I note with great sadness the petirah last week of Rabbi Zechariah Fendel z”l. In the days before Artscroll made everything accessible to us, Rabbi Fendel was one of the first to understand the need for well researched, well organized English language material. More accurately, he detected the huge gap between what people professed to believe in regarding mesorah and their actual education. He responded with a series of books (the Challenge of Sinai, Anvil of Sinai, etc.) that supported the traditional yeshiva weltanschauung with names, places, dates – and an axiology within which to place them.
I knew him in a very different way from the thousands who used his works for illumination and for reference. He was my gemara rebbi for my last two years of high school. He was perhaps the most pedagogically serious rebbi I ever had. Two elements of his teaching I remember well, and helped shaped my life.
He was the very overworked principal of the small high school at the time, and the responsibility for what today would be apportioned among several people all fell on his shoulders. Those responsibilities kept him plenty busy – along with maintaining peace and order among fractious students who delighted, if I remember correctly, in “getting away” with breaking the rules, purely for the purpose of thwarting authority. But maybe I am projecting.
Somehow, he had to make time to give the highest shiur in the school. This meant not only being available to give shiur, but having something significant to say. It was an iyun shiur, which meant that he could not let the text speak for itself. He had to come up with the valuable insights and inferences. I don’t know how he was able to do it, but he was able to focus and tune out on all the competing demands for his time and his concentration. Of course, life itself would later treat the rest of us similarly, ravaging our time and focus. He was a role model for finding time in the day to learn Torah on the highest level, as an oasis of tranquility and concentration.
That lesson had to be experienced. A second one, however, I have been able to share with talmidim many times, simply by relating it. Rabbi Fendel made us work hard in shiur. It was a very small group. He called on you, and there was no room to hide. We quickly learned that we had to produce, and spent the requisite time reviewing old shiurim and preparing the sources for the next. I remember quite well his grilling us about the content of the previous day’s shiur. We did pretty well. He startled us by saying, “Your job is not to digest and memorize everything that I have said. Your job is to challenge everything I say! You are here to prove me wrong, not to parrot!”
It was one of the most important directives about learning I ever received, and contributed to the production of a frum skeptic. I have tried to convey the same to my own students.
יהי זכרו ברוך