Rabbi Berel Wein has an unquenchable love for the greatest saga of all time: the survival of his people
Photos: Elchanan Kotler, Family archives
have discovered the perfect cure for anyone who finds fast days difficult: Sit down with Rabbi Berel Wein for as many hours as you want, and let him take you on a panoramic tour ranging from Jewish history to the current scene. I can guarantee that you will soon forget about the fast entirely, and the hours will roll by. I know because that is how I spent several hours this past Taanis Esther seated with Rabbi Wein at his living room table.
Both Rabbi Wein and I would identify ourselves as Chicago natives, though there is a difference, as Rabbi Wein himself once pointed out. Over 15 years ago, I had the honor of introducing him at a pre-Rosh Hashanah program at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, and I noted that though his “Chicago accent” is world famous, through over 1,200 recorded tapes, I don’t recognize it as the same as mine.
Rabbi Wein replied, “Jonathan isn’t from Chicago He’s from the suburbs.”
As we talked, inter alia, about what a wonderful place Chicago was to grow up in, I realized how much wisdom was contained in the remark. Rabbi Wein lingered over each of the old litvishe rabbanim under whom he studied, including his maternal grandfather Rabbi Chaim Zev HaLevi Rubenstein, who was one of the founders of Hebrew Theological College, the first yeshivah in the Midwest; Rav Mendel Kaplan; Rav Chaim Kreiswirth; Rav Mordechai Rogoff; and his father, Rav Zev Wein. He is still nostalgic for the old West Side, from which all the Jews fled over a period of four years, with only six (two of which became “traditional” — i.e., separate seating but no mechitzah) of the 42 shuls that had dotted the neighborhood successfully moving to new neighborhoods. In short, Rabbi Wein lives with a sense of place that no suburban kid carries with him.
Rabbi Wein even knows more about my maternal grandfather, Maxwell Abbell, the most prominent Chicago lay leader in his youth, than I do. (I was five when he passed away.)
“You would not find a lay leader like him today,” he tells me, “who, despite not being fully observant, was totally committed to both the physical and spiritual survival of the Jewish People, aware that an intense Jewish education is the key to that survival, and who served on the board of Hebrew Theological College [Beis Medrash L’Torah].”
The occasion of our conversation was the publication of Rabbi Wein’s new book Struggles, Challenges, and Tradition: How Jewish Communities Defended Orthodoxy 1820–1940 (ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications), which served as a jumping off point for numerous other topics as well.
Rabbi Wein with a grandson laying tefillin for the first time. “Historically, communities only flourish when there’s a strong core of Torah”
Still Going Strong
The first time I called to make this appointment, your secretary said that you were in the midst of a fundraising campaign for your Destiny Foundation. So I gather that you have multiple new projects on the horizon.
Rabbi Wein: Yes. We have a new film on Don Isaac Abarbanel that is 90 percent complete, and for which I was very involved with the screenplay. Most of what we know about Abarbanel is secondhand. But in the midst of his commentary on Shoftim, he veers off into a lengthy retrospective on his fascinating life, in which he served as the chief financial advisor to the royal family of Portugal and subsequently that of Spain. He wrote his commentary on Shoftim after he was already in Italy advising the king of Naples. There is a discernable bitterness to his retrospective look at his life, in particular that he had used his great talents in the service of two monarchies, which despite his service had expelled their Jewish populations.
I’m also working on a commentary on Malchuyos, Zichronos, and Shofros. And the Jewish Destiny Foundation is making a film on the tumultuous period in modern Jewish history between the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
It doesn’t sound like you are slowing down at all, as you approach the end of your ninth decade.
Rabbi Wein: That would be somewhat of an exaggeration. My eyesight has deteriorated to the point that I can barely read. My Gemara chavrusa has to do all the reading. And I don’t see myself leading any more tours to Jewish historical sites, which allowed me to pretty much travel the globe.
I had meant to ask you why, given the broad sweep of your new book, you had not included a selected bibliography for those wishing to delve more deeply into some of the topics raised. Now, I suspect that’s because the book was written or dictated from memory.
Rabbi Wein: Precisely.
And yet you continue to write books. You must have a photographic memory.
Rabbi Wein: I have a good memory. My father had a photographic memory. He was in Mercaz Harav the first year that Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohein Kook opened the yeshivah, and Rav Kook used to say of him, “Zev Wein is my bookshelf.”
