Monday, August 8, 2011

Interview with Rav Nosson Kamenetzky

Translated by Joshua Skootsky

It was nine years ago that the book of Rav Nosson Kaminetsky caused a huge storm in the Hareidi community, and it was banned by leading Rabbis. Now, in an interview, he attacks those that banned him and the decision making process within the Hareidi community. "We must remove from our midst those who surround Torah Greats [askanim]."

This week's guest to Walla!'s "Interview the Rabbis" series is Rav Nosson Kaminetsky, who in the last few years has been the target of bans by the Lithuanisn-Haredi Rabbinate, as part of the struggle over his book "The Making of a Gadol," which dealt with the biographies of American Haredi leaders in the 19th and 20th centuries. Rav Kaminetzky, the son of one of the greatest American rabbis, Rav Ya'akov Kaminetsky, was born in 1930 in Lithuania. In 1938 his family immigrated to Canada, and eventually moved to Brooklyn, New York, in 1945. There, he received his education at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, Beit Midrash Elyon, and Beit HaTalmud. In 1968 he made aliya to Israel, and was one of the founders of Yeshivat ITRI in Jerusalem, retiring in 2000.

With his 2002 publication, Rav Kaminetsky stirred up a huge storm among the Hareidim: going against the grain of modern Hareidim, who relate to the greatest Rabbis as holy and pure from birth, referring to them as “Gedolei Yisrael” and “Gedolei HaTorah,” Rav Kaminetsky set out with a preference to tell the historical truth, to describe the life story of the leading [Hareidi] Rabbis after the Holocaust, with their flaws and less glorious sides. For example, he described in his book the letters Rav Ahron Kotler, one of the great Rabbinic leaders in America after the Holocaust, to his fiancée, and the negative reaction of his father in law to those letters, and also he described the love of his father, Rav Ya’akov Kaminetsky, for foreign languages, which from a strict Hareidi point of view is an inappropriate field of interest.

Rav Nosson Kaminetsky believes that for hundreds of years, Lithuanian Hareidim disapproved of descriptions of rabbis as totally holy, in contrast to the tendency within Hasidic circles to view their Rebbe, as well as his successors, as saints of the highest order. These beliefs have caused a series of leading Hareidi Rabbis, including the leading Lithuanian posek, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, to ban his book, and the Hareidi “street” has reacted to the book with similar responses. In 2005, Rav Kaminetsky tried to publish a revised version of the book, but the book was again banned.

What caused you to publish your book, which shattered myths surrounding Hareidi rabbis?

“That was not my intention. I did not set out with the goal of waging war on people’s points of view, or to indoctrinate anyone. I wrote my book because of my desire to describe something unique that the world did not know about, and I had a connection to that uniqueness through my father. I did not want their unique world to be lost to oblivion. That was all that I intended to do with my book. Maybe that was my reaction to the Holocaust, that I wanted something to remain from the world of my uncle.”

Nine years have passed since the publishing and banning of your book. Are you still a little hurt?

“Absolutely. I still feel hurt. Someone died, who everyone called the ‘Tzadik HaDor’ and ‘Gaon HaDor,’ Rav Michal Yehuda Lefkowitz, Rosh Yeshivat Ponevitch L’Tzeirim, who hurt me and called for me to be banned in letters that he wrote. Since he died, I have continued to feel anger towards him, and I certainly am still angry with those still living who issues bans against me.”

Do you agree with the accusation that the “leading Rabbis” who banned you are too old, and practically speaking are controlled by those surrounding them?

“It is a general principle that a person does not see their own faults. Old scholars have extra knowledge, have more life experience, and more wisdom. If they are not functioning, they do not have a duty to step out of the spotlight, it is the public’s duty to remove them. A man does not see himself as old. If there are those that take advantage of this for the worse, and presumably there are those who do so, because there are many crooks in the world - this is not the problem of the Torah giants, this is the public’s problem. The public needs to know when to take exception to them, and when to follow in their path.”

What do you think about the great power that a few central rabbis have in the Hareidi community?

“In the history of the Jewish people, there was the title of “Rabbi of the Entire Diaspora,” he had control over the entire Diaspora. Is it wrong to place such power in the hands of one man? I don’t think so. I don’t think there is a problem with such concentration of greatness in Torah. But, there are people who exploit this, and that is a problem. The public needs to remove from its midst those who surround the great Rabbis.”

Do you think the decision-making process and management of issues by those who are considered the greatest rabbis is proper and correct?

"I feel that they are missing a little of the message of “Hear the disputes between your brothers and judge fairly between a man and his brother.” (Devarim 1:16) From this verse we learn not to listen to one side’s story without the other party being present. The approach of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv is not to judge people; for example, in my case, as far as I understand, he judged my book, and did not render judgment on me as a person. He has even told his students to honor me in the same way they would have before the ban. But, from my experience, this is not the correct approach. What is a book? A book is an extension of the author. One who insults the book insults the author. In any case, I think that in this case, the rule to not hear one side without the other being present applies, they need to hear the author and his opinions, but the facts are that they have not given me the chance to face those who spoke against me.”

