“Great Minds of the 2oth Century”


As a longtime reader of Jewish Action, I must compliment you on the latest issue (Fall 5757, Volume 57, No. 1) with the articles “Great Minds of the Twentieth Century.”

The biographical sketches of the gedolim are fascinating.  Too many of us grew up hearing only about the genius of these gedolim without ever really knowing or understanding the real-life stories of their development and the communal issues they faced in their lifetimes.

My compliments and admiration to all of you.

Dr. Samuel I. Cohen

Executive Vice President

Jewish National Fund of America


Much as I enjoyed that Great Minds of the 20th Century series in your Fall 1996 issue, I am puzzled by the omission of two great minds and achievers of the 20th century, namely, Drs. Bernard Ravel and Samuel Belkin.  Hopefully, plans are afoot to include them in a future publication…

Aside from their enormous institutional attainments, both were considered outstanding “talmidei chachamim” and were described as “illuim” in their European yeshivos.  Both were roshei yeshivah and their shiurim and Torah were of the highest standards of learning.

With all good wishes for continuing success in your efforts.

Sam Hartstein

New York, New York


In the Fall 5757 issue of Jewish Action, you included an informative series of articles on “Great Minds of the 20th Century.”  The introduction to the articles takes pride in bringing together so diverse a group of Orthodox thinkers.  “Within the Orthodox spectrum there is a growing recognition of the necessity of different groups to work together.  For this process to accelerate, each group must gain a clearer undertanding of the others’ world-views and realize the necessity and legitimacy of many paths, not only the one that is the most familiar or comfortable.”  This is a wonderful statement, and needs constant repetition within the Orthodox community.

Yet, in spite of their diversity, all of the rabbis chosen for inclusion in this section on “Great Minds of the 20th Century” essentially stem from the Eastern European Jewish community.  In the quest for understanding the diverse Orthodox traditions, one would have hoped for a series of articles about figures who would truly represent the vast diversity of Orthodoxy — Eastern European, Central and Western European, Asian and African, even American.  Many outstanding figures made remarkable contributions to the vitality of Jewish life.  The Orthodox community has much to gain from drawing on the strength of all our great figures, rabbi and non-rabbis, men and women…

Jewish Action has done an important service to the Orthodox community in stressing the importance of diverse paths within Orthodoxy.  We are a dynamic, creative and diverse community of Jews.  We must not only learn about and appreciate this diversity and creativity and dynamism: we must be proud of it and foster it.

Rabbi Marc D. Angel

Congregation Shearith Israel

New York, New York



The editors of Jewish Action are to be commended on the outstanding symposium, “Great Minds of the Twentieth Century” (Fall, 1996).  If I have a few critical comments to make, they are, of course, not meant to detract from the generally high level of presentation and analysis.

1) Rabbi Yaakov Feitman’s moving presentation of the life and thought of Rav Hutner unfortunately just misses the central theme of that thought.  In his discussion of Rav Hutner’s concept of time, he argues that Rav Hutner differentiates between “generational Time and cycling Time” and between “a Higher Time and Lower Time.”  To be more precise, the first contrast is between man and his power of renewal and the cyclical, repetitive processes of time, while the second contrast is between the soul’s longing for eternity and the body’s entrapment in the domain of time.  This, in turn, leads to what is perhaps the central contrast in Rav Hutner’s thought, namely, the contrast between Torah and nature.  For it is the Torah which provides the Jew with the power of renewal and the experience of eternity, while it is the realm of nature which is characterized by the cyclical processes of time.  Indeed, an examination of Rav Hutner’s thought reveals that a whole set of contrasting pairs are linked with the central contrasting image of Torah and nature.  Certainly a full discussion of this central contrast in all its manifold and interweaving facets would constitute and important contribution to a proper appreciation of Rav Hutner’s thought.  While this is not the place for such a discussion, it may be noted in connection with Rabbi Feitman’s focus on Rav Hutner’s concept of time that Rav Hutner, in a particularly striking turn of argument, claims that the power of the Torah ultimately overcomes the cyclical nature of time by transforming the repetitive lunar cycle into a symbol of Israel’s renewal and the repetitive solar cycle into a symbol of the individual’s power of self-creation.  (See Pahad Yitzhak: Rosh Hashanah, ma’amar 27).

