Rav Chaim Malinowitz, z”l

by Natan Slifkin

[Editor’s Note: The shock has not yet passed. I knew R. Malinowitz when he lived in Monsey. One of my mentors in halacha, the head of an important beis din, sent me to him to address a sensitive matter, saying that his beis din was the only one in America that would responsibly deal with such an issue. He took action where others dawdled. After his move to Israel, I had the privilege of several sustained interactions with him, and found him to be a major talmid chacham, courageous, open-minded, and uncompromisingly loyal to Mesorah. Whatever I could say, however, pales in comparison to Rabbi Slifkin’s tribute, which follows. – YA]

The news of the passing of Rav Chaim Malinowitz – senior editor of the Schottenstein Talmud (Bavli and Yerushalmi), rav of Beis Tefillah in Ramat Beit Shemesh – came as a great shock. He had been seriously ill for a while, but it was not thought to be life-threatening. But more than that – Rav Malinowitz was a larger-than-life figure, and it seems impossible for him to not be alive.

In the years 2004-2006 in particular, he was one of the most important people in my life. Over the last few years our relationship unfortunately broke off, when he became involved in political campaigning for the Abutbul administration in Beit Shemesh and took stances in various other community issues to which I (and many others) deeply objected. Fortunately, in the last few months we were able to patch things up on a personal level.

My relationship with Rav Malinowitz goes back over twenty years, before he was appointed rabbi of Beis Tefillah in Ramat Beit Shemesh. I was twenty-four years old, single, learning in yeshivah in Jerusalem, and publishing a weekly parashah sheet. In one of those essays, I penned a criticism of a popular icon in the wider Jewish world. A barrage of complaints ensued, and being a sensitive person plagued by self-doubt, I issued a public apology and retraction. Whereupon I received an email from someone who identified himself as one Rabbi Chaim Malinowitz. He wrote that my original article was absolutely correct, that I shouldn’t have buckled under criticism, and that my parashah essays won’t have much value if I just pander to the demands of others.

From his email, it was apparent that he thought I was much more senior than I actually was, so I wrote back to him and explained that I was just a 24 year old yeshivah bochur. Next thing I knew, he showed up at my yeshivah to chat with me. I was a bit puzzled at this special visit, but things became clearer when, a few days later, it turned out that he was proposing a shidduch for me! It was truly an honor, even though that shidduch was not meant to be. And subsequently we kept in touch.

A few years later, I was married and living in Ramat Beit Shemesh, and our shul at the time, Beis Tefillah, was searching for a rabbi. I suggested hiring Rav Malinowitz, as did a few other people. While there are very different views as to whether this appointment turned out to be good for Beit Shemesh (due to his political involvement), it certainly turned out to be incredibly fortuitous for me.

The story of the controversial ban on my books is well known. Perhaps not as well known is the role that Rav Malinowitz played in this story. While there were a number of rabbanim that supported me in various ways, probably none were as significant as Rav Malinowitz.

When the ban happened, which caused my family and I over a year of torment, I still saw myself very much as being a part of the charedi world. While there were rabbanim from the Centrist/Modern Orthodox communities inviting me to be a part of their world, I wasn’t psychologically/socially ready to do that. And I was receiving hundreds of letters of support from people within the charedi world, so I wasn’t ready to portray the controversy as being a charedi vs. non-charedi dispute (I have since mostly changed my mind on that). So it was crucial for me to have rabbinic guidance and support from within the charedi world.

Now, there were rabbis in the charedi world who were supporting me. My own mentor in the topic of Torah and science, Rav Aryeh Carmell, stood by his approbations for my works and issued a further letter of support; but by that point he was too old and weak to be dynamically involved. There were other rabbanim in the charedi world who were giving me moral and strategic support, but they were understandably too afraid to be public about it. (Reminder: don’t judge people until you are in their place.) And they weren’t necessarily people with big-name authority anyway.

But there was Rav Malinowitz! He played a crucial role in so many ways. He was an outstanding Torah scholar with bona fide credentials in the charedi world, and with a prominent position as editor of the Schottenstein Talmud. He made himself available by phone and by email to guide me and support me at every step of the way. He helped me draft letters and develop strategies. He gave me crucial guidance in the topic of rabbinic authority.

