Jewish History Blog

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.

(more…)

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  • November 25, 2019

The Frighteningly Familiar New Russia

His political opponents are either in Western exile or in Russian prison on dubious charges of tax evasion and money crimes- this in a country where financial corruption is rampant on every level of its commercial, political, governmental and social society and its court system is classic case of cronyism and blatant corruption. And Russia is again a great troublemaker in the international scene. It backs Iran and sells it nuclear fuel. It rearms Syria. It confronts United States ships at sea with overflying military aircraft. It demands a role in Mideast peacemaking, such as that moribund task may be. Its military leaders make bellicose and provocative statements about its intent to use military prowess to achieve its rightful goals. In short, Russia remains the very large elephant in the room of world affairs. It certainly has not as of yet joined the pacifist at any price crowd that so dominates Western Europe. The bear is not really in hibernation.

Whoever thought that after the implosion of the Soviet Union, Russia would turn into a democratic, cooperative European country, no longer expansionist and bullying, now has another thought coming. Russia has reverted to a form of dictatorship again under the malevolent Vladimir Putin. Whether officially President or a member of parliament, Putin is the man that runs Russia and all of the other new generation of apparatchiks are merely his dutiful stooges. He declares that he is the next premier of Russia and does not discount his return to the presidency once more. In short, in the time honored hubris of the powerful and cruel he is the head of Russia for life – his life at least.

In terms of human suffering Russia and its communist cohort, Mao’s China, inflicted the most damage, in numbers and quality of life, of any other ideal or system of government in human history. They were ruled for decades by men who were paranoid, ruthless, uncaring of human life and emotions and who demanded absolute obedience and brooked no independent voices or thinking. After the fall of the official Communist government in Russia it has, as a nation, waxed rich because of its vast oil reserves and the skyrocketing price of that commodity.

Individual Russians still struggle to make ends meet and to achieve the standard and quality of life present in the Western world. In the time honored fashion of all of the dictators, Putin takes credit for Russia’s national income and scoffs at all rumors that somehow he has personally profited from this new found cash cow. China, while officially still Communist and Marxist, is really a ruthlessly capitalistic society. It exploits its main natural resource – tens of millions of people – in a ruthless fashion just barely above the concept of slave labor. As such it has become the provider of cheap goods of all kinds to all of the rest of the world. It does so by using an overvalued currency, ruthless exploitation of its working force population and an enormous consumption of oil and other natural resources. It certainly is a major force to be reckoned with. It is Russia and China who are responsible for the failure of effective economic sanctions against Iran. In fact it is Russia who is supplying Iran with much of the technical knowhow and with the nuclear fuel necessary for it to become a nuclear power.

So Russia is once again engaged in its history-old policies of brinksmanship and xenophobia. It is still smarting from the loss of the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine as well as some of its richest resources to the fractured nations of the Caucuses. A few hundred thousand Russians are still stranded is Kaliningrad, a land-locked piece of Russia surrounded on all sides by Poland, Lithuania, and Germany. In addition many thousands of Russians are stuck in inimical societies in the Baltic states and other former parts of the Soviet Union that are now independent countries.

All of this is a potential witches’ brew of trouble and strife waiting to be mixed and served. The Soviet Union and Communism are relegated to the ash heap of history but they have left behind a tragic and most dangerous legacy. Putin may not be Stalin – after all, who can equal that champion mass murderer? – but he is a far cry from a democratic leader. Under him Russia has regressed in its attitudes, policies and influence. It is no longer viewed as a force for good and progress in world events. It has resumed its old obstructionist stances in diplomatic events and its military commanders again have resorted to its old fashioned use of saber rattling invective. In our very dangerous and violent world this is certainly not good news and it bears considerable and serious viewing and decision making on the part of the Western world…..a full plate of problems and issues

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  • August 20, 2019

EMPTY PROMISES

In an article in Commentary magazine, Professor Ruth Wisse wrote a very thoughtful article about anti-Semitism in our time. She discussed the anti-Semitism of the outside world, especially that of the Arab world, which persists in blaming the West and especially Israel for all of its own ills and societal dysfunctions. But she also touched upon the increasing anti-Semitism and anti-Israel mood of many assimilated and “intellectual” Jews, both in Israel itself and in the Diaspora. She ascribed much of this current Jewish frustration with the only Jewish state that the Jews have had in two millennia to the unfulfilled promises of Zionism and of the “peace process” that has gone nowhere. In their frustration with these unfulfilled promises these Jews have turned against Israel and essentially against themselves by coming to the very erroneous conclusion that somehow the Jews and the Jewish state are the guilty ones in creating this climate of hatred and condemnation of Jews and of Israel. Thus they justify the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel behavior of our enemies while at the same time encouraging the de-legitimization and eventual dismantling of the entire Jewish state. And the root causes for this suicidal behavior and warped thinking are the unfulfilled promises made by the Zionist movement at its very inception and the equally unfulfilled promises made by Israeli leaders at the outset of the Israel-Palestinian “peace process.”