2) Rabbi Aharon Feldman’s account of the famous encounter between the Chazon Ish and Ben Gurion is marred by many serious errors.  First, the historical issue providing the background for the encounter was not “women’s service in the army,” but non-army national service for women.  Second, Ben Gurion did not argue “that the security of the State demanded that women be drafted.”  As all accounts indicate, he deliberately avoided discussing specific issues and asked the Chazon Ish how religious and secular Jews would be able to get along in the young State of Israel.  Third, it is not true that “Ben Gurion did not answer” when the Chazon Ish described secularist culture as an “empty wagon.”  As most accounts (based upon personal reports from confidantes of both the Chazon Ish and Ben Gurion) relate, Ben Gurion heatedly replied that the wagon of the secularists was not empty, but filled with the ethical values of the prophets and the great deeds of the settlement and defense of the land and State of Israel.  (To be sure this exchange is missing from some of the “politically correct” accounts).   I should add that several years ago, in a discussion with Mr. Yitzchak Navon, who at the time of the famous encounter was Ben Gurion’s secretary and the only other person at the meeting, he confirmed for me the accuracy of the above.  Navon further remarked that though it is not generally reported, Ben Gurion was also not silenced by the retort of the Chazon Ish and observed that the Torah studied by thousands of students in European yeshivot did not succeed in saving that Jewry from destruction.  Fourth, it is not the case “that the decree to draft religious women was soon rescinded,”  Rather, after the encounter Ben Gurion wrote a letter to the Chazon Ish in which, while saying how much he was moved by the meeting, he, at the same time, refused to back down on the proposed amendment to draft all women for national service.  And in fact, a little while later the amendment passed, though in practice women were allowed to refuse national as well as army service on religious grounds.

The lesson I would draw from this encounter differs from that drawn by Rabbi Feldman.  Ben Gurion, in my view, was right in claiming that the wagon of the secularists was not empty.  What he did not appreciate, however, was that the idealism fueling the accomplishments he enumerated drew upon the religious capital of Judaism, and that, cut off from its religious roots, that secular idealism would eventually dry up, as indeed it has largely done in this current era of secular “post-Zionism,” “normalcy,” and nihilism.  On this point, there is room for disagreement between me and Rabbi Feldman.  But before we can draw any lesson from this famous encounter we must first get the facts straight.

3) Rabbi Yehudah Copperman’s discussion, in his article on Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, of Ibn Ezra’s exegetical method is apologetic and misleading.  The exegetical method of Ibn Ezra, contrary to Rabbi Copperman’s claim, is not to be compared with that of Rashbam.  Rashbam believed in the multi-leveled nature of the Torah.  The depths of p’shat, deriving from certain not-as-yet fully explored exegetical methods, belong to one level; rabbinic interpretations, derived through classical hermeneutical principles (drash), belong to another level.  Since the p’shat of Scripture and the rabbinic interpretations operate on different levels and use different exegetical methodologies they cannot come into conflict.  Following from this, Rashbam, as he explicitly states, feels free to ignore the rabbinic interpretations already to be found in rabbinic literature and Rashi’s commentary on the Torah, and focus only on the p’shat.  By contrast, Ibn Ezra, following an established Geonic-Spanish tradition, denies any creative role to midrash, either midrash aggadah or midrash halachah.  The Sages’ legal interpretations of verses are authoritative because they are the true meaning of the text known on the basis of tradition, and they thus override any divergent interpretation apparently derived on the basis of peshuto shel mikra.  It is for this reason that Ibn Ezra explicitly states that in the case of such a divergence he will cite the rabbinic legal interpretation and ignore any opposing p’shat interpretation.  The problem is that Ibn Ezra oftentimes does not adhere to his stated methodology and offers legal p’shat interpretations of particular verses that conflict with the legal rabbinic interpretations of those verses.  Confronted with this genuine problem, some acharonim, rather than concluding that Ibn Ezra was insincere in his argument that the rabbinic legal interpretation of a verse overrides any divergent p’shat interpretation, preferred to argue that he was unaware of the rabbinic interpretations in these instances.  I have somewhat oversimplified Ibn Ezra’s position, and I believe there may be a way of avoiding the unpalatable alternative facing these acharonim, but the problem they faced was genuine, and Rabbi Copperman’s brusque dismissal of their solution is unfair.  As for Rabbi Copperman’s indignant outcry as to how acharonim could deny that Ibn Ezra was a talmid chacham, given that “the Rambam himself wrote to his son that ‘he should not deviate from his commentary on the Torah'”, it is the almost unanimous consensus of Maimonidean scholars that this supposed letter is a fourteenth century rationalist forgery.