Rav Malinowitz had a very sensible, traditional, grounded approach to Chazal and science. He once shared with me an interesting insight – “According to those people who think that Chazal had divinely-inspired knowledge of modern science, why would it be limited to the science of 2005? It would mean that Chazal knew every scientific discovery that will ever take place in the future!”

Interestingly, although Rav Malinowitz had written an approbation to my work, he himself did not agree with all of my approaches to Torah/science topics, with regard to Bereishis. (He had no particular expertise in science, and was deeply skeptical of it.) But this made his support for me all the more potent. When people would tell him that my approach to various topics was wrong, he’d say to them: “I agree with you! But that doesn’t mean that it’s beyond the pale of acceptable opinions!”

Importantly, he maintained that it was completely acceptable for people to dispute my approach. People were entitled to firmly maintain that the Gemara did not contain anything scientifically inaccurate, and that Bereishis is to be interpreted entirely literally. But what they were not entitled to do was to claim that I was not allowed to take a different view and that I was alone in doing so. They were entitled to condemn my approach, as long as they made it clear that they were also condemning Rambam, Rav Hirsch, and so on.

Rav Malinowitz was the one who explained to me exactly why I was not under the slightest obligation to obey the ban. He explained to me both why the rules of rabbinic authority do not require one to always listen to the Gedolim, and why their opposition to my work was mistaken. But it wasn’t just personal guidance that he gave me – there was no shortage of people doing that. Rav Malinowitz was one of only a handful of people in the charedi world who actually went on record as publicly supporting me.  He wrote an official letter, on shul letterhead, explicitly reiterating his support.

The significance of this should not be underestimated. In the charedi world, publicly going against the Gedolim is virtually unthinkable; the strength of character required is immense. It wasn’t just a matter of people badmouthing him (though, for people outside of the charedi world, it’s hard to conceive of just how much pressure this can create). Rav Moshe Shapiro called him in to castigate him for undermining his stance against me – and Rav Malinowitz stood his ground. Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz at ArtScroll – Rav Malinowitz’s primary employer – threatened to fire him if he didn’t repudiate his support for me. At that point, I told Rav Malinowitz that he could sell me out, as I didn’t want him to lose his job. But he told me that on principle he could not do such a thing. (Fortunately, as he predicted, the threat fell through.) 

As the controversy over my books stretched out beyond a year, the toll became unbearable. My wife and I went to meet with Rav Malinowitz together to discuss the situation. He said to us: “Why not just leave the charedi community? Switch your kippah, send your kids to different schools, and that’s that! You’ll be much happier.” We took his advice and were immensely better off for it. (Ironically, a few years later, Rav Malinowitz told me that he was upset that I followed his advice so completely as to even leave his shul – he hadn’t meant for me to go that far!)

As I mentioned, several years later, Rav Malinowitz took positions on various communal and political issues that aroused much opposition in the non-charedi religious community, including with me. At one point, our dispute became very public. And yet, consistent with his own approach to rabbinic authority, he had no problem with my publicly disagreeing with him. He continued to email me over the years with various sources of interest. And while I was still upset by the communal positions that he had taken, and his public claims about there being a “War on Torah” in Beit Shemesh, I always told him that my gratitude for what he did for me in my hour of need would never falter.

Will there ever be such a figure in the charedi community again, with such integrity and strength of character? Rav Malinowitz’s passing leaves a great void. May his memory be for a blessing.

Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin is the founder and director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh. He is an acclaimed authority on Torah and science, especially in regard to the animal kingdom, and a social commentator through his blog, from which this is republished.

You may also like...

13 Responses

  1. kurkevan says:

    Are you sure about the details of the kiddushin case? According to this article, the story happened in Montreal, and the one who wrote the teshuvah was R’ Elya Rominek zt”l.

