Torat Hesed: My Rabbi, Rav Yehuda Kelemer

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Matt Lubin


Of all the global struggles and hardships of the past year, nothing has hit me so personally and painfully as the passing of our communal rabbi, Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer, zekher tzaddik li-vrakhah, of the Young Israel of West Hempstead. I cannot even pretend to do justice to his character, a shining example of the Gemara’s dictum (Hagigah 15b) that a Torah scholar is akin to an angel. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to publicize my memories of Rabbi Kelemer, a man who shunned publicity, to provide the smallest glimpse of a person who in turn has given me a glimpse of spiritual greatness.

Without having met Rabbi Kelemer, I could not have believed the folklore about Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s sense of human dignity, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev’s love of his fellow Jews, and the Vilna Gaon’s multifaceted genius; to me, Rabbi Kelemer was a link to all of this, and more. More, because inasmuch as his spiritual stature towered far above our heads, he was so close to us, his students and congregants, and would probably insist upon being remembered not only as a mentor but as a loving friend, despite the utter absurdity of anyone being his peer.

His extreme acts of kindness were beyond legendary; even traditional rabbinic hagiographies rarely include as many examples of righteousness as attested by recipients of his extraordinary generosity. Dozens of people have shared experiences of being stuck on a highway when Rabbi Kelemer turned up as if by magic, spending hours with them in order to help get them home. Hundreds of people have witnessed Rabbi Kelemer walk for hours on Shabbos to and from hospitals, congregants’ homes, and who knows where else, to be with those who may have been suffering. Several times, Rabbi Kelemer was also discovered doing private acts of charity, sometimes going to extraordinary lengths to hide his acts of hesed, so his congregants could only speculate the true extent of his generosity. This secrecy stemmed from Rabbi Kelemer’s extreme, almost comical humility; indeed, he turned any praise about himself into a joke and with total sincerity laughed off any honor given to him as preposterous. Once, I thought I “tricked” Rabbi Kelemer into allowing me to walk him home, with the intention of discussing Torah matters, but when we reached his house he insisted upon walking me back to shul. He was uncharacteristically forceful in preventing yeshiva students from addressing him in the third person (as is customary for rabbinic teachers), turned down living in a house owned by the shul, and refused congregants’ offers to upgrade his increasingly timeworn car.

Rabbi Kelemer personified dignity; whether in speaking publicly or in free conversation, I only heard him speak in polished sentences and in a precise, measured tone. Even when delivering a derashah from the podium, raising and lowering his voice for dramatic effect, somehow Rabbi Kelemer’s demeanor remained soft, reserved – more welcoming than imposing. This was no mere affectation: he welcomed everyone with genuine love, and his disarming disposition was coupled with a total lack of sanctimony. Countless people confided in Rabbi Kelemer, trusting him with their most intimate secrets, as they correctly assessed that he would provide guidance and support without an iota of negative judgement.

His speech and mannerisms bespoke a quiet intensity, and nowhere was this more evident than in his prayers. Rabbi Kelemer davened relatively quickly, often even after coming late due to his communal responsibilities, but with an unmistakable seriousness and fervor. As with his other traits, Rabbi Kelemer kept the true extent of his profound devotion and emotional religiosity private, but it nonetheless shone forth in his prayers and speeches. Rabbi Kelemer often referred to the power of songs as a means of religious expression, and the importance of heartfelt singing and melodious prayer was at the core of more than one Shabbat Shuvah or Shabbat Ha-Gadol derashah. I once overheard a congregant say that for Yom Kippur, he wanted to be in Rabbi Kelemer’s minyan because only Rabbi Kelemer could be “intensely emotional without any of the usual rabbinic theatrics.” Especially around the High Holidays, his derashot frequently referred to God as “ha-Rofei li-shvurei lev,” the Healer of broken hearts (Psalms 147:3), a rare divine appellation that speaks volumes about Rabbi Kelemer himself – as Rabbeinu Yonah Gerondi writes (to Proverbs 27:21), one can judge a person’s character based on what he praises.

