If you are an English-speaking person of some erudition, you may be familiar with the following lines about the Jews, which were penned by one of America’s greatest writers: “The Egyptian, the Babylonian and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed and made a vast noise and they are gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out and they sit in twilight now or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?” At first glance, the question of Jewish immortality seems unanswerable—but only at first glance. Jewish continuity and fortitude are not, in fact, so puzzling to someone who has a genuine appreciation for Torah scholarship and scholars. Last week, I traveled to Eretz Yisrael to visit my venerated Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Dovid Soloveitchik, shlita, where I learned this lesson.
Off to Eretz Yisrael
My trip to Eretz Yisrael came about in the most curious of ways. The Rosh Yeshivah had come to menachem avel me a few short weeks before in Yerushalayim, following the kevurah [burial] of my father, z”l. As a matter of fact, the Rosh Yeshivah had even engaged me during that visit in a brief conversation. At the time, Rav Dovid asked what I was preoccupied with, and to some extent I let his query about my occupation go unanswered. It was a bit awkward, in that setting, to explain my journalistic endeavors to my Rosh Yeshivah. Therefore, when my son-in-law, Reb Shmuel Abba Glick, relayed to me before Purim that the Rosh Yeshivah had summoned him to his home and asked him to convey his request that I publicize his perspective on the drafting of yeshivah boys into the Israeli army, I was caught by surprise—and also beset by apprehension. I simply did not feel adequate to shoulder this monumental responsibility. The thought of being an agent of a gadol b’Yisrael whom I revere immensely is without doubt an angst-provoking one. However, these are extraordinary times. Ever since February 2012—when the 10-year-old Tal Law allowing full-time yeshivah students to defer army or national service was declared “unconstitutional” by Israel’s High Court of Justice—each person has had to do his part in confronting those forces that seek to undermine the future of Torah study and scholarship.
This is especially true after the recent elections in Israel and the strong showing of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, whose mandate is to induct yeshivah students into the military. In fact, arrest warrants were recently issued for chareidi students who failed to comply with IDF draft notices. The warrants are being viewed in Israel as the first tangible consequences for chareidi teens refusing to comply with the new draft directive. Some yeshivah students have honored draft notices and reported to induction centers while countless others have refused, many stating that they would rather go to jail than serve in the military. Rumors are circulating throughout the chareidi community that mass arrests will be forthcoming after Pesach. But as many observers of Israeli society have noted, the battle over the draft is really a proxy for the more fundamental fight over the Israeli identity itself, an internal schism that some believe threatens Israel’s future as a state. Chareidim currently make up about nine percent of the population, but because of their disproportionately high birthrate, demographers recently estimated that by 2030 the chareidi community will make up close to a quarter of the Israeli population. Resentment, and even demonization of chareidim is therefore intense and on the increase. Menachem Friedman, professor emeritus of sociology at Bar Ilan University,recently declared to reporters, “That in the Jewish State, for people to consider the ultra-Orthodox as ‘the enemy’ is a tragic thing.
” He described the current situation where “most of the people hate the chareidim” as “bizarre,” “abnormal” and “unprecedented in Jewish history.” Some people may take issue with his statement that the current situation is unprecedented. I recently saw in Israel an exhibition on King Herod, the ostensibly Jewish ruler under Roman occupation two millennia ago. While the museum retrospective made no mention of it, Herod was a tyrant who did not induct Torah scholars into his army but rather persecuted and murdered them. Although hatred aimed at religious Jews has existed for millennia, it cannot be denied that the current increased animus towards the chareidi community is tragic and should be of great concern to anyone with an understanding of Jewish history and destiny. The relentless campaign by secular Israelis, and some misguided people in the religious community, to reform the chareidi population has the potential for dire consequences. One of the most outspoken gedolim against the perilous drive to reform Yiddishkeit has been the esteemed Rosh Yeshivah of Brisk. He has brought this matter to the attention of the Jewish world as few have. The question for me thus wasn’t whether it was important to help spread the Rosh Yeshivah’s vital message, but solely whether I was fit to do so. Consequently, I kept on delaying my visit. That is, until I could no longer ignore my Rosh Yeshivah’s plea.
On Rechov Amos
Time seems to have stood still in this humble apartment on Rechov Amos, in the heart of the Geulah section of Jerusalem. The same faded pictures of the Rosh Yeshivah’s illustrious forebears that were haphazardly displayed on top of his time-worn bookcases when I attended his yeshivah decades ago still grace his dining room walls. Those haunting images of the Brisker Rav, Rav Chaim, the Beis Halevi, never fail to work their magic on a visitor, their strong gazes confirming the singular dynasty and mesorah of Brisk. In the Rosh Yeshivah’s abode one feels swept up by that unique stream of history, uniting the ancient and the contemporary. Rav Dovid greets me warmly when I enter and asks me to be seated. Few people are familiar with the Rosh Yeshivah’s warmth and sense of humor. Whenever he chides a talmid, he does so with a quip and a kindhearted chuckle. Neither his wit nor his piercing eyes have lost any of their vigor. He smiles and chuckles often during our conversation. I inform Rav Dovid that my son-in-law, who has accompanied me to his house, has relayed the Rosh Yeshivah’s request to help him spread his message. He confirms that he wants me to assist the yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael in fighting the decree to draft their talmidim. Rav Dovid inquires about my publication and asks how often it comes out.
