Torah  |  Features  |  New  |  Search  |  E-mail Us

 

Rabbi Reuvain Grozovsky: From Kamenitz to America
A genius of analytical insights - in Talmud, in Torah leaders hip, and in private life

Prepared for publication by Rabbi Nisson Wolpin

This article originally appeared in the Jewish Observer and is also available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Judaiscope Series. It is reprinted here with permission

Rabbi Reuvain Grozovsky
5636/1896 - 5718/1958

Six years before the passing of Rabbi Reuvain Grozovsky in 1958, he was immobilized by a stroke that robbed him of his speech and Klal Yisrael of his active leadership. One Chassidic leader described the ailment as an act of mercy by G-d on behalf of Klal Yisrael to temper the trauma of Reb Reuvain's absence by removing him from leadership gradually rather than abruptly.

Reb Reuvain is well-known in the study halls of yeshivos throughout the world through his posthumously published works, Chiddushei Reb Reuvain, a collection of his shiurim (lectures). But otherwise, his leadership role in affairs of Klal - especially as chairman of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah (Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel of America), and in the leadership of the Vaad Hatzalah - is almost forgotten. Furthermore, during his lifetime, his greatness of personality could be surmised, but never really known except to intimates - and even then, it was never fully fathomed.

To discover the many hidden facets of a man no longer among us, there are several paths to pursue. First, his immediate family preserves a loyal tradition bearing his strong imprint, and cherishes detailed recollections of his comments and actions. So, for that matter, do many of his talmidim (disciples). In addition, he had recorded his views on various contemporary issues, which were collected and published in "Bayos Hazman - Problems of the Times." Moreover, he left several volumes of notebooks of personal comments, credos, reminiscences, and poetry (which, according to his family, he wrote on Tishah B'Av afternoons, to express his deep pain for the tragedies the day commemorates).

This article, then, is based on his family's recollections, as told on their behalf by Rabbi Shamshon Grozovsky, his oldest son; selections from his own notes, presented by Reb Shamshon; quotations from Bayos Hazman; and two appreciations of Reb Reuvain, written from the viewpoint of a talmid, by Chaim Shapiro who studied under him in Kamenitz in Europe and Rabbi Menachem Rokeach, who studied under him in Mesivta Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn and in Beth Medrash Elyon in Monsey.

There are gaps in the portrait because - as a person - Reb Reuvain was a very private individual. Certain attributes, however, run through all of his activities and thoughts, recorded and spoken: Life is full of choices and it is man's responsibility to choose correctly. Whether the question is one of understanding a passage in Rambam, determining a policy for Agudath Israel, or a purely private matter, the approach was: - Are there any precedents? - What are the options? - Which one best describes this situation? - Can the validity of the other options be refuted? If not, one of them may well be valid. The decision, once determined, was followed through in all its implications.

Thus, the dividing of a biography of Reb Reuvain into distinct sections is rather arbitrary and only a device of convenience, for the divisions between life-story, teachings, and leadership were non-existent.

Thumbnail Facts

The facts are but a skeleton - not at all revealing of the man, but a frame in which to place significant insights: Reb Reuvain was born in 1896 to Rabbi Shamshon, the leading dayan (rabbinical judge) of Minsk (hence he was also known as "Reuvain Minsker"). He had studied in the Yeshivah Knesses Yisrael in Slobodka (a suburb of Kovna) under the renowned "Levush Mordechai" (Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein - see "Torah Pioneers") and the giant of the Mussar Movement, Rabbi Nosson Zvi Finkel, (The Alter of Slobodka). Eventually (in 1919), Reb Reuvain became the son-in-law of Reb Baruch Ber Lebovitz - and his life companion. He moved with him from the Vilna suburb of Lukishuk, where Reb Baruch Ber had maintained his yeshivah, to Kamenitz, where they - and the yeshivah they led - flourished until World War II.

In America, he spent a brief but profoundly effective decade delivering shiurim in Mesivta Torah Vodaath (Brooklyn) and Beth Medrash Elyon (Monsey, New York). He was also involved in communal affairs. During the 40's and early 50's he was especially active in efforts to rescue Jews from war-torn Europe, in Torah education on the individual and communal level (the latter through Torah Umesorah), and - through Agudath Israel - in a broad range of problems affecting Jewish life in America and Israel.

