossible and he pointed to Reb Aharon as the main force behind the Vaad's achievements.

A recent picture of Lakewood Yeshiva

Don't Go Together With Reshoim

After the war, the first major confrontation in which Reb Aharon emerged as the spokesman for the clear, untarnished da'as Torah was with regard to membership in rabbinical organizations which included Reform and Conservative rabbis. While it is no surprise that the non-religious Jewish establishment vehemently opposed Reb Aharon's stand, many Orthodox Jews did so too. Many rabbonim who were sincerely committed to Torah observance nevertheless based their communal policy on practical considerations that in effect placed Reform and Conservative on an effectively equal footing with Orthodoxy. These considerations took into account the fact that the secular establishment was larger and more powerful and that anyone who espoused the cause of separatism was branded a saboteur of Jewish unity. (See "The Gravity Of The Sin Of Joining Together With Reshoim" in Mishnas Rebbi Aharon Vol.III pg.157 for Reb Aharon's refutation of any such claims.)

In an historic psak issued in 1953, Reb Aharon, together with ten other roshei yeshiva, forbade the participation of Orthodox Jews in the New York Board of Rabbis and the Synagogue Council of America because of the fact that their membership was open to Conservative and Reform rabbis. With this psak, Reb Aharon set a standard of loyalty to Torah in communal affairs and issued a challenge to religious Jews to renew their outlook on the supremacy of Torah in all aspects of life.

There were also those who misunderstood the nature of Reb Aharon's opposition to irreligious Jewish groups. Reb Aharon provoked astonishment in certain circles when, in his efforts on behalf of Vaad Hatzolah, he arranged a meeting with one of the leaders of the Reform who was close to President Roosevelt. How could it be, people wondered, that the prince of Torah would approach the head of those who abandoned Torah? When he heard this, Reb Aharon reacted disdainfully, affirming that if he knew he could save so much as the fingernail of a Jewish child, he would be prepared to go on his hands and knees before worse characters.

At The Thresholds Of The Wealthy

Reb Aharon once remarked that American Jewish philanthropists were so far from the slightest appreciation of Torah, that they often took no exception whatsoever when he upbraided them for treating Torah with less than its due respect. Totally oblivious to any slight on their honor, they would look very serious, pucker their foreheads and ask Reb Aharon to repeat himself, "...but slowly, slowly." (Reb Aharon spoke rapidly and generally in Yiddish.)

On one such occasion, Reb Aharon's companion pointed out to him the damage that the yeshiva could suffer by such inopportune "educational" talks.

Reb Aharon reacted sharply, "Is Lakewood my business concern, that I have to distort and misrepresent for its sake? Let it collapse completely, as long as the feeling for da'as Torah does not decay cholila!"

During the confrontation in Eretz Yisroel over the forced subjection to a secular lifestyle of the children from religious families in Morocco brought to Eretz Yisroel by Youth Aliya, Reb Aharon spoke out vehemently against the use of United Jewish Appeal funds, which were raised from the American community, for such ignoble ends. Pro-Israel feelings ran extremely high in the State's early years and one individual offered Reb Aharon a donation of a quarter of a million dollars if he would retract his remarks.

Reb Aharon refused, but expressed his desire to meet with the man. A date was set and the two held a long discussion.

"I made it clear to him that the check was prepared and in my hand," the man later reported. "I waited all the time for him to say some soft, conciliatory or hesitant word as an opening that would allow me to give him the check but he was strong as a rock and didn't give in the slightest and the check was not given!"

Reb Aharon strongly opposed the formation of a center for halacha in Heichal Shlomo, the seat of Israel's Chief Rabbinate, which might be in a position to attempt to reconstitute the Sanhedrin and use it as a means of controlling the religious life of world Jewry and he was well known for his remarks against the institution.

Reb Aharon once had been waiting a long time to meet a certain extremely wealthy individual, in the hope of soliciting funds from him for communal needs. Finally, the long awaited meeting was to take place. Immediately upon Reb Aharon's arrival though, the man scoffed at him for his battle against Heichal Shlomo. There and then Reb Aharon gave a comprehensive reply, explaining what lay behind the campaign and portraying the great damage that could result from the opening of a world spiritual center of this nature. When he had finished making his point, he left without mentioning a single word about money. When questioned later by members of his household as to whether the long-awaited meeting had been a success, Reb Aharon gave a short answer, affirming that it had been.

When a large fundraising drive was held to save Lakewood from financial collapse, a very generous sum was pledged by one of the wealthiest Jews of New York. He had a modest request however, on which the he made his donation conditional. The yeshiva would host a banquet in his honor, a report of which, together with his photograph side by side with Reb Aharon was then to be submitted by the yeshiva to the two New York Yiddish dailies, the Tog and the Forward.

