My Rebbe – Rav Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch

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Yoni Rosensweig

In coming to write this piece – a eulogy for my great master and teacher, in some sense – I am overcome by a sense of fear, as many students would in my position. To give over an adequate and accurate description of my Rosh Yeshiva, in order to explain to those who did not know him who he was and what his contribution amounted to, is as important an endeavor as it is treacherous. What if I misspeak? What if I don’t present things exactly as he would have wanted? What if I give over the wrong impression? And, of course, there is always the obvious obstacle, that the notions I have of my great master and teacher, are simply my own, and provide nothing more than Rav Rabinovitch as seen through my personal prism. Even if I were his closest student this would be a problem, how much more so now that I am not.

And yet, “patur be-lo kelum ee efshar” –  it is not possible to stay silent, and to leave a vacuum for many who would seek to know what we have lost, or those who would not know that there was what to lose in the first place. So, with the above qualifications in mind, I turn my meager skills to the task of describing the great and pious Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Maale Adumim; that Doctor of Mathematics; community Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina, and Toronto, Canada; and head of Jews College in London. The boy from Montreal who learned under such luminaries as Rav Pinchas Hirschprung and Rav Yaakov Ruderman, and went on to become one of the most important voices in the Modern Orthodox/Religious Zionist world.

I came to Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in 1998. When I came to be tested there the previous year, I was tested on a passage by R. Hayyim Brisker on Hilkhot Hametz u-Matzah. Coming as I did from a family steeped in the Brisker tradition, and in love not only with the personality of Rav Soloveitchik, but also with his conceptual framework for learning, this was an easy test for me to pass. And coming into the Yeshiva a year later, I was ready to put those skills to use. Every sugya had to have a conceptual framework. Everything I learned was analyzed in full, stripped from its practical everyday moorings, and turned into pure quality. This was – I always believed, as per what I had read in Rav Soloveitchik’s works – the height of intellectual achievement. Anything less, and one was selling himself short.

Bearing all this in mind, I admit that I wasn’t overly impressed with my first interactions with my new Rosh Yeshiva. He was soft spoken. He didn’t conceptualize. He didn’t name-drop. At no time did he directly present us with his awesome command of the material at hand. More often than not, rather than answering questions put to him, he would ask the students to answer those questions themselves. In my opinion, the reason for this is that while he was a Rosh Yeshiva for almost four decades, he never stopped being the community rabbi he started out as. (Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to find Rashei Yeshiva today who started out this way). And as a community Rabbi, rather than being a high-brow lecturer, he was ever the kindly teacher and educator.

When Rav Rabinovitch was a community rabbi in Charleston, he founded a school there, and a friend who was visiting saw that he was teaching the children how to read Aleph Bet. The friend wondered aloud: “Such a scholar as yourself should be doing such a menial task?” Rav Rabinovitch responded: “I see nothing menial or undignified in this – it is an honor and a pleasure to be teaching the Aleph Bet to Jewish children.”

And so it was in Yeshiva as well. Anyone who was around him for enough time was exposed to the breadth and depth of his knowledge and thought, but this was not his regular modus operandi. He preferred to engender deep thinking in others rather than to show off his own. He preferred to strengthen others instead of weakening them by presenting himself as an ideal which can hardly be reached. And he preferred to cultivate independence in his students, rather than create a relationship of semi-subservience to him, as some rabbis would have it.

I asked my Rosh Yeshiva hundreds of questions over the years, and often he would want to hear my opinion. Sometimes I offered it before he said his, sometimes after. Even when he disagreed, he had a way of saying it that wouldn’t be totally dismissive of my opinion. After a while I learnt to tell the difference between his statements of approval which were meant to simply give me the independence to follow my own thinking, and those he meant in true agreement to the things I were saying…

And when I came to him with my books of Responsa and asked him to give an approbation, he was happy to do so. But before I asked him for it, I asked whether I am even worthy of putting these Responsa out in the first place: “I am young”, I said, “and I would not want to be jumping ahead if it is not proper for me to do so. I also would not want to be moreh Halakhah bifnei rabbo, issuing ruling when my Rebbe’s influence is still very much present.” Rav Rabinovitch thought nothing of this. He told me I must publish, that this is exactly the right thing to be doing, and that my age is of no consequence. “If you write good things, you must publish them.” It was that simple to him. And I heard similar encouragement at other times when complex issues (such as agunot, giyyur, etc.) came up and I had qualms about whether or not to pursue them.

To be sure, it was easy being a confident rabbi when you knew you could turn to Rav Rabinovitch, and he would support you. And this goes to his stature as a posek. Over the last six months, as part of the process of writing my book on Halakhah and mental health, I have been immensely fortunate to visit towering poskim throughout the Modern Orthodox, Religious Zionist, and Hareidi communities. I have learned much from being in the presence of such gedolim, and thanked Hashem for every minute. Yet I have never enjoyed such clarity of thinking and pesak as I saw while sitting at the side of my Rosh Yeshiva.

He made it seem easy. Everyone who has ever asked him a question knows that. His responses were direct, and didn’t require a plethora of sources to prove his position. It seemed as if he were pulling a rabbit out of a hat – suddenly, surprisingly, the response was there, and everything was clear. One wondered where it came from. However, every single time I received an answer from my Rav that I was unsure of its origins, it didn’t take me long to find out that the problem lay with my knowledge of the sources, while his position was well-based in many books that I simply had no knowledge of.

