Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Who Was The Greatest?

And the winner is… Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz. That’s who I believe had the greatest impact on Orthodox Jewry in the 20th century. Back to that later.

The poll I had on my other blog EvE II closed yesterday and the results indicated otherwise. That very unscientific poll showed Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe with 69 votes to have had the greatest impact, followed very closely by Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe who garnered 65 votes. There were 260 votes cast. Here is the breakdown:

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn 69 votes - 26% (of the total)
Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum 65 votes - 25%
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein 39 votes - 15%
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik 37 votes - 14%
Rabbi Aharon Kotler 25 votes - 9%
Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz 22 votes - 8%
Other 3 votes - 1%

The question must be asked as to why the top two vote getters received more than 50% of all the votes counted. Can it be that this represents the feeling of all Orthodox Jews? I doubt it. I think what probably happened here is that followers of these two great rabbinic figures somehow heard about this poll and had a ‘voting war’. My last poll only generated only 129 respondents – about half as many as this one did.

Now it is possible that these two rabbinic giants would have won anyway. But it is hard to know one way or another. Factoring out the top two winners it seems that Rav Moshe is seen as having had the greatest impact by a very slight and probably statistically insignificant margin over Rav Soloveitchik. I tend to question that result too since I presume that many if not most of my readers tend to be from the broad spectrum of Modern Orthodoxy. The lower vote of Rav Aharon Kotler I think might reflect the fewer numbers of Charedim that read this blog.

So in the end, this poll proves absolutely nothing. Except that my choice was deemed least important of the candidates.

Why Reb Shraga Feivel? Let me start by stating why not the others.

Anyone who reads my blog posts regularly knows that of all these great figures, I was most influenced by the writings of Rav Soloveitchik. None of the others had anywhere near his impact on me. But at the same time I recognize that his impact on Orthodxy did not really go beyond the world of Modern Orthodoxy. I’m not saying that he didn’t impact it at all. Fair minded people of all stripes will admit that he did. Some on the extreme right will say for the worse. But in the Orthodox world he is basically ignored by all but Modern Orthodox Jewry.

Rav Moshe is definitely the Posek Acharon for our times. Few people dare to disagree with his Psak on most issues and rarely do. There are some like the Satmar Rebbe who disagree with R’ Moshe on some key issues but his views are mostly followed by his own constituents. Rav Moshe is by far the most universally recognized Posek of the post war 20th century and beyond. But as much as he impacted Psak, I don’t believe he impacted all of Orthodoxy in any way that was ‘game changing’. Orthodox Jewry would have more or less developed as it did without him. The void in Psak might have been filled by other Poskim. The way we lead our daily lives Halachicly would not be that significantly different.

The Satmar Rebbe truly did impact the 20th century significantly. He basically single handedly transferred Satmar from Europe to the United States and Israel and shepparded it into exponential growth. It is a world unto itself whose members are unique and dedicated Chasidim. I would even venture to say that if not for Satmar, I’m not sure any of the other Chasidic groups would have grown as much – at least in the US. I will agree that in Israel, the Gerer Rebbe is the one who might have that title.

But all of his aceivements are primarily in the world of Chasidus only. The vast majority of Orthodox Jews, while respecting him in both torah knowledge and leadership capacities, are not influenced by him.

The Lubavicher Rebbe too is limited in his influence. His impact is in the world of Kiruv and upon his own Chasidim. Of all the rabbis listed, he is the one who is most venerated by his Chasidim. In some cases obsessively so – to the point of calling him Melech HaMoshiach. His movement grew from a minuscule one into one of the largest and most powerful Jewish movements in the world.

But even with all the secular Jews who have been convinced to become Frum because of the Rebbe's efforts, it is only Lubavitch that sees him as a leader. Even the Baalei Teshuva he brought in were brought in as Lubavitchers. His impact on Orthodox Jews outside of Lubavitch therefore is relatively small.

By contrast Rav Ahron Kotler’s impact is felt by Orthodox Jews all over the world. He recreated the world of post high school Yeshivos and Kollelim in America. Without that accomplishment, Orthdoxy as we know it today would not exist – at least here in America. Even though Israel had its own builders of Orthodoxy like the Poneviszhe Rav, the Chazon Ish, and the Brisker Rav… they focused only on Israel which was a much smaller community then.

That community has indeed grown today and is possibly even bigger than the one Rav Ahron Kotler built in America. But I don’t think Israel would be what it is today without Rav Ahron Kotler. His influence in America has created a mindset in many young men who choose to go to Israeli Yeshivos like Mir and Brisk instead of Lakewood. Many of them stayed on and settled there. I don’t think Israel would have the high numbers of Lomdei Torah today without him.

In my view, Reb Shraga Feivel’s accomplishments are even greater. He created a school system that enabled virtually all of Orthodox Jewry to get an Orthodox Jewish elementary education. These were the feeder schools to places like Lakewood. Without Reb Sharga Feivel I don’t believe Orthodoxy would have anywhere near the numbers we do today. To the extent it would exist at all it would look nothing like it does now.

That said there were day schools established before Reb Sharga Feival. But they were few in number and not that popular. And they were Hashkafa specific – mostly being either Modern Orthodox or Lubavitch. Reb Shraga Feivel had only one goal: to teach Judaism to Jews at the earliest ages. He did not see his mission in Hashkafa specific terms.

Though a school system like this may have emerged anyway since the demand for them rose after the holocaust- he is the one who actually did it. He is truly the one who in my view built the foundation of Orthodoxy that catered to the widest spectrum of Jewry all across America – which had the largest population of Jews at that time. By far.

There are other heroes that had similar accomplishments. One cannot minimize the accomplishments of Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel who founded Yeshiva College which has since become Yeshiva University. If not for him - I’m not sure there would be a legitimate and vibrant Modern Orthodoxy today.

And then there is Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan. She was a protégé of Rebbetzin Sara Schenirer and established the Beis Yaakov school system for girl’s education in America that we have today. While other school systems exist some of which actually predate her - to the best of my knowledge this one is by far the largest. She is perhaps the only person that can rival Reb Sharga Feivel’s achievement. I was remiss in not including her.

But although it is close - I still put him ahead of her. His accomplishments were at the entry level of Jewish education for all Jews of both sexes. His first religious day school was the prototype for the majority of all day schools across the country. That day school was in Detroit and is my alma mater Yeshivath Beth Yehuda.