The Man

It is frustrating to attempt to discover Reb Reuvain, the private individual, as distinct from the public figure. One either picks up a reflection of the analytical Rosh Yeshivah in search of truth - and living by it; or an echo of the Klal leader asking, "What would Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzenski have done under these circumstances?" - and then acting accordingly.

A Battleground for "Neshamos"

When still in his youth, Reb Reuvain began his life-long campaign to save b'nei Torah from the trends of the time. Czarist Russia provided young Reb Reuvain with many a battleground, for at that time the Jewish community was of three minds: "There is no hope for the Jews in Russia. All the future bodes is anti- Semitism, oppression, and third class citizenship. Let's leave Russia and build our own home in Eretz Yisrael." This was the early flowering of Zionism.

"Let us topple the Czar's regime, wipe out oppression, and build democracy in Russia. We'll destroy anti-Semitism by educating the Russian, masses." These were the Social-Democrats, the Socialists, who later split into the Menshevik minority and the Bolshevik majority. The Democrats forced the Czar to abdicate, and for six months, democracy reigned in Russia (the only time in its thousand year history) - until Lenin grabbed the fallen scepter and proclaimed the Soviet Union.

Then there were Jews who did not theorize, but picked up the wanderer's staff in the wake of the pogroms and moved to any country that would let them in. For a while, America held its gates open, starting the mass emigration to the new world.

All three trends were devastating to the yeshivos, and most destructive to the spiritual equanimity of the individual ben Torah. Minsk was a center of operation for all parties, legal and otherwise. There Reb Reuvain practiced his own private campaign against all these trends - especially against the Socialists (who later became Communists). As a student in Slobodka, which was then still part of Czarist Russia, he recruited a number of b'nei Torah from his hometown, Minsk, to join him in Slobodka where there was less danger of turning "sour.'' One recruitee was Yankel "Dolinover," whose family had moved to Minsk from Dolinov. He was an unusually bright youngster when Reb Reuvain got hold of him. To this day, Klal Yisrael has been benefiting from that "Yankel," now known as Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky tz"l.

Another of Reb Reuvain's charges in Slobodka was the Illui (genius) Arke Sislovitser, whom he had brought to Slobodka at the tender age of fifteen. (When the Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein, said his shiur, Arke would stand on the bench - he was too small to see when on the floor - and challenge the Rosh Yeshivah in the middle of the shiur, Years later, "Arke" became better known as Rabbi Aharon Kotler.

When another Yankel Dolinover (cousin of the first one) arrived in Slobodka, the Alter asked Reb Reuvain to study with him, for the Alter knew that the teenager had promise of greatness, and trusted Reb Reuvain to handle the task of guiding him. Today he is known as Rabbi Yaakov Ruderman tz"l, Rosh Yeshivah of Ner Israel in Baltimore.

When the yeshivah in Mir was in danger of falling apart, due to the ill winds of the times, Reb Elya Baruch Kamai sent an emergency call to the Alter of Slobodka. The AIter immediately dispatched ten great lomdim (scholars) and baalei mussar led by Reuvain Minsker. These "Kozakin" (Cossacks - a title given them because of their total devotion to the battle for the supremacy of Torah) saved the yeshivah.

The Leader in Youth

When Slobodka was forced to close at the outbreak of World War I, Reb Moshe Mordechai entrusted Reb Reuvain with reorganizing the Yeshivah in Minsk. Within a week, Reb Moshe Mordechai was in Minsk delivering shiurim to thirty students. At one period the Yeshivah had moved to Kremeczug, where Reb Baruch Ber Lebowitz's Knesses Bais Yitzchok was also located. Many students, including Reuvain Minsker, visited the yeshivah to hear the shiurim delivered by Reb Baruch Ber. Reb Baruch Ber became acquainted with Reb Reuvain's genius and selected him as his prospective son-in-law.

