Rabbi Pini Dunner, the popular writer, lecturer, history buff, and rabbi of Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, has amassed the world’s largest collection of items related to controversy
Beverly Hills, California — center of fame, fortune and glamour, with glitzy streets like Rodeo Drive and Sunset Boulevard, and within shouting distance of Hollywood — isn’t a place you’d expect to find an intriguing, rare Judaica treasure. But anyone who knows Rabbi Pini (Pinchas Eliezer) Dunner, senior rabbi at the Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, also knows he’s full of unexpected surprises.
Ancient books and letters are surely exciting for collectors and antiquity buffs, but even those who yawn through history lectures might perk up at Rabbi Dunner’s unique collection, because it’s all about contention and controversy. Although an acknowledged expert on antiquarian Hebrew books and manuscripts who’s frequently consulted by libraries, academics, dealers, and private collectors, Rabbi Dunner is no stodgy professor-type. He’s a popular writer, mesmerizing lecturer, and his entertaining and whimsical presentations of historical events have garnered him a national following well beyond the confines of his pulpit.
In fact, his most recent piece of modern historical research has made him into a veritable celebrity. Just a few months ago, he pieced together the unknown story of a rebbe who — forced to flee to America because of disgruntled members of his Eretz Yisrael kehillah and devastated by the decimation of his family and his chassidus in Europe — cast off religion and changed his name, only to return to Eretz Yisrael and Yiddishkeit at the end of his life, after 40 years in self-imposed exile.
“We tend to look at history in the context of ‘then,’ ” Rabbi Dunner says. “What I like to do is present it in the context of now.”
Rabbi Dunner’s passion for history is perhaps linked to his own illustrious heritage. He was born in London in 1970 to Rabbi Aba (Avrohom Moshe) and Miriam Dunner, both of whom escaped the clutches of the Nazis. Rabbi Aba Dunner — a prominent communal activist well-known for his work in Europe on behalf of Jewish causes, including lobbying the EU and individual governments on such issues as shechitah and bris milah, and as director of the Conference of European Rabbis until his passing in 2011 — was just a year old when his parents escaped Nazi Germany in 1938. Miriam Cohen-Dunner, who was born in Nazi-occupied Rotterdam during World War II, was saved by a Christian couple who fostered her until the end of the war.
Rabbi Pini, who says he can trace his lineage back about a thousand years to such Torah luminaries as Rashi and the Maharal of Prague, is keeping the rabbinic chain going. His grandfather, Rabbi Josef Hirsch Dunner, was the last chief rabbi of East Prussia before World War II, and for over 50 years was the presiding rabbi of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations in London. Rabbi Pini himself is a talmid of Gateshead, Ner Israel in Baltimore, and Lakewood’s Beth Medrash Govoha, where he obtained semichah. He is also a graduate of University College London, where he participated in the Jewish history honors program.
Rabbi Dunner came to Los Angeles with his wife, Sabine, and their six children in 2011, where he served as mashgiach ruchani at Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles (YULA) for two years before being invited to become rabbi of Young Israel of North Beverly Hills. The founding rabbi of the shul, which opened in the early ’90s to serve the Orthodox community of North Beverly Hills, was Rabbi Sholom Tendler, then head of school at YULA and currently rosh yeshivah of L.A.’s Mesivta Birkas Yitzchok.
“The shul,” says Rabbi Dunner, “is Modern Orthodox, very pro-Israel, with a wide range of observance among the membership. We have just over 100 membership families, and yet it is known to be one of the most philanthropic communities on the West Coast.”
But the beginning of his rabbinical career actually started 20 years before, when he traveled to Moscow to set up a youth camp and work as an assistant to Moscow’s Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt at the Moscow Choral Synagogue — where he found himself a witness to one of the most significant moments in modern history: the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
“When I arrived in Moscow, I went to stay with Rabbi Goldschmidt, who worked very closely with my father promoting Torah needs in Europe,” Rabbi Pini remembers. Rabbi Goldschmidt had stayed with the Dunners in London that year, and encouraged young Pini to join him in Moscow. “As soon as I arrived, Rabbi Goldschmidt said to me, ‘Don’t take your coat off, we’re going to the Kremlin… I mean, we’re going to the Red Square.’ And as we got there they were lowering the flag of the Soviet Union and raising the Russian tricolored one.”
It was the moment when the USSR ceased to exist — Mikhail Gorbachev had resigned, Boris Yeltsin was left in charge, and the Soviet hammer and sickle flag was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time.
“It was really the very beginning of the reemergence of organized Jewish life in Russia after 70 years,” says Rabbi Dunner. “Most of these people knew absolutely nothing, but everyone wanted to immigrate to Israel, whether they were Jewish or not — they thought this was their route to the West and a good life.”
