By Eytan Kobre
It is very clear that biographies of “Gedolim,” or great sages and righteous individuals can have varied goals. They can take the form of hagiographies that paint pristine pictures of the particular subject or they can be academic studies that seek to reveal the complete personality, “warts and all.” While I believe that there is room for both approaches, as both a reader and a rabbi, I am sensitive to the need for the reader to have access to the best of both worlds as the mission of the Torah leader is to educate, inspire and elevate in a way that is accessible and actionable as well.
This is what I experienced when reading Greatness by Eytan Kobre, which includes 18 portraits of a wide array of great Torah leaders, many who are familiar and some who are lesser-known individuals whom I encountered for the first time on the pages of this book. The common thread that connects each chapter is the beautiful reverence given each gadol, which is augmented greatly by the “realness” of each of them, not angels but human beings who worked hard to reach their fullest potential, thus providing the reader with an example of what they can attain with the correct blend of attitude and effort.
One of the strengths of these biographical vignettes is that they are represented through the eyes of people who are deeply vested in the subject – be they actual talmidim of the gadol when they were alive, such as the chabura of old friends who gather in Lakewood, N.J., to reminisce about their beloved rebbi, Rav Moshe Feinstein, to those who seek to resurrect the life’s works of rabbinical giants or “Great but Unknown Gedolim” (p. 70) who fell into obscurity like: Rav Tzvi Hirsch Grodzinski, the rav of Omaha, Nebraska, or Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, the posek for America before Rav Moshe. The passion involved by modern day talmidei chachamim like Rabbi Myron Wakschlag and Rabbi Shmuel Kleinman to painstakingly gather the corpus of these giants to make them accessible to a new generation is as inspirational as the biographies themselves.
A key theme throughout these biographies is that they connect the reader with the gedolim in a way that makes them accessible. That may be because these figures saw their mission as to serve the Jewish people with their limitless talents and abilities, in other words, make themselves accessible to the Jewish people and enrich the caliber of Jewish life, especially in the United States. The discovery that Rav Henkin never made “early Shabbos” to be available until the last possible minute to tackle a challenging halachic query is inspiring and edifying about what it really means to be a person of stature who carries the weight of the Jewish people on their shoulders.
Another very welcome element found throughout the pages of this book is the connectivity of the personalities with individuals from all over the Torah world. One particularly powerful example of this comes in the second act of the chapter on Rav Henkin where the American-born Rabbi Kleinman joins forces with Rav Henkin’s Israeli great-grandson, Rav Eitam Henkin, to collect and publish Rav Henkin’s responsa. Despite their different backgrounds, their shared love of Torah and truth enabled them to form a strong and productive bond that resulted in the publishing of the Gevuros Eliayu, Rav Henkin’s long-forgotten teshuvos. It’s this truthful, intellectually honest expansion of the Torah tent which makes this collection so refreshing. If one is looking for something that is well-written, smooth reading and inspiring, Greatness is the book for you.