Rabbis Vs Rabbis

The funniest statement in the Siddur (Jewish prayer book) is that Torah scholars increase peace in the world. If you know any Torah scholars, you know that they are always feuding. There is no definition of lashon hara (evil speech) that would not apply to the routine speech of Torah scholars.

Jews do not only apply their culture of critique to gentiles.

Marc B. Shapiro writes:

In a recent Jewish Review of Books (Summer 2017), I published a translation of an interview R. Joseph Rozin, the Rogochover, gave to the New York Yiddish paper, Der morgen zhurnal. You can see the original interview here. The fact that the Rogochover agreed to the interview is itself significant. As is to be expected, the content of the interview is also of great interest.

In the preface to the interview, I mentioned that the Rogochover famously studied Torah on Tisha be-Av and when he was an avel, both of which are in violation of accepted halakhah. When he was once asked why, while sitting shiva, he learnt Torah, he is reported to have replied:[1]

ודאי, עבירה היא זו, וכשאקבל עונש על שאר עונותי יענישוני אף על עון זה, אבל אני אקבל באהבה וברצון את העונש על חטא זה, וכדאית היא התורה להלקות עליה

R. Yissachar Tamar cites an eye-witness who reported that the Rogochover said basically the same thing in explaining why he learnt on Tisha be-Av, and noted how wonderful it will be to be punished for studying Torah.[2]

ומה נעים לקבל צליפות על עסק התורה

The Hazon Ish was told that the Rogochover learnt Torah when he was in mourning and that he made another antinomian-like comment in justification of his behavior, namely, that he wants to be in the gehinom of those who learn Torah. The Hazon Ish replied that “this gehinom is the same gehinom for the other sins.”[3]

The various comments quoted in the name of the Rogochover show his great need for studying Torah, a need that simply did not allow him to put aside his Torah study, even when halakhah required it. Yet the antinomian implication of the Rogochover’s comments was too much to be ignored. R. Gavriel Zinner’s reaction after quoting the Rogochover is how many felt.[4]

ולא זכיתי להבין, הלא מי לנו גדול מחכמי הגמ’ שנפשם ג”כ חשקה בתורה ואפ”ה גזרו שבת”ב ובזמן אבל אסורים בלימוד התורה, ועוד שאחז”ל הלומד ע”מ שלא לעשות נוח לו שלא נברא.

It is thus to be expected that some authors deny that the Rogochover could have really said any of what I have quoted. And if he did say it, they feel that it must have been merely a joke or a comment not meant to be taken seriously, or that he did not want people to know the real reason he studied Torah while in avelut (namely, the Yerushalmi which will soon be mentioned).[5] R. Abraham Weinfeld goes so far as to say, with reference to one of the comments I have quoted that “It is forbidden to hear these words, and Heaven forbid to suspect that Rabban shel Yisrael [the Rogochover] would say this.”[6]

Those who refuse to accept that the Rogochover meant what he said are forced to find a halakhic justification for his behavior, and indeed, when it comes to an avel studying Torah (and this would also apply to Tisha be-Av, the halakhot of which are not as stringent as those of personal mourning), there is a passage in the Yerushalmi, Moed Katan 3:5, that permits Torah study for one who has a great need.[7] (This heter is not recorded in the Shulhan Arukh, but this would not have concerned the Rogochover.[8]) Yet it is important to remember that as far as we know the Rogochover never cited this passage in the Yerushalmi as justification for his studying Torah when he was sitting shiva.[9]

Now for something disappointing and even a bit shocking: Here are the two pages from R. Shlomo Yosef Zevin, Ishim ve-Shitot (Jerusalem, 2007), pp. 75-76, where you can see one of the“controversial” quotations (which as R. Zevin notes is taken from an article in Ha-Hed)….

Zvi Hirsch Masliansky, Maslianky’s Zikhroynes (New York, 1924), p. 107, who has a very negative view of the Rogochover, also records how he denigrated R. Isaac Elhanan as well as R. Samuel Mohilever and the Hibbat Zion movement. He further mentions that the Rogochover disparaged his own rebbe, R. Joseph Baer Soloveitchik…

