You certainly must have noticed that over the past month, I have been writing about the Reform movement every week. It all began when the government decided to assign them a designated area for prayer near the Kosel. The storm didn’t erupt all at once, perhaps because we were in shock, or because we didn’t know whether we should react and what we should do. Should we get up and announce a coalition crisis? Is this a good reason to bring down the government? I wrote previously about the quandary facing our representatives, which is a question that only a gadol can and should resolve: Should we give in to a compromise or should we wage an all-out war against the decision when we may lose everything as a result?
Last week, I noted that the furor over the Kosel hadn’t yet abated, and as it turned out, that assessment was more accurate than even I realized. I never dreamed just how intense a controversy was in store for us, and the person who bears the most responsibility for it is none other than Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu.
Why Netanyahu? Because last Monday, Netanyahu gathered together the leaders of the Reform movement from North America, together with the Reform leaders of Eretz Yisroel, to proclaim their victory with the designation of a new place of gathering for adjacent to the Kosel Hamaarovi. This highly provocative step was another slap in the face to the chareidi community of Eretz Yisroel and their elected representatives.
The chareidi media went wild, proclaiming, “A fierce protest has erupted in the Jewish world in the wake of the prime minister’s meeting with Reform Jews. The leaders of the government are bending their knees to the Golden Calf of the Reform, which threatens to destroy the nation of Israel.”
But the prime minister seemed nonplussed. He undoubtedly realized that there were only two possibilities – either the chareidim would leave the government or they wouldn’t – and the latter option was chosen.
There is something new about Netanyahu in this term: his willingness to take chances. He has displayed this in Europe, with Obama, with Yvet Lieberman, with his colleagues in the Likud, and with the chareidim as well. In the past, Netanyahu was always easily pressured and seemed to be frightened of his own shadow. Today, he has gained confidence. He knows that there is no other candidate for his position who truly threatens him. That is all very nice, but it is also very bad, especially when it leads to ingratitude.
The Moetzes Announces Its Decision
The uproar gained greater momentum at the end of this past week. There was a special Reform gathering at the Knesset to demonstrate their presence and power. They did not conceal their ebullience. The following day, they came to the designated area at the Kosel, men and women together, for a festive event in which an open Sefer Torah was used. The pictures of the event were particularly disturbing.
At the same time, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisroel and the Moetzet Chachmei HaTorah of Shas convened separately for conferences.
Following the conference of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, the secretary of the council, Rav Mordechai Stern, penned a particularly harsh letter to the Knesset members of Agudas Yisroel on behalf of the members of the Moetzes. The letter declared, “Our rabbeim, the members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, have asked me to inform you that, in their opinion, it is forbidden to cooperate with this government. Consequently, you must make your collaboration with the government contingent on the passage of a law stipulating that the status quo regarding religion and the state, which exists now and has been accepted for decades in Israel, and by which all matters of religion and Judaism are dictated by the Orthodox and not by the Reform, be maintained as it is.”
The Moetzet Chachmei HaTorah of Shas, for its part, issued a statement that “the destroyers of religion of the pernicious Reform and Conservative movements and their ilk shall not be permitted to trespass this holy place.”
The rabbonim began their letter with a protest against the Reform movement: “We heard and were appalled that the destroyers of religion wish to make breaches in the bulwarks of Judaism, and to sink their claws into the plaza of the Kosel Hamaarovi and the mikvaos of purity with their specious ceremonies. Their entire objective is to weaken the power of the Torah, while their mouths speak deceptive words and they call out in the Name of Hashem. But about such things it is said, ‘Who asked this of you, to trample My courtyards?’ …We gave instructions for everything possible to be done and every possible influence to be used in absolute opposition to these things, both regarding the mikvaos and regarding the Kosel Hamaarovi.” In addition to warning that the Conservative and Reform movements not be allowed to “trespass” at the site of the Bais Hamikdosh, the rabbonim added that they should receive no official recognition whatsoever.
In the coming days, we will see exactly what was meant by this and what it will bring about. Was this an order for the chareidi parties to resign from the government? It does not appear that way, and Netanyahu therefore has nothing to fear. We will also have to see what the rabbonim meant when they called for a law that would preserve the status quo. Is that the status quo after the area was designated for Reform prayer or before? And does it apply to the Kosel at all or only to the subject of Reform conversion?
