Thursday, March 14, 2013

The True Measure of Great Men

R' Mordechai Kamenetsky - photo credit: Matzav
Chicago has the unfortunate but well deserved distinction of missing out on opportunities to be one of the greatest Torah centers in the world. We have allowed some of the greatest Jewish personalities of the 20th and 21st century to slip through our fingers. From the Ridvaz, to Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik; R’ Dovid Lipshitz to Rav Chaim Kreisworth;  Rav Mendel Kaplan to R’ Chaim Zimmerman…  and of more recent vintage R’ Eliyahu Solveichik, R’ Yosef Gavriel Bechoffer, R’ Shlomo Morgenstern, and R’ Tzvi Kamenetsky. (I'm sure I left more than a few great religious figures out.)

Some who were invited here for positions of leadership never came for lack of funding. Some came and soon left of their own volition, some left because they were literally chased out of town, and some left because they were fired from their position at HTC.

The sorriest episode in my lifetime is how Rav Ahron Soloveichik was treated by the board of directors… and even many of his religious studies faculty (some Rebbeim, and some of its administration) at HTC - ultimately being fired. (His expired contract was not renewed).  We do not always treat our truly great leaders all that well here.

Can anyone, for example, imagine if R' Joseph B. Soloveitchik had resided in Chicago - what Chicago would be like today? But I digress.

Rabbi Zvi Kamenetsky was one of the later ones to leave. He was a treasure here in Chicago for his entire tenure. From the time he came as a member of the Chicago Community Kollel – through his time as an 8th grade Rebbe at Arie Crown Hebrew Day School all the way through his final period as a Rebbe and Mashgiach at HTC’s Fasman Yeshiva High School.  He left Chicago to accept a position as a principal in a religious school in Toronto.

His loss is still being felt. He was a role model of behavior for all Jews… but more importantly for Mechanchim. The care and attention paid to his students was legendary.  As was his Mentchlichkeit in how he interacted with all human beings – Orthodox Jews of all persuasions, non Orthodox Jews, and non Jews as well. He was a beloved figure here. 

I truly believe that this was ingrained in his nature. Mentchlichkeit  is an inherited trait of the Kamenetzky family. One that his grandfather Rav Yaakov, a true Gadol, had which made him a hero to me. Mentchlichkeit is in the DNA of the Kamenetsky family.

Which brings me to the point of this post. What is true for R’ Zvi, is just as true for his brother R’ Mordechai.

Last Monday I wrote a post about an article in Ami Magazine by R’ Mordechai Kamenetsky that appeared to attack me in ways that I felt were untrue and unfair. I explained why I felt that way. But I was also Dan L’Kav Zechus in thinking it was only because he didn’t know me - and that because a member of his family was unfairly attacked by me - that he took umbrage at it. So I forgave him immediately without seeking an apology.

Nonetheless Rabbi Kamenetsky sent me a sincere letter of apology as soon as he was able to after his brother R’ Zvi (among others) informed him of my post. (He does not read blogs.) While still disagreeing with my premise, he assured me that he did not mean me at all when he made those attacks against Hashkafa blogs. He acknowledged that everything that he was ever sent from my pen was sensible and respectful.   His ire was directed at the meanness at bloggers and commenters directed at very serious Roshei Yeshiva and Rabbanim whose words are often taken out of context to fit their angry agenda.  

I was very gratified to hear that.

Not only because he didn’t mean me… but because I agree with him. I have in fact said as much in posts dealing with the subject. My views are that if one does not understand the words of great rabbinic figures, or feels that their own views which are based on differing approaches to the issue at hand (especially if those differing approaches are corroborated by one’s own Rebbeim or their Mesorah) - one may question them as long as it is done respectfully. That is what I do here all the time. But to insult or denigrate any great Torah figure – no matter how much one may disagree with them is just plain wrong… and the opposite of the ‘pleasant ways of the Torah’.

The bottom line is that I intuited correctly about Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetsky. I knew that he could not have meant me if he really knew me – even if only from my writings and not personally. I felt then as I do now that Rav Yaakov’s children and grandchildren are built of the same DNA. The Light of Torah shines right through their character. And it turned out that I misunderstood who he was attacking. People who I have criticized in similar ways.

This does not mean we agree. I still feel that the way his uncle, Rabbi Hirsch Diskind worded his criticism of how a Rebbe from his childhood reacted to the death of Bialik could be misunderstood. It could easily be extended to be a criticism of anything secular, no matter the value. I stand by that view.

Rabbi Kamenestky feels that my view is unjustified and that his uncle only meant to contrast that with his Rebbe’s sorrow over the death of Bialik with his sorrow over the death of the Chafetz Chaim.

We agreed to just disagree about that. But that is secondary to the point I am making here, which is that just like his brother R’ Zvi, I consider R’ Mordechai Kamenetsky to be a true heir to his grandfather’s heritage and a role model for all Mechanchim. And it is Mentchlichkeit that is the true measure of great men.