Rabbi Dunner reflects back on those days, which he calls “a remarkable time.” He and Rabbi Goldschmidt would sit from morning to night meeting people to determine if, in fact, they were actually Jewish. He also worked with fledgling organizations to help set up a Torah-based infrastructure, which involved a mikveh, shechitah, kosher food availability, and giving a hechsher to the first kosher bakery in Moscow.
After serving as assistant rabbi in Moscow, Rabbi Dunner returned to London where he served in various rabbinical capacities, and in 1998 he was invited to launch and lead the innovative, if somewhat unconventional, Saatchi Synagogue for young Jewish professionals in London’s West End.
During that time, Rabbi Dunner took over a failing daily Jewish radio program, which he turned into a much listened to, two-hour daily broadcast, popular for its interviews with both British and Israeli politicians, celebrities, and other people of Jewish interest. In fact, one of those guests would be the catalyst for Pini Dunner’s vast and unusual collection of both fringe and central historical controversies.
“The stories differ but the focus is the same — controversial people, controversial topics, marginal episodes in Jewish history, and the effect they had on Jewish history,” Rabbi Dunner says of the thousands of “controversy” items he’s collected over the past two decades.
And now, the stories behind those items have evolved into a book Rabbi Dunner has just launched entitled Mavericks, Mystics and False Messiahs: Episodes from the Fringes of Jewish History, published by Toby Press.
His very first acquisition — and the original basis for the book — is the largest-sized volume of Shas ever printed, a Maseches Berachos published in 1919 by Rabbi Yosef Shapotshnick. But surely, Rabbi Dunner wasn’t simply looking to be the owner of the largest Shas. So what else was so special about this volume? The backstory, he says, started with his radio show in 1996.
“I’ve always been interested in curiosities, but I had never actually bought any,” he says. “Then, one day on my radio show, I interviewed a man named Rabbi Harry Rabinowicz, the author of A World Apart: The story of the Chasidism in Britain. He was the son of the Biala Rebbe in London, became the rabbi of United Shul in London, and he also took a doctorate in Jewish studies. Somewhere in the middle of the book was a short piece about controversial rebbes — and that perked up my attention. Among them was a piece about Rabbi Yosef Shapotshnick. I have no other way to describe him except to call him a ‘religious anarchist.’ He presented himself as a full-fledged Orthodox chassidish rabbi, yet during his 24 years in London — he died in 1937 — not a month went by that he wasn’t involved in some major controversy and scandal.”
His actions were so damaging that Rav Yechezkel Abramasky even refused to allow him to be buried the Jewish cemetery. The Chofetz Chaim writes that one may record for “generations upon generations” the wickedness of one who flaunts the rulings of beis din (Hilchos Lashon Hara 4:8) — and Shapotshnick seemed to qualify with flying colors.
After World War I, there were a large number of agunos, and Shapotshnick became very concerned about this problem. He started writing and actively seeking solutions, many being against halachah.
“He was a social activist and troublemaker, and he felt that the normative halachic methods of dealing with the situation simply did not take into consideration the churban of all these agunos,” Rabbi Dunner explains. “He claimed that there were 40,000 agunos. He sought his own solutions, such as undermining the legitimacy of the original marriage. Whatever the situation, he had a solution. For example, there was a young widow in London without children, whose deceased husband had a brother in Odessa. The woman couldn’t go to Odessa for chalitzah [a ceremony nullifying the obligation for levirate marriage], so he found a way to undermine the original marriage and declare the brother a mumar [heretic].”
One particular case was a contained local matter between him and the London Beis Din, the official “Court of the Chief Rabbi,” but matters changed when Shapotshnick tried to undermine the monopoly that the London Beis Din had on shechitah and kosher meat and give his own hechsher. It was ultimately discovered that eight of the eleven butcher shops under his supervision were selling “kosher” meat bought from non-Jewish wholesalers. Yet Shapotshnick, himself an immigrant, was highly popular in the East End of London where all the immigrants lived, and Rabbi Shmuel Yitzchak Hillman, rosh beis din, became very concerned.
“So Rabbi Hillman wrote to the gedolim in Europe about how Shapotshnick was looking to be matir agunos without any basis, and the gedolim agreed that his heterim were not to be relied upon,” Rabbi Dunner recounts.
But instead of pulling back, Rabbi Dunner continues, “Shapotshnick started attacking the gedolim of Europe — Rav Chaim Ozer, the Chofetz Chaim, and others, in newspapers that he published. And when that happened, Rabbi Hillman started sending these newspapers across Europe, to some of the rabbanim who Shapotshnick claimed cosigned his halachic decisions. They in turn disavowed their signatures, and Shapotshnick then escalated the matter by claiming all manner of terrible things against anybody who disagreed with him.”
