Rabbi Yosef Grunblatt, z”l

I was saddened to learn of the petirah of one of the giants of the American shul rabbinate, Rav Yosef Grunblatt, z”l.

Surely much will be written about him by those who knew him best – his family, students, and mispallelim during the decades he served at the Queens Jewish Center in Forest Hills. I can only share, as an exercise in hakoras hatov, the way he affected my life.

In my much younger days, I was wont to see things in black and white. Right-wing yeshiva people were the good guys; everyone else was a little (or a lot) off. Genuinely frum people avoided areas like philosophy. They left that for “YU people.” Rabbi Grunblatt was the first (but certainly not the last) I encountered who helped me explode that myth, and my life (and that of my own talmidim) is the better for it.

Rabbi Grunblatt, after all, was “seriously” grounded in Torah. He had gone to Torah Vodaas, and loved deeper learning. Yet, by the time I discovered him in my late teens, he was a respected authority on serious philosophy in the Orthodox world. That got me thinking, even before I met him in the flesh.

I did spend time with him a number of times after that, first, as an NCSY advisor at shabbatonim at his shul, later as a scholar-in-residence. The woman he married later in life after his wife of many decades was nifteres is the mother and mother-in-law of close friends. The passage of time only increased my estimation for him as one of the most significant intellectual assets that the Orthodox community possessed. I never heard him deliver without including serious thought – always with Torah content.

In one early, memorable conversation, he revealed that he could not accept the approach of Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l in Kovetz Maamarim. R. Elchonon argued that belief in HKBH was logically and intuitively necessary. The compelling reasons for it were obvious and apparent. People chose not to believe only because of the self-serving need for freedom and independence. It is just more comfortable to live without an all-knowing G-d calling the shots.

R. Grunblatt said that his experience with serious doubters did not allow him to accept that position. He had met too many people who struggled with emunah, despite having no apparent difficulty living a life bound by halacha. They were not overtly looking for an easy way out. Coming from a strong mussar background, I tried arguing that R. Elchonon did not mean that the shochad/self-bribery he spoke about operated overtly. He meant, I argued, that merely the smallest disposition all of us share towards comfort and autonomy would subtly influence all the evidence on the side of belief.

He heard this – somewhat – but his mind was not much set at ease by my proposal. With the passing of decades, I probably moved much closer to his position than he to my earlier one. In any event, precisely because he had the yiras ha-rommemus for R. Elchonon (unlike many others I have encountered), his intellectual honesty and integrity made a deep impression upon a young mind. It is reassuring to meet people who can think for themselves, but stay within the bounds of a Torah community.

He was also an astute commentator on current affairs. During the height of the Vietnam War, sentiment where I hung out was as conservative as it is today. Student protesters were seen as acid-head cowards who didn’t want to be drafted – in contradistinction to us yeshiva students, who had valid reasons not to want to be drafted. A few of us were not so sure, and saw another side to the conflict. Rabbi Grunblatt at the time wrote a piece that was remarkably balanced, giving credit for moral sensitivity where it was due, while unflinchingly calling out the flaws in their conduct. He reduced their position to a pithy phrase: “misplaced yetzer tov.” Agreeing or disagreeing with his assessment was not so important. What he communicated to me at the time was generosity of spirit, effective communication and nuanced thinking – items in even shorter supply today than back then.

Yehi zicho baruch.

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15 Responses

  1. Shahar says:

    Misplaced Yezer Hatov
    What a profound and deep perception of the other
    Yehi zikhro baruch
    Forest hills ny

  2. Shalom Spira says:

    Ye’yasher kochakha, R. Alderstein, shlit”a. I was privileged to meet R. Grunblatt, zekher tzaddik li-verakhah, when he visited Montreal, Canada in Elul 5765 to be mesader kiddushin for Daniel Gordon and Sarah Miller, and I was impressed by his outstanding scholarship and piety. Regarding R. Elchanan Wasserman, it may be noted (ke-talmud ha-yoshev ba-karka ve-dan lifnei Rabbotav) that R. J. David Bleich embraces his philosophy in the introduction to With Perfect Faith, as does R. Moshe Feinstein in his posthumously published Darash Mosheh to Exodus 19:9. Indeed, this appears to also be the message of Exodus 17:7, viz. that the ikarei emunah are not subject to cross-investigation. Rather, they are self-evident truths. Thus, I am comfortable accepting that R. Grunblatt erred on this point, and that – in fact – the Rav (R. Alderstein) remonstrated correctly to R. Grunblatt. In fairness to R. Grunblatt, he may have meant to articulate the Chazon Ish’ thesis regarding tinok she-nishbah, viz. that since we live in an era where Hashgachah is concealed, there is a limud zekhut on sinners. But my understanding of Chazon Ish is that this does not create a leniency on permitting cross-investigation of the ikkarei emunah; rather, it creates a stringency in requiring us to apply ve-ahavta le-re’akha kamokha toward all Jews, including those who have not yet embraced the ikkarei emunah.

