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BIOGRAPHIES

I have recently completed reading two biographies about two very diverse but influential people.   I will admit going from the sublime to the very less sublime in the choice of reading these biographies.  But all human beings are fascinating, and their life’s stories are always engrossing. This is especially true when the biography book is itself well written, thoroughly researched, objectively presented and is not hagiographic. Both of these biographies had these positive literary qualities to them. Dr. Binyamin Braun of the Judaic Studies Department of Hebrew University has written an exhaustive study of Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Karelitz (commonly known by the name of his scholarly books and his acronym, Chazon Ish.) Braun details for the reader the life and accomplishments of this remarkable scholar and traces for us the rise of the Chazon Ish in becoming the primary decider of halachic law in Israel in the 1940’s and early 1950’s and the leading authority on all matters – religious, societal and temporal  –  for much of the religious society of world Jewry. What makes all of this more remarkable is the fact that he never officially served as a rabbi or a teacher or the head of any religious or educational institution. He earned his livelihood by the sale of his books and from the income earned from his wife’s textile store. For a great portion of his life he operated in complete

anonymity. He even did not state his name as being the author of his works, hiding his identity in the acronym Ish – aleph, yud, shin, Avraham YeShayahu. Nevertheless, he was brought to worldwide attention and renown, mainly through the efforts of Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, the famed rabbi in Vilna and the leader of Orthodox Jewry in Lithuanian in the inter-war years of the first part of the twentieth century. Rabbis Grodzensky and Karelitz became very close to each other when Chazon Ish toiled to have Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky elected as the official rabbi of Vilna, a bid for that office that failed. Nevertheless, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky touted Chazon Ish publicly and incessantly as being the leading scholar of the generation. This was especially the case when Chazon Ish immigrated to Israel in the early 1930’s and took up residence in the then small dusty village of Bnei Brak.

As Braun details for the reader Rabbi Karelitz lived a very painful and troubled personal life. His marriage, to put it mildly, was not a happy one. The marriage produced no children, a fact that he deeply mourned. His health was always precarious and for most of his later years he studied, wrote and received visitors while lying in bed. Despite all these personal difficulties, through his scholarly works and forceful opinions he rose to become the chief decider and shaper of the non-Zionist section of the religious society of Israel. To a great extent, he was an iconoclast. Not having himself ever studied in the Lithuanian yeshivot system he was not at all enthusiastic about their Talmudic study methodology and educational philosophy. He also felt that the Mussar movement was incorrect in its approach to Torah study and matters of simple faith, and its types of interpretation of Biblical events and Talmudic sayings and anecdotes. He was an early supporter of Poalei Agudat Yisrael and was the original halachic mentor of its kibbutzim and moshavot, though he later distanced himself from many of its political decisions. In the matters of agricultural plantings and the milking of cows on Shabat he was more lenient in his rulings than, for instance, was Rabbi Kook but he was a firm opponent of the implementation of the obviously fictitious but legally technically correct sale of the land owned by Jews to Arabs during the shemitta/sabbatical seventh year. He came up with other solutions to help the Jewish farmers and land survive during that time period.

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