The heritage of Slutzk
By Mordecai Waxman
Of the physical Slutzk, I know next to nothing. I have a mental image of
huddled houses, of frequently mired streets, of a square girdled by synagogues,
and houses of Study, and of "der kalte schul" a big and in the
winter months often deserted house of worship, which was just too large to
heat properly. I know that it had its students, and its laborers, its saints
and its sinners, its genteel ladies and its harridans, its societies and its
charities, and its study groups. I know that most of the people who sauntered
or scurried through its streets were Jews, that Yiddish was the language in
which voices were raised, endearments uttered and debates conducted. In short,
I know what facts can tell me. And yet, of course, I know nothing. Never having
been to Slutzk nor seen its counterpart on the landscape of Eastern Europe, I
find my imagination unable to bridge the gap and visualize that historic place
which is so much remembered and cherished by all its descendants.
That Slutzk is dead with almost all its latter day inhabitants. I can never
hope to know it. But there is a Slutzk that I do know. It is the spiritual
Slutzk. I know it because I have met some of the people who carried it abroad
with them when they left native home to seek other parts of the world. I know
it because I met it in Chicago and in New York and in casual conversation on a
bus in Tel Aviv. I have seen it glowing from printed pages and have heard its
overtones in the spoken word; and I know it most of all because it resided in
my parental home and because, insofar as I know myself, it is a part of me, who
am a second generation of the expatriates of Slutzk.
If I, then write about it, it is out of the deepest knowledge, out of a journey
into a personal interior, and I deal with what is more characteristic of Slutzk
than its stones and its houses and its streets; more characteristic and more
enduring. Because I write of the spirit it sent forth abroad and that planted
itself in other landscapes and -yielded new fruits.
What then is the spiritual Slutzk and what are its values which I have
observed, which I have inherited, which I cherish, which I would transmit?
The Slutzk I have encountered was a Jewish world at peace with itself. The
product of long centuries of Jewish thought and experience; it had achieved a
maturity about its Jewish values. Its descendants, whom I have met abroad, have
been notably free of rejections and extremism, of narrowness of affirmation and
negation which are, regret- fully, so prevalent in our midst. It was suffused
with religion it took it seriously; it observed it devoutly. But it was
devoid of the fanaticism which was so rampant elsewhere. It produced people who
spoke, read and wrote Yiddish, but did not confuse it with the totality of
Jewish life and culture. Zion struck a responsive chord in its heart, but it
was not prepared to set the totality of Jewish experience aside and to say that
nothing save Zionism was important. Hebrew was a cause dear to its heart and it
sent abroad men who spoke and wrote in Hebrew and enriched Hebrew letters. But
they did not make the mistake of regarding the language as an end rather than a
means. Always, there abided with them the notion that Hebrew was not merely a
"lashon", but rather a lasbon ha-kodesh.
In short, the spirit of Slutzk abroad has been a spirit of wholeness and of
balance. Nothing Jewish has been alien to it. But it has insisted on harmony,
on a golden mean, on the recognition and cultivation of many values, each in
proper balance with the other.
This mature harmony of the spirit was the natural outgrowth of certain well-
recognized and cultivated values.
There was first of all, a sheer love of Jewishness. Slutzk did not feel that
Jewishness was a burden to be borne, a state to be regretted. It might have
laughed at the dictum of Heinrich Heine that: "Judaism is not a religion,
but a misfortune." It is a sentiment which has been shared by many Jews
plummeted into the modern world. Slutzk might have laughed at the witticism,
but it certainly would have rejected the sentiment. It had been nurtured in the
feeling that it is a privilege to be a Jew. It was a tenet of the prayer book
which came easily to its life; it was the underlying sentiment of the
traditional literature in which it was at home; it was the theme of the Sabbath
and the festivals in which it found both joy and awe.
Hand in hand with this love of Jewishness and fundamental to it went the love
of Torah and study. If not everyone in Slutzk was a scholar, everyone at least
appreciated scholarship. The familiar "techinah" of the Jewish woman
as she kindled her candles on Friday evening that: "even as the candles
glow, so, I pray, may the eyes of my children glow with the light of the
Torah" was the most natural prayer in Slutzk.
Study was both work and avocation in Slutzk. It had its workers and its
businessmen who competed in knowledge and recognition of recondite texts. It
had its students who studied diligently through the livelong day and were the
living exemplars of Bialik's HaMatmid. It was at home in the Talmud, the
Midrash and in their commentaries. It took them seriously. But it could also
appreciate a scholarly jest. It could relish sharpness of intellect, seriously
intended, and equally enjoy a cynical employment of the same faculties.