Backing Rav Rabinovich
Rav Shmuel Rabinovich, the rov of the Kosel and other holy sites, has been caught up in the middle of this affair, much to his misfortune. On one hand, he is fighting with all his might to preserve the sanctity of the Kosel. He is challenged every day, and he succeeds constantly in preventing the honor and kedushah of the site from being compromised. Although he is admired by the chiloni leadership, he does not allow a single provision of the halachah to be violated. At the same time, he is now the target of countless attacks from the religious end of the spectrum, since it seems that the chareidi representatives relied on his opinion that it is preferable to accept a compromise rather than waging an all-out war against the efforts.
Who made that decision for him? It was the man who is behind every decision regarding the Kosel: Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, the rov of the Jewish Quarter, who is a first-class authority in halachah and whose views are respected by all the gedolei Yisroel. Just last week, Rav Nebenzahl completed shivah for his wife, Rebbetzin Shifra a”h, sister of Rav Aryeh Finkel of Yeshivas Mir Brachfeld. I mentioned the rebbetzin’s passing in this column last week.
At the end of the week, Rav Nebenzahl took the highly unusual step of writing a letter of support for Rav Rabinovich, stating about him, “I attest that over the years, he has done sacred work, with wisdom and insight, in opposition to those who seek to uproot religion and desecrate it, with great responsibility and in consultation with the gedolei Yisroel shlit”a.” Rav Nebenzahl also quoted a ruling of Rav Elyashiv from five years ago. The letter was sent to the chief rabbis of Israel, who held a discussion on the subject this past Thursday. They decided that the government should not move forward with its plan to allocate a prayer area to irreligious groups. Does Netanyahu care? Almost certainly not.
As I said, this story is not over yet.
Four Hundred Apartments – For Shame
Let us move on to other current issues. Last week, I read that the Yerushalayim City Council is advancing a new plan called “Pinui Binui” (“Evacuation and Reconstruction”) in the Shmuel Hanovi neighborhood of the capital. This plan will result in the area being developed to accommodate more residents by permitting the construction of high-rise buildings. According to the article I read, rabbonim are opposed to the initiative, because apartments on higher floors are often purchased by chilonim.
But I have many more questions: Where will the hundreds of new residents daven? Where will their children go to school and play? How can the municipality and the local planning council be allowed to approve countless new residential units without providing the most basic living conditions necessary for the residents? Such things have happened in Romema and in Givat Shaul, but in any reasonable neighborhood, nothing of the sort should ever take place.
A diligent Knesset member submitted a parliamentary query on the subject of Givat Shaul, questioning why hundreds of new residential units were approved when no solutions had been found for shuls and schools for the existing residents, to say nothing of adding new institutions. For some reason, the Minister of Finance responded to the query. He asserted that new plans are required to include areas for communal needs. He also said that over the past five years, the local planning council has approved the construction of an additional 400 apartments in Givat Shaul, which is an astronomical number.
The next parliamentary query will ask for more details: Which plans were approved, what areas are the buildings required to designate for communal use, and what has actually been done in that respect?
The Gedolei Yisroel on the Cheder Wall
“In our classroom, there are pictures on the wall of the gedolei Yisroel when they were in second grade.” This statement, which sounds bizarre to the point of being detached from reality, was made by my grandson, a child in Rabbi Leventhal’s class at Talmud Torah Shaarei Daas in Ramot. Does anyone have a picture of Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky or Rav Moshe Feinstein when they were in second grade? Has anyone ever seen such a picture of Rav Ovadiah Yosef or Rav Shmuel Wosner? Did cameras even exist when Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach was in the second grade? How can such a collection of pictures be on the wall of a cheder?
Curiosity impelled me to investigate the matter; perhaps there would be an interesting story behind it. I found the time to make a trip to Ramot, where I climbed the two flights of stairs in the Shaarei Daas building and entered Rabbi Leventhal’s classroom. I told the rebbi about the purpose of my visit, as my eyes scanned the walls for the pictures in question. As I had anticipated, there wasn’t a single sign of the collection of pictures my grandson had described. “He must have made it up,” I deduced.
Rabbi Leventhal smiled broadly. “He wasn’t imagining it at all. Take a look at those pictures on the wall.”
I looked. The wall was decorated with photographs of the children in the class. I recognized two of them, including my grandson.
Rabbi Leventhal explained, “I tried to find pictures of the gedolei Yisroel when they were at the age of the children in our class, but no such pictures exist. No one took a picture of Rav Shach when he was in second grade. But I decided that for the next generation, there would be such pictures! These children, be’ezras Hashem, will be gedolei Yisroel in another 50 years.”