In the nineteenth century, long before the rise of the Zionist movement, there was an almost spontaneous movement of Jews to the Land of Israel, then under the rule of the Ottoman Turks. Jews from Bukhara, Yemen, Lithuania, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland immigrated to their ancient homeland in small but steady numbers. They harbored no illusions about creating a Jewish state let alone a “new Jew.” Almost all of them were deeply religious, idealistic and ritually observant Jews. They moved to the Land of Israel for spiritual fulfillment. They certainly hoped that the vicious anti-Semitism that they experienced in their home countries would be less in the Land of Israel under seemingly more benign Turkish rule but they had no illusions that they were entering into a rose garden paradise where the illogical and unjustified hatred of the Jew would be entirely absent. They came to the Land of Israel for their own personal and spiritual fulfillment and not for the purpose of solving or ameliorating any “Jewish problem.” Thus the latent anti-Semitism of the small Arab population then in Palestine was accepted as being natural – a continuation of the situation that they had faced for long centuries in their home countries. Since the Jewish world was powerless there was not much that they felt that could be done to combat this anti-Jewish attitude and behavior. This passivity and acceptance of the reality of anti-Semitism marked the yishuv hayashan – the original pre-Zionist Jewish settlers in the Land of Israel in the nineteenth century.

When Theodore Herzl founded the Zionist movement officially in 1897 he made a promise that was the basic philosophic underpinning of secular Zionism for a century. That promise was that the creation of a Jewish national home (anywhere in the world, by the way) would solve the problem of anti-Semitism. Herzl believed that the hatred of Jews emanated from their unnatural and abnormal situation of being a people without a homeland and a state of their own. Once Jews achieved an independent home and state of their own anti-Semitism would disappear, for Jews would no longer be viewed as being different and abnormal. This in essence was the promise of Zionism. It lay in the statements of the Zionist leaders immediately after World War II that if a Jewish state would have then existed in the 1930’s then the Holocaust could never have occurred. The fact that the UN recognized the right of a Jewish state to exist in 1947 seemed to confirm the connection between the existence of such a state and the amelioration of anti-Semitism generally. But this promise of the Zionist movement and its basic ideological underpinning never has been realized or fulfilled. In fact the existence of the Jewish state of Israel has only exacerbated the problem of anti-Semitism in the world. Morphed into anti-Israel behavior, anti-Semitism has become intellectually, socially, diplomatically and publicly institutionalized as being legitimate, protected by the liberal values of freedom of speech and expression. Herzl would be saddened and amazed to see that his goal and promise has been turned on its head.

Since the basic promise of Zionism has not been fulfilled and does not appear to be able to be fulfilled in our lifetime, the post-Zionist syndrome arose both in Israel itself and in the Diaspora. Post-Zionism in essence states that Zionism itself is no longer relevant and that the Jewish state is not part of the answer to the continuing “Jewish problem.” The answer must therefore lie in promulgating liberal and tolerant values throughout the world and in assimilating the Jewish people into general world society, abandoning Jewish particularism and no longer confusing the survival of the Jewish people with the security  and survival of the Jewish state. Simply put, the failure of the Jewish state and of Zionism to eliminate anti-Semitism in the world as it originally promised it would, undermines its basic right to exist. Thus many now say that the creation of the State of Israel in 1947-8 was a “mistake.” The failure of the fulfillment of Zionism’s basic promise destroys even its basic right to exist. These partisans cannot justify the existence of a state that in its view somehow has not fulfilled its mission and kept its promise. This is the psychological elephant in the room that haunts the secular liberal, assimilated Jew. It is what turns him willingly or unwillingly, into an enemy of his people and himself. The religious Jew sees living in the Land of Israel itself as a supreme value. The State of Israel has to solve no external issues for him. It only has to provide a relatively safe and Jewish environment in which to live. And this it has done and continues to do quite successfully.

Shimon Peres promised that the Oslo Agreements would create “a rose garden” in the Middle East. Yitzchak Rabin promised that territorial concessions to the Palestinians would result in peace for all concerned. Ehud Barak promised that unilateral Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon would create a peaceful northern border for the Galilee. Ariel Sharon promised that dismantling the settlements of Gush Katif would enable Gaza to become a peaceful neighbor to southern Israel. Ehud Olmert promised that relinquishing East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount would settle the Israeli-Palestinian struggle once and for all. None of these promises have been even remotely fulfilled. Instead because they were not possible of being fulfilled and since they were promised to the Arabs and to the world by successive Israeli political leaders it must be that they were not fulfilled because Israel somehow does not wish to fulfill them. So Israel continues to basically negotiate with itself without a viable partner present or even necessary in this “peace process” charade. It must therefore be its fault that its promises of peace have not become reality, so more concessions must be offered and more of Israel’s security jeopardized. Since Israel was the party that promised peace and the “rose garden” – you will notice that the Arabs made no such commitments or held out no such hopes publicly – and the promises have not been fulfilled, so ipso facto it must be Israel that has failed to make the necessary progress on the peace front.

Many times in life, and certainly almost always in political and diplomatic life,  promises no matter how well intentioned remain unfulfilled. The problem lies when those promises appeared to be so alluring and necessary and achievable that their remaining unfulfilled crushes morale and saps willpower and strength and negates belief in the rectitude of one’s own cause. However, merely recognizing why those promises remain unfulfilled and who is responsible for their remaining unfulfilled will in itself strengthen the possibility of eventual fulfillment of those promises. The Jews are not the responsible party for anti-Semitism. It is a disease, pernicious and contagious, which has affected civilization for millennia. No amount of Jewish “normalcy” can cure it. Only a determined effort by the civilized world can fight this scourge and shove it back down the black hole from whence it first emerged. And no amount of concessions or creative peace plans will settle the Arab-Israeli struggle without a complete recasting of the mindset  of the Moslem world towards the West, other religions and the State of Israel and the Jewish people. And these are the blunt facts but I feel that they are the only accurate promises for the foreseeable future of our times.