Rav Herzog put down his head and sobbed, as I had never heard any adult sob before or since. It was as if the pain of 2,000 years of galus was pouring out of him
A Chicago Youth
I don’t know if you remember, but you once asked me to moderate a discussion between you and Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, at your shul, Beit Knesset HaNasi, on the changes in American Jewry in your respective lifetimes. I had absolutely nothing to contribute, and spent the entire evening wondering what I was doing onstage. But I do remember that you told two stories that have remained with me, albeit in fragmentary form. The first had to do with your dining room table growing up, and the second with Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog’s 1946 visit to Chicago to raise money for the Vaad Hayeshivos and for refugees to Palestine.
Rabbi Wein: Both those stories loom very large in my life. After World War II, a number of a refugees arrived in Chicago, including a number of very distinguished talmidei chachamim. One of those came to Chicago, with his wife and one or two children. He did not have a stick of furniture. My mother suggested that we give them our dining room set. Since we were only a family of three, we could eat our Shabbos meals at the kitchen table. And that’s what we did for years.
That incident captures something characteristic about the litvishe Jews among whom I grew up. They had very low expectations out of life, and least in terms of material goods. And as a consequence, whatever they had was more than enough.
Rav Herzog’s visit to Chicago had a lifelong effect on me. I was 12 at the time, and my father took me with him to greet Rav Herzog on the tarmac. All the rabbanim of Chicago were there. He was a commanding figure, with a silver-handled rabbinic cane in one hand and a Tanach in the other.
Later he gave a shiur in the yeshivah in the sugya of ein shaliach l’davar aveirah to about 200 people from all over the Midwest. Then he spoke about what brought him to Chicago.
“I’ve just come from meeting the pope of Rome,” as he referred to Pope Pius XII. “I presented him with the names of 10,000 Jewish children who had been hidden in monasteries and other Church institutions by their desperate parents. I asked the Pope to return those children to the Jewish People.
“But he refused. He told me that once they entered a Catholic institution, they would have been baptized immediately, and were therefore now Catholics.”
Then Rav Herzog put down his head and sobbed, as I had never heard any adult sob, before or since. It was if the pain of 2,000 years of galus was pouring out of him.
Eventually he stopped. And when he did, he addressed each and every person there.
“I can’t do anything more for those children. But what are you going to do to rebuild the Jewish People.” When we went in a line to shake his hand, he asked me, “Did you hear what I said?” followed by, “Remember what I said.”
I still hear those words ringing in my ear. And when I think of my contemporaries in the yeshivah and what they have achieved, I’m convinced they too were deeply influenced by Chief Rabbi Herzog’s words that day: Rabbi Dr. Avraham J. Twerski ztz”l; Rabbi Yehudah Copperman ztz”l, the founder of Michlalah, who opened up the Meshech Chochmah and Seforno to a larger public with his remarkable super commentaries; Rabbi Aryeh Rottman ztz”l, who originally brought me to Miami Beach as his rabbinic replacement, when he left for Eretz Yisrael to found Mercaz HaTorah; Rabbi Chaim Zelikovitz ztz”l, one of the founders of the Yeshivah of Belle Harbor; Rabbi Chaim Fassman ztz”l, who started the Lakewood Kollel in Los Angeles and led it for decades; Rabbi Shmarya Meltzer, a major talmid chacham and rosh kollel in Jerusalem: and Rabbi Naftali Kaplan, who heads two major yeshivos in Jerusalem today, each of which has one of his sons as rosh yeshivah.
Despite the fact that both your father and grandfather were shul rabbis in Chicago, you practiced law for almost a decade before entering the rabbinate. Why was that?
Rabbi Wein: When I graduated college at 18, my father took me aside and spelled out the facts of life. We had little money. The number of shuls in Chicago was in rapid decline, and the chances of securing a pulpit were slim. A relative told my father that he would bring me into his small firm if I passed the bar.
I was accepted at the University of Chicago Law School, one of the country’s best, but I wanted to continue in the semichah shiur at HTC, and so went to DePaul Law School at night.
How did the practice of law suit you?
Rabbi Wein: Not much. In the practice of law, you tend to see people at their worst, and since most of my clients were Orthodox Jews, I found that extremely disheartening. Rav Chaim Kreiswirth, who had been my rosh yeshivah, often told me on his frequent visits to Chicago that there were enough Jewish lawyers. And indeed, I eventually started a tool-and-die business to enable me to get out of the practice of law.