Reb Reuvain's hasmadah (diligence) was prodigious; he breathed Torah day and night. When his father, Reb Shamshon, passed away several days before Reb Reuvain's wedding, der Alter fun Slobodka did not tell Reb Reuvain, so the wedding could take place as scheduled. Weeks later he persisted in not telling Reb Reuvain of his loss. His reason? "A son must be told of his parent's death to recite the Kaddish, to bring merit to his late father by sanctifying G-d's Name. But Reb Reuvain, with his total involvement in Torah, says Kaddish twenty-four hours a day."

The Rosh Yeshivah in Kamenitz

When Reb Reuvain joined his father-in-law in leading his yeshivah, it grew in size and stature, and the yeshivah relocated to Kamenitz.

Since Reb Baruch was constantly "climbing Yaakov's ladder" to heaven, ever higher in his Torah studies, he required someone with both feet on the ground to hold the ladder for him, steady, firm and secure. The Rebbetzin took care of his personal needs, and the rest was up to Reb Reuvain. Without Reb Reuvain there never would have been a yeshivah in Kamenitz, nor would Reb Baruch Ber's writings ever have been edited or published (as Birkas Shmuel). Nor, for that matter, would they have had anything for his family to eat. Yet Reb Reuvain was always "hidden among the vessels," behind Reb Baruch Ber. Full of humility, he stood in awe before his father-in-law and rebbe, aware of the Torah giant he served.

Reb Reuvain was himself qualified to climb that same ladder. A gaon, a thinker, a baal Mussar, he had become a gadol baTorah (a Torah sage) in his own right. Yet, in some ways he was held back by the burdens that he carried. Indeed, people wondered where he found time for all his undertakings: In addition to carrying the financial burden of the Yeshivah in Kamenitz, he never missed delivering his weekly shiur in the yeshivah. It was obvious that he put great effort into preparing the shiur, as the grasp, the depth, the sweep of his treatment of the subject matter testified. During his later years, Reb Baruch Ber was weak with age and studied mostly at home. Twice a week, a delegation of senior students would escort him to the yeshivah to deliver his shiur. Reb Reuvain, on the other hand, spent several hours a day in the study hall. He was its life-spirit, "talking in learning" with the boys, keeping his sharp eyes on everything and everyone. Students would constantly approach him to explain difficult subjects. For a good dvar Torah he would award a student ten zlotys; for finishing an entire tractate and knowing it, he gave 100 zlotys - a small fortune in Poland of the 20's and 30's. Although he was a close disciple of the Alter of Slobodka, he would deliver a shmuess (Mussar lecture) but once a year, in Elul, so as not to encroach upon the domain of the Mashgiach, Reb Naftali. However, he would privately offer individuals his counsel when he felt they were in need of some Mussar.

Modest Aspirations

Once the yeshivah was settled, one might have assumed that its leaders at least lived comfortably. But that was not the case. Reb Reuvain viewed the yeshivah as a public trust, not a private domain. He drew a minimal salary - more than once his Rebbetzin was forced to borrow small change from the yeshivah students - and shared a small house with his wife's parents. He, his wife, and four children occupied the upstairs apartment with cardboard dividers separating the rooms. These partitions were covered with wallpaper in three of the rooms, but not in his own. His constant fear was, "I don't want to use sacred funds for personal use." He surely deserved a house of his own, but he was responsible for the yeshivah finances and was keenly aware that the yeshivah could not afford it. Besides, he wanted to be near his father-in-law/rebbe, available at a moment's notice. Reb Baruch Ber often stood at the foot of the stairwell calling "Reuvain" - and there was Reb Reuvain. Rebbetzin Grozovsky, taking cues from her mother on how to take care of a gadol, kept the children out of his way so he could concentrate on preparing the shiur, keeping up correspondence with the gedolim on matters of Klal Yisrael, and receiving visitors.

The Rosh Yeshivah in America

After the war broke out in Europe, Reb Reuvain crossed the Pacific to raise funds and secure affidavits for students of his Kamenitz Yeshivah seeking to escape the Nazi onslaught. When he landed in Seattle, Washington on May 2, 1941, a local Orthodox lawyer offered him his car and driver to tour the strikingly scenic metropolis of the Northwest in order to relax after the long strenuous journey. Reb Reuvain refused: "I have no time for sightseeing," he said, and when not involved in his other activities, he closed himself up in his room to pursue his Talmudic studies.