When I tell him that Ami is a weekly, he shares with me how impressed he is. “A gutteh zach falt nisht in kesheneh,” he tells me, meaning that one needs to toil for a good thing. “Es is ah shreklicher matzav—The situation is terrible now,” he continues. “They want to draft all the bachurim. Simply put, they want to close the yeshivos. “The Israeli government has no fear of Eretz Yisraeldige Yidden, but they don’t want the world to know that they are the persecutors of religion, just like the Communists were. When the Communists were in power in Russia, it was important to tell the world how bad they were. You have a publication, so it is important that you write about this and tell the world. It can have great hashpa’ah [influence].” Thus he has succinctly explained why he has summoned me here. When Rav Dovid tells me that Ami’s writing about this pressing matter can have great influence I accept his words not merely as a plea, but also as an assurance, as a blessing. “I am a shaliach of the Rosh Yeshivah,” I respond. “Good. But shlucho shel adam k’moso [a person’s messenger stands in his stead]. Make sure you convey it as I express it, mitten gantzen bren [with the same fire and intensity].” This may be an impossible mission. How can one possibly emulate the Rosh Yeshivah’s fire, his gutwrenching yiras shamayim? But I try to assure him that I will do his bidding nonetheless. “I learned by the Rosh Yeshivah for a single year, but the warmth remains with me till today. The Rosh Yeshivah once told me that I absorbed quite a lot in that one year,” I say with a smile, not to promote myself but to assure him that I understand the urgency of the matter and will try to do all I can.
Many American Jews, even yeshivaleit, don’t fully appreciate the culture war that is being waged in Israel by the secular population against their religious counterparts. This war has been ongoing since the establishment of Israel, but it has recently intensified greatly due to the exponential growth of the frum community. “You must relate it with the full bren!” he repeats. “They want to close down the yeshivos! Lo yishama k’zos! Lo yishama k’zos! [Such a thing is inconceivable.] You can have a great impact if you publicize this to the world.” “When we write things,” I attempt to reassure him, “many people take notice. Our publication is distributed all over the world. I already have the Rosh Yeshivah’s varemkeit,” I state. “Now I need the words to convey the message. “Reb Moshe Sheinfeld,” I continue, “was the shofar [mouthpiece] of the Chazon Ish. Whenever the Chazon Ish felt a need to relate something to the world at large, he summoned Reb Moshe Sheinfeld. I am ready to do that for the Rosh Yeshivah.” “My words have already been printed a few times. I can show you a letter I wrote.” “There are two distinct publics we are addressing,” I say. “Acheinu Bnei Yisrael, and the outside world.
Accordingly, we need not one nusach but two; one for the frum world and one for the world at large. What should the message be to the outside world?” Rav Dovid thinks for a moment and then tells me the following:“Yidden became a nation through mattan Torah. The hemshech, the continuation of mattan Torah, is transmitted through the yeshivos, through limmud haTorah. “The Rambam elucidates further: Avraham Avinu had a yeshivah. Yaakov Avinu had a yeshivah. Yeshivos are the yesod [foundation] of the Jewish nation. “There have been dozens of nations that arose throughout the centuries and no remembrance of them exists anymore. The other nations all disappeared. Why? Because all they had was land. All they had was a country. Why are the Yidden still around? Only because Yidden have more than just land; we have the Torah and yeshivos and that’s why we are still around. That’s the perpetuation of Klal Yisrael. That is the entire yesod of our nation. “They want to take away the whole foundation of the Jewish nation, not just the Torah. Bachurim must sit and learn from their early years on with no distraction. That is the yesod of our nation!” If one can say that brevity is the soul and essence of Brisk, then through his few chosen words about the quintessence of the Jewish nation, Rav Dovid has revealed to me his own soul. “What about people who say that yeshivah bachurim can learn Torah and also serve in the army?” I ask. “What can we say to them?” “Torah can have no hesech hadaas [interruption of focus and concentration],” is the Rosh Yeshivah’s response. “Torah requires exclusivity.
