Palo Alto’s Torah Couple
Knowing some of the wonderful people who live in Palo Alto, it was with great interest that I read Chana Stoler’s “Torah Comes to Silicon Valley” (winter 2010). While the article did a wonderful job describing the Torah infrastructure in the Bay Area, it fell short in one regard. Other than a passing reference to the rosh kollel, the author failed to acknowledge the enormous contribution of Rabbi Avi Lebowitz, an individual who is recognized by many as a major draw to the area.

A musmach of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, Rabbi Lebowitz is always ready to serve the needs of the community. In addition to delivering a 5:30 A.M. daf yomi shiur and numerous other shiurim, Rabbi Lebowitz is a recognized expert in halachah, and his opinion is regularly sought by rabbanim across the country. His wife, Rebbetzin Fia, is similarly dedicated to the needs of the community. In addition to raising six children, she regularly organizes community events and teaches popular classes. The residents of Palo Alto are indeed fortunate to have the Lebowitzes in their community.
Zev Cinamon
Cedarhurst, New York

Rabbi Hershel Schachter’s contribution to the symposium on mesorah (winter 2010) exhibits his usual great erudition and lucid presentation. I believe that a few of the nuances need reformulation.

1. The article suggests that to have validity, customs must be instituted by “God-fearing scholars whose every action is done for the sake of heaven.” A footnote refers to Magen Avraham, OH 690:22. The Magen Avraham addresses when we say “minhag oker halachah,” a discussion regarding customs that may violate halachic principles. In such instances, we should certainly only accept customs from an impeccable source. This indicates nothing about the validity of customs that do not clash with other halachic principles.

2. The article cites Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook’s and Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik’s common interpretation of Berachot 28b regarding the adding of a nineteenth blessing to the Amidah as an illustration of the idea that “those who institute new practices must perform the entire process with only the purest of intentions.” This formulation misses the essential thrust of both Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik. For them, the issue is not innovation per se but the specific nature of this innovation. They both stress how creating this berachah presented a bigger problem than other berachot. Most of our prayers beseech God for compassion, yet this novel blessing pleads with God to destroy others. Such a blessing can release all kinds of feelings of violence and hatred that do not befit a noble religious personality. Therefore, we needed Shmuel HaKatan, someone with the purest motivations, to compose the berachah. The standard of purity needed for other innovations might be quite different.

3. Much of the article parallels the discussion in the first section of Rabbi Schachter’s Nefesh HaRav. In both, Rabbi Schachter heavily emphasizes the themes of mesorah, continuity, and religious conservatism, themes undeniably part of Rav Soloveitchik’s thought. Conversely, Rabbi Schachter downplays ideas central to the Rav, such as creativity, singularity, and individualism. Two representative samples from the Rav’s oral discourses follow:
I rejoice in being alone and individualistic. If I am found wanting, then my achievements may very well be inconsiderable. However, if I am a pygmy, at least I am a pygmy who possesses the Divine Image. I must chart my own course. Our sages refer to Avraham as the “only one” (Sanhedrin 93a) because he was unique and paved a new way for mankind. I am always attracted to those Gedolei Yisrael who charted new courses. The same is true in my relationship with institutions. I am impressed by institutions that are pacesetters and innovative (Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Rav, p. 227).

This is also true of my counseling my students. I receive many such questions. I would never give them a yes or no answer. I just explain the alternatives and what is involved. One course of action may produce one result, and another course may produce a second result. The decision belongs to the boys. I resent very much that certain roshei yeshivah and certain teachers want to impose their will on the boys. It is against the law. Both ways are correct, the options are correct, and it is up to the individual to make the decision (The Rav, p. 237).