    [YA – I do not see any endorsement of R Elchonon’s position in R Bleich’s General Intoduction to With Perfect Faith. He cites him and develops his thought – but only as one of several possibilities he offers to explain how belief can be legislated.]

  3. Josh says:

    Baruch Dayan Haemes. I recall years ago, when I was in yeshiva, listening to a taped lecture series of his on the differences in hashkafa between the right-wing yeshivish and the modern/centrist. He dealt with the major issues in a serious and balanced way. It was a masterful and powerful presentation that had a lasting impact on me. I wonder if it’s available somwhere.

  4. Raymond says:

    I honestly never heard of this Rabbi, but he sounds like somebody whom I would have liked to have as a Torah teacher.

    As for the notion that true frummies avoid things like philosophy, that idea strikes me as odd, given, for example, the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith and all the subsequent commentaries written on them. In my experience with traditional Jewish life, no Jewish thinker is quoted more often nor revered more than the Rambam, who just so happens to be our greatest post-Talmudic theologian of them all. I think of theologians such as the Maharal, the Ramchal, Rav Hirsch, Rav Soloveitchik, and so on, and again wonder why there is no room for Jewish theology. I recall Rambam’s analogy of people being in various degrees of contact with the King (the King being G-d, of course), how those who follow Jewish law without understanding do not enter the King’s Palace the way those with good understanding do enter it. I for one wish that the emphasis in Judaism would be a little bit less on the details of Jewish law, and a little bit more in favor of the general Torah outlook on life.

    As for the specific subject of atheism, I find that each side of that debate, find a way to debase their opponents. Believers claim that atheists are just trying to escape G-d’s Law, while atheists claim that believers want to run away from the reality of death. Neither accusation in itself demonstrates in favor or against the Existence of G-d.

  5. Robert says:

    I attended the funeral . Several of the speakers spoke about his great secular knowledge as well as torah knowledge. I think he felt , and its important for all of us to remember, that in order to truly understand Torah and to truly be a Torah Jew, a person should have a secular knowledge, as Rabbi Grunblatt- not just for Parnassh, to make a living, but as part of being a Torah Jew.

  6. Yisrael Asper says:

    He was my late father’s second cousin. He was a Europeisha Yid. He was from the older era. This is sad news for me.

  7. Yisrael Asper says:

    He had Chassidic ancestry in Poland. He was amongst the small remnant of relatives my father had after the Holocaust. My father and his Chassidic parents attended his first wedding. He saw my grandfather in Germany when my grandfather fled from Poland to escape the draft returning back to England from where he left at about age 13. Later they all met again in America.

  8. DF says:

    I had planned to skip this post, not knowing the Rabbi in question. But a friend forwarded it to me, and I’m glad he did. I too, once thought that only the “YU type” focused on philosophy. And I too, cannot accept [and never did] R. E. Wasserman’s claim that those who disbelieve do so only because they wanted to be free. So if you think that way, and I think that way, there are probably many, perhaps the majority, who think that way too. The takeaway? Be wary of supposed “public opinion”, in religious matters as well as politics – just because a thing is proclaimed loudly and often, doesn’t mean the thing is true.

    As for the sharp observation of yeshivah bachurm v. the acid-heads regarding the draft – it’s not the first time we’ve seen internal inconsistency in the orthodox world. We might also note a general opposition to welfare recipients, but support for handouts and grants that [benefit yeshivos]. And there are many arguments to resolve these contradictions. Likewise, there are just as many contradictions on the other side of the fence too, and just as many justifications and distinctions. In other words, it’s the same point as the previous paragraph, once again. We should all have a viewpoint based on our way of thinking and experience, and not be afraid to say it, and say it confidently and aggressively and with the goal of convincing others and putting it into action. All of that is well and good, because the “other side”, whatever that may be, will do it for us if we don’t. Having said all that, the intelligent man will realize that the world is not so simple, and that disagreement usually doesn’t amount to heresy,

  9. Mordechai says:

    Baruch Dayan Haemes.