In late 1928 a kol koreh was issued against him by the Agudas HaRabbanim of Poland, signed by 600 rabbis from all over Europe — the document is in Rabbi Dunner’s collection. “He didn’t disappear though,” says Rabbi Dunner. “He continued to publish more seforim, but eventually got involved in a meat scandal in the middle of which he suddenly died.”
But argumentative as he was, that wasn’t everything Shapotshnick was about. Concerned for the everyman, he embarked on an ambitious project to make it easier for ordinary people to learn Gemara, and so in 1919 he published this particular, very large, easy-to-read volume. The volume has many innovations — Rashi script was replaced with regular script, and various references and perushim, including the Rambam on Mishnayos, were added. The layout was cleaner and clearer and easier to read. “He was really way ahead of his time on this,” Rabbi Dunner notes. “He was going to publish all of Shas, but as far as I know he only mass-published Maseches Berachos and produced some samples of other masechtos.”
Once Rabbi Dunner acquired the volume, his interest was piqued. He went to another dealer and asked if he had anything related to Rabbi Shapotshnick. The dealer told him, “You won’t believe this, but about six months ago I cleaned out somebody’s house and he had a massive collection of publications to do with Shapotshnick.”
In the collection were twenty newspapers, fifty pamphlets, ten of his seforim… a whole range of things. Rabbi Dunner bought it all. Over the years he’s acquired more items, and today he has the definitive and most extensive “Shapotshnick” collection in the world.
“The Shapotshnick story is a cautionary tale. He was wildly popular among a certain segment of society because he spoke their language, and it seems that he really cared for them. But this made him all the more dangerous,” Rabbi Dunner says. “His popularity, coupled with his lack of yiras Shamayim, made him a real force of damage. We see this replaying today. There are some charismatic and even caring leaders whose lack of yiras Shamayim makes them truly dangerous.”
At first, Rabbi Dunner decided to write a book strictly about Shapotshnick. After all, he had all the material at his fingertips. But Shapotshnick had interactions with numerous people, often of an acrimonious nature, so Rabbi Dunner started researching some of these people. And they brought in other people.
“Within four or five years I had amassed a collection of polemics and publications that had to do with either controversial people or controversial topics that no museum or library in the world had,” says Rabbi Dunner. “Nobody else was interested in collecting material about controversial things as a unifying theme, yet it seemed as if every stone I lifted revealed another controversy and another polemic, all of them intertwined with each other. And it dawned on me that one can never take any controversy at face value — there is always more going on behind the scenes.”
In the end, Mavericks, Mystics and False Messiahs became a selection of intriguing episodes from Jewish history gleaned from items in his collection. These range from the campaign of Shabbetai Tzvi and his false messianic claim, to the story of a famous painting best known as a portrait of the holy Baal Shem Tov, but which is actually an image of a charlatan German spiritualist called Dr. Samuel Falk, a man better known as the Baal Shem of London.
“Using a variety of rare source material,” Rabbi Dunner explains, “I reconstructed these stories, and my book presents them in a readable narrative style, enabling any reader with scant knowledge of history to have a user-friendly access point to them.”
Another 20th-century example involved Rav Avraham Aharon Yudelovitch, a great talmid chacham and outspoken activist rav who never quite fit into the inferior American Torah landscape of the early 1900s. He was regarded at one time as the unofficial chief rabbi of the United States and worked hard for the sake of kashrus, but he eventually got into a serious controversy related to chalitzah as recorded in his work, Teshuvos Av B’Chochmah. Rabbi Yudelovitch, born in Novardok in 1850, was a child prodigy at the yeshivah of Volozhin, received semichah at age 17, and after holding several rabbinates in Russia, went to England, where he lived for ten years. He came to the United States around 1908, and held rabbinical positions in Boston, New Haven, Bayonne, and New York, where he was rabbi of the Eldridge Street Synagogue in lower Manhattan. After the controversy, says Rabbi Dunner, “he faded into obscurity and died in 1930. Today this tower of a man, a bastion of unshakeable Orthodoxy in America, is all but forgotten.”
Rabbi Dunner says he’s drawn to stories, and to the stories within the stories. “I’m a storyteller. I love telling stories, but in order to tell them you have to seek them out — and I don’t mean the dry facts that make up the linear narrative from point A to point B. I mean the crooked side paths and rest stops along the way. Those are the meat and fat of any story. And that’s what people really want to know — the human element, the highs and lows, the unexpected triumphs and setbacks, the heroes, the villains.”