And then, of course, there will be photographs of the gedolei Yisroel when they were in second grade. I was amazed by the genius of the cheder rebbi.
A Chassidishe Vort in the Knesset Plenum
Last Wednesday, the Knesset discussed a motion for the agenda titled “The Need to Establish a Parliamentary Investigative Committee on the Subject of the Environmental and Health Situation in the Bay of Haifa and the Future of the Area.” The motion was submitted by Yael Cohen-Paran of the Zionist Camp, and when the Minister of Health concluded his response, the benches of the coalition were far too empty. As MK Chaim Yellin of Yesh Atid asked the chairman of the sitting, Meir Cohen, to begin the voting, someone motioned urgently for UTJ MK Yaakov Litzman to continue speaking.
“Would you like to hear about the parshah of the week?” Litzman asked.
Jackie Levi of the Likud party said, “The parshah? Go ahead. Say a devar Torah.”
“I will tell you a devar Torah from last week’s parshah,” Litzman responded.
“Because you have nothing else to say about Haifa?” Cohen-Paran asked.
“If you would, please listen to the devar Torah,” Litzman said. “Don’t you like hearing divrei Torah? The nationalist camp enjoys divrei Torah. I know Buji, and his grandfather always wanted to hear a devar Torah.”
“Don’t put on an act!” Nachman Shai called out.
Litzman said, “Then I will tell you a devar Torah. Last week, we read Parshas Yisro. Yisro had seven names.”
At that point, Amir Peretz and Nachman Shai asked for a brief pause so that they could don kippot. The Knesset plenum prepared for a shiur in Chumash from Reb Yaakov.
“The Gemara says, and Rashi quotes it, that the name Yisro alludes to the fact that he caused a parshah to be added to the Torah. Which parshah is that? The Gemara says that Yisro advised Moshe Rabbeinu to appoint officers for every thousand Jews, and other officers for every hundred Jews, and then the Gemara adds that since he gave sound advice, the parshah containing that advice was attributed to him. The Gemara refers to the parshah as ‘ve’atah sechezeh,’ the words beginning Yisro’s recommendation to Moshe to select these officers. But one of the admorim points out that the parshah actually begins with a different posuk, in which Yisro told Moshe, ‘The thing that you are doing is not good.’ Shouldn’t the Gemara have referred to it by these words instead?
“The admor explained,” Yaakov Litzman continued, “that criticism is not a way to build Torah. Telling someone what not to do is not a way to build Torah. Torah is built only by solutions. You tell someone to appoint officers over thousands or hundreds; you give him a concrete suggestion. Don’t just spend all your time shouting and telling someone that what he is doing is not good. That is not worth anything. The Torah teaches us that we must have something pragmatic, something concrete, to suggest.”
By this point, a commotion had begun in the Knesset plenum. Litzman turned to the leaders of the Likud party. “Should I continue?” he asked. They motioned for him to go on. He repeated the entire vort and then asked again, “Must I continue?”
“Yes, absolutely, continue,” said Dovid Azulai.
Meir Cohen took the opportunity to reprimand Betzalel Smotrich for directing his attention elsewhere while Litzman was delivering a devar Torah. “I’ve been listening. I can repeat the whole thing!” Smotrich responded.
Litzman went on to share another vort, despite the cries of protest from the opposition. “Tosafos asks on the posuk, ‘All the ailments that I placed on Mitzrayim, I will not place on you…’ Elazar, are you tired of this?” he asked suddenly, turning to Elazar Stern, who was making a racket.
“Mr. Minister, may we vote?” Cohen-Paran asked.
“As a believing Jew,” Yaakov Litzman continued, “I do not approve of screaming. Ma’am, screams will not convince anyone of anything.”
Litzman ignored the cries of protest from the plenum and looked despairingly to his left. His expression was like that of a desperate babysitter who has been waiting for hours for the parents to return home. “I will return to the devar Torah,” Litzman said with resignation. “The posuk says, ‘All the ailments that I placed on Mitzrayim, I will not place on you, for I am Hashem, your Healer.’ Tosafos asks: If Hashem does not inflict the ailments on us at all, then why do we need healing? Tosafos answers – I see that the coalition likes this devar Torah and wants me to continue, but…”
“What you are doing is religious coercion!” Essawi Frij of the Meretz party protested.