One day, as I was closing the business, I found my old friend from yeshivah Rabbi Aryeh Rottman waiting for me.
“I’m leaving my shul in Miami Beach, and Rabbi Kreiswirth says you should be my successor,” he told me.
I replied that I wasn’t interested, but Rabbi Rottman was not someone who took no for an answer, especially when on a mission from his rosh yeshivah. Eventually, he prevailed on me to go for a probe, and I was offered the job after a very narrow congregational vote. Fortunately, by the time I left nine years later, I think I would have won a unanimous or near unanimous vote.
And how did you get your next position as head of the OU Kashrus Division?
Rabbi Wein: While I was a rav in Miami Beach, Rabbi Alexander Rosenberg, the director of the OU Kashrus Division, appointed me as a mashgiach at various nearby food producers. We had a very close relationship. He was smart, incorruptible, a great negotiator, and struck fear into all those with whom he dealt. Over little more than 20 years, he built the Kashrus Division from 40 mashgichim, certifying 184 products of 37 companies, into an organization with 750 mashgichim, 2,500 products, and 475 companies.
When he retired, I succeeded him. One story will serve to capture his stature. During the 1973 Arab oil boycott, I received a call from Mead Johnson in Indianapolis, which produced a children’s vitamin, in which the vitamin was suspended in glycerin, an oil derivative. They could not get any oil, and were sitting on 100,000 kosher labels. They asked me for help in locating kosher glycerin.
I put in a call to Proctor and Gamble, the only other company producing glycerin that was OU-certified. I explained the problem to a vice president, and asked him to supply Mead Johnson’s needs at a fair price. After mulling the request over, he had only one question for me. “Will Rabbi Rosenberg in Heaven know what I’m doing?”
So great was his respect for Rabbi Rosenberg that he could imagine no better intercessor in Heaven. Mead Johnson received the needed glycerin and used all the labels.
The Importance of Jewish History
You have done many things in your life. You’ve led congregations in both the United States and Israel; served as director of the OU Kashrus Division; were a rosh yeshivah; and have written two volumes of chiddushei Torah, commentaries on Trei Asar and the Haggadah; and produced a year’s cycle of shiurim on each of the major modern Biblical commentators. But I think it is fair to say that you are best known to the general public for your books, movies, and tapes on Jewish history. Who first piqued your interest in Jewish history?
Rabbi Wein: My grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Zev Rubenstein, who was my hero growing up, urged my parents to remove me from public school when I was 11 and put me in a class of 16-year-olds in the yeshivah. (Until then, my mother used to review my school lessons with me every day, telling me what I should ignore.) Rabbi Rubenstein had been a chavrusa in Volozhin Yeshivah of the famous Meitscheter Illui, Rabbi Shlomo Polachek.
Hebrew Theological College (also known as Beis Medrash L’Torah), of which Rabbi Rubenstein was one of founders, possessed a magnificent library, with 30,000 volumes, which were housed in a separate building. Since my classmates were much older and taller than I was, instead of playing basketball with them during lunch break, I wandered into the library building. The librarian, Mrs. Mishkin, whose husband was head of the Vaad Hachinuch of the Associated Talmud Torahs of Chicago, would give me books to read, most of them on Jewish history. I still remember the first one was a biography of the Rosh.
The Vaad Hachinuch of HTC ran a summer school, In addition to hearing shiurim from Rav Aharon Soloveitchik, and classes in Jewish thought, I had classes in Jewish history from Rabbi Mishkin. I loved those classes. Even when I was practicing law, after having received my semichah while going to law school at night, I started giving classes in Jewish history.
What, in your mind, makes Jewish history so important?
Rabbi Wein: In my opinion, a lack of knowledge of Jewish history, a lack of attachment to the Jewish story, is the greatest cause of the secularization of the Jewish People today. Without knowing Jewish history, we know neither who we were nor what we are meant to be.
And I’m not talking only about the secular Jewish world. The ignorance of Jewish history in the Orthodox world is also appalling. The movies of the Destiny Foundation are one means for remedying that ignorance. Our movie on Rashi has been viewed over one million times, and that on Maimonides has also become a staple of Jewish education.