In New York City, Reb Reuvain joined Rabbi Aharon Kotler and Rabbi Avraham Kalmanowitz in leading Vaad Hatzalah's efforts to save as many people from the mounting ravages of Nazi destruction as possible. This ongoing struggle involved fundraising, lobbying, and clandestine transferring of funds - much of it unrecorded, and likely to be totally forgotten from the record. In the process, Reb Reuvain, brought out some 110 members of the Kamenitz Yeshivah community - thirty to Eretz Yisrael, the rest to New York, where he set up the Kamenitz Kollel in the Lower East Side.

The Shiur

In Delivery...

In 1944, when Rabbi Shlomo Heiman, Rosh Yeshivah of Mesivta Torah Vodaath, passed away, Reb Reuvain was invited to succeed him, and a new generation of Torah scholars became exposed to his shiurim: It was as though a window were opened to his mind, and the study hall crowded with students would witness his thought-process at work...as if to demonstrate to them how they could do as he did:

A question posed by the Rashba and his two answers represent three approaches to a problem - even a hypothetical approach, later rejected, demands our understanding, since the Rashba had considered it. Three approaches to be analyzed and understood, corresponding to three possible generalizations to describe the phenomenon at hand...If there is a fourth, you must not ignore it; you must disprove it, or it just may be more valid than the three you favor. Forget "gut reactions." Truth must emerge as a proven entity from close study of the texts, not through a good feeling about an apt description.

Challenges arise, and the air becomes electrified as Reb Reuvain asks "Vie?" (How's that?) in his high-pitched voice. He pauses to think, as the question is repeated. He responds with an answer - explaining, emphasizing - and continues.

... And Preparation

The lecture - lively and emphatic in delivery - is likely one that Reb Reuvain had presented fifteen years earlier in Kamenitz; but the freshness of the presentation is not contrived. Preparation began on Thursday, when Reb Reuvain checked into Bais Medrash Elyon - Torah Vodaath's school for advanced research. After Maariv he retired to his study with an older student (usually in his mid-twenties) to start virtually from scratch - the Gemara, Rashi, Tosafos - on into the night. A study-partner who agreed with all of Reb Reuvain's postulates soon lost his position. His assignment was to challenge and disprove. At 2 a.m. the bachur was excused to get some rest, while the Rosh Yeshivah continued on until dawn...The same routine was followed the next night, after the Shabbos seudah, in further preparation for the Sunday afternoon presentation...Invariably, both mornings the Rosh Yeshivah was unable to say the Bircas HaTorah (Blessings for Torah Study that one recites to initiate a new day of study), since the morning's study was but an unbroken continuation from the previous evening...Occasionally, when he did change partners, it was because the young man could not match his stamina, and begged off.

Before delivering the same shiur in Mesivta Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn on Tuesday, he presented it to a small group of students in his home with minor changes, often eliminating some of the more difficult aspects. The painstaking care put into his shiurim always reflected the consideration: What will the bachurim get out of this point?

Not Beyond Doubt

After the shiur, students would crowd around him and question various points. Sometimes he would concede an area of doubt ... A colleague once asked him, "Why do you confuse the students with doubt? A shiur should teach absolutes."

Replied Reb Reuvain: "There are times when it is more important to teach that which I do not really know."

Another noted Rosh Yeshivah recalls a lecture he delivered in Reb Reuvain's presence. Reb Reuvain asked him, "Why did you quote the Haga'os Ashri?"

"I thought it was interesting.''

"Yes, it was interesting," Reb Reuvain agreed, "but it didn't explain anything. Whatever doesn't add, distracts attention from your major thesis, and can only spoil your presentation."

An unusually promising student in Bais Medrash Elyon told Reb Reuvain one of his Chiddushei Torah (novellae). He listened critically, and then said, "Too much!"

"Too extreme in its projection?" asked the young man.

"No. Too much. Reb Y...a well-known genius, anticipated everything that Reb Chaim Brisker (Soloveitchik) ever said. I once asked my father-in-law (Rabbi Baruch Ber Lebowitz why Reb Y... never gained Reb Chaim's fame. 'Reb Chaim knew what not to say,' replied my father-in-law tersely."

