Window to a Different Spirit
As a confirmed addict of anything written by the Bleichs, the first piece I looked at in the new issue of Jewish Action was Dr. Judy Bleich’s review of Ish Yehudi, the biography of Rav Yosef Tzvi Carlebach, the last rav of Hamburg, who deliberately stayed with his flock through the darkest days of the Shoah, and perished with them al Kiddush Hashem. A graduate of the Hildesheimer Seminary, he remained a Hirschian to the end, but was profoundly influenced by his encounters with Rav Shmuel Salant and various litvishe gedolim.
In 1931, he led (and wrote the report on) a delegation of rabbonim touring the Torah communities of Eastern Europe. In his words, the upshot was “to rediscover the pure and undefiled beauty and unpretentious greatness of Jewish life…[there ensued] an exalted dialogue between East and West, separated for a long time, alienated by geography and prejudice.” which he could wax rhapsodic about, despite remaining a Westerner. (The account reminds one of the reports of centrist Orthodox kids after their year in Israel, explaining why they “flipped” in their year in Israel.) The impact was not one-sided. Rav Carlebach served for a while after the First World War in Kovno, where he set up high schools for boys and girls with both Torah and secular studies. The Carlebach Gymnasium became the model for the Yavneh school system adopted by R Yosef Leib Bloch of Telshe.
A sidebar conveys Rav Carlebach’s impressions of the two greatest figures with whom the group met:
While the Chofetz Chaim made us experience a portion of other-worldliness, a sabbatical stillness of eternity, we met in Reb Chaim Oyzer a person who was closer to our level of life. These two great men could, in a certain sense, be compared to one another as Olam Haba to Yemot Hamashiach. They relate to one another like the quiet, world-removed city of Radin to the pulsating metropolis of Vilna, like Rav Joseph to Rabbah amongst the Amoraim, like Neilah on Yom Kippur to Mussaf. Both are cut from the same wood, no posturing, no obvious gift of eloquence or imposing stature. With both, it is the same unassuming bearing, the same unpretentiousness and naturalness of one who wants to be nothing else but a human being, who appears to be no different from anyone else, yet shifts the soul’s center of gravity to the realm of the spirit, into the invisible, innermost human spheres. Except that with Reb Chayim Oyzer it is the world-conquering wisdom of a spirited thinker, full of humor and wit, unhesitating in speech and response, every thought spiced with the salt of the Talmud. He, too, measures his words and speaks softly, but every word hits the nail on the head. He is a mind reader, seeing through you to the very core of your soul. His authority is enormous; all Lithuanian rabbis regard him as ultimate arbiter in all questions of Halachah and Jewish life, be they of a theoretical or practical nature. His involvement with them is fascinating, so democratic, entirely informal. His superiority is unchallenged, and is the basis for their absolute trust. They need only hint, and he knows what they are thinking, what they are asking, which problems are on their agenda. He just has to nod his head in agreement, for them to see the highest confirmation justifying their position. Thus he is an uncrowned, spiritual monarch.
The passage is remarkable not only for the its elegance of expression, but for its appreciation that not all talmidei chachamim and gedolei Torah are cut of the same cloth. Rav Carlebach has no difficulty admitting that he finds more of a kindred spirit in R. Chaim Ozer, but finds it easy to appreciate the very different contributions of the Chofetz Chaim, and describing them in terms no less laudatory and superlative.
Absorbing the piece, it is hard not to mourn for the past. You feel the loss not only of towering figures like Rav Carlebach, but of a time and place where being different didn’t mean being the rejected Other.
One must wonder whether it was this very point – and the blessings that such appreciation of diversity could have for us – that prompted Dr. Bleich to write her review.