Is there a halachic source for blindly following a rabbi in matters that are not related to Jewish law, such as politics or other matters?

“The Mitnagdim (non-Chassidic Jews) always thought for themselves. If they had a specific question they could not decide, they would come to get advice from a wise and knowledgeable man who had the Torah behind him, but things a person can figure out on his own, it is forbidden to depend on others’ judgment. In his commentary to the Mishna, Rambam describes the great power of the human mind to make decisions, a man must use his own mind, do not denigrate your own intelligence. If you have a doubt about something, go ask someone wiser, after you hear what they say, you do not have to follow their advice like a blind man, you have to digest it and decide if it was good or bad. The Mishna asks, ‘Upon whom should one rely?’ And it answers, ‘On God.’ It does not say ‘On Rav Elyashiv,’ or ‘On Rav Shteinman.’ It is obvious that we talk of individual issues, but in issues concerning the entire community, great Torah scholars are the leaders of the community and guides of all of Israel.”

Great Torah scholars are described in the Hareidi community as all-powerful, as if their entire lives are wrapped in holiness and purity. Do you agree with these descriptions?

“No. I do not agree. This is not the truth. No one is born holy, or dies holy, and never once in their life made a mistake, nothing is ever that simple. I don’t know what is going on, but I never had rabbis like that. Also, when I was a teacher of students, I never encouraged this attitude, because it simply is not true.”

From what, in your opinion, comes the adoration and complete obedience that currently permeates the relationship to the rabbis in the Lithuanian world, which is reminiscent of the way Hasidim act?

“You’d be surprised to hear that Hitler, may his name be erased, is responsible for this. Most of the Jews who survived the Holocaust were from Hasidic areas, and this was their approach. If there is a change in the upbringing of the Lithuanian Jews of today, it is this, that we teach them to be Hasidim of the Lithuanian Rabbis - that is my opinion. I, in any case, was not raised this way. I was raised in the best Lithuanian fashion. Healthy skepticism, respect for wisdom, and having some knowledge of true modesty. But that was my problem –I wrote from that perspective.”

You have written more books, why haven’t you published them?

“I simply do not want anyone to be hurt. But, more will be ready some day, God willing.”

What is your message to those surfing Walla! News?

“Be strong and take heart, and be upright.”

More from the interview:

Who are you, Rav Kaminetsky? Who were your main Rabbis?

“My father, Rav Ya’akov Kaminetsky, Rav Reuven Grozovsky, and Rav Leib Malin, zt”l.”

What do you love?

“I like to read.”

A good book you’ve read recently?

“The book ‘The Rebbe” about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, from Professors Shmuel Hylman and Menachem Friedman.”

If you weren’t a Rabbi, what would you be?

“I have no answer to that question.”

If you could make a law, what law would you make?

“I would make Shabbat a day of rest.”

Who is a musician you love?

“Rav Shlomo Carlebach, z”l.”

What do you want them to write on your tombstone?

“I have told my family simply, ‘Rav Nosson Kaminetsky,’ without ‘Gaon.’

What commandment do you love the most?

“Learning Torah.”

What Rabbinic title do you hate the most?

“The holy and the pure.”


  1. I remember seeing this book on sale, and I said to myself, just another book by charedim blowing their own horn. If I would have taken the time to examine it more closely, I would have been the proud owner of it.

    It all gose to show,
    "You can't judge a book by it's cover."

  2. Thank you very much, Rabbi Slifkin, for posting this.

  3. Does the Haredei commnunity still tell the story of Rav Nosson's father and the question of the ambidextrous 12 year old and tefilin? Rav Yaakov z'l was in his time known as being very down-to-earth, so the heliography style of the Haredeim know must be even more of a shock to the system to Rav Nosson.

  4. What of skepticism in the supposed science worldview of the ignorant masses? Don't they have a corrupt view of scientists as all knowing as opposed to respecting them as experts but examining critically their words to see if it makes sense in the real world? There's a cheapness in today's culture. If you can't have expertise don't think for yourself choose the outside world to tell you what makes sense. True skepticism and true religiosity is harder to come by.

  5. That was a great interview. Thanks!

    One rhetorical question, directed towards Rav Kaminetsky if he's reading:

    "...It does not say ‘On Rav Elyashiv,’ or ‘On Rav Shteinman.’ It is obvious that we talk of individual issues, but in issues concerning the entire community, great Torah scholars are the leaders of the community and guides of all of Israel.”

    My question to Rav Kaminetsky is, "would you amend that sentence to say, "...great Torah scholars are the leaders of the community and guides of all of Israel, such as Rav Elyashiv and Rav Shteinman."

  6. שרציתי שדרכי יישאר משהו מעולם שנכחד

    "that I wanted something to remain from the world of my uncle"

    makes no sense.

