By Yitzchok Adlerstein
Reprinted With Permission – from Cross-Currents
Funerary orators often begin their remarks by relating how they are at a loss for words to properly express their feelings. I don’t have that problem The thoughts and images cascade without end in reacting to the petirah of my rebbi, Hagaon Rav Alter Henoch Leibowitz, zt”l.
The reason, perhaps, is that I am not in the inner circle. When you are a member of the core group, you have to focus on the expected causes for adulation of a gadol – gadlus in Torah, devotion to the cause, leaving behind many talmidim and institutions, serving as a link to the glory days of pre-War Lita. These were all fully true of the Rosh Yeshiva, and a succession of Torah luminaries, yibadlu lechaim tovim – Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, shlit”a, the Novominsker Rebbe, shlit”a, Rav Malkiel Kotler, shlit”a – extolled these virtues in their remarks at the levayah.
I left the yeshiva almost thirty years ago for the opposite coast. I’ve been back very few times, and my sons did not (with one brief exception) attend any of the many branches of Chofetz Chaim. I have had much time to look at the yeshiva and the Rosh Yeshiva (the two are really inseperable) without the constraints that come with proximity. It has left me with more to say, rather than less.
Despite my having gone “my own way,” much of what I am (at least the things I would take pride in) is attributable in no small degree to the Rosh Yeshiva – even the fact that I went my own way! The Rosh Yeshiva did not smother people in his personality. He was large enough to allow individuality and even non-conformity, even as he himself believed that rules and details helped the majority stay focused on the chief occupations of yeshiva life. He spoke openly about chinuch and pedagogy (come to think of it, he spoke openly and frequently about many topics that are ignored in other yeshivos), especially as part of the world of mussar in general, and Slabodka in particular. He would tell and retell stories about the uncanny educational abilities of the Alter, giving the credit not to the individual alone, but to the mesorah of mussar he represented from Kelm and before. It behooved an educator to take into account the needs and the talents of each talmid as an individual, and to address and nurture them. This could mean at times that he would refrain from imposing his view on a talmid who needed space, or something a bit out of the ordinary. (I was privileged to be part of a not-so-small chevrah who were all fiercely individualistic, and maintained their identities.)
He could and did embrace uniformity in the yeshiva in regard to the key principles of the yeshiva, such as commitment to the service of Klal Yisrael. In regard to externalities like dress (within certain limits), he was fiercely opposed to regimentation. His objection here was not that it denied freedom of choice to the individual. I don’t think he thought of it in those terms – he had strong feelings about conservative and semi-formal dress, not to create uniformity, but to enhance kavod haTorah in both the talmid and those he interacted with. His objection was again an outgrowth of Slabodka. The mussar personality must make self-development a real avodah. Wearing a uniform detracts from that avodah, because consciously or otherwise, the wearer of the official colors tells himself that he has already arrived and joined the elite group, and would be less likely to worry about internal matters.
If he had a uniform himself, it consisted of one item – a smile that almost never vanished. A well-developed sense of humor, including self-deprecation, accompanied it. He could energize you with that smile and a freely offered hug – something I appreciated in my dating days after a bad break-up that he somehow always found out about within hours.
His appreciation for individuality, at least when married to yiras shomayim, allowed him to advocate his own position to the hilt, explain exactly why he disagreed with others, and still not look down upon those with whom he disagreed. If their honest search came up with different answers, he would still disagree, but he was quick to point out that neither he nor the Ribbono Shel Olam could have any complaints to the party in error. In that sense, he was a pluralist before the word became PC.
He paid a price for being an iconoclast. He was aware that his yeshiva didn’t quite fit in with many of the others, but he would not compromise on his principles. Neither would he disparage the others. He taught how important it was for bnei Torah to feel that they are part of a greater Torah effort shared by all other yeshivos.
Nowhere was this felt as strongly as in the general resistance to his well-enunciated derech of learning. Ironically, those who mocked it were unaware that what he really championed was one of the most traditional views of the yeshiva world, at least of the name roshei yeshiva. Chofetz Chaim is notorious (sorry, that is the most effective word that comes to mind) for proceeding through a sugya at the pace of a paraplegic snail. (It is only partially true. At least in my day, the yeshiva was just as adamant that talmidim cover ground at a brisk pace – faster than what was going on in other yeshivos – in the long bekiyus seder. Like people who took education seriously, there was accountability for quotas of output, with hanhala members regularly monitoring progress.) The slow progress in iyun seder was not for everyone. (It wasn’t for me or my children.) But at its essence, it represented a commitment to the primacy of Gemara and Rishonim. Talmidim would learn lots of acharonim, but not for their own sake. They could never be more than tools to unravel the many layers of meaning in a Rishon or gemara itself. This attitude – one championed by many other roshei yeshiva of the last generation, is very different from what is often found in more yeshivish places, in which (as my youngest son aptly put it) the gemara acts as a heichi timtzeh to plow through interesting acharonim. He demanded rigor in reading Rishonim, because that was the real key to success in learning, and because emunas chachamim created the confidence that time spend digging for gold in the words of a Rishon was almost always worth it.