He also made it clear that a halakhic decision – any halakhic decision! – must conform to the precepts of what he called sekhel yashar: a proper and untwisted way of thinking. Rav Rabinovitch spoke about it so often that all of his students know how important the concept was to him. Yet, when I mentioned this to a member of my own community lately, he was surprised. Could it be, he wondered, that Rav Rabinovitch meant the simple common sense enjoyed by many of us? Isn’t there some sort of “Torah mind” one must have in order to deliver proper pesak?

The answer is this: Rav Rabinovitch believed that, at base, the necessary groundwork for any rabbi to be giving proper halakhic decisions entails simple common sense, coupled with a deep ethical and moral sensitivity to the world around us. All the Torah learning in the world would not help a person who doesn’t have this foundation. Of course, this common sense is not enough. In Rav Rabinovitch’s view, one must also delve into the halakhic and philosophical frameworks the Torah presents us, and cultivate his halakhic decisions in light of those frameworks.

Rav Rabinovich extensively developed this last point in his written works. When I first came to Yeshiva, as mentioned earlier, I was taken with Rav Soloveitchik’s world. My feeling was that while philosophical ideas are fleeting and ever-changing from person to person and generation to generation, the Halakhah is stable, and is in fact the only thing which can offer us the stability we need as ideologies rise and fall on the world stage. It is through this conception that I began to try and mimic Rav Soloveitchik’s methodology of reconstructing a philosophical idea out of halakhic material. I could not think of a methodology more sound than that for creating an ideological framework that could be trusted as authentic.

But as I sat one day with Rav Rabinovitch, and asked him a question pertaining to this matter, he disagreed completely: “Halakhah cannot be the guide,” he said. “Philosophy must be the light which clears the path for proper halakhic thinking.” In his view, Halakhah can be easily twisted according to the whims of the posek. Therefore, it is the agenda itself which must be cleared of all its inaccuracies, and left pure and untainted. Rav Rabinovitch believed that an overarching view of the Torah’s goals for both the individual and the community could be gleaned from Tanakh, and that only once this view was clear could one then direct the halachic inquiry in the direction that Hashem truly wanted it to go. And he set out to show how this is done.

It is here that we come to Rambam’s central role in Rav Rabinovitch’s thought. Rav Rabinovitch viewed Rambam as the foremost Torah scholar, the veritable Jewish Renaissance man, who moved Judaism into another sphere of understanding than where it was before him. Rambam’s works are a watershed moment, pure and simple. He manages to take the entirety of Jewish scholarship until that moment, and create a conceptual whole which fleshes out both the details of practical Halakhah and the philosophical grounding upon which they rest.

It is this holistic picture of the world in which Rav Rabinovitch believed, and devoted his life to engendering in everyone around him. He truly believed that we could make the world a better place, and that each and every one of us was enjoined by the Torah to do just that. If only we understood what all the verses of the Torah amounted to, from a bird’s eye view, we would see how it all fit together. Most of us only see part of the picture, but there are a few unique individuals who are not only able to see the picture in its entirety, but are also able to articulate what they see and present it to those who cannot see as broadly. Rambam was one of those people. And so was my Rosh Yeshiva.

It was this broad view that allowed him to be more flexible halakhically than many other rabbis, even amongst his peers. Because he understood where the Halakhah “was going,” and what it was trying to achieve, he wasn’t afraid to take a stand in promoting those goals. Indeed, Rav Rabinovitch was known as a “courageous posek,” as someone who wasn’t afraid to be lenient or stringent, as the case would have it, even against more commonly held beliefs in the halakhic community. To take just one example, he didn’t believe there was any issue in accepting donations from Christian organizations who were friendly towards Israel, despite significant opposition amongst many leading rabbis.

Nevertheless, when I asked him a question one time and he gave me an answer I didn’t expect, and I remarked: “This is a hiddush, I don’t think the Shulhan Arukh says this,” he got very angry at me, declaring: “This is not a hiddush! The Shulhan Arukh must be explained in this way. Don’t say this is a hiddush. It is in line with everything we always knew.” His independence never came from a place of pride or ego. He wasn’t looking to make a name for himself. He simply wanted to do what was right, just, and fair, for all those seeking to serve Hashem as best they could. He wanted to help whomever needed it.

That desire to help went hand in hand with his natural affection for others around him. He loved people. He was a warm and affectionate person. There were times it was hard to daven Minhah-Maariv on Erev Shabbat, because Rav Rabinovitch was playing peek-a-boo with the young child of one of the married men learning in the Yeshiva. He would spend endless hours speaking to anyone who sought him out. He would call students who were in the hospital. One Rosh Hashanah, a student who had just arrived from abroad (he had to go through surgery shortly after his arrival but insisted on being in the Yeshiva for the high holidays) came into the Beit Midrash in a wheelchair and sat in the back. After Minhah, as the hazzan was about to continue, the Rosh Yeshiva suddenly got up from his place, walked to the back of the Beit Midrash, and inquired as to this student’s health, whom he did not know by name and had not even met until that moment. Davening continued when the Rosh Yeshiva returned to his seat.

He loved people. And we loved him back. I loved him very much. He was always there for me. And I will miss him terribly. My support. My teacher. My master.

My Rebbe.