The Essence of a Godol

The unaffiliated Jewish woman attended three of the rabbi’s lectures in the 1950s, visibly intrigued by the ideas he put forth, about the historicity of the Jewish religious tradition. Then she abruptly stopped coming.

Another woman who had also attended the lecture series tracked her down and asked why she was no longer showing up. The first woman answered straightforwardly: “He was convincing me. If I continue to listen to this man, I will have to change my life.”

What a remarkably honest person. (I like to imagine that she came, in time, to pursue what she then fled.)

And what a remarkable man was the rabbi who delivered the lectures. He was Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, whose tenth yahrtzeit, or death-anniversary, will be marked on the fast day of Shiva Asar BiTammuz (July 9). He later became the Rosh Yeshiva, or Dean, of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore. He was my rebbe.

As an 18-year-old studying in the Baltimore yeshiva in 1972, I watched him from afar. His father-in-law, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman, of blessed memory, was the Rosh Yeshiva then; Rabbi Weinberg headed the Kollel, or graduate student program, and also delivered general Talmudic lectures. The depth of his knowledge, the power of his critical analyses of both Talmudic and worldly topics, his eloquence and his knowledge of history and the sciences all impressed me deeply.

But what I came to realize was that his brilliance and erudition were mere tools with which he was gifted. His essence was his dedication to truth, to Torah and to his students – indeed, to all Jews – and his humility.

When I think back on the many times I telephoned Rabbi Weinberg from wherever I was living at the time to ask him a question about Jewish law or philosophy, or for his advice, I am struck by something I never gave much thought to at those times: He was always available. And, I have discovered over the years, not only to me. As I came to recognize all the others – among them greatly accomplished Torah scholars, congregational rabbis and community leaders today – who had also enjoyed a student-rebbe relationship with Rabbi Weinberg, I marveled. In my youthful self-centeredness, I had imagined him as my rebbe alone. Who knew?

And his ongoing interactions with his students somehow didn’t prevent him from travelling wherever his services were needed. A sought-after speaker and arbitrator for individuals and communities alike, he somehow found time and energy for it all.

More telling, he felt responsible to undertake it all. He (and, may she be well, his wife, Rebbetzin Chana Weinberg) gave so very much to others (as the Rebbetzin continues to do). That, I long ago concluded, is the defining characteristic of true Gedolim, literally “great ones” – the term reserved for the most knowledgeable and pious Torah leaders of each generation: selflessness.

How painfully ironic, I sometimes think, that small, spiteful minds try to portray Gedolim oppositely. Then again, as the weekly Torah-portion of Korach recently read in synagogue reminds us, no less a Godol than Moses – the “most humble of all men” – was also spoken of cynically by some in his day. Plus ça change…

It wasn’t just in his public life, in his service to students and communities that Rabbi Weinberg’s self-effacement was evident. It was in little things too.

In the early 1980s, he was asked to temporarily take the helm of a small yeshiva in Northern California that had fallen on hard times. Although not a young man, he agreed to leave his home and position in Baltimore and become interim dean.

My wife and I and our three daughters lived in the community; I taught in the yeshiva and served as principal of the local Jewish girls’ high school. And so I was fortunate to have ample opportunity to work with Rabbi Weinberg, and to witness much that I will always remember. One small episode, though, remains particularly poignant.

Rabbi Weinberg was housed in a bedroom of a rented house. In the house’s other bedroom lived the yeshiva’s cooks – a middle-aged couple, recently immigrated from the Soviet Union.

Though Northern California has a wonderful climate, its winters can be a bit chilly, and the house’s heating system was not working. The yeshiva administrator made sure that extra blankets were supplied to the house’s residents, and an electric heater was procured for Rabbi Weinberg (the cooks, it was figured, had been toughened by a truly cold clime).

After a week or two of cold, rainy weather, it was evident that Rabbi Weinberg had caught a bad cold. Suspecting that perhaps the electric heater was not working, someone went to his room to check it. It wasn’t there.

Where it was, it turned out, was in the cooks’ room. Confronted with the discovery, Rabbi Weinberg sheepishly admitted to having relocated the heater. “I thought they would be cold,” was all he said.

Another heater was bought. And a lesson, once again, learned, about the essence of a Godol.

© 2009 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission, provided the above copyright notice is appended.

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22 Responses

  1. Jewish Observer says:

    “It is now the fault of kannoyim that we can’t wear blue shirts at a chasuna?”

    – nor vos?

    “And as for full time learning, that is a wonderful ideal that even YU boys aspire to.”

    – Precisely my point. RLO was implying that by hiding himself away in Baltimore he is exempting himiself from those ‘sinister’ influences of the Briskers

    “As far as I can tell Ner Israel and Baltimore are very highly respected in the yeshiva world. Yes, they are looked at as somewhat left of the center, but very highly respected.”

