Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, zt”l

It is with profound sadness that I announce the petirah of one of the gems of our generation, Rabbi Dr. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel Twerski, zt”l.

The shock is too great and too sudden for me to do justice to an appreciation of his life and work. There will not be a shortage of people who will illuminate these; he was so colorful a figure that the illumination will come in brilliant hues and dazzling brightness. I will share only two aspects that just might be overlooked by others.

First – we have been robbed one of the best examples of someone who put it all together – absolute commitment to his chassidishe mesorah, outstanding performance as a clinician, spellbinding ability as a story-teller. Kiddush Hashem engine as a Chief of Psychiatry in a Catholic Hospital. Partner with Charles Schultz (of Peanuts fame) in writing popular psychological self-help books. The one who moved both substance abuse and spousal abuse off the taboo list for discussion within the community. One of America’s handful of top experts in addiction, and founder of an institute that deals with it. He was a Renaissance Man in a shtreimel. Prolific author. Speaker at both the conventions of both the OU and Aguda. His ability to do all those things means that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. At a time that many of us see and feel a tension between different demands upon us in our avodas Hashem, and between competing schools of thought about how to live our Torah lives, Rabbi Twerski showed that there did not have to be an tension at all. That was enormously empowering, even to those who knew him only from a distance.

Second – They say that the Chofetz Chaim was so great a tzadik, that people did not give him enough credit as a lamdan. And that R Chaim Brisker was so great a lamdan, that his tzidkus was underappreciated. With all his other accomplishments, it is important that we not overlook the chessed that he did. Confession: by temperament if not by birth, I’m pretty much of a Litvak. I just don’t go to people for brachos before Rosh Hashanah. I made one exception: Rabbi Twerski. That is because I could not think of anyone I knew about who had helped so many people in distress. If chessed is the most sure-fire way of winning favor with the Ribbono shel olam, then he had to be way ahead of the crowd. His bracha I sought.

We were privileged to host him in our home in LA a number of times over the years (including a Shabbos, where I learned that the campaigner against serving alcohol at public events was no manner of teetotaler). When we moved to Israel, I found out that he lived just a few blocks away. His house became a regular stop on the way home from shul leyl Shabbos, where we traded divrei Torah, and gave my guests a glimpse of greatness. When Covid hit, he was isolated from his children and grandchildren, so I arranged to go over once a week to learn Maharal together. (We sat outdoors, and at a distance from each other.) He let me get away with nothing. Halevai most people should be as sharp at 40 as he was at 90.

Someone else will have to provide words of tanchumim. I can’t think of any.

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18 Responses

  1. Neil Harris says:

    Baruch Dayan HaEmes. This was beautiful.

  2. mb says:

    What a beautiful eulogy!

  3. dr. bill says:

    I had only peripheral exposure when he treated the husband of a cousin. Somehow, he and the Bostoner rebbe and a few others struck me as examples of Chassidus at its finest.

  4. Raymond says:

    There is simply no way that I can offer any kind of appropriate eulogy that would effectively capture who Rabbi Twerski was, so I am not going to even try. However, I did not want to cop out by not writing anything, so I thought I would share just two little interactions that I had directly with him.

    One was very very small….of me, that is. I was much younger and even more foolish than I am now if that is possible, but I actually had the chutzpah to approach Rabbi Twerski with several of his books that I had owned and read, asking him him to autograph each one. It was already late at night, after he had lectured to quite a large audience over at the Wiesenthal Center, yet he did not hesitate to agree to my wishes. Looking back, I am appalled that I did such a thing, and yet what a lesson in patience that he displayed!

    The other incident is a bit more involved. This incident starts off seemingly small, as it has to do with the death of a pet rabbit whom I was very fond of. Yes, you read that right, not a person, but a rabbit. Yet I felt so devastated about it, that I somehow had the nerve to contact Rabbi Twerski online, asking him for advice on how to deal with my feelings of despondency. Again, looking back, I am appalled that I would bother about something so trivial such a busy, prominent Rabbi who undoubtedly had better things to do with his time, and yet, he communicated not even one word, nor even the slightest hint, of condemnation or judgment for my question. Instead, with great sensitivity and empathy, he explained to me that all we can do in such situations is to learn from our experiences, so that things will improve in our future. While I was too upset at the time to immediately assimilate his advice, I have since then over the years ruminated over the wisdom of his words. I thought about Israel’s response to terrorist attacks: they would have every reason to spend years feeling sorry for themselves, and yet that is not how Israel responds to terror. Rather, they immediately rebuild the area that was destroyed, in such a way that the place in question looks like it was always intact. Our Jewish people so decimated by the Holocaust, responded by taking back control over our Jewish State after almost 2,000 years in exile. And on a personal level, while even after many years, I continue to feel despondent over the deaths of my parents, really Rabbi Twerski’s way, which is the classic Jewish way, would be to mourn for a very specific, limited amount of time, and then to move on, taking the wisdom and joy from having known them, and using those experiences to build one’s life from this moment on. I know that that is what my parents would want of me as well.