If someone wants to learn Torah, he cannot have anything else with it. He must be moser himself to Torah, give himself over to Torah completely. This is stated clearly by the Rambam in Hilchos Talmud Torah.” Rav Dovid gets up to retrieve a sefer and reads the Rambam’s words to me in Hilchos Talmud Torah, Chapter 3, halachah 6: “‘A person whose heart inspires him to fulfill this mitzvah in a fitting manner and to become crowned with the crown of Torah should not divert his attention to other matters. He should not set his intent on acquiring Torah together with wealth and honor simultaneously.’ “Torah can have no hesech hadaas,” he repeats. “If a bachur wants to grow in Torah and be in the army, he will not succeed at all. A bachur must commit his whole life solely to Torah!” There is nothing unclear about the wisdom of this statement. How can one not comprehend that by requiring yeshivah bachurim to serve in the military, the yeshivah world as we know it will cease to exist? I am overtaken by a feeling of deference to the purity and precision of his thoughts.
“If the Israeli government enforces a draft decree,” I ask, “what should the bachurim do? Is it a shaas hashmad [historical era of repression of Torah]?” “It is a shaas hashmad,” he answers in the affirmative. “Is it yeihareig v’al yaavor [a mitzvah for which one must be willing to give up one’s life rather than transgress]?” my son-in law asks.“I don’t know. I don’t pasken she’eilos. But it is a shaas hashmad.” “The experts say that the last election revolved around this issue,” I offer. “Does the Rosh Yeshivah believe that their intention is akiras hadaas [to uproot religion]? “Of course! One hundred percent!” the Rosh Yeshivah says. “I remember when I was in yeshivah, the Rosh Yeshivah always said we shouldn’t take any money from them because they would try to interfere with the yeshivah’s affairs. We didn’t take money but they still mixed in,” I say with a chuckle. Rav Dovid laughs but remains solemn. “Will you be writing this up yourself?” he asks me unexpectedly. “The Rosh Yeshivah has designated me to be his shaliach. ‘Ein shaliach oseh shaliach’ [an emissary cannot appoint another person to fulfill his mission]. I will write up the Rosh Yeshivah’s words myself. Can the Rosh Yeshivah give me a brachah?” I ask. “Zeit matzliach [You should be successful]!” he wishes me. “It is a great zechus to be the Rosh Yeshivah’s shaliach,” I say getting up, “and I hope with Hashem’s help to fulfill the shlichus.” I am uplifted beyond words, not so much by the mission with which I have been entrusted but by its brevity. Rav Dovid has managed to sum up an entire mesorah, our complete weltanschauung, in a few words.
I leave the Rosh Yeshivah’s home on Rechov Amos pondering the following Talmudic passage: “Rabbi Simlai said: ‘Six hundred thirteen mitzvos were given to Moshe. Then David came and condensed them to 11. Then came Yeshayahu, and condensed them to six. Then came Michah, and condensed them to three. Then Yeshayahu came again, and condensed them to two. Then came Amos, and condensed them to one” (Makkos 23b-24a).The Plea However, being uplifted and apprehensive are not mutually exclusive. I vacillate as to the approach I should take in conveying the Rosh Yeshivah’s profound message. Should I be as succinct as he was, or should I expound upon his words? Indeed, I wonder if the world can ever understand the Torah’s central role in the amazing continuity of Judaism. The overwhelming majority of Jews in America have disappeared through assimilation and have been consigned to the deleted files of history, and I am not entirely sure the world can truly appreciate the secret to the immortality of the Torah-true minority. And what about the Rambam’s concept that there cannot be hesech hadaas when it comes to Torah, as he states so poetically and concisely at the end of Hilchos Teshuvah: “It is a wellknown and clear matter that love of G-d will not become fixed in a person’s heart until he becomes obsessed with it at all times as is fitting, leaving all things in the world except for this.
This is implied in the command [Devarim 6:5]: ‘Love G-d, your L-rd, with all your heart and all your soul…’ Therefore, it is necessary for a person to seclude himself in order to understand and conceive the wisdom and concepts that make his Creator known to him according to the potential man possesses to understand and comprehend, as we explained in Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah.” There is without a doubt a fire burning in the Holy Land. Not a holy blaze, but one that seeks to extinguish the holy conflagration, the spiritual fire that makes Eretz Yisrael so unique. In recent decades, Israel has become a center of Torah erudition that the world hasn’t seen for centuries. That erudition, which stems from a singular dedication to Torah study rather than military might, is the secret of Jewish immortality. Nevertheless, some would like to completely do away with the former and substitute it with the latter,thus putting the future of Klal Yisrael in harm’s way. The inevitable result of this reformation would be that the Jew, like the Egyptian, Babylonian and Persian, would also exhibit signs of decadence, infirmities of age, weakening of his parts, slowing of his energies, and the dulling of his once alert and aggressive mind. And it goes without saying that he would progressively abandon his religious values. Accordingly, this is not a time for contemplation, and certainly not for hesitation, but for action. There are but two paths before us: one of life, and one that seeks to alter it. The Rosh Yeshivah of Brisk has reached out to Klal Yisrael to unite in the defense of life. Are we ready to heed his plea?