Just as it would be hard to exaggerate Rabbi Kelemer’s righteousness, it is likewise difficult to overstate his mastery of Torah. Already in his late twenties, upon becoming Rabbi of the Young Israel of Brookline, Massachusetts, Rabbi Kelemer received a letter from Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l that included several lines of praises for the young talmid hakham, congratulating him on his rabbinic post.[1] Many recent articles have noted Rabbi Kelemer’s impeccable rabbinic and scholarly credentials, but simply listing his teachers or even noting his published sefarim cannot do justice to his exceptional mastery of Torah. His deep familiarity with Gemara and poskim enabled him to seamlessly recite passages by heart in the flow of conversation; he expounded upon the conceptual “lomdus” behind linguistic nuances, and he possessed a preternatural ability to invent brilliant gematriot on the fly. It was also Rabbi Kelemer’s love of Torah that sustained him through difficult times. While recovering for many difficult months after he was hit by a car four years ago, he constantly requested for Torah material to occupy his mind, just as many decades ago he channeled his grief after losing a young daughter into publishing a sefer comprising several short essays on topics in Shas.[2]

I have often heard Rabbi Kelemer expound the difference between wisdom and cleverness. Not only did he overflow with wisdom, but he also was uncommonly clever, often concocting a brilliant bon mot (usually a talmudic or biblical allusion) to fit any occasion. Rabbi Kelemer employed his wit to invent creative ways to judge favorably and compliment others. In justifying his frequently effusive praise, he once “reminded” me that Rambam writes in Hilkhot De’ot (6:3) that there is a mitzvah to speak positively of someone.[3] He almost never spoke ill of any Jewish institution, and in rare cases where he expressed disapproval of a certain practice, it was purely educational, to bring attention to a problem that he knew would likely be unrecognized by those of lesser sensitivity.

The Gemara (Sukkah 49b) provides two explanations of the term Torat Hesed, “a Torah of kindness” (Proverbs 31:26): the Torat Hesed is one that is learned “for its own sake;” alternatively, it is the Torah that one learns in order to teach others. In Rabbi Kelemer, these two explanations merge: because he loved Torah for its own sake and not out of desire for self-aggrandizement or even intellectual stimulation, he used his knowledge to connect with and elevate others through his teachings. I have seen Rabbi Kelemer listen with rapt attention as a young yeshiva student related a piece of Torah, and despite his encyclopedic knowledge his face shone with excitement as he joyously and honestly praised the student’s “hiddush.” Rabbi Kelemer also generously ascribed his own insights to whomever he was speaking with. He happily allowed anyone to borrow from his endless reservoir of Torah wisdom, be they his children or congregants asking for divrei Torah, boys or girls preparing their bar or bat mitzvah speeches, or even a Christian minister who asked for assistance with a sermon on Psalm 27.

Rabbi Kelemer never condescended to his audience, and he comfortably employed his wide lexicon to teach sophisticated Torah concepts with great nuance while ensuring that they remained accessible to a wider audience. He almost always provided the biographical context of each rabbinic author he cited, and he frequently translated halakhic concepts into simple English terminology with concrete, illuminating examples. My favorite instance is his demonstration for lo pelug rabanan [“the rabbis did not differentiate”], the idea that a rabbinic decree stands independently of the circumstances that initially motivated the decree. The Sages prohibited eating food cooked by a non-Jew out of concern that it might lead to intermarriage with the non-Jew’s daughter. Rabbi Kelemer noted that this decree applies even to a convert’s own food that he cooked before converting to Judaism, despite the fact that the motivation for this prohibition is inapplicable; in Rabbi Kelemer’s words, it would be a decree “to prevent you from marrying your own daughter, yesterday.”

Rabbi Kelemer’s Torat Hesed also expressed itself in ways beyond the Talmud’s two explanations of the verse. A creative ba’al mussar (master of ethical manners), Rabbi Kelemer frequently extracted gems of inspiration for hesed from seemingly prosaic and often arcane halakhic sources. Here too, I have a favorite example: in a responsum (no. 772), the Radbaz writes that a king convicted of unintentional manslaughter is not subject to the usual punishment of exile to a “city of refuge.” because if he were forced into exile, the entire Jewish people would be required to live in the city with him, which is an impossibility. Rabbi Kelemer understood from this Radbaz that definitionally, a king worthy of his name must be accessible to his people; he must be halakhically able to dwell among them and vice versa.[4] This responsum about an abstruse detail in a law pertaining to the city of refuge thus teaches a powerful lesson in leadership: a true leader is someone who is fully available to his followers and lives in their midst. As mentioned above, Rabbi Kelemer himself embodied this teaching, as he insisted upon being counted among his congregants even while, as Rabbi Dovid Cohen put it, “he wore the crown.”