    "that I wanted something to remain from a forgotten world"

  7. Anyone know how I can get a copy of the original book by R' Kaminetsky?

  8. Pliny, I hope you know that this is an english translation of an interview Rav Nosson Kaminetsky gave.

    See the original here:

    I can quote you the original hebrew of the section you refer to, he says in Hebrew exactly what it says in English:

    לא כתוב 'על הרב אלישיב' או 'על הרב שטיינמן'. וכמובן שמדובר רק על ענינים פרטיים אבל בעניני ציבור גדולי התורה הם עיני העדה והמנהיגים של כלל ישראל".

  9. Thanks Joshua, but I think you didn't understand my question. (It's my fault.) On sites like this, people like to focus on the problematic issues that paint rabbis like R' Elyashiv and R' Shteinman in a negative light. In turn, this causes people to not see these men as, to quote the interview, "leaders of the community and guides of all of Israel". My hypothetical question to R' Kaminetsky is: "Despite these problematic issues, do you still see these men as leaders of the community and guides of all of Israel?" And I guess the question to the readers here would be, could you as well?

  10. "do you still see these men as leaders of the community and guides of all of Israel?"

    I never DID see them as guides of all in Israel. They may be leaders of their own communities, but not mine. I rarely hear R'Elyashiv's halachic positions mentioned in Shiurim and I don't think I've ever heard R'Shteinman mentioned in a shiur.

  11. Check out this link where the frumteens moderator explains the problem with the book:

  12. Where can Rav Nosson Kamenetzky's book "Making of a Godol" be purchased TODAY?

  13. At one time (about 6 years ago) there also a PDF file of the entire (original) book "Making of a Godol" floating around the Internet. Is it possible to get a copy of that?

  14. Rav Nosson is a nice person, and a nice Rabbi. But he is not one of today's gedolim and he is not a Rav Yaakov or a Rav Shmuel.

  15. Thank you for this wonderful interview.

  16. has anyone thought that perhaps this whole book banning thing is simpler than we thought. The chareidim have no problem with dinosaurs or ancient fossils or gedolim who spoke french. They just dont like the name Nosson. And for singers, they cant stand the name Lipa

  17. "Ben Torah"-
    As a former student of Rav Kaminetsky, I am trying to understand what your point is about him supposedly not being a "gadol" is. Is it that he is not entitled to his opinion? Are we supposed to ignore what he says?
    After all, I presume that you are not a "gadol" either, so whatever you meant about him should apply to you as well.

  18. Yoni, your link doesn't work. Try tiny-url? or

  19. Is Rav Nosson a gadol or not? Given the hashqafic inflation and deflation that exists I almost am inclined to speculate that just maybe he is one? Anybody have an inkling here?

  20. You can download the pdf here: but I don't know whether it's with or without permission of the author.

  21. Stan writes: "They just dont like the name Nosson."

    I wonder how Artscroll's Rabbi Scherman slipped through the cracks...

  22. Yeedle, I was told 2nd hand (from Rav Kaminetsky to my rav to me) that he does not approve of the illegal PDF, and does not give people permission to benefit from it.

  23. I got permission to download the pdf from R' Nosson about eight years ago on the condition I bought the book when it became available. Its actually very annoying to read on pdf because of its three tiered footnote structure, you're always skipping around. Its also enormous so printing it isn't really an option.
    Who is the publisher now? I think it is theoretically available to buy.

  24. Interview with Rav Shmuel KamenetzkyNovember 22, 2012 at 6:37 AM

    "In regard to Rabbi Slifkin, let me just point out that the true present “gedol hador” of American Jewry, my brother R’ Shmuel of Philadelphia….”

    –R’ Nosson Kamenetzky, cited at

    A commemorative magazine was just “prepared by Hamodia on behalf of Beth Medrash Govoha” in honor of R’ Aharon Kotler’s 50th yahrtzeit, which was occurred last Friday. Virtually the entire thing, about 80 pages, focuses on R’Aharon, the Kletzker and Lakewood yeshivahs and their branches, and his family. A notable exception is the interview with Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky. At one point the interviewer asked him how the America of the 1940s took to R’Aharon’s vision of exclusive Torah Lishmah. R’ Shmuel said that the general population, even those who were frum, didn’t understand the concept. It was all new, and there was resistance. But R’ Aharon persevered. Then R’ Shmuel added, with his characteristic breadth, “I must also say that credit goes to the Hungarian Jews. When the Hungarian Jews arrived on these shores, they changed the whole climate. They wanted yeshivos, and some of them became the Rosh Yeshivah’s greatest supporters.”

    So while R’ Nosson Kamenetzky points out that the Lithuanians failed to perpetuate themselves after the holocaust, R’ Shmuel notes that the Hungarians contributed much of the drive that fueled the success of Beth Medrash Govoha, which by extension was a major player in the creation of the American Chareidi movement. The natural result of this would be the ‘Hungariazation’ or ‘Chasam Soferization’ of American Chareidim.


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