Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel funeral 521.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
When he passed away on November 8 in Jerusalem, the American- born Rabbi Natan
Tzvi Finkel was widely credited with having transformed the Mir Yeshiva into the
world’s largest. Some 100,000 people flocked to his funeral. The procession
began at the Mir in the Beit Yisrael neighborhood, and continued afoot to the
Har Hamenuhot cemetery. For those neighborhoods of Jerusalem and for the
population that lives there, time stood still. Businesses were closed and study
was suspended even at other institutions.
His death was considered a loss
of a once-in-a-generation leader.
Amazingly, though, outside that
community, almost no one noticed. Most Israelis could not name him and were
unaware that he had died.
Even those American Jews who know, however
vaguely, of the Mir Yeshiva, could not have named the person who headed it. Nor
did they hear that he had died.
We’re living increasingly in a world of
parallel but non-intersecting Jewish universes, each with its own ideals and
heroes, neighborhoods and values, each too readily dismissive of the other. In
the aftermath of Rabbi Finkel’s passing, and the images of his funeral which
were a sea of black, extending down entire city streets, it’s worth comparing
this moment in our history to another Jewish funeral, also attended by some
That was the funeral of the brilliant Yiddish writer Y.L.
Peretz, who died in Warsaw just shy of a century ago. Professor Ruth Wisse,
writing in Commentary magazine in March 1991, described his funeral as follows:
“Published reports of the funeral lingers on the by-then extraordinary fact that
each of the splintering political, religious, social and cultural groups was
officially represented in the procession – Hebraists and Yiddishists, observant
Jews and all manner of secularists, Zionists and socialists and Territorialists
in all their tangled branches, conservative community leadership and radical
What a striking difference! How many secular Jews
could be found at Rabbi Finkel’s funeral? How many observant Jews not in black?
None of the former, I would imagine. And very, very few of the
Which leads me to the following question: Who is there anywhere
in the Jewish world whose passing would evoke the sense of shared loss that was
felt when Peretz died? Is there anyone in the Jewish world – in Israel, the
United States, or anywhere else – who would be mourned by secularists and
religious Jews alike, conservatives and liberals, Zionists and those more
dubious about the Jewish state? Were Haim Nahman Bialik to die now, would the
Israeli religious community mark his passing? (In 1934, it did.) Were Rabbi
Shlomo Goren alive now, would American Reform and Conservative Jews see his loss
as theirs, too? Would Israeli Orthodox Jews take note of the loss of Abba Hillel
Silver? There are (a very few) Israeli national leaders who will likely be
mourned across the religious divide, but will their passing be marked in any
meaningful way in American Jewish life? Is there a single American Jewish leader
of whom Israelis would take note after his or her death? To tell the truth, I
can’t think of a single Jewish person whose loss would evoke the kind of
cross-chasm mourning that Peretz’s did. We live in a very different and much
What matters, of course, is not really who mourns whom
at funerals. What matters is who takes whom seriously during their lifetime. And
increasingly, I fear, we take seriously those people who are more or less like
us. We embrace (and then “like” on Facebook, or forward to others) the views of
those with whom we agree, and disparage (and don’t “like” or Retweet, and never
forward) the views of those whose views we don’t share.
If people on the
“Right” read writers like Peter Beinart, it’s not because they think that they
might have something to learn from him (even if they disagree with his
conclusions), but rather, simply to show how completely off-base he is. And when
people on the “Left” read Caroline Glick, it’s also not because they think there
might be something to glean from arguments with which they ultimately disagree.
It’s simply to confirm their (incorrect) preconceived notion that anyone to
their right is a Neanderthal.
How different we are from the sages of the
Talmud, who carefully preserved the opinions of those with whom they disagreed,
including even those opinions that were ultimately rejected.
understood that even the “losing” positions had what to teach, that there are
moral and strategic insights to be gleaned even from those whose conclusions we
do not share.
But are there any rabbis in Israel’s religious community
who urge their students to read Ahad Ha’am’s vision for Zion or Amos Oz’s social
critiques, or secular Israeli high school teachers who encourage their students
to read Rav Kook’s (not so disparaging) religious assessment of secular Judaism?
We’re all part of this troubling phenomenon, to some extent. After all, don’t we
subscribe to those newspapers and magazines that say what we already think, and
avoid like the plague those that might cause us to rethink the positions to
which we’re now committed? Aren’t we, too, divided between CNN and Fox watchers,
each of us proud of the fact that we never watch the other? Perhaps, I sometimes
wistfully allow myself to imagine, it is time for those on the Left to subscribe
to The Weekly Standard, and those on the Right to buy The Nation.
vast majority of the Jewish world, the death of Rabbi Finkel went unnoticed. And
even for those outside his community who did hear about it, his passing and his
funeral are yesterday’s news. But those images of the sea of black – and only
black – on the streets of Jerusalem during his funeral procession ought to be a
reminder of how different our world is from the world that Y.L. Peretz
inhabited. Our response, I believe, ought to be to ask how we can begin to
recreate the deeply interconnected Warsaw community, so lost in so many
Perhaps we ought to start with reading, reminding ourselves that
the important reading we do is not the reading with which we agree, but the
reading that actually makes us think.The writer is president of the
Shalem Foundation and Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His
Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War that May Never
End (Wiley), won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award. His next book,
of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness is Actually Its Greatest
Strength, will be published this summer. He blogs at