    I recall his eloquent addresses on the weekly ‘A Taste of Torah’ radio programs that aired on FM radio in the NYC area years ago.

    Perhaps recordings of them are still available. I suspect that Zalman Umlas (contact info in Rabbi Shafran’s ‘Seeding the Right Cloud’ column of Nov. 19) knows about that.

    יהי זכרו ברוך

  10. Abe says:

    He was the Rav of 3 generations of my family. He epitomized what a Rav can be to his kehilla and to klal yisroel. Participated in my parents wedding. Spoke at my bar mitzva. My Mesader kiddushin. Named my sons at their brises and for that matter me at my mine. I grew up davening in his shul, hearing his drashos. He was a major influence on on my family directly for 3 generations. Indirectly on the fourth and may it continue. This is the influence he had on just one family in klal Yisroel. There are many more families -many more people who were so influenced by his middos and his wisdom and his Torah and his hashkafa. Yhi Zichro Baruch.

  11. Shades of Gray says:

    Yehi zichro baruch.

    “He meant, I argued, that merely the smallest disposition all of us share towards comfort and autonomy would subtly influence all the evidence on the side of belief.”

    Some of the language of R. Dessler may indicate this as well(MME 1, pgs 52-58, eg, “b’talumos panim haleiv”, pg. 58).

    “In one early, memorable conversation, he revealed that he could not accept the approach of Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l in Kovetz Maamarim.”

    R. Chaim Pinchas Sheinberg zt’l questioned(“eino mestaber lechorah”)the Kovetz Maamarim from another angle. R. Elchanon does not distinguish between belief in Hashem and other ikkarim, and therefore explains why a Bar Mitzvah boy should logically understand all of what Aristotle could not. However, the Ohr Hachaim of the Chasid Yavetz distinguishes between the logic of various beliefs. R. Sheinberg therefore prefers a different approach to explain some of the questions R. Elchanon raises, in an essay titled “Shoresh HaEmunah–B’teva HaNefesh HaYisraelis”, based on Iggeres Teiman, Sefer HaYashar, and other Rishonim(Derech Emunah U’bitachon, pg. 63, parshas Beshalach).

    The language of R. Sheinberg in discussing the Kovetz Maamorim is as follows, “aval gam al devarav yeish le’hair, d’zeh emes sh’hasechel mechayeiv d’yeish borei, d’ein birah b’lo baalim, mekol makom b’inyan chidush ha’alom ve’sechar va’onesh ve’Torah min ha’Shomayim, sh’ein ha’seichel mechayeivom kol kach, u’kemo she’kasav heChasid Yavetz besefer Ohr Hachayim[v’af she’besefer Kovetz Maamorim hana’l kasav shegam devarim hana’l ha’seichel mechayeivam eino mestaber lechorah], al kol panim al katan b’vadai lo shayach chiyuv kazeh, she’sichlo katan meod le’hasig inyanim ramim ka’elu”.

  12. Morris Engelson says:

    Baruch Dayan Haemes

    The Rav was my daughter’s Rabbi, and I met him thereby. Knowing that I was a scientist, the Rabbi asked me some questions on a matter of science that he needed to better understand for purposes of Torah. It was a pleasure to find how quickly the material was understood and absorbed, and a surprise at the great consideration and respect I received from this obviously great person. At first I thought it was in recognition that I knew the science well (or at least I appeared to know it well). But later when I got to know the Rav better I realized that I was wrong. I was treated with respect because I am a human being, and that deserves respect. Without teaching me Torah directly, the Rav taught me Torah simply by being who he was.

  13. Steve Brizel says:

    R Grunblatt ZL was a huge supporter and participant in NCSY’s activities. In addition, R Grunblatt ZL and Yivadleinu LChaim Aruchim vTovim, R Fabian Schonfeld , both played critical roles in the development of Forest Hills and Kew Gardens Hills as Torah observant communities, and as Rabbonim who understood very well the difference between Klapei Pnim and Klapei Chutz, and who were ( and are) epitomes of Chesed to anyone in their communities.

