Sunday, May 10, 2009

Rabbi Elya Svei - Zichrono L’Vracha

Though I am late with this eulogy, I would be remiss if I did not mention the passing of Rabbi Elya Svei – a man whom many considered the Gadol HaDor.

Several thousand of Rabbi Svei’s Talmidim gathered to pay their last respects to their mentor last March. They were joined by thousands of others all over the world.

Rabbi Svei was born on Tannis Esther 5684 (March 19, 1924), and died on Rosh Chodesh Nissan 5769 (March 26, 2009). His primary mentor was Rav Aharon Kotler. He received his main Torah education at Yeshiva Torah VoDaath where he received his secular education as well. Legend has it that he attended university for one day and dropped out. He was a zealous opponent of college for the rest of his life. He joined Lakewood Yeshiva at age 20

In the early 1960s Rabbi Svei became the co-Rosh HaYeshiva with Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia which quickly became the standard of excellence to be emulated in the Yeshiva world.

He once famously said that since the Yeshiva is mandated by law to have a secular studies program we might as well insist that our students not waste their time during those hours. The ‘Philadelphia Yeshiva’ had a reputation for having an excellent secular studies program in its early years. In later years Rabbi Svei abolished homework as taking too much time away from Torah study.

For much of his career Rav Svei served as head of the Agudah Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah where he was revered. He was considered by many to by the American Gadol HaDor. Ponevezh Rosh HaYeshiva Rav Eliezer Menachem Man Shach gave him that crown with the message that ‘America rests on his shoulders’.

He also served as head of rabbinical advisory board for Torah U’Mesorah where after disagreeing with a decision made - he suddenly and controversially fired its long time executive vice president, Rabbi Joshua Fishman, a disciple of Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner (1906-1980). Rav Svei retired from his position atTorah U’Mesorah shortly after that.

His distancing himself from Chilul Hashem was legendary – once rejecting a government holocaust studies program that would have meant a huge influx of government dollars – for fear that it might someday not fully live up to the standard required of it.

His sage advice on all manner of issues big and small - both public and private - was sought by many Charedi leaders and layman all over the world. His sense of responsibility to all of Klal Yiosroel was legendary. He made himself available to all - whether Rosh HaYeshiva or simple Baal HaBos – giving hours of his time even when he could barely spare any – never letting on how busy he was.

He was zealous advocate of the Torah Only Hashkafa - whereby students were all encouraged to study Torah only - to the exclusion of everything else - in Yeshivos and Kollelim for as long as possible.

Enemy of God. This is the phrase he once publicly ascribed to an Orthodox Jewish leader whose Yeshiva advocated the Torah U’Madda approach. It was in response to a speech the latter gave characterizing those who learn full time - never leaving the walls of the Beis HaMedrash - as staying in ‘the cave’ of Torah study - a reference to a Gemarah that discussed these issues. Rabbi Svei took it as a canard against the Charedi Yeshiva world - as the word cave implied that such students were being called primitive cavemen. He never retratced that statement.

His passing leaves a void that cannot be filled. He was a beloved figure and a true fighter for his beliefs. And was widely respected and emulated by many. May his memory be a blessing.