    – This makes me wonder what community you are in. From where I sit, NIRC is viewed as ‘maybe one shade better than YU’. From the POV of my kids’ yeshiva ketana hanhalah (NOT Lakewood!) if your son ends up going to Ner Israel Mechina (that’s Baltimore for Mesivta) you – and they – have not succeeded.

  2. Michoel says:

    There is a very interesting book by a talmid of Rav Weinberg, R. Daniel Frank. He basically transcribes his rebbi’s talks at the Torah U’Mesorah convention, which touched on a lot of topics really peripheral to chinuch. Believe it or not… good arguments could be made to paint Rav Weinberg as the “kannoi” and other Roshei Yeshiva as the tolerant ones! See there for how he felt about women working out of the home. Or around page 56 where he touches briefly on the theory of Evolution, or his shitos on a variety of other topics. Rav Weinberg made the community kollel idea a huge priority. But why is that more or less “moderate” then full time learning in Lakewood? And his shitos in Rambam were hardly from the academic school.

    RE JO,
    It is now the fault of kannoyim that we can’t wear blue shirts at a chasuna? And as for full time learning, that is a wonderful ideal that even YU boys aspire to. As far as I can tell Ner Israel and Baltimore are very highly respected in the yeshiva world. Yes, they are looked at as somewhat left of the center, but very highly respected.

  3. Jewish Observer says:

    “I cannot for the life of me understand why normal human beings who work for a living and speak English as their first tongue voluntarily chose to live in a city where the zealots rule with an iron hand, why ?”

    – Is this a bigger kushya than that which bnei eretz yisroel ask about why a yid would willingliy choose to live in chu”l?

  4. Jewish Observer says:

    “There are idologues who … want to eliminate anyone who has “reformist”,”moderate” ideas. I am so happy we live in a free country and these zealots don’t run my life.”

    They may impact your life more than you realize:

    – Do you / your children feel pressure to have your / their children (at least say they eant to) learn full time after marriage?
    – Would you be self conscious weraing a blue shirt to a chasunah?
    – Do you enjoy feeling mariginalized in the yeshiva world?
    – Is your beloved NIRC \at risk of losing the latitude it once provided regarding college?

  5. L. Oberstein says:

    Long ago, I realized that that the orthodox are the only Jews in America who are motivated by theological beliefs and ideology.The majority are more sociological in their choice of a group, rligious belief has nothing much to do with Jewish observance. The big exception is the really frum orthodox who care a lot about these issues of who is a “kofer”, who believes in false ideas,etc. The battle between Rabbi Svei (let’s call a spade a spade) and Rabbi Weinberg may or may not have originated even a generation earlier. One school of thought allowed college and another is today elilminating high school, one claims that Rav Aharon would have been even more against secular education than anything in his life realy indicated and the other is finding ways for Jews to earn a parnassa. The battle ground has created two “Agudahs”. Those in the loop tell me that Ner Yisroel is not really considered part of the Torah world to those who wear Brisker Payos and follow the Brisker derech, whatever that means. They are the ones who run Lakewood . I am told that the normative Agudah of Rabbi Sherer is having a hard time dealing with this split in its ranks.
    So, there are idologues who really take their theology seriously and want to eliminate anyone who has “reformist”,”moderate” ideas. I am so happy we live in a free country and these zealots don’t run my life. I cannot for the life of me understand why normal human beings who work for a living and speak English as their first tongue voluntarily chose to live in a city where the zealots rule with an iron hand, why ?
    Rabbi Weinberg may have been a much greater godol than many of his oppononts and his very greatness aroused etheir ire. We see this behaviour in the media every day in another country.Thank goodness ,these people don’t rule in this country. If they were the only face of orthodoxy, I would run as fast as I could in the opposite direction. Sincere doesn’t equal menchlichkeit.

  6. Albie says:

    Jewish Observer,

    Please don’t misunderstand me. I have nothing personal, chas vosholom, against you (How could I? I don’t know who you are!). But we do in fact know why we’re still in golus – because of unjustified dislike.

    Criticism of ideas is okay. But I don’t think that it’s okay for us to criticize gedolim (and good organizations led by good people). And especially when the criticism is unwarranted! You wrote harshly about respected rabbis (those on the Moetzes gedolei Torah) for making a decision (about who to invite to sit with them) that they were entitled to make and that did not say anything negative about Rav Weinberg.

    All I’m asking is hat we all make an effort to recognize that there are differences of approach not only among ourselves but among Gedolim. And that those differences don’t need to lessen our respect for one another or for any of those gedolim.

    Looking forward to being with you at the Beis Hamikdash!

