Sunday, November 24, 2019

A Rav with Strength and Integrity

The news of the passing of Rav Chaim Malinowitz - senior editor of the Schottenstein Talmud (Bavli and Yerushalmi), rav of Beis Tefillah in Ramat Beit Shemesh - came as a great shock. He had been seriously ill for a while, but it was not thought to be life-threatening. But more than that - Rav Malinowitz was a larger-than-life figure, and it seems impossible for him to not be alive.

In the years 2004-2006 in particular, he was one of the most important people in my life. Over the last few years our relationship unfortunately broke off, when he became involved in political campaigning for the Abutbul administration in Beit Shemesh and took stances in various other community issues to which I (and many others) deeply objected. Fortunately, in the last few months we were able to patch things up on a personal level.

My relationship with Rav Malinowitz goes back over twenty years, before he was appointed rabbi of Beis Tefillah in Ramat Beit Shemesh. I was twenty-four years old, single, learning in yeshivah in Jerusalem, and publishing a weekly parashah sheet. In one of those essays, I penned a criticism of a popular icon in the wider Jewish world. A barrage of complaints ensued, and being a sensitive person plagued by self-doubt, I issued a public apology and retraction. Whereupon I received an email from someone who identified himself as one Rabbi Chaim Malinowitz. He wrote that my original article was absolutely correct, that I shouldn't have buckled under criticism, and that my parashah essays won't have much value if I just pander to the demands of others.

From his email, it was apparent that he thought I was much more senior than I actually was, so I wrote back to him and explained that I was just a 24 year old yeshivah bochur. Next thing I knew, he showed up at my yeshivah to chat with me. I was a bit puzzled at this special visit, but things became clearer when, a few days later, it turned out that he was proposing a shidduch for me! It was truly an honor, even though that shidduch was not meant to be. And subsequently we kept in touch.

A few years later, I was married and living in Ramat Beit Shemesh, and our shul at the time, Beis Tefillah, was searching for a rabbi. I suggested hiring Rav Malinowitz, as did a few other people. While there are very different views as to whether this appointment turned out to be good for Beit Shemesh (due to his political involvement), it certainly turned out to be incredibly fortuitous for me.

The story of the controversial ban on my books is well known. Perhaps not as well known is the role that Rav Malinowitz played in this story. While there were a number of rabbanim that supported me in various ways, probably none were as significant as Rav Malinowitz.

When the ban happened, which caused my family and I over a year of torment, I still saw myself very much as being a part of the charedi world. While there were rabbanim from the Centrist/Modern Orthodox communities inviting me to be a part of their world, I wasn't psychologically/socially ready to do that. And I was receiving hundreds of letters of support from people within the charedi world, so I wasn't ready to portray the controversy as being a charedi vs. non-charedi dispute (I have since mostly changed my mind on that). So it was crucial for me to have rabbinic guidance and support from within the charedi world.

Now, there were rabbis in the charedi world who were supporting me. My own mentor in the topic of Torah and science, Rav Aryeh Carmell, stood by his approbations for my works and issued a further letter of support; but by that point he was too old and weak to be dynamically involved. There were other rabbanim in the charedi world who were giving me moral and strategic support, but they were understandably too afraid to be public about it. (Reminder: don't judge people until you are in their place.) And they weren't necessarily people with big-name authority anyway.

But there was Rav Malinowitz! He played a crucial role in so many ways. He was an outstanding Torah scholar with bona fide credentials in the charedi world, and with a prominent position as editor of the Schottenstein Talmud. He made himself available by phone and by email to guide me and support me at every step of the way. He helped me draft letters and develop strategies. He gave me crucial guidance in the topic of rabbinic authority.

Rav Malinowitz had a very sensible, traditional, grounded approach to Chazal and science. He once shared with me an interesting insight - "According to those people who think that Chazal had divinely-inspired knowledge of modern science, why would it be limited to the science of 2005? It would mean that Chazal knew every scientific discovery that will ever take place in the future!"

