Sage Fright

I got caught in the crossfire of a dispute at the shtieblach in Beis Yisrael, Yerushalayim.

Shtieblach is the plural of shtiebel — literally, a small house. It refers to a small house of prayer, in contrast to a synagogue. A shtiebel is more intimate than a large shul. The shtieblach in Yerushalayim are buildings divided into small rooms. They have round-robin full-service services. And the customs vary with the clientele.

At a minyan on Simchas Torah, an argument broke out between a big Chassid and a smaller fellow. I have no idea what group he was from, or what they were arguing about. But I saw the climax: The Chassid grabbed the other guy, yelled, “Yehudi! (Jew!)” … and hugged him.

I’d call that a win-win situation.

Ever notice how many people lecture about Jewish unity? And nobody can agree about what to agree on?

I got an insight into the core problem from Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky. A taxi driver in Yerushalayim vented to him. Pointing to a Chassid in the street, the driver said, “You see that guy? He hates me.”

Rabbi Orlofsky countered, “That man would give his life for you.”

The driver replied, “And I would give my life for him!”

Rabbi Orlofsky commented, “Boy, are we a dysfunctional family!”

I sense that most of the friction between irreligious and Torah communities in Israel is really a family fight.

Part of the problem is that, as generations drift further and further from tradition, Jewish identity becomes more and more tenuous. It wasn’t so long ago that even many secular Jews appreciated the central role of religion and the primacy of Torah learning.

In Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish, he defined chacham as a clever or wise person. But it carries a connotation of more than mere intellect:

“Atop the Jewish pyramid of respect stands the scholar — not, be it noted, the ruler, the conqueror, the prince, the millionaire, even the rabbi, but the scholar. (A rabbi can, of course, be a great scholar; but scholars were loftier than rabbis.) Power, wealth, honors, prizes, social status — none of these was as respected as learning, which meant learning … Talmud.”

With more reverence than nostalgia, Rosten noted that “Jewish mothers sang a lullaby of hope that the little son in the cradle might become that most glorious of men: wise, learned, a … chacham.”

And that’s not all. He added, “A chacham is not the highest of chachamim, please notice. That paragon is a talmid chacham.”

Rosten waxed poetic.

“The most honored figure in the life and culture of traditional Jewry was the talmid chacham. He was the scholar of scholars, a sage and a saint, one of the rare, entirely spiritual souls fit to be called ‘a disciple of the wise.’ He was one of those who might contribute to the vast, accumulated teachings and ruminations of savants that were known as ‘the sea of the Talmud.’”

There’s an old story about a Southern town where the president of the synagogue visited the Rabbi. He came into the Rabbi’s office, only to find him studying a volume of the Talmud.

The next day, the Rabbi was fired. They wanted someone who had already finished learning.

Not so the Jewish communities of old Europe.

Learning is not a path to a goal. It is the goal. And it is endless.

“The scholar was erudite, of course,” Rosten wrote. “But in addition he had to be … gentle in manner; sensitive to others; quiet and humble in bearing. … He had to combine scholarship with compassion.”

Even the poorest of Jewish communities understood the value of such nobility in their midst.

“The Jews exempted many a talmid chacham from … communal taxes, not only because the chachamim were notoriously poor, but because Jews wanted them to spend every moment in Talmud study. Who could foresee what benefits might accrue from their learning? The Talmud says, “Talmidei chachamim strengthen peace in the world.’”

The scholars were supported by the community because their learning was understood to be on behalf of the community and for its welfare.

If only we could live up to such ideals. And if only we could restore such appreciation.

My brother Rabbi Nota Schiller told me about the first dinner held by the Toronto branch of Yeshiva Ner Yisrael. The honoree was Stephen Berger, chairman of the Jewish National Fund of Toronto. Not particularly religious himself, Berger was a connoisseur of Jewishness.

Berger said, “If I see a billboard proclaiming that milk is good for you, and I see it’s from the Dairy Association, I say, nu … of course they say that. But if I see a sign that says milk is good for you, and it’s from the Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, then I say, aha! And I believe it.”

Then he concluded, “Now this is Stephen Berger talking to you. And if I tell you it’s good to support the yeshivah, you can believe me!”


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