This was the cause of some consternation for the yeshiva's administration. To forgo such a sum of money would be very difficult in the circumstances but on the other hand, the Tog and Forward were boycotted by the Rosh Yeshiva who could not forgive the fact that the papers appeared on Shabbos nor the public chilul Shabbos that they sanctioned. While plenty of other yeshivos, organizations and institutions placed advertisements and notices in these publications, which were the only Jewish papers in the New York area, they knew that Reb Aharon would not countenance doing so even if it meant that his yeshiva would suffer.

Indeed, the Rosh Yeshiva would not budge. His reasoning was simple: It is impossible to bring about a sanctification of Heaven's name through Torah learning that is built on a desecration of Heaven's name. In the end, it was the donor who relented, so impressed was he by Reb Aharon's strong stand, and the money arrived with out any strings attached.

Irving Bunim

Irving Bunim

When surveying Reb Aharon's communal involvement, mention must also be made of the man whose name came to be associated with the Rosh Yeshiva's over the two decades that they worked together to build Torah in America. In the opinion of another of the gedolei hador of those times, without Bunim's help Reb Aharon could never have succeeded.

Mr. Bunim's special contribution to Reb Aharon's success was in his role as a liaison between the venerable Lithuanian gaon and the businessman and philanthropists whose help he sought in building and supporting his yeshiva. As we have seen, these men usually had no idea of the meaning of Torah let alone the necessity for supporting an institution of higher Torah learning. The Rosh Yeshiva himself had neither the ways to approach these wealthy American Jews nor was even fluent in the English language. Mr. Bunim, with his inborn love of Torah and his dedication to its furtherance amongst his fellow Jews, was able to explain the American mentality and communal scene to the Rosh Yeshiva and with his gifts of clarity of thought and expression was able to communicate the timeless values that Reb Aharon stood for to his American brethren.

Although he was born in Lithuania, Irving Bunim emigrated to America with his parents and siblings when he was nine years old and received the American-Jewish education that was typical of the times. He parted company from most of his peers in both the depth of his commitment to observance and in his own thirst for learning Torah. Throughout his life he combined management of his business with an amazing record of klal work and the delivery of his famous shiurim and lectures all of which, together with the close contacts he had with the gedolim of his time made him ideally suited for his role of "doleh umashke," acting as a conduit who drew from the wellsprings of his teachers' Torah and passed their teachings on to the rest of his generation.

On Purity, Ideological And Financial

In the early 1950's, a storm raged in Eretz Yisroel over the issue of giyus bonos—army conscription for women. The gedolim of the time were unequivocally against any kind of arrangement that would give the State any claims whatsoever on the time of girls and women.

The situation looked bleak and the chareidi community prepared for a bitter struggle as it appeared that the legislation would be passed despite their opposition. The Chazon Ish told his sister, Rebbetzin Kanievsky, to be ready even for the eventuality that her daughters would be put in jail for refusing to obey the new laws. Reb Aharon later said that the heartache and suffering brought on by this struggle were responsible for the loss of two of the front line fighters, the Chazon Ish zt'l and HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt'l who passed away during this period. Reb Aharon came to Eretz Yisroel to take his part in leading the battle.

In 1952, a meeting was arranged between Reb Aharon, HaRav Yechezkel Abramsky and the Chief Rabbi at the time, HaRav Herzog who was requested to use his influence on the National Religious Party in the Knesset. Another meeting was consequently held, in the presence of the NRP members, who argued justifiably that waging a stubborn battle over giyus bonos was liable to harm the yeshivos. If the anger of the secular majority was provoked, they may lose the patience which they had thus far displayed with regard to the conscription of the bnei yeshiva and even the little that had been achieved would be lost.

Reb Aharon knew his partners in this discussion and he also knew who was behind them. He did not show this, however, and delivered his reply in the form of a story told in the tone of one who has been mistakenly thought gullible.

One day, a bottle of rare champagne arrived at the estate of a gentile Polish landowner, a wine the likes of which he had until now only dreamed of possessing. Being a good-natured fellow, he wanted to share the pleasures of the drink with the Jew who managed his lands but the latter was none too enthusiastic at this offer, somewhat confusedly explaining that the laws of his religion forbade him to drink any of the liquor.

Then, after a moment's thought, the Jew added, "There is one way however that I would be permitted to drink. That is, if it would be a matter of life and death."

His employer grasped his meaning and hastened to point his pistol at the Jew's forehead, who did not hide his excitement at the taste of the liquid that flowed down his throat.

"Well, what do you think of the taste?" asked the gentile, as he slowly replaced the weapon in its holster.

The Jew, who had an appetite for a second glass, requested, "Could you point the gun once more?"

