Monday, April 08, 2013

The Making of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel

Although I haven’t read any of the biographies that have been written about Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, I happened to pick up the ArtScroll bio this past Shabbos and skimmed through it. I noticed something remarkable. Rav Nosson Tzvi recognized that his experiences as a young man growing up in Chicago made him who he was.

I’m not saying that his background here was the only thing that made him great. Obviously there was a lot more that went into the making of this Gadol than just his background. The stories told about him are legendary. We all know about the way he ran Yeshivas Mir – growing it into the largest Yeshiva in the world.

We know about his Hasmada (diligence) in learning Torah. We know about the closeness he felt towards his students in the Mir. And the enthusiasm he had in building not only the huge attendance but the bricks and mortar to house them.

And we especially all know about the Parkinson’s disease that plagued him until his death. The disease he suffered was not curable but... it was treatable with medication. But when he was told that it might slow down his mind, he refused to take it – preferring to struggle with the symptoms rather than allowing anything to interfere with his mind.

By the time of his unexpected and sudden death he was recognized world-wide as a Gadol B’Yisroel - From the Charedi right to the Modern Orthodox left.

One often reads in various biographies written by the right that if one of their Gedolim did not come directly from their Charedi midst, they would either ignore that, or say something like, “Despite his background he became the great and heroic figure he was.” Some call a biography with selective editing to conform to preconceived notions be, Hagiographies. They simply omit the parts of the bio that do not conform to their Hashkafos.

When ArtScroll publisher R’Nosson Scherman was once asked why he omitted what Charedim consider unflattering historical facts about his biographical subjects he answered something to the effect that in Judaism - history is not about regurgitating facts ‘willy-nilly’. It is about inspiring the reader about the greatness of those people.

What Charedim must mean by saying that is that they do not want to imply that there is any other way to become a Gadol than the Charedi way. In the rare instances where they can’t hide it, they explain it away with the word ‘despite’. Meaning that don’t you dare try and raise your children that way because you are not the Gadol R’ (fill in the blank) was. He overcame it, you might not, and who knows… you might even go off the Derech!

I do not call that inspiring. I call it propaganda and misleading. Thankfully Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel’s legacy would not allow for such an omission. One of the things he is famous for saying, both privately and publicly is that he excelled in his role as a Rosh Yeshiva of the Mir because of his childhood, not despite it! There was very little Artscroll could do to scrub that out of its bio of him. So they published it in the introduction to chapter 12 -  his youth in Chicago.

So what was his youth like? He went to a coed Orthodox Jewish high school. And he lived a more or less modern Orthodox lifestyle. That is what Chicago was like then. There was no Agudah then. Telshe had just begun. Mizrachi (Religious Zionism) ruled the city. If you were religious in those days, you very likely were a member of Mizrachi. I don’t know if R’ Nosson Tzvi went to Camp Moshava (a coed Mizrachi camp) but it wouldn’t surprise me. Just about everyone who went to a summer camp in those days went to Moshava.

As R’ Avraham Chaim Levine said in his Hespid for him. R’ Nosson Tzvi was a typical American kid. A good kid, to be sure - but American no less.  I don’t know if you could say he was raised modern Orthodox. But the fact that he was sent to a coed high school even though HTC had been around since the 1920s seems to indicate that this is how he was raised. He must have interacted with the girls in his class just serving on the student council.

And yet he said that his childhood made him who he was. I’m sure that some will laugh at this and say that this is not what he meant. But to the best of my knowledge he never qualified his statement.

Of course he didn’t raise his own children that way.  I suppose that would have been impossible as the Rosh Yeshiva of the Mir. Nor do I think sending a teenager to a coed high school is a good idea. I don’t think it is. But it was certainly a good idea in R’Nosson’s case.

I don’t think his children will have the same advantages he did as Rosh Yeshiva… Nor will their character develop in the same way.This does not mean to say that his children aren’t great people. I’m sure they are in their own way. But in my humble opinion, they will not be as great as their father because they will not have had his background… the background that R’ Nosson Tzvi attributes his success to.

R’ Nosson Tzvi is not alone in achieving greatness because of a background that is dissimilar to how he ultimately lived his life. There are many great people who had backgrounds like that. I personally believe that the broader the background the greater one can become. If one follows the straight and narrow of singular Hashkafa, he may become a great person too. But in many cases his greatness will be limited by the limited background experiences.

In my opinion, this means that if you want your children to excel in life, your should expose them to many Hashkafos – including those that are different than your own… and let them choose. Barring any unusual circumstances, you will not be sorry.