The first citation clearly conveys that the Rav did not expect rabbanim to purely copy the ideas of their teachers. The second reveals that the Rav was against rabbis deciding important personal questions for students. Both emphasize singularity and individual responsibility, themes that sometimes get lost in Rabbi Schachter’s presentation. Appreciating these concepts leads to a different perspective on the Rav’s thought. For example, the Rav’s attitude toward Zionism differed sharply from his family tradition. Rabbi Schachter explains that this was not a move away from family mesorah since the times and situation changed (Nefesh HaRav, pp. 23-24). This presentation implies that Rav Soloveitchik did not truly differ from his grandfather; they simply faced different situations. However, the Rav said in an address at a Mizrachi convention:

If I now identify with the Mizrachi, against my family tradition, it is only because, as previously clarified, I feel that Divine Providence ruled like “Joseph” and against his brothers; that He employs secular Jews as instruments to bring to fruition His great plans regarding the land of Israel (The Rav Speaks, p. 36).

Since, the Rav speaks of Divine Providence ruling “against his brothers,” he clearly does not assume that his own shift in affiliation would be endorsed by his ancestors given the changed circumstance. Had that been the case, the ruling would not be “against his brothers.”

Rabbi Schachter has contributed much toward preserving the Rav’s Torah. Nonetheless, aspects of his presentation require added nuance, and some merit alteration.
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau
Alon Shevut, Israel

Rabbi Blau correctly points out that much of the discussion in my article parallels the essay on mesorah in my book Nefesh HaRav. He feels that the ideas of creativity, singularity, and individualism, which are so central to Rav Soloveitchik’s thinking, sometimes got lost in my presentation. However, the very next essay in Nefesh HaRav, which is entitled “Vehalachta Bidrachav,” dwells at length on those very concepts. They are also reflected in the beginning of the second section of my article where I quote midrashim that Hashem appreciates chiddushei Torah and that there is not a day in which Hashem does not innovate some new halachah in the heavenly court.

Rabbi Blau quotes the Rav in his address to the Mizrachi as stating that his position on Zionism was a deviation from his family tradition. My understanding is that the Rav believed that Rav Chaim himself would also have changed his position had he witnessed the Holocaust and the establishment of the Medinah. This is exactly what he meant when he said that hashgachah ruled in favor of the Ramban, that we should establish a medinah and all move to Eretz Yisrael. Yes, the Rav after the war disagreed with what Rav Chaim held before the war. Had Rav Chaim lived after the war he would also have disagreed with his pre-war position.

Rabbi Blau correctly notes that the Magen Avraham, quoting Masechet Sofrim, only states that we must reject customs that were not instituted with rabbinic approval when those customs contradict halachah. The Netziv, however, whom I quoted both earlier and later in the article, makes the broader point that all original innovations must have pure origins. This is a recurrent theme in the Netziv’s writings, in which the Magen Avraham fits nicely despite the limited context of his remarks.

Rav Soloveitchik pointed out on various occasions that our religion does not approve of the “ceremonialism” that was picked up from Christianity. A minhag may be labeled a minhag shtut, a purely ceremonial act, if it does not represent a fulfillment (kiyum) of some mitzvah. The whole idea of one voluntarily fulfilling a mitzvah in which he is not obligated is to demonstrate one’s love for Hashem. How does one demonstrate that he loves his parents or his spouse? By volunteering to do something that he knows will make them happy. One view in the Talmud (Shabbat 23a) is that the binding force for all rabbinic mitzvot is the verse in Ha’azinu (Devarim 32:7): “Ask your father, and he will show you; your elders, and they will tell you.” This verse is not counted as one of the 613 mitzvot. How can it possibly serve as the source for the binding effect of rabbinic mitzvot? The explanation that is usually given is that all rabbinic mitzvot, as well as minhagim, are expressions of the ahavat Hashem in which we are commanded in Keriyat Shema. One way to demonstrate that love is going above and beyond what Hashem commanded us by following the spirit of the law in ways not mandated by the letter of the law. In this way we will (kivyachol) make Hashem happy. But how can we determine what is the spirit of the law?