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  • June 3, 2019

May Day

May 1 was always the traditional day of commemoration and inspiration of the Socialists and Communists and their supporters and fellow travelers. Parades of workers, scouts, pioneers and sundry members of the proletariat, gigantic displays of armies and military hardware including intercontinental ballistic missiles, speeches about the socialist paradise and the bright Marxist future of mankind, all were standard May Day fare for most of the twentieth century. May Day was the highlight of the year for the Bund (the militantly secular Jewish Labor Union in prewar eastern Europe) and the other Jewish leftist parties including the Labor Zionists that vied for control of the minds and hearts of the Jewish street. Here in Israel the Labor party and the Hisdatrut Workers Union celebrated the day with a zeal and awe that their ancestors had reserved for the commemoration of Yom Kippur. A massive parade was held yearly through the streets of Tel Aviv and members of kibbutzim from all over the country gathered to participate. But in one of the great ironies of history all of this has disappeared as though it never existed. Here in Israel it is especially no longer noted or marked. In fact it pretty much no longer exists in most parts of the world except for China, where it is paid lip service to, and in North Korea, the weirdest country in a very weird world. A relatively small parade was conducted on May Day this year in Tel Aviv but it gathered little media attention and public notice. And anyway, its main concerns were on spreading the capitalist wealth of the present and not on bringing about the Marxist utopia of the future.

There are many reasons for the decline of May Day. The humiliating disappearance of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communist rule in Eastern Europe twenty years ago certainly is the main catalyst for the diminution of May Day as well. Communism/Marxism proved itself to be a bloody, murderous, inefficient and economically disastrous way of life. It literally poisoned the air that people breathed, stifled all human creativity and enslaved millions of hapless victims – all in the name of a utopian and essentially foolish goal of achieving a worker’s paradise. The complete collapse of the communist system has left very little room for any May Day celebrations. May Day was in essence a pagan holiday dedicated to the false god of Marxism. Like all pagan holidays and social norms it had its day of popularity and seeming triumph before it collapsed of its own accord, a victim of its supreme arrogance and abysmal failures. The power of labor unions all over the world is being contested as never before in the past century. The recent death and funeral of Margaret Thatcher reminded everyone of her titanic struggle to free England from the grip of the tyrannical union bosses that were strangling the country. Her victory over them has created the new United Kingdom still struggling with its socialist past but struggling nevertheless. No May Day parades for the “Iron Lady.

The unstinting support and arming of the Arab countries in their series of wars against Israel by the Soviet bloc certainly helped sour the Israeli public’s view of May Day. And the fact that millions of Soviet Jews were held hostage for many decades to implement Soviet domestic and foreign policies also contributed to the ending of the romance between the Jewish masses and the political left. The bitter anti-Semitism and the falsification of history practiced and still in practice today by the Left against Israel, its state and people, also immunized the Israeli public to the blandishments of utopian Marxism. Israelis found it difficult to be devoted to the cause of Marxism when Russian made bullets and shells were killing their husbands and sons. The Communist world itself contributed greatly to the demise of May Day here in Israel and in fact throughout the world. The reality of evil wrought by Marxism trumped the false vision it trumpeted of the workers’ paradise.  

What is most significant in viewing May Day as it occurred here in Israel this year was its unlikely juxtaposition with the day of Lag B’Omer. I must admit that I am quite dubious about some of the customs that have attached themselves to that day. Bonfires and visits to the purported graves of the righteous are not rigorously observed in my household. However, one should never underestimate the power and effect that Jewish customs adopted over time have on the national psyche and worldview. Three hundred thousand Jews traveled to Meron, the reputed site of the grave of the famed and holy rabbi of the Mishna, Shimon ben Yochai, on Lag B’Omer. There is no May Day celebration here in Israel now or ever that can dream of having such a turnout of people to commemorate the day. Even when May Day was in its heyday here in Israel such numbers of devotees were unattainable. There is a lesson present here in this scenario that speaks to the eternal bond of Jews to Torah and tradition and to the ineffectiveness of pagan holidays, no matter how noble the goals that they claim to represent. The Torah is on the side of the worker and against his exploitation. But that is based on God-given law and revelation and not on wild theories of nineteenth century Enlightenment history, economics and denial of human nature. It is not surprising therefore that May Day is not what it used to be, especially here in Israel.  

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  • May 15, 2019

In Ishmael’s House

Sir Martin Gilbert has written “In Ishmael’s House” a popular history of the Jewish experience over almost fifteen centuries of life under Moslem rule. The book, is an eye opener for it will destroy with hard evidence some of the current most cherished myths of Western society and history-ignorant Jews about the root problems in the Middle East and especially about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Jews lived a forced subjugated life in Moslem society since the seventh century onwards. The application of dhimmi laws and customs degraded Jews wherever they lived in Moslem lands and no matter to what economic or governmental heights individual Jews may have attained. Jewish life was dictated by the whim of the Moslem ruler of the country. Some were kinder and more tolerant than others but the general picture was one of bleakness, poverty, sporadic violence and constant degradation.

