Occasionally, one hears older Jews bemoaning the disappearance of the Judaism of their youth – a Judaism that valued character over chumros and religiosity over ritual fastidiousness. As Rabbi Berel Wein writes in a new book he co-authored with Rabbi Warren Goldstein, chief rabbi of South Africa since 2005:
“The common response of Lithuanian Jews regarding the frumkeit of a person was ‘frum iz a galach,’ i.e., that superficial religiosity – exclusively concentrating on personal spirituality and punctilious observances of the law – is not the measure of a good Jew; it belongs to monks. A good Jew lives by the overall values of the Torah, including consideration and pleasantness in human affairs.”
Naturally, Lithuanian rabbis cared a great deal about halachic intricacies. Some of the most famous chumros come from the Litvish Briskers. But the real emphasis of Lithuania’s rabbinical elite, Rabbis Wein and Goldstein argue, lay elsewhere.
The Jewish Press recently spoke with Rabbi Goldstein – author of the bulk of The Legacy: Teachings for Life from the Great Lithuanian Rabbis (Maggid Books). Rabbi Goldstein will be visiting Los Angeles and San Diego from April 11-16.
The Jewish Press: What are some of the central Litvish values that you and Rabbi Wein identify in The Legacy?
Rabbi Goldstein: One is the broad area of what one could call mentchlichkeit. Another major value is limud haTorah and how it impacts our whole worldview. And a third one is responsibility for klal Yisrael – finding a sense of mission in servicing the klal.
Aren’t these values basic Judaism? In what sense are they “Litvish values”?
Well, I think the beauty of being part of klal Yisrael is that different hashkafos and worldviews emphasize different parts of our avodas Hashem.
Rabbi Wein and I are emphasizing those values we received from our rebbeim; we believe they can be of great benefit to klal Yisrael. But we encourage other people to write from their own mesorah as well.
Who were your rebbeim?
My rebbe muvhak was HaRav Azriel Chaim Goldfein, zt”l, who established a yeshiva gedolah in Johannesburg and who was a talmid muvhak of Rav Mordechai Gifter, one of the Telsher roshei yeshiva.
In The Legacy you write that Lithuanian Jews often quipped that “a Jew is not frum; a Jew is ehrlich.” What does this statement mean?
It’s essentially talking about a refinement of character and a deep integrity and humility. Rav Shlomo Wolbe, who was one of the great mussar thinkers of the 20th century, explains that sometimes the drive to be frum can actually have harmful effects if it’s not guided by the right middos and values. It can be motivated by being self-centered.
He said it’s like all instincts. They can be very powerful for the good or very destructive, and so ehrlichkeit – of middos and values – needs to channel any kind of religious passion.
In your discussion of humility in The Legacy, you quote a teshuvah of Rav Moshe Feinstein in which he writes that he avoids drinking blended whiskey in private because of halachic authorities that indicate the beverage is not kosher. In public, however, he does drink blended whiskey (following more lenient authorities) so as not to appear better than other Jews. This teshuvah is very interesting since Rav Moshe seems to be saying that public chumros – which are very popular nowadays – should sometimes be avoided.
One has to be constantly aware of consequences. Whatever we do has effects in terms of our character, in terms of bein adam lachaveiro, in terms of all kinds of values.
So Rav Moshe was saying that the consequence of him not drinking blended whiskey in public would be to set himself apart from those around him. He would come across as superior, and that might affect his own arrogance internally. One would never have the chutzpah to say this about Rav Moshe, but he’s writing it about himself.
He’s teaching us that we have to take a broad view of everything we do. Character, middos, bein adam lachaveiro – these are all Torah values. They’re not external values that we’re imposing on the halacha. It’s all part of the same system.
In The Legacy you also quote two teshuvos from Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor and Rav Mordechai Gifter addressed to Jews who wanted to import or shecht their own meat because they were unhappy with their community’s kashrus standards. Interestingly, both Rav Spektor and Rav Gifter strongly discouraged these Jews, arguing that maintaining communal unity was more important. Can you comment?
What these rabbanim were saying is: Let’s make a chumrah of, what they called, the tzuras hakehillah – the unified communal structure.
You see, Torah is a comprehensive system and every part of it affects the other parts. What we’re really talking about is a holistic view of Torah values. That’s also why it’s important to identify key, essential Torah values, because if these values are given more importance than others, then they will be trumping values as well.
In light of these teshuvos, what would you advise someone who is considering adopting a certain chumrah?
One needs to introspect and ask, “What’s motivating it?” This is what the Mussar Movement was really about. What Rav Yisroel Salanter was teaching was that everything we do in this world needs to be scrutinized very carefully.
That’s also why we need rabbanim to turn to and say, “Let’s analyze it together. What will be the consequences of it?” Eizeh hu chacham? Haroeh es hanolad. That means that it requires a tremendous amount of chachmah to assess consequences – both in terms of character as well as other people – because what starts to look like a chumrah can end as a kulah, and what starts to look like a kulah could actually be a chumrah [regarding another Torah value such as the importance of maintaining a] tzuras hakehillah.
Another interesting or unusual statement in The Legacy is the comment of Rav Yerucham Levovitz that inner serenity is “the sum and crown of all positive traits and accomplishments.” What precisely did Rav Yerucham mean by this? Why should inner serenity be so important for a Torah Jew?
Serenity comes from one’s neshamah being at peace with who we are and what we’re doing in this world. And that comes from doing the right thing – for two reasons. First, we were designed to serve Hashem so when we’re doing that we’re living in accordance with our life’s purpose. And second, Hashem created the Torah perfectly in such a way that it becomes the blueprint for ideal living and balances all the different parts of who we are.
You’re the chief rabbi of South Africa. For those American Jews who don’t know much about South African Jewry, what can you say as a quick primer on the topic?
The South African Jewish community is, Baruch Hashem, a very vibrant, active Jewish community. Numbers in international terms are relatively small – about 70,000-75,000 Jews – but 90 percent of them are actually of Litvishe origin; hence my connection to the subject.
It’s also a community that has some of the lowest rates of assimilation in the Jewish world, and which, in the last 20-30 years, has experienced a ba’al teshuvah movement that’s unprecedented. There’s hardly a family in the country that hasn’t been touched by the movement, particularly in Johannesburg.
So it’s very Jewishly aware and Jewishly proud. Even those who are not shomer mitzvos have a tremendous amount of Jewish pride and great respect for rabbanim and Torah as well.
Finally, it’s a community that has a very strong tzuras hakehillah. We have one beis din that deals with all kashrus, all gittin, all kiddushin, all geirus – everything is under one structure.
What’s the denominational breakdown of South African Jewry?
Orthodoxy is dominant in South Africa. Even though there are obviously many Jews who don’t keep mitzvos, the kehillah is 90 percent-plus Orthodox-affiliated. So even if you have Jews who are not shomer mitzvos, they belong to Orthodox shuls. All of the schools are also within an Orthodox framework, which means the schools only have Orthodox rabbanim teaching.
I think that’s been a key in the success of the ba’al teshuvah movement – because even though Jews have drifted from practice, they were within an Orthodox framework and so there was always a way to reach them.