All of these and more can be found in the polemics and controversies recorded in the thousands of pieces in his collection. And it’s not just well-known communities such as Vilna, Warsaw, Pressburg, or Frankfurt. Even tiny villages and remote communities occasionally erupted in heated disputes over a shochet, or some financial disagreement, or over the appointment of a new rabbi. And each controversy reveals some unique aspect of that community’s life that would otherwise never be known.
I mention the “butterfly effect” of chaos theory, which proposes that the flapping of the wings of a butterfly in one place might cause a hurricane to develop across the world. Rabbi Dunner nods. Yes, he is fascinated by those elusive “butterflies,” and that is what he tries to convey in many of his lectures.
Chazal say that you can see a person’s true nature when he gets angry. What were the issues that rabbanim or communal leaders got most upset about over the course of history?
“Rabbanim tend to get concerned when they perceive something to be a threat to normative Jewish life,” Rabbi Dunner explains. “In the late 17th and early 18th century it was Sabbateanism, in the late 18th century it was Haskalah, in the early 19th century it was Reform Judaism, in the late 19th century and early 20th century it was secular Zionism, in the mid- and late 20th century it was western materialism, and the disputes with or over the government of the State of Israel. And then of course there were the doctrinal disputes, such as chassidim vs. misnagdim, or those who supported or were against the Chovevei Tzion movement. But controversies can be very parochial as well: a new rabbi who some might feel is unsuitable, or a shochet who is not considered a yarei Shamayim, or the introduction of a secular curriculum in a Jewish school, or the publication of a book that contains what some consider to be heresy.”
Times have changed, says Rabbi Dunner, but human nature hasn’t. “Controversies are usually generated by a worthy cause but often spiral into something much more sinister.”
Rabbi Dunner admits that collecting can be expensive, but in general, his pieces don’t draw mainstream collector interest, so the prices are reasonable. Some of the pieces he’s purchased had been lying on the shelf of a dealer for years, yet there are those items that are worth a fortune because of their notoriety and scarcity, such as the pashkevil against the Imrei Emes of Gur when he visited Rav Kook in Jerusalem in the late 1920s to discuss Jewish affairs. Rabbi Dunner has one copy, and says that as far as he knows, there is only one other copy in the world.
Similarly, the books and pamphlets published by Rav Yaakov Emden against Rav Yehonasan Eybeschutz are rare, and cost many thousands of dollars. “I have a few such items,” notes Rabbi Dunner, “but the majority of my collection is made up of pieces that are moderately priced. The value of my collection is in the volume of pieces — thousands of items even at a moderate price make the collection extremely valuable, even though it is so eclectic.”
Rabbi Dunner says he doesn’t know exactly how many items are in his collection, but it is many thousands, and each one has a story and a story within the story and sometimes a third story. Most of his massive collection is stored at home, which his family has learned to take in stride. “Everyone’s incredibly tolerant and good humored about it,” he says. “My wife marvels at the sheer volume of books and pamphlets. When another book arrives in the mail, they ask, ‘What, another one? Don’t you have enough of them already?’”
The items that fascinate him the most are those related to the sidelines, or as he refers to them in the subtitle of his book, “the margins of Jewish history.” It takes no great insight to expect that Shabbetai Tzvi fits the “false messiahs” category in the title of the book. But what of the others?
“What happens to those historical actors who have left no distinctive impression on the broader story?” he questions. “For the most part they are consigned to the margins and footnotes — if they are remembered at all — and the majority of them disappear completely from mainstream consciousness, deemed by posterity to be irrelevant. Curiously, it is these marginal characters that have always fascinated me. I believe their influence on events as they unfolded, during the period in which they lived and on the future, was far stronger than may seem years later.”
One of those obscure stories actually inspired Rabbi Dunner in his efforts to help an agunah obtain a get. In the public campaign that even caught the attention of the British media, Rabbi Dunner used a premise he’d seen in one of his collections about a divorce from the 18th century, called the “Get of Cleves.”
When Rabbi Dunner was still living in London, an abused woman was not able to obtain a get because the family could not pay the exorbitant sum of money that the husband demanded. The family turned to Rabbi Dunner for help and he was outraged at this blatant attempt at extortion. Knowing that the husband’s family was very conscious of their standing in the community, Rabbi Dunner informed them that he would initiate a campaign to publicize that the husband was a mesarev l’din [in contempt of court]. There would be newspaper advertisements, letters to business associates, letters to all the shuls, and demonstrations at his home until he agreed to give her a get without extortion.