In spite of this, the Jews in the Arab lands developed their own rich culture of literature, music and philosophic thought. There arose great Torah scholars in every one of the countries under Moslem rule and in a constancy of every generation and age. Jews were poor and degraded and persecuted, but like the Ashkenazic Jewish world, Jewish life was full and rich and vibrant. Living and preserving their Jewish way of life and practice under such adverse conditions is a testimony to those Jewish communities of the Levant. Gilbert documents in this book that pogroms were not confined to Ashkenazic Christian Europe. They occurred regularly and fiercely in the Moslem countries as well though it must be noted that it was with less frequency and somewhat less total ferocity than those perpetrated by the Church and Christianity.

Nevertheless Gilbert’s book is filled with gruesome descriptions of the atrocities committed against Jews by the Moslems who were their neighbors and sometimes erstwhile “friends.” Jewish children were regularly kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam. This was especially true in the case of Jewish orphans. The same calumnies that were voiced against the Jews in Christian Europe – blood libels, poisoning the wells, invoking demons and evil spirits, disloyalty to the state, shady dealing, etc. – were also common currency at all times in the Moslem world.

The situation for Jews in Moslem societies always was precarious even under the most benevolent rulers. The reason for that was that even though the leader, Sultan, President, sheik, whoever, was relatively tolerant and benevolent, the society as a whole never was. Thus Moslem society resented and oftentimes rebelled against rulers who were deemed to be too kind to their Jewish subjects. It is much the same in today’s Moslem world where, for instance, the revelation of the concessions made in negotiations with Israel by Abbas and the Palestinian Authority leadership has sparked angry protests, denials and retractions because of the prevailing mood and deep seated hatred of Jews in the Palestinian society as a whole.

Gilbert’s book is full of such instances stretching over the long centuries of Moslem domination over Jews. The situation for Jews in the Moslem world seesawed violently in the twentieth century. The rise of secularism and Western education and values brought about a relaxation of enforced dhimmi status for Jews. Many Jews again rose to high governmental and social prominence in Moslem countries during the first part of the twentieth century.

Jews were prominently successful in the arts, politics, financial fields and industrial development of the Moslem countries where they resided. However the effects of World War I and the continuing immigration of Jews to then Palestine coupled with openly expressed Zionist aspirations for a Jewish state to be located in the heartland of the Moslem Middle East gave rise to a surging sense of Arab nationalism and a demand to be freed from colonial rule. The emerging Jewish society in Palestine was seen as a threat to this tide of Arab national aspirations. Thus the Moslem society reacted with violence against the Jews in Palestine as well as against the Jews living in their midst in countries outside of Palestine. All protestations by the political and religious Jewish leadership in North Africa and the rest of the Middle East that the Jews living in those

Moslem countries were not Zionists and were loyal to the interests of the countries where they resided. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew, no matter what. The rise of Naziism in Germany created the still continuing unholy alliance of innate Moslem religious bigotry with German genocidal anti-Jewish propaganda and persecution and this has marked the scene of JewishMoslem relations over the past eighty years. The Arabs overwhelmingly supported Nazi Germany in World War II and openly stated that they wanted the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem to be implemented in their countries as well, especially in Palestine. When Israel successfully repelled the armies of the Arab states that attempted to destroy it at its birth in 1947-1949 the anger, humiliation and frustration of the Arab masses was violently vented against the Jews of Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In a chilling description of the atrocities perpetrated against the Jews of those countries Gilbert details the full horror of those developments.

As he wryly notes there were 726,000 Arab refugees from Palestine after the War of Independence while there were 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands. The difference in the world’s treatment of these different groups of refugees is startling and disheartening. The Moslem Brotherhood, the Iranian Shiite mullahs, Al-Qaeda, the Saudi Arabian Wahabi monarchy and the other fundamentalist Moslem societies the world over are all committed to the subjugation if not the outright destruction of the Jewish people – not merely the State of Israel. The world did not believe what Hitler wrote in his book Mein Kampf and paid for it in a destructive war that consumed over twenty million lives including six million Jewish lives. Much of the West and its leadership has never read Gilbert’s book and therefore continues to live in its fantasy world about “true” Islam’s moderation and tolerance for others.

J Street, the Israeli Left and much of its academia also continue to live in their fantasy world of so-called ill-defined human rights and fruitless peace negotiations, unilateral concessions and the illusory Middle East rose garden. The roots of the problems facing Islamic countries are historically very deep, strong and very troubling. Before the West can hope to influence the Moslem masses and the Arab street it has to reorder its own views and accepted truths, most of which are based on historic misreadings and fallacies. Reading Sir Martin Gilbert’s book, In “Ishamel’s Tent,” can help start this necessary process of rethinking and reevaluating the very dangerous world that we find ourselves living in.   

