Tales Of The Gadolim

Marc B. Shapiro writes:

* Once R. Jacob David Wilovsky of Slutzk visited R. Meir Simhah of Dvinsk and told him that he wanted to also visit the Rogochover. R. Meir Simhah attempted to dissuade him, saying that the Rogochover would put him down like he puts everyone down. Yet R. Wilovsky visited him and the Rogochover did not put him down. He said to the Rogochover, “I heard that you put down everyone, but I see that you treat me with respect.” The Rogochover replied, “I put down gedolim, not ketanim.”

* R. Aviner speaks about a gaon known as the Radichkover who was quite strange. He would go into the restroom holding a copy of the Mishneh Torah. When he was told that this is forbidden, he replied that Maimonides himself went to the restroom! In other words, if Maimonides could go into the restroom then certainly his book can be brought into it. The Radichkover actually tells this story himself about bringing R. Reuven Katz’s book, Degel Reuven, into the restroom.[7]
When he died, people did not know how to eulogize him, because on the one hand he was a great talmid hakham, but on the other hand he acted in a very strange manner. R. Aviner tells us that R. Natan Ra’anan, the son-in-law of R. Kook, delivered the eulogy and said that his greatness was his love of Torah, and due to this great love he did things that were improper. “He sinned yet these sins arose from his love of Torah.”
It is obviously not very common that a eulogy mentions improper things done by the deceased. It is also understandable why, due to his unconventionality, the Radichkover reminds people of the Rogochover. For those who have never heard of him, his name was R. Yaakov Robinson (1889-1966).

* Michael Feldstein recently commented to me that in the last ten years or so he has seen something that did not exist in earlier years, namely, people standing for Parashat Zakhor. I, too, noticed this in my shul, but it has only been going on for a year or two. This year, no one announced that people should stand. Some just stood up on their own and pretty much the entire shul then joined in. Unless the rabbis start announcing that people can sit down, in a few years it will probably become obligatory to stand for Parashat Zakhor, much like it now seems to be obligatory to repeat the entire verse, whereas when I was young the only words to be repeated were תמחה את זכר עמלך. (I always paid attention to this as Ki Tetze is my bar mitzva parashah.) Today, if the Torah reader tries to repeat only these words, they will tell him to go back and repeat the entire verse. What we see from all of this is that customs are constantly being created, and they often arise from the “ritual instinct” of the people, without any rabbinic guidance.


* … contrary to popular belief, the name Satmar does not come from St. Mary. The original meaning seems to be a personal name, and in popular etymology the word came to mean “great village.”[3] Yet even in the Satmar community some believe that the word comes from St. Mary, and because of this they pronounce it as “Sakmar”.

* In a lecture I mentioned that one of the old-time American rabbis met with the Satmar Rebbe and concluded that when it came to the State of Israel, you simply could not speak to him about it. He was like a shoteh le-davar ehad when it came to this in that no matter how much you tried to convince him otherwise, he refused to listen to reason. Someone asked me which rabbi said this. It was R. Ephraim Jolles of Philadelphia (as I heard from a family member). I don’t think his formulation is too harsh, as anyone who has read the Satmar Rebbe’s writings can attest. It does not bother me if he or anyone else wants to be an anti-Zionist. However, the anti-Zionist rhetoric found in the Satmar Rebbe’s writings, and those of his successors, is often more extreme than what we find among the pro-Palestinian groups…

If anyone wants to see the results of this rhetoric, here are two videos with kids from Satmar. In this one the children are being taught that the Zionists started World War II and to hope for the destruction of the State of Israel.

In this video children were told that Netanyahu was in the car and they were to throw eggs at it.

It is very painful to see how children are being indoctrinated with such hatred. Again I ask, if such a video surfaced from a leftist camp, there would be no hesitation in labeling it anti-Semitic. So why are people hesitant to conclude that Satmar is also involved in spreading anti-Semitism?

The general assumption is that the Satmar Rebbe hated Zionism and the State of Israel so much, that he was inclined to believe even the most far-out anti-Semitic canards against the State. I have always found this difficult to believe. Say what you will about the Rebbe, there is no denying that he was very intelligent. Thus, I have a hard time accepting that he could have really believed in Zionist control of the media and other anti-Semitic tropes found in his polemical writings. In other words, I think it is more likely that he did not believe in any of these things but said them anyway in order to convince his followers not to give up the fight against Zionism, a fight that had been abandoned by so many former anti-Zionists after the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. In such a battle it was necessary to turn Israel not only into something bad, but actually the worst sin imaginable.

R. Nahum Abraham, a Satmar hasid and prolific author, has recently written that the Satmar Rebbe would deny things that he knew were true. He regarded his denials as “necessary lies,” in order to prevent people from being led in the wrong direction.[5] If the Rebbe thought that it was permissible to deny the truth of certain hasidic stories in order to prevent his followers from being influenced by them, isn’t it possible that he would exaggerate the evils of the State of Israel in order to best indoctrinate his followers with an anti-Zionist perspective?

This approach also would explain a big problem that no one has been able to adequately account for. How was the Satmar Rebbe able to have friendly and respectful relationships with people who, based on what he writes, he should have regarded as completely out of the fold due to their involvement with the State of Israel? This includes even men like R. Aharon Kotler who supported voting in the Israeli elections, which the Satmar Rebbe claimed is “the most severe prohibition in the entire Torah.”[6] Yet we know that the Satmar Rebbe respected R. Aharon and others who had a very different perspective.[7] Can’t this be seen as evidence that there is a good deal of ideologically-driven exaggeration in the Satmar Rebbe’s writings, and that not everything he says really reflects his actual views? After all, if he really thought that voting in the elections was the most severe prohibition in the Torah and the State of Israel was completely destroying Judaism, would he still be able to be on good terms with rabbis who instructed their followers to vote and be part of the State?

* I have said on numerous occasions that what currently passes as the standard approach to conversion was not the case at all in previous years. To begin with, among the rabbis there were different understandings of what kabbalat ha-mitzvot entailed, and the currently accepted view that a prospective convert must commit to become fully halakhically observant, as practiced today in Orthodox communities, was not the view of many, and perhaps not even the view of most. The notion that a conversion could be annulled after the fact was hardly ever put into practice, although even this is found on occasion and R. Baruch cites some authorities who speak about this very point. Thus, it is not, as has often been alleged, a modern haredi idea with no historical basis although, as mentioned, it was very rare…

Today, the assumption of many conversion courts is that if someone who converts is later seen violating halakhah in a serious way, we can assume that this person never really accepted the mitzvot at the conversion, and the conversion is therefore not valid. It is this argument which was hardly ever put into practice in previous years and now appears to be quite common, so much so that converts claim to feel that their conversions are always “on condition,” namely, that even many years after converting there is the possibility that the conversion will be declared invalid because of a lack of proper kabbalat ha-mitzvot…

According to R. Isaac, in places such as Spain and Portugal, where one could not practice Judaism openly, if a Jewish man marries a non-Jewish woman, and the woman chooses to practice Judaism, both she and her children are regarded as Jewish. How can she be Jewish when she never immersed in the mikveh and there was no beit din to preside over the conversion? R. Isaac says that there is no obligation to immerse in the mikveh when there is danger (as there would be in a place with the Inquisition looking to find Crypto-Jews). Although he does not elaborate, it is obvious that according to R. Isaac kabbalat ha-mitzvot in front of a beit din is not an absolute requirement. In other words, he holds that in a she’at ha-dehak one can convert on one’s own, without a beit din.

About Luke Ford

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