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{Page XXIII}

A grandson's reflections on Slutzk

By Emanuel Rackman


Slutzk I have never seen. Yet her mood and her commitment appear to be as much a part of my personal experience as if I had walked her streets and breathed her air and sat at the feet of her wise men. Though I was born in Albany, New York, to a mother who was also born there, I was reared and nourished from early childhood upon the beautiful tales and legends of Slutzk. My distinguished father is from Slutzk; my first Rebbe at Yeshivah University also from Slutzk. The Spiritual Prince of American Jewry, the philosopher and Talmudic scholar of our generation, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloweichick is named after his great-grandfather who was the Rabbi of Slutzk. He is also the exponent of a method in Halacha which his grandfather began to develop under the guidance of a savant of Slutzk (See page 81). 1 feel, therefore, much of a spiritual native of Slutzk and I am indeed grateful for the invitation to participate in this memorial volume.

It is difficult enough, if not impossible, to defend the thesis that there are racial or national characteristics. How does one then dare go further and posit characteristics also for a city! The objection is well taken. Slutzk was very much like other cities – it had its poor and its rich, its saints and its scoundrels, its scholars and its morons – everything that other cities had. But a city also has aspirations – and Slutzk seemed to aspire to some particular greatness. The aspiration made her people proud, and 1, too, always craved to share that pride. When in 1956 I was privileged to be a member of the first group of Rabbis to visit in the Soviet Union, I tried to obtain permission to visit Slutzk. I wanted to see what remained of one of Jewry's great centers of learning. Many of her exiled scholars I knew. I had met them in America and in Israel. Her Yeshiva in exile I also knew, and her Yeshiva in Israel – now known as Yetshivat Hadorom in Rehovot – I, as an officer of the Rabbinical Council of America, had helped to found. But Slutzk herself I could not see. She remains only an aspiration to her widely scattered grand children who were born to her children in other lands.

In Slutzk it seems the gift of life meant the opportunity to study Torah. He who studied Torah was alive and free; he who did not study, alas, was in chains. The Rabbis there so contended on questions of Jewish law, that they often caused the community bitterly to divide into two camps in support of the contending positions. As it is so well known, in Slutzk the war was waged against Hasidism and against the teaching of Mussar in Yeshivot; also Socialism and Zionism were hotly debated there.

However, the scholars there were also aware of their own limitation and with the cultivation of the most exacting standards of Jewish scholarship they also cultivated a sense of humor about their own inadequacies, a skepticism with regard to their own mastery of the truth, and an eye which impishly and devilishly could unmask the hypocrite who pretended to be a saint, and that which presumed to be scholarship but was not truly so. Slutzk was so committed to the loftiest standards of intellectual excellence that her leaders viewed with suspicion any new course or movement lest it be mere camouflage for mediocrity.

Thus, alas, I have no vision of Slutzk as a citadel of peace, nor even as a bastion of toleration. On the contrary, it was rather a city of intolerance – she was intolerant of sham, hypocrisy and pretentiousness, of progressives whose visions were mirages, and of conservatives whose obstreperousness reeked of omniscience.

That did not mean that the people there knew no happiness. They may have lived in intellectual heights but they never froze in the ratified atmosphere as an incident of their icy intellectualism. Indeed, their capacity for happiness was greater because of their exacting standards. Their happiness had depth. It was not Hasidic singing and dancing to induce a hypnotic spell which stimulates a moment of communion with G-d. It was rather the kind of happiness that overcome them as from the innermost recesses of their being, they became aware of personal fulfillment in their knowledge of G-d and His word.

Slutzk had been known as a center of Torah for many generations. When for a short period there was not a big Yeshivah there, the immortal Gaon known as Ridbaz went to the Yeshivah of Slobodka and imported from there the most revered and beloved of all teachers of Talmud of that era – Rabbi Issar Zalman Meltzer together with a score of young men. With this nucleus, the Yeshiva of Slutzk was founded and thus Slutzk again became a center of higher Jewish learning. The town was transformed. The Yeshiva students in their highly modern external appearance but imbued with Torah and true Jewish ethics induced a sense of awe and respect in all the inhabitants. My father told me of the joy of the Ridbaz when he used to enter the Beth-Midrash to visit with the students. He would stand in the doorway virtually unseen and simply listen. Tears would well up in his eyes. He had resanctified a city by a simple relocation of fifteen men!

Not without a quarrel, however, was this achieved, The other Rabbi of the city, the Gaon R. Mair Pehmer, attacked the new Yeshiva, especially because the study of Mussar was taught there. This attack precipitated a violent controversy all over the land with regard to the propriety of teaching Mussar as a special subject. Needless to say, none would deny the importance of training in ethics, which has been the practice of all Rabbis ever since. However, should this training be assumed to be the subtle, indirect consequence of regular Torah study, or are some special hours and indoctrination required for it? It is hard to believe that so much bitterness and personal vilification would ensue because of so seemingly simple and innocuous a problem of curriculum. However, in Slutzk Torah-study was one's life and, therefore any issue with regard to it was taken so seriously that any -new approach to curriculum had to be challenged. just as Slutzk had been a historic battleground between "Mitnagdim" and "Hasidim", because Hasidism was regarded as a threat to the primacy of study in the Jewish hierarchy of values, so the Mussar movement represented an indirect insult to the efficacy of Torah scholarship by itself to produce men of excellent moral character and profound religious commitment.

Wars, however, move men's hearts – especially when they are purely verbal and ideological. My grand- father was a Melamed in Slutzk and he favored the Ridbas. On one occasion he had an opportunity to demonstrate in the home of a champion of the opposing Rabbi Mair Pehmer the great learning of the Ridbaz. The incident occurred in the Sukkah of one of the community's most prominent laymen whose son was my grandfather's pupil. The follower of R. Pehmer had erroneously ruled on a matter of Jewish law. The ruling was contrary to that of the Ridbaz. The host complained about the Ridbaz and my grandfather was able to prove that the Ridbaz was right and evoke the concurrence of the host who, theretofore, had been hostile to the great scholar. That my grandfather was able to add to the prestige of the Ridbaz so delighted him that he proudly communicated this achievement to his children. How different were the trophies which men sought in that atmosphere than those we crave today!

This closing note of my epitaph was written by one of the great Rabbis of Slutzk who for years was supported by an affluent father-in-law and was therefore, able to write great scholarly works. When the wheel of fortune turned, and this father-in-law lost everything, the son-in-law was forced to take a Rabbinic post to earn a livelihood. His first work published thereafter, bore the following inscription after his name as author, "Presently enslaved; but in the past a free man".

Slutzk is now in chains. But her spirit is free. Wherever her children are, her spirit endures and inspires.

Far Rockaway, N. Y.


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