  14. Shalom Spira says:

    I thank Mori ve-Rabbi R. Adlerstein, shlit”a, for the honour of his kind and insightful response to (le-havdil ani ha-katan) myself.

    It seems to me that there is an issue of semantic acrobatics here. It is true that R. Bleich cites another approach to that of R. Wasserman, but that is a fancy way of enunciating the same idea (i.e. please believe Rambam’s 13 principles of faith) in a different flavour. Certainly, the way R. Feinstein begins Iggerot Mosheh, YD 3:114 (cited Rambam’s 13 principles of faith) lends a clear impression that R. Feinstein regarded the 13 principles of faith as non-negotiable. Likewise, R. Joseph Ber Soloveitchik’s comment near the beginning of LMF to the effect that: “Of course, since we unreservedly and accept the unity and integrity of the Scriptures…” clearly indicates that R. Soloveitchik did not envisage room for negotiating the 13 principles. Yes, of course, R. Soloveitchik invokes Kierkegaard on many occasions, but that does not mean that R. Soloveitchik gave a heksher shtempl for everything Kierkegaard ever believed. It is possible to eat the fruit and discard the peel, as per the gemara in Chagigah 15b. [This issue has been discussed extensively by R. Yehudah Parness and R. Shalom Carmy in Torah u-Madda Journal, ve-ha-devarim yedu’im, and I am confident that my one-paragraph conclusion represents the normative conclusion of that important discussion.]

    Indeed, on the present (and excellent) Cross Currents website, R. Avi Shafran has already written (in his article “Orthodoxy and Honesty”) that

    “[All Orthodox Jews] are unified by a belief system that embraces the Thirteen Principles of Maimonides (derived from the Talmud and other links in the chain of the Oral Tradition – our mesorah).”

    By the way, just for the record [-since I am quoting R. Shafran’s important essay, which is directed toward critically analyzing Yeshivat Chovevei Torah)], allow me to remark that I actually support Yeshivat Chovevei Torah as a wonderful, righteous Orthodox Jewish yeshivah (which, like most human beings including myself, have rendered certain minor foibles in the past – as documented by R. Shafran – and which can learn constructively from these minor foibles how to become even better tzaddikim gemurim – as recommended by R. Shafran). Now, this is not to say that I necessarily recommend that YCT musmakhim perform conversions; geirut is a highly complicated problem nowadays due to the process of geographically centralized conversion that R. Shlomo Moshe Amar has precipitated {correctly so, in my humble opinion). Thus, personal righteousness of the Beth Din judges is no longer the barometer of guaranteeing an effective conversion. There is now a ‘political component’ to geirut, viz. one needs to be recognized as one of the “famous few” geographically centralized batei din authorized to perform conversions. I myself would never serve on a Beth Din le-Geirut, for the same reason.

    My conclusion: the 13 principles of faith are non-negotiable, as R. Shafran writes, and as R. Feinstein and R. Soloveitchik both seem to indicate. On the other hand, the Chazon Ish’ pesak halakhah [re: “tinok she-nishbah” in an era when Providence is concealed] is an important landmark ruling to require us to show love to those who are clueless on the 13 principles, and it seems to this unworthy student it is this idea of Chazon Ish which R. Grunblatt correctly championed.

    [YA – Apples and oranges. The issue that R Grunblatt addressed in disagreeing with R Elchonon was not whether emunas Hashem in negotiable, but whether it is self-evident. They are not the same.]

  15. Shalom Spira says:

    R’ Raymond,
    In light of my above comments to R. Adlerstein, I hope you will retract your comments and embrace the 13 principles of faith. I know you are a tzaddik gammur and simply are testing the audience [in the spirit of “le-chadudei”, as per the gemara in Berakhot 33b.]. Regarding the problem of death (-lo aleinu), see Kohelet, which actually uses the experience of death as a springboard for arriving at the conclusion that “In the end of the matter, when all is considered, fear [HKB”H] and observe His commandments, for this is the entirety of the human being.” And, of course, R. Soloveitchik (LMF) capitalizes on the frustration human being experience in the face of death as the basis for Adam II. Thus, the experience of human death is no contradiction to the 13 principles of Rambam.

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