Last weekend, in which the parshah we read referenced an eshkol anavim, Klal Yisrael lost an ish ha-eshkolos. Rav Yehoshua Leiman z”l was niftar after a long struggle with illness.
Separated as we were by thousands of miles (he lived in Flatbush), I did not know him well, but knew that he was remarkable the very first time I met him, at one of the first AJOP conventions. I don’t recall how we first began speaking, but it became apparent that he was a genius. (It is probably familial. Yibadel le-chayim tovim, his brother is Prof. Shnayer Leiman.) I deliberately chose the elliptical “became apparent,” because he didn’t flaunt it. He was downright easy-going, modest and accessible.
Our conversations initially were about Maharal, and spread to other sifrei machshavah. He would always challenge me – to provide a source here, refine a thought there. His Torah interests were eclectic. Although clearly self-defining as a member of the haredi Yeshivah world, he was familiar with historical and academic figures and scholarship, Rav Kook, and the philosophical works of the rishonim (the ones not studied too often any more in yeshivos).
He was extremely medakdek in halacha, carrying around a sack of personal chumros and hanhagos. (Even when he came to Los Angeles for medical treatment last summer, already in a weakened state, he refused food from all givers. He made his own arrangements for food and even its preparation. When he surprised me and took a long walk to my house on a Shabbos afternoon, I couldn’t get him to eat anything more than fresh fruit.) He lacked the somberness and distance that sometimes goes along with such dikduk. His voice was always full of life, and there was an ever-present twinkle in his eyes. He was an easy conversationalist with people from all walks of life, including those who could not keep up with him intellectually if he let out the throttle.
He was a pioneer in English-language Torah literature. Decades ago, when little else existed in haredi circles besides the Jewish Observer, he published The Light, a modest periodical that among other things, brought important machshavah pieces that would otherwise have been missed (and some that couldn’t be published in the Jewish Observer!) to the attention of the community. It was a harbinger of the explosion of Torah thought and literature that would follow.
He was full of ahavas Yisrael, which included people far from his community. He sent off series of emails to the West Coast during the imprisonment of Irv Rubin and Earl Krugel of the JDL, urging people to look in after them, and to provide for their Yiddishkeit while incarcerated. He worried about their safety, and proved to be remarkably prescient. Irv Rubin died while in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Detention Center. (His death was ruled a suicide, but the method was so out of the ordinary that many people simply did not believe it.) Earl Krugel, almost immediately after transfer to a Federal facility (where he should have been segregated from general population because he was a high-profile prisoner) was murdered by an inmate either acting on orders of, or trying to curry favor with, skinheads.
Rav Leiman’s combination of intellect and feeling, his scope of interests and learning were sui generis. He will be greatly missed.
Yehi zichro baruch.