As in teaching Torah, so too in the realm of pesak: just as he expertly and seamlessly tailored shiurim to his audience, he administered pesak only by intimate familiarity with the situation. Many times he advised greater stringency for yeshiva students than for matters pertaining to the whole community, reflecting his consideration of the needs of his shul and his belief that full-time study of Torah should elevate a person to higher standards. His empathy in piskei Halakhah also reflected a profound Torat Hesed, borne from internalizing the words of Rambam, “the laws of the Torah are not meant as vengeance against the world, but rather [provide] compassion, kindness, and peace to the world” (Hilkhot Shabbat 2:3). What others might perceive as leniencies, such as accommodations for the shul schedule or directives to override Shabbat or Yom Tov in the face of health risks, Rabbi Kelemer considered as stringencies regarding the value of human health, kevod ha-tzibur (respect for the congregation), or the like.[5]

Similarly, Rabbi Kelemer nearly always ruled on the side of greater inclusivity. As published elsewhere, he was a trailblazer in encouraging Yachad members to receive aliyot and speak in the shul. He likewise liberally applied leniencies regarding relationships with unaffiliated Jews,[6] supported non-Orthodox Jewish institutions, and dispensed wisdom to any Jew who sought his counsel. Rabbi Ari Lamm recounts how Rabbi Kelemer was horrified that one of his congregants questioned the propriety of praying for Jews who violated Shabbat. I was only mildly surprised when, after asking him about a certain Halakhah regarding interactions with non-Jews, he insisted upon following Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik and Meiri’s position that many of the talmudic prohibitions regarding pagans are no longer applicable.[7] Rabbi Kelemer’s positions stemmed not from an inclination towards leniency, but from his strong sense that kevod ha-beri’ot is itself an overriding halakhic concern. In today’s society, Rabbi Kelemer felt that the proper application of laws pertaining to disbelieving Jews or non-Jews is to treat them with respect, generosity, and warmth.[8]

Rabbi Kelemer’s emphasis on inclusivity reflected a personal mission to demonstrate the respect that Torah itself has for humanity and the dignity that Halakhah confers upon its adherents. In a letter to Rabbi Kelemer in 1976, when he served as a rabbi in Brookline, Rav Moshe Feinstein responded to a question regarding the propriety of the feminist movement and its implications for Halakhah.[9] Rav Moshe emphasized that one cannot change a single Halakhah in response to modern values, but he also stressed that the Torah believes in the equality of the sexes regarding kedushat Yisrael, the essential holiness of men and women. He urged Rabbi Kelemer to explain this fact whenever issues of gender in Halakhah arise. Similarly, in Rav Elyashiv’s letter to Rabbi Kelemer at about the same time, the former likewise blessed Rabbi Kelemer that he sanctify God’s name through his teachings and his personal example of the grandeur of Torah. Rabbi Kelemer fulfilled this charge of Rav Elyashiv and Rav Moshe Feinstein to the nth degree; as an eminent talmid hakham, he symbolized the ennobling power of Torah and personified the depth to which Halakhah is concerned with the dignity of both men and women. Rabbi Kelemer exemplified the talmudic dictum, “happy is his father who taught him Torah, happy is his teacher who taught him Torah” (Yoma 86a). As Rambam writes, “all praise and love him, and desire [to imitate] his deeds, behold this [person] sanctified the name [of God]” (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-torah 5:11).

