Radical Father Meets Radical Rebbe

Introductory Note: 


In this letter, I will review with you a story from my childhood which is in the spirit of the previous letter, “Confronting Stereotypes of Other Jews”:


Dear Friends,


My father, of blessed memory, grew up in Brooklyn, New York City, during the era of the Great Depression – a severe worldwide economic downturn which the United States began to experience when the stock market crashed in 1929. My father’s sensitive soul felt the pain of the poor, the unemployed, and the homeless; moreover, his strong sense of justice led him to become involved in various progressive groups that were trying to address these social problems. In addition to his strong sense of justice, he had a love for humanity, and his love included the individual human being. He expressed this love not only through his many acts of loving-kindness, but also in the warm and happy way he greeted people. After I became committed to the path of Torah, I discovered the following teaching of Rabbi Yishmael which reminded me of my father: “Receive every person with joy” (Pirkei Avos 3:16).


In general, my father felt joy in life, and he was not an ascetic who withdraws from all physical pleasures; thus, he enjoyed good food in moderation. His greatest pleasure, however, was in helping people and in striving to make the world a more caring and just place. He especially appreciated the Jewish concept of “tzedakah” – our responsibility to share our resources with those in need. I therefore was able to identify with the following message of the Prophet Jeremiah: “Behold your father ate and drank; yet, he practiced justice and tzedakah” (Jeremiah 22:15).


My father grew up in an era when the majority of American Jews were beginning to assimilate into the American culture. This culture stressed the importance of economic success, and the worth of people, especially the worth of men, was often measured in terms of the money they earned. When Jews came to America, they discovered that when people would ask about a man, they would often ask, “How much is he worth?” Many American Jews would therefore feel pride if they or their children were financially successful, as they felt that through this success, they had fulfilled the American dream.


My father’s parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe, and like many other Jewish immigrants, they no longer observed many mitzvos of the Torah. Most of these immigrants, however, grew up in traditional Jewish communities that stressed the following Jewish dream: to be successful in the study of Torah and in the fulfillment of good deeds. For example, at the circumcision ceremony, the baby boy receives the following traditional blessing:


“Just as he entered the covenant, so may he enter into the Torah, the marriage canopy, and good deeds.”


There is no mention in the above blessing about becoming rich and famous. Although Judaism does not oppose financial success, and it recognizes that wealth can be an instrument of Divine service, Judaism stresses that financial success should not be the goal of life. It is therefore not surprising that when the traditional Jews of Eastern Europe would ask about a person, they did not ask, “How much is he worth?”


Although the rich were honored in traditional Jewish communities for giving money to support Torah education, the synagogue, and various projects that helped the needy, there were also other ways of gaining honor in these communities. For example, honor was given to Torah scholars and to those who excelled in doing loving and just deeds. As a result of this spiritual attitude, one did not have to be wealthy in order to feel a sense of pride and self-worth. A person felt worthy and gained the respect of others if he strived to study the Torah and do acts of love and justice. Such a person was called by others, “A Sheyna Yid” – a Yiddish expression which means, “A Beautiful Jew.”


Although my father, like most American Jews of his generation, did not have the opportunity to get a meaningful Torah education, he felt in his soul that our life on earth has a higher purpose. He therefore did not seek his sense of worth through “making money”; instead, he took pride in his deeds of loving-kindness and justice. In his own way, he could appreciate the following proclamation of Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One:


“Thus said Hashem: Let not the wise one take pride in his wisdom, nor the strong one take pride in his strength, nor the rich one take pride in his riches. For only with this may one take pride – contemplating and knowing Me, that I am Hashem Who does loving-kindness, justice, and tzedakah on earth, for in these is My desire, spoke Hashem.” (Jeremiah 9:22, 23)


My father liked and respected the Orthodox rabbi of our neighborhood synagogue, Rabbi Gavriel Beer, especially since Rabbi Beer was concerned about the plight of the poor and the needy. Rabbi Beer was also active in Agudath Israel of America, a noted Chareidi organization which is guided by leading Torah sages.


I attended the afternoon Hebrew school of our synagogue, and when I was age nine, Rabbi Beer persuaded my parents to send me to a Jewish day school in order to study Torah. This was a big step for my parents; nevertheless, they were aware of my growing interest in the path of the Torah, and they felt that I should have the freedom to follow this path.


At age 14, I had a wonderful and warm rebbe, Rabbi Zevulun Leib, who was a disciple of Rav Yitzchak Hutner, a leading Torah sage who was the head of the Chaim Berlin Yeshiva. My rebbe tried to inspire us to make the study of Torah our primary goal in life, as Maimonides writes in the Mishneh Torah: “Make your Torah study primary, and your livelihood secondary” (The Laws of Torah Study 3:7). As a practical suggestion which could help to prepare us for such a life, he suggested that when we graduate high school, we study during the day at a yeshiva and go to college at night. My rebbe’s approach troubled some of the parents, as they were concerned about the future financial success of their children.


During the winter, there was a special week where my rebbe was scheduled to meet with the parents of each of his students during the evenings. The purpose of these meetings was not only to discuss the progress of the students, but to also discuss their spiritual life goals. My parents had never met my rebbe, and I wondered how the meeting would go. When they came back from the meeting, their faces were glowing. I asked, “Did I get a good report?” They assured me that my rebbe had said nice things about me, but they mentioned additional reasons why they were pleased and happy. My father told me that my rebbe was his kind of guy. My father revealed that he was especially pleased that my rebbe did not speak of financial goals, and although my leftist father did not consider himself to be religious, he expressed his admiration for the religious idealism of my rebbe.


When I came to class the next morning, my rebbe told me that he needs to speak with me privately during recess. I began to feel nervous, as I wondered if my father, who was not shy about expressing his radical views, had said something that might have upset my rebbe.


When recess came, my rebbe told me that my parents have very special souls.  He was especially pleased that they did not express concern about my financial success when he discussed spiritual goals. He mentioned that he asked my parents how they would feel if I made Torah study my primary goal, and they replied that they always encouraged me to fulfill my ideals.


I now had a better understanding of why my father felt that my rebbe was his kind of guy. They both felt that making money is not the goal of life, and neither my father nor my rebbe would ever ask the question, “How much is he worth?” They both realized that a human being’s true worth is in living for a higher purpose.


Be well, and Shalom,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)


Related Stories:


1. When I began to attend the Jewish day school, I started to observe the mitzvos – step by step. Although I was not yet fully observant, I decided to constantly wear a yarmulke (skullcap) as an expression of my commitment to the spiritual path of our people. This took some courage, since most of the residents of my neighborhood were Christian; in fact, I soon encountered a group of teenagers that did not approve of my Jewish garb, and they started to run after me, while shouting anti-Semitic comments. I ran up the stairs to the safety of my home, and I told my father what happened. He told me not to take off my yarmulke, and he said in a firm voice: “Be proud that you are a Jew!”  He then went down to the street with me, and when we encountered the group of teenagers, my father began to speak with them about the evil of prejudice. To my surprise, they listened, and they did not react in a hostile way.


2. My father was very moved by the unusual victory of Israel during the Six Day War. He had been very worried about the Arab plans to destroy Israel, and he felt that God had intervened to save our people. As a result, he began to put on the pair of tefillin – leather boxes with sacred scrolls – which he had received for his bar mitzvah, and he also began to say each morning the Shema –“Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One!”

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