  7. Jewish Observer says:

    “I think that being cynical toward groups like the Agudah (not to mention the Moetzes rabbis themselves, because they, not the Agudah, decide who is invited to join the Moetzes) only helps make sure that Shiva Asar B’Tamuz and Tisha B’A remain fast days.”

    – Ouch! I appreciate your zeal but doubt RW himself would ever claim he knew the cause of the golus, much less assign its blame to someone with whom he was debating!! Further, why assume the worst and deem cynicism what you could more generously deem criticism? That can’t be a good thing for ending ta’aniyot va’aniyot, no? As far as the substance of your criticism, I never knew RW to shy away from clarifying the emes, even when that emes illuminates uncomfortably on a Jewish organization.

    Love :-)

    – JO

  8. Albie says:

    Jewish Observer:

    Above you wrote “Obviously” about my point that a Moetzes decision (if there was one) to not include a particular godol doesn’t say anything negative about him or them. In your more recent posting, you refer to “Agudah’s snub” and our generation’s lack of “ability to tolerate” some gedolim.

    Please re-read my earlier posting, especially its last line. I honestly think that Rabbi Weinberg would not be happy with what you write. And I think that being cynical toward groups like the Agudah (not to mention the Moetzes rabbis themselves, because they, not the Agudah, decide who is invited to join the Moetzes) only helps make sure that Shiva Asar B’Tamuz and Tisha B’A remain fast days.

  9. Jewish Observer says:

    “the ultimate question is … can this new generation produce/tolerate a r’ weiberg!!”

    – I think Agudah’s snub says something about their perception of our generation’s ability to tolerate RW’s gadlus

  10. joe says:

    the ultimate question is not if r’ weinberg was part of the aguda leadership etc but can this new generation produce/tolerate a r’ weiberg!! many r’ weinberg”s are needed but will we allow them to operate on this new societal turf.

  11. Albie says:

    Jewish Observer:

    If that was your point, you could have found it “impressive,” not “ironic” that an Aguda spokesperson lauded Rabbi Weinberg, even though he was not on the Moetzes.

    This time of year, let’s all try to be positive, not negative.

  12. Bob Miller says:

    Did anyone ever claim that the Moetzes was meant to contain all Gedolim? Any board of this type needs to limit membership to a workable number.

  13. Michoel says:

    Rabbi Oberstein shlit’a has chimed in again on how glorious and cheery everything was in the good old tolerant days of Reb Yaakov and other real gadolim. There were big machlokesin involving Reb Moshe and Rav Hutner, Reb Yaakov and Rav Gedalyah Schorr and many others. Rav Weinberg was held in very high regard by the g’dolim of the moetzes and Rav Aharon Shechter (one of the leading Rabbanim in the Agudah) gave a very moving hespid at Rav Weinberg’s lavaya. Not every gadol can necessarily work well with every other gadol, since they have different and strongly held shitos. That does not mean that anyone has been “blackballed”.

  14. Jewish Observer says:

    “Where in the world did you get the idea that only those in the Moetzes are considered gedolim? Some of the greatest rosh yeshivas and rebbes have not been part of that group, which is a rabbinic leadership board of the Agudah.”

    – Precisely my point. I just thought it was ironic that davka the spokesperson for Agudah, the only organization in America I know of that actually has an official committee of gedolim should laud Rabbi Weinberg as a godol, even though his organization davka deemed otherwise.

    “I don’t know if Rabbi Weinberg — who I knew and loved — was excluded from the Moetzes or if he asked to join and turned them down or if he was never asked.”

    – He was exculded, which at the time was a source of great consternation and nearly a total severing of ties between NIRC and Agudah.

    “But whatever, he was definitely a man with an independent mind and if he wasn’t thought of by the Moetzes rabbis as someone who should be alongside them, that was their right to decide. It doesn’t say anything negative about him or about them.”

    – Obviously

  15. Chicago says:

    A very beautiful portrayal of an extraordinary gadol.

    The author is obviously frustrated by those upset who question gedolim. However, these individuals are not small, and spiteful, rather hurt and weakened.

    1] Those who were victims of abuse want a caring ear of gedolim to hear them out. They want to know the gedolim feel the pain, and will take meaningful steps to stop the problems. Yet, gedolim are too busy with operational Judaism to take the time to meet the public who NEEDS them most. As uncomfortable, awkward, and uncomfortable as the first meeting might be, it will be a fresh start for what a gadol means.

    2] Those making less than six figures have no value in the eyes of gedolim. Organizational conventions and dinners are not for the regular crowd. As a result, there is a tremendous disconnect. While it may not be financially beneficial, gedolim availing themselves to the general population can pay dividends in the future.

