Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Torah U’Mada of Rav Yitzchak Hutner

One of the most revered Charedi Gedolim of the 20th century was Rav Yitzchak Hutner. He was indeed a Gadol – a Torah giant. His magnum Opus Pachad Yitzchak was written at a very early age. If I understand correctly it was published by his daughter, Rebbitzin Bruriah David.

I never met him but I am quite an admirer of his. He was a revered Rosh HaYeshiva and rabbinic leader – a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudath Israel.

If the current Charedi rabbinic leaders were to follow his path - we would be living in a different world. It is a curious fact of life, however, that his successor Rav Aharon Schechter the current Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivas Rabbenu Chaim Berlin does not seem to really follow in his Rebbe’s footsteps. Nor did another famous student of his, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe. He attended college and received a degree. But he does not advocate it for his current students.

This is not to cast any aspersions on anyone - certainly not Rabbi Perlow. People have a right to their own views. Rabbi Perlow was my 12th grade Rebbe and I still respect him and all he brings to the table as a rabbinic leader in Klal Yisroel .

But there are some students who I believe did follow in his footsteps - at least in having a positive attitude about secular studies. One of them is Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. Another is Rav Aaron Soloveichik. While obviously not identical to Rav Hutner I believe their Hashkafos are far truer to Rav Hutner’s than the current Rosh HaYeshiva of Chaim Berlin.

Rav Hutner was at his core a believer in the value of secular studies and limited participation in general culture. He spent time studying philosophy in the University of Berlin, and befriended other Gedolim there at the time including Rav Joseph B. Soloveithcik and the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Menachem Mendel Schneersohn - who attended classes there at that time. It is interesting to note that late in his life he became a fierce critic of Lubavitch.

Not only did he attend university, his daughter, Rebbitzin Bruriah David, the current head of Beis Yaakov of Jerusalem – a very Charedi women’s seminary- received her PhD from Columbia University in the seventies.

But it doesn’t stop there. Rav Hutner actually wanted to create a fully accredited Yeshiva college. Together with famed Torah VoDaath Rosh HaYeshiva Reb Sharga Feivel Mendelowitz - he had gone to the trouble to put all the elements in place including the accreditation from the New York Board of Regents.

Unfortunately Rav Hutner acceded to Rav Aharon Kotler’s wishes who urged him not to do it. It never happened because of Rav Hutner’s profound respect for Rav Aharon Kotler. But what this episode says about him is that he viewed studying secular subjects to be so positive that he was willing to create a Yeshiva college. He had not changed his views on secular studies upon his immigration to America and - it seems – they actually became even stronger.

One of the people he was very close to was my Rebbe, Rav Aharon Soloveichik. When Rav Aharon was 12 years old and still living in Europe - Rav Hutner tutored him after Rav Ahron’s father, Rav Moshe, had moved to New York to become Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva University. And years later after both had immigrated to America -when Rav Ahron was ready - he became a Rebbe in Rav Hutner’s Yeshiva as well while as retaining his position in Yeshiva University.

In his later years his look changed. But I do not believe his Hashkafos ever changed.

The following story was told by Dr Yitzchak Levine. It is about a fellow who had attended Chaim Berlin it its early years.

After graduating Mesivtha Chaim Berlin, this fellow had no connection with the yeshiva for a number of years. More than 20 years later he attended a dinner sponsored by the yeshiva. When he got to the dinner, he saw Rav Hutner sitting on the dais. He had a full beard, was wearing a very large "up hat," and a kapote. This former talmud went over to Rav Hutner, looked at him, and said, "What happened to you? This is not the way you dressed when you were my rebbe." Rav Hutner replied, "I am the same person I was when I was your rebbe. The times have changed, that is all."

Perhaps. People do evolve and sometimes modify their Hashkafos. Rav Hutner was firmly was a disciple of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook the patriarch of Religious Zionism - even though his early gounding was in the famed Slabodka Yeshiva under the Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel. But in his later years Rav Hutner seemed to move away from the Hashkafos of Rav Kook and closer to those of the Chazan Ish.

But I still believe that at the core he was the same person he had always been. This is what he meant when he answered that student of 20 years ago. His look changed and his emphasis changed, but his core values did not.

Those values included a positive view of secular studies, a warm and welcoming approach to secular Jews and an appreciation of the Halachicly permitted secular culture as evidenced by his love of opera - a fact testified to by one of his early students - a man old enough to be my father (who prefers to remain anonymous).

If only there were more Rav Hutners today.

Newly Updated: 8/22/08 - 8:34 AM CDT