[Dr.] Lawrence Kaplan

Montreal, Quebec

Rabbi Feitman responds:

I wish to thank Professor Kaplan for his kind description of my article on Rav Hutner, zt”l, as “moving.”  Dr. Kaplan’s analysis of Rav Hutner’s views on Time is insightful and the terminology he employs is valuable.  As he points out, this, like many of Rav Hutner’s themes, could use full-scale study and examination.

I disagree, however, with his contention that “the central contrast in Rav Hutner’s thought” is that between “Torah and Nature.”  The protean and  multi-faceted quality of Rav Hutner’s work is such that everyone focuses on a different aspect and declares it “central.”  Like Queen Esther, each observer sees himself in reflection.  Some emphasize the inspirational aspect of his work, others highlight the many references to mussar, numerous followers trace the Chassidic and mystical strains, yet others are enthralled by the sheer poetry and language.  When it comes to important themes, some point to the many maamarim on  imitatio dei, covenants and their role in Knesses Yisrael, shirah and the power of human speech.

Undoubtedly, the “Torah and nature” theme is dealt with thoroughly in the Pachad Yitzchak canon.  But I do not believe it is any more “central” than numerous other motifs, which in a 2,000 word article could not be mentioned.  The subjects to which I alluded are those which have been important and resonated with me personally and were meant to be neither authoriative nor exhaustive.

Rabbi Feldman responds:

Dr. Lawrence Kaplan is accurate regarding 1) that the immediate topic of the conversation between the Chazon Ish and Ben Gurion was how to get religious and secular Jews to live together and that the draft law was merely the background of this meeting; 2) that the draft law was a proposed law regarding drafting women into a compulsory national service and not into the army; and 3) that the law was not subsequently “rescinded” but was merely not implemented after it was passed.  Nevertheless, I do not agree that these are “serious errors.”

I cannot, however, accept his version that Ben Gurion “heatedly replied” to the Chazon Ish, when the latter told him his “wagon” was “empty,” that it was not empty and that Zionism was based on the ideals of the prophets, etc.   The fact that Yitzchak Navon is the source of the account is hardly convincing; his job was, after all, protecting the reputation of his boss.  Subsequent to Dr. Kaplan’s letter I have interviewed many confidantes of the Chazon Ish who say this did not occur and that the sole response of Ben Gurion was the single word, “Empty?”

Former Member of Knesset Shlomo Lorincz, to whom the Chazon Ish related details of the meeting shortly afterwards, told me in addition (and wrote the same in Digleinu [Vol. 2 (110), Marcheshvan 5718]), that although the Chazon Ish originally said that Zionism which was 50 years old was an “empty wagon” compared to Judaism which was 3,500 years old, he was concerned that Ben Gurion might have been offended by his comparison, something which he felt was improper to do to someone who was a guest in his home.  He therefore added another interpretation to his analogy: “Our wagon is full with Torah and mitzvos: only kosher food, only the observance of Shabbos etc.  To our great fortune, your wagon is empty in the sense that there is no opposition to this: your agenda does not seem to require only non-kosher food, only the desecration of Shabbos.  If this were so, there certainly could be no solution, but since yours is empty in this sense, you can give in to our standpoint without affecting yourselves in any real way.”  (Rabbi Lorincz has told me that this account was corroborated by Ben Gurion when Lorincz met him at the former’s home in Sdeh Boker shortly afterwards.)  This indicates that the meeting had a respectful atmosphere without “retorts” or heated responses.