His Derech in Learning

This was Reb Reuvain's analytical approach. It came from Reb Chaim Brisker to his talmid Reb Baruch Ber, who in turn imbued his disciple and son-in-law Reb Reuvain with it.

One might say that Reb Reuvain had three teachers: Reb Moshe Mordechai Epstein of Slobodka, under whom he studied during his formative years; Reb Baruch Ber, who had the greatest influence on him; and Reb Akiva Eiger, whose works Reb Reuvain would study day and night. Reb Reuvain's shiurim were therefore sharp, deliberate, much attention devoted to detail, with an evaluation that weighed all sides of an issue.

His manner of "learning p'shat" carried over into sichos chullin (daily conversations). "What does he mean? Why did he say it that way?" he would ask. Naturally, this had an effect on all the students - in their way of learning and in their daily conversations.

In Kamenitz, there were three sets of chavrusos (study partnerships) in the yeshivah that studied together all day, plus halachah and mussar seder, as well, rather than switch partners for different sessions. My chavrusa and I were contemplating doing the same. I asked Reb Reuvain's advice, citing them as an example. His reply was: Lo Harei Zeh K'Harei Zeh "These are not like those." My chavrusa, an old hand in Kamenitz, translated: "It's not for us; we cannot compare ourselves to them. They, too, are not all equal; for some of them the arrangement is fruitful, for others it isn't."

The Analytic Personality at Work

Reb Reuvain's analytical approach didn't "invade" his other areas of activity. It was integral to his personality.

In Kamenitz, where he had served as Rosh Yeshivah for close to twenty years, Reb Reuvain tested every student upon entry, and continued to test them regularly during their first two years in the yeshivah (on forty new blatt every two months!), fixing the amount of their stipend according to their performance.

A Kamenitz talmid recalls:

I never heard Reb Reuvain deliver a Mussar shmuess until Rosh Hashanah 5700 (2939). The Nazi Army was approaching and the tension had us on edge, some of us devising all sorts of impulsive schemes...Reb Reuvain spoke about Akeidas Yitzchak (the Binding of Isaac): "There is a well-known question: Why isn't the akeidah named for Avraham? It was basically his test? The Midrash answers that the actual binding was Yitzchak's idea, as a restraint against forcibly resisting his father's sacrificial knife - thus the name Akeidas Yitzchak. But wasn't Avraham's task of wielding the knife the more difficult one? Shouldn't this have been memorialized in the name of this incident?"

Reb Reuvain answered, "The Torah gives greater recognition to Yitzchak's thoughtful anticipation of future situations to avoid a wrongful action, than it does to Avraham's great, heroic act, which did not require the same careful thought."

The application was obvious and the attitude it expressed was typical of Reb Reuvain.

Reb Reuvain's analytical approach, as applied to leading a yeshivah, underwent no changes when it was exercised on American shores.

A Bais Medrash Elyon student had set up a demanding personal regimen which did not conform to the yeshivah schedule. When Reb Reuvain took him to task, the young man offered what he thought was an effective defense. Reb Reuvain replied, "You must understand: There are two types of yeshivos - those run by the administration and those not (hanhalah und nit-hanhalah). In this yeshivah it is expected that you conform to the directions of the hanhalah. Secondly, everyone needs a rebbe for guidance, and I am fulfilling this function for you, in advising you to adhere to the yeshivah schedule. Do you realize that my sainted father-in-law - long after he was established as a Rosh Yeshivah - continued to consult with both the Chofetz Chaim and Reb Chaim Brisker? And after Reb Chaim's passing, he consulted with his son, Reb Velvel, even though he was my father-in-law's junior in years. Third, even if the yeshivah tells you to do something that is not in your better interest, once the yeshivah has taken a stand, your action involves defiance of yeshivah policy, which can only be harmful to you. It now is to your benefit that you listen."