    Our Jewish community has in recent times lost three great Rabbis (Steinsaltz, Sacks, and Twerski) whose many wonderful, thought-provoking books I have so much enjoyed reading over the years. Rumor has it that bad things happen in threes, so maybe this will be enough tragedy to last us for quite a while. May all of us find some way to be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

  5. Reb Yid says:

    3-4 significant rabbis passed away.

    All from COVID.

    Would that those who mourn keep this in mind and not congregate needlessly.

  6. Shaya Karlinsky says:

    Truly a great loss for Klal Yisrael. His fight to force the frum community to recognize and confront the problem of abuse (both substance and spousal) was a sign of the one middah R. Adlerstein left out. He was fearless. לא תגורו מפני איש He told it straight, took the flack, and kept fighting the denial that seems to be part of our DNA. יהי זכרו ברוך

  7. BF says:

    Yet another virtually unknown facet of this incredible personality was his proficiency in old-fashioned Talmudic “lernen.” He published a volume of his Torah correspondence with the Steipler (יאמר ליעקב ולישראל), who had grown up as a chassid of Rabbi Twerski’s grandfather, and it spans all of Shas, from Zeraim to Taharos.
    The Steipler wrote to him:
    “I am amazed by kevod Toraso, who for several years has been working for a living while being koveia ittim laTorah, yet gives and takes broadly in deep sugyos like a talmid chacham who studies in kollel all day long.”

  8. ben dov says:

    If I can allow myself the chutzpa to offer words of tanchumin, it’s that Dr. Twerski left us so much of his wisdom in books and recorded speeches. It’s a different world because of him. For example, the awareness of mental health issues today is vastly different than in decades past. Readers of Hamodia and Mishpacha can attest to that.

  9. Dr. E says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein:

    I was just recalling that over Shabbos when I heard that he was sick that I was privileged to be one of those aforementioned guests whom you brought by to his home on the way from shul. The last time was one year ago. The sight of he and his wife together at their small round table was both regal and simple, b’makom echad. He was in his Chassidishe Shabbos levush and greeted us with his Pittsburgh-accented “Shabbat Shalom”. With that, even this kalter Litvak felt the pasuk “uvarech es nachalasecha”. He shared and received divrei Torah with insight and clarity. Given his lifetime of accomplishment, it was sort of a “celebrity” experience for me–which did not require a selfie for me to remember it. So, I am grateful to you for the opportunity to encounter greatness. U’reim v’naseim ad olam.

  10. Chaim Twerski says:

    In the family he was known as Uncle Shea. A man of brilliance and driven to accomplish more than what would seem to be humanly possible, writing books until even in his ninety-first year of life, mentoring mentors, caring for all who were in need no matter what their station in life, he was one of a kind. On top of all his many and important accomplishments, he was an anav, an exceedingly humble person. Those who watched his levaya on zoom saw that hoshea es amacha was sung as they were carrying his body to the kever. This was done on his written instructions. He told this to me and to many other members of his family that this was his wish. He told me that he is making a very unusual request for this reason: “I don’t know if I have accomplished anything in my life of worth, but of this I am sure, that I brought much joy to many with this niggun, and I want that zechus to be with me as I enter the next world.”
    Of course, we see that great accomplishments of his lifetime that far exceeded his musical talents (which in themselves were wonderful) but this shows the extent of his humility.
    Yehah zichrono mevarach. The loss felt by myself and others who knew and love him is magnified by the fact that he is irreplaceable.

  11. Dovid Kornreich says:

    I’m wondering how Rabbi Adlerstien knows that Rabbi Twerski didn’t experience any tension between his different demands of avodas Hashem–especially as a younger man. It could very well be that he resolved that tension eventually–or didn’t. My point is that just because he didn’t exude any tension to the world outside doesn’t mean he didn’t feel any. And maybe feeling religious tension is a good thing at appropriate times?

    • Excellent point, and I concur! I should have said that he didn’t exhibit any of that tension – particularly since I’ve met other members of the family who very much did exude it!