Slutzk above all strove for clarity and lucidity. While it valued sheer
knowledge, it also demanded that knowledge be combined with common sense, or
with that more elusive and broader quality which is called "sechel".
It sought the application of knowledge to life, but insisted that the result
should not be merely an absurd triumph of intellect and text, but rather a
practical illumination of life and experience. If it believed wholeheartedly in
the pursuit of knowledge, as it saw it realized in its own Jewish literature,
it demanded that knowledge be the companion of reason. Pilpul may have been a
favorite sport, but the real preoccupation of Slutzk was meaningful living.
The chief achievement of Slutzk was that it combined these attributes with a
sense for the demands made upon Jews by the modern spirit which was burgeoning
in many parts of the world. There were many Jewish communities which sent their
residents forth into the world of the West unequipped to deal with the
intellectual and sociological demands of the twentieth century. Slutzk, by
contrast, was a community which both sensed and responded to the currents in
the world and sent its expatriates able to cope with new situations with a
spirit and a temper of mind equal to the challenge.
The Haskalah movement which represented the response of a segment of Jewry to a
world coming into being found a hospitable home in Slutzk. Mendele Mocher
Sfarim had studied for some time in Slutzk. The memory of the later Mendele was
treasured in his temporary abode. In Slutzk there were many who spoke and
cherished modern Hebrew, who followed the Hebrew press, who responded to the
play of new ideas. Zionism was at home in Slutzk, even as the Talmud was at
home there. The Jewish philosophers of the middle ages, dead and forgotten in
many other communities, were part of the intellectual fare of many in Slutzk.
In brief, Slutzk was a community in which the modern spirit of the new era was
fully alive side by side with ancient ideas and practices. This all-embracing
spirit was carried by those who departed from Slutzk into other lands.
Perhaps the outstanding quality of that spirit is the right of free thought and
dissent which it carries, combined with an abiding and unquestioning love of
Judaism. The ability to disagree and yet remain within the same universe of
discourse is a quality to be cherished. It is the quintessence of the harmony
and maturity which Slutzk achieved. It is more than tolerance. It is tolerance
without a diminution of concern and it implies that behind the disagreement and
dissent there are values so deeply imbedded and so deeply accepted that no
disagreement may affect them. This is the spirit which I have seen in many whom
Slutzk sent abroad and this is the quality which I value most.
All these qualities of Slutzk which I cherish its love of Torah and learning,
its cultivation of knowledge applied to life, its intellectual lucidity and
clarity, its code of Jewish living and behavior, its free spirit and its
recognition of the right to dissent, are, perhaps caught up in a story of the
last Slutzker Rav R. Issar Zalmon Meltzer. A question arose in a Slutzk
synagogue during the Sabbath services whether the prayer of "Av
HaRachamim" should be recited on a "Shabbos M'Vorchim" preceding
the month of Sivan. Usually that somber prayer is not recited on a Sabbath when
the new Hebrew month is welcomed. The Sabbath before the month of Sivan,
however, falls during the time of Sefira which is a period of mourning, and the
cantor therefore chanted the prayer. But many worshippers in the congregation
did not agree with the cantor's decision and began to bang upon the benches in
protest When someone of the congregation turned to the rabbi for his opinion in
the matter, Rabbi Meltzer is credited to have replied: "that is exactly
the right custom. The cantor recites the 'Av HaRachamim' prayer and some of the
worshippers bang the benches in protest!".
This decision came fittingly from the Rav of Slutzk and he spoke the spirit of
a community which was well versed, which encompassed a variety of theories and
opinions but still worshipped in the same manner and out of the same prayer
The Jewish life of our generation has been benefited by this spirit of Slutzk.
It has been enlightened and uplifted by some of the men whom Slutzk produced,
who have written and preached and lectured in many tongues and lived their
conceptions in many lands. It is a spirit to be cherished and to be developed
in the community of tomorrow.
It has been reported by many including Slutzkites themselves that the
residents of Slutzk went about with a bent index finger. Apparently, they took
pride in their native town and were not backward about mentioning their
distinctions. However, when challenged to enumerate their virtues and to count
them off on their fingers, they were often reduced to bending the index finger
and saying: "in the first place, I come from Slutzk." Many remained
with only one bent finger, unable to adduce further and personal virtues. But
one finger might well have been enough, for no Slutzkite could readily escape
the spirit and the virtues which Slutzk bequeathed to all its children.
Great Neck, N.Y
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