The mashgiach of Bais Medrash Elyon, Rabbi Yisrael Chaim Kaplan, once asked Reb Reuvain to assume his duties for a short period of time when he would be away. Reb Reuvain accepted the assignment, pursuing it in keeping with his conception of the position. Checking the dormitory, he found one room particularly disorderly. He expressed his disapproval to the occupant - a usually meticulous fellow. The fellow offered an explanation, to which Reb Reuvain replied, "I have a tradition from Reb Chaim Brisker: When faced with a kushya (question), don't seek an answer. Try to do away with the kushya."

In the Service of Klal Yisrael

Reb Reuvain maintained a keen sensitivity to the needs of Klal throughout his life. He was always a man of strength in every sense of the word, never afraid of a fight. When he merely "smelled" that someone planned to open a Tarbus (lit. secular culture) School in Kamenitz, he organized a town meeting, to be addressed by Reb Baruch Ber. The townspeople, in awe before the elder Rosh Yeshivah, crowded the hall to hear him denounce the plans to bring "treife culture" to Kamenitz. "We had a choice of building the yeshivah in Kosove, Bereza, or Kamenitz. The Chofetz Chaim advised us: 'Kamenitz has a chazakah (solid record) of Torah and Yiras Shomayim.' When we rode into town, you unharnessed the horses and pulled our wagon yourselves. I could not bear it, but Reuvain told me it's all for k'vod haTorah. Well, one must suffer for k'vod haTorah. And now you are considering to permit a school in town that will teach hatred of Torah, G-d forbid!"

The school did not open.

In Vilna, after World War I, Reb Reuvain was detained by the police for organizing a demonstration against a Jewish football group guilty of Chillul Shabbos. The Chofetz Chaim wrote him a warm, congratulatory letter: "I envy you your merit of suffering for the glory of Heaven."

Two American students in Kamenitz attempted to dissuade the proprietor of a seltzer kiosk from opening on Shabbos. Not only did they fail, the man had them arrested. They came to Reb Reuvain with plans to press charges, go to the American embassy, etc. Said Reb Reuvain: "Do you think that will enhance k'vod shomayim? You did your best. Now forget the incident."

Reb Reuvain was bothered by the glee with which others faulted great Torah personalities for minor offenses. Reb Baruch Ber told him not to be too concerned. As Reb Yitzchak Elchonon Spektor (revered Kovno Rav) said, "When a cat catches a mouse both the house owner and the cat are delighted. Except for one point. The cat hopes there are more mice to be caught; the owner hopes not.'"

In Kamenitz, he established a cheder to teach a full day's. program of Torah studies to young boys, and organized a Beth Jacob school for girls - importing teachers from Cracow, hiring others to teach required courses in Polish and mathematics, and raising the funds to cover expenses.

He directed Tiferes Bachurim in Kamenitz - an organization that scheduled Torah classes for working men. He also dispatched yeshivah students to lead study groups for laymen in Chumash and Gemara on Friday nights.

Reb Reuvain was extremely active in Agudath Israel affairs. He never missed a convention nor a Knessiah Gedolah. He did not seek to address sessions, but preferred to work behind the scenes; he made certain that all resolutions were written properly and lobbied to see them passed. Gedolim, including the Chofetz Chaim, Reb Chaim Ozer, and the Gerer Rebbe, would listen to his opinion, for they knew that his method of thinking mirrored that of Reb Baruch Ber.

Once he arrived in America, there was scarcely an area of concern to the Torah community in which he was not involved. Reb Reuvain's efforts for Hatzalah often had him out of the house after a hasty breakfast, not returning until two in the morning for a hasty supper.

His role at the helm of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah involved every aspect of his personality. He was in constant consultation with Reb Aharon Kotler, and when he became ill, Reb Aharon sighed: "Now I am lost. I cannot work without Reb Reuvain."

In May 1951, Reb Reuvain was scheduled to address a mass meeting to protest the assignment of refugee children to irreligious kibbutzim, forcibly robbing them of their heritage. Before the meeting, some older Torah Vodaath bachurirn asked Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky if they should take time from their studies to attend. Said Rabbi Kamenetzky: "If you miss one of Reb Reuvain's shiurim in Gemara, someone else can repeat if for you or at least you'll hear another shiur later. But you will never have another opportunity to hear Reb Reuvain deliver a shiur in Hilchos De'os (principles of Judaism applied to life situations)."