  12. DK says:

    So sad. Was such a great teacher to all of Klal Yisroel… What a loss…

  13. Jonathan Feldman says:

    The recognition upon his passing of Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski zl’ has already shown us the many facets of his greatness. However if we take a step back and look at his impact, his courage to ‘break the taboos’ around mental issues in the Jewish community have impacted the entire fabric of the orthodox Jewish community and will continue to do so for decades to come. It is easy to forget how up until the 1980’s, maybe even there 1990’s there was a very strong stigma around therapy, psychologists and mental health issues (not to say it has completely disappeared today). Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, just by the symbolic message of his distinguished Chasidic background merged with being a practicing psychiatrist dispelled those stigmas. But that was not enough for him. He spoke out over the decades about mental health/social issues that no one else would talk about. From therapy and mental illness itself, to addiction (substance abuse, pornography,and gambling), to domestic abuse and violence and to the most difficult of all to bring to light, sexual abuse, he fearlessly pushed the orthodox and ulta-orthodox communities to deal with these issues. The silent victims would no longer be alone without protection, and those suffering from their own struggles would no longer be without resources.
    And we was not just an author and a public figure, he personally got involved in organizations, attended events and conferences to help and encourage people with his personal warmth and caring. We now live in a world with orthodox therapists and non-profits there to help those who are struggling. There are still obstacles to overcome, there is still stigma around mental health issues, there are still those who are protectiing abusers, and there still needs to be more awareness and resources devoted to mental health problems. Rabbi Twerski was a brave voice who spoke out despite criticism, opposition and even fallout for his family. He left us a legacy of standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, it is up to us to carry on that legacy.

  14. Mark says:

    Rabbi Dr. Twesky was simply a legend.

    His books changed my life profoundly. I’ve read many and referred others to them. He was a genius who used all his munificent gifts for the good.

    We are orphaned by his passing.

  15. Steven Brizel says:

    The entire Torah world owes R D Twersky ZL a huge debt for bringing all sorts of mental health issues to the forefront and paving the way for any entire generation of Torah observant mental professionals to serve our community.

  16. Shades of Gray says:

    “With all his other accomplishments, it is important that we not overlook the chessed that he did.”

    In this vein, Rabbi Twerski explained that the reasoning behind the seemingly strange request to have “Hoshia Es Amecha” sung at his levayah was because “I know that this song brought simcha to many Yidden, and I hope that will be a zechus for me in Shamayim.”(Hamodia).

    Dr. Jacob L. Freedman, an Israeli psychiatrist and Mishpacha columnist, described R. Twerski’s chesed in Mishpacha how “within mere hours of his passing, I received messages from patients, colleagues, and friends sharing their own stories.” R. Twerski said in 2008 that ” I receive three or four e-mail messages and three or four phone calls every day about all kinds of problems. I’m a free consultant.”(Pittsburgh Quarterly).

    Rabbi Twerski once remarked to his brother Aaron, “all my secular knowledge combined doesn’t come close to bringing me the pleasure of one line of Pri Megadim.”(Hamodia). This was from someone who had a public school education. According to R. Yehuda Turetsky on YU Torah, it was R. Twerski who was the doctor in the R. Berel Wein story who challenged a rosh yeshiva and the other passengers to sing “Silent Night” on the way to an Agudah Convention to prove that they went to public school, making the song sound “Jewishly soulful”, in the words of R. Wein(“A Tough Day for Klal Yisrael: Lessons from the Lives of Three Giants”, Minute 18).

    Yehi zichro baruch.

  17. Shades of Gray says:

    Dr. Twerski would say about his writings on self-esteem: “I did not really write fifty books. I wrote one book, in fifty different ways.”

    What was unique about Dr. Twerski is that he also spoke about his own struggles with self-esteem (see Torah Web video and article ” My Own Struggle with Low Self-Esteem” from 2008). Compare with two other leading contemporary psychologists who have been open about their own emotional struggles. Dr. Marsha Linehan, developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy(DBT) was suicidal as a young woman, spending several years in a psychiatric institute, and Dr. Steven Hayes, the creator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), who suffered harrowing panic attacks.

    I once asked a rosh yeshiva about the difference between arrogance and self-esteem, one of the issues R. Twerski discusses in his books. He pointed to the 2nd perek of Shar HaKeniah of the Chovos HaLevavos which discusses the issue explicitly, stating that true submission only comes after the elevation of the soul :

    אבל הכניעה היא אשר תהיה אחר רוממות הנפש, והתנשאה מהשתתף עם הבהמות במידותם המגונות

    I later saw that the Pas Lechem commentary to the above Chovos Halevavos(available on Sefaria) gives an analogy of the wrong type of submission, comparing it to a “peasant who bears the smoke of the stove which stings his eyes,” thinking to himself, ”why should a nobody like me care about things like this? Am I a prince or an important minister?”

    In ‘Tackling a “Shondeh”(Fall 1997, Jewish Action) , an article about domestic violence , Dr. Twerski wrote “it seems to me that at least part of my destiny has been to champion unpopular subjects.” The Mishpacha article last week mentioned that he encouraged Dr. Jacob Freedman to speak the truth about suicides of several boys in a community saying, “when I spoke up about domestic violence in our community, I received death threats and they needed to organize security guards for me.”

    When the Chazon Ish passed away, the Brisker Rov commented that “it is now a different world. Yesterday it was a world with the Chazon Ish. Today, it is a world without the Chazon Ish.” I thought of this comment when Rabbi Jonathan Sacks passed away, who was part of my world, and likewise apply it regarding Rabbi Twerski.

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