Four Stories: Talking Smack in Story Form

There’s a story behind every story

1st Story

While studying Talmud at morning seder (studytime) in Yeshivas Ner Yaakov in Jerusalem, my havruta (study partner) Yossi Bennett and I got stuck on a word. As we were wont to, we turned to Jastrow’s Talmudic dictionary for assistance. While I flipped through the pages searching for the term, my chavruta nonchalantly pointed out that Jastrow was a kofer (heretic). We both mused about the peculiarity that such an amazing tool could emanate from a heretic. “Nonetheless,” I stated, “this dictionary is still holy as it assists Yeshiva buchrim (students) in their studies, and includes much of our Torah shebe-al peh (Oral Law) in it.” He responded: “Rabbi Adler (our maggid shiur – teacher) told me that the dictionary is not holy and can be thrown on the ground.”

(fun fact: Orthodox Jews go out of their way to make sure that:

  1. no holy book ever falls to the ground
  2. no holy book is ever face-down on a table
  3. no secular book is ever placed upon a holy book
  4. no one ever sits on a table in which a holy book lies)

I found his statement very hard to swallow, so I responded: “OK, so throw it on the ground if you think it’s treif (not kosher),” knowing full well that Yossi would find the prospect uncomfortable. Looking towards Rabbi Adler for tacit approval – and gaining it with a nod – Yossi chucked the dictionary half way across the Bes medrash (study hall) and left it on the floor for the remaining hours of morning seder. Thank God, I had already found in the dictionary the word I was looking for.

2nd Story

I attended a Hareidi Yeshiva in Israel where Rav Elazar Shach was glorified as the greatest thing for Judaism since the Ten Commandments. But, he made one mistake. We were told many times that Rav Shach’s son went off the derech (became irreligious). Of course this was a hard fact to accept about such a gadol (great man). But, luckily, Rav Shach also provided the exact reason why this happened, so that we can easily avoid making such a grave mistake ourselves. At his Shabbos table, Rav Shach always had a book open and learned from it instead of singing zemiros (Shabbos songs) with his family. Had he taken the time out to sing at the Shabbos table with his son, then he could have been a Hareidi Rosh Yeshiva like his father. I found almost this exact story at http://menachemmendel.net/blog/?p=3913 . Whenever we were not fervent enough in singing Shabbos zemiros or nigunim (tunes) at Yeshiva, we would be reminded of R. Shach’s one great mistake.

3rd Story

While studying at the Yeshiva of Miami – Talmudic University – in Miami Beach, I also taught math at the Mechina (the Yeshiva’s High School). Often, between classes, I would engage in discussions with some of the student body. One such student happened to start making JB jokes. At first, I don’t think I knew what they meant. I had thought JB was the acronym for Jim Beam. And it is. But, when Yeshivish students use the phrase JB, they more often than not are referring to Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik – the late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University – in a derogatory way. Once I realized the pupil was talking about Rabbi Soloveitchik in such a negative fashion, I confronted him and explained why it is was inappropriate. After receiving a less than gracious reply, I eventually reported the student to the principal. However, it was the principal, ironically, from who the student first heard this nickname. Apparently, that was the normal way for Rabbi Soloveitchik to be referred to in that High School. I imagine the punishment fit the crime.

4th Story

I’ve heard the following story told by my wife’s family (she is Rabbi Ruderman’s great grand-daughter) as well as by many others. It has recently appeared in a Mishpacha magazine article (with an excerpt and picture above) commemorating the 25th Yartzeit of the late Ner Yisroel Rosh Yeshiva and founder, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak Ruderman. He had studied at the Slobadka Yeshiva under the Alter of Slabodka (Rabbi Finkel).  Rabbi Finkel was worried that Rabbi Ruderman’s roommate would have a bad influence on him, so he invited Rabbi Ruderman to live with him in his own home. Somehow, everyone knows that the Yeshiva buchur that was going to negatively impact Rabbi Ruderman in some immeasurable way was none other than Professor Saul Lieberman. No one bothers mentioning, however, if the vacancy left by R. Ruderman’s abrupt exit was ever filled.

1st Story revisited

Rabbi Marcus Jastrow (1829-1903) is most famous for having written A Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Babli, Talmud Yerushalmi and Midrashim Literature. He received his ordination from Rabbi Feilchenfeld and then also from Rabbi Landau. Additionally, he received his PhD from Halle and also was awarded an honorary one from Penn. He served in Germany, Poland and America as an Orthodox Rabbi. There are certain areas that he encountered controversy. For example, at certain times in his life, he had connections to the Reform Union of America, Jewish Publication Society (JPS) and the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). He spoke Polish from the pulpit in Poland, when it was uncommon for a rabbi to speak the vernacular from the pulpit. Also, the fact that he engaged in scholarly Talmud in and of itself is viewed pejoratively by the hareidi universe. Nonetheless, he was undoubtedly “Orthodox” throughout his life, and the idea that he could be or was ever a heretic is absolutely hogwash.

2nd Story revisited

This past year, Rav Shach’s only son Dr. Ephraim Shach (1929-2011) passed away. In his youth, he studied at the Hevron Yeshiva and then joined the Irgun. Eventually, he left the hareidi community and aligned himself with the Religious Zionist camp and even worked for the IDF. He studied at Yeshiva University and the U of Ottawa. For many years, he served as a supervisor for the Israel Ministry of Education in several municipalities. Dr. Shach was nothing but an Orthodox Jew until his last days.

3rd Story revisited

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) was the scion of the Brisker dynasty. He earned his PhD from Berlin and then settled in America. Arguably, he was the most important American Rabbi ever, and definitely the most important Modern Orthodox one. He was a paradigm for Yeshiva University’s Torah and Madda model.

4th Story revisited

The Gra”sh, Professor Saul Lieberman (1898-1983), taught at JTS for over forty years. His knowledge of Greek used throughout the Palestinian Talmud and Midrashim is unparalleled. His work on the Tosefta – Tosefta Kepshuta – is still the definitive work on the topic today. He was a self identified Orthodox Jew throughout his life, and even Rabbi Hutner of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn offered Lieberman a position at the Yeshiva.

All four of these distinguished individuals were Orthodox Jews. Yet, they were maligned for the simple reason that they did not fall into a normal hareidi rubric. Indeed, they all enjoyed specializations in areas frowned upon by the hareidi public at large. These stories (that I heard or experienced) do not exist in a vacuum. They all highlight the  “other.”

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1 Comment

Filed under Rationalism, Uncategorized

One response to “Four Stories: Talking Smack in Story Form

  1. Joe

    Excellent post Russ

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