Reb Reuvain delivered a fiery oration. He scored those who would protect the perpetrators of this shmad from criticism on the basis of Ahavas Yisrael (Love of Jewry) for making Ahavas Yisrael supersede Ahavas Torah and Ahavas Hashem. "Can one love a seducer of young innocent lives? Corrupting a child is even worse than murdering him!"

When some excited members of the audience broke into applause, he silenced them: "It is a time for kinos (lamentations), not applause! "

Man of the Times

As in other matters, his decisions in regard to communal affairs were totally built on Torah deliberations. One of his most widely known pronouncements weighed the participation of Agudath Israel in the ruling cabinet coalition of the State of Israel as opposed to simply voting and sending representatives to the Knesset. The original, printed in his Bayos Hazman, is studied as a shiur in halachah as much as for its status as a position paper on a vital issue.

His immersion in communal affairs was such that any item dealing with Israel in popular newspapers or magazines ended up in his hands. One Thursday midnight, a student in Bais Medrash Elyon entered his room to return something borrowed from the Rosh Yeshivah, and he found the table covered with Israeli dailies which the Rosh Yeshivah was examining. On another occasion, Life Magazine featured a special study on the developing State of Israel, and Reb Reuvain had an older student translate the entire article for him in Yiddish.

In his deep concern over public opinion, Reb Reuvain instructed the Zeirei Agudath Israel to organize letter-writing campaigns to newspapers and magazines whenever a Jewish issue was misrepresented.

In the Day School Movement

As chairman of Torah Umesorah's Rabbinical Advisory Council, Reb Reuvain articulated a strong and clear position on the problems besetting the growing movement.

Reb Reuvain had addressed a founding gathering of a Hebrew Day School in Providence, R.I.: "What role does a Rosh Yeshivah have at the establishment of a kindergarten? Doesn't he have other things on his mind? But that isn't the case. There's a long-standing rule in the Torah, that saving lives assumes a higher priority over everything else. Without Torah study, the children of this community are being buried alive. Without this kindergarten, they will, of course, go to school and learn about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but they will never know about Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov Avinu, or Moshe Rabbeinu. Thus, the item of foremost priority on my agenda is to be here and ascertain that these children will indeed live.

"Do you know at what point light radiated from Moshe Rabbeinu's face? Not when G-d first spoke to him, but when he became the intermediary between G-d and His people, teaching G-d's Torah to Jews...If, as a result of this meeting, we save but one child, we will be worthy of being blessed with the light of Torah."

Reb Reuvain and Chassidim

Reb Reuvain's devotion to the Lithuanian approach in Divine service can be self-understood. He had little patience for extended zemiros sessions at the Shabbos meal in Bais Medrash Elyon and instituted a scheduling of two zemiros renditions (with the traditional words, of course) between courses. (On the other hand, he did express appreciation for some nigunim). Melave Malke? - self-service, with a minimum of embellishment, if you please.

In fact, those of more Chassidic upbringing were among his closest disciples (knowing full well that they were under the tutelage of a world-renowned Talmudic authority, they had "made peace" with his opposition to some aspects of Chassidus in advance). His midas ho'emes - his relentless pursuit of truth, come what may - struck a responsive chord in the Chassidic tuning of their personality.

One extremely gifted and sensitive Kollel fellow in Bais Medrash Elyon was of a famous Chassidic lineage. His young family grew and financial pressures mounted, so he left the Kollel to learn the diamond trade. Reb Reuvain left no stone unturned in trying to convince him to return to full-time study from the diamond center. "You are destined to be the leader of a prominent Chassidic Kehillah," he insisted. "You'll need every additional hour of Torah study to be fit to lead your People. Klal Yisrael cannot afford less."

The young man finally yielded and is now a Chassidic Rebbe, conveying Torah and inspiring Yiras Shomayim to a large Chassidic Kehillah in Brooklyn. He may now take pride in having the recognition of older Chassidic Rebbes, but he has the added satisfaction of knowing that he acted on the encouragement and blessings of Reb Reuvain.