That Ben Gurion understood what the Chazon Ish originally meant by his analogy to an empty wagon is indicated by the fact (as recorded by Moshe Sheinfeld in Digleinu, Vol. 3 [80], Kislev 5715) that as Ben Gurion stood at the door about to leave the room, his last words to the Chazon Ish were the comment, “Our wagon is, after all, not empty.”

Also, none of my interviewees ever heard that Ben Gurion argued that the Torah learning of the European yeshivos did not avert their destruction.  Furthermore, such an argument would have been irrelevant: the Chazon Ish was not saying that the “full” wagon of Judaism protected it from suffering — only that it maintained its survival.  Indeed, if anything has contributed to the rejuvenation of Jewish life since the Holocaust, it is the learning of those yeshivos and their modern counterparts in the latter twentieth-century U.S. and Israel.  On the other hand, the returns are not yet in, in this era when Israel’s existence is seriously threatened, as to whether the wagon of Zionism has been successful in this respect.

Rabbi Copperman responds:

Lawrence Kaplan’s comments on my article on R’ Meir Simcha, the Meshech Chochma, would call for a detailed, elaborate and scholarly reply on my part if the subject of the article was the Ibn Ezra and the Rashbam.  However, the purpose of my article was to present the uniqueness of the Meshech Chochma to the English reading public, while my references to the rishonim were secondary and not essential to a clear understanding of the Meshech Chochma’s methodology.  I shall therefore reply b’ktzirat ha’omer, referring to the literature on the subject which I have been privileged to contribute, for the benefit of those readers who wish to pursue further the methodology of the Ibn Ezra and the Rashbam.

If indeed the letter attributed to the Rambam about Ibn Ezra is spurious, we need no better evidence as to how the rishonim viewed Ibn Ezra than the Ramban’s placing him next to Rashi in the introduction to his peirush on the Torah.

Dr. Kaplan raises the question of apologetics and indeed this is pivotal to our whole discussion on Meshech Chochma.  R’ Meir Simcha places himself squarely in the non-apologetc school of thought following the Lithuanian tradition of the Vilna Gaon, the Natziv, et alia.  This is in clear contradistinction to the apologetic school of thought, so ably represented by the K’tav Vekabala (Meklenburg), Malbim, Hoffman, et alia.  I elaborated on these two schools of thought in my volume of essays Lepeshuto Shel Mikra pp. 142-159.   It is my considered opinion that both the Ibn Ezra and the Rashbam belong to the non-apologetic school of thought vis-a-vis the concept of peshuto shel mikra.  I elaborated on this matter in two major articles in the above volume pp. 116-141 and pp. 35-41.

For the benefit of the lay Ben Torah reader who is not engrossed in the above-mentioned subject, I would like to clarify what, in my opinion, is the major issue facing all commentators and all students of Torah.  I refer to the clear difference between what I call the question of keitzad and the question of madua.  The question of keitzad is addressed to Chazal as we ask them: How (keitzad) do you know to interpret the verse the way you do?  (this is the question amai in Bava Kama 83b and 84a in discussing ayin tachat ayin according to Chazal‘s interpretation of mamon).  However, on the very point where the question of keitzad is solved to our satisfaction, the question of madua is immediately asked and aroused.  Namely, why (madua) did the Torah in this case write ayin tachat ayin with all the problematics associated therewith, when it could have written demei eyno yeshalem, as indeed Chazal interpret the verse?  The same question of madua applies in every case where there is a discrepancy between peshuto shel mikra and Torah she’be-al peh.  If the question of keitzad is addressed to Chazal, the question of madua is addressed to the Almighty Himself.  This, then, in my opinion, is the very foundation of a solid learning of Torah al tohorat hakodesh taking into account the various functions of peshuto shel mikra within the shlemut of kedushat hatorah.  The question as Ibn Ezra and Meshech Chochma fully realize is not, what is the p’shat, but what is the function of p’shat within the totality of kedushat hatorah?  (See further, Peshuto Shel Mikra pp.5-44).

This article was featured in the Spring 1997 issue of Jewish Action.
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