Emunas chachamim was enormously important to him. He communicated the notion to talmidim not by demanding it as a sine qua non of yeshiva life, but by painstakingly demonstrating its importance, deflecting the objections to it, and teaching about its successes. It was not a monopolistic emunas chachamim, but one that allowed for divergent opinions. (In my case, this sense of emunas chachamim essentially launched my intellectual career, and put me at odds with the stated principles of the yeshiva. The Rosh Yeshiva was enormously practical. He believed that you taught what you knew best, and shouldn’t be consumed with guilt for not being able to be all things to all people. He knew lomdus, and he knew mussar. The cocktail of both of them refreshed the souls of most talmidim. Somehow, I had a slightly different shorech neshamah. I needed something more. Hashgachah had it that in a short period of time, I stumbled upon two other great influences on my development, Rav Nachman Bulman zt”l, and Rav Aryeh Kaplan, zt”l. Both of them introduced me to a wide range of seforim outside the main reading list of Chofetz Chaim. Both slaked my own inner thirst. Yet I would never have committed myself to the effort involved in learning the seforim they insisted upon had I not had the absolute confidence in chachmei hamesorah I got from the Rosh Yeshiva. His success in teaching me ironically assured that I would drift off in a slightly different direction! He did not seem to resent it, or the fact that I chose to work outside his own large network. The last time I really saw him was when I was sitting shiva for my father A”H in Kew Gardens Hills just a few years ago, and he showed up unannounced to be menachem aveil – despite my decades away from the yeshiva. On the other hand, he pretty much never forgave me for not becoming a shul rav, whose value he believed in, which was very different from the attitude of some of his peers who saw the rabbinate as an also-ran.)
All of this may boil down to a single perception, one not likely to be made by the inner circle. To those who never knew him at all, the loss of the Rosh Yeshiva should still be reckoned as a great tragedy, and not just because of the passing of an enormous adam gadol. The Rosh Yeshiva proved the historians of mussar incorrect.
Customary wisdom has it that chassidus succeeded, and mussar failed. To be sure, mussar had a huge impact upon the yeshiva world. Mussar classics became standard fare. The office of mashgiach was added to many a yeshiva. A heightened awareness of midos issues very much continues to this day.
As a movement that could capture the imagination of the many, and transmogrify the masses, mussar pales by comparison to chassidus. Historians offer a simple explanation. Mussar is very demanding. It takes intelligence and commitment to succeed. (So do many levels of chassidus, of course. But chassidus has some ground level elements that are accessible to the hamon am behaviorally and externally, that are exciting to the masses. Chassidus became a mass movement; mussar impacted Lita the most, and its stellar overachievers were individuals here and there. It seemed hopelessly limited to the relatively rare individual with superior intellect and heightened sensitivity. Even the flirtation with mussar in the non-Jewish world in the wake of Alan Morinis’ work would not change that equation.
The Rosh Yeshiva proved them all wrong. He did not make mussar the darling of the entire frum world, but he proved that it could become, even in contemporary times, an important mass phenomenon. Chofez Chaim produced, and continues to produce, a special kind of graduate. Minimally, they are almost always nice guys – polite, cooperative, refined people who can engage others in conversation. Maximally, it took a good number of talented people and turned them into superstars. Typically, they take teaching and pulpit positions disproportionally greater than their absolute numbers.. To be sure, they have had their disappointments, their disputes, their failures. They just seem to have fewer of them. People for the most part have fewer complaints about their interpersonal skills. Mussar on the group level may not guarantee Souls on Fire, but it does a demonstrably good job in making ordinary people a few notches better, and good people skilled mentors.
The Rosh Yeshiva did not have any children. People will be quick to point out that he had hundreds of children in his talmidim. This is certainly true. There seems to be some cruel irony, however, that he left no one to even say kaddish for him.
The Sochatchover explains somewhere that Ben Azai lost nothing by not marrying. HKBH created marriage as a vehicle to allow people to ratchet up their chesed, forcing them to reach beyond themselves and learn to give in ever increasing quantities. Ben Azai was so enthusiastic about his Torah, and so good at it, that he contributed the same gifts to the world through his Torah as others would have through raising families. This is also true of the Rosh Yeshiva.
Personally, I suspect that there is something more going on. When I first got married, I was part of a chevra kadisha that served all of Queens and Nassau. All of us were from the yeshiva; the Rosh Yeshiva was not thrilled with our participation, but did not stop us. (He feared that the daily, constant involvement with death was unhealthy for young people working at building our new marriages.) We quickly learned one of one of the traditionally-held bonuses of chevra kadisha work. After 120 years, we would be greeted in shomayim by all those we had helped in their final journey. I suspect that chevra kadisha members do not have a monopoly on receiving admirers. Somewhere in shomayim, a huge crowd is of neshamos is gathered to give honor to the Rosh Yeshiva. Saying kaddish in that minyan is none other than Rav Yisrael Salanter himself, in grateful recognition of what the Rosh Yeshiva did for him.
All of us – those who knew him and those who did not – should miss the Rosh Yeshiva. תהא זכרונו ברוך