Greatness in Small Acts

While popular figures are often cut down to size in their intimates' view, those close to a great Torah personality know more than others of his spiritual grandeur from his private actions and concerns.

The short precise sentence vanished (recalls Chaim Shapiro) when Reb Reuvain was doing chessed. Once, as I was leaving the yeshivah after davening, he questioned me about my hometown, Lomza, and then about the yeshivah in Lomza. He went on to the various Roshei Yeshivah. I could not figure out what he was after.

He finally came to the point, asking about the children of the rosh yeshivah, in particular about one daughter. A shiddach? But for whom? His own children were too young.

Before parting, he asked me to keep our conversation confidential. People thought he was talking to me in Torah or Mussar, and I could not even reveal the secret to my own chavrusa, but at least I learned how detailed an investigation he conducted for the sake of his talmidim.

Reb Reuvain's family recounts his meticulous mitzvah observance, his adherence to the letter of the halachah, and then some...perpetuating traditions he had witnessed in his own father's home: In Kamenitz, he stored a large sack of flour ground from yashan (wheat sprouted before the previous Pesach) to avoid the use of chaddash - new grain - until the omer, the second day of Pesach. And in America, he corresponded with flour mills in the Mid-West to determine when the grains for various brands of flour and cereals are harvested...He washed exclusively with kosher soap (in line with a stringent minority view)...He strictly supervised the baking of his matzos, personally scrubbing the utensils used; he spent long hours into the night searching all corners, drawers, and shelves for chometz on Pesach eve, airing out all his sefarim out-of-doors...At the seder (where the author was present), he translated the entire Hagaddah, word for word, into Yiddish, only departing from the text to explain each of the Ten Plagues with great detail and animation to his oldest grandchild, much to the delight of the little boy - again, in keeping with an halachic approach maintained by his father.

When Less is Better

Upon arriving in New York with his family in 1941, he told them, "We'll either live on the East Side or in Williamsburg. They are the least affected by the excesses of American culture. In such matters - the less exposure, the better."

During a war-time Succos in New York, shipping restrictions made it impossible to secure an esrog. Rabbi Nesanel Quinn, menahel of the Mesivta department of Torah Vodaath, asked a young man to write to horticulture schools, for spare citrons from their hot-house experiments. The University of Colorado in Denver responded with five; one was allocated to the Yeshivah for the students' use, and one each was given to Rabbi Quinn, the Rosh Yeshivah - Rabbi Shlomo Heiman, Reb Reuvain (on Reb Shlomo's recommendation; Reb Reuvain was not yet affiliated with Torah Vodaath), and a Chassidic leader. The young man felt deprived and complained directly to Reb Reuvain who had already purchased the other three species at considerable expense. Reb Reuvain referred him to Rabbi Heiman, who somehow failed to satisfy the young man, and he returned to haunt Reb Reuvain.

Reb Reuvain asked him if he thought he was entitled to the esrog. He did. So Reb Reuvain handed it over to him without another word. He later told members of his family, who were visibly perturbed, that he did not want a mitzvah at the expense of another's misgivings. An esrog can be borrowed, but nothing can compensate for someone's ill will.

During his final six years, it was very difficult for Reb Reuvain to talk. Nonetheless, leading rabbinical figures who visited him frequently, found him alert and informed, always clutching an open sefer. Although disabled, he still exerted a strong influence on the yeshivah and Jewish affairs.

A visitor during the first summer of his illness found Reb Reuvain filling his mouth with water, then emptying it into a cup. The explanation: Reb Reuvain had expected that for medical reasons he would be required to drink liquids on Yom Kippur. He was measuring his "malei lugmav (his mouth's capacity) to determine the maximum he could drink without "violating" the coming fast.

After Reb Reuvain's passing in 1956, his children published Shiurei Reb Reuvain which are studied in yeshivos around the world.

Beyond doubt, Reb Reuvain affected radical changes in Torah in America and Israel - on the communal level and on the highest levels of study. To this day, our Torah study, our concept of Klal Yisrael, and our activities on behalf of Klal, are illuminated by the light of his teachings.

(The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Tzemach Dovid)

  Torah  |  Features  |  New  |  Search  |  E-mail Us