    • I’m not sure. I have not been able to get into the piece that he wrote to check. The last thing I would want to do is take credit away from R Rominek zt”l, especially since he was related through marriage. (One of my grandsons is named after his father-in-law.) I’ve tried removing the sentence I wrote – at least till I can look into the matter some more – but Word Press is refusing to update my edits

      • Sass says:

        I believe Rav Rominek gave a heter based on his conversation with Rav Shlomo Zalman. Rav Malinowitz wrote a comprehensive article on the topic in the RJJ journal, in which he questioned the validity of this heter, which was publicized only after Rav Shlomo Zalman had passed away. I believe Rav Malinowitz was matir based on other considerations. See Journal of Halacha and Contemprary Society Volume 30 (fall 1995).

  2. DF says:

    This fine essay is obviously a personal one, but R. Malinowitz was probably best known to the public as the preeminent authority on the laws of divorce and Gittin. most notably regarding the invalid forced get (get meusah) caused by urging secular government to intervene in Jewish life. His untimely passing may now embolden his opponents to push their theories and attempt to accomplish something they were unable to while he was alive. (By analogy, JTS did not ordain women while R. Shaul Lieberman was still alive.) The orthodox public should be wary of such attempts. R. Malinowitz is no longer here, but he left sufficient writings on the subject that his voice is still with us. יהי זכרו ברוך

    • dr. bill says:

      DF, Writing ” the preeminent” is undoubtedly a tad extreme. Last I heard Rav ZN Goldberg, Rav A Weiss, Rav H. Schechter, Rav M. Willig, etc. are also able to learn 🙂 . Enough said.

  3. Caren May says:

    What a worthy title of Rav b’yisroel was Rav Malinowitz.
    To give eitzos (advice), pasken, and stand up for R. Slifkin during the difficult era of book bans is the handiwork of a true Talmid Chachom.

    His wife, a daughter of Rabbi Maza Zt”l was a special woman who was respected & admired by man.
    Yehi Zichron Baruch!

  4. Shades of Gray says:

    My chavrusah and I were learning this Shabbos—he uses the English Artscroll Gemara, and I use the Hebrew edition. When he mentioned R. Malinowitz’s passing, I said “turn to the beginning of the Gemara, where his name is printed”. In a sense, many people, even some Gedolim, are talmidim of R. Malinowitz, as well as Artscroll, in general. This is from a 2009 interview of R. Nosson Scherman in the Five Towns Jewish Times by R. Yair Hoffman :

    “Rav Elyashiv goes through the ha’aros in the Hebrew edition when he is learning on his own to see if he missed anything and to jog his memory. He is not ashamed of it. He even keeps it on his desk. Rav Shteinman says a shiur in the Yerushalmi. He is saying his shiur on Yerushalmi from the ArtScroll Gemara itself. Big people are not ashamed to say that they rely on something. Small people hide it. It is like women ask for directions; men are too proud to ask sometimes.”

  5. Shades of Gray says:

    Regarding the pressure for supporting R. Slifkin, R. Malinowitz’s refusal to back down was heroic and admirable. Presumably, Artscroll was reacting to its own communal pressures, similar to what R. Adlerstein wrote in “Artscroll Is Not To Blame” (March, 2006) in a different context.

    It is also partially for the above reason that Artscroll created Shaar Press, marketed as “the imprint for thoughtful people… Shaar Press presents authors of distinction, with stimulating, innovative — sometimes controversial — ideas.” I heard (third hand) from one Shaar Press author, that because Artscroll invested a great deal in the Schottenstein Talmud, they want to keep potentially controversial works in a different brand. Similarly, Koren’s publisher said in a 2017 interview with the Jewish Press regarding its separate imprint for Jewish thought, “We don’t publish Maggid books under Koren because we don’t want someone who disagrees with a writer not to be able to buy our siddur, for example.”

  6. Weaver says:

    No matter who you are, it is very difficult to be truly independent and take an unpopular stand on an issue – especially if it’s to the “left” of the popular consensus. Rabbi Shlomo Fisher and Rabbi Mordechai Elefant excel(led) at this as well.