I believe the Hand of G-d is always visible in history, though sometimes one has to look hard to discern it. But there will always be inexplicable “coincidences” driving the story. For instance, why was Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, present at the Dreyfus trial? Herzl was the drama critic for a Viennese newspaper, and he was in Paris to report on plays, not espionage trials. It must be that the paper’s political reporter in Paris was unavailable, and out of desperation the assignment was given to Herzl. It was that trial that awakened a dormant concern with the Jewish People and their future in Herzl.
True, history moves in a haphazard and even capricious manner. Upon closer inspection, however, one can see that Heaven has placed events and personalities in such an order that the ultimate will of Heaven will be done, even while human beings, who are the instruments of heavenly guidance, are unaware of the flow of their actions and behavior. Certainly, the continued existence of the Jewish People, as a lamb among seventy wolves — and, in particular, those Jews who remain attached to the study of Torah and the performance of mitzvos — is one of the great proofs of Hashem’s guiding hand and protection.
One of the interesting developments at the beginning of the 18th century CE was a new consciousness that the Jewish People themselves have a role to play in the miraculous restoration of the Jewish People in its ancient homeland, even though it would be up to Hashem to bring their plans to fruition. That can first be seen among the students of the Vilna Gaon, the talmidei haGra, who followed his example in seeking to make aliyah to the Holy Land.
Given your sense of the importance of Jewish history, I assume that you look favorably at the fairly recent phenomenon of trips to Poland to visit the death camps.
Rabbi Wein: Not really. I guess I’m old-fashioned in this, but Jews did not return to Spain for 500 years from the expulsion in 1492, until the Spanish government formally apologized for the expulsion. I have no interest seeing Auschwitz become a major tourist attraction for the Polish government.
I have never been in Germany, except on one occasion when my plane made an emergency landing in Frankfurt, and even then I made a point of not leaving the airport, though there was time to do so.
The Jewish People will not be built on museums. Ours is a Toras Chaim, a Torah of life, and our questions are not focused on what happened, but what is happening today filtered through the prism of the past.
Change in Order to Preserve
Your new book does not neatly summarize any general rules of either Jewish history or plans for conducting the battle against antireligious societal forces. About the most specific you get is: “One size does not fit all.” For example, the response in Germany, where a strong Reform movement developed very early, and in Lithuania, where it did not exist, were of necessity very different.
If I had to guess at one of your bedrock lessons, however, I would put it: Sometimes we must change as individuals and societies to preserve that which is most precious to us. What worked in one set of circumstances may not work in another set of circumstances.
Rabbi Wein: If that was a guess, it was a pretty good one. I recently gave a talk in shul in which I likened the Jewish People to Omicron. The point is that mutations are often crucial. Chassidism and the Mussar movement, for instance, were both mutations. But they responded to deeply felt needs within the broader Jewish society.
The Mussar movement for the perfection of character came into being in relatively backward and impoverished Lithuania, and thus provides support for the Gemara’s observation that poverty better suits the spiritual development of the Jewish People than affluence. One of the most important lessons I learned from my years practicing law, with a largely Orthodox clientele, was the corrosive effect money can have on people and the bitter disputes it can lead to.
The major commentaries on Chumash over the last two centuries can be seen as direct responses to works of the Maskilim. Such luminaries as the Malbim, Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg, author of Haksav V’hakabbalah; Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch; Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (Meshech Chochmah); and Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Ha’amek Davar) demonstrated in their commentaries a level of knowledge of the grammar and usage of Lashon Hakodesh that their opponents could only aspire to, as well as how a close reading of Chumash reveals how the halachah and main points of Jewish hashkafah derive from a close reading of the text, without emendations.
In our own time, the knowledge of Lashon Hakodesh displayed by Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky in Emes L’Yaakov open up new and remarkable understandings of the text and the derivation of the halachah.
I would guess that the area of greatest change to meet new challenges is in the area of chinuch, and the transmission of the Torah to subsequent generations.
Rabbi Wein: Indeed, the changes in education have been widespread and profound. In late 19th and early 20th centuries, for instance, the vast majority of boys, certainly in Eastern Europe, were already working or apprenticed by the time they were 11 years old, and only a small percentage continued on in any formal yeshivah structure. And there was almost no formal Jewish education system for young women until the start of the Bais Yaakov movement.
