YM: What other rabbis did you learn with?
MZ: I had a chevruta for about six months with Rabbi Friedlander (he edited and made available many of the works of the Ramchal). At the time, he was the mashgiach in the Ponovich Yeshiva while I was the mashgiach in Sha’alvim. We learned together the kitvei kabbalah of the Ramchal. He was a real “lamed vavnik” (a hidden tzadik). He was covered; you couldn’t see on him that he was something great. He was simple, calm, reticent and easygoing. Even when I learned with him I didn’t realize how great he was.
YM: Who else did you learn Kabbalah with?
MZ: Before learning with Rabbi Friedlander I learned the ropes in Kabbalah with Rabbi Sraya Deblitzky and then with Rabbi Shmuel Toledano.
Then later on I learned with Rabbi Dvir, another hidden tzadik. He opened my eyes to the “nimshal,” which is the inner meaning or unraveling of the “mashal” (the parable). I once said to him “teach me kabbalah” and he said “go find a kabbalist.” When I would stand for him out of reverence he would become aggravated and say “what’s this for, what’s the purpose?” He was very humble, truly a great man.
A Book is a Man’s Best Friend
YM: The many books you have on your shelves are full of notes. Can you say something about books and what they mean to you?
MZ: The books are my teachers, my mentors, and from the hundreds of books that I learned I acquired a true appreciation of what the Torah is really about. It’s not enough that the books are on the shelves; you have to know what their message is.
When I gave a lesson at Sha’alvim, every day I gave a lesson to a different group, I would say “today we have a guest lecturer, the Maharal is coming to teach us”. The students would look at me like I’m crazy and say “The Maharal has been dead for four hundred years!” I would say, “We’re reading his book, he’s writing us a letter, he’s talking to us. Why do you need Zuriel when you have the Maharal? Let’s see what he says.” That’s the true approach. When you’re learning a book you’re connecting to the ancient author, he’s still alive and he’s imparting to you his wisdom, all the wisdom he gathered in tens of years. The book is the concentrated essence of what he learned over the course of many years and now you’re getting it for $10. It’s a big thing to study a book. A book is a man’s best friend. When I’m learning and I see something exciting, I kiss the book, I kiss the words. I can’t kiss God because I don’t know where he is but the words that convey his message, these words are wonderful so I kiss the book. When I take out by mistake the wrong book, instead of closing it I read at least one line. If I took this book off of the shelf, it means I needed to get something from it.
We continued chatting, jumping from subject to subject. The following are some of his main points:
Although there is a value to learning in and of itself, the main thing, as stressed by the sages, is the deed. In other words, learning Torah should not remain simply an intellectual exercise but rather the knowledge one gains from it must be used to actively engage in making the world a better place.
Regarding learning styles, for most people it’s preferable to learn be-kiyut (cover more ground in Torah to become familiar with the overall picture) rather then be-iyun (in depth analysis of fewer subjects). Moreover, be-kiyut learning should be accompanied by the writing of short summarizations in order to better internalize the subject matter.
People who learn Torah but are argumentative don’t really understand what they’re learning; it’s all external to them.
With the kibbutz galuyot (ingathering of the exiles) we need a Sanhedrin to implement various changes since Judaism is a developing matter; it’s supposed to be dynamic. He showed me in one of his works twenty items that the Tosafot (a group of medieval rabbinic sages) changed. Today however, he added, we’re like the Karaites, we don’t want to change.
Jewish life is characterized by a true optimism that everything will work out and will be fine since God is in charge. God cannot be a failure – he created the world, thus it has to succeed.
As he escorted me to the bus stop he told me a nice story from his early days in New York. He was in his late teens and he wanted to know whether or not one is required to use special kosher for Passover toothpaste during the Passover holiday. So rather than consulting with any old rabbi he decided to go to Manhattan’s Lower East Side in order to present his question to none other than Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the Torah giants of the 20th century.