The Talmud quotes the verse in Ha’azinu: Ask the elders, the rabbis who have a broad perspective of Torah, and they will be able to determine what is in accordance with the spirit of the law. Minhagim which have no recognized rabbinic approval are ceremonies and represent a problem of bal tosif (see the introduction to my sefer MiPninei HaRav, page 11, and my sefer Nefesh HaRav, pages 24-25).

Rabbi Blau is correct that the Rav and Rav Kook were speaking about a specific innovation, but his implication that other innovations do not require purity of heart is incorrect. People acquire attitudes from a wide variety of sources, many of them antithetical to Torah values. Rashi writes on Shemot 28:4: “And my heart leads me to understand…” In Yiddish folklore they point out that this comment of Rashi is problematic. How is he allowed to follow the dictates of his heart? Don’t we read in Keriyat Shema: “V’lo taturu acharei l’vavchem, One should not follow the dictates of his heart”?

The answer given is that Rashi felt that he had fulfilled the instructions of Mishlei (3:3): “Katveim al luach libechah, Write [the words of Torah] on your heart.” If one is steeped in piety and his heart is entirely shaped by the Torah, then the Torah speaks from his heart, and we can be certain that his innovations will certainly be in accordance with the spirit of the Torah (see Nefesh HaRav, p. 43). One whose heart is not that pure, and is not that steeped in Torah, may unleash with his innovation of a new minhag all kinds of improper values.

I enjoyed reading the different perspectives on “Preserving the Mesorah in Changing Times” (winter 2010). However, I would like to point out a few things. Rabbi Emanuel Feldman eloquently explained why he would not wear a black robe when he officiated on Shabbat. Nevertheless, it is well known that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch did just that.

Additionally, none of the contributors discuss the flip side of the coin: that blind adherence to mesorah can be counterproductive. Witness how long it took for even the most “modern” branches of Orthodoxy to agree to pre-nuptial agreements to prevent agunot, or the difficulty of eliminating the unhealthful practice of metzitzah b’peh in certain communities.
Ben Z. Katz, MD
Chicago, Illinois

I thank Dr. Katz for the opportunity to clarify certain points in my essay. Whether or not Rav Hirsch wore a black robe (he also wore a large black yarmulke) in nineteenth-century Germany is rather irrelevant for twentieth-century America. Different battlefields call for different strategies and tactics. How he conducted his battle for Judaism in his time is not germane to the ways we conduct ours today. Were he living in late twentieth-century Atlanta, I dare say he would agree that the black robe was imitative of non-Orthodox practices and certainly of non-Jewish practices. (Interestingly, some Hirschian students claim that the German government required religious leaders to wear some kind of robe, and that the choice was not Hirsch’s alone.)

As for changes in Jewish practice, within certain parameters halachah moves with the times, and there is development and subtle change in halachic practice over the centuries—all within the framework of Jewish law. But first and foremost, as I pointed out in my essay, these always evolve with the approval of the posekim of any given generation. Here, too, different times require different approaches for the preservation of Torah and halachah. As Dr. Katz himself realizes, this subject is nuanced and subtle, and requires a full discussion of its own.

Regarding “blind adherence to mesorah”: the point of my essay was that consultation with posekim is the sine qua non of what constitutes mesorah. The metzitzah b’peh as well as the pre-nuptial issues involved serious halachic issues which needed resolution, and had nothing to do with blind adherence to mesorah. In any case, I suspect that Dr. Katz would agree that—if one must choose—adherence to the mesorah of the Jews, blind or not, is to be preferred over adherence to the non-Jewish standards of any given time.


In a letter that appeared in the spring issue of Jewish Action, it was implied that Daniel Renna, who was profiled in these pages, did not attend yeshivah. This is incorrect. Daniel attended Hillel Day School in Deal, New Jersey, for both elementary and high school. Subsequently, he attended Yeshiva University. We regret the error.

This article was featured in the Summer 2011 issue of Jewish Action.