    As it stands now, this article is preaching to the already committed choir. It makes no inroads in the two greatest need areas. Calling people small and spiteful is disingenuous and uncalled for.

  16. Albie says:

    Jewish Observer:

    Where in the world did you get the idea that only those in the Moetzes are considered gedolim? Some of the greatest rosh yeshivas and rebbes have not been part of that group, which is a rabbinic leadership board of the Agudah.

    I don’t know if Rabbi Weinberg — who I knew and loved — was excluded from the Moetzes or if he asked to join and turned them down or if he was never asked. But whatever, he was definitely a man with an independent mind and if he wasn’t thought of by the Moetzes rabbis as someone who should be alongside them, that was their right to decide. It doesn’t say anything negative about him or about them. Gedolim can have legitimate differences of opinion that are not personal or the result of what L.Oberstein considers their “imperfections.”

  17. mycroft says:

    “- I agree with your definition of gedolim and find it more painfully ironic that of all gedolim, davka someone of the stature of Rabbi Weinberg was excluded from Agudah’s moetzes of gedolim! The small and spiteful minds have been taught that those like RW are not gedolim.

    Comment by Jewish Observer — July 3, 2009”

    In fairness he became part of the moetzes before his too early death.
    Your point is well taken if one assumes the moetzses =the leading gdolim. OI have used the example of Rav Weinberg many times as my proof that the moetzes is really a rabbinic advisory group that includes many gdolim and some non gdolim. The non gdolim that I am aware of have done great things for klall Israel. But to pretend that the Moetzes always equlas those of the greatest knowledge in the general Agudah sphere is not true.

  18. ClooJew says:

    Rav Weinberg’s petirah was a huge blow to Klal Yisrael.

    I learned for one year in Ner Israel and remember his Motzei Shabbos shiurim for their depth and breadth.

  19. L. Oberstein says:

    One of the big problems is that people become religious filled with idealism and then see that religious people have all the flaws of everyone else. Sometimes, the ones we are taught are close to perfect are revealed as mere mortals with imperfections like jealosy,narrow mindedness, intolerance and especially a lust for power. The whole cult of godol worship may have gotten beyond what our tradition teaches.
    Rabbi Weinberg suffered from “thugs” that was his word. He was relegated to second class “godol-hood” not because he could learn less well but because his ideas were not shared by the ones who had the most power. Fortunately, in the United States, our system of seperation of church and state prevents some of the excesses we are seeing elsewhere. Do you not sometimes wonder how far it would go if those who espouse the idea that all government is subservient to the leader would ever gain control of a Jewish state?
    I saw real gedolim like Rav Yaakov kamenetzky and Rav Ruderman, they were nice people who would not have blackballed a fellow rosh yeshiva because he didn’t tow their party line. It is a shame when those who wear the mantle of G-d’s representatives on Earth are just human like us. This flaw has gone to the zionist religious also,who blindly follow some rabbis as if they actually knew what they were talking about. Such as, “the Gaza expulsion will not happen,.” If only humans would admit to being just humans.

  20. Raymond says:

    I was a high school student at Rambam Torah Institute here in Los Angeles more than a generation ago. In those days in this city, there were very few religious Jewish schools, and so they would take students of any and all degrees of religiosity. Being high school students, many of us had a rather skeptical, even cynical, approach toward our Rabbis. Yet I was among many who considered Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg’s annual visit to our high school to be the intellectual and spiritual highlight of the year. I remember how he would welcome any and all questions, with no limitations, accepting and meeting all challenges magnificently. He would calmly, systematically, and enthusiastically answer all of our questions. Given how we often treated our teachers, this accomplishment of his was no small feat.

  21. Jewish Observer says:

    “He gave so very much to others. That, I long ago concluded, is the defining characteristic of true Gedolim, literally “great ones” – the term reserved for the most knowledgeable and pious Torah leaders of each generation: selflessness.

    How painfully ironic, I sometimes think, that small, spiteful minds try to portray Gedolim oppositely.”

    – I agree with your definition of gedolim and find it more painfully ironic that of all gedolim, davka someone of the stature of Rabbi Weinberg was excluded from Agudah’s moetzes of gedolim! The small and spiteful minds have been taught that those like RW are not gedolim.

  22. lacosta says:

    here’s another instance of a gadol byisrael. as reported this week , they came to r elyahshiv shlita to ask him to ban MP4 players. his retort was ‘does the oilam still listen to such bans?’

    amazing— to have the insight to realize that the unlimited use of bans, cherems, etc. that the Kanoim and shtadlonim want [and consequently often present biased data to the gdolim, who are often sheltered from ‘the street’, essentially ‘blinding the eyes of tzadikim’] often, nay ,usually, has the opposite effect….