Books: Leaning the lessons of Lithuania

The new book by popular historian Rabbi Berel Wein and South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein on the moral history of a destroyed Jewish community.

Berel Wein 521 (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Berel Wein 521
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Ever-popular haredi historian Rabbi Berel Wein is known for combining a clear-eyed look at Jewish history with inspirational Jewish messages. His latest book, a slim volume entitled The Legacy: Teachings for Life from the Great Lithuanian Rabbis and co-authored with South African Chief Rabbi and Jerusalem Post columnist Warren Goldstein, is an effort aimed at bringing back what Wein believes to be the “moderation” of the vanished world of Lithuanian Jewry to the contemporary religious scene.
Goldstein and Wein sat down to discuss their new volume immediately prior to giving a joint talk to a packed house at Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue.
The rabbis were adamant that while their book was not primarily a historical work, they believed that it was important that the historical details contained therein be historically accurate.
When asked about a statement of the noted Rabbi Shimon Schwab, who asked “what ethical purpose is served by preserving a realistic historic picture” and stated that “nothing [is gained] but the satisfaction of curiosity,” Wein replied that it is truly important for the moral development of the Jewish people for its members to know their history as accurately as possible and he believes that this knowledge, warts and all, is the greatest spiritual inspiration.
Tell us about the genesis of this project.
BW: Rabbi Goldstein and I know each other for a few years and we’ve spoken together about the fact that even though I’m much older than he is, we come from very similar backgrounds and we have very similar Torah instructors, all of whom were very ‘Lithuanian’ rabbis [and] teachers.
He’s from the disciples of those great [Torah illuminaries from Lithuania] and I’m from the original ones and we remarked that somehow the legacy of Lithuania has been lost to a great extent in our current Orthodox world.
Are you talking about the increasing influence of hasidic concepts among the non-hasidic community? BW: I’m not talking in the negative, I’m talking in the positive. What Lithuanian Jewry represented... and part of the great problem was that Lithuanian Jewry was completely eliminated and 98.5 percent were gone. So there’s nobody left. Whereas Hungarian Jewry, half of it survived. Lithuania, nobody survived, almost.
That way of life, that value system, the way to look at the world, the way to look at the Jewish world, to be moderate, the sense of family, the sense of pleasantness, the sense of somehow fulfilling God’s commandments in a way that relates to human beings, that was a hallmark of Lithuanian Jewry.It sounds like there an implicit criticism of contemporary haredi society in what you are saying.BW: I don’t say a criticism, the only thing that I say is that [way of life] doesn’t exist today to a great extent, and because of that I’m not trying to rebuild the Jewish world – that’s Rabbi Goldstein’s job – but what I’m trying to do is that they should know, that’s why [the book] is called The Legacy; what once was, and they should [know] what the bar is. What is Judaism.
These are values of Judaism. The fact that as individuals Jews, we may not be able to live up [to them], that’s not a criticism of Judaism, it’s just the bar that we have to [meet]. That’s what we have to reach for.
That was the idea of the book.
You are known for combining uplifting Jewish messages and uncompromising historical fact.Many religious books that deal with the history of European Jewry have been accused of idealizing the world that was, sometimes in contradiction to what actually happened. Is what you are trying to do here a reaction to this trend? BW: You can’t say ‘the distortion of the Lithuanian [community]’ because the Lithuanian community is not here.
I think what we are trying to do is show that there was a real world, and not a fantasy world. Much of the world today thinks in terms of a fantasy world of Eastern Europe.WG: I think an important thing is that it’s not just a book about history.
It’s a book about the values of what was taught.
That’s why we were very careful; if you have a look at the title and subtitle, the subtitle is the teachings of the Lithuanian Rabbis, because we are not claiming that Lithuanian Jewry was this perfect society and they lived up to all of the values that are described in the book.
We are saying this is what the great rabbis of this society taught, and [they] tried to bring people toward these values.
In one of Rabbi Wein’s chapters in the book, about the painful incident [involving] Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s son and the impact of the haskala (Jewish enlightenment movement) and what that did... so it’s not as if we are trying to portray some rosy picture of the society.
The real emphasis of the book is to look at the values. Even when Rabbi Wein contextualizes it in the history of what occurs, it’s looking at the values in the context of the history with a primary focus being on the values.
It’s about those teachings not making a claim about the past and the present.
What impact do you want this to have? BW: This is aimed at everybody. This is aimed at every human being.
It’s even aimed at the non-Jewish world, because the non-Jewish world really has little to no idea of what the value system of the Jewish people is or what Judaism and Torah are.
It’s not just a book of laws, it’s an entire construct of human behavior.
Because of our built-in audience and because we are both rabbis, we hope to influence our audiences. We hope, Rabbi Goldstein put it very well to me once, that every yeshiva student will read it, every hasidic Jew will read it, every Sephardic Jew will read it, because the values are not limited to a place and a time, the values are timeless and they are beyond geographical borders.
WG: It’s an important question that you ask because one of the concepts we articulate is what is the concept of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish collective) and that today it has become so segmented that if a work is created then it is created for this [or that] segment, but part of the message of the book is that Klal Yisrael are all one people – very diverse – but we have to [call] to each other across those divisions.
Philosophically, we have to say that this book is a book for all Jews.
What is your philosophy of history? BW: My philosophy is that if we know our past it will make us stronger Jews, more observant Jews, better people because of what has occurred to us.
Much of the problems that exist in the Jewish world today are not new. I mean, to a certain extent, there are groups that are still fighting the battles of the 18th and 19th centuries, which are long over, and they persist in fighting that battle, and I think if you know history, my experience has been from many people who heard my lectures and read my books, is that they became better Jews because of it.
They realize that the past wasn’t perfect but they realize that somehow, in spite of the imperfections, look what happened: the Jewish people have not only survived, they have thrived.
We have a state, we built Torah, we did all of this.
Belief and divine intervention, and all of this is [in] Jewish history.