“Do not interrupt me during the devar Torah!” Litzman shot back. “Tosafos explains that everything is ordained in Heaven, other than tzinim upachim, a term for the common cold. Thus, Tosafos explains that the posuk means that Hashem will not inflict ailments on us, and if we become ill through our own doing, then He will heal us. But the Rambam… There is a story about the Rambam. The Rambam was the greatest doctor in the world in his day. He was the personal physician of the Sultan in Egypt.”
“The Rambam would have closed all the factories so that they wouldn’t contaminate the environment,” Ksenia Svetlova spoke up.
The grumblings of the opposition had turned into an uproar. They demanded that the chairman have Litzman removed from the podium. Meir Cohen responded, “Forgive me, but we operate here based on the regulations of the Knesset. The minister will speak, although there is a limit to that as well. Please do not shout. Mr. Minister, please conclude your response.”
“I will finish it,” Litzman said. “I am in the middle of a devar Torah. The Rambam was the greatest physician in the world. Once, the Sultan called him – after all, the Rambam was his personal physician – and asked him, ‘How can I know that you are the greatest doctor in the world? I have never been ill.’ The Rambam replied, ‘The very fact that you have never been ill is a sign that I am the world’s best physician, because I prevented you from contracting any diseases. Preventing a disease is a great accomplishment.’ And so the Rambam explained the posuk to mean that Hashem will not inflict diseases upon us because He is our Healer. Hashem is the greatest Healer in the world, and He knows not only how to cure diseases, but how to prevent them as well.”
Litzman finally received the sign he was waiting for: Everyone had arrived. He left the podium, exhausted from the experience, and the vote was held. There were 34 votes in favor of the investigative committee and 35 against.
The coalition had triumphed.
A Picture of the Erlauer Rebbe
At the end of the month of Tishrei, I traveled to Katamon to attend hespeidim delivered in memory of Rav Yehuda Dov Greenfeld zt”l at the Erlauer bais medrash. He was eulogized by the rosh yeshiva and another speaker. Both of them discussed the niftar’s greatness, his constant attachment to the Erlauer Rebbe over many decades, and his unquestioning obedience of the rebbe’s every word.
I knew Rav Greenfeld, and I can attest that he was like the poshute Yidden, the simple Jews, of previous generations. Ever since his marriage, Rav Greenfeld lived near the home of the Erlauer Rebbe. Two months ago, the rebbe remarked, “I miss Reb Yehuda Dov.”
As I listened to the speakers extolling the niftar for his close connection to the rebbe, I decided to take a picture. As I prepared my camera, though, the chassidim informed me that there was a policy prohibiting the taking of photographs in the bais medrash. Out of respect for their traditions and rules, I left the bais medrash and entered an adjacent room, where I snapped a picture through the open door as Rav Binyomin Finkel – known as Rav Binyomin Hatzaddik – was speaking. Since I was not in the bais medrash itself, I didn’t think that there would be any objection, but before I could take another picture, one of the gabbaim standing beside the Erlauer Rebbe marched across the room and ordered me to stop. Naturally, I obeyed his instructions, but the first picture had already been taken.
The picture is somewhat blurry, but it is enough to convey an impression of the magnificence of the Erlauer Rebbe. The rebbe was seated in his special seat at the front of the bais medrash, near the aron kodesh, listening intently to the speaker. That was the last image I recall of the Erlauer Rebbe, the senior admor and one of the spiritual leaders of our generation.
There were other occasions when I saw the rebbe and times when I heard him speak. One of those occasions was many years ago, when I was with my father, Rav Moshe Menachem Yaakovson zt”l, who served as the rov of Be’er Yaakov for about fifty years. At that time, we made our way to the Erlauer bais medrash, and my father conferred with the rebbe in his private room next to the bais medrash for a lengthy period of time. In an impressive display of refinement, the rebbe accompanied my father to his car after their discussion had ended. Perhaps this was a show of respect for my grandfather, Rav Binyomin Zev Yaakovson zt”l, who was a leader of Agudas Yisroel and a close friend of the Pressburg dynasty as a whole and the Erlauer Rebbe in particular. Or perhaps it was a sign of respect for my father himself. In any event, at that time, my father had gone to meet the rebbe to discuss a complex halachic issue. As I discovered, the rabbonim of the various cities of Eretz Yisroel, even the most well-known and senior among them, saw the Erlauer Rebbe as a source of guidance for all the most intricate shailos with which they dealt. Sadly, we have now lost his invaluable guidance, but his successors will certainly continue his work.