You No Longer Get To Sit On Your Rabbi’s Lap

Professor Marc Shapiro writes: Another change in our era is that signs of physical affection between a rebbe and student, which at one time were very important especially as the rebbe served as a father figure, are no longer acceptable. A student cannot even sit on his rebbe’s lap, as was done in years past. It is reported that when R. Hayyim Soloveitchik visited his great student, R. Baruch Ber Leibowitz, who at this time was serving as rosh yeshiva of Keneset Beit Yitzhak in Slobodka, R. Baruch Ber sat on R. Hayyim’s lap. Just like he sat on R. Hayyim’s lap when he was a young student, R. Hayyim wanted R. Baruch Ber to sit on his lap when he was a grown man. See Making of a Gadol, p. 87. The fact that we could never imagine something like this happening today shows how different our mindset is. There are loads of stories of rebbes kissing their students. R. Zvi Yehudah Kook was known in particular for this. See e.g., Iturei Yerushalayim, no. 55 (2011), p. 4. Here are three stories from R. Shlomo Riskin’s recently published memoir, Listening to God, which also bring us back to a more innocent time.

I couldn’t wait to share my discovery [of Darwin’s theories and how they could help explain the Torah] with my rebbe, Rav Mandel, that Monday morning. I brought him the book, and showed him the relevant passages—totally ignorant of the “red flag” raised in religious circles by the mere mention of Darwin. Rav Mandel barely took the book in his hand; he slapped my face, and then kissed my forehead. “Your interpretations are magnificent, but it is forbidden to read such heretical literature,” he said gently. I smarted at the slap, felt vindicated by the kiss, and continued to adore my rebbe. . . . “ (p. 51)

Riskin describes being tested by Dr. Samuel Belkin.

He asked me which Talmudic tractate I was studying, spoke to me “in learning,” and gave me a section of Gemara and the Tosafot commentary to read. He then came around the desk where I was sitting, kissed me on the forehead, and said to Tante, “you’re right, He can have a full scholarship to Yeshiva University.”(pp. 67-68)

After Riskin passed the examination to become a city rabbi in Israel, “Rabbi [Shaul] Yisraeli rose—and visibly moved—kissed me on the forehead.” (p. 369)

In general, I have to say that Riskin’s book is quite interesting. I must note, however, that in a number of places where he is critical of people or tells a story that might be embarrassing, Riskin refers to individuals by their initials. If he did so in order to leave the figures anonymous, he was not entirely successful, since in a few cases it is not that hard to figure out whom he had in mind.

About Luke Ford

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