Sunday, February 25, 2007

An Unlikely Centrist

Within the annals of great Centrist thinkers one will find a very unlikely individual, Reb Elchanan Bunim Wasserman of Baranovich.

OK, so maybe he wasn’t a Centrist. Maybe he was even anti-Centrist. But he certainly believed in one of the cardinal principles of Centrism, the study of Mada. And he further believed that reading secular newspapers were OK too. At least that is what the “authoritative” biography of Rabbi Wasserman in Artscroll’s history series tells us. That’s right, Artscroll whose version of biographical truth includes many “lies of omission” and tries to convey the image that every Gadol was born a Gadol, conceived in the womb that way.

It is in the Artscroll “biography” that I saw this wonderful information about the Rosh HaYeshiva from Baranovoch. Rav Elchanan studied Mada and read secular newspapers. Not only did he study subjects like foreign languages and science, but he actually studied philosophy. Not Jewish philosophy but secular philosophy… specifically the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. From a footnote on page 28:

“The testimony of Dr. B.M. Levin, compiler and editor of Teshuvos Hageonim. A former Telshe Yeshiva student, he spoke from personal experience. Reb Elchanan learned German by memorizing the dictionary and mastering the language sufficiently to read newspapers and various scientific works fluently, as was known to his students of later years. (In Baranovich, for instance, he kept a copy of Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” under his bookshelves and would read it in places where Torah study is forbidden)”

And he also read newspapers. No not HaModia but Russian newspapers:

“Rabbi Yerucham Warhaftig recounted the following incident from personal experience: A member of the staff noticed “Russkaya Slova” a Russian newspaper, protruding from Reb Elchana’s pocket. Without hesitating for an instant the other person snatched the paper and rushed to the Rosh Yeshiva demanding that Reb Elchanan be punished. Reb Elchanan, for his part demanded that the paper be returned.”

I was quite surprised to find this story in an Artscroll biography, considering that Rav Nosson Kaminetsky’s book was banned for containing similar stories about various Gedolim. And after the hoopla over the book “My Uncle the Netziv” because of it’s “indiscretions” of accuracy, who’d a-thunk it?” Who would believe that an Artscroll biography contained this kind of information?! Of course one explanation might be the publication date of 1982. This was in an era where reporting biographical truth was still permissible. I wonder if subsequent printings contain this true story.

But of course the bigger surprise was the fact that Reb Elchanan valued secular studies like philosophy. That any Gadol besides Rabbi Soloveitchik would study philosophy would be surprising enough. But that it was Reb Elchanan did so was huge! Because of all the European Gedolim who came to America from pre-holocaust Europe, Reb Elchanan was the only one who refused to give a Shiur in Yeshiva University (called Yeshiva College back then). This was in spite of the fact that his own Rebbe, Rav Shimon Shkop had been the Rosh HaYeshiva there.

It makes me wonder exactly why he refused so adamantly when others like Rav Aharon Kotler accepted. If I recall correctly, it was because he opposed the concept combining Torah and Mada in a Yeshiva environment. This is reason given by Rabbi Rakeffet in his book on Dr. Revel which told of Reb Elchanan’s refusal to give Shiur in YU.

But I wonder if that was the real reason. How could he boycott an institution that other Roshei Yeshiva did not? And blame it on their study of Mada, when he studied Mada himself? It doesn’t make sense.

I guess we will never know why he boycotted YU. But at least we know that the great Rosh Yeshiva from Baranovich believed in studying Mada. Philosophy no less!