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  • March 27, 2019

RABBI MEIR SHAPIRO

Rabbi Meir Shapiro

The daf hayomi learning cycle of studying one page of the Babylonian Talmud every day was inaugurated at the instigation of Rabbi Meir Shapiro in 1923 (Rosh Hashana, 5684.) This program of daily Talmud study has tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of participants, and has grown in popularity and strength over the past decades. It is a tribute to the greatness and genius of Rabbi Meir Shapiro. His idea of daily universal Jewish study of the Talmud has stood the test of time. But, it should not be that surprising to us, since Rabbi Meir Shapiro was an unusually gifted and prescient personality.

Rabbi Meir Shapiro was born in Shotz, Poland, on 7 Adar, 5647 (1887). He was descended from noted Chasidic luminaries (Rabbi Pinchas of Koritz was his great-great-grandfather) and his grandfather was the rabbi of Monastritz, Poland. Because of his unusual gifts of memory and understanding, the child Meir was already known for his genius. He was also a student of tremendous diligence. He had great intellectual curiosity, teaching himself astronomy and mathematics and soon developed into a great Torah scholar of note at a very young age. He studied with his grandfather in Monastritz for a number of years, When his grandfather died in 1903, he returned home to Shotz where his parents lived. There, in addition to his Talmudic studies he studied kabalah with the rabbi of the town, Rabbi Shalom Moscowitz (later a noted Chasidic rebbe in London, England). In spite of his young age, he achieved expertise in this area of Jewish knowledge as well. His charismatic personality also began to develop and he came to the notice of many of the great rabbis of Poland, such as Rabbi Yitzchak Shmelkes of Lemberg (Lvov) and Rabbi Shalom Schwadron of Berzhan. He was ordained as a rabbi at the age of eighteen by these two luminaries and he was extolled as well by the great Chasidic leader, Rabbi Yisrael of Vishnitz, and by Rabbi Aryeh Leib Horwitz of Stanislav and Rabbi Meir Arik. Thus, at a very young age his reputation for Torah greatness was already firmly established.

When he was nineteen, he married and moved to Tarnopol, one of the main Jewish centers in Galicia. His wife’s family was among the leaders of the Jewish community and Rabbi Meir soon became an educational force in the community. Rabbi Meir at that time also became a chassid of Rabbi Yisrael of Tchortokov. He remained a Tchortkover chassid all of his life. In Tarnopol, Rabbi Meir wrote a Torah commentary in a pilpulistic style, called Imrei Daas. Even though the book was a work of innovation and genius, it never gained distribution due to the fact that almost all of the printed copies, together with Rabbi Meir’s great private library, were destroyed in the First World War by Russian shellfire. The only remaining two copies were buried with Rabbi Meir Shapiro in his grave.

When Rabbi Meir was twenty-three years old he was appointed as the rabbi of Galina, a town near Lemberg. In Galina, with the encouragement and approval of the Tchortkover Rebbe, Rabbi Meir founded a school called “Bnei Torah” which included vocational training in its curriculum. He also created a yeshiva from which many Torah scholars were produced. His phenomenal fund-raising abilities began there in Galina where he established proper quarters for his educational projects and paid proper salaries to those who taught therein. There he also became interested in wider political activity and began to be active in the programs of Agudat Yisrael in Poland. .

During World War I, Galina, part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was damaged severely by the invading Russian forces. The Jewish community fled to Tarnopol and Lemberg and Rabbi Meir Shapiro did likewise. He never returned to Galina. After the war, Rabbi Meir became the rabbi of Sunik (Sanuk) and there he rebuilt his yeshiva “Bnei Torah” and helped restore the religious services of that community, which was also severely damaged by the wars that engulfed Poland from 1914 to 1921. In 1922, the rabbis and Chasidic leaders of Poland and Galicia gathered in Warsaw to discuss how to deal with the chaos in Jewish life caused by the ravages of the wars, and of the Bolshevik revolution and its aftermath.

Rabbi Meir Shapiro delivered an electrifying and challenging speech demanding that the rabbis now became activists in their communities and no longer merely passive scholars. His words had a dramatic effect on the gathering and propelled him into a leading role in Jewish public life in Poland. He was recommended by the rebbe of Gur to become the head of Agudat Yisrael in Poland and in 1923 he assumed that role. He was elected as a member of the Polish parliament and distinguished himself there with his political and diplomatic abilities. There were many open anti-Semitic members of parliament and he confronted them head on. When one of them remarked that there was a sign in a public park in Silesia that prohibited Jews and dogs from entering, Rabbi Shapiro retorted: “Well, I guess now that neither of us will enter that park.”

At the international convention of Agudat Yisrael in Vienna in August 1923, Rabbi Meir Shapiro proposed the idea of the daf hayomi – the study of one page of the Talmud daily and in unison by Jews throughout the world. His proposal was enthusiastically accepted at that convention. It is no exaggeration to say that this idea and learning program of the daf hayomi is his lasting legacy to the Jewish people. Rabbi Meir Shapiro had no children. His great yeshiva, Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, was desecrated and destroyed in the Holocaust and never regained prominence again after the war. However, the daf hayomi project continues to grow in popularity and acceptance. It is through the learning of the daf hayomi by tens of thousands of Jews daily that Rabbi Meir Shapiro gains immortality and eternity amongst the great leaders of Judaism.

