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
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
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
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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