See also R. Nathan Kamenetsky, Making of a Godol, pp. 743, 747, for other times that the Rogochover insulted R. Joseph Baer Soloveitchik. (On p. 744 Kamenetsky writes that the Rogochover received semikhah from R. Soloveitchik.)
Kamenetsky, Making of a Godol, p. 747 n. b, mentions the Hebrew edition’s deletion of these “revolting lines of the original text.” We have a number of descriptions of the Rogochover from people who met him, and while all portray him as unusual, none have the negative spin of Masliansky. Perhaps it was the Rogochover’s anti-Zionism that turned Masliansky against him.
R. Moshe Maimon called my attention to She’elot u-Teshuvot Tzafnat Paneah ha-Hadashot (Modi’in Ilit, 2012), vol. 2, p. 391 (unpaginated), where we see that in newly published material the Rogochover referred to the Vilna Gaon as “Rabbenu ha-Gra.” This is significant because in the interview I published the Rogochover was hardly complimentary to the Vilna Gaon.[21]
She’elot u-Teshuvot Tzafnat Paneah ha-Hadashot is quite an interesting publication and includes the Rogochover’s notes to some poems of R. Judah Halevi. It is not that the Rogochover had any great interest in Halevi’s poetry. However, the Rogochover was one of those people whose mind was such that he had something to say about everything he read.
I encourage anyone interested in the Rogochover to watch this wonderful video by Louis Jacobs. The Rogochover was one of Jacobs’ heroes, and somewhere he mentions that the Rogochover was one of the people he would have loved to have met.
Regarding Bialik’s visit with the Rogochover that I mentioned in the Jewish Review of Books article, Maimon called my attention to this article by Noah Zevuluni [22]. For more on the meeting of Bialik and the Rogochover, see Doar ha-Yom, Jan. 10, 1932, p. 2, and Davar, April 17, 1935, p. 16 (where it mistakenly states that Bialik said that you could make ten Einsteins out of one Rogochover. He actually said that you could make two Einsteins out of one Rogochover.). The last two sources were brought to my attention by R. Shimon Szimonowitz.
Yossi Newfeld called my attention to the following two works focused on the Rogochover: Regarding the Rogochover and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, there is an MA dissertation by Yisrael Ori Meitlis, “‘Ha-Lamdanut ha-Filosofit’ shel Rabbi Yosef Rozin bi-Derashotav shel Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneersohn (ha-Rebbe mi-Lubavitch),” (Bar-Ilan University, 2013). There is also the volume Ha-Tzafnat Paneah be-Mishnat ha-Rebbe (Brooklyn, 2003). In a previous post I called attention to R. Dovber Schwartz’s wonderful book The Rogatchover Gaon.
It is often said that the Rebbe received semichah from the Rogochover, yet there is no documentary evidence of this. The origin of this notion might be the Rebbe’s mother, who stated as such. See the comprehensive and beautifully produced new book on the Rebbe by R. Boruch Oberlander and R. Elkanah Shmotkin, Early Years.
In my article I mentioned the Rogochover’s unique perspective on the halakhic status of civil marriage. Those interested in this topic should consult R. Menahem Mendel Tenenbaum, Nisuim Ezrahiyim be-Mishnato shel Ha-Rogochovi z”l (n.p., 1988). This book contains an analysis of six responsa of the Rogochover on the topic.
One final point I would like to make about the Rogochover relates to his view of secular studies. He was one of those who responded to R. Shimon Schwab’s query about the halakhic validity of the German Torah im Derekh Eretz approach.[23] You can find his letter in Ha-Ma’yan[24] 16 (Nisan 5736), pp. 1ff. Among the significant points he makes is that, following Maimonides, a father must teach his son “wisdom.” He derives this from Maimonides’ ruling in Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Rotzeah 5:5:
הבן שהרג את אביו בשגגה גולה וכן האב שהרג את בנו בשגגה גולה על ידו. במה דברים אמורים בשהרגו שלא בשעת לימוד או שהיה מלמדו אומנות אחרת שאינו צריך לה. אבל אם ייסר את בנו כדי ללמדו תורה או חכמה או אומנות ומת פטור.
He adds, however, that instruction in “secular” subjects is not something that the community should be involved in, with the exception of medicine, astronomy, and the skills which allow one to take proper measurements, since all these matters have halakhic relevance. In other words, according to the Rogochover, while Jewish schools should teach these subjects, no other secular subjects (“wisdom”) should be taught by the schools, but the father should arrange private instruction for his son.
רואים דהרמב”ם ס”ל דגם חכמה מותר וצריך אב ללמוד לבנו אבל ציבור ודאי אסורים בשאר חכמות חוץ מן רפואה ותקפות [!] דשיך [!] לעבובר [צ”ל לעבור] וגמטרא [!] השייך למדידה דזה ג”כ בגדר דין.
He then refers to the Mekhilta, parashat Bo (ch. 18), which cites R. Judah ha-Nasi as saying that a father must teach his son ישוב המדינה. The Rogochover does not explain what yishuv ha-medinah means, just as he earlier does not explain what is meant by “wisdom,” but these terms obviously include the secular studies that are necessary to function properly in society.
The publication of this letter of the Rogochover was regarded as quite significant. Yet as far as I know, no one has pointed out that the main point of the letter had already appeared in print. In 1937 R. Judah Ari Wohlgemuth published Yesodot Hinukh ha-Dat le-Dor. On p. 250 he included the following comment of the Rogochover, found in the margin of Rogochover’s copy of the Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Rotzeah 5:5…