Rabbi Leib Cywiak, the administrative director of Beth Hamedrash Govoha was once travelling with Reb Aharon and repeated an observation that had been made by the Sfas Emes zt'l of Ger. If you see an avreich who learns diligently and with yiras shomayim, yet does not succeed in his learning, it must be because he is being supported by his father-in-law with money which was not obtained in accordance with halacha for Torah cannot be sustained by such money.

Reb Aharon listened and commented, "There is a source for this in the Yerushalmi and in the Zohar!"

Rabbi Cywiak then asked how it was that yeshivos could accept money from anyone, without making any inquiries about the money's origins.

"The yeshivos receive money from numerous sources," Reb Aharon replied, "and kosher money becomes mixed with non-kosher money, and dishonestly-obtained money with the money of fine, honest people. There is therefore no cause for suspicions." After a moment's thought he added, "And if there are sometimes failures and setbacks, it is because all the money was then coming from an impure source."

The Reckoning Of A Godol

One of the causes to which Reb Aharon devoted himself was Chinuch Atzmai, the network of independent religious day schools in Eretz Yisroel. From its inception in 1953, the gedolim saw it as the only hope for the success of the new generation in Eretz Yisroel, providing a solid education in Torah and mitzva observance to thousands of children who may otherwise have been lost.

Less well known is the fact that Reb Aharon imposed a condition whereby one fifth of all the money collected for Chinuch Atzmai would be channeled into supporting the old style chadorim. After all, Chinuch Atzmai's double program of secular and Torah studies, while vitally necessary given the situation, was second best. Ideally, the Jewish child should receive an authentic, solid Torah-only education. Even after Reb Aharon's expressed reservations, there were those who looked askance on his support for Chinuch Atzmai, considering themselves more particular than he was.

One day, as the Rosh Yeshiva was leaving after saying shiur accompanied by a group of talmidim, one of his closest pupils approached him with a question, the likes of which only someone close to him could have dared to ask. The Rosh Yeshiva stopped and the group spread out around him.

"I have one extra dollar, which I have designated as tzedaka. To whom should I give it, Chinuch Atzmai or a Talmud-Torah?"

A tense silence followed. The Rosh Yeshiva's brow darkened as he deliberated for a moment and then he replied with a wave of his finger, "Give it to the Talmud-Torah. Certainly, give it to the Talmud-Torah!"

The tension had turned into amazement. The Rosh Yeshiva had seemingly gone against all the work he himself had done for Chinuch Atzmai!

Ignoring their puzzlement, Reb Aharon went over to a nearby counter and banged on it as he said, "And yet, it is impossible to abandon forty thousand Jewish children! Forty thousand Jewish children must not be abandoned!"

With that, he walked away. The talmidim explained what the Rosh Yeshiva's answer had been. You, talmid ask what to do with your dollar. You want a mitzva, you want to buy a piece of olom haboh? Then certainly the Talmud-Torah takes precedence for it is completely holy. You will benefit more from giving it to the Talmud-Torah. I though, am not looking for olom haboh. I am not thinking of myself but of forty thousand Jewish children whom I cannot ignore. I carry a yoke that goes beyond my personal considerations!


We introduced our series with a sketch of Reb Aharon the man, and conclude with an appreciation of Reb Aharon the godol hador. We are in complete disagreement with those who criticized Reb Aharon's approach to the non-religious Jewish groups. Those who claimed to prefer the approach of the Chofetz Chaim to Reb Aharon's approach in fact understood neither the Chofetz Chaim nor Reb Aharon and there would be no purpose in our even mentioning such false ideas were it not for one point which we ourselves should be aware of.

Each generation is led by the gedolim it needs. Each generation has its own task and its own challenges and Hashem sends us the leaders who show us our way. The generation of Eastern European Jewry led by the Chofetz Chaim was one that, from the pressures of suffering and persecution and the lure of the modern world, was in the process of abandoning Torah and mitzvos on a large scale. Yet these people had grown up with observance and in many cases could still be called back. The Chofetz Chaim, with his simplicity and straightforwardness, was able to stir the consciences of people who had not yet severed their ties to the tree of life.

With the generation of postwar American Jews it was a different story. In the land of the free, Yiddishkeit could be as much or as little as anybody wanted. It could be an affiliation, a club, a cookery book or nothing at all and even if it meant observance, it did not have to be an all-encompassing way of life. It needed a Reb Aharon to make Jews sit up and take notice, to shake them from the torpor of the American dream. Reb Aharon acted no less out of ahavas Yisroel than the Chofetz Chaim.

His voice, shaking, rousing, challenging, awakening and igniting dormant sparks, was the kol of matan Torah—which he taught had never ceased reverberating. From Reb Aharon's throat, the Shechina, as it were, was crying out to be let back in to the hearts of the Jewish people. Whatever the reaction, whenever the voice was heard, it was impossible to remain the same.


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