But instead of the contrite and cooperative response he expected, Rabbi Dunner was informed that the husband would make public that he had previously been diagnosed with some mental illness, and this would mean that he was not competent to give a get. Rabbi Dunner wasn’t sure how to proceed, and then he discovered the story of the Get of Cleves, a controversy involving the validity of a get provided by a mentally ill husband.
In 1766, Rabbi Yisrael Lipschuetz from Cleves, Germany, presided over the giving of a get, but due to a number of complications, the validity of this get was challenged by the beis din of Frankfurt. Nearly all of Europe’s rabbanim insisted the get was valid, and even offered to preside over the wedding should the divorcee decide to remarry. Equally adamant, the rabbis of Frankfurt insisted that the original marriage was still in force. Many rabbis wrote papers and even books on the matter arguing for their positions, including Rabbi Lipschuetz himself. But his book, entitled Or Yisrael, was quickly withdrawn from circulation after its publication in 1770. Apparently, Rabbi Lipschuetz decided that some of his very strong criticism of the rabbis of Frankfurt should not be made public. He rewrote some sections, removed other sections and reissued the book. But it was too late. Some copies of the original went into circulation — and Rabbi Dunner has managed to get copies of both versions. (In the new version, page 32, where most of the objectionable material appears, is missing.)
The controversy in Cleves raged for some time, but when the dust settled it was agreed that such a husband was indeed competent to grant a get. In more recent times, Rav Moshe Feinstein ruled for a case in 1929 (Igros Moshe, Even Haezer 1:120) that a man with messianic delusions was competent to grant a get. Taking his cue from Rabbi Lupschuetz more than 200 years before, Rabbi Dunner then informed the family that they were welcome to make the husband’s mental illness public, and would even be happy to include the information in his advertisements. The wife received a get two days later, and no money was paid.
While monetary profit is not a driving force in this collection, some of the items are exceedingly rare and hence quite valuable if auctioned off to the highest bidder. And some of these items are even thought to no longer exist. “I have dozens of such pieces, that people say do not exist or were never published or could not possibly be published,” Rabbi Dunner says.
He has quite an impressive collection of pashkevils dating back decades. One of them is a petition signed by Israel’s two chief rabbis, Rav Yitzchak Isaak Herzog and Rav Benzion Meir Chai Uziel, warning Jews about certain purveyors of treif meat. He also has the famous “Letter from the Brisker Rav,” where Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik writes about voting in elections. The letter has been reproduced to argue that even those opposed to a secular government in Israel should participate in elections. Others argue that this is actually a pre-WWII letter which has nothing to do with a Jewish government in Israel, and that the Rav was opposed to participation in such elections. The controversy continues to this day.
He also has an item warning against using a new siddur published in London in the 1840s. This prayer book was published by a pseudo-Reform faction in England. In 1841 there was a breakaway from the main shul in London and some of these people wanted to start something along the lines of the newly-forming Reform movement in Germany, although they were not quite as radical. Chief Rabbi Shlomo Hirschel, together with Sir Moses Montefiore who was the head of deputies, opposed this group who were mainly Anglicized Sephardim, and they issued a warning against the new prayer book. The breakaway group survived the opposition, but as a result, the United Orthodox Synagogue was established by an act of Parliament in 1870 and became the mainstream Jewish community in the United Kingdom. And since the United Synagogue is officially an Orthodox group, though some members are only nominally religious, Orthodoxy is the official designation in England. Says Rabbi Dunner: “The origin of a dispute will often determine the outcome years later.”
So, what is Rabbi Dunner collecting now? “Actually, I’ve pretty much stopped, now that we’re in the age of the Internet where so much material is available online, unless I come across something that is so unusual or so unknown that it should be preserved in the collection. Also, I’m not interested in items a collector would purchase as an investment.”
Rabbi Dunner has spent the better part of two decades delving into controversy. And that would also make him an expert on preserving the peace, even in the face of disagreements. After studying centuries of fights, what’s the secret to preserving shalom?
“First of all,” he says, “You can have a strong opinion without hating or denigrating your opponent. People who are confident in their views don’t need to descend into coarse and inflammatory rhetoric. Always weigh up the lateral effect of launching an attack — people have wives, children, parents, friends, and their lives might be very badly affected. Ultimately, are you really acting l’Sheim Shamayim, or is there a negiyus involved that might color your judgment? From many of the pieces in my collection — aside, obviously, from those in which gedolei olam were involved — it would appear that the protagonists were not as careful as they should have been with regard to many of these considerations. The stories they left behind by writing and publishing has given us a valuable historical resource, but I’m not sure I should be jealous of their Olam Haba.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 742)
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