Interestingly, although Rav Malinowitz had written an approbation to my work, he himself did not agree with all of my approaches to Torah/science topics, with regard to Bereishis. (He had no particular expertise in science, and was deeply skeptical of it.) But this made his support for me all the more potent. When people would tell him that my approach to various topics was wrong, he'd say to them: "I agree with you! But that doesn't mean that it's beyond the pale of acceptable opinions!"

Importantly, he maintained that it was completely acceptable for people to dispute my approach. People were entitled to firmly maintain that the Gemara did not contain anything scientifically inaccurate, and that Bereishis is to be interpreted entirely literally. But what they were not entitled to do was to claim that I was not allowed to take a different view and that I was alone in doing so. They were entitled to condemn my approach, as long as they made it clear that they were also condemning Rambam, Rav Hirsch, and so on.

Rav Malinowitz was the one who explained to me exactly why I was not under the slightest obligation to obey the ban. He explained to me both why the rules of rabbinic authority do not require one to always listen to the Gedolim, and why their opposition to my work was mistaken. But it wasn’t just personal guidance that he gave me – there was no shortage of people doing that. Rav Malinowitz was one of only a handful of people in the charedi world who actually went on record as publicly supporting me.  He wrote an official letter, on shul letterhead, explicitly reiterating his support.

The significance of this should not be underestimated. In the charedi world, publicly going against the Gedolim is virtually unthinkable; the strength of character required is immense. It wasn’t just a matter of people badmouthing him (though, for people outside of the charedi world, it's hard to conceive of just how much pressure this can create). Rav Moshe Shapiro called him in to castigate him for undermining his stance against me - and Rav Malinowitz stood his ground. Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz at ArtScroll – Rav Malinowitz’s primary employer – threatened to fire him if he didn't repudiate his support for me. At that point, I told Rav Malinowitz that he could sell me out, as I didn’t want him to lose his job. But he told me that on principle he could not do such a thing. (Fortunately, as he predicted, the threat fell through.) 

As the controversy over my books stretched out beyond a year, the toll became unbearable. My wife and I went to meet with Rav Malinowitz together to discuss the situation. He said to us: "Why not just leave the charedi community? Switch your kippah, send your kids to different schools, and that's that! You'll be much happier." We took his advice and were immensely better off for it. (Ironically, a few years later, Rav Malinowitz told me that he was upset that I followed his advice so completely as to even leave his shul - he hadn't meant for me to go that far!)

As I mentioned, several years later, Rav Malinowitz took positions on various communal and political issues that aroused much opposition in the non-charedi religious community, including with me. At one point, our dispute became very public. And yet, consistent with his own approach to rabbinic authority, he had no problem with my publicly disagreeing with him. He continued to email me over the years with various sources of interest. And while I was still upset by the communal positions that he had taken, and his public claims about there being a "War on Torah" in Beit Shemesh, I always told him that my gratitude for what he did for me in my hour of need would never falter.

Will there ever be such a figure in the charedi community again, with such integrity and strength of character? Rav Malinowitz's passing leaves a great void. May his memory be for a blessing.

43 comments:

  1. This is really an amazing testament. Almost no one stands up for what they believe in the way that you describe here.

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  2. May his memory be a comfort to you. The ban did not and does not have general support in the Chareidi community from the rabbis on down.

    The usual YA

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  3. "Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz at ArtScroll – Rav Malinowitz’s primary employer – threatened to fire him if he didn't repudiate his support for me."

    Is this lovely little episode recorded in the hagiography about R Zlotowitz?

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    Replies
    1. The Artscroll book on R. Zlotowitz z"l was authored by Yisroel Besser, a writer for Mishpacha magazine and elsewhere, who specializes in writing flowery and exaggerated bubba mayseh hagiographies, like his recent books on two Hungarian Rebbes. I was wondering why the second one was published by Artscroll, it seemed like quite a departure for them. Then I just saw in the newspaper that Y. Besser is a son in law of longtime AS editor R. Nosson Scherman. It can come in handy to know such lesser known facts, as they can explain many things.

      Delete
    2. You are mistaken. Yisrael Besser is NOT a son-in-law of Nosson Sherman. Although his daughter recently became engaged to a son of Rabbi Sherman’s son-in-law. So your lesser know fact is fiction.