R. Raphael Mordechai Barishansky was shocked to read what the Rogochover said about the Vilna Gaon, as I think we all are. He responded strongly in an article in Der morgen zhurnal which was later reprinted in his Osef Mikhtavim Mehutavim (New York, 1952), pp. 167-169. Even though his words are strong, R. Barishansky shows great respect for the Rogochover.

This is not the case with R. Abraham Aaron Yudelevitz whose attack on the Rogochover is quite sharp. It needs to be said, however, that this came after the Rogochover referred to R. Yudelevitz – who was himself an outstanding scholar – in a very negative way. In printing the Rogochover’s letter, R. Yudelevitz tells us that he cut out some of Rogochover’s harshest words, but we still get the picture. The Rogochover was responding to R. Yudelevitz’s novel view that halitzah can be done with an agent, and the Rogochover referred to R. Yudelevitz as a בן סורר ומורה. See R. Yudelevitz, Av be-Hokhmah (New York, 1927), p. 82. [27]
Here is some of what R. Yudelevitz said in response, ibid., pp. 83,85-86. The language is very sharp (and also refers to how the Rogochover rejected something the Vilna Gaon wrote):
פער פיו בזלזולים כהאשה בת בוזי היושבת בשוק ומוכרת עיגולים בשער האשפתות ואולתו כפרתו כי אין קץ לשטותו ולגאותו.
אבל הוא אינו חושש לזה, לא להרמב”ם ולא להשו”ע, כי הוא חושב כי עד שבא הוא לעולם לא היתה לישראל תורה כלל כי לא הבינו תורה מאומה וממנו התחילה התורה ובו תסיים וראוי היה לו לומר דכל מי שאינו אומר כמותו יתכן כי הוא עוד גאון אבל אינו עוד גאון עצום ויחיד בדור כמוהו, אבל גאות אדם תשפילנו כתיב לכן הוא בגאותו שחקים משפיל את עצמו כי אמר רק דברים פשוטים הגונים לבור ולא גאונות והאיש שאינו אומר כמוהו הוא פחות מתלמיד בור ולא שייך בו גדר זקן ממרא ורק הוא שאומר דברי בורות יכול להיות זקן ממרא ח”ו ובאמת כי כל התורה שלנו מונחת במוחו בכח זכרונו הנפלא אבל כח הבנתו קטנה מהכיל זה (כי כח הזכרון וכח הבנה באדם הם שני כחות נגדיים זה לזה כידוע), ולכן הוא מבולבל ומשוגע ומקיים מ”ע והיית משוגע בכל פרטיה ודקדוקיה כראוי לצדיק ובגודל חסידותיה הוא מבטל גם דברי הגר”א מווילנא זצ”ל והוא יושב בעינים על הדרך כי תורתו מלאה עינים, עיין עיין, אבל אינה ברה מאירת עינים רק סמיות עינים.
Regarding the Vilna Gaon, I know of only one other figure in the twentieth century who expressed a somewhat critical view of him and that is R. Nahum Ben-Horim…

Zevuluni records the following story that he heard from the Rogochover. The Rogochover was once a dayan in a large monetary dispute. After a compromise was reached, the litigants put a significant amount of money on the table as payment to the dayanim. The other two dayanim refused to take the money and the Rogochover therefore took it all. He explained that the Talmud, Hagigah 4a, states: “Who is [deemed] an imbecile (shoteh)? One that destroys all that is given to him.” The Rogochover said that one would have expected the Talmud to say, “One that destroys all that he has” rather than “all that is given to him.” From here, the Rogochover stated, there is a proof that if someone gives you something and you refuse to accept it, that you are an imbecile. The Rogochover added, “I do not want to to included in this category.”

Kamenetsky, Making of a Godol, also records comments of the Rogochover about other Torah scholars. See e.g., p. 743 n. i, that in 1934 the Rogochover said that there is no one in Eretz Yisrael who knows how to learn.

Interestingly, on p. 739, Kamenetsky quotes his father that R. Hayyim Soloveitchik and R. David Friedman of Karlin were greater scholars than the Rogochover…

R. Elijah David Rabinowitz-Teomim also was very critical of the Rogochover, yet any such comments have been censored in his published writings.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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