As mentioned above, the Gemara teaches that a person is supposed to seek Torah from a teacher who is like an angel. With regard to Rabbi Kelemer, who simply exuded saintliness, this maxim needs no further elaboration, but an interpretation of R. Pinhas Horowitz sheds further light on Rabbi Kelemer’s character. R. Horowitz interprets this Gemara to mean that just as angels are spiritually stationary, incapable of self-improvement, so too a teacher of Torah must be ready to give up his own spiritual growth for the sake of his students.[10] Perhaps precisely because Rabbi Kelemer so selflessly dedicated himself to shepherding a Jewish community, he somehow, almost miraculously, was able to continue devoting superhuman energies to studying Torah. Several times I have heard him cite from recently published sefarim, and he frequently shared insights that were, by his own testimony, products of his recent rethinking of an issue. Despite having totally thrust himself into assisting and supporting others, his mind was continually occupied with havayot d’Abayei ve-Rava [the give-and-take in Gemara].

With yeshiva students who grew up in the community, he would continue their previous conversations in learning each time they would meet, as if he had constantly been thinking of them and the Torah they had shared, even if years had passed in between. I personally have had dozens of unfinished conversations and emails with Rabbi Kelemer that ended on cliffhangers; there was always another question to ask, another source to cite. Rabbi Kelemer remembered every unanswered question. Every time we’d meet in person, he would say, “I owe you an explanation of this Tosafot in Yevamot,” or “I owe you that mareh makom [citation].”

Rebbe, how could you possibly owe us anything, after you have already given us so much of yourself in impossible amounts? You never let us give back anything in return, but now we all owe it to you, to the Ribbono shel Olam, and to each other to study more Torah, focus more on prayer, to be kinder, more generous, more welcoming, and more loving to help fill even a tiny drop of the gaping void left by your passing.

Yehi zikhro barukh.

[1] Published with the full heading in Kitvei HGRY”S: Shabbat (Jerusalem: 2005), p. 14. Of course, when Rabbi Kelemer himself sent the letters for publication in a Torah journal (Beit Hillel 46:2, Tamuz 5771), he omitted the titles and greetings that Rav Elyashiv wrote to him.

[2] Tzenif Melukhah (Jerusalem, 1971). Years later, Rabbi Kelmer also wrote a sefer on the laws of the marriage contract, Tosefet Ketubah, which includes many footnotes providing ample evidence of Rabbi Kelemer’s erudition (see, e.g., 6:2).

[3] There are several laws and potentially complicating factors which may be applicable, depending on the circumstance; see Sefer Hafetz Hayyim, Leshon Ha-Ra 9:2. Rabbi Kelemer noted that he had good precedence for his view (he referred specifically to the Brisker Rov), although he acknowledged that other great rabbis have felt otherwise (see, for example, the ethical will of the Vilna Gaon). Rambam writes that one should praise another’s good deeds as an extension of the mitzvah to “love your fellow,” and Rabbi Kelemer’s practice in this regard was of a piece with his general inclination to be “stringent” in the mitzvah of loving one’s fellow as himself, as discussed below.

[4] Rabbi Kelemer associated this with God’s sovereignty as well. For further elaboration on this idea, see R. Yitzhak Hutner, Pachad Yitzhak: Rosh Hashanah.

[5] Rabbi Kelemer once referenced his teacher, R. Chaim Shmuelevitz, in ensuring that halakhic rulings are seen as weighing different priorities, and not as has ve-shalom taking any Halakhah “lightly.” See R. Chaim Shmuelevitz, Sihot Mussar 5733 no. 30 (page 453 in the 2004 edition).

[6] Such as employed by Hazon Ish (Yoreh De’ah 2:16) and R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minhat Shelomo no. 35).

[7] See Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind: Wisdom and Reflections on Topics of Our Times (Genesis Jerusalem Press, 1991), 65.

[8] In a Shabbat Ha-Gadol derashah, Rabbi Kelemer once explained why Maggid begins with an invitation for “all who are hungry to come and eat,” even though no person may partake of the Pesah sacrifice if not specified beforehand: to teach us that while in exile, our mission must be to welcome everyone in, even those disqualified from the Pesah sacrifice, in order to ensure that at the time of redemption, as many people as possible will be “in the fold.”

[9] Published in Iggerot Moshe 6, Orah Hayyim 4:49.

[10] This idea is published in more than one instance, but among them is in the introduction to his work on Talmud, Sefer Haflaah.

Matt Lubin is a semikhah student in RIETS and a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University.