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    3. Artscroll and Agudah are synonymous. Yisroel Besser's grandfather was Agudah's Daf Yomi chairman, and his aunt heads the Agudah Women's section. I'm not familiar with his writing, good or bad, but its not exactly a surprise that someone with such an Agudah pedigree writes for Artscroll.

      Delete
    4. Artscroll and Rabbi Scherman have been recently spreading an outright lie, claiming that Yeshiva Torah Vodaath was the first yeshiva in Brooklyn. Actually Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin had already been that many years earlier.

      How can people say such outright lies in public, writing them and saying them at massive dinners? Where is the achrayus?

      Perhaps Rabbi Scherman is slipping in his older years, I think he had a stroke a while back, but he should be corrected by others.

      Torah is not built with sheker.

      It is related that Rav Aharon Kotler zt"l pulled a fund raising piece when it showed a tree that did not exist. That is how things should be.

      Delete
    5. Where did u see where they said Torah Vodaas was the first Yeshiva in Brooklyn?

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    6. maybe they meant to say mesivta-high school. (if what your saying is true.)

      Delete
  4. R' Slifkin - countless of ex-heredis and BT Burnouts support you and your stand. You might not be aware of this, but YOU ARE A GADOL. "At that point, I told Rav Malinowitz that he could sell me out, as I didn’t want him to lose his job. But he told me that on principle he could not do such a thing. (Fortunately, as he predicted, the threat fell through.) " - You are a mensch and a class act.

    The mainstream Heredi world has gone off to outer-space and it will take either a secular-traditional strongman to bring them back to reality. Liberman? Gantz?

    YOU ARE AN INSPIRATION TO HUNDREDS, IF NOT THOUSANDS, OF PROUD JEWS!

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  5. Wow!
    Just beautiful!
    Yehei Zichro Baruch.

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  6. This is an intricate and nuanced piece that left me more profoundly impressed by the integrity of Rabbi Slifkin and Rav Malinowtz. Yehe zichro baruch.

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  7. Yasher koach R. Nosson for this nice piece.

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  8. Thank you for writing this. May his memory be blessed!

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  9. "And I was receiving hundreds of letters of support from people within the charedi world, so I wasn't ready to portray the controversy as being a charedi vs. non-charedi dispute (I have since mostly changed my mind on that). So it was crucial for me to have rabbinic guidance and support from within the charedi world."

    Interesting that you changed your mind on that.
    So what would you call Rav Malinowitz zt"l and the hundreds of people living within the chareidi world who support either your approaches or your right to hold of those approaches?
    "Closet non-chareidim"?
    Was Rav Malinowitz a closet non-Chareidi? Really?
    Somehow I don't think so.
    Too bad you didn't stay with your original nuanced view of chareidim.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. unfortunately the majority of those who are attacked by the...back off or the live their lives with serious guilt. They do not stand tall and say I AM A GADOL, and all those גדולים attacking me are רשעים ועתידים ליתן את הדין
      In a nutshell - a lack of confidence.
      Rabbi Nathan, A little גאוה will not hurt you. Stop talking about the ban and focus on doing more for Klal Yisroel. I know it hurts - but klal yisroel needs you to be a MAN. All that energy spilled on discussing the ban.....חבל על הזמן. Your time is valuable.

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    2. Its an Israeli מחלה to busy with this balony. Am I Charedi, post Charreidi, Chareidi chasidi, chareidi moderni.....ממש like the Yankys, Mets...
      But between us intelligent people No one gives a flip if you decided to tell everyone that you are part of group a,b,c or d...
      Why to categorize yourself??? Why to give in to such garbage. There is no group, anywhere, that is like you- in which group are they all learned, intelligent, Jewish, zoologist??? None. You are who you are. No need to pledge allegiance to anyone

      Delete
  10. Thank you, R' Slifkin for a piece that shows the nuance of R' Malinowitz's approach. I had several encounters with him myself, and often did not agree with him - but he was a man who had the guts to stand up for what he thought was right and did not hesitate to do so.

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  11. I am greatly saddened by the passing of R' Chaim Malinowitz. I remember him well from our days in the Yeshiva of Philadelphia, where we had numerous discussions in learning, all displaying a clear and deep understanding of the sugyos we were learning.