Just remember that one of the great innovations of all was the creation of Volozhin Yeshivah, widely known as “the mother of the yeshivos.” As secular education became more formalized, it became imperative to develop a Jewish alternative.
Today, it is assumed that boys will receive a Jewish education until at least the age of 18, and in most cases for many more years. But as Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, with whom I became close during his winter stays in Miami Beach, when I was a rav there, and later in Monsey, observed to me, “An educational approach that was designed for a small percentage of young men of exceptional abilities and dedication — the handful of great Lithuanian yeshivos generally had no more than 200 bochurim at a time — and has become the norm for an entire population.”
I would also guess that you are a subscriber to what has been called the “Great Man theory of history” — i.e., the view that history is large driven by a few outstanding individuals. Except for the introductory chapter, the text is almost devoid of statistics or economic background. At the same time, your writing is most alive when writing about great Torah leaders and even their differences from one another.
Rabbi Wein: I do believe that individuals often have a decisive impact on history. And in a Torah-based society, those likely to have the greatest impact are the recognized Torah leaders.
A Proud Litvak
While making allowances for the varying circumstances between the different countries covered in your new book, I must confess that you still come off as a bit a fan of the Lithuanian Jewry for its ability to adapt in order to preserve Torah life. You have already written one book, The Legacy, with South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, that might be called a paean to character of Lithuanian Jewry.
Rabbi Wein: I suppose I must again plead guilty. I grew up around Lithuanian-bred and trained gedolim. That is my world. Besides our rabbanim in yeshivah, we were exposed to a number of other great talmidei chachamim. A small group of us maintained a formal learning seder every Motzaei Shabbos, and often one of the local rabbanim would give a shiur: Rav Ephraim Epstein, brother of the Slabodka Rosh Yeshivah; Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein; Rav Isaac Small, who was married to Rav Moshe Feinstein’ sister; Rav Leib Schur, one of the leading anti-mussarniks in Telshe Yeshivah in Europe; and Rabbi Yaakov Diamond.
It is said in the name of Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky that of the approximately 300 Lithuanian rabbanim murdered by the Nazis and their local accomplices, there was not one who could be caught on a Tosafos anywhere in Shas. Do you think Reb Yaakov could have said such a thing?
Rabbi Wein: Based on the Lithuanian rabbanim whom I knew, I can well believe the statement to be accurate.
What other qualities do you identify with Lithuanian Jewry?
Rabbi Wein: I already mentioned their low expectations from life, and thus their ability to avoid the mad rush after money. That quality may also have contributed to their being less excitable and less subject to lures of messianic movements. Their cautious nature did not allow Lithuanian Jews to harbor expectations that radical means and utopian projects would succeed.
I can still summon up the atmosphere in my father’s shul on Rosh Hashanah. During the Shemoneh Esreh, one could feel the intensity and that we were truly hanging between life and death, chayim v’maves. And many of those who davened in his shul felt compelled to work on Shabbos.
Lithuanian Jews also tended to be open to the outside world and not afraid of it. That quality allowed them on many occasions to co-opt the very methods of the secularists who challenged tradition. There was an explosion of Biblical commentary by the great Lithuanian Talmudists: Their insights and deep analysis of the Biblical text refuted the attacks of the Bible critics…. They illustrated that the modern Bible critics had little understanding of what the text really meant.
Finally, whether they were Zionists or anti-Zionists or belonged to one stream or another of religious Zionism, Lithuanian Jews had an instinctive tie to the Land of Israel, at least from the time of the Vilna Gaon, whose influence permeated every aspect of Lithuanian Jewish life and of the talmidei haGra who moved to the Holy Land.
Do you have any more general rules you would like to share?
Rabbi Wein: There is one that is very much on my mind of late: Every exile ends, and that end is not usually a happy one. I can well imagine an America in which the government tells religious Jews what they can and cannot teach in their schools, and in which religious liberty is gradually whittled away. Witness Yale Law students recently trying to prevent from speaking a woman attorney, who has won a number of cases in the Supreme Court, which recognized the right of religious citizens not to be required to affirm by word or deed principles in which they do not believe
By contrast, in Israel, I have witnessed over the last 30 years, that the society as a whole has become more and more Jewish. That can easily be missed if we focus too much on the day-to-day religious battles and ignore the long-term trends.
But the one absolute principle of Jewish history is that Jewish communities only flourish when there is a strong core of Torah learning and mitzvah observance.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 905)
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