Though the daf hayomi is still officially a project of Agudat Yisrael, it has crossed all political borders in the Jewish world and can truly be seen as a national project of Torah learning for all Jews no matter what their political affiliation may be. The ccycle of studying daf hayomi is by itself a testament to the greatness and creativity of its progenitor, Rabbi Meir Shapiro. The righteous, even after their death, are still deemed to be alive.

In 1924, Rabbi Shapiro became the rabbi of Pietrikov, a position of great prestige. He published one book of rabbinic responsa “Ohr Hameir ” but most of his brilliant writings never saw the light of publication. He threw himself into the establishment of a great yeshiva, which he envisioned would produce the religious leadership of Poland. He wanted to raise the prestige of the Torah student and the community rabbi in the eyes of the masses of Polish Jewry. This prestige had been sorely diminished by the ravages of the  Haskala (the “enlightened ones”), Socialism and Communism, as well by secular Zionism. He envisioned creating a magnificent institution, both physically imposing and spiritually inspiring, that would help stem the tide of assimilation and loss of Torah observance that was then affecting Polish Jewry. He traveled to America to raise funds for this great project.

His influence and impression on American Jewry was profound and inspiring and his visits were financially successful. A wealthy Jew in Lublin gave him a magnificent plot of land in that famous ancient city upon which to build the yeshiva building. He called his yeshiva “Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin” and after protracted delays and financial difficulties, the great and imposing building, containing among other treasures, a full-scale model of the Second Temple and a library of over thirty thousand volumes, was dedicated and opened in May, 1930. Over one hundred thousand Jews took part in the celebration of its opening. The students in the yeshiva were of the highest caliber, many of them were of genius quality and the yeshiva produced many great leaders in Israel until its tragic end at the hands of the Germans and Poles in World War II.

Rabbi Meir left Pietrikov and became the rabbi of Lublin, the home of his great yeshiva. However, the strain of maintaining the yeshiva financially took its toll on Rabbi Meir. He therefore consented to leave his beloved Lublin to become the rabbi in Lodz on the condition that the community in Lodz would assume much of the financial burden of supporting the yeshiva in Lublin. However, he never made it to Lodz. He had planned to spend Pesach of 1934 in the Land of Israel. Yet, in September 1933 he had a premonition of impending sickness and arranged for a life insurance policy on himself for $30,000 with the yeshiva as its beneficiary.

In October 1933 he fell ill with a viral type of pneumonia and on 7 Cheshvan, 5694 he died at the age of only forty-six. He was buried in Lublin but his remains were reburied twenty-five years later in Jerusalem on 26 Elul, 5718 at Har Hamenuchot. His passing would, in our perfect hindsight, mark the dreadful harbinger of the demise of Polish Jewry itself a few short years after. The Jewish world has not since seen his equal in the combination of Torah scholarship and greatness, Chasidic warmth, political astuteness, fund-raising talents and creative programming and initiative. The Jewish world was orphaned by his demise. His daf hayomi project lives on as a comfort to us.

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  • March 6, 2019

Endgame

Bobby Fisher in 1960

Bobby Fischer was perhaps the greatest chess champion of all time. He certainly was the greatest native born American chess champion. He was a genius at chess but a completely despicable and neurotic individual as a human being. His long time follower and himself a chess expert Frank Brady has written a fascinating biography about Bobby Fischer. The biography, titled “Endgame,” presents Bobby Fischer as he was with all of his neuroses, bigotry, hatefulness and unbelievable talent as a chess master. He was born to a Jewish mother and an uncertain father. The mother, a wild liberal Leftist advocate, raised him and she was a truly doting Jewish mother.

Brady is of the opinion that Bobby Fischer, raised in polyglot Brooklyn  had a traditional bar mitzvah commemoration. However Fischer’s attention to Judaism was very tenuous at best. His passion and religion was chess from childhood on. His school work and attendance was desultory at best because of his continuing concentration on chess. He played chess in the public parks with the older players who gathered there daily. He was a regular at The Manhattan Chess Club and there met many of the grandmasters of chess of the twentieth century. Most of them were Jewish. He was especially combative and competitive with Samuel Reshevsky, a world grand master who was an observant Orthodox Jew who I knew personally when I lived in Monsey, New York. Fischer’s genius was recognized by all and even as a teenager he was a feared opponent and a fierce competitor. He was sponsored for chess tournaments by the Manhattan Chess Club and soon came to international attention in the rarefied world of professional chess players. The chess world then in the middle of the twentieth century was dominated by Russian grand masters such as Boris Spassky and Gary Kasparov.

These Russian champions were Jewish but Fischer saw them as Russian and he hated Russians. He also hated Jews as I will discuss shortly. He claimed that the Russians ganged up on him, fixed games between themselves to deprive him of opportunities to win the world championship and were basically despicable people. Fischer suffered from serious paranoia and believed that he was entitled to deferential treatment that no other chess champion ever received or demanded. The ironic thing is that most of the time he had his way. His defeat of Spassky that gained him the world championship and made him a wealthy man sparked unprecedented interest in chess in the United States and throughout the world. But his temperament was so mercurial that no one knew how to deal with him.

