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Sweetness and Steel

The willingness to fearlessly take a stand in service of the truth


The powerful tribute to Gaon Av Beis Din of the Eidah Hachareidis Rav Yitzchok Tovia Weiss ztz”l, by Mishpacha’s Hebrew editor Aryeh Ehrlich, accorded the Gaavad the honor he so greatly deserved. I add these lines to supply details that help amplify some of the themes that made this gadol’s life so unusual.

For his last two decades, Rav Weiss occupied a position of great prominence and honor as head of one of the most storied communities in Klal Yisrael’s most storied city. But much of his life until that point, especially earlier on, had been far different. He had undergone travail that might well have broken another person.

Orphaned by the accursed Nazis of both parents at age twelve, Tovia escaped to faraway Britain, where after a short stay in London he was sent to live with a non-Jewish family in the English countryside. The very first Shabbos there, was his bar mitzvah day, for which his gentile hostess prepared a bountiful spread of decidedly treif foods.

But the youngster refused to touch any of it, and when a Reform clergyman was summoned to render his “psak” that nonkosher meat was fit to consume so long as it was cold, Tovia replied that this was nonsense. At that, the clergyman slapped him on both cheeks, and for the rest of his life, the Gaavad proudly called those two blows “my bar mitzvah present.”

Despite being a 13-year-old yasom living with goyim, he refused to so much as drink milk that wasn’t chalav Yisrael, even at the cost of beatings and humiliation. Right then, in that most trying of circumstances, he displayed the middah which served him in such good stead as a leader in Klal Yisrael — the willingness to fearlessly take a stand in service of the truth.

The mix of influences on his life was quite unique. Here was someone who rose to become the head of the Eidah Hachareidis, yet remained until the end a proud talmid of Rav Eliyahu Dessler — not a combination that most of us would naturally assume to exist. An avreich who was present when one of the great chassidishe rebbes came to visit the Gaavad recalled: “The Rebbe asked Rav Weiss, ‘Who was your rebbi in your youth?’ He replied, ‘My rebbi was Rav Dessler.’ Taken aback, the rebbe tried again, ‘Yes, but to whose tish did you go on Friday evenings?’ To which the Gaavad responded, ‘My rebbi was Rav Dessler and on Shabbos we sat and learned in yeshivah with great hasmadah.’”

That hasmadah was extraordinary, and lifelong. In both of the batei medrash where a young Yitzchok Tovia grew to greatness — Rav Moshe Schneider’s Yeshiva Toras Emes and Gateshead’s Kollel HaRabbanim — the learning continued as usual throughout Fridays and Shabbos, because, well, was there some reason it shouldn’t?

Rav Eliezer Dunner, now an eminent posek in Bnei Brak, knew Rav Weiss for more than 70 years, going back to when his father, Rav Yosef Tzvi Dunner, was rav of London. A girl whom the war had left orphaned of both parents had found a warm home with the Dunners, and when she reached marriageable age and the name Tovia Weiss was mentioned, Rav Dunner inquired with Rav Schneider about his talmid. The rosh yeshivah extolled the young man as someone who often spent more than thirty hours straight immersed in learning, adding, “It’s obvious to me that he will be one of the great rabbanim of the coming generation.” And with that the shidduch of this special couple was sealed.

Later on, while serving as a rebbi in the London yeshivah of Rav Elyakim Schlesinger, his wife fell seriously ill, and Reb Tovia was suddenly cast into the role of both father and mother to their four young children. Despite this overwhelming burden, exacerbated by the profound poverty in which they lived, he carried on with an equanimity that seemed incomprehensible to his talmidim. His unceasing hasmadah, his passionate tefillos, his outstanding shiurim — all continued as if all was well and normal in the Weiss home. (Later, in Antwerp and then in Eretz Yisrael, he would lose another two rebbetzins.)

Although rooted in the olam hayeshivos represented by Rav Schneider and Rav Dessler, Reb Yitzchok Tovia sought out diverse approaches in Yiddishkeit, not as an exercise in curiosity but with a rare openness to grow and change, to become shaleim. He went to imbibe kedushah from the Shatzer, Djikover and Skulener Rebbes, and later, in Antwerp, drew close to Reb Itzikel and his son-in-law, Reb Yankele Pshevorsker. Reb Itzikel referred to him as “an emeser chassidisher Yid.

Above all, Reb Tovia came to treasure the teachings of the Satmar Rebbe. Long before he took the helm of the Eidah, he embraced Rebbe Yoel’s perspective on Klal Yisrael’s contemporary challenges. These views were not foreign to him, being consistent with the values he’d absorbed in the yeshivah world, yet what set Reb Tovia apart from some of his peers was that he actually lived by those views.

And, as he’d already shown at the tender age of 13, he would not flinch from paying the price for truth. When his son learned in the Slabodka yeshivah, Reb Tovia paid double the tuition than other parents did, not wanting to derive any benefit from the government monies the yeshivah received.

He served as a beloved rebbi to his talmidim in Yeshivah Eitz Chaim in the Antwerp suburb of Wilrijk. But when boys from more modern homes successfully lobbied to be able to pursue secular studies after hours, Reb Tovia bucked the influence of some of the city’s wealthiest balabatim and resigned his position, with no parnassah safety net in place. Only later was he appointed to serve on the beis din of Rav Chaim Kreiswirth, who told someone that he felt entirely at ease leaving Antwerp for visits to Eretz Yisrael and around the world, because he “relies on Reb Tovia with eyes shut.”

Back in Antwerp, Reb Yankele of Pshevorsk was once teaching the Chazal that states, “Kol haboreach min hakavod, hakavod rodeif acharav — he who flees honor will be pursued by it,” when he stopped and commented, “The explanation of this mishnah is Reb Tovia Weiss….” With unerring prescience, he knew honor would finally overtake Reb Tovia, and when it did, we were all the more fortunate for it.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 924. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com)

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