    • cohen y says:

      Bending the foul line
      Anyone who’s involved Jewish Affairs Is fully cognizant that
      that it’s harder taking a position to the right of the consensus or popular websites

  7. RBS says:

    While the average reader may view this as a beautiful tribute to Rav Malinowitz many fro the Ramat Beit Shemesh Chareidi community might not take well to a tribute to Rav Malinowitz that ends off “will there ever be such a figure in the charedi community again, with such integrity and strength of character?”. The RATIONAL and logical conclusion that one should make is that someone who does what is right and doesn’t care what people think wouldn’t be part of a chareidi community and associate with Chareidi Rabbonim in RBS the way he did (who he started Yeshiva’s with and rarely broke rank with) if he didn’t think that it was 100% the RIGHT thing to do. Anyone who knew him well, knew that the few times that he was choleik on Chareidi Gedolim in Eretz Yisrael was where he actually could write halachik teshuva’s explaining his position. If there was any safeik in his mind he for sure would be mevateil himself to Gedolim that he himself would ask eitza from for himself and family. The real RATIONAL question to Rav Slifkin should be why Rav Malinowitz didn’t choose to join the community that he sent R Slifkin to. R Slifkin wouldn’t insinuate that he did it because he was more comfortable there and that is the way he was brought up. I don’t think he would. Not someone who left the Torah community that he lived in Monsey where he established himself as a Dayan on one of the most respected Batei Dinim with a family of close to 10 children. Most of his children were at ages that most would say is much to dangerous to take kids at that age and make Aliya.
    A real tribute from R Slifkin to the community he is addressing in his blogs would be the message Rav Malinowitz would tell R Slifkin and his followers. Something like this should have been the tribute.
    Rav Malinowitz Zt”l took some positions that I disagreed with but should be respected.
    1) He guided Chareidi Americans in Israel how to adjust to Chareidi society in Eretz Yisrael. This was Rav Malinowitz’s life mission for the past close to 20 years. 2) Rav Malinowitz Zt”l maintained that there was an attack on the Chareidi Community years ago and I apologize for not defending him those years as someone who always stands up for what is right and true according to his understanding of what the Torah demands of him.

    Finally maybe he should also ask mechila for implying that Rav Malinowitz had no problem with him disagreeing with him publicly as opposed to speaking to him first to get an understanding of his approach to the matter. This is something you owed him before jumping on the Rav Malinowitz bashing bandwagon.

  8. DF says:

    “R. Slifkin should be mevateil himself to Gedolim… why didn’t he join the community that R. Malinowitz sent him to.” (Paraphrase)

    RBS, I am curious – If that’s what you believe, then why bother writing? You really think RNS shares your premise (viz, that you’re not supposed to think for yourself)? Even the Charedim I know, and I know and am closely related to many, don’t believe that.

    • RBS says:

      This is not a a paraphrase it is a distortion of what I wrote. Read it again. Where did i state that R Slifkin “should be mevateil himself to the (Chareidi) Gedolim. Where did I write or imply that one should not think for oneself.
      Now that you bring up the issue of thinking for oneself. Rav Malinowitz always encouraged independent thinking for onself but he also maintained very strongly that you can not take an actual halachik or hashkafik opinion unless you are what he would term a “bar hachi” in halacha or hashkafa. He would say often that someone voicing an opinion on issues that involved halacha and hashkafa based on his own view of the world was a terrible thing and probably the most dangerous thing about the blog universe. To have an opinion in matters of halacha and hashkafa one had to be a Bar Hachi. He didn’t have to be a Gadol hador but he couldn’t be an am ha’aretz either. Just so you appreciate who Rav Malinowitz was. He knew Shas Bavli and Yerushalmi was a dayan on one of the most respected batei dinim in America and was rosh kollel for many years of Rav Abba Berman’s kollel who was known to be from the deepest and most abstract lomdanim in Torah. He understood the great hashkafik and mussar works on the deepest of levels. So for sure Rav Malinowitz had the halachik and hashkafik credentials to be what he called a Bar hachi. Even with all of that when he had big personal and family shaila’s he went to both rav Chaim Kanievsky and Rav Shteinman Zt”l.
      Once again, not once did I write that R Slifkin should be mevateil himself to Chareidi Gedolim. Every person has to have a Rav and if he is confident that he himself is equipped to pasken his own shaila’s he should ideally do so in all areas. Rav Malinowitz held this way in both halacha and hashkafa and this is for sure what he taught R Slifkin as well.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This