He went into isolated seclusion for many years after winning his world championship. He joined a  cultist church organization and gave it millions of dollars only to become disillusioned and a bitter foe of it. His personal life was as disordered as his personality though he finally apparently did marry a companion of his. He eventually agreed to defend his title against Kasparov. The venue that was chosen was in Yugoslavia, at that time breaking up in a terrible atrocity filled civil war and under American sanctions not to visit there. Fischer ignored the warnings, defeated Kasparov in Yugoslavia and became an outlaw to the American government. He eventually moved to Iceland where he gained political asylum and died and was buried there – no longer a hero to Americans and even to the professional chess world. His foul and erratic personal behavior and terrible rantings and ravings about Jews, Russians, and the United States had finally caught up with him.

Even genius in one field of human endeavor – in this case chess – does not provide immunity for evil behavior and despicable attitudes. Bobby Fischer was a vicious anti-Semite. Brady is hard pressed to find any reason or turning point in Fischer’s life that made him so. Every scurrilous libel about Jews and Judaism was believed by Fischer and spread by him. As such he falls into the category of the many Jewish self-haters that history has spawned. In fact he became the poster boy of the neo-Nazi groups throughout the world. But as is usually the case in such circumstances he was himself the greatest victim of his own unreasoning hatred of Jews. His rabid anti-Semitism more than anything else robbed him of the approbation and respect that his chess genius should have earned for him.

Brady’s biography is fascinating and a great read. One need know nothing about chess to reap its benefits and insights. It records another example of genius gone wrong and talent befouled by hatred, bigotry, avarice and hubris. In that regard it serves as another type of medieval morality play for all of us.  

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  • February 14, 2019

The New York Giants and Tefillin

This is an “only in America” type of story. On January 11, 2009 the New York Giants professional football team played the Philadelphia Eagles in a divisional championship playoff game at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. Since all New Yorkers are convinced that they own New Jersey as well there is no problem that the New York Giants play their home games in Rutherford, New Jersey. The New York Times in order to mark the occasion of the playing of this momentous game published a feature column entitled: “A Prayer Ritual Shared in Religion and Football” in its January 10, 2009 issue of the newspaper. The thrust of the article refers to a Jewish family in Brooklyn that operates a niche clothing store. The owners of the company have a religion – the New York Giants. Its fortunes occupy the center point of their lives and when the Giants have a bad season the factory owners are depressed for the whole year.  So, in the fall of 2007 when the Giants were losing badly and regularly, Jay Greenfield, one of the owners of the clothing company, “was a desperate man. His team had gone 1-3 in the preseason. The Giants lost their two regular season games and confidence sagged in their quarterback, Eli Manning.” There was a customer of the company who was a Lubavitcher chassid who visited the store regularly to buy material for his own clothing store located in another section of Brooklyn. But he would prove to be an apparent savior to the Greenfields and indirectly to the Giants.

The article continues: “It was around this time that the rabbi, (every chassid is a rabbi to the New York Times, BW) who acknowledges not watching television, let alone Giants games, visited. With Yom Kippur approaching, [he] was trying to encourage Mr. Greenfield to do the Tefillin prayer – which includes strapping a pair of black leather boxes containing biblical verses around the head and on the arm, hand and fingers and reciting a prayer declaring loyalty to God and a request for blessing. The rabbi told Mr. Greenfield that the ritual would help make it a good new year.” Greenfield then told the rabbi, “You’re talking about a good new year, but if we lose against the Redskins this Sunday, my year is over.” The article continues: “It was then that Mr. Greenfield, who follows strict game day rituals including wearing the same jeans, undershirt and jersey, got an idea. None of his rituals seemed to be working and here was this persistent rabbi telling him that simply saying the Tefillin prayer might be just the thing needed to help Mr. Greenfield get what he wanted for his team. ‘I was at a weak moment, so I considered it,’ Mr. Greenfield said. I told the rabbi, ‘I’m not greedy – I just want to make the playoffs.’ He said, ‘What’s the playoffs?’ I said, ‘You need to know that now.’” The rabbi finally said: “I told him, ‘We know prayer goes a long way, and I can see this Giants thing means a lot, so let’s go for the prayer.” Mr. Greenfield did and saw immediate results. The Giants beat the Redskins the following Sunday.

 “The Giants kept winning in 2007 and Mr.  Greenfield kept praying. Soon, his brother Todd, was also praying. So were many of their friends and relatives who attended the home games – and many games on the road. The Tefillin prayers became rituals at the tailgating gatherings before games at the Meadowlands and when some of the fans traveled to games on the road, the rabbi would contact Chabad rabbis in those cities to help Mr. Greenfield’s group with pregame prayers. The giants went on to qualify for the playoffs and began their playoff run. Mr. Greenfield said he saw divine intervention during the playoffs in a dropped pass by a receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, which changed the tide of the game and allowed the Giants to go on to victory. ‘When that happened, about 50 people jumped up and said ‘Thank you, rabbi. We really thought that God was on our side.’ The Giants went on to win the Super Bowl, but even that did not get Mr. Greenfield to start attending synagogue or reading the Torah regularly – although he did agree to pray with the rabbi in the off season. The pregame Tefillin prayers have gained momentum…putting on Tefillin in the Meadowlands parking lot drew stares and comments, but as the Giants continued to win, other fans – even some non-Jewish rooters–began doing it too. ‘He thought he was converting me,’ Mr. Greenfield said of the rabbi, ‘but I got a sector of his community interested in the Giants.’ [The rabbi said] ‘[T]his means a lot to Jay and each one should pray according to what he needs. I may hear the score, but I still really couldn’t tell you if the Jets were playing the Mets. I don’t know the difference. But if it makes him happy, only good things will come out of it.’”