    I read his haskama to your books and was impressed with his courage and integrity. His passing does indeed leave a void, there are few like him in this world.

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  12. A sociological study of why the "chareidi community" chose not to publicly take R' Malinowitz Z"L to task would be informative.
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  13. Would you share with your readers Rav Malinowitz's explanation of why one is not obligated to listen to the Gedolim?

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    Replies
    1. Numerous reasons. 1), who is a godol? 2) How do you know what the godol said exactly? From Hamodia? 3) And even if you can establish that, how do you know the godol was given accurate data? 4) The gedolim themselves argue about everything. 5) Where is the obligation to listen to gedolim anyway? The obligation (if any) is to chose a rav and listen to him. There is no such thing today as a Sanhedrin or rosh beis din.

      It's a made up chiuv.

      Delete
  14. Thank you very much for sharing this. This post was so balanced and honest. I really got a sense of his greatness.

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  15. https://hamodia.com/2019/11/21/bde-harav-chaim-zev-malinowitz-ztl/

    https://www.theyeshivaworld.com/news/boruch-dayan-emmes/1803045/levaya-of-hagaon-harav-chaim-zev-malinowitz-zatzal.html


    https://matzav.com/rav-chaim-zev-malinowitz-ztl/

    The usual YA

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    Replies
    1. Neither site mentions that "He had been seriously ill for a while". Instead, both claim that it was completely sudden and unexpected.

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  16. Beautiful praise. Amen to every word! לעילוי נשמתו

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  17. What a nice tribute.
    How did you reconcile?

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  18. I'm not one of Rav Malinowitz's followers but I do appreciate his willingness to take an independent approach, and very much so on certain Eretz Yisrael related issues.

    It is commendable that you wrote this piece and I am touched.

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  19. http://tzedek-tzedek.blogspot.com/2011/09/does-lemaan-achai-still-exist.html

    Most people are a mixed bag. But nit separating religion from politics can only lead to problems.

    Yakov.

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  20. "According to those people who think that Chazal had divinely-inspired knowledge of modern science, why would it be limited to the science of 2005? It would mean that Chazal knew every scientific discovery that will ever take place in the future!"

    That is what some religious would claim. They demonstrate this 'fact' by shoehorning science into the Torah etc:. But as science changes, so do their shoehorns. ACJA

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  21. I remember his late father, Rabbi Malinowitz of the Lower East Side.
    Yehi zichro baruch.

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  22. Personal; read, make the correction then delete:
    "caused my family and I over a year of torment" should be "caused my family and me over a year of torment".

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  23. Rabbi Slifkin, what would you have thought of Rabbi Malinowitz if you didn't know him and what would you have thought of some Chareidim and some of those you consider to be an obstacle on issues you wish to promote, if you actually knew them?

    The usual YA

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    Replies
    1. Great question, but alas, impossible to answer!

      Delete
    2. The what ifs of history. :)
      The usual YA

      Delete
  24. As I noted on Cross Currents, where this essay was also posted, your essay, while very interesting indeed, is a personal one. To the general public, RC Malinowitz was better known as the super heavyweight on the laws of Gittin. Understanding that your post focuses on your specific connection to him, still, that overarching aspect of his life should at the very least be noted.

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    Replies
    1. Because it was so overarching. It would be like writing an appreciation of (eg) R. Aaron Kotler without mentioning Lakewood.

      Delete
  25. I honestly find this incredible level of integrity and strength of character waaay more inspiring than mastery of an area of Halacha.

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  26. Would love to know what you wrote in that Parshah Sheet that caused the ire of some chareidim and which R' Malinowitz supported!

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    Replies
    1. It didn't cause the ire of charedim. It caused the ire of non-charedim.

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    2. Nu, so what was it? And who was the icon?

      Delete
  27. We need more Malinowitzs in the world. Jokes aside, I really appreciate you sharing this story with us. It gives a new perspective and it addresses big issues. It shows how even the charedi community can produce great rabbis who agree with modern orthodoxy values and philosophy. This was a good way to honor him. Thank you for this post.

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