Books: Reviving a community's spirit

David Geffen reviews 'The Legacy: Teachings for Life from Great Lithuanian Rabbis' by Rabbis Berel Wein and Warren Goldstein.

The Legacy: Teachings for Life from Great Lithuanian Rabbis (photo credit: Courtesy Maggid publishers)
The Legacy: Teachings for Life from Great Lithuanian Rabbis
(photo credit: Courtesy Maggid publishers)
This important book is written by two distinguished individuals, Rabbi Berel Wein, the noted historian and former Jerusalem Post columnist, and Rabbi Warren Goldstein, the chief rabbi of South Africa.
Together they have sought to demonstrate how the great rabbis of Lithuania, in their writings and teachings emphasized seeking the paths of pleasantness; being a mensch; practicing honesty, integrity and humility, among other significant human traits.
I was fortunate that I knew, personally, an individual who was a musmach of Slobodka Yeshiva and learned in the Kovno Kollel before he moved his family to the United States in the early 20th century. As a boy when I slept at his home, I awoke to find him studying the Gemara and Maimonides, and making notes. Watching him day by day, I saw how he, a Lithuanian native, practiced the concepts examined in this book.
By so doing, he impacted on a community for the 60 years he lived there as the rabbinic authority.
In an early footnote, the authors make it crystal clear why they wrote this book: “It is important to note that the Lithuanian rabbinic leadership was almost totally wiped out in the Holocaust. Because of this, those who embodied this idea of pleasantness and its value system – and had been in the forefront of its dissemination in the wider Jewish world – virtually disappeared from the Jewish scene. Certainly their presence and influence are still sorely missed.”
Having said this, the book is devoted to elucidating the beautiful moral acts practiced by the noted Lithuanian rabbis being studied. This rabbis left their mark on communities in Israel, South Africa, England, the US and Canada. The authors believe that with this informative book people will revive those teachings, which they feel are no longer sufficiently known.
The authors suggest, and rightly so, that “through understanding what Gedolei Yisrael [the great sages of Israel] over the ages chose to emphasize, we get a better understanding of Torah itself. We are able to gain perspective and a context for understanding Torah Judaism, as well as a broad map for the direction of our lives.”
In the chapter titled “Being a Mensch,” several ethical wills are included from the “gedolim.” In his final words the Chayei Adam pleads: “My dear children – my friends whom I love! – beware of the four groups of people who do not receive the Face of the Shechinah [divine presence]: liars, scoffers, speakers of lashon hara (gossip) and flatterers.
Be very careful with these matters; for even if such a person has Torah and good deeds, he will be lost from olam haba.”
This letter and the others cited help us to understand Torah values as the foundation for the principles of menschlichkeit.
This book reads very well because Wein and Goldstein live in the spiritual world which these Gedolei Yisrael imparted to us.
They are well aware of what the living Halacha is because that is part of their daily existence. They render decisions that impart vibrancy to Jewish law. However, from this book, we can see that they are different.
For them Judaism is more than just law – it is a manner of being that includes all facets of living.
THE AUTHORS pinpoint one concept and explain it in this manner. The saying “A Jew is not frum [religious]; a Jew is erlich [honest and upright]” is quoted, then what these words should mean is stated: “We do not strive for frumkeit; we treasure and nurture erlichkeit, which is about the integrity of inner growth rather than superficial religiosity or self-righteous ambitions.”
Then they draw it together: “[Erlichkeit] is about profound humility, which leads to a genuine appreciation of other people, to a deeper connection to God and to the sincere fulfillment of His will.”
The Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zevi Yehuda Berlin, is considered one of the fathers of the yeshiva movement, however, he did elucidate other concepts even while encouraging learning. One of these is known as yashrus. The Netziv believed that from this value everything flowed. He translated yashrus as “straightness,” but there were broader implications that included “integrity, uprightness, sensitivity, kindness and compassion.”
The Netziv explained the destruction of the Second Temple by noting that the people of that generation were “perverse and twisted” as Deuteronomy specifies in Ha’azinu.
Their character was exactly the opposite of being “straight and upright” so God sought to destroy them. For the Netziv, yashrus was a trait for which everyone should strive, even the most righteous.
There is a fascinating chapter on the founding of the yeshivot. In Eastern Europe the response to the challenges of modernity in the 19th century was to alter the system for training young men so as to reinforce the time-honored religious values of Judaism.
When Volozhin was founded in 1802, it was decided that it would be totally independent from the community. Slobodka came to be known for its study of mussar.
Telz had a more systematic structure that empowered it in its teaching of the students.
Then the kollelim were set up as an independent format for married men to continue their yeshiva education.
A valuable tool in this work is the listing of all the rabbanim discussed, with their full names and relevant dates provided. It would have added to this list if the location of their places of birth and death were included. Another edition of this book should include an index, which would greatly enhance its value as a learning tool.
All those seeking a work like this in print should be pleased that such a book exists.