Well, my friends, the Tefillin notwithstanding, the Giants lost their January 11 playoff game in a badly played   effort   by   them.  The great theological question of testing God by apparently performing His will is raised in this otherwise tongue in cheek article. I am reminded of an incident that happened in my youth. A neighbor of ours was running for alderman in the Democratic primary election which was to be held during the intermediate days of Pesach. In order to attract the mainly Orthodox Jewish vote in the area he demonstrably showed and advertised his purchase of matzot for the holiday. To his chagrin, he lost the election by a wide margin. He then publicly threw out the remaining matzot from his second-floor window shouting for all to hear: “The devil take these stupid crackers!” Tying the fate of Tefillin to that of the New York Giants or vice versa is to me the wrong way to deal serious matters of belief, tradition and human behavior. The Giants will probably have losing seasons in the future. Will Mr. Greenfield continue with his Tefillin ritual?  Making Tefillin a good luck talisman is unjustifiable in Jewish thought and belief. God does not accept bribes from us. It is important that Mr. Greenfield, and all other male Jews, place Tefillin on their heads and arms every weekday. But are all means legitimate in the pursuit of having Jews observe this most important ritual? This is a question that is being sorely debated regarding other forms of outreach in the Orthodox Jewish world today. I enjoyed reading the article about the Giants, but it left me vaguely disturbed as well.

There are many religious players that play in the National Football League on all its teams.  There are regular prayer meetings for the players. One of the teams, in spite   of its prayers, is destined to lose the game. Abraham Lincoln in one of his famous addresses during the American Civil War made note of the fact that both sides prayed to the same God for the destruction of the other. He felt that to be sad and ironic but nevertheless somehow valid. It is somewhat demeaning and sacrilegious to think of the Lord as merely a Giants fan. Prayers unanswered are part of human life. The Lord has His own plans and agendas. Our thoughts are not necessarily his thoughts. Judaism avoids superstitions and good luck charms. The performance of commandments is not to be viewed as a good luck charm. Relegating Tefillin to such a status distorts their true purpose and meaning.

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  • January 30, 2019

Chanukah

The wonderfully joyous holiday of Chanuka occurs this month. In light of the horrific events of the past few months, the message and lights of Chanuka could not come at a more appropriate and necessary time. For Chanuka, in its essence, represents the ability to withstand oppression and evil, coercion and bigotry, and to believe in the improbable miracles that have always marked Jewish history and advanced the cause of all human civilization. The story of Chanuka is made up of two radically different components. One is the war, the battles of the Hasmoneans, the blood spilled and the casualties sustained, the human sacrifice and tragedy that always accompanies the struggle for Jewish survival and a better world for all humankind. The other is the miraculous, supernatural event of the small pitcher of oil that supplied oil for eight days while physically holding oil only for one night. Chanuka is thus the culmination of man and God in the joint effort to improve our world and society. There is no message that could be more fitting for us this Chanuka season than this one. (more…)

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  • December 3, 2018

Yiddish

Yiddish theater

In the early thirteenth century Ashkenazic Jews living in Germany, Austria, Bohemia and other Germanic lands began to speak a dialect of low German that soon turned itself into a jargon of German and Hebrew with some old French and Slavic words also thrown into the mix.     In earlier centuries during the lifetime of Rashi (Rabbi Isaac Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, Troyes, France) the Ashkenazic Jews of France spoke the vernacular tongue of the area – old French. The small Jewish community in England then spoke Chaucerian English interspersed with old French as well. Since the time of the Norman conquest of England much old French had already seeped into the English of the time. However, after the expulsion of the Jews from both England and France in the thirteenth century the Ashkenazim trekked eastward into Germany, Central Europe, Lithuania and Poland and eventually Russia. There they fully developed their own unique language, which soon became known as Yiddish – literally, Jewish. Based on German, Yiddish absorbed within its vocabulary many Hebrew words, biblical, midrashic and Talmudic phrases, Slavic and Polish words and a semi-sing-song intonation reminiscent of Jewish prayer and study melody. As a living language it constantly developed and expanded over the centuries.

Even though there were strong differences in dialect and pronunciation between Ashkenazic Jews living in these different countries, Yiddish became the universal language of Ashkenazic Jewry wherever these Jews were living or travelling. It achieved its own status as being “mamaloshen” – the beloved mother tongue of Ashkenazic Jewry. Yiddish also developed colloquialisms, sayings and wry comments on life and   people   – all almost untranslatable into any other language – that became its identifying hallmark. It is a language of nuance more than vocabulary. As a folk language possessing few rules of grammar and syntax Yiddish has an earthiness, sometimes even a touch of vulgarity to it, a true reflection of everyday Jewish life. There is also a certain melancholy in its phrases but paradoxically it contains much wry humor and bemused comments about human foibles and life generally. And its sayings and metaphors many times also remained as the only safe way to mock and ridicule the oppressors and enemies of the Jews and the difficulties of Jews living under foreign and hostile rule. (more…)

